The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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Decolonization in South Asia

  • Anwesha SenguptaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Scholars have defined the term “decolonization” in a number of ways, imparting the word with various meanings and understandings. On one hand, they have used this word to describe the political process of transition from “colonial dependency to sovereignty” (Strang 1991: 429), while, on the other, it has been described as the “transference of legal sovereignty,... [as well as] a movement for moral justice and political solidarity against imperialism” (Duara 2004: 2). Some have offered more radical definitions like “rejection of the civilization of the white man” (Delavignette, cited in Betts 2012: 23) or “...the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men....there is a total, complete, and absolute substitution....a whole social structure being changed from bottom up” (Fanon 1963: 33). M.K. Gandhi also had a radical vision in mind when he wrote in the early twentieth century, “English rule without the Englishman….This is not the Swaraj (home rule/self-governance) that I want” (Gandhi 1921). If we take the narrower definition of decolonization – i.e., if we see decolonization as a political process where empires retreat and sovereign nation-states are established – then it is a process that spanned over centuries and across continents. As David Strang wrote in 1991, “beginning with Britain’s continental colonies in 1783 and ending with the Caribbean islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1983, 165 colonial dependencies have become new independent states or have been fully incorporated into existing sovereign states” (Strang 1991: 429). The process is probably not yet over as the world still has 16 “non-self-governing territories” (Betts 2012: 26). But it is generally accepted that the high (“core”) period of decolonization was the twentieth century – more specifically, the three decades that followed the Second World War (ibid: 25; Duara 2004: 1). Moreover, scholars do agree that despite being a global phenomenon, decolonization as a process is shaped by historical specificities of different regions. Even within the same region, decolonization is experienced diversely by people of different gender, race, religion, class, and so on. The existing literature does not offer any single explanation behind the reasons of decolonization, particularly why so many erstwhile colonies in Asia and Africa witnessed the transfer of power within a short span of few decades in the middle of the twentieth century. The postwar economic crisis in colonizing countries of Europe, changing pattern of international politics in the Cold War era, world opinion favoring the end of colonial rule, metropolitan public opinion no longer favoring the maintenance of the colonies, and, of course, the anti-imperialist struggle in the colonies are given importance – in different degrees by different authors.


What today is known as South Asia had been attracting European traders and rulers since the sixteenth century. Over four centuries different parts of this region became the colonies of the Netherlands, Denmark-Norway, Portugal, France, and Great Britain. While the Dutch and the Danish rulers could not hold on to their territorial possessions in this region beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, the French, the Portuguese, and the British retained their colonies in South Asia for another 100 years. This article focuses on these three cases as it discusses the process of decolonization in South Asia. In terms of its sheer size, resources, and power, the British Empire was the most important colonizing force in South Asia. It spread across present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Hence, while discussing the decolonization process in South Asia, the dismantling of the British Empire will receive the primary attention.

Decolonization of the British Indian Empire

Nehru’s India

Decolonization of British India became an immensely complex process due to partition and the creation of two separate nation-states – India and Pakistan. Religion was the primary basis of this division as Muslim majority areas in the western and the eastern sides of British India were separated to form two wings of Pakistan (East Pakistan and West Pakistan). There is an extensive body of work that explains the causes behind partition. Colonial policies and perceptions toward different communities within the Indian society, social movements from within the Hindu and the Muslim communities, economic grievances, a sense of relative deprivation among the educated Muslims in comparison to their Hindu counterparts, increasing political rivalry between the two communities, and the reluctance of the Indian National Congress to accommodate the political demands of the Muslim produced a sharp sense of religious identity and that of mutual antagonism which gained momentum in the late 1930s–early 1940s and led to the partition of British India (Roy, A. 1990, Roy, H. 2018: 16–56).

