The idea that the British pursued a policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ is probably the single most prevalent cliché in the whole canon of Indian historiography. It was an idea whose time came, and never passed. It was a ‘catch-all’ and ‘explain-all’ idea that neatly accounted for the success of British policy in a way that left Indians with some dignity. As a historical explanation it proved so powerful that it met scant resistance in Indian hearts and minds. Hence its adoption by everyone, from Arya Samajists like H. B. Sarda, to Congress theoreticians like Gandhi and Nehru. But was it true or accurate, and not just neat? Is it, even now, just a ‘get out of jail’ card for a great many Indians who do not wish to feel responsibility for certain aspects of the country’s past?
The British did not invent the technique – it is as old as arguments – and we know it by the name given to it by the Romans, the Classical world’s greatest realists. But although the Latin phrase ‘Divide et Impera’ was familiar and comprehensible to any classically educated British Indian official – i.e. all of them – does that mean that such a policy was actually in place, or that attempts to divide and rule would be successful?
In the Indian context, the basic truth is that the British did rule, and they did try to divide opposition. They proved adept at both, and fractiousness and tension within much of the Indian opposition generally aided the whole undertaking. The EIC would never have reached the dominant position it ultimately attained without the persistent disunity of local Indian forces. The Company was directly aided by the fact that the Marathas could never agree amongst themselves for long enough, and that Tipu Sultan would not ally with them even when it was in his very evident interests to do so.
If for a moment we can lay aside as proven the idea that the British did actively work to undermine opposition to their rule (shock!), then we can begin to see other things more clearly. Any government that seeks to split its opponents is dividing and ruling. It is hardly a morally corrupt thing to do, nor is it necessarily oppressive in itself. But when the accusation of ‘Divide et Impera’ is thrown at the British in India, it immediately carries a burden of particular guilt, casting them not as political animals but as amoral beings, shamed with Partition as their achievement. For Partition seems a plausible destination, were dividing to be taken to its logical conclusion.
The idea that ‘Divide and Rule’ was such a set and evil strategy that it actively, logically led on to Partition is a contrived and untenable idea. The words themselves are so seductive and easy to manipulate that they can capture receptive minds all too readily. But neat words do not necessarily reflect historical truth. So, although we can turn ‘Divide and Rule’ deftly into ‘Divide and Quit’, or a number of other damning formulations, this does not justify seeing these transformations as having any real correspondence to British policy. This needs some critical attention before we can pass on.
Firstly, the maxim was ‘Divide and Rule’. But it is quite possible to characterise the whole of British policy as aimed rather more at uniting than dividing. Consider the map of South Asia in 1800, then in 1900, and what do we find? Less division and more unification. British India is suddenly one entity from the south of Burma to the Khyber Pass. Not all of this area was under direct British rule, but there were no wars and no truly independent governments. This was, by any historical standards, a ‘unite and rule’ policy.
Next, the logical end-game of ‘Divide and Rule’ is seen by some as the invention, imposition, perpetuation or incitement of inter-communal violence between Muslims and Hindus. To have consciously and deliberately done this, the British would have been playing with fire, implementing a policy of ‘Divide and Incite’. Imperial powers seek to impose peace and orderliness, largely for their own benefit. External wars can suit their purposes, certainly – this is how they expand – but internal unity is an absolute prerequisite for any imperial power to sustain its own governance. Loyalty to the imperial project must come before local loyalties. The idea that the British would deliberately stir up communal violence is an imputation of malign intent, and one that would have meant risking secure ‘ruling’ for the sake of some potentially counterproductive ‘dividing’. Policing costs go up, tax returns go down, property is damaged, rioters are shot or imprisoned, with the result that government becomes unpopular, for no advantage gained.
However, from 1906 onwards it was undeniably a Raj policy to treat the Muslims as a distinct entity within Indian politics after a deputation to ask for separate Muslim electorates, led by the Aga Khan, was given a favourable reception by Viceroy Minto. Special electorates then accompanied the introduction of electoral politics via the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, and the ultimate results can be seen as directly contributing to Partition. This much can immediately be conceded, but the direct link between the Simla Delegation and the creation of Pakistan is not very strong, considering that forty-one years of roller-coaster politics separate the two events. During that time there is no doubt that the British did not want deliberately to create so much strife as to split their own colonial state, while Muslim elites generally asked for regional self-government rather than for a separate state. There was a clear model for what they wanted – the hundreds of princely states all over India, many of which were ruled by Muslims. Divisions within the political opposition, whether deliberate or incidental, and the demand for Pakistan, are not quite the same thing.
