Mar 25 2009

The colonial experience-6: Divide and rule

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the colonies were a prime source of revenue for England, they also served as places to send young English men who were seen as black sheep in their well-connected families or as places where the less well-connected could make their fortunes. But the British could never hope, by sheer force of numbers and soldiers, to keep their far-flung empire under their control for a long time. Even the strong and well-organized Roman empire collapsed under this kind of logistical strain, and we see the same thing happening right now with the US trying to maintain its global dominance militarily. It is causing immense stress on its budgets and threatening to bankrupt the country.

In the previous post in this series, I said that one strategy they adopted was to create a class of surrogates who were educated in western ways in language, dress, manners, and mode of life, so that they were sympathetic to the British presence and even saw it as largely a positive thing.
But while that policy could be seen as a fairly benign strategy that even had some positive features, the British also adopted the tried and true strategy of all imperial powers, the cruel and infamous policy of ‘divide and rule’. This required setting up suspicions and antagonisms between groups of local people so that they would not unite against their rulers, but would instead compete against each other for dominance or for favorable treatment from the British. While the British remained, they were able to prevent the simmering animosities they themselves deliberately fomented into breaking out into open conflict, thus creating the fa├žade that they were peacemakers, when in truth they were instigators of dissension.

The British were so successful at both creating this class of surrogates that was sympathetic to their interests and also in sowing ethnic dissension that even to this day there are people in the colonized countries who see the period of British colonization as almost wholly benevolent and that independence saw the beginning of the decline of those countries, with ethnic clashes breaking out, authoritarian governments taking over, widespread corruption, the breakdown of law and order, and failed economies. Zimbabwe is the paradigmatic case of a post-colonial collapse.

While it is true that the departure of the British often did result in such collapses, and the political leaders who replaced the British share much if not most of the blame for the breakdown, the roots of those problems can often be laid at the feet of the British, as a result of policies they deliberately put in place. Where the post-independence rulers can be faulted is in their inability to see the traps set for them and take effective counter-measures. Instead many post-independence leaders cynically exploited the divisions sown by the colonial countries and used ethnic hostilities to gain power, despite the long-term problems and suffering they thus caused.

A few, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and Julius Nyerere, the first prime minister of Tanzania, were intellectuals who could see beyond tribal thinking but they were the exceptions. And even Nehru could not prevent Hindu-Muslim brutality from dividing his country.

As part of their strategy to be able to rule the colonies with the minimum number of residents, the British created two types of divisions: class and ethnicity. To create the former, we saw the careful cultivation of a class of local people who were educated to identify themselves with the British culture and to look down on their own people who were now English-speaking. The residue of that policy exists even today. The English-speaking middle classes think of themselves as somehow superior to those people who are comfortable speaking only in the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil, and who speak English badly or mispronounce words. Such people are referred to disparagingly as ‘gamayas’ (village people), implying that they lack the sophistication of their urban counterparts.

This set up tension between the English-speaking, largely urban, middle classes and the poorer rural people who spoke in the vernacular. The English language became referred to as the ‘kaduwa’ (sword) that divided the people into two. Even as late as when I was in college, the students were categorized as the ‘kults’ or the ‘harayas’. The word kult was (according to local folklore) a corruption of the word kultur, the German word for high culture, and stood for those who could speak English well and adopted western style manners and clothes and tastes in music and films, while the word ‘haraya’ stood for an ordinary person or plebeian.

The economic, social, and political dominance of the kults naturally created resentment amongst the harayas (who were in the numerical majority). The harayas felt that they were being denied access to the higher levels of economic and social life through no fault of their own, merely because of accidents of birth and background. After independence, this resentment boiled over and in Sri Lanka there was a backlash against English in the mid-1950s with politicians pandering to the majority by seeking to abolish English as the language of government and commerce, to limit access to learning it in schools, and adopting a ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, making the majority language the official language of the country. The idea was that then the rural majority that spoke in the vernacular would then have greater access to the higher levels of the professions, business, and society.

This policy was the reverse of the earlier pro-English policies but had long-term disastrous effects. One result was that the minority ethnic Tamil community, which spoke Tamil, felt discriminated against. They saw the Sinhala Only policy as directly targeting them and this, building on long-term suspicions, eventually led to calls for a separate state and the current civil war.

The drive against English also coincided with the increased use of English worldwide as the language of international trade and commerce and science. English was too important to be ignored or suppressed and efforts to do so only resulted in an even smaller elite being able to learn it and thus have access to education abroad or to have access to the knowledge explosion occurring worldwide. So Sri Lanka actually suffered from its anti-English drive, hindering the creation of the kinds of educated people who could take advantage of the science and knowledge explosion. They are now trying to change course and bring English back but two generations of students have gone through the anti-English educational system. That makes it that much harder to now have enough people to provide adequate instruction in English.

So adopting the policy of giving the majority language (which was only spoken in Sri Lanka) pride of place resulted in two long-term negative consequences. It aggravated the suspicions of the minority that the majority community was seeking dominance over them, and it was a step back into insularity at a time when the world was becoming increasingly interdependent and using English as the means of communication and commerce and science.

POST SCRIPT: Media obliviousness

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post about how the journalists in the mainstream media are completely oblivious to their true relationship to the people they supposedly cover, and why they are baffled at being the targets of Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s humor.


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  1. 1


    The British divide-and-rule policy in India went beyond promoting English. It sought to create divisions within language based communities as well. In southern India among the Hindus Sanskrit and the local languages mainly Tamizh, Telugu, Malalam, and Kannada have for long been used together. My household has a tradition of three languages – Tamizh, Telugu, and Sanskrit, in that order of familiarity. While it is true that Tamizh at its core is entirely different from Sanskrit not being “Indo-European (I use that term although I belive it is a poorly derived one with no science to back it) and the other three languages have some elements of Tamizh+Sanskrit, the British (mainly thru missionary activity) managed to cleave the Tamizh community by coming up with the bogus idea of a “Dravidian heritage”, demonising Sanskrit in the process. The irony is the term Dravida is itself of Sanskrit origin!

  2. 2

    So… I guess you could say that much of why the American Revolution worked was due to so many colonists being from England in the first place. They had most of the same values, knew about the same political tricks, and never fought to remove English as the language. Am I right in thinking those factors made it much easier to cast off the colonizing force?

    It’s interesting now with our forces in the middle east. Supporters of the Iraq war seem to take issue with calling it what it is, instead trying to insist that it’s liberation for the oppressed who lack democracy and capitalism. But what about it makes it anything other than colonization? Clearly the US has a strong interest in the rise of an Iraqi government sympathetic to our causes. Even if we look at it in the most callous way possible, by ignoring the harm to civilians and families — are we getting our billions of dollars’ worth?

  3. 3


    I agree that what we see in Iraq is nothing but empire building, with all this liberation talk being a smokescreen.

    The American revolution is an unusual case since the indigenous people were pretty much eliminated and were never part of the revolutionary movement. The people who revolted were the same as (or at least the descendants of) the colonists, and so the conflict was pretty much based on economics and politics. There were no inter-ethnic rivalries that could be exploited.

  4. 4


    A strong case can be made to deny the occurrence of any such event as the “American Revolution”. It was simply a continuation of power struggle between the gentry and nobility in England that found its way to another continent. The founders and their followers were for the most part English, as opposed to the Scots/Irish/Welsh masses, who had a very different motivation. Extreme reductionist simplification side terms such as revolution should not be taken for granted. Even a highly regarded scholar such as McCullough is given to unquestioned assumptions.

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