A Boundary Commission, chaired by a British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was given little more than a month to draw the line that would separate India and Pakistan. Partition was accompanied by intense communal violence and massive mass migration. Partition violence can be dated back to the notorious “Great Calcutta Killings” of August 1946. On August 16, when the Muslim League called for a “Direct Action Day” in demand of separate homeland, violence engulfed Calcutta (Kolkata). From Calcutta, riots would spread to Noakhali in Eastern Bengal where Hindus would be targeted, then to Bihar where Muslims would suffer in larger number, and finally to Punjab, Delhi, and Sind, killing innumerable Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. These riots killed 200,000 to 1 million people (Roy 2018: 3). Women were particularly vulnerable as many thousands of them were molested, raped, and abducted by men of other faiths (Butalia 1993; Menon and Bhasin 1993). To escape the riots, people fled to areas where their co-religionists were more numerous. In some areas, Dalits were initially less affected by partition violence as the Scheduled Castes Federation (an important Dalit political party) had supported the Pakistan demand and their leader from Bengal, Jogendra Nath Mandal, had joined the Pakistan cabinet after partition (Rawat 2001: 111–139; Sengupta 2017). But many among them migrated in search of better economic opportunities, in fear of conversion, and as and when their religious identity overshadowed their caste identity (Bandyopadhyay and Basu Ray Chaudhury 2014). Though Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first president of Pakistan and the undisputed leader of the Pakistan Movement, and Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) promised to safeguard the rights and interests of the religious minorities in their respective countries, violence continued and so did migration. Between 1946 and 1965, around 5 million Muslims left India for Pakistan, and approximately 9 million Hindus and Sikhs did the reverse trek (Roy 2018: 3). The migration pattern between West Pakistan and India was very different from that of East Pakistan and India. The governments of India and Pakistan jointly carried out the process of evacuating Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan’s Punjab and Muslims from Indian Punjab. Consequently, there was almost a total transfer of population within a short span of time. But migration between East Pakistan and India, discouraged on paper by the concerned governments yet caused by routine communal clashes, bureaucratic apathy, and economic difficulties, continued for decades after partition. The communal violence and the mass migration of people destabilized the subcontinent in innumerable ways and made the process of nation-state building immensely difficult for both India and Pakistan.

Rehabilitating the millions of refugees was the first challenge that India and Pakistan faced. In Indian Punjab the task was relatively easy because of the availability of sufficient amount of properties left behind by the Muslim migrants (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 125–140). Punjab, however, was an exception as the total transfer of population had provided a “clean slate” to the policy makers here. West Bengal, on the other hand, had received 4.26 million of displaced people till 1962 (Chatterji 2007: 998) and did not have adequate land to accommodate them all. Consequently, thousands of refugees (particularly those who were low caste and were assumed to be used to hard manual work) were sent off from this province to the scarcely populated islands of Andaman and the forested terrain of Central India throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Known as the policy of “dispersal,” it was supposed to serve three purposes – (a) reducing the “demographic pressure” from West Bengal, (b) making the refugees “useful,” and (c) reclaiming resources and wasteland in remote areas. The refugees were supposed to till the land, build roads, dig canals and wells, and work in industries to be set up by the government. One may mention here that the rationale behind this policy of sending “laborers” to sparsely populated areas and to reclaim wastelands was nothing new as we can trace colonial antecedents in this (Sen 2018a; Gidwani 1992). The dispersal scheme was hugely celebrated in the official discourse as it was seen as the ideal way of linking rehabilitation with the “developmental” needs of the Indian nation-state (Sen 2018b: 71–112).

“Development” was the buzzword of the early postcolonial India. The idea that India “needed” to “develop” had been prevalent since the British rule (Roy 2007: 107–111). But what constituted “development” in material terms and how to achieve it had no single answer. For instance, M.K. Gandhi’s swaraj and Nehru’s vision of modern India had very little in common (Mukherjee 2009). Nevertheless, by the time India had achieved independence, the dominant discourses around the meanings and modes of development had acquired certain common features. As identified by Benjamin Zachariah, in this discourse: claims to ‘socialism’ – or to some social concern for the poor and downtrodden – were obligatory.... Also invoked were ‘science’, technology and technical expertise as ways of achieving ‘modern’ social and economic goals.... To achieve these goals, a good deal of ‘national discipline’ was required, and the masses were to have to make some sacrifices in the short term, or in the ‘transitional period’. And lastly, all solutions to social, economic or political problems had to conform to ‘indigenous’ values... (Zachariah 2016: 201). In a country ridden with communalism, the Nehruvian elite assumed that the emphasis on “development” could distract people from sectarian nationalism (Zachariah 2012). When Nehru described the big dams as the temples of modern India, he definitely indicated that the spirit of “development” could and should replace religious nationalism in India. This “developmentalist imagination” of Nehruvian time had two distinct components: an interventionist state which would steer the nation on the way of development and an enthusiastic, disciplined, hardworking people eager to help the state in this developmental journey (Roy 2007: 105–132). Agitational politics and mass demonstrations – be it in the name of religion, language, region, or basic human needs – was seen as a deterrent to India’s attempts to “develop.” What was legitimate and celebrated form of popular politics to the Indian National Congress in the colonial period became “hooliganism” in the eyes of the national state (Chakrabarty 2007: 35–57).

The Curious Case of Pakistan and the Making of Bangladesh

Pakistan, when created in 1947, was “uniquely experimental” (van Schendel 2009: 107) for more than one reason. Imagined as a Muslim homeland, Pakistan – like Israel, which would be created in 1948 – was a political idea that was defined by religion (Devji 2013). The territorial shape that this idea took made Pakistan’s case even more exceptional. It had two parts – East Pakistan and West Pakistan – separated by more than 1000 KMs of Indian land.

