India & England: A Complicated Relationship

This past fall, I flew back to the States to interview for the Marshall Scholarship. Though I ended up not being selected, some of the questions I was asked have stuck with me as I continue to make sense of my time in India. One of the goals of the Marshall Scholarship is to strengthen the ties between the United States and England—because I had come from India, I was asked to expound on my understandings of the relationship between India, the U.S., and the U.K.

I talked a bit about the legacy of colonialism and how it continues to shape the Indian subconscious. (As Hari Kondabolu said, the last place that the colonizer leaves is the mind) But mostly, I talked about the very aspirational relationship that exists between Indians and the West. Most upper class Indians hope to holiday, attend university, or even settle and build a life in the UK or US. Kolkata is especially fond of its British connections—there is a massive replica of Big Ben that greets visitors who are heading to central Kolkata from the airport. At first glance, this seems normal; after all, Americans too are incredibly fond of the UK. But then, it strikes you as being a bit odd—why would a city highlight its affiliation to its colonizers? How can one be proud of having a working relationship to what was an exploitative imperialist regime? (Here is a wonderful short video about the harm done by the British Empire)

What confuses me most is how Indians idolize the British—while demonizing Muslim rulers. Why is this so? If one combs through Indian history, you soon realize that the Muslim rulers of India were never colonizers—they grew to love this land and considered themselves Indian as well. Even Aurangzeb who is most criticized for his “divisive” rule was objectively a just emperor—especially compared to his British successors.

I recently read Romila Thapar’s The Past as Present, which settled some of my doubts about the whole issue. Essentially, India’s first acknowledged modern historians were British and in this capacity, they had the ability to rewrite Indian history in their own favor. British historians consciously chose to depict Muslim kings as brutal and anti-Hindu in order to legitimize British rule as more legitimate and fair. One of the ways that the British accomplished this was creating collective memories of Hindu suffering—one of the most famous examples being the destruction of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat by Mahmud of Ghazni. While the event was historically trivial, the British chose to exaggerate the destruction and its consequences to create further Hindu-Muslim resentment and depict their own rule in a golden light.

Collective memories are consciously created at a specific point in history for a certain purpose—the British knew this all too well and their constructed histories continue to shape Hindu-Muslim relations on the subcontinent. In fact, almost a century after Somnath, the Ayodhya-based Ramjanmabhoomi movement was led by Hindutva forces that demanded retribution for the Muslim destruction of the Gujarati temple.

British historians used their writings to not only tarnish the legacies of Islamic rulers, but to paint Indians as backward and needing foreign help. Sati was a practice confined to certain parts of India and was not the norm—however by claiming that families all over India were burning Indian women alive, the British could justify their occupation as being morally sound. (Perhaps this is where Americans learned how to claim “women’s rights” as a reason to occupy countries in the Middle East…)

History is a social science but due to its accessibility, often gets coopted by malicious forces. As a student of art history, I am keenly aware of how texts and images can be misinterpreted to bolster certain political beliefs. So much of history is historiography—the study of the methods of historians. Without understanding the motivations of the historian, we can never unravel the unbiased truth. When looking at colonial history, it is crucial to keep this in mind: the British were not studying and writing about India because they loved the country—rather, they wrote to cement their rule and expand the reaches of their empire.

So why do Indians love all things British despite their atrocities? There are two things at work: first of all, the British carefully rewrote Indian history. But secondly—and maybe more importantly—in our capitalist modern world, we aspire to be like England, to drive fancy cars, live in London brownstones, and take European vacations—and how can we hate a country that we want to be?

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