How the British influenced Indian culture

June 06, 2010

Email

WE tend to forget that our lifestyle and mindset have largely been influenced by our colonial past. The British influence has changed the way we look at ourselves and has stripped us of a confidence that comes naturally to a people belonging to an ancient and great civilisation.

Colonisation coerces people from subordinated culture to denigrate themselves. A kind of a virtual reality is created to expedite this attitude of self-hate among the native population. An alternate reality is created as a smokescreen to hide coloniser's repression, tyranny and exploitation.

Ignorant of a history that has an enormous potential to extricate us from our state of self-depreciation, we continue to be a victim of this crime.

Though Delhi fell to East India Company in 1803, yet the Indians' confidence which motivated them to initiate a freedom struggle remained strong. Profound political awareness of Delhi's intellectual elite made them present a line of action to the Indians. After a careful analysis of the situation, they motivated the native populace to take up arms against the colonisers. Subsequent decades reveal an unparalleled history of struggle for freedom which continued till 1857. (One can read W.W. Hunter's famous book Our Indian Muslims for the details of this movement.)

It was in this context that the colonisers came up with an elaborate scheme to strike at the very heart of native confidence “to create a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in morals, in opinions and in intellect.” Once the colonisers were over with shedding the native blood, they focused on replacing the leadership that had expedited the Indian freedom struggle with one that believed in 'compromising' with them. Delhi's pre-colonial intellectual elites who realised very early the bane of colonisation were replaced with a friendlier class of 'scholars'.

At the same time 'educational institutions' were established in the country, with the sole agenda of wiping out the thought of freedom from the minds of Indian youth by inculcating in them the 'value' of British presence in the subcontinent. It was assumed that these institutions spread 'modern education.' This modern education had less to do with disseminating scientific, rational thinking and more to do with an acquiescence of West's superiority. Pran Neville, a student of Government College in the late colonial era writes, “we were keen to look modern, act modern, and imbibe modern ideas in general, which in other words, meant that we gladly welcomed western influences.” This modernity, thus, did not 'educate' them to question, but 'trained' them to obey their masters.

An analysis of colonial system of education reveals that they were concerned only with teaching subjects related to social studies and humanities; understandably, to shatter the native confidence in their identity. They were never serious in spreading critical or scientific thinking because that would have resulted in accelerating the freedom struggle.

It is through this kind of 'education' that a class of people emerged with a euro-centric worldview. This class, because of a language and education that enabled them to work for the coloniser, ran the colonial machinery. This class inherited Pakistan, the class that had read Shakespeare and Milton, bright and intelligent, thoroughly convinced of the superiority of West's ideas and ideals, and critical of Indian history. They were the 'amenable successors' of the British Raj. In Pakistan this class has preserved and perpetuated itself. Even today we produce graduates who are convinced of their inferiority vis-à-vis their former colonisers.

This self-denigration that started with the 'modern education' has done us more harm than good. Our youth radiate confidence when told that they belong to a civilisation that is one of the oldest in the world. That their history underscores pluralism and peaceful coexistence; that the Muslim rulers of India were predominantly just; that they were concerned with similarities in religions and did not capitalise on differences; that our saints, mystics and scholars played the role of opposition and constantly challenged unjust decisions of the rulers; that our scholars from 18th century India, (earlier than the French Revolution) had started advocating the end of monarchy and a government by consent of the best people in different fields (ijtima-e-uqala); and that we were quick to realise our subjugation and fought wars for independence and later did mature politics to win our freedom.

Before their confidence could translate into an energy that could begin to transform their present, something inside them questions the validity of what they hear and present vignettes from their history that have painstakingly been inculcated in them through colonial, 'modern education'. All these individualistic accounts of history prove credulous when scaled against the more convincing historical narratives that tell us of collective state of affairs, of society, prosperity and peace.

These days a text-message is being circulated on mobile phones which erroneously states that King Edward built a medical college in Lahore while to commemorate the death of his wife Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal. The text-message is an evidence of what we popularly believe about our history (and also of how credulous we are!). We popularly believe that the Mughals just spent their lives in extravagance and did nothing for the land they ruled. They are charged with starving the native populace and not doing anything to spread knowledge. It is further believed that the British came to India, gave it peace and prosperity and established educational institutions. Let us analyze these myths one by one.

During the time the Mughals ruled India, its economy mainly relied on agriculture and trade. If we were to deliver a verdict on Mughals, whether they made India more prosperous or starved it to death, we need to look at their policies regarding agriculture and trade. Agriculture flourished in their times, scholars say. Many historical accounts tell us that they never imposed heavy taxes on the native population. An average Indian farmer was more prosperous in 17th century India under Mughals as compared to the early 20th century British rule according to Dr Tara Chand's research. As far as trade is concerned Mughals just developed it further. On the eve of India's colonisation 25 per cent of world's trade originated in India (greater than what China exports today. The figure comes from Amitav Ghose, a famous Indian novelist with a PhD in History).

It is nothing but an evidence of our colonial myopia when we say that pre-colonial Indian society was a primitive, almost a knowledge-less society. One wonders, if it were possible for a society to possess no knowledge of economics, commerce, navigation, cartography, ship-building, etc., and yet dominate the world's trade. Certainly not. Just to set the record straight, when finally the colonisers left, this share in world's trade had come down to less than 2 per cent.

Many of our universities offer programmes in architecture but still we have to wait for their graduates to construct anything that would win international or even national acclaim. Yet the pre-colonial Indian society despite building monuments and edifices that have held the world in thrall for many centuries is labelled as a society devoid of knowledge and education. Are such structures — the ones Indian architects, civil engineers and artisans collectively built — possible without sophisticated understanding of mathematics, art and architecture? Surely, it is our myopia that stops us from seeing a clearer picture.

And while Mughals built these edifices the Europeans were busy establishing their universities. The argument vanishes in thin air if one realises what these universities taught during those times. Cambridge and Oxford only taught theology and classical languages and nothing else until 19th century. During Shah Jahan's times, in 1636, the archbishop of Canterbury, their key priest, William Laud, wrote Oxford University's statues. It was only in 19th century that the curriculum of these universities encompassed scientific and medical studies. The English were ruling us by then. So at that point, if the science education did not come to our subcontinent the way it should have, it was the fault of the English, not of the Mughals.

It is actually our inferiority complex instilled in us by our colonisers that anachronistically makes us think of Oxford and Cambridge as institutions which were disseminating scientific and technical knowledge in 17th century. Oxford and Cambridge of 17th century England enjoyed no superiority over native systems of education in India, but our colonial past has so far restricted our capacity to access and write about such topics.

Our youth must realise that six decades of self-depreciation have not helped us to be progressive. Now, perhaps, is the time to try strengthening our belief in ourselves with an enabling understanding of history.

The writer is a lecturer in Department of English, GC University, Lahore.

shahzeb25@msn.com