Staying with Partition, the phrase is also ‘Divide and Rule’, so there is actually no logic to the idea that the British deliberately planned to divide India after they left. Why would they? Some of the reasons brought forth for this will be examined elsewhere on this site, but here it is enough to say that historic British policy was in favour of uniting India, and leaving her so. This point is crucial, so a short reference to Anita Inder Singh may be appropriate here. Ms. Singh is no friend of the British and does not hesitate to hand out criticism where appropriate, yet she writes: ‘The British favoured a transfer of power to a united India, which would keep the army undivided, and be of the greatest advantage to them strategically’ (The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947: OUP, 1987, p. 151). There is a mound of internal British memoranda to support this statement.
Diplomatic and economic interests dictated that India was a better prospect all round as a united entity and, most importantly, there was no doubt in strategic planning circles that, militarily, a united India was infinitely preferable to a divided one, either under British rule or afterwards. The additional costs and the loss of military efficiency implied in dividing the country were a source of serious concern to General Auchinleck, who set out his thoughts in a memo to Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy (11 May 1946). It was secret at the time, but we can all read it now. There was no credible incentive, beyond childish malice, for the British to divide India. Such a division could have served no useful strategic purpose, and would have made the successor states more vulnerable to outside attack – especially from each other, but also, in the opinion of senior military strategists, from Stalin’s Russia. The mistaken idea that the British had to create Pakistan in order to build air bases there is dealt with here.
There was some disagreement in British government circles over whether to leave entirely, and how fast to withdraw, but there was never any body of opinion that considered division of the country was advantageous to Britain. So, if Partition was a deliberate policy, either the people charged with discerning Britain’s national interests were all stranded outside some secret inner pro-Partition circle, or they were all lying to each other in private while making other plans (for somebody, somewhere) all along. Any of this presents such a drastic and complicated scenario that it is not credible. Detecting conspiracy on such a scale is the stuff of lunacy. The political consensus in Britain on the desirability of a unitary India was real, and it existed for real reasons. It was only overridden by the political imperatives that the Labour cabinet felt as 1947 opened. Attlee then finally announced in February of that year that some form of division would be acceptable in the face of political deadlock.
But there is no doubt that ‘Divide and Rule’, as a general policy, was real. The British as rulers were well aware that it was a good idea to divide oppositional groups within India, and there is a long, clear paper trail to show that leading players recognised it as a good strategy. This trail runs from the 1820s right down to Winston Churchill. For it was not difficult to see that India, large and diverse, presented ideal conditions for such a policy. Indians, too, realised this soon enough, and the creation of the Indian National Congress (1885) was the result. The Congress became the first attempt by Indians to recognise, accept and organise their own national diversity, in order to build (or recover) unity and then use it against the foreigner. Congress was the new Mahayana, with room for all. In the long run it proved to be a greater force than British pragmatism, unified as it was by a nationalism strong enough to enable disciplined action, yet sufficiently tempered by tolerance to draw together representatives of all of India’s people.
Divisions or, to put it less sharply, ‘distinctions’ of all sorts undeniably existed in India, and Indians were well aware that the British found them useful. Maulana Mohammed Ali, veteran of the Khilafat campaign and Congress politics, commented to a British official in 1930: “We divide, you rule”. The situation gets more complicated when proponents of British perfidy start to insist that the British actually created the divisions they were exploiting. The British certainly exacerbated certain forms of distinction by attempting to quantify social elements, like caste, by the use of censuses and through the obsessive ethnography and anthropology of late Victorian colonial science, but the basic categories of class, caste, language and religion all predate British rule by centuries if not millennia. The British certainly did not make any of the major ones from scratch. In their climb to paramountcy it was always a matter of feeling out promising cracks in the rock face with which to gain suitable purchase. Whether the British were in fact able to use any such distinctions, or even attempt to make use of them, was largely a matter of circumstance. Eventually, under the British there was some dividing and a lot of ruling.
