An oversimplified recap of the British colonization of India

As referenced in the TV series Ms. Marvel and experienced in real life by over 150 million people.

Disclaimer

If you aren’t watching Ms. Marvel but are a Marvel fan, you’re missing out. Scratch that; if you aren’t watching Ms. Marvel, you’re missing out.

We wanted to take an interest in this show as an opportunity to understand better and unpack the British Partition of India. To do that, we had to start with an overview of British Colonization.

We do want to issue a warning, though; much like the title of this post suggests, this is a giant oversimplification that most certainly leaves out large parts of history and the people who experienced it. India and its surrounding regions are culturally diverse areas, and the people are not a monolith.

This post will not capture everything but rather give a broad strokes overview. We apologize if we inadvertently contribute to the continued erasure of people’s ancestral histories because that is the opposite of the intent of this project and this post.

Some noticeable gaps will be in how this affected surrounding countries, particularly Afghanistan, as well as the experience of people who are ancestrally from the lands of present-day Punjab, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India before the British: Pre-Colonial Life

Prior to European colonization, most of the borders for countries we see today didn’t exist. That doesn’t mean there weren’t thriving cultures, communities and separated lands– because there were. There were also things from pre-colonial India that we would take issue with today and were problematic, but the land belonged to the people who had lived there for centuries.

Back then, India consisted of smaller regional kingdoms with various religious and ethnic groups. Many different religious groups like Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Jews lived within what we now call India.

The different regional kingdoms often coexisted. Within these kingdoms, folks from different religions lived amongst each other without the deeply rooted religious divides that exist today in India — more on that later.

Colonial Playbook from Hell

Colonizers have a playbook, and a list of tried and true movies to get what they want, regardless of the cost to local people and the land they are on**. One of the frequent colonization plays was “divide et impera,” meaning divide and rule. Divide et impera is the systematic policy of formulating separate consciousnesses among the two communities, with overt sponsorship from the colonizer.

If you look around the world today, after countries “won” back their independence from the very people who stole it, you’ll often see such division between communities of people native to the land. Most of these divisions did not exist pre-colonization.

For example, colonizers orchestrated famines so that certain local groups starved and other groups were grateful to these fucking colonial wankers. The impact of experiencing multiple famines is still carried by Indians today, making them more likely to be impacted by certain chronic illnesses.

It’s important to note that the legacy of colonialism is still carried in the bodies of every single one of us whose ancestors were colonized and/or enslaved by European colonizers.

** are you also seeing the similarities between capitalism and colonialism?

British India: Emperors’ New Rules

Over 200 years of invading and conquering Indian kingdoms, some of which the British “governed” directly, and in other cases, they made deals to govern through leaders of regional kingdoms. Of course, these leaders that the British made deals with most definitely got the short end of that colonial stick.

One of the legacies of colonization in India, and there are many, is the creation and perpetuation of Hindus vs. Muslims mentality.

It’s important to understand that there was a resistance, people fought back, but colonization is designed to have those who are Indigenous fight daily to have their basic needs met as individuals, which makes it really hard to find time to organize and strategically fight back as a collective.

In the Revolt of 1857 the British were horrified to see Indians fight alongside each other, regardless of religion, against their colonial overlords. The British vowed this would never happen again, with Lord Elphinstone writing, “Divide et impera was an old Roman maxim, and it shall be ours.”

The British created separate electorates so that you could only vote for a candidate from your religion. They planted these seeds of division (that exist to this day) just so the people would not create a unified nationalist movement to overthrow the British.

Post-WWII British Empire

Then WWII happened, when British decided to declare war on Germany on behalf of India, meaning technically, India (along with many other colonized countries on both sides of the war) fought in WWII longer than America did (you’ll notice this is in direct contradiction to what Hollywood’s depiction of WWII is).

It is important to understand that prior to WWII (1939–1945), and even as late as 1940, the British had zero intention of ever letting India leave their Empire. But after the global catastrophe of WWII, the British couldn’t afford to rule or conquer, but they certainly could continue to divide.

When the British forced India into the war, the local elected leaders pushed back, the British responded by putting those leaders, from the Hindu majority in jail, and swapping in the Muslim minority as the local people in power.

Muslim political groups did not want a united India. It kind of makes sense from their perspective. They finally had the political power to advocate and, in theory, protect their own after hundreds of years of oppression both by the British and by the Hindu majority via the British colonial constructs.