From the beginning it was not a smooth sailing for Pakistan. Though attempts were made toward an equitable distribution of assets and liabilities of the British Indian Empire between India and Pakistan (Sengupta 2014), in many ways, the former was the real heir of the colonial India. For instance, only around 80 of 1400 individuals, who manned the Indian Civil Service before 1947, opted to serve the Government of Pakistan (Cohen 2012: 41). Delhi – the capital of British India – became the capital of India as well. Major port cities, commercial centers, and administrative hubs like Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) fell within India. Karachi – a provincial capital since the late 1930s – had to become the capital of Pakistan almost overnight. It did not have the necessary infrastructure to house the administration and the ruling elite of the country (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 179–186). The condition of Dacca (Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, was perhaps worse. A sleepy town spreading across 7.8 miles2, Dacca neither had a commercial bank nor a cantonment. Apart from a good university, a handful of small industries, and an urban heritage that dated back to the Mughal era, Dacca had no resources that could distinguish her from other mufassil towns of Bengal (ibid: 165–172).

Pakistan did receive some of the most fertile raw material-producing regions. For instance, 75% of the world’s jute-producing areas fell in East Pakistan, whereas West Pakistan was one of the top cotton-producing regions of the world (Begum 1950). But East Pakistan, at the time of partition, did not have a single jute mill and was almost entirely dependent on the Calcutta port for exporting her raw jute. On the other hand, out of more than 400 cotton mills of British India, only 11 fell within the borders of West Pakistan (ibid: 166). It was evident that both the wings of Pakistan needed immediate and rapid infrastructural development and industrialization for effective governance and to develop a self-sufficient national economy. However, in two decades that followed the creation of Pakistan, the development in the western wing outpaced that of the eastern wing largely because of the governmental policies. The government allocated less than 25% of its annual budget for East Pakistan, though it was more populous than the West; education and communication improved in the West far more rapidly than in the East; and the richest Pakistanis were all in West Pakistan (van Schendel 2009: 135–36). This uneven development, not surprisingly, became a reason for contestation between the two wings. But the fault lines between East and West Pakistan first became apparent around the question of national language.

For many Bengali Muslim intellectuals, Pakistan was an expression of their cultural autonomy. For long, they had complained that the Bengali Hindu writers had never tried to represent the Muslim world of Bengal, the language that Bengali Muslims spoke, their culture, and tradition. What went in the name of Bengali language and Bengali literature was the creation of the upper caste Bengali Hindus, where Muslims were either totally absent or were portrayed in negative ways. When the Pakistan Movement began to gain currency, Calcutta-based Bengali Muslim intellectuals formed the East Pakistan Renaissance Society to give this movement a literary and cultural connotation. Their aim was to develop a new Bengali literature for the future Pakistan, a literature that would not imitate the writing styles of the Hindu writers of Bengal. For many educated Bengali Muslims, their participation in the Pakistan Movement was shaped by the coupling of linguistic, regional, and religious identities. From the early days of East Pakistan, many of them became involved in various projects to “de-sansrikritize” Bengali (Shamsuddin 2001: 250–251). This passion, zeal, and enthusiasm of Bengali Muslim intellectuals, now mostly based in Dacca, received a jolt when in late November 1947, Urdu was proposed as the sole national language of Pakistan. Most of them vehemently opposed it. The students of the University of Dacca took out processions and staged demonstrations against this proposal and thus began the political mobilization around language in East Pakistan. In the coming years, the Language Movement escalated steadily. The ruling elite of Karachi/Islamabad and their allies in Dacca made every attempt to curb it by invoking Islam, by portraying Urdu as the only suitable language for the Muslims, and by blaming the “outsiders” (by which they meant India as well as the educated Hindu minorities of East Pakistan) for the agitations. But this complex clash of identities (linguistic/religious/regional) and the consequent production of “hyphenated citizens” (Pandey 1999) (like Bengali Muslims/Bihari Muslims) indicate how “clumsy, complicated and inherently incomplete” (Chakrabarty et al. 2007: 3) the transfer of power was in the Indian subcontinent. The tension between East and West finally culminated into a bloody civil war (known as Muktijuddho or the War of Liberation in the nationalist discourse of Bangladesh), and East Pakistan became Bangladesh, a sovereign nation-state in 1971 (Saikia 2004; Alamgir and D’Costa 2011; Bose 2012).