So far so good, but there comes a point at which the imposition of this paradigm on all British activity has to stop. For what has happened over the years is that some Indians have seen more and more dividing going on under British influence. This is surely a mistaken perspective. It certainly plays into the hands of anyone who wishes to see India as perfect, undivided and unitary in all things before the British arrived. There are plenty who believed, and believe, this. The Arya Samaj completely believed in the primal unity of ancient India, her perfect social institutions and her religious and cultural homogeneity. This belief has been inherited by the Hindutva Right, some of whom would not feel much sympathy for Swami Dayananda’s reforming spirit, but would happily maintain that the Dharma of ancient times has descended perfect from the ancient sages.
Nehru and Gandhi frequently expanded on the theme of ‘Divide and Rule’, but their relationship with the idea was more complex. As Congressmen they needed the whole dynamic of ‘Divide and Rule’ as both a historical explanation for India’s problems, and as a political platform to justify the Congress drive for national unity. If Indians could only be taught to see through British wiles, if they could be coaxed into a degree of amnesia about supposedly important distinctions of caste and religion just long enough to exercise their collective muscle, then India would be free, of both the British and of much of the worst in India’s past.
In this way the idea of ‘Divide and Rule’ had definite political uses for anyone willing to wield it against the Raj as a rallying cry – and it still does. But the problem, in terms of historical accuracy as opposed to politics, is that ‘Divide and Rule’ as a governing strategy is almost indistinguishable from all the standard techniques of normal politics. Any ruling body, or even a political coalition in or out of power, will strive to find ways to cohere within itself, and will always try to hit areas in which its opponents are least able to unite. This is political science at its most basic; Indians had been doing ‘Divide and Rule’ to each other for centuries before the British ever arrived. As a deep insight into British success it cannot pass muster. As a particular proof of British deviousness it is not terribly wounding. Within the context of Indian history the appearance of ‘Divide and Rule’ is, in some respects, business as usual. This will not be a popular view in certain quarters, but it is impossible to deny that India had its own social classes and its own systems of internal exploitation long before the British arrived. For proof of this we need only look at the long running disputes within the colonial government about whether to back rajas or raiyats in the question of landholdings. The British created neither of these classes.
The period up to and including Partition sustained a fairly simplistic concept of ‘Divide and Rule’, with the history and the politics very closely intertwined. After that time the whole idea became a fixed element of schoolroom history within India, and the standard beliefs surrounding ‘Divide and Rule’ passed into general acceptance. But ‘Divide and Rule’ has now been taken up not only by Indian nationalists keen to show an unbroken heritage of Indian unity, it has been latched onto by scholars all over the world who have decided that the British also reinvented or profoundly reshaped the caste system and defined the ‘historic’ religious communities within India, which were not really historical but an invention of British colonialism. This is all rather speculative and acts as a way to load all possible burdens of guilt for structural problems within modern India onto ‘colonialism’.
These anti-colonialist ideas draw much of their inspiration from the post-war intellectual attractions of ‘Critical Theory’, especially amongst Marxist and post-Marxist theoreticians in France. One indispensable central idea was Michel Foucault‘s insight that ‘knowledge is power’. ‘Colonial knowledge’ and colonial power were then named, defined, and launched on a new joint career. The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 was part of this movement, and these various intellectual streams flowed into Indian history to create a whole new generation of analytical views of colonial India. It was this that created the climate for, and provided the tools used by, the Subaltern Studies group, pioneered by Ranajit Guha from the early 1980s. The characteristics of Subaltern writing were that it was highly conceptual and, in consequence, was both rather vague and difficult to follow. Pages pass by without a single fact or date, but with many opinions and even more abstractions.
Much post-colonial writing naturally gravitates towards the point where the soft social sciences melt into history. The resulting fusion is uneasy, because the mixture is not only of hard and soft approaches, but also because the political affiliations of the writers are extremely clear. These are highly influential within their methods and concepts, or conceptualisations, and are clearly discernible from their assumptions through to their conclusions. One major point of agreement is that ‘colonialism’ was incredibly powerful. It must, therefore, have had detectable effects across a very wide area of the life of the colonised country, drowning out local voices and indigenous ‘discourses’, which have been ‘lost’. The writers also generally agree that ‘colonialism’ (though disguised) is still powerfully influential today.
