Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism

Please watch this video, followed by the following video:

I have read many books on India preceding and during British rule from many different perspectives and as a child spoke to many old people who were nostalgic about the British. What does nostalgia mean? It means that they all celebrated independence and had a nuanced bitter sweet understanding of the English. They spoke about the English as they were, warts, strengths, good aspects and all. Aspects of English policy and English colonization of the mind are mixed or negative; but the Anglo people themselves enriched India greatly. Anglo means English nationals who lived a large part of their lives in British India and mixed English/South Asian ancestry descendants. One of the great tragedies of South Asian history is that many Anglos left South Asia. India would have been better off had the English lived on in India as patriotic Indian citizens and continued to serve in high positions inside India alongside their fellow Indians. Hence the bitter sweet.

It is incredibly sad that most young people who now discuss “colonialism” aren’t deeply curious about history and don’t carefully study and analyze all aspects of colonialism as it was, reading writers in the 1700s, 1800s, and  early 1900s; interpreting what they read from the perspective of the authors. Too many young people today see colonialism and analyze most of their problems in day to day life through the irrational prism of structuralism, post modernism and marxism. This leads to bad analysis, bad problem solving, and less successful careers and businesses. Which in turn lead to lower standards of living and greater poverty.

What is a rational framework to analyze the success and failure of colonialism? This previous Brown Pundit article outlines a methodology to analyze colonialism. The question isn’t whether colonialism was “just” or “right”, but rather understanding how South Asians (referring to South Asians as historic Indians in this article) were effected by colonialism in great granular detail. Many panelists emphasized that the English didn’t do the “good things” they did for Indians and this is mostly true, but I think irrelevant from an Indian perspective.

Many negative aspects of English rule were discussed in the prior article, but I would like to summarize mixed to positive aspects of English rule:

  1. The whole world owes England immense gratitude for re-uniting India into a single united country; and a great force for global good. British India in this did God’s work.
  2. England brought enlightenment philosophy to India, as discussed in the previous article. I believe that enlightenment values were inspired by ancient eastern philosophy.
  3. England liberated India from Islamist rule
  4. England replaced Indian Shariah law with English common law
  5. England worked with Indian reformers to ban slavery. Slavery has existed almost continually in almost every country since the beginning of history, including historic India. But slavery was greatly exacerbated by Islamist rule.
  6. England worked with historic Indian reformers on child marriage, sati (to be fair this was never that common in historic India), and many other important social reform issues.
  7. England built strong historic Indian institutions which continue to benefit South Asians and the entire world today.

Of course there are a great many negatives too, including:

  1. Colonialism of the historic Indian mind with inferiority complexes, semiology , structuralism, post modernism, Fabian socialism, marxism; which continues to stifle Indian freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art, freedom of music, freedom of creativity, freedom of intuition and freedom of feeling.
  2. The British should have started surging Indian capacity and institutions to prepare India for independence in 1858, including by providing modest foreign aid to India over two generations.
  3. British Indian institutions, including the ICS, Indian Railways, Indian Army, Indian Police, Indian Postal Department, Indian judiciary, were not completely merit based in promotion until the 1930s.
  4. Licence Raj big government regulations stifled the Indian private sector, Indian creativity, Indian intuition.
  5. The British abided by an informal code with Indians until WWI. Which is one reason most Indians patriotically helped the British and Allies win WWI. [Maybe in another article I can articulate why I think India “WON” WWI for the allies.] But then the English betrayed India by not giving India dominion status. This betrayal of the British informal contract with Indians is what set off the independence movement and correctly so.
  6. The British suddenly decided to rush out of India as fast as they could in 1945, without any regard to the welfare of Indians. Once the British decided to leave, they should have left in an orderly gradual fashion that benefited Indians at a timetable selected by Indians.
  7. Real per capita income growth in India was extremely low between 1858 and 1947. To me this is a very big deal and tragedy, but this point alone deserves an article.
  8. Too many other things to mention

One aspect that worries me about the above two panel discussions is how many young people comment with such certainty, without nuance, without the humility of what we don’t know, and without bothering to carefully study historical sources from many different historic authors who lived during the times in question. But the past is the past, all young people are free to their own opinions, and I am glad they even slightly interested in history. 🙂

The most worrisome aspect of the above two panels is how people blame colonialism for the challenges of today without a deep understanding of what they speaking about. By far the worst aspect of colonialism is the colonialism of the mind with inferiority complexes and post modernism. And the worst victims have no idea how much their minds have been colonized or how colonialism is still hurting them.

