August 14 and 15 marked the 70-year anniversary of independence from colonial rule for Pakistan and India, respectively. At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the former crown jewel in the British Empire was partitioned hastily into the two countries of India and Pakistan, which were given rein over their own governments. Massive population transfers occurred in the northwest region of Punjab and eastern territory presently split between the Indian state of West Bengal and what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh) as millions of refugees migrated to India or Pakistan depending on their religion. Indeed, Punjab and Bengal were themselves split down the middle on a village-by-village religious basis in an attempt by the British to equitably split the territory. The irony is that the line of partition was drawn by Cyril John Radcliffe, someone who had never been to India before he was asked to partition it. It is estimated that around 1 million people died from Hindu-Muslim-Sikh communal violence during partition as people sought cyclical revenge for previous killing and to change the religious composition of villages on borders and coerce migration. My own family came to India in 1947 from the Pakistani city of Lahore. All three South Asian faiths of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism are represented in my family, and it is surreal to imagine communities that lived side by side for centuries killing each other in cold blood.
Let us not forget that despite the myriad economic, social and political issues faced by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (what used to be East Pakistan) today, their existence is extraordinary and the progress they have made since independence significant in every regard when one considers where they started. Both India and Pakistan have beautiful histories, cultures, music, cuisines, languages and landscapes. India is the larger country by both population and territory, and Pakistan means “land of the pure” in Urdu and Persian and was named after (P)unjab, (A)fghania, (K)ashmir, (S)indh and Baluchi(stan).
Let us also not forget that the hasty way in which British India was partitioned — in addition to British rule in South Asia generally, were war crimes. It has always surprised me how little attention South Asia and its modern history receives in the West. The countries that make up what was formerly British India combined are more populated than China, and India itself will overtake China in population in the coming decade. Combine this with the nuclear status of India and Pakistan, the second and third ranked countries by Muslim populations, and the current right-wing retrenchment occurring in New Delhi and the importance of globally-minded citizens understanding basic facts about South Asia is surely a reasonable thing to complain about, no? I won’t complain about how many universities already lump South Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern studies programs together into one program, sometimes even with African studies. Nor will I complain about the dearth of South Asian language programs at many prestigious universities that claim a global mission (my own included). On this anniversary, I’ll just ask for some form of nuanced attention to non-Western societies, their histories, and their tragedies. An ignorance of them just bolsters the idea that they are not worth studying, and that Brown and Black people are only worth engaging with through neocolonial discourse when we want their oil or natural resources.
There is some truth to the idea that Britain fell into its Indian empire through a series of accidents. The East India Company progressively grabbed more and more land in India from the Mughals and other local rulers from their base in Calcutta starting in the 18th century. Driven by an exploitative profit motive in the trade of various commodities, a private company essentially ruled over lands and recruited and ran a military and government bureaucracy in India until 1857. Following decades of coercive economic relations between Indian rulers, those who worked the land, and the East India Company along with the continuous grabbing of land from the Mughal Empire and various other political entities, Indians rebelled against the company.
It is often caricatured that Indian soldiers (sepoys) in the company’s army, both Muslim and Hindu, revolted because their rifle cartridges were lined with pig and cow fat. While this sort of religious and cultural insensitivity certainly played a part in resentments by Indians against the British, the continuous loss of sovereignty and ever-increasing economic exploitation co-opted by a Mughal empire in decline led to the 1857 Indian War of Independence. Cow and pig fat lined cartridges being the tipping point poignantly capture the brazen way the East India Company ruled in South Asia without knowing what they were doing.
The British government was forced to intervene on behalf of the East India Company in 1857 due to its intertwined relationship with Parliament in London and oversized role in the British economy. The British military bailed out the company by brutally and violently putting down the rebellion and taking control of the company’s territories. The company would eventually be dissolved and South Asia consolidated under the British crown with Queen Victoria gaining the title “Empress of India” in 1874.
Under the rule of Parliament and the India Office in London, British India underwent numerous changes over the next decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Local princes were given a degree of power to lend legitimacy to British rule. The British government continued to rely on coercive economic relations with Indian princes to collect taxes, and hundreds of petty kingdoms were created by the British to allow for indirect rule of their Indian territories by playing various factions off one another.