We can now take a look at some examples of where this new understanding of colonialism has led. The two main writers that I will examine – Gyanendra Pandey and Nicholas B. Dirks – are not identically placed ideologically, but they both owe a debt, regularly acknowledged, to the influence of Bernard Cohn in Sociology, Michel Foucault in Critical Theory and Edward Said in post-colonial disciplines. Pandey qualifies as one of the Subaltern school of historians, while Dirks is not officially a Subaltern writer but shares a great deal of their basic approach. Both trace the roots of communal violence to the presence of British colonial power in India, and agree that colonial power in India created, institutionalised or exacerbated the social issues connected with religion, communal violence and caste. These three elements all hang together.
Their analysis shows that the British, as colonialists, sought to acquire ‘knowledge’ of India as a colony, thus at one and the same time both inquiring into and defining the objects and categories under investigation. Indian social institutions were classified and arranged – formalised – whereupon Indians learned how they should behave. This new colonial vision of India was a self-fulfilling prophecy, brought about by limited understanding on the one side combined with massive power on the other. What the British saw were irrational, ancestral divisions expressed in religious terms, and social exclusion and privilege enforced through caste. These conditions they then effectively reinforced, by the use of statistics, census returns and bureaucratic procedures. Quite how deliberate or conscious these processes were is not made clear, but their operation as processes is assumed to be completely real.
Where the old notion of ‘Divide and Rule’ was about actual people, this newer vision is about abstract forces, in particular a sort of post-Marxist, generalised view of ‘colonialism’. This has a special relevance within the Indian context, because it is not primarily an economic phenomenon, as within classical Marxism. This new ‘colonialism’ is a much broader cultural project, with special qualities of imposed values and racism, detectable through the interpretation of a very broad range of ’texts’, by which is meant much more than simple archival information or government records.
This view is not without value, and its best insights can be sympathetically summarised as follows. Britain was the colonial power and had control over India’s economy and, by extension, over her cultural and social institutions. The importation of foreign ideas about law, property and capital brought changes in land ownership, as in the Permanent Settlement of 1793 in Bengal, and with a whole new structure of law codes and courts. New ideas of hierarchy were imported and social relations began to change. These changes did not adversely affect, and indeed often actively helped, existing élite ‘collaborationist’ groups within India, whose story the independence struggle became, through the efforts of self-appointed community leaders. Ideas that communal strife, either across religious boundaries or caste divisions, was really a matter of either rational economic motivations, or irrational ancestral hatreds, are insufficient explanations for what was actually going on. To impute Western notions of economic individualism or ‘bourgeois rationality’ to India’s population is considered to be ‘Orientalist’. More work needs to be done to investigate why exactly these clashes originated and how they were perpetuated. However, their overall causes were colonialism – colonial policies, colonial power and colonial understanding.
There must be some truth in this analysis because the British were the government and government does affect the governed. However, there are a great many leaps of faith in it, and a good deal of evidence has yet to be supplied before we can lay down the law in the way that this section of writers seeks to do. Now we can look to see how they do this.
Gyanendra Pandey’s book, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (1990). is quite clear about the issue it addresses. Communalism is ‘a form of colonialist knowledge’ (p. 6). It is an Orientalist ‘concept and usage’ (p. 8). ‘Communalism is a product of Orientalism and the colonial state’ (p. 11). Interestingly, it is also a usage that developed ‘late’ (p.8), by which he means in the 1920s and 1930s.
Pandey will not entertain arguments that communalism was caused by the religions of Hinduism and Islam. Such arguments are ‘suspicious, precisely because they are so persuasive’ (p. 12). We might raise an eyebrow here at what this reveals in terms of historical technique – that persuasive arguments should be rejected – but Pandey gives several reasons why such arguments are only superficially persuasive, primarily because they have been repeated so often. This repetition has come about because these arguments were necessary to sustain empire, and the British invested heavily in teaching and maintaining them, giving them a spurious authority. They are still being peddled today, he claims, because they also exonerate the modern state from responsibility for enduring communal violence, thus also supporting a modern ‘form of power’.