When troubles were brewing over linguistic, regional, and religious identities in East Pakistan, similar fissures were becoming apparent in the political life of West Pakistan as well. In the early years of Pakistan, the government, bureaucracy, and economy were dominated by the refugees (Muhajirs) – particularly those who had migrated from various urban centers of northern India. Many of them were highly educated and were proficient in Urdu. (Muhajir is a person who accompanied the Prophet Muhammad in his emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622. The partition refugees from India to Pakistan were generally termed as Muhajir in official discourse as well as in common parlance.) They were most visible in the province of Sindh and the capital city Karachi, located in that province. The dominance of one particular group antagonized others, namely, the Punjabis (who had significantly high presence in the military), the Sindhis, and the Pathans. The tension between Muhajirs and these groups remained somewhat subdued till the late 1950s. But as Ayub Khan usurped power (he was made chief martial law administrator in 1958 and became the president in 1960), the rifts became apparent. One of the first things that he did was to shift the capital from Muhajir-dominated Karachi to Rawalpindi and then to the newly built city of Islamabad. This would be later translated as a calculated move to marginalize the Muhajirs in Pakistan’s polity, economy, and society. To add to this, the constitution that Ayub introduced seemingly disenfranchised the Muhajir through electoral reforms and by the introduction of a complex reservation system (Rehman 1994: 120). The sense of “relative deprivation” among the Muhajirs (Haq 1995: 993) would culminate into violent clashes in Karachi and Hyderabad and the formation of “Muttahida Qaumi Movement” (MQM, initially it was called Muhajir Qaumi Movement) in the mid-1980s. In other words, decolonization with partition produced new minorities and new conflicts across the Indian subcontinent. Even after 70 years, as many of these conflicts remain unresolved, people and politics of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are rooted in “partitioned times” (Samaddar 2003: 21). Two examples will elaborate this point: the “problem” of the “Bihari Muslims” in Bangladesh and the ongoing Kashmir conflict.

The Incomplete Business of Partition and Decolonization in the Subcontinent: The Kashmir Issue and the Citizenship Question of the “Bihari Muslims”

Ruled by a Hindu king yet mostly populated by Muslim subjects, Jammu and Kashmir (hereafter mentioned as Kashmir) was one among some 550 princely states that existed within the British Indian Empire. The princely states shared a complex legal relationship with the British Crown. They were technically independent and enjoyed varied degrees of autonomy, yet they were under the British paramountcy. What would be the status of these states of various shapes and sizes in postcolonial South Asia became an important question in 1947. Despite some initial resistance, most of these kingdoms were coerced and cajoled by Vallabhbhai Patel (the first deputy prime minister of independent India) and V.P. Menon (secretary, Ministry of State, Government of India) to join India. As a result, India gained 500,000 miles2 of territory which more than compensated the loss of 364,737 miles2 due to partition and the creation of Pakistan (Kudaisya 2017: 47). The nawabs and the maharajas were allowed to retain their titles, privileges, and personal properties and were promised a hefty annual monetary allowance by the Government of India. Often described as a “bloodless revolution” in the nationalist histories written in India, the “integration” of the princely states is projected as a moment of glory for the Indian nation-state, when the subjects of these states became the right-bearing citizens of a democratic country. However, some recent historical writings on the modes of annexing the princely states of Hyderabad (Sherman 2007) and Junagadh (Ankit 2016) by the Indian government have challenged this nationalist discourse of non-violent and voluntary annexation. But more than Hyderabad and Junagadh, it is in Kashmir where this nationalist narrative of “bloodless revolution” gets spectacularly challenged till this day.

Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, did not join either Pakistan or India as he cherished a dream of independent Kashmir. As a Hindu ruler, joining Pakistan was not appealing to him, and his bitter relations with the Indian National Congress made him wary of a future in India (Guha 2007: 59–64). Singh offered to sign a “standstill agreement” with India and Pakistan on August 14–15 (1947) to ensure that the transfer of power and the creation of India and Pakistan did not affect the economy of his territory. His dream, as one of his ministers noted in early October of 1947, was “to make Kashmir the Switzerland of the East – a State that is completely neutral” (cited in Guha 2007: 64). By the end of that very month, however, it became clear that his dreams were not going to materialize anytime soon. A significant number of his subjects had different aspirations for Kashmir. The district of Poonch, situated in the west of Srinagar, witnessed a revolt against Hari Singh’s regime and a strong demand in favor of merging with Pakistan. On the other hand, there was Sheikh Abdullah, the most prominent opposition of Hari Singh and a very close friend of Nehru, who had been demanding the end of princely rule in Kashmir and the establishment of a popular government which would “then decide whether the State should join India or Pakistan” (ibid: 63). The situation went out of Hari Singh’s control when several thousands of armed Pathan tribesmen invaded the valley from the north. Several questions about this invasion do not have definite answers as the narratives that are spun in India and Pakistan widely differ from each other. For instance, it is not clear whether the Pathans came on their own or were they sent by the Pakistan government, whether they came as and when the news of Poonch reached them, or was it an invasion that was being planned independently. But they moved swiftly toward Srinagar forcing the king to flee to Jammu and also to seek help from India. India agreed to help but only after the Maharaja had signed the Instrument of Accession. But it was supposed to be a temporary accession, and the Indian government promised to hold a plebiscite to allow the common people of Kashmir to determine whether they wanted the valley to be a part of Pakistan, India, or none of the either. Moreover, by the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, Kashmir was given a special status where “the Indian Parliament’s legislative powers in Kashmir were limited to the three areas specified during the state’s accession, namely defence, foreign affairs and communication. In all other matters, the state was to be governed by its own constitution” (Kudaisya 2017: 54). The accession was followed by reorganization of the administration of Kashmir with Sheikh Abdullah becoming the head of the interim government and Hari Singh becoming a constitutional head of the state. The accession also ensured the immediate presence of the Indian forces in the valley. As they fought the tribesmen and the local rebels, Pakistan also sent her forces to combat the Indian Army, and a full-fledged war was fought between the two countries. It ended with an UN-negotiated ceasefire, but by then 5100 miles2 of territory had been “liberated” by Pakistan from the Indian forces.