See 5 minutes 30 seconds into this videoDr. Kehinde Andrews represents the worst legacy of colonialism and empire. To be fair he is by far the most extreme example post modernist thinking and inferiority complex of the probably more than 30 participants in both panel discussions. I have no doubt the majority of English people of African descent and African Americans disagree with him. But it is none the less true that less extreme versions of his ideas have done enormous damage to English nationals of African heritage. On multiple occasions he blames colonialism and empire for the challenges English nationals of African heritage confront today. The irony is that the way English colonialism and English empire are hurting English nationals of African heritage is through colonizing his mind and through the ideas in his mind. To be completely clear this is not a personal attack against Dr. Kehinde Andrews but a respectful complete inability to understand his point of view.

Incredible, indescribable, immeasurable power [“Shakti” in Sanskrit] flows through every human. Any human can do anything. No group of people is powerful enough to oppress any single human being.

It is time for the worst residue of English empire to finally end. But how to kill it? Does anyone have any ideas?

Author: AnAn

20 thoughts on “Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism”

  1. A few quick thoughts:

    England “liberated India from Islamist rule”. I think we have discussed numerous times on this blog that it is factually wrong to label the Mughals as “Islamists”. You have displayed a nuanced thinking about Islam in other comments so I don’t know why you keep doing this. The Mughals weren’t driven by political Islam in the modern sense, they were trying to run an empire. Some of them were even quasi-Hindu and I think all of them celebrated Holi and Diwali. You have mentioned you are a fan of Dara Shikoh and Jahanara Begum. In what world do they qualify as Islamists? Islamists don’t translate the Mahabharata into Persian. Most conservative Muslims I know wouldn’t be caught dead near the Mahabharata, let alone translate it.
    In any case by the time the British arrived, Mughal rule was fragmenting and large parts of India were ruled by Hindus. The Marathas for one. The Sikhs were ruling Punjab. In an alternate universe without the British arrival, it is possible the Maratha Empire would have taken over more parts of India. A native Hindu dynasty ruling Bharat Mata– wouldn’t that have been nice?

    The British may have “united India” into a single country (Vikram would say you are being a “woke Hindu” in this remark). But then, they broke it also. So that kind of neutralizes that.

    Overall, I think it is fair to say that Western colonialism was not a super positive experience for the colonized. The colonizers acted in their own interests– maximizing the extraction of resources to the mother country. There were some positive byproducts of this, such as the Indian railway system (my late grandfather started his career in the Indian railways and subsequently retired from the Pakistan railways) and the fact that Indians and Pakistanis are more comfortable in English than people from some other countries. The legal system is nice too (though Section 377 is a British thing). But I don’t think people would trade away the right of self-determination for this. Self-determination is now considered a basic human right under the UN charter.

    1. Dara Shikoh and Jahanara Begum were great Sufis and not islamists. Sadly they lost to Aurangzeb.

      Aurangzeb was an Islamist who slaughtered huge numbers of Shia, Sufi, Sikhs and Hindus. And yes I have read many authors and historians who liked Aurangzeb too. I recognize that one third of his senior nobles were Hindus; but all the good things he did cannot undo the bad.

      1. Again, “Islamist” is a 20th century term which has a 20th century meaning. Applying it to the 16th century is bad history. No professional historian worth his salt would do this.

        Aurangzeb apparently endowed many Hindu temples.

        ” Historian and principal of Serveshwari Degree College Pradeep Kesherwani made this claim based on certain historical facts. “During one of his military campaigns, Aurangzeb and his army had spent time near the temple. During the stay, he not only visited the temple but also offered grant and land for its maintenance. This fact is mentioned on the ‘Dharma Dand’ (religious pillar) situated on the temple premises,” Kesherwani told TOI. ”

        Aurangzeb was definitely more Orthodox than Akbar (or Dara) but he was by no means Al Qaida or something like that.

        1. “Aurangzeb was definitely more Orthodox than Akbar (or Dara) but he was by no means Al Qaida or something like that.”

