Early this month, when Al-Jazeera came up with an article stating that British colonialism killed more than 100 million Bharatiyas in 40 years between 1880 AD and 1920 AD, it created a sense of anger and disbelief. One thought it would create a serious debate and discussion on how one of the oldest civilisations met with a series of cataclysmic and existential assaults in the past 1,300 years.
But then the story died down.
It’s a matter of sheer good luck that Bharatiyas didn’t go the Persian, Greek or Roman way. Maybe they were just too many to be killed or converted. Maybe they were too decentralised to be stormed and destroyed at once — and yet there was an innate sense of unity pervading the utter chaos that Hinduism would appear from the outside. Maybe our intellectual and martial classes didn’t let down the civilisation the way it has been projected to us. And, maybe the so-called lower castes didn’t join the invaders the way our ‘eminent’ historians have made us believe. In fact, as KS Lal showcased with a lot of facts and figures in Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India, these so-called lower castes actually fought the invaders with vigour and strength when the class of “traditional Hindu warriors, mostly Rajputs, stood exhausted by the time of the Mughal invasion, having fought the earlier invaders at every step for well-nigh eight centuries”.
But then we forgot those battles. Not in popular imagination… Not even in folktales and folklores. But in mainstream historiography. Interestingly, the mainstream historiography is deeply divided on the horrors of Islamic and European atrocities in Bharat. While a section of historians would whitewash the Islamic barbarism but write with great gusto about European cruelties, there are scholars, especially Nehruvians, who would paint a largely rosy picture of the Raj. But why just blame Nehruvians or those woolly-headed liberals, when a self-proclaimed nationalist government, currently in power in Bharat, chose to officially mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II this year? The late Queen’s own family members presided over most of these killings.
The Great British killing machine
If one takes Al-Jazeera’s 100 million Bharatiyas casualties in 40 years to be true — there’s no reason not to believe this — it would not be an exaggeration to say that more than 200 million people died or killed under the British rule. And this would be a highly conservative number for the 190 years of British rule between 1757 AD and 1947 AD.
The British colonial history in Bharat began on a rapacious note in 1757 when the East India Company under Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daullah, the ruler of Bengal, in the Battle of Plassey. Such was the predatory nature of the British rule that Bengal, which was one of the richest provinces of Bharat then, started witnessing famines of unprecedented scales within 15 years of the Company Raj. Is it any surprise that the British stole $45 trillion from Bharat between 1765 and 1938, which is more than 15 times the total annual GDP of the UK today?
The result was devastating. The Bengal Famine of 1770, the first great famine in the region, for instance, caused the deaths of an estimated 10 million people. John Fiske brings out the horror of 1770 in his book, American Philosopher in the Unseen World: “All through the stifling summer of 1770 the people went on dying. The husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed-grain; they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer of children could be found; they ate the leaves of trees and the grass of the field… The streets were blocked up with promiscuous heaps of the dying and dead. Interment could not do its work quick enough; even the dogs and jackals, the public scavengers of the East, became unable to accomplish their revolting work, and the multitude of mangled and festering corpses at length threatened the existence of the citizens” (as quoted by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World).
Since 1770, Bharat saw at least two dozen massive famines, the last big one being again in Bengal in the early 1940s whose man-made nature can be understood from the fact that a series decisions by Winston Churchill, the then British prime minister, “directly and inevitably led to the deaths of some three million Indians”, as Madhusree Mukerjee writes in Churchill’s Secret War. “The streets of eastern Indian cities were lined with corpses, yet instead of sending emergency food shipments, Churchill used the wheat and ships and his disposal to build stockpiles for feeding post-War Britain and Europe,” she adds.
Famines, however, weren’t the only killing machines. The country saw hundreds of rebellions against the British, most of them were crushed with iron fist. In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, the two-volume series on what many saw as “India’s first war of independence”, author Amaresh Misra states that there was an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857. Such was the polarised milieu and hatred for Indians that Charles Dickens, who warmed our hearts with Oliver Twist-like tales, said on the Great Mutiny: “I wish I were commander-in-chief in India… I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race.”