Since 1948, Kashmir has remained the trouble spot of South Asia. Despite the insistence of Pakistan and the UN, India did not conduct the promised plebiscite. India and Pakistan have already fought three wars over Kashmir (1947–1948, 1965, and 1999), and armed border skirmishes are routine affairs in the valley. Because of the “security” issues and the “strategic” location of Kashmir (with borders with China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), the Indian Armed Forces are given extraordinary power with absolute impunity. They have been accused of gross human rights violation by the ordinary Kashmiris, the activists and social workers working in the valley, and the international press. Article 370, though irk the right-wing political parties of India, has provided no relief to the people of Kashmir on the face of the brutal military oppression. On the other hand, the valley has witnessed a steady rise of armed militant groups – a few of which adhere to Islamic extremism and many of them receive financial and other supports from Pakistan. Kashmir seems to be trapped in a never-ending circle of violence perpetuated by the Indian forces and the armed militants, each justifying the other’s presence and actions. Kashmir remains in perpetual shadow of partition as “Kashmiris were a people who were ‘bargained’ into Indian/Pakistani nationhood when the British left the region” (Kaul 2010–2011: 43). In many ways the colonial rule has begun in this part of South Asia when the British rule ended in the subcontinent (ibid: 49). To borrow the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, written in a different context, Kashmir “highlights the colonizing tendencies that an anti-colonial nationalism may also display as it mutates into official nationalism with the assumption of power by the nationalists” (Chakrabarty et al. 2007: 7).

“Bihari Muslims,” also termed as the “stranded Pakistanis,” are those whose ancestors had fled from Bihar to Eastern Bengal (the region that would become East Pakistan) during the riots of 1946 or at the time of partition. They were mostly poor and less educated who worked as mechanic, shopkeepers, mill workers, etc. in East Pakistan. Many of them had also joined the railways. Known as Muhajirs during the Pakistan period, these Urdu-speaking Muslims had very little sympathy for the Bengali nationalist movement and assisted the Pakistan army and the Pakistani militia during the Liberation War. When Bangladesh became an independent nation-state, violence was unleashed on them. They were killed, their properties were looted, and many women of the community were raped. The camps opened by the Red Cross across the country became their refuge from the ongoing violence (Haider 2016: 429). From then on, they became the subjects of complex international negotiations. Through the International Committee of the Red Cross, as many as 534,792 “Bihari Muslims” asked for resettlement in Pakistan (Ghosh 2008: 169). In a tripartite discussion in New Delhi (August 28, 1973), Pakistan agreed to take a “substantial number of non-Bengalis (who are stated to have opted for repatriation to Pakistan) from Bangladesh” (Farzana 2009: 225). In an accompanying memorandum, Pakistan added that it was willing to take “all those individuals having a permanent residents in West Pakistan (people who may have gone over to East Pakistan temporarily), all employees of the federal government and their families, and a small number of hardship cases (meaning orphans, widows and others who had no immediate relatives in Bangladesh)” (ibid). Moreover, the members of the divided families, irrespective of their domiciles, would be accepted by the country. In another agreement between the three countries, the decisions were reiterated (April 1974). Despite these agreements, the successive governments in Pakistan have been reluctant to act upon it. The repatriation process virtually stopped since the mid-1990s. Apart from MQM, no other political party was enthusiastic about the coming of the “Bihari Muslims.” According to a 2016 article, “a total of 178,069 Biharis legally returned to Pakistan out of 534,792 who opted for repatriation through the ICRC. An estimated 100,000 Biharis have moved to Pakistan illegally through India, Nepal, and Burma and approximately, 250,000–300,000 are still staying in Bangladesh. They live in 116 camps across the country” (Haider 2016: 430). The conditions of these camps are deplorable with no privacy for the residents, extremely poor sanitary provisions, inadequate health, and educational facilities (ibid: 432–437). The abovementioned study also showed that only 13% of his respondents still wanted to be repatriated to Pakistan. The rest of the respondents wanted an end to the woes of camp life and resettlement in Bangladesh (ibid: 438). Though according to the court rulings, “Bihari Muslims” are now entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship, they are still de facto stateless as most of them have no access to the rights and entitlements associated with Bangladeshi citizenship (ibid).

