Divide and rule in British India

Words: Devanshi Chengappa


Divide et impera – divide and rule – has been written into the history books as an icon of military and political strategy. In simple terms, it refers to the attempt to fracture a large, unified opposition, rendering the fragments too weak to overpower their collective enemy. It’s led men from Julius Caesar to Napoleon to success in conquering nations and controlling populations. 

Caesar used the technique in his conquest of Gaul, exacerbating the divisions among the Gallic tribes by letting slip the fact that some rulers were accepting aid for cooperating with him. Distrust prevented alliances that might have been strong enough in manpower and training to defeat the Roman army – and Gaul fell.

British imperialists liked to model themselves on Rome. The divisions causing tension in the Indian subcontinent today – not only geographical, but spiritual and social – are in large part due to the adoption of divide et impera by the British Raj during its 190-year rule.  The greatest division, and one that has changed India forever, is between Hindus and Muslims. 

The British watched in horror as Hindus and Muslims fought together under one another’s command in the revolt of 1857. The coalition was a clear threat to British interests, and blame for it was laid with those who had allowed people of all religions and castes to form part of the same army corps, rubbing away at what the imperialists perceived as their ‘natural’ divisions. Lord Elphinstone, a senior colonial official, wrote in reaction to the mutiny: ‘divide et impera was the old Roman motto, and it should be ours.’ 

Some historians observe that Hinduism as we know it today is a product of these colonial efforts. For the British and their monotheistic, literature-heavy Christian tradition, Hinduism seemed a chaotic religion without a definitive set of traditions. In an effort to find one, British scholars pored over old literature, and came up with a line that most resembled the version of Hinduism followed by the Brahmins who acted as their Sanskrit interpreters.  (Brahmins are members of one of the highest castes in Hinduism, and have traditionally been responsible for teaching and continuing religious knowledge.)

The British also tried to turn the Bhagavad Gita, a little-known scripture only followed by a few Brahmins, into the Hindu canonical equivalent of the Bible. Since most Hindus didn’t identify with the rules and beliefs laid out in the Gita, an impression was created that Hinduism was a fallen religion that needed to be restored to a former greatness. Blame for this degeneration was laid with the Muslims, who the British modelled as tyrannical interlopers. 

Rising religious tensions manifested in new political movements, and in the early 20th century the newly-formed Muslim League party, feeling that Muslim representation in Indian politics was inadequate, campaigned for separate electorates between Hindus and Muslims and reserved Muslim seats on the Imperial Council. Keeping the Muslim population onside was seen as beneficial to British imperial interests, and their requests were granted in the Indian Councils Act of 1909.

No further successful uprisings took place as what unity there had once been crumbled under increasing politicisation. Religious tensions had existed before the arrival of the British, but the adoption of divide et impera was accompanied by a marked increase: 91 religious riots took place between 1923 and 1927 in Uttar Pradesh alone. Other global affairs meant the British control of India wouldn’t last much longer – but the divisions they had sown would, and have. 

After WWII, Britain was in a terrorised state, with debts owed not only to America and other allies but to India, too. The British decided to leave India suddenly and swiftly, meaning to salvage themselves and focus resources on home ground. There was a belief that any kind of coalition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League had been made impossible by recent religious violence, and the rising Muslim separatist movement took the opportunity to push for their long-formulated desire for national sovereignty in the Muslim-majority areas of Northern India – although it’s worth noting that there were Muslim organisations that opposed partition, too. Divide et impera turned out to be more effective than the British had foreseen. 

Sir Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with drawing the border that would separate India and the land that would become Pakistan. He was a lawyer from Wales, and had never been to Asia before – but he produced the border in less than five weeks, cutting through both Punjab and Bengali lands. Whatever sense of order and peace had remained was lost as an estimated 14 million people packed up their lives and fled across Radcliffe Line. 

The jury is still out on how many lives were lost in the violence that accompanied partition. Estimates vary from a few hundred thousand to a couple of million. Radcliffe, who saw much of the chaos in person, refused to accept his salary.

The border tore the country apart in a geographical representation of the social divisions the British had set out to create. Families were severed and friends turned against each other. And the horrors of partition are far from over: fighting continues in Jammu and Kashmir, a territory on the India-Pakistan border, where the ratio of military personnel to civilians is the highest in the world. Many still die during gun battles, with civilians caught in the crossfire. 

I’m a British Indian. It’s not unusual for me to hear my peers from India express dislike or distrust of Muslims: for many of them, the prejudices grown by British colonialism have been instilled from birth and reinforced everywhere they go. Colonial mindsets persevere in more ways than we recognise. This is a simplistic description of a complicated history, but it’s enough to remember that when we experience division – as Hindus and Muslims, or Indians and Pakistanis, or any other group with those we perceive as our ‘natural’ enemies – we should stop and ask ourselves who that division benefits.

learn more


Devanshi Chengappa is a writer with interests in societal structure and its effect on mental well-being.