          Just paused to check about Kashmiri Pundits and the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Trying to figure what is nuanced and what is spin.

          1. While you try to figure that out, you would at least concede that using a 20th century term such as “Islamist” for a 17th century ruler is a bit strange?

            “Islamist” is used for the Taliban, AQ, groups like that. Words have specific meanings. Terms can’t be applied so loosely that they lose all sense.

            From Wikipedia:
            “Other scholars point out that Aurangzeb also built many temples, Ian Copland says that he built more temples than he destroyed.[17] However, scholars like Ram Puniyani states that Aurangzeb was not always fanatically anti-Hindu, and kept changing his policies depending on the needs of the situation. He banned the construction of new temples, but permitted the repair and maintenance of existing temples. He also made generous donations of jagirs to several temples to win the sympathies of his Hindu subjects. There are several firmans (orders) in his name, supporting temples and gurudwaras, including Mahakaleshwar temple of Ujjain, Balaji temple of Chitrakoot, Umananda Temple of Guwahati and the Shatrunjaya Jain temples.[70]”

            Doesn’t sound like an “Islamist” to me. Though he was certainly a conservative Muslim and an authoritarian ruler.

          2. From Wikipedia: “Other scholars point out that Aurangzeb also built many temples, Ian Copland says that he built more temples than he destroyed.[17] However, scholars like Ram Puniyani states that Aurangzeb was not always fanatically anti-Hindu, and kept changing his policies depending on the needs of the situation. He banned the construction of new temples, but permitted the repair and maintenance of existing temples. He also made generous donations of jagirs to several temples to win the sympathies of his Hindu subjects. There are several firmans (orders) in his name, supporting temples and gurudwaras, including Mahakaleshwar temple of Ujjain, Balaji temple of Chitrakoot, Umananda Temple of Guwahati and the Shatrunjaya Jain temples.[70]”

            Just by reading this paragraph from Wiki one gets the impression that Aurangzeb was a patron of Hindu religion, culture and arts. Is that the way he wants to be remembered? 🙂

  2. Kabir, I am open to changing my mind on the English saving India from Islamism based on new information.

    I consider the Sufi Bahadur Shah to be pro Sikh/Shia/Hindu and the last good strong Mughal emperor. I consider the Sayyid Brothers to be very negative. What do you think of the Mughal emperor Muhammed Shah? From 1739 onward the Mughal Empire and India were Persian protectorates. While I like Nader Shah in general, do not consider him an Islamist, and admire his role in saving Iraq from Salafi crazy wackos who wanted to destroy Najaf, Kerbala, Shiaism, Sufism and Kurdistan; he wasn’t nice to Indians. He sacked Delhi, slaughtered many Indians, and stole more money from Indians than the English ever did. Nader Shah is one of the reasons Indians turned to the English. From 1747, the Mughal Empire and India were Afghan protectorates.

    The third battle of Panipat in 1761 was one of the worst days in world history. No one knows how many died but it might have been hundreds of thousands. That was the day India was broken; and the honor of Marathas shattered in my eyes. To their eternal shame the Marathas allied with Salafi crazies. This caused the Nawab of Audh Shuja-ud-Daula to understandably switch from the Marathas to the Afghans.

    I consider Siraj ud-Daulah, Mir Qasim and Tipu Sultan to be Islamists.

    Tipu Sultan engaged in terrible atrocities that outraged his French advisers according to their letters. Despite Tipu’s tolerance of Shia and consultation with Sufis, Tipu engaged in horrible acts . . . which puzzles me. Tipu’s PM and people sided with the British East India Company against him during Tipu’s fall in 1799.

    In 1803-1805 the British East India Company was invited to help a faction in the Maratha civil war. This Maratha Civil War had no clear good guys or heroes. There was no one for a patriot to fight for. And so the accidental empire was formed.

    This sequence of events left the British East India Company as the dominant power in South Asia and the opaque nontransparent puppet master behind the rump Mughal orifice in 1805.

    South Asia had no clear lines of authority or accountability; the worst of all worlds for Indians. There were no qualified worthy Indian institutions to assume responsibility for India. At this point the Crown should have immediately assumed control of India (as they would later do in 1858) and start building strong pan Indian institutions in preparation for greater Indian capacity, self reliance and eventual full Indian sovereignty. English common law should have replaced Mughal Shariah law many decades sooner. Of course this didn’t happen. Many things that should have happened did not.