Decolonization of Sri Lanka and Burma

An island across the Palk Strait in the south of India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) had a long history of encounter with the colonial powers. It had a Portuguese past that began in the early sixteenth century and lasted for more than 100 years. The Portuguese power was replaced by the Dutch East India Company, and by the end of the eighteenth century, the British replaced the Dutch. Ceylon remained a British colony till February 4, 1948. Sri Lanka’s experiences with the British colonial rule and the process of decolonization were drastically different from that of British India. Sometimes described as a “model colony” (Kumarasingham 2016: 377), this island did not witness any widespread popular uprising against the colonial regime, it had significantly better standard of living, and all the adult inhabitants enjoyed voting rights since 1931. The transition from the colonial regime to the national government was smooth, and Sri Lanka became independent without getting involved in any serious conflict with its colonial masters. The colonial period and the moment of transition did not witness communal clashes either, though the population of the island was not homogeneous in terms of religion or language. But in less than a decade, the island emerged as the site of intense ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist and constituting the majority of the population) and the Tamils (the minority, mostly Hindus). The roots of this fissure between the Sinhalese and the Tamils could be traced back to the peculiarities of the colonial experiences of Sri Lanka.

The Donoughmore Commission that recommended universal adult suffrage for Sri Lanka in 1931 made no provision for separate electorate or reservations for the minorities of the country. Rather, the existing communal electorates were replaced with a 58-member legislature where only 8 were to be nominated by the governor to “speak for interests otherwise unrepresented” (Kumarasingham 2006: 346). Not surprisingly, this apparently radical electoral reform irked the minorities of the island. The Tamil elites, who had till then enjoyed prominence and some influence in the legislative assembly and within the Ceylon National Congress, were particularly threatened by this move. As Kumarasingham writes, “The new democratic structure thus extensively reduced the influence and numbers of Tamils in the Congress elite and in politics as a whole, removing them from the centre of political leadership. With all positions on the Board of Ministers in the first State Council 1931–36 occupied entirely by Sinhalese, the fears of the Tamil community seemed to be realised” (Ibid: 348). Consequently, Sri Lanka witnessed mushrooming of numerous political parties organized around religion, language, and ethnicity (Kumarasingham 2016: 384). The Soulbury Commission, which was formed by the British government to chalk out the modes of decolonization in Sri Lanka, also did not introduce any significant measure to ensure higher representation of the minorities in the legislature. Therefore, though an independent and democratic Ceylon was created in 1948, it lacked “the constitutional, institutional and social infrastructure” required to govern a multiethnic community (Kumarasingham 2006: 350).

Despite the palpable tension between various groups, most importantly between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the first few years after independence was peaceful for Sri Lanka. But the politics of the island would operate around narrow ethno-nationalism was quite clear from the very beginning. For instance, the Ceylon Citizenship Act (1948) did not give citizenship rights to the “estate Tamils” (i.e., those who had migrated from India in the nineteenth century as plantation laborers), who formed 12% of the population of the island. But it was in 1956, with the passing of the controversial “Sinhala Only Act” (Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956), the tension between these two communities came on the surface. According to this Act, Sinhalese replaced English as the official language of Sri Lanka, and no such recognition was given to Tamil. This was a watershed moment for the Sri Lankan polity and triggered widespread protests from the Tamil community. When Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike tried to amend this act to appease the Tamil protesters, he faced massive backlash from the Sinhalese. The stage for communal riots and civil wars between the two communities were set. The year of 1958 would witness the first major anti-Tamil riot in Sri Lanka, and from then on, the island would remain perpetually volatile. As James Manor has argued, the absence of any popular support of the Colombo-based ruling elite also made them play the sectarian card and prevented any serious attempt of reconciliation (Manor 1979: 21–46).

