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Thursday, February 15, 2024

The lie we tell ourselves to justify British rule

M. Usama Khawar |

There’s a popular narrative that floats around the subcontinent, like a safety net we revert to in times of need, that justifies the years of servitude our ancestors spent under British rule. Looking at the results of our independence movements, the wars, the famines, the chaos of our contemporary lives has made us look to history and try to find comfort therein. ‘Maybe if the British were still here, we wouldn’t be so screwed up as a nation’ say these ignorant apologists. Maybe they should not be blamed for this completely because they might be suffering from some sort of post-colonial Stockholm syndrome.

Read more: How Orientalism Pitted Hindus against Muslims in India?

“India’s democracy is truly extraordinary. … India’s political system owes much to the institutions put in place by the British over two hundred years ago. In many other parts of Asia and in Africa, the British were a relatively temporary presence. They were in India for centuries. They saw it as the jewel in their imperial crown and built lasting institutions of government throughout the country–courts, universities, administrative agencies” Fareed Zakaria, The post-American world. 

I cannot say what the world would have looked like had the British still been here. What I can say is that development – be it in the realm of economics, infrastructure, or even society – preceded the infiltration of the British in India. They stole what they wanted to, built what they needed to, and left when they had to, and the biggest joke of all is that some of us are thanking them for it.

History is a lie commonly agreed upon

A very basic understanding of the art of historiography tells us that the past is gone, and what remains is a mere account of it. History, in other words, isn’t the same thing as the past. That is the fundamental limitation of the study of the history. The powers of today determine what history is considered legitimate, and the powers of the past determined what would be written down as history.

“…history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” Edward Sa’id

Alas, the British were in India long enough to alter the history in praise of their own selves. Their history painted themselves as a beacon of light for the pit of darkness that was pre-colonial India. And worst of all, we still buy their narrative.

Pre-colonial infrastructure

Accounts of foreign travelers and of indigenous writers that have been long forgotten bring to light the vast array of urban development that existed here before the British set foot in India. The greatness of Mughal and Sufi architectural remnants isn’t as embedded into our views about the past as they should be.

Read more: 1970 Election: The Last Credible Vote in Pakistan’s History?

Consider for a moment the marvel that is the Grand Trunk road (renamed by the British from the original name Sadak-e-Azam). The road was built by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century and connects Bangladesh to Kabul. Or look towards the Taj Mahal built by Shah Jahan, or Aurangzeb’s Badshahi Masjid – all engineering masterpieces. All built without the help of the sanctimonious British.

These are just some of the vast array of infrastructures we constructed before colonists came along. Think of the number of cities, forts, shrines we managed to build. British colonialism had no role to play in their formation.

Economics of the past

Apologists often like to praise the West for their ideas of globalization – the excuse they were using to steal their colonies’ wealth and accumulate more wealth. Trade, even between states and empires was already common during the times of the Mughals and even before them.

“From the docks of Dabhol, Gawan oversaw the off-loading of the consignments he had brought with him from Iran to India: silken fabrics, Turkish and Ethiopian slaves, pearls, jewels, and Arabian horses. He knew that all of these goods, especially the last, would fetch fine prices along the ports of the Konkan coast.” A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761 Eight Indian Lives

To accommodate trade routes, ports were constructed, roads were built and widened, and there were mechanisms by which all of it was regulated. The accounts of Mahmud Gawan, a Persian merchant who rose to the ranks of chief-minister of the Bahmani Sultanate in the Deccan, tell us of his ventures importing fabrics, slaves, jewels, and even warhorses from other parts of the world.

Then there’s the brilliance of Indian pre-colonial fiscal practices, the complexities of which continue to exist today in rural parts of the region. Akbar, for example, is credited for the creation of an entire fiscal-military bureaucracy, one based on a scientific methodology of calculating land’s value and taxing it as such. Thus there existed effective administrative practices in India centuries ago.

The Mughal Silicon Valley

Consider, for a moment, the usage of the water lift in India. Emperor Babur provided the first scientific description of an irrigation system. Akbar, again, added complexity to the system in his attempts to raise water vertically to bring it to his Fatehpur Sikri fort. His engineers made it much more efficient by introducing the usage of oxen into the equation for the turning of the wheels.


“Indian war rockets were formidable weapons before such rockets were used in Europe… The use of mines and counter-mines with explosive charges of gunpowder is mentioned for the times of Akbar and Jahāngir.”  James R. Partington, A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder

The late middle ages in India saw much growth in STEM development. The foundation of mathematical analysis was put in place by Madhava of Sangamagrama in the 14th century. Indian weaponry was also praised around the world especially due to the introduction of gunpowder and complex rifles as early as the 16th Century.

India was progressing quite rapidly in the field of technology, and the trajectory seemed ahead of its time.

Educating India

Sure, the Mughals didn’t really construct any universities during their time, but as per the norm, they did produce other forms of educational institutions. Not only was spiritual and mystical education already present in India, there also was a vast array of formal education also present in the fields of science and medicine. Sufi shrines patronized thousands of Mureeds giving them the necessary knowledge about Islam and about worldly topics.

Read more: How the western media constructs false narratives?

During the Khilji dynasty, India saw a major academic progress in the fields of philosophy and theology, and even in Greek philosophy and medicine. The Lodhi dynasty saw the construction of numerous schools which taught subjects ranging from morality to astronomy to even public administration. Akbar’s Ain-e-Akbari makes great mention of the details of the persisting educational system in India during his time.

Madrasas became quite common throughout India, and unlike today, they also patronized other educational fields. Similarly, Hindu temples at the time patronized the education of Hindu students. This is seen by the fact that a lot of men of scholarly backgrounds were employed in the royal courts.

Mahmud Gawan’s Madrasa
British colonization

I have only touched upon the surface of the complexities in the social sphere that was India before the coming of the British. I do not deny the amount of work that was done by our white colonizers, but I do question the intentions of their works and the eventual consequence of them. Their purpose was to plunder their colonies, and they did just that. Whatever developments came into place, were enacted for the facilitation of that very exploitation.

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” Edward Sa’id 

They came here, they changed our history, they tried to sell the narrative that they were the ones who civilized us. We need to challenge the idea that they were the only good thing that has ever happened to the region. The reason for this is because of the continued post-colonial mindset we have been unable to free ourselves from. Their culture continues to have a significant hegemony over the way we think and act. It is only natural to look towards history to find our place in the world, it’s about time we understood that the history we have bought into, necessarily binds us to the colonial chains that our ancestors had to suffer from.

M. Usama Khawar is an undergraduate student currently pursuing a degree in the Social Sciences from The Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. His writing interests are vast, ranging from culture to philosophy to psychology.