The colonial experience-8: The rise of nationalist feeling

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

While colonial powers needed to create an educated, elite class to act as surrogates for them and help them rule the country, providing access to that education created its own problems. While some in the educated elite were happy to play the role of junior partner to the colonialists and enjoy the rewards, others became, as a result of this western education, more aware of the political currents that were sweeping the world as a result of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the rise of anti-colonialist nationalistic sentiment following World War II.

These people returned from their education abroad to organize trade unions, form political parties, and agitate for independence. Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam returned from France to lead that country’s liberation struggle against the French. English-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi led similar struggles in India, and Sri Lanka had its own counterparts. All these leaders tended to have socialist leanings, having visions of creating a society that was just and egalitarian and non-racial.

But as we have sadly seen, the centrifugal forces that were unleashed by the divide-and-rule policies in the colonies based on long-standing inter-tribal suspicions were too strong to be overcome and almost all countries succumbed to ethnic clashes following independence. Those leaders in the fight for independence who were non-racial were often swept aside by pandering politicians only too eager to use ethnicity as a wedge to inflame passions and ride to power on racial issues. As a result, India has seen terrible Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence, Sri Lanka has similar conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil people, and the ethnic violence in African countries are too many and well-known to list.

As a result of these problems exacerbated by the colonial powers, many countries descended into authoritarian rule with ruthless dictators, the worst examples being Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then called Zaire and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These tragic post-independence developments enabled colonial powers like the British to smugly claim that they were the ones who kept the peace between the warring groups, and that thus their presence was beneficial, when in reality, they were the ones who helped fan the existing tensions and suspicions into flames. While the post-independence political leaders of those countries share a huge amount of blame for the degeneration of their countries, the colonists also have blood on their hands.

One bright spot in Africa was Tanzania under its founding president Julius Nyrere. An interesting intermediate case in Asia is Singapore, where an authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew kept a tight lid on ethnic divisions and successfully led a program of modernization and industrialization that has made that small country a world leader in commerce and resulted in Singapore having one of the highest standards of living in the world.

So coming back to Jared’s original question about how it could be that he, the only non-Indian in a class that dealt with British colonialism in India, could see the negative aspects of it, it comes down to the depth of one’s understanding of the political history of the colonized countries. Attitudes amongst the people of the former colonies towards the colonial experience depends on, I think, the politics and background of the family from which the person comes.

Most of the students who come to the US are probably like me, the products of a relatively small, urban, English-educated elite, and thus come from the group favored by the colonial powers. There is absolutely no doubt that having the benefit of an English education has opened our minds to a world of knowledge and enabled us to go abroad and experience much more than we would have otherwise. Knowledge of the English language and its associated literature has enabled us to more easily absorb western culture and science, which are both dominant in the world today. There is no question that this particular legacy of the colonial experience has been good for us personally.

Making broad generalizations, those who left the colonial country because of the turmoil that followed independence, tend to think of the pre-independence colonial times as one of peace and prosperity, at least for the urban elite to which they belonged. This is especially likely in the case of ethnic and religious minorities who bore the brunt of the post-independence backlash by the marginalized majority against those whom they perceived as unfair beneficiaries of colonial largesse.

Against that group are those who grew up in households or communities that were more politically aware at a deeper level. I have said that my grandfather’s view of British colonial rule was positive, although he knew that they considered brown-skinned people like him as ultimately inferior. They were sufficiently nice to him and rewarding of his services that overall he thought they treated him well, and that he fared better than he would have at the hands of the majority community.

My father, on the other hand, lived during the time of transition to post-colonial rule, with almost exactly half his life growing up in a British colony and the second half in an independent state. So he grew up with all the privileges of being English educated but at a time when anti-imperialist sentiment was strong and nationalist fervor was high, especially in the universities and amongst what used to be referred to as the intelligentsia. He belonged to both and his political leanings were influenced by that experience. So he did understand the negative aspects of colonial rule while at the same time being a beneficiary of it.