On the other hand, though Burma was a part of the British Indian Empire for a long time, today it is associated with the countries comprising the category of Southeast Asia. In that sense, the decolonization process of Burma is more intimately connected with the political scenario of these countries than those of South Asia. Therefore, a very brief account of the events leading to the decolonization of this country will be provided here. Burma became a separate entity from India with the passing of the Government of Burma Act in 1935. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Burmese nationalists tried to negotiate with the British for complete independence after the War in return for their support to the Allied powers. When they did not get any positive response, they looked to the East for a Japanese assurance. Soon, Burma became the battleground between Britain and Japan, causing much distress to the common Burmese people. Japan held Burma from 1942 to 1945. The period of parliamentarianism (1937–1942) and “independence” under the Japanese can be viewed as “part of a single period in which unique circumstances allowed the Burmese to gain fluctuating degrees of independence and experiment with different models of government and political control” (Charney 2009: 46). British Army recaptured Burma in 1945. However, Britain was reluctant to grant independence. The celebrated leader, Aung San, “began a constitutional struggle, demanding the creation of an interim representative government with full powers over the affairs of the colony” (Ibid: 61). The election of a labor government in Britain, Aung San’s assassination by political rivals, and growing discontent in Burma made certain that the British had to relinquish their colony. Finally, with the signing of the Anglo-Burmese Treaty on October 18, 1947, the Burma Independence Act was approved by the Parliament, and Burma became independent on January 4, 1948. Being a multiethnic region where the leaders of different communities had come together to form the Union of Burma only after ensuring autonomy in internal administration for the frontier regions (Panglong Agreement 1947), the idea of one nation was not a deep-rooted one in independent Burma among the various minority groups. From the beginning ethnic conflicts and insurgency problems were prevalent in this region (Kipgen 2011). The last phase of colonial Burma (1937–1947) witnessed the demise of the strong nationalist leaders which also proved disastrous for the independent nation-state, as in the absence of these leaders, “their lieutenants would lead Burma headlong into one of the world’s longest civil wars” (Charney: 71).

Decolonizing the French Indian Empire and the Portuguese Indian Empire

Since the middle of the seventeenth century, French East India Company attempted to gain foothold in the Indian subcontinent. Like their British counterpart, their initial interest was limited to commercial activities. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, French territorial interests in this part of the world became significant, and clashes with the British East India Company became inevitable. The series of Anglo-French wars fought in the southern and eastern India stunted the French ambitions. But the French Government managed to retain five enclaves till the 1950s – namely, Chandernagore (now Chandannagar in West Bengal), Pondicherry (Puducherry), Karikal and Yanam in Coromandel Coast, and Mahe in Malabar Coast.

With the end of the British Indian Empire, questions were raised about the future of the French Indian enclaves. On June 9, 1948, an agreement was signed between the Governments of India and France for holding a referendum to decide the future of these territories. A plebiscite followed, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of merger with India. However, it is interesting to note that 38% adults of Chandernagore chose to abstain. Unlike Chandernagore, no plebiscite was held in other four enclaves. Lawlessness and petty violence were the reasons cited by the Indian government against holding a popular referendum (Namakkal 2017). Instead of that, the elected representatives of French India met on October 18, 1954, to vote in favor or against the proposed merger with India. The decision of this vote was in India’s favor, and from November that year, these territories were under the de facto rule of the Indian government. The nationalist historiography has presented the merger of French territories with India as an inevitable act. The recent scholarship, however, has shown that despite being scattered and surrounded by the Indian territories, there were no unanimous demands for merger with India from the inhabitants of these enclaves. Several other possibilities were imagined and articulated including autonomy within the French Union and independence from both India and France. Between 1947 and 1954, there were 7 years of uncertainties and possibilities in these four enclaves. The setback of French power in Indochina and the changing contours of internal politics of these enclaves finally led to the merger (Yechury 2015). As the French power withdrew from the subcontinent, the inhabitants of the erstwhile French colonies were given the option to retain the French citizenship. Since the Indian Constitution does not have the provision for dual citizenship, one could only become either French or Indian. In the erstwhile French territories of southern India, many opted for French citizenship that ensured numerous welfare benefits offered by the French Government (Miles 1992).

Portuguese India, encompassing almost 1500 miles2 of territory, outlived the British and the French empires in the subcontinent. Portuguese presence in the peninsular India can be dated back to 1498. But it was Alfonso de Albuquerque who established the real foundation of Portuguese power by taking over Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1510. Within another 50 years, Portuguese control extended to Diu and Daman. Portuguese control in these territories remained for little less than four centuries. After 14 years of diplomatic negotiations, followed by a reluctant yet controversial military intervention (Singhal 1962), the postcolonial Indian State managed to establish its control over these territories in December 1961.

Similar to that of the French Indian territories, for the residents of Portuguese India, merger was not the only possible option. Some people opposed merger and preferred an autonomous Goa under the Portuguese rule. There were also those who wanted independence from both Portugal and India. Nonetheless, the pro-merger voices were the most audible ones from the mid-1940s. Depending on their political and ideological orientations, they chose between Gandhian satyagraha and revolutionary methods to liberate Goa. The Portuguese Government was not yet ready to let the possessions go and tried to mobilize the international opinion against India, who allegedly was supporting this movement. The Nehru Government, on the other hand, was hesitant to engage militarily against Portugal – a NATO member. But failed diplomatic missions and mounting pressure from various political parties within and outside Portuguese India pushed for a military intervention.

