Alice Porter, History Graduate, University of Manchester

(For context this image is of the Muhammadan Anglo-oriental college set up in 1875 by Syed Ahmed Khan who viewed providing modern/western education to the Muslim community as a prerequisite for their political organisation. The college would later become Aligarh university and many of its students would play an active role in campaigning for the creation of Pakistan.) 

As with most students of history, it wasn’t until university that South Asian history became an avenue that I could explore in an academic setting. Prior to this most of my history lessons were confined to the topics medieval of and early modern Europe and the world wars.  Even the occasional classes on the transatlantic slave-trade conveniently brushed over the leading role of Britain in establishing and propagating this racialised system of human exploitation, whilst the names of British abolitionists like William Wilberforce of course received an honorary mention. Seemingly, going off the school curriculum, there would be no reason to presume that Britain was ever- to use the inelegant cliché- on the wrong side of history. Instead, Britain is continually represented as an infinitely powerful, yet altruistic, global actor.  

It is unsurprising that most kids find history lessons at school largely uninspiring and struggle to find in them the relevance to their lives today. Personally, I was so disillusioned with the subject that I convinced myself that law would be a more fitting academic pursuit at university- it did not take me long to realise this was an error of judgement. 

Throughout the past three years of my degree South Asian history has become my central area of interest as a historian. This is largely a testament to the range of courses offered at my university by some incredible lecturers who are specialists in this field. A central appeal of South Asian history lies in the diversity of culture, religion, and language found within the subcontinent. I became increasingly interested in how British colonial rule altered people’s relationships to these identity components.  

More specifically, in my final year dissertation I researched Muslim identity in colonial India between the advent of direct rule in 1858 and the establishment of the Muslim League- a party advocating separate Muslim political representation- in 1906. Following the demise of the Mughal empire, a sizeable Muslim ruling class were forced to redefine themselves in this new colonial context and in response to the new pressures emerging during this period. It became clear that a dichotomy existed between how Muslims in colonial India viewed themselves and how they were perceived by the British colonisers. The latter imported the dominant stereotype within European mindsets regarding the devotees of the Islamic faith, that they were predisposed to religious fanaticism. This stereotype, which has been recycled throughout history, can be traced back to Orientalist representations of the expansion of early Islamic empires into Christian territory. 

In the context of colonial India, the appropriation of this stereotype was particularly alarming to the Muslim elite. Being viewed by many British officials as incapable of loyalty to an ‘infidel government was not conducive to the retention of their power and influence as the old ruling class. This presumption dictated the loyalist policy these Muslims adopted towards their British masters, who were quick to exploit this in order to drive a wedge between Hindu and Muslim elites vying for influence in government. It can be argued that this loyalist strategy slowed the political mobilisation of the Muslim community who feared that this would validate British suspicions that as ‘religious fanatics’ Muslims posed a serious threat to British rule.  Thus, during the late nineteenth century, this old Muslim ruling class adopted an overly cautious approach to political organisation. This partially rationalises the lapse in time between the creation of the Hindu dominated Indian National Congress in 1885 and the Muslim League in 1906- which remained the two leading political parties until partition. 

Crucially, my experience of studying South Asian history at university involved confronting the destructive forces of British colonialism. The absence of South Asian history on the curriculum exposes this country’s obsession with preserving an image of itself as this formidable yet essentially benevolent historical actor. Seemingly, when the oppressor is the British state, suddenly the history of marginalised and oppressed people ceases to be an important area of study. However, in recent years, with the growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its calls to de-colonise the curriculum, it is apparent that fewer people are buying into this official narrative. However, with our current prime minister having repeatedly defended the British empire, campaigning to get South Asian history onto the curriculum will undoubtedly face government resistance.  

By educating both children and adult communities on Britain’s colonial past the argument that there were both good and bad components to the British colonial project will gradually be invalidated. Equally, it will encourage children to adopt a more global, rather than Eurocentric, perspective on past and current events. British colonial rule in South Asia has had a lasting and deep-rooted impact on the subcontinent and modern Britain alike. Firstly, colonialism explains the sizeable South Asian population within the UK today who are denied the opportunity to explore their heritage within a classroom setting. Teaching about partition and the rushed nature of Britain’s departure from the subcontinent will also promote understanding of key events in the post-colonial era, including the numerous Indo-Pakistan border wars between 1947 and 1999, the creation of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) in 1971 and the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu nationalist in 1992. Quite simply, the lasting impact of British colonialism in South Asia is unmistakeable and our shared history cannot be avoided any longer. 

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