    However, there were many great Englishmen who I greatly admire, including William Ewart Gladstone. I see people as people, regardless of their nationality.

    1. From what I know about Muhammad Shah “Rangila”, he was a pretty cool guy. Like I mentioned in my essay, it was under his rule that Sadarang and Adarang invented khayal. The fact that he is known as “Rangila” also says a lot.

      Regarding the power (or lack thereof) of the Mughals, there is a famous couplet that goes:
      “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam
      Az Dilli ta Palam”
      (The kingdom of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam)
      Given that Palam is only 15 kms from Delhi, that says a lot about the effective power of the Mughals.

      I don’t think the British were interested in full Indian sovereignty. That’s not how 19th century colonialism worked. European colonial empires only broke up after World War II because they became unsustainable for the European powers–not because these powers suddenly developed some moral qualms. The Brits resisted leaving “the jewel in the crown” for a long time. The French only let Algeria go in the 1960s.

      I agree about seeing people as people. Some of the English even went “native” and became known as “white Mughals”.

      See this book:
      It’s about the relationship between James Achilles Kirkpatrick (The East India Company Resident in Hyderabad) and Khair-un-Nissa Begum. At this point in history, apparently one in three British men in India was married to an Indian woman. I don’t know how Indians are supposed to feel about that (some could view it as sexual exploitation) but clearly the firm separation between ruler and ruled only developed later, as evidenced by the building of Civil Lines and Cantonments outside the “native town”.

      1. I like most of the Anglos (White Mughals and their descendant). I have no issues with Indians voluntarily marrying Anglos and regard these as unions of equals. And I like Kirkpatrick and many other Anglos who lived long in India; and ran many colleges, schools and civil society institutions.

        This said, pan British Indian institutions (such as the ICS, Indian Army, Indian Police, Indian judiciary, Indian Railways etc.) and Indian civil society institutions should have had completely merit based promotions right from the beginning; allowing Indians to be promoted to the top of these organizations.

        The British could have and should have governed India so much better than they in fact did.

    2. “I consider Siraj ud-Daulah, Mir Qasim and Tipu Sultan to be Islamists.”

      What about the Nizam of Hyderabad Deccan who controlled a large area?

      1. The UK supported a corrupt semi incompetent ruler by supporting the Nizam and Shariah law. The Nizam’s economic policies were horrendous for his people. His governance institutions were subpar at best. The Nizam was the last remnant of the Mughal empire in India. But strange as it sounds, I am nostalgic about the fall of the Nizam in 1948 and the final end of the Mughals. Some Indians see the Nizams as traitor for supporting the UK for two centuries but I don’t think this is a complete picture. Perhaps the Nizam acted in the interests of his Andhra and Urdu people by acting as he did.

        The Nizam was far more tolerant and less Islamist than Tipu Sultan and generally well intentioned.

        History is bitter sweet. That is the irony of Itihasa. We love the flawed leaders of the past in spite of their many imperfections.

        India was full of kingdoms that voluntarily allied with the English; including the Nizam, Mughals, Travancore, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikhim, Bangalore, Kashmir (formerly a protectorate of Afghanistan). This gave the English presence some legitimacy and is yet another demonstration that Indians gave the English power in India. Most Indians to the degree they had agency voluntarily supported and worked with the English in the 1700s and 1800s. English legitimacy and the English informal social contract with Indians were not broken until after WWI, when the English refused to give dominion status as implicitly promised.

        I need to look up the exact quote; but Swami Vivekananda said that a country that cannot manufacture needles (and needed to import them) did not deserve independence. I agree with Swami Vivekananda on this. Independence, competence and capacity cannot be given; but must be earned. After competence and capacity are earned and developed, independence follows naturally. Indians are mostly responsible for not increasing Indian capacity and competence during
        English rule.

        Of course, I also strongly blame the English for many reasons described above; but most of all for their negative colonization of the Indian mind, and minds of their African colonial subjects; which is the main point of the article.

