Current Violence in India Rooted in British Colonialism

Political scientist’s new book analyzes centuries of data to determine that ethnic violence in former British countries is shaped by the legacies of colonization

Ajay Verghese

Ajay Verghese

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Amid a climate of escalating religious and ethnic tensions in India, a new book by a University of California, Riverside political scientist finds that contemporary violence in the world’s second most populous country is shaped by British colonialism.

Moreover, the model of British colonization that emerged in India in the 19th and 20th centuries has produced similar ethnic conflicts in other former British states such as Nigeria, Malaysia and Myanmar, according to Ajay Verghese, assistant professor of political science.

“Most people assume that all ethnic violence in India is due to British rule, but the reality is much more complicated than that,” he explains about his book, “The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India” (Stanford University Press, 2016). “India is a great place to study the effect of colonialism on violence because not all of the country came under British rule. Native kings ruled about one-fourth of the population – tens of millions of people. If you compare British provinces with these ‘princely states,’ as they were called, you can more accurately measure the impact of colonialism.”

India, one of the most diverse countries in the world with a population of 1.3 billion, experiences severe caste and tribal discrimination, and in recent decades has seen a notable increase in sectarian violence. Verghese’s central finding is that while caste and tribal violence is a legacy of British rule, religious conflict is precolonial in origin and actually decreased under colonialism.

Using five in-depth case studies from north, south, and east India, a statistical analysis covering 589 contemporary Indian districts, and drawing on new sources of data on ethnic violence from numerous British and princely archives, Verghese finds that former British provinces experience significantly more caste and tribal violence in contemporary India, but former princely states experience more religious conflict.

In explaining this finding, Verghese notes that as British rule consolidated in India, colonial administrators tried to minimize religious politics by promoting caste as the new central organizing principle of Indian society.

“Caste was something the Victorians could understand; Indian religions terrified them,” Verghese says. However, native princes were religious kings, and they maintained the traditional religious identification of their kingdoms.

This latter argument – that British rule decreased religious conflict – is very controversial.

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“The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India”

“Most scholars have argued that native elites had tolerant policies toward non-coreligionists – that is, Hindu kings protected Muslims and vice-versa – while the British divided and ruled. This is a lot of wishful thinking. The more you look at archival and statistical data, the opposite seems to be true,” Verghese explains. “The rulers of the princely states were quite discriminatory to minority religious groups. And despite all the talk about divide and rule, British areas seem to have less religious conflict today.”

Many studies about contemporary religious violence in India focus on right-wing Hindu nationalist groups such as the BJP and the RSS. Verghese argues that these groups often do promote violence, but “religious conflict is sadly much more deeply embedded in Indian history. That is something scholars and Indian politicians have often tried to downplay, but stopping violence today means first understanding its origins.”

India is a gateway to understanding ethnic violence in a host of other former British colonies. Colonial officials in India eventually came to realize the value of combining direct and indirect rule in a colony, particularly because it prevented uprisings by the native population, he says.

“Administrators began extoling the virtues of what they called the ‘Indian model’ of colonialism,” he says. “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British exported this model to other territories across the Indian Ocean. In Nigeria, Malaysia and Myanmar, British officials shared power with a range of native authorities.”

Exporting this Indian model of colonialism led to visible patterns of ethnic conflict abroad, which are still evident in the contemporary politics of these three countries, Verghese adds.

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