Mural Quit India Movement by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha

Anthropology: The Cultural Effects of British Colonial Rule on the Indian Subcontinent

Company rule in India - Wikipedia
company rule in India

I want to discuss the effect of the British Raj on the still extant slave-mentality of the Muslims of Pakistan. The legislative laws made by the British are still there with negligible new legislation. The Penal Code has not changed much. Communalism promoted by Jinnah is still present. The educational system is still bifurcated between Senior Cambridge, Matriculation, A-Levels and F.Sc. Knighthood was used as a tool by the British to produce loyalists. Examples include titles such as Sirs, Rais, including patronized families such as Tiwanas, Jadoons, Niazis, Bhattis, etc. On the positive side, the British left us great institutions such as the judicial system, educational institutions, railways, postal system, infrastructure, and many more institutions of great importance. On the negative side, animosity between India and Pakistan reached lofty heights. They developed nuclear weapons which led to an arms race. Kashmir became the hotbed of intense conflict between India and Pakistan. These two countries went to war three times over Kashmir.

The Arrival of the British

File:British forces arrival mandalay1885.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
British forces arrival mandalay 1885.jpg (Wikimedia Commons)

The British entered the Indian subcontinent during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Queen Elizabeth allowed the first trade ship to travel to Surat, India. At this point, India was divided into 584 princely states.   Prima facie, the East India Company’s intentions were bona fide. The Company entered the sub-continent with the explicit purpose of trading with their Indian counterparts. By nature, the British were a trading nation. Secondly, the British came to the sub-continent to trade in various commodities.

However, astute as they were, the British soon realized that unity was lacking amongst the Indian nationals. Believe it or not, the Indians were not a monolithic entity. They were divided along ethnic, religious, and cultural lines. Soon, East India Company started spreading its tentacles into adjoining areas and started maintaining warehouses. They started maintaining armies to protect them. Subsequently, a representative of Britain appeared in the Court of Jahangir and sought formal permission to trade in India. The emperor granted the permission.   

The British gained control of the major cities such as Agra, Bengal, and major trading centers. The Mughal Dynasty requires special mention here. This dynasty was pioneered by Babur followed by Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan, and Aurangzeb. By 1857, the British East India Company had virtually gained control of the entire sub-continent. They used knighthood as a tool to collect a set of cronies who helped them acheive their ends. This domination had been made possible by using the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. For example, the entire province of Deccan was conquered with the help of the Mahrattas.

The Mahrattas were a strong Hindu race opposed to Muslim domination anywhere in the sub-continent especially the Mughals. The British faced stiff resistance in Mysore at the hands of Haider Ali and then his son Tipu Sultan. Rani of Jhansi, a Hindu woman leader, displayed exemplary valor in fending off the British. The Battle of Plassey in Bengal struck the death knell for the Muslims there.

Nonetheless, the British were able to subdue all the opposing forces in the sub-continent, including Afghanistan. Afghanistan had strategic importance for the British. The British did not want the Russians to take over Afghanistan. So Afghanistan acted as the Buffer Zone between the British and the Russians.

This was because the Nawabs (princes) of these princely states started indulging in leisurely activities at the cost of involving themselves in the affairs of the state. These princes started visiting courtesans. These useless nawabs used to fight as to who would pay the highest price for one night with the prettiest courtesan.  The British took advantage of this power vacuum and filled the void by limiting these princes to their palaces only. It was a gradual process but it surely did happen.

By 1857, the British had gained control over the entire subcontinent. The first peoples to fight the British were the Bengalis as the main trading city of the British was Calcutta. This disproves the point that the Bengalis are not a martial race. As time progressed, the British started gaining hegemony over the Indian sub-continent city by city. Through this process, they started becoming the de facto rulers of the entire region. By 1857, the British East India Company was the sovereign ruler of the Indian Sub-Continent.In 1857, India officially became a part of the British Empire.

The flashpoint of 1857 is the Great Mutiny that started over a trivial issue, a mutiny took place in the British East India Company. Both Muslims and Hindus jointly fought the British but ultimately lost the war. After winning the war, the Crown declared India a part of the British Empire. The Governer-generals were replaced by Viceroys.

A big blow came to the official and educational system of India in 1935. Uptil 1935, Persian was the official and the medium of education in India due to to more than a thousand-year-old Muslim rule in India. McCauley made English the official language of India and the educational system of India.

Now the problem with the Muslims was that they could not adjust to this sudden change. Quite naturally, they had ruled India for more than a thousand years and now they were being asked to shed off the last remnant of their superiority over the dark-skinned Hindus. This was the issue that made the Muslims resistant to change. On the other hand, the Hindus were all ready to change and started learning English at a rapid speed. To put it simply, the Muslims kept on living in their past glory while the Hindus wholeheartedly embraced change.

Some progressive notables such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan set up a modern college at Aligarh which urged the Muslims to learn English, new sciences, and disciplines. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan also wrote a paper on the similarities between Islam and Christendom. He brought to the fore that Hinduism was highly antagonistic to Christendom. The Muslim clergy derided Sir Syed as a heretic and urged Muslims not to follow in his footsteps.

Judicial System Of Mughal And British India – South Asia Journal
South Asia Journal

Before the annexation of Punjab, there was no proper legal system in place in different parts of the sub-continent. It was the British who passed laws for these areas such as the Punjab etc. The purpose was to introduce self-governing institutions in the sub-continent so that the roots of a civilized society could be laid down in the sub-continent. Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 brought the Government of India Act 1919 into force. An Imperial Legislative Council Council was formed.

