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British Impact on India

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The struggle for Indian independence was more than just an effort to break free of British colonial rule. It was part of a broader conflict that took place, and is in many ways ongoing, within Indian society. In order to organize resistance, upper-caste Indian activists needed to frame Indian identity as united against British colonialism. This was not in of itself difficult, but they wanted to maintain an upper-caste dominance over Indian society. This required upholding "classical" structures of caste identity for all Indians in their vision of what post-colonial India would look like and how it would function politically and socially. These structures of caste provided upper-caste Hindus with a privileged social and political position backed by religious dogma. The presence of the British, under the British East India Company from 1600-1857 , and the British Crown from 1858 until 1947, had been a major influence in defining India's political and social structures. This British influence shaped Indian caste based politics by strengthening caste identity, playing different caste groups off of each other, and governing in such a way that encouraged groups to embrace caste identity to seek political gain. It is not a question of the British "creating" Indian identity; rather it is a process by which they emphasized certain institutions, namely Brahmanism and ancient Hindu texts like the Manu Dharma Sastras, in order to organize and better control India for generating resources and keeping order. Centuries of British rule helped to create a distorted Indian society based on a romanticized version of ancient Brahman order, superior to any political developments that had arisen after it. This Orientalist view was utilized by Hindu activists who sought to maintain Hindu primacy and privilege. The British race-based view of "Aryan" Brahmans as the natural rulers for India, under their watch, was informed by the body of literature that made up the Orientalist canon. As Nicholas B. Dirks puts it in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India: "Colonialism was made possible, and then sustained and strengthened, as much by cultural technologies of rule as it was by the more obvious and brutal modes of conquest that first established power on foreign shores."[1]

The historiography of westernized conceptions of Asia and the Middle East, through the colonial period reveals, to many modern scholars of colonialism, a reliance on textual sources over direct contact with local indigenous sources. In the case of India, the literature portrayed a society in which a rigidly enforced caste system, based on race, kept each member of society fixed in place with no chance for advancement or intermingling with other castes. This is how caste was portrayed in ancient texts such as the Vedas and the Manu Dharma Sastras. The historical texts emanating from Europe took on a canonical prestige among each generation of European writers seeking to define the societies they were studying. Their research often took place in a colonial context, while the primary sources they used to understand those societies were usually ancient religious texts. These religious texts were used by Europeans to define entire civilizations, regardless of the actual level of influence the texts had on daily life. For the British in India, the interplay of these Orientalist views and the methods of governing are apparent in the efforts to rigidly define Indian caste identity through the census,.and their reliance on Brahmanic sources for vital information about Indian society.

Indians were players in the contest to rule and to define reality. The internal Indian political struggles between the Hindu activists and various minority groups make clear that the presence of the British was utilized for political gain, and that the British presence influenced Indian ideology and identity. No battle between Indian leaders better illuminated the distinctive differences between the Hindu majority and minority groups than that of Mohandas K. Gandhi versus B.R. Ambedkar over the issue of political rights for Untouchables. Ambedkar's outspoken advocacy for Untouchable rights often put him at odds with Gandhi and the Congress Party. The largely Hindu Congress Party, from the late nineteenth century on, viewed British attempts to address the concerns of minority communities as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. Many Hindu activists, Gandhi included, agreed with an essentially Orientalist view that ancient Hindu texts pointed to a classical civilization which was only later perverted with caste conflict and Untouchability. For Gandhi, the Untouchables would be better off inside the Hindu community, but for Ambedkar, this was the actual source of repression. The Untouchables did find better opportunities for advancement working within the British legal structure than by waiting for Hindu activists to help them. The irony is that the British had been a force in centralizing and strengthening the Hindu power structure that the Untouchables faced.[2] The British viewed themselves as uplifting a lower or degraded society and at times this pushed them to attempt progressive reform on the behalf of minorities. The Untouchables were one such group. They were in a difficult position, being at odds with both British rule and the Hindu Congress Party which had taken the foremost position in the struggle for independence by 1916[3].. The complexities of caste politics, and how each group, British, Hindu, and Untouchable, used identity to gain advantages, are dealt with in the second portion of this paper.

Part I: From Colonial Contexts To Colonial Responses

The British colonial project in India, which began as a profit seeking venture by the British East India Company around the turn of the seventeenth century, became a grab for land and power to assure bigger profits, and finally came under direct Crown rule in 1857 when Indian resistance led to stepped up levels of control by the British. At each step, European historical and anthropological writings of the colonial period, while couched in objective terminology, upheld the colonial mission which assumed the right of Europeans to shape non European "backward" cultures, and profit from the process. Many current scholarly views of the British in India examine British presumption about Indian culture and how it distorted their view. Edward Said in his book, Orientalism, charts out the formation of the Orientalist canon, which he sees as solidifying fallacious views of non-European cultures. A brief look at how Said deconstructs Orientalism is necessary as his book signaled the beginning of a new kind of critique



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