  3. I hope we can reach a point where we can look at the English, for all their indifference in the face of our ancestors’ failure, and take it for what it was, a people showing remarkable creativity, initiative, and ambition , subduing a continent over the course of generations. They were impressive, we weren’t. I’ll always look back and root for my own ancestors, but they lost because they got beat by a better team. There’s nothing to feel regret or gratitude for. It’s a bit disappointing that for all those 4-5 generations of British subjecthood we only viewed the master superficially, were awed by their organization and industry but never understood the English soul, let alone experience the higher planes of Western Civilization.

  4. “re-uniting India into a single united country”

    I presume you mean the geographical India, and not the nation India. Because there was no Indian nation in a political sense before the arrival of Gandhi and the independence movement.

    Even in the war of 1857, all Rajput and Sikh states allied with the British against the mutineers and the Marathas.

    1. Vikram I have significantly studied the 1856-1858 Sepoy Mutiny. The British didn’t win the war; the Indians who sided with the British won the war. And most Indians who supported the British believed in the British. Yet another reason that Indians chose the British and had agency.

      What is with fair skin worship in Asia? This is the fault and weakness of Asians rather than the English.

      Girmit, the English were impressive and they should have been admired and everyone else should have learned from the English. Sadly Indians didn’t learn from the English and weren’t inspired to transform themselves into greatness by the English as much as engaging in fair skin worship and inferiority complex. This is partly the fault of the English but mostly the fault of Indians. Colonial subjects always have agency and are always responsible for their own fate. I am not someone who blames all our problems on “them foreigners.” I find this “attitude” completely deplorable.

      “They were impressive” 100% agreed
      “we weren’t.” Most Bharatiyas weren’t. But we should remember that some Bharatiyas thrived during British rule (which they believed was better than what preceded the British) and most of these Bharatiyas focused on surging the capacity and competence of fellow Bharatiyas because they understood that Bharatiyas were not yet collectively ready for full self reliance, self governance and independence.

      “I’ll always look back and root for my own ancestors, but they lost because they got beat by a better team.” I don’t think they got beaten. They chose to put the British in power or keep the British in power because they believed this was the best way to help Indians in the short term.

      “There’s nothing to feel regret or gratitude for.” Regret for the mistakes of our ancestors is not helpful, but learning from their mistakes is. We should always feel gratitude to those who lived long ago.

      “It’s a bit disappointing that for all those 4-5 generations of British subjecthood we only viewed the master superficially, were awed by their organization and industry but never understood the English soul, let alone experience the higher planes of Western Civilization.” I think many competent Indians did understand the English soul, experienced the higher planes of Western Civilization, and had deep relationships with Anglos. But most sadly most Indians did not.

  5. Here are some Indian perspectives on colonialism:

    A quote from Vivekananda on the British:
    “No one ever landed on English soil with more hatred in his heart for a race than I did for the English, and on this platform are present English friends who can bear witness to the fact, but the more I lived among them and saw how the machine was working – the English national life- and mixed with them, I found where the heartbeat of the nation was, and the more I loved them. There is none among here present, any brothers, who loves English more than I do now”

  6. More Vivekananda quotes:
    “―India has to learn from Europe the conquest of external nature, and Europe has to learn from India the conquest of internal nature.‖
    ―You have not the capacity to manufacture a needle and you dare to criticize the English,
    – fools! Sit at their feet and learn from them the arts, industries and the practicality necessary for the struggle of existence.‖
    ―They (Western people) will, no doubt, be your Guru regarding practical sciences etc., for the improvement of material conditions, and the people of our country will be their Guru in everything pertaining to religion.‖
    ―It would be better if the people got a little technical education that they might find work and earn their bread, instead of dawdling about and crying for service.‖
    ―If I can get some unmarried graduates, I may try to send them over to Japan and make arrangements for their technical education there, so that when they come back, they may turn their knowledge to the best account for India. What a good thing will that be!… There, in Japan, you find a fine assimilation of knowledge, and not its indigestion as we have here. They have taken everything from the Europeans, but they remain Japanese all the same, and have not turned European.‖
    Vivekananda, S.. The Complete Works of the Swami Vivekananda. Vol. 1. Advaita Ashram, 1915.
    Ashokananda, “The Economic Views of Swami Vivekananda”. Prabuddha Bharata. November, 1930.

    I completely 100% agree with these quotes from Swami Vivekananda. We need to learn the best aspects of others while remaining true to ourselves; and being careful not to ingest structuralism, post modernism, intersectionality.

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