Teh Imperial Legislative Council was now to consist of two houses- teh Central Legislative Assembly and teh Council of State A Legislative Council was formed which gave new laws to various parts of India. The provinces were to follow the dual system of government or Dyarchy.

After the passage of the Government of India Act 1919, various meetings of the nawabs (representatives of the people of a certain state) started taking place. The All-India Muslim League (AIML) had been formed by then (1906). Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a renowned barrister by that time, had joined AIML in 1913 and was a member of the Congress as well. We shall discuss this charismatic leader later in this paper. The noteworthy point here about this man is that he was known as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity.

The pertinent point here is that the British brought in a whole new system of legislation for the sub-continent. After the Partition of 1947, the Indians and Pakistanis did not amend or modernize the archaic laws of the British. In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) till only last year the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) (Draconian laws) were changed. In Pakistan, any new law is still brought in through a presidential ordinance that lapses after four months.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah used the card of communalism to promote the idea that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations. They needed to live in two separate countries i.e. India and Pakistan. Initially, he had branded himself as the ambassador of the Hindu-Muslim unity. After the passage of the Pakistan Resolution 1940, Jinnah under the guile of the leader of the Muslims of India wrested Pakistan from the British in 1947.

Reverse Migration in 1947: When Muslims left Pakistan for India
When Muslims left India for Pakistan

The mass migration, movement of Muslims of Eastern Punjab to West Punjab and vice versa is the largest migration in the history of the World. The bloodshed and carnage that took place beyond any one’s expectations. Loot, rape , arson took place at such a big scale that even the most phlegmatic observer was emotionally moved by the pricelessness of human blood. Rape took at such a large scale that pregnant girls got pregnant and who committed suicide instead of giving birth to illegitimate children.

In favor of Partition, leaders were Jinnah topping the list, then Nehru followed by Sardar Vallabhai Patel. The only leader who was against partition was Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi, hailing from Gujarat. He could foresee that India should stay united and not be partitioned. However, he was sidelined by Nehru and Patel and was relegated only to a revered figure known as ‘Bapu’ (Father). Gandhi held many talks with Jinnah to dissuade him from pressing his demand for Pakistan but to no avail.


The bitterest legacy of the Partition is the issue of Kashmir. As the states of India were given the option of joining India or Pakistan, many chose to join the Indian Union while some opted to join Pakistan. When it came to Kashmir, the population was predominantly Muslim but the head of the state was a Hindu, Hari Singh Dogra. He signed the instrument of ascension in favor of joining India.

The Muslim population reacted to this action and the tribal men of the adjoining tribes entered Kashmir and started fighting the Indian forces. Jinnah reacted to this action as all the five rivers of Punjab originated from Kashmir. That is why she termed Kashmir as ‘the jugular vein of Pakistan;. They were able to wrest control of some portion of Kashmir known as POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and the rest of the Kashmir is known as Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK).

From this time onwards, Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir. One in 1948, one in 1965, and one in 1971. There was a recent conflict between the two countries in Kargil in which there was a heavy loss of human life. The antagonism between the two countries has reached such a level that both have amassed nuclear weapons and their armies are more often than not eyeball to eyeball to each other. Kashmir is the flashpoint of the Indian subcontinent. If any of the two countries act irresponsibly, this would spell disaster for the entire region. The issue of Kashmir must be resolved amicably so that peace is restored in the Indian sub-continent.

The Positive Side of British Heritage

All things said and done, the British did more good more to us than bad. They left us with a strong judicial system, firstly. To assist the judicial system work smoothly, an efficient bureaucratic setup was established. For example, the magistrates of the District Management Group were used to adjudicate the cases in the District and Sessions Court. The Commissioners and Deputy Commissioners were made the revenue collectors of the cities and divisions, respectively. The whole bureaureaucratic system was to stay apolitical and only serve the nation irrespective of which government was in power. Their selection system was made extremely stringent and one based on merit and merit only. These days this process is carried out by the Federal Public Service Commission FPSC).

Educational Institutions

The most important gift the British gave to the sub continent was the educational institutions it left back in 1947. Lahore is known as the city of colleges and universities. The Christian missionaries which stayed on ran Convent and high stature colleges such as Aitchison college, Forman Christian college, Kinnaird College, King Edward medical Universty and the list is endless.


The British setup a robust and well planned railway system throughout the Indian sub-continent so that the connectivity was at its peak. Today even, in pakistan and India, the same tracks are being used to connect cities and towns.

Irrigation System

The British built the world’s best irrigation system in Pakistan. Canals were laid down so that if one river overflowed its water could be transferred to another river. The area between two rivers is known as doabs. Barrages and dams were built by the British to regulate the water flow in the rivers.

Anthropological Significance of British Rule in Indo-Pakistan

A dancing woman entertaining Europeans.
A dancing woman entertaining Europeans. Getty Images

On the basis of the above-mentioned analysis, I am of the view that the British rule was a blessing in disguise for Pakistan at least. They took less from us and gave us more. Be it the judicial system, infrastructure, educational institutions and everything mentioned in the above mentioned paragraphs. Today, we stand as a civilized society because what the the British taught us.

However, coming to the last point, the thing which saddens me is that Pakistanis have developed a slave-mentality towards the West. We try to imitate everything which is western without analyzing whether it is good for us or not. We have not realized that now we are equal to the West and should derive indigenous solutions to our problems.

Also, Read – History of Indian Railways: A British Legacy, Still Chugging Along!

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