In cities, an Anglicized middle class began developing alongside the rural landowning class. This middle class was often educated in the English tradition in schools in India set up by the British or in England, and many of the Indian independence movement’s leaders would come from this class. They spoke with an English accent and studied law — an example of the results of the “civilizing mission” the British claimed to pursue in their colonies by making Brown and Black people more like them. The most prominent independence leaders — Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, M. K. Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and B. R. Ambedkar — were all trained as lawyers and were educated in prestigious institutions in England.
As Indians began organizing politically in a system of government set up and run by the British, London was forced to progressively compose more and more of the Indian civil service and government of native Indians, feeding the cycle of Indians continuously wanting more independence and autonomy. For example, the Indian Councils Act of 1892 set up municipal governments with locally elected Indians, and the another Act in 1909 provided Indians with roles in central and provincial legislatures along with giving Muslims their own electorate with double representation. The Indian National Congress was founded in the late 19th century and its social and economic justice message would influence generations of nationalist and anti-colonial movements in the formerly colonized world. Yet the catch-all party tried to represent too many segments of Indian society to adequately represent anyone beyond upper and upper-middle class upper-caste men. Much of the sweeping and large scale “modernizing” policies and plans of early postcolonial India can be explained by this detached and “elite” nature of the early Congress party. Indeed, there is a striking similarity between the large dam and irrigation projects of Nehruvian India and the laying of railways and irrigation systems under the British raj.
World War I saw London lean heavily on India for economic and military aid with Indian soldiers and resources being deployed to numerous fronts. When the war ended, M. K. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress launched a civil disobedience movement to achieve political goals of further home rule and eventual independence and self-rule for India — swaraj. Gandhi advocated nonviolent disobedience and non-importation of British goods. Gandhi’s leadership and economic and social justice message — much of it formed during his time in South Africa — allowed for vast swaths of Indian society to take part in disobedience, non-importation and non-compliance. The prior Lucknow pact of 1916 saw an alliance between the All India Muslim League and the Congress party in demanding further home rule and safeguards for Muslim rights. This meant that the early independence movement saw Hindu and Muslim leaders generally working together.
Post-WWI India was invigorated with a spirit of non-compliance, demands for home rule and protest, especially Muslim communities who demanded the protection of the Ottoman Caliph by the British following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In 1930, Gandhi led the “Salt March” in defiance of the British tax on salt production, culminating in Gandhi “illegally” picking up salt from India’s west coast after a 24-day march. Gandhism possessed an economic message of self-reliance and independence for India and individual Indians, as well as local village governance and anti-industrial production.
By 1942, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress launched the “Quit India” movement using civil disobedience and non-cooperation, calling on the British to leave the subcontinent. Two years prior, the All India Muslim League passed the Lahore resolution demanding separate countries for Muslims and Hindus. Both Gandhi and then-Congress party leader and India’s eventual first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, vehemently opposed partition on the grounds that Indian Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived side by side in intertwined and intermingled communities. The theory of reification of identities in South Asia claims that some communities, particularly on frontiers, did not have rigid religious or ethnic identities until British censuses forced them to choose one and write it down. Creating a new country based on Islam alone would require uprooting people all across South Asia, there was no clean cut geographic divide between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Yet India’s Muslim League and their then-leader, M. A. Jinnah, insisted on the two-nation theory in South Asia and so path-dependency led to the idea gaining widespread support in many South Asian-Muslim communities. Still, contemporary India retains the second- or third-largest Muslim population in the world and has had multiple Muslim presidents. Scholars of Pakistan tend to agree that basing Pakistan around Islam vis-à-vis a secular India has been a key factor in its precarious position between military junta and theocracy since Jinnah’s death.
Seventy years on, both India and Pakistan have obtained nuclear status and fought several wars over border disputes and the independence of Pakistan’s former east wing that is now Bangladesh. They have also made significant progress in human, economic and political development when one considers where they started out. Indeed, India is the world’s largest democracy and runs elections better than many Western countries and South Asian societies spend tremendous amounts of money and resources in relieving poverty and improving human development. In a time of increasing calls for Western countries to “return” to period of glory and a whitewashing of current and past violence towards and exploitation and subjugation of Brown and Black people, let us not forget who created the world we live in now. Former and current colonial powers, Britain and the United States included. One where “partitioned” cleanly delineated and singular identities, nationalities and allegiances order the globe. South Asia’s multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious mosaic of a history should remind us that our identities and histories are messy and filled with idiosyncrasies despite the wishes of those who desire “purity.”