Once the Portuguese power withdrew from Goa, Daman, and Diu, the neighboring states made claims over these territories citing linguistic affinity and territorial contiguity. While Maharashtra demanded Goa, pointing out the significant presence of Marathi-speaking population there, Gujarat laid a claim on Daman and Diu. Such claims were contested by invoking their unique Portuguese past and by citing the large presence of Konkani-speaking people. Goa, in 1987, was declared as the 25th state within India, and Daman-Diu is recognized as a separate union territory within India (for an overview of the political developments in Goa between 1960s and 1980s see Rubinoff 1992).

Concluding Remarks

The above discussion provided an overview of the process of decolonization in South Asia. As it indicated, decolonization here was not an event, rather a “long drawn out process of political transition” (Bandyopadhyay 2016: 2) that began in the colonial period itself through the negotiations between the indigenous elite and the ruling elite, and its ramifications continue to affect the polities of several South Asian countries. Therefore it is important to remember that contrary to the visions of Gandhi or Fanon, the actual moment of the transfer of power did not mean a moment of rupture for the South Asian societal and political structures. There were certain obvious continuities in terms of institutions and people. In postcolonial Sri Lanka, for instance, the Soulbury Constitution provided the legal framework for governance. In the Indian case, the Government of India Act 1935 provided the basis of the constitution to a large extent. The structure of the civil service of British India was retained intact in the successor states after August 14–15, 1947. The transfer of power did not mean a new set of bureaucrats or new faces in police. The same men were there, only now they were serving a new government. They were often accused of treating the citizens as subjects – with the same brutality and disdain that they were notorious for during the colonial rule (Kamal 2007: 210–217; Das 2001: 7–8). Some of the British men also opted to remain in service under the national governments. The presence of men like Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of colonial India who became the first governor general of India, and Lord Soulbury, who was a minister in colonial Ceylon and became the governor general of independent Sri Lanka (1949–1954), was also a symbol of continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial regimes (Kamtekar 1999: 50). Despite certain obvious elements of continuity, to many people who experienced the formal transfer of power, it was a moment of rupture. A few historical studies have meticulously detailed the celebrations and festivities that took place across the Indian subcontinent on August 14–15, 1947 (Bandyopadhyay 2012; Kudaisya 2017: 1–8; Guha 2007: 3–11). In some instances, it was orchestrated “from above” by the local political elites. But people did not necessarily follow the script, giving the celebrations spontaneity. Of course, it was not a “common experience” (Chatterjee 2004: 12). People understood, experienced, and narrated the moment differently. For many, who became a minority or a refugee, it was a moment of mourning, yet a new beginning.

That the transfer of power could provide a space for new beginnings inspired the ruling elites, the policy makers, the scientists, the historians, and the literary minds in taking up fresh projects, formulating policies, and in planning new collaborations. For instance, Romila Thapar, perhaps the most important historian of ancient India, took up the responsibility of writing history textbook for school children as to her it was a “national cause.” In her words, “…the notion of a national cause was very strong. My generation had been imprinted with the nationalism of the forties and early fifties. Its essential characteristic was the sense of enthusiasm that we were involved in the building of a nation and could therefore move away from conventions to some degree so as to encourage the implanting of new ideas. It was from this perspective that I agreed to write a textbook…” (Thapar 2009: 88). The rationale for such a project was clear: “We were distancing our history from that written under imperial auspices - the writing of historians such as Vincent Smith, Edward John Thompson, Geoffrey Garratt and Hugh Rawlinson, or even their Indian counterparts” (ibid: 89). Thus, decolonization – in the radical sense – seemed possible and desirable at this moment. The transfer of power from colonial to a national government had made this moment possible. Decolonization in South Asia coincided with the beginning of the Cold War. As the global political order became bipolar, a wider Third World Network – neither aligned to the United States nor to Soviet Union – was conceived advocating mutual cooperation, end of colonial rule, noninterference, and nonaggression. Known as Non-Aligned Movement, it witnessed positive response from the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. India played a leading role and Sri Lanka participated from the beginning. The formation of a Third World Network and the hope that it would play a crucial role in maintaining world peace was made possible only because the transfer of power was perceived as a break which had radical possibilities. More evidence can be put together to argue that decolonization was a moment of rupture or the reverse – i.e., a process ensuring continuity. Both these perspectives are true, and as has recently been argued, “decolonization in South Asia … was a complex and diverse process of continuity and change, fraught with multiple alternative possibilities” (Bandyopadhyay 2016: 19).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryInstitute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK)KolkataIndia