The frog and the boiling water
KS Lal, in his monumental work, Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India (AD 1000-1800), provides a detailed assessment of change in Bharat’s demography between 1000 AD and 1500 AD. His studies suggest that the population of the subcontinent actually saw a decline between 1000 AD, on the eve of Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions, and 1500 AD, just before Babur laid the foundation of the Mughal Empire in Bharat in 1526 AD. (According to Lal, more than 2 million Hindus died during Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions of India.) Taking into account all the available details, Lal comes to the conclusion that about 60 to 80 million Hindus died between 1000 and 1500 AD.
Now add to them the exploits of Babur, who after one of his victories got “a tower of infidels’ skulls” being “erected on the hill on the northwest side of Chanderi” — and this wasn’t an exception during his four-year rule in Bharat. As for Aurangzeb, his fanaticism is beyond doubt, except when one deliberately wears Audrey Truschke-like ideological/opportunistic blinders. Even during Akbar’s largely non-partisan rule, the Chittor massacre of 30,000 civilians, including women and children, took place soon after the Mughal victory.
On a purely statistical comparison, the European atrocities outlast and outsmart the Muslim persecution. Still, the Raj largely comes out unscathed. Even its last act — Bharat’s Partition — was a manmade tragedy: One, the British felicitated Bharat’s Partition to retain some footholds in the subcontinent after Bharat’s Independence; and two, they did pretty little to stop the Partition-related violence after Cyril Redcliffe beat the ‘impossible’ five-week deadline to divide the subcontinent. Such was the chaos that people on border areas didn’t know till 15 August 1947 whether they would be in Bharat or Pakistan. Rumour-mongers had a field day. “Each time one of these rumours became rife, people of the other community would abandon their homes and run, leaving everything behind,” Urvashi Butalia writes in The Other Side of Silence. A better handling of the situation would have saved a million lives.
Still if we mourn the death of the British Queen, then something is not right. Maybe the frog in the boiling water theory can explain pathetic sense of amnesia. Unlike the Muslim marauders, who believed in the might of the sword to conquer Bharat, the British death didn’t happen at one go; the killings, even though on a much bigger proportion, were spaced out. And like the proverbial frog in the hot water, Hindus didn’t realise they were being boiled to death! It won’t be unreasonable to say that while the Muslim invaders largely resorted to jhatka-style of executions, the British took to the halal way of killing Bharatiyas. The first was dramatic and sudden, but the second was long and more painful.
Maybe the part of the amnesia for British crime has been because unlike the Muslim invaders who didn’t discriminate in the killing of kafirs, the British adopted a much ‘smarter’ strategy of divide and rule. To use the Macaulayan term, the British patronised and got the support of people who were “Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. These were mostly the elite, urbane and educated Bharatiyas. This class of people also supported the British because it had not experienced this kind of peaceful milieu for centuries, leading to some sort of renaissance as we saw in the 19th century Bengal. But this came at the cost of lives and livelihoods of millions of poor in the rural, semi-urban areas. But then these were largely silent sufferers. Life was a daily drudgery for them, and death a way to escape that.
It’s unsettling to see Hindus being largely silent or indifferent about the horrors being unleashed on them for centuries. One wonders why there’s no memorial for the Hindu holocaust of the last 1,000 years. Maybe centuries of mass killings have made them indifferent towards their own plight. Being a witness to untold persecution and conditioned by unending miseries and losses, they seem to have stopped reacting the way others would do — the way, for instance, the Jews reacted after Auschwitz. Maybe Hindus could survive those pogroms because they just stopped being affected by them.
Maybe… Maybe not!
But what’s beyond doubt is that people of this land have suffered immensely. Even by conservative estimates, as we see in this article, more than 300 million people might have been killed in the past 1,000 years. We, as a nation, have not yet examined the true nature of those killings. In fact, we tend to ignore, if not hide, such inconvenient truths. Till that happens, we as a nation won’t be able to take due lessons from history. And when one fails to learn from the past, one tends to stand with one’s own nemesis. The recent mourning over the British Queen’s death is a case in point.
(The story was first published on firstpost.com on December 19, 2022 and has been reproduced here with minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide.)