As August 2020 marked the 73rd anniversary of India and Pakistan’s independence, the discourse surrounding this turbulent time has surfaced once again. Despite it being so many years later, the conversations continue with full force. At The Rights Collective, we’ve tried to make sense of the tumultuous relationship between Britain and South Asia through our two-part teach-ins, Forgotten Stories: Partition Remembered and the recent release of our latest zine, Histories, Ancestry & Freedom.
A 10-part web series also aimed to explore this relationship through short videos spanning the entire history of Britain and India, from the beginnings of the East India Company in 1600 to the South Asian diaspora living in Britain today. As part of An Indian Summer Festival 2020 and to coincide with the inaugural South Asian Heritage Month, the series is back once again. Originally created in 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, 400 Years: Britain and India offers an insight into how the relationship has developed between Britain and India, through interviews with prominent historians and lecturers, roundtable discussions and archival images and footage.
The East India Company
While most people focus on independence and partition, there seems to be less emphasis on how it all began. This series goes right back to 1608, when the first member of Britain’s East India Company (EIC) first set foot in India, something most of us probably do not know about.
For instance, it was interesting to learn how a company intending to trade for high-value spices in East Asian countries transformed into such a deadly, dominant force. William Dalrymple explains in the first episode, it was “not the British who conquered India but a rogue, multinational corporation”. That’s what made their arrival in India so troubling - they weren’t considered a threat and appeared safe. Little did India know, there would be centuries of domination to come. But with no intention of conquering land, what caused this deadly change?
The danger lay in the fact that the EIC had been granted the right to wage war by the British crown, despite being a trading company. It was with this power and their realisation of India’s bountiful riches, that the EIC, led by military man, Robert Clive, slowly began taking over the subcontinent. And with the Mughal Empire and Dutch/French East India Companies already controlling a lot of the country, England took advantage of what was already a slightly fractured India.
While the mainstream narrative is simply that the English came and conquered, this series tells us that India put up quite a fight. Villages and communities rebelled from the start and Robert Clive was criticised in England for the violent methods used to quash various mutinies. Despite letters from the British Government reminding him the EIC were there to trade and not rule, it was ultimately the EIC’s advanced military tactics and access to global money markets (not to mention Clive’s thirst for power) that allowed them to gain a stronghold in the country.
Language and Education
Episode 4 focuses on the Indian Education System and questions the use of language as a form of oppression or a tool for enhancing social mobility. The 1813 Charter Act allowed the EIC to educate all Indians and prioritised science and maths over religious studies. As a result, they set up many medical colleges and by the 1960s, 30-40% of UK’s junior doctors were from India, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh – a legacy that continues today.
A roundtable table discussion with British Asians like entrepreneur Terry Mardi and dance artist, Seetal Kaur-Dhadyalla, made this topic more relatable to the South Asian diaspora as they discussed the importance of the English language as a way of bettering themselves. This was an idea initially presented by historian Thomas Macaulay, whose Memorandum on Indian Education argued that English must be the main language used in order to educate Indians successfully.
As a result, the English language was used as a way of oppressing the Indian people as indigenous learning (vocational, spiritual, religious etc.) was forbidden. Even today, English is still seen as aspirational as Indians recognise it as a way out of poverty. Historian Zareer Masani admitted that Macaulay did correctly predict the English language as the key to success in a globalised economy and job opportunities in India are still far greater for those who can speak English.
However, the Indian government are reclaiming their regional languages and emphasising the importance of the mother tongue in their 2020 National Education Policy, which aims to transform the Indian education system by 2030. Through recognising vocational training and not compelling schools to teach in one universal language, it is a big step away from Britain’s educational intentions for the country.
In another roundtable discussion, episode 8 focuses on the bloody partition of India – a topic that can’t be avoided when reflecting on Britain and India’s relationship.
The atrocity of the Jallianwala Bagh (or Amritsar) Massacre 1919, where the British army killed 379 unarmed civilians, was seen as the breaking point for India. Especially after many Indians had just sacrificed their lives fighting for the British Army in WWI.
Newly unemployed Indian soldiers had also kept their military weapons, which added to the increasingly violent communal tensions.
The growing unrest caused Britain to make a rushed exit from India, giving themselves just six weeks to divide the country into India and Pakistan and displacing millions of people.
With partition causing over 1 million deaths, this episode questions whether independence is something to be celebrated. Yes, we achieved freedom from Britain but at what cost? Over the years, there has been a more conscious effort not to wish people a ‘Happy’ Independence Day and a 2018 campaign led by Dr. Binita Kane fought for Partition Commemoration Day, to educate people on this defining moment in history. This year, South Asian Heritage Month marked this day as 17th August – the date India and Pakistan’s border was formed.
Not only did this cause so many deaths but it displaced 15 million people as many Indians were forced to flee their ancestral homes overnight, creating one of the largest mass migrations in history.
However, community members in this roundtable discussion recognised the religious divides created by the British didn’t translate as much overseas. Segregations dissipated as South Asians migrated to the UK and lived side-by-side, connecting over their shared experiences of living in a foreign land. They remembered how people would exchange stories of communities who helped each other during partition back home. While this may have been the case initially, the caste and religious divides have formed overseas again, as many remember this to be the case back home. And as a way of preserving their own community, have tended to become insular within the diaspora. This is something the series doesn’t cover but could have been explored as its prevalence is still very apparent today.
Episode 5 further explores the idea of migration in a postcolonial world, particularly focusing on Indian migrants in Britain. Presented by British Asian performer, Parle Patel, we’re given a snapshot history of how Indians began arriving in England, starting with the British Raj bringing Indians to Britain for work. From sailors (lascars) recruited by merchant navy vessels to nannies (ayahs) looking after English families, many Indians then chose to settle in the UK to escape drought and famine back home, despite not being allowed to. Some of the 140,000 Indian soldiers who fought for Britain in WWI, also chose to stay in Britain for similar reasons.
Another big part of the British Raj was sending Indian labourers to work in other colonies such as Mauritius and Uganda, where many set up businesses and built communities. However, the 1972 expulsion of Indians by Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, meant thousands of Indians sought refuge in Britain, with approximately 205,000 people arriving in Leicester alone.
However, the 1971 Immigration Act restricted permanent migration of workers from former British colonies and was seen as Britain turning their back on the workers they left behind in other countries that weren’t their hometowns.
Despite this, South Asians migrated to the UK for better job opportunities, lifestyle and the NHS, a pattern of movement that continues today. However, Parle Patel mentions an interesting shift in this as more British Asians are moving back to South Asia. Second, third and future generations are moving to places like India, despite having grown up elsewhere, as they still feel connected to their roots.
While the videos in this series are quite brief, they provide a decent starting point for those wanting to dip their toes into the vast history of Britain and India’s relationship. The danger with the quick explanations, means much is missed about this rich past, including the contribution of notable activists and how everyday lives were transformed during the British Raj. So when watching, it’s important to remember that there is a lot more to discover about this time.
However, the way information is presented keeps the series engaging through subjective discussions rather than just a regurgitation of facts. We’re even given the opportunity to learn a couple of history dishes such as chicken korma, while learning about the history of Indian food. The contemporary lens used to reflect on Britain and India’s past, also allows the contributors and viewers to question how the empire still affects us today.
Tasha Mathur is a volunteer at The Rights Collective. She is a London based freelance journalist and Picture Editor at Sky. She has written on a multitude of gender-based topics within the South Asian community and spoken on a number of panels about various issues faced by South Asian women today.