Too Early to Move on from Colonization
Updated: Sep 18
The British colonial presence in South Asia, which includes modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, dates back to the early 16th century when the East India Company was founded. The company initially established trading posts and forts along the coast, but eventually expanded its control over large parts of the region through military conquest and diplomacy. Growing up, colonization was not a topic that was extensively covered in my education. As I grew older and gained a broader understanding of the world, I became increasingly aware of how colonization has shaped our politics and economy, and our identities.
Unfortunately, some members of my own community still refuse to acknowledge the truth about colonization. I have often encountered offensive comments on this subject at social gatherings, which can be very disturbing for me. Rather than getting into arguments in these casual settings, I have decided to express my thoughts on this issue that has been on my mind for some time.
The Brainwashed Colonization Sympathizers
The British colonial rule in South Asia was characterized by a number of policies and practices that had a significant impact on the region's economy, society, and culture. Fans of colonization are still promoting the old propaganda even though their old masters have left almost a hundred years ago. Most of what I have heard was about the establishment of a centralized system of administration, the creation of a network of roads and railways, the introduction of Western education and legal systems, and the encouragement of large-scale agriculture and industry. However, they overlook that British colonial rule was also marked by exploitation, repression, and resistance. The British empire imposed heavy taxes on the local population in India, leading to widespread poverty and discontent.
Indian author and Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor describes the British-built railway as, “a very big colonial scam”. Tharoor, author of An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, wrote that building the railways “was the most profitable, safe investment in the entire British market throughout the time”. It is also worth mentioning that British-built trains had different classes of carriages. When the Anglo passengers were riding the first class, horrendous third-class carriages with wooden benches were for Indians. However, they charged the highest passenger rates of any railway in the world. On pre-colonized India’s economy, Tharoor writes, “The British came to one of the richest countries in the world- a country which had 23 percent of global GDP... a country where poverty was unknown” (1). After 200 years of rule, the country they left was very different.
The last years of British rule were the hardest for the Indian people. In 1943, a major famine occurred in the Bengal region of British India (present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) during World War II. Common knowledge about the famine was very simple, black and white. It has always been blamed on a severe drought. Yet some people still avoid how Winston Churchill’s government disrupted the food supply chain claiming to aid the war, and the hoarding and speculation of food for their soldiers. Shashi Tharoor wrote in his book, “The British actually purchased grains which the Bengalis could barely afford to buy, in order to ship it to Europe not to aid the war effort as its defenders claim. But to boost the buffer stock in the event of a future possible invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia” (1). The Bengal famine of 1943 is believed to have caused the deaths of between 1.5 and 3 million people, making it one of the worst famines in human history. It is difficult to understand how some people can still believe that British rule brought large-scale agriculture and industry to the region, given the devastating loss of countless lives.
In 1947, after over three centuries of British rule in India, the subcontinent was partitioned into two separate countries: India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. This led to one of the largest mass migrations in history, as millions of Muslims moved to Pakistan and millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many families left their homes and possessions to move to a new country based on their religion. This period was marked by intense sectarian violence, including massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and sexual violence, particularly in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal. As a result, these states were also partitioned, with half going to India and half going to Pakistan (2). Some people questioned the effectiveness and necessity of this partition, given that these communities had coexisted peacefully for nearly a millennium.
In Bangladesh, the memories of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan are overshadowed by the more recent bloodshed of 1971, when the country gained independence from Pakistan. The partition of Punjab and Bengal to create Pakistan has left a lasting impact on the national consciousness of Bangladesh. The pain of Pakistan's creation is still felt today, and the legacy of colonialism continues to haunt the country. Even today, families separated by borders yearn to be reunited with their loved ones before they pass away.
In 2017, the Myanmar government launched a military campaign that caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee. Most of them sought refuge in southern Bangladesh, and to this day, over a million Rohingya refugees are living there. As a journalism student, this was a significant event for me, and I decided to go and see the situation for myself. What I saw was beyond anyone’s worst nightmares. Everyone I encountered had lost family members within the past few days, and many of them were injured or missing body parts. There were countless raped women and orphan children. The experience was deeply disturbing and kept me awake for many nights.
As a student, I felt compelled to go back and study the causes of this terrible violence. The Myanmar military has a long history of human rights abuses, but this time, even Buddhist monks and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi were implicated in the atrocities. The contemporary politics of the situation were complex and difficult for my young mind to understand, so I decided to research the history of the Rohingya people.
This time I was not very surprised when my colonial overlords’ names came up again. The Rohingya people have lived in the region for over 200 years, but resentment towards them dates back to 1826 when Britain annexed the part of Myanmar where many Rohingya Muslims currently reside. During this time, large numbers of Bengali Muslims arrived in the region to work as laborers for the British empire.
During the colonial period, the British promised the Rohingya people their own separate land, known as a “Muslim National Area” in exchange for their support. For example, during World War II, the Rohingya supported the British while Myanmar's nationalists backed the Japanese. As a reward for their loyalty, the British gave the Rohingya prominent government positions following the war. However, they did not follow through on their promise to establish an autonomous state for the Rohingya (3).
In 1948, after Myanmar gained independence from Britain, violent conflicts erupted among various ethnic and racial groups within the country. After independence, the Rohingya people requested the autonomous state that had been promised to them, but officials rejected their request and denied them citizenship, labeling them foreigners. Since then, the Rohingya have been subjected to a life of misery and suffering, a legacy of the poisonous effects of colonization.
Written by Mahmudun Nabi.
Cover photo by Evangelos Petratos.
(1) Tharoor, S., 2016. An Era of Darkness; The British Empire in India.
(2) Chhina, M.A.S., 2022. Why the 1947 Boundary Commission Awards for Punjab, Bengal Irked India. The Indian Express.
(3) Yaqoob, S., 2017. The Very Least the UK Owes the Rohingya Is Protection. Al Jazeera.