With this established, Pandey moves on to trace what contemporaries thought about communal tensions during the independence struggle. Nationalists ‘recognised communalism as a problem of recent origins, as the outcome basically of economic and political inequality and conflict, and as the handiwork of a handful of self-interested elite groups (colonial and native) with the mass of the people being essentially ‘secular’ ’ (p. 11). This is a very broad statement, and it tells us less about 1920s India and more about Pandey’s general viewpoint. For him, religion simply doesn’t count as an appropriate prompt to action – so the inability of India’s masses to cohere must be a product of ‘colonialism’. This is all rather more sophisticated than the old-style view of communalism, that the British, as part of their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, created communal tensions by ‘spreading rumours and falsehoods’.
So where, then, did these disputes come from? And how exactly did issues of class and economics take on a communal guise? Stealthily Pandey is addressing another question – the absence of mass radical action in late colonial India and the diversion of popular discontents into self-destructive, internal disputes. Why did popular violence work across the lines of religious communities and not against the British and/or the upper classes? Pandey can’t understand why there wasn’t a revolution – so he has a choice of blaming either the people or the authorities. No contest – it must have been the power of the colonial government that deflected popular discontents.
Pandey discusses communal antagonism as seen from the contemporary viewpoints of the colonial government and the nationalists. The British saw Indian intercommunal strife as an old problem, and an intractable one. It was a ‘natural’ problem, a problem of the ‘essence’ of Indian society and the ‘character’ of Indians. Nationalists on the other hand, tended to think of it as a recent phenomenon, and as primarily a matter of economics. Pandey analyses this as the creation of communalism as ‘the Other’ of secular nationalism, or of rational liberalism. This connects with the older view that somehow communalism was ‘nationalism gone awry’ (p. 14), meaning it represented a petty form of local identity, which appealed to a wider sense of self, but acted as a diversion from accepting the true nature of Indian society and distracting Indians from the need to eject the colonialists. So instead of a broad, united nationalist movement, ‘a new cohesion developed around existing foci of loyalty, such as caste, language and religious community, even as a new national consciousness arose’ (p. 3).
He explicitly rejects the thesis of the ‘Cambridge School’ of Indian historiography, which from the late 1960s attempted to understand the rise of Indian nationalism in primarily economic terms, showing how the Congress leaders and other community elites stood to gain in various economic and political ways from independence, and how these interests were successfully bound together by the Congress. The Cambridge School generally demystified Indian nationalism and turned it into something rather like any other nationalist movement of nineteenth century Europe, where the rational, urban, liberal middle classes frequently grafted nationalist credentials onto mass movements that benefited them directly in hard economic terms. Readings of the French Revolution of this type are quite common – the advancement of the interests of the bourgeoisie, access to political power for the newly rich etc. The Subaltern School, and left-wing historians in general, reject this kind of analysis of Indian nationalism. In the light of ‘Orientalist’ sensitivities, many writers now choose to see this approach as another heavy-handed Western intrusion into India’s history, as an attempt to find a new bourgeois, rational East instead of the old irrational, mystical Orient.
Pandey is specific. He sees the Cambridge approach as flawed because it makes no attempt to address the meanings of ‘rationality’ in an ‘old, highly developed, non-capitalist society colonised by an advanced capitalist power’ (p. 20). Instead he offers an analysis set in terms of ‘units of solidarity, the requirements of status, the understanding of honour and shame in and around the competing and conflicting meanings of rationality’. This is where Orientalism, as a concept, becomes confusing, for here we have laid out before us a claim that there is some special kind of ‘Indian rationality’. Just imagine if a Western author suggested that! But it appears to be all right, and not Orientalist, if an ‘oriental’ points it out first. Whether there really is a special kind of specifically eastern rationality remains unproven to this day, but we will pass on.
