Millennium Post

India: Internal Colonialism

‘Internal colonialism’ is a broadly defined term that captures the complexities of structural, political and economic inequalities between regions within a nation-state

India: Internal Colonialism

In this essay, we aimed to explore the forms of colonialism that still exist in India resulting in the hypothesis that India exhibits internal and regional colonialism. In the modern era, the theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx placed colonialism in the context of commercial and industrial capitalism as related to imperialism and nationalism. The colonial paradigm, the collection of theories seeking to explain the phenomenon of global colonisation, exists in relation to a constellation of other models regarding socioeconomic exchange across time.

Generally, the Timurid dynasty–arriving from Central Asia, establishing the Mughal (Mogul) Empire, and ruling over most of India and Pakistan from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries—is considered the first foreign power that expanded into adjacent territories of the Indian subcontinent populated by distinct peoples (Richards 1995; Foltz 1998). This continental colonialism was only later followed by Portuguese and British (Welch 2011) overseas colonialism. However, a recent study on genetic formation reveals that expansion into the Indian subcontinent had started much earlier than the Mughal invasion.

There were three major migrations into the subcontinent during the last 65,000 years. The 'Out of Africa' migrants reached India around sixty-five thousand years ago. They were followed, sometime between 7000 and 3000 BCE, by nomadic groups from the Zagros region of South-western Iran. These herders, who imported agriculturists and grain, like wheat and barley, had mixed with 'Out of Africa' migrants (a few descendants of these first Indians still live in the Andaman Islands) and created the Harappa civilisation (Venkataramakrishnan 2018). Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were the two great cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, also known as the Harappa civilisation. Recent findings estimate that the beginning of the Harappa civilisation dates back to 5500 BCE. Geographically, it was spread to a wide area spanning from South-eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan to the North West and Western States of India (Allchin and Allchin 1982; Wright 2009; Coningham and Young 2015; Madaan 2019).

This Harappa civilisation, one of the oldest civilisations of the world, was destroyed by the next wave of migrants who reached the land around 1500 BCE. According to Heine-Geldern (1956), these Indo-Aryan groups were probably driven out of their homeland in North-western Iran or Transcaucasia, around 1500 BCE due to conflicts with the dominant people who destroyed the Hittite kingdom by 1200 BCE. One group of these Indo-Aryan migrants might have moved south and south-west and acquired mastery over the kingdom of Mitanni and parts of Syria.

These Indo-Aryans (the Eurasian Steppe people) brought with them mastery of the chariot, an early version of Sanskrit, and various cultural practices like sacrificial rituals that formed the basis of early Vedic Hindu culture. The earliest form of Sanskrit which the Indo-Aryan introduced was also spoken in the Mitanni region of Syria (Daniyal 2015; Venkataramakrishnan 2018). The first two major migrations had thus culminated in the development of the Harappa or Indus Valley civilisation.

The third