What we don't say about 'British India'

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This year marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the partition of the subcontinent into modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here, Runnymede Research and Policy Analyst Farah Elahi explores the importance of a balanced diet when it come to history lessons on the British Empire.

British involvement in India spanned almost 450 years, starting with the East India Company in 1600 and transferring to the British Raj in 1858 and coming to an end in 1947.

Britain’s relationship with India continues through trade and migration. In the last census approximately 5% of the UK population (and 10% of the school population) identified as Asian or Asian British.

British rule had a profound social and a crippling economic impact on India. Attempts to frame colonialism as a form of enlightened despotism overlook the massacre of unarmed protesters, not to mention entrenched institutional racism and the death of millions from starvation.

Despite the pivotal role the regions have played in each other’s histories, the British public’s knowledge and understanding of this relationship and its negative impact on the Indian subcontinent is very poor. A 2016 YouGov poll found that only 19% of Britons think the British Empire was a “bad thing”, and 21% believe that the history of colonialism is part of our history that we should regret happening. This indicates a level of historical amnesia about the many atrocities that took place during colonial rule, and not just in India.

The importance of better public understanding of this significant period of history is not simply a matter of accuracy; the persistence of a rose-tinted view of the British Empire allows Britain to be let off the hook for its role in past and present inequalities experienced by former colonies, and prevents meaningful lessons from being learnt.

The question arises, what are schools doing to address this significant knowledge gap? Leading historians have repeatedly called for better education about the brutality of Britain’s imperial past, and although the Indian subcontinent and Britain’s relationship to it appears in three of the seven topics in year seven History classes in the national curriculum, it is rarely taught. Runnymede Trust’s History Lessons report found that many teachers are often uncomfortable, and ill-equipped to teach about cultural diversity or diverse histories to a high standard.

Runnymede’s reportNations Divided: How to teach the history of partition, presents a case study for schools and educators on how to introduce diverse history in to the curriculum. The Partition History Project used drama and a series of lesson plans to engage students with the events that unfolded during the partition of British India. Drama was a very effective teaching tool, and the project demonstrated the significant benefits and opportunities present in teaching a diverse history that goes beyond Tudors and World Wars.

Students, those with a personal connection and those without, enjoyed covering a topic that fell outside of what the normally studied. Those that had already studied aspects of the British Empire recognised that they had been taught a Euro-centric perspective and valued gaining a fuller understanding, warts and all.

One student told us: “We’ve been learning about Great Britain, all the countries they had; we didn’t actually learn about everything they caused through that. So it was interesting to find out.”

Delving in to the history of Partition, teachers had the opportunity to engage students in the innate complexity of history. It is not simply a matter of learning rote facts and defining who was right or wrong, but rather developing the skills to understand a contested history in shades of grey. In order to ensure effective teaching, we found that it was important for the topic to be imbedded within a wider curriculum framework that covers the British Empire, rather than just an isolated topic. Additionally, students could gain an understanding of contemporary political challenges such as the refugee crisis, community cohesion and the integration of diverse communities.

At a time when it feels as though the distances within society are increasing and when as adults we struggle to find ways of hearing each other across those distances, schools have a crucial role to play. That role must facilitate a deeper understanding of Britain’s global history. Young people need to know where we have come from to understand where we are and where we might be able to go.

- Follow Farah on Twitter: @farahelahi

- For a balanced look at Britain's migration history see Runnymede's Our Migration Story project and teaching resource.

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