Indian perceptions of their own communal divisions, as evinced by Nehru, Gandhi etc., are not credible for Pandey, because they assume that Indians had either religious motivations, or bourgeois liberal motivations. Therefore Gandhi’s quest for a more spiritual India was misguided, as was Nehru’s willingness to see the whole nationalist movement, and communal tensions, as rooted primarily in economic issues. Both colonialists and nationalists accepted the ‘fixity and finality’ of communalism as a ‘category’ (p. 21). According to Pandey, all these people are looking at it the wrong way, for to substitute class economic struggle for sectarian strife is ‘a little too facile’. He sees a serious problem ahead if we do, for if we emphasise economic motivations we are left with ‘only the excessive religiosity (and stupidity) of the people to explain why they did not pursue their best interests’ (p. 20). Thus economic explanations are ‘essentialist’, i.e. they make racist, particular assumptions about the inborn, inescapable ‘essence’ of Indians. If economic interests were primary, then why did Indians not pursue them, as they clearly did not, diverting their energies into sectarian violence? If economic concerns had been uppermost, then they would have united against not only the colonial authorities but against landowners and economic elites as well. This is a good point taken in its context, but it leads to nowhere except the horns of a nasty dilemma. Because, having dismissed economic motivations, only ‘excessive religiosity’ remains, as an alternative explanation. Pandey says so himself, But it is an answer he literally cannot accept, and so the problem is not resolved. Just because an answer is unacceptable does not make it wrong. Pandey cannot think the unthinkable. Neither economic nor religious arguments suit his purposes, and he ends up simply blaming ‘colonialism’, and asking for more research. Perhaps that will, indeed, sort all this out.
Although he never quite distils the ‘eastern non-bourgeois’ rationality he posits, Pandey goes on to make a number of good points, and comes up with a coherent analysis of the linked rise of nationalism and communalism. The problem, as he sees it, is that India does not conform to the model of a western nation-state and this has thrown historians off the trail. He locates the big change in Indian self-consciousness in the 1920s, when India moved from an older model of national community, as a composite body – diverse and open – to a model of individual citizenship. It is in this change that ‘the concept of communalism was fully articulated’ (p. 210). Communalism and nationalism, as now understood, ‘arose together as part of the same discourse’ (p. 236). Congress nationalism, with its ‘statist perspective’ had no room for local loyalties, or religion (p. 253). This represented a ‘subjugation of the social by the political’ (p. 254). All this left spaces that communalism moved in to fill. (No wonder some people still prefer to think in terms of ‘rumours and falsehoods’.)
The Subaltern approach has subtlety aplenty, but it reaches a familiar conclusion. As with the crudest ‘Divide and Rule’ analysis, and within the realm of conspiracy theories, nothing is actually the fault of Indians. They bear no responsibility, except a few bad apples among the elite. Despite trying to rescue Indians from the passive role assigned to them by the British monopoly of power – both politically and in the writing of history – the Subaltern school inadvertently puts Indians straight back into passivity.
Time and again we return to the basic problem of showing where the power lay in colonial India. Obviously a very important degree of power lay with the central British authorities, but the question is; how much power, and did that power actually have the potential to change India in the ways often ascribed to it by the Subaltern School? To declare that colonialism was evil, vicious, brutal, exploitative and so forth is, inescapably, both a historical and a political position. While it is not difficult to maintain that colonialism was all of these things, a subtler distinction has to be made when we go further and start to consider how much the British intended to change India, and to what degree they ever succeeded in doing so. Pandey and others give very strong and definitive answers to these questions.
They believe that the British had the power, and the plan, and that they successfully executed it. India was changed, and much for the worse. This is one of those historical judgments that rests on perceptions of the present as much as of the past. It can be traced to the question: if India is unsatisfactory as a society now, then why is this? Who is to blame? The handiest culprit is colonialism, and the blame can be made to stick more firmly if colonialism can also be shown to have been particularly powerful, irresistible and malign. Leaving aside for now the case for and against these arguments, it has to be seen that the way the Subaltern case is being made also directly and profoundly influences all of the history that it actually produces.
And finally we can reach for another familiar cliché: Catch 22. Even if the British as rulers had left India’s workings entirely alone, even if they had preserved and nurtured diversity, they would still not be able to deflect the accusation of division, for they would still have been ruling an India divided in multiple ways. Meanwhile attempts to unify or homogenise India could be condemned as cultural imperialism, or dismissed as motivated by the self-serving desire for administrative convenience. Damned either way. The charge of ‘Divide and Rule’ is ultimately inescapable because of its second element. Divisions could be created, exploited, preserved or left alone, but all the while the British definitely, incontrovertibly, ruled.