The next generation, mine, is entirely post-colonial and where we stand in relation to our colonial past is also mixed. The more politically aware can see both the long-term benefits as well as the damage that colonialism has done, and we are ambivalent towards it. Others who do not go into it as deeply may have a rather one-sided view depending on their own personal situation and how colonialism affected their own lives. Those who come from families that benefited, the urban English educated class, see it as mostly a good thing while the rest may see it as largely negative.

This series had its genesis the attempt to explain to Jared why it was that the Indian students in his colonialism class seemed to have a positive view of that experience. I suspect that most émigrés are those from the English-educated urban classes, since they are the ones who have access to the means for going abroad and they, I suspect, are the ones who dominated Jared’s class. So this post ends my long-winded answer to his question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk today

Jeff Hawkins will be speaking today (Tuesday, March 31, 2009 from 4:30-5:30) on the topic On Intelligence: What Intelligent Machines Can Learn From the Human Neocortex.
Hawkins is co-founder of two computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and is the architect of many computing products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone, and the author of the book On Intelligence (2004).

The talk will be given in the Wolstein Auditorium on Cornell Road on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. For more details, see here.


  1. kural says


    Interesting you should talk about your family. My late father (who turned 20 when India freed itself off the British yoke) my father-in-law and many in their generation have(had) a nuanced view of things. While they did appreciate the more orderly life one could lead then, they also would tell us about how the colonial rule was like a rock nestled in a placid looking lawn, tightly covering under it a very unpretty host of creatures and existence. For instance my father would tell us how bad the railways actually were in colonial times, something that he learned a little later in life. As my grandfather was a highly placed executive in one of the largest rail companies of pre-independent India, my father had always travelled in style. But the first time he went to see off a less affluent friend of his around the time he left for college, he got to see what rail travel meant for the majority who could not afford it. In those days you could make reservations only by first class, and that entitled you to an enclosed furnished compartment with comfortable bunks. Personal assistants of the rich got to travel in less comfortable railcars but with reservations meant only for them. For the rest it was cattle wagon like railcars with barely place to sit or stand. And in those days (until the 50s) these railcars were packed beyond capacity. While it is true that the privately owned rail companies didn’t take their orders from the colonial administration, it tells us how little the administration cared about people, in ignoring such unsafe travel conditions.

  2. jamesthompson23 says

    Wow, very interesting Mano,

    “My father, on the other hand, lived during the time of transition to post-colonial rule, with almost exactly half his life growing up in a British colony and the second half in an independent state.”

    That was an incredibly interesting/hard time for your father to be alive. I hope everything worked out okay for him.

    -- James, Resveratrol Researcher

  3. Jared says

    Hi Mano,

    I really appreciate the time you spent answering my question and I very much enjoyed reading the response. I had many of the same impressions as you, which heartens me because my opinion was informed from reading texts and listening to lectures rather than from a personal history.

    I also agree with you that the students in my class must have come from well-to-do families that were able to take advantage of colonial policies. (By the way of putting things in perspective, there were only two other students besides myself in the course, so not much generalization is needed.) My impression was that each had his own family history that informed his personal narrative. Particularly in youth it can be difficult to separate your personal narrative from the more general forces that shaped history around you. This is why, for example, one rarely sees young adult children of the very rich questioning whether they “deserve” access to such vast sums of money (at least in my experience).


  4. Kevin says

    Sub Saharan Africa is notorious for a lack of leadership. Anyone that does come to power takes it by force and continues to rule by force. Meanwhile all the citizens are brutally subjugated, oppressed and have very little chance to leave the country because of the abject poverty they live in. It’s a tough situation and almost an endless loop, when one warlord is overthworn a newer and probably more ruthless one has rushed up to take his place.

    Without the proper natural resources (I don’t count oil and diamonds as these are just exploited), these countries have little hope in the forseeable future.


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