Indian Independence

Other minority groups did not wield the same power as the Muslims did here. The next largest minority group in India, the Sikhs, had to choose between a rock and a hard place, not ever really being heard or represented in the same way as Muslims and Hindus were, and are, to this day in India.

The task of dividing India, this nation of rich diversity, culture, history, languages, etc., was given to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who, get this, had never been to India before and knew nothing of its customs, peoples and ways. Clearly, mediocre white men have been getting hired for jobs they are unqualified for hundreds of years.

In less than five weeks, India — which, is the 7th largest (meaning geographical area) country in the world, was divided using outdated maps, censuses and minimal (if any) input from locals.

Drawing arbitrary borders, many of which we still uphold today, is a bit of a side gig for the Brits and other colonizers. Another move from their colonial playbook, and of course done with zero consideration of locals. See @LetsTalkPalestine for an example of that.

Again, keep in mind the British propaganda at the time claimed that the Brits had a deep love for India, and its people, and wanted to help India govern itself successfully.

(This is not unlike how Canada told all of us that residential schools, were for the good of the children. You know, the very children we’re still finding in mass graves across our country today.)

The final details, in this pre-digital era, of where exactly the borders would be drawn were only released a couple days after Indian independence, and when the British had conveniently peaced the fuck out.

We quite literally don’t have space [on our Instagram post] to get into the actual partition and its, as well as other, colonial legacies that exist to this day, in this post. We’re going to aim to drop a follow-up post on the British Partition of India before the season finale of Ms. Marvel next week.

WORTH NOTING

WWII ended in 1945, and India gained independence in 1947. This isn’t ancient history, it was just 70 years ago. Many white Canadians grew up hearing stories of grandparents who fought or survived WWII. In the same way those moments were significant to your family history (and world history) the partition of India is very significant to Indians. Indians who, unlike white families, didn’t have white privilege to leverage in the aftermath

Let’s Dig Deeper: Present Day Parallels

European colonization, during the time of colonization, was normal. The British said things like “we’re here to govern for the people of India” while dividing and conquering the nation, amongst other things that were all to the benefit of the British — not the Indians living under colonial rule.

At the time there would have been Indians who were born in British India, and who only really knew of life under the British. These Indians would have found it hard to imagine an alternative to their own reality, particularly when their oppressor — the British — has ensured that they are kept busy by limiting available resources, creating artificial hierarchies between communities, and spreading competing stereotypes and beliefs to divide the population and creating a perfect storm situation where the Indian would work to fight every day to survive and hope that if they just worked a little harder they could provide security, safety and a home for their family.

Now, tell us, what exactly is the difference between what the people of India experienced while being colonized, and our experience in a settler-colonial state, in the midst of late-stage capitalism? Because we have to be honest with you, if we squint, they kinda look exactly the same.

Chrissy wake up, I don’t like this.

Look friends, you’re Chrissy, and we are asking you to wake up. Because unless you are in the same tax bracket as billionaires, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, then this system wasn’t built for you. Meaning, that unless you are set to inherit or currently have billions of dollars, then the system has been set up to trick you.

Yes, even wealthy white people. Now, wealthy white people, this isn’t an invitation to center yourself. The system was designed for the ultra-wealthy and works very well for most of you, but don’t kid yourself into thinking billionaires give a fuck about you, because they don’t.

We need to start looking directly at these deeply uncomfortable systemic inequities and capitalism propaganda that we are being force-fed. Those of us whose ancestors were colonized, my friends, we have so much in common. We need to start uniting our causes and working together, just like the Revolt of 1857 where Indians of all religions fought together and united against their British oppressor.

It is daunting, yes, but the good news is a lot of this work has been started by communities of people who the system is designed to exclude. Black, Indigenous, Trans, Queer, and Disabled people who have been doing this work and carrying the responsibility of it for so long. It’s time we help share the workload towards our collective liberation.

See more of our work here: oncanadaproject.ca or OnCanadaProject on Instagram.

We use a lot of sources to write this but here are our three main ones for this post:(1) (2) (3)

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Founder, Executive Director and Editor in Chief at On Canada Project | @samkrish_ | she/her

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Samanta Krishnapillai

Founder, Executive Director and Editor in Chief at On Canada Project | @samkrish_ | she/her