Nehru's Word: How the British engineered the communal divide in India

Nehru was the first to present a detailed analysis of the origins and growth of communalism in India. Excerpts from a piece he wrote in jail and published as part of ‘An Autobiography’ in 1936:

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

The Bharat Jodo Yatra has succeeded in flagging the communal polarisation being promoted by the dominant political forces. It has also highlighted the need to counter it at the mass level. The communal divide was a creation of the British policy—and not an ‘inevitable’ result of religious differences, as we are made to believe—from the second half of the 19th century in order to weaken emerging Indian nationalism and perpetuate colonial rule. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first to present a detailed analysis of the origins and growth of communalism in India. Excerpts from a piece he wrote in jail and published as part of ‘An Autobiography’ in 1936.

It is interesting to trace British policy since the Rising of 1857 in its relation to the communal question. Fundamentally and inevitably, it has been one of preventing the Hindu and Muslim from acting together, and of playing off one community against another. After 1857, the heavy hand of the British fell more on the Muslims than on the Hindus. They considered the Muslims more aggressive and militant, possessing memories of recent rule in India, and therefore more dangerous. The Muslims had also kept away from the new education and had few jobs under the government. All this made them suspect. The Hindus had taken far more kindly to the English language and clerkly jobs, and seemed to be more docile.

The new nationalism then grew up from above—the upper-class English-speaking intelligentsia—and this was naturally confined to the Hindus, for the Muslims were educationally very backward. This nationalism spoke in the gentlest and most abject of tones, and yet it was not to the liking of the government, and they decided to encourage the Muslims more and keep them away from the new nationalist platform. Lack of English education was in itself a sufficient bar then, so far as the Muslims were concerned, but this was bound to go gradually. With foresight the British provided for the future, and in this task they were helped by an outstanding personality—Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

Sir Syed was unhappy about the backward condition of his community, especially in education, and he was distressed at the lack of favour and influence it had in the eyes of the British government. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a great admirer of the British, and a visit to Europe seems to have had a most powerful effect on him….Perhaps also he used strong language and heightened the contrasts in order to shake up his own people out of their torpor and induce them to take a step forward.

This step, he was convinced, must be in the direction of Western education; without that education his community would become more and more backward and powerless. English education meant government jobs, security, influence, honour. So, to this education he turned all his energy, trying to win over his community to his way of thinking. He wanted no diversions or distractions from other directions; it was a difficult enough piece of work to overcome the inertia and hesitation of the Muslims.

The beginnings of a new nationalism, sponsored by the Hindu bourgeoisie, seemed to him to offer such a distraction, and he opposed it. The Hindus, half a century ahead in Western education, could indulge in this pastime of criticising the government, but he had counted on the full co-operation of that government in his educational undertakings and he was not going to risk this by any premature step. So, he turned his back on the infant National Congress, and the British government were only too willing to encourage this attitude.

Sir Syed’s decision to concentrate on Western education for Muslims was undoubtedly a right one. Without that they could not have played any effective part in the building up of Indian nationalism of the new type, and they would have been doomed to play second fiddle to the Hindus with their better education and far stronger economic position. The Muslims were not historically or ideologically ready then for the bourgeois nationalist movement as they had developed no bourgeoisie as the Hindus had done.

Sir Syed’s activities, therefore, although seemingly very moderate, were in the right revolutionary direction. The Muslims were still wrapped up in a feudal anti-democratic ideology, while the rising middle class among the Hindus had begun to think in terms of the European liberals. Both were thoroughly moderate and dependent on British rule. Sir Syed’s moderation was the moderation of the landlord class to which the handful of well-to-do Muslims belonged. The Hindus’ moderation was that of the cautious professional or businessman seeking an outlet for industry and investment…

Aligarh College did fine work, produced a large number of competent men, and changed the whole tone of the Muslim intelligentsia, but still it could not wholly get out of the framework in which it was built—a feudal spirit reigned over it, and the goal of the average student’s ambition was government service…

This narrow outlook and hankering after government service was not confined to the Muslim students of Aligarh and elsewhere. It was equally in evidence among the Hindu students who were far from being adventurous by nature. There were far too many of them and not enough jobs to go round, and so they became the déclassé intellectuals who are the backbone of national revolutionary movements.

The Indian Muslims had not wholly recovered from the cramping effects of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s political message when the events of the early years of the twentieth century helped the British government to widen the breach between them and the nationalist movement, now clamant and aggressive…

The Aga Khan had emerged as the leader of the Muslims and that fact alone showed that they still clung to their feudal traditions, for the Aga Khan was was a wealthy prince, and from the British point of view he was very much a persona grata because of his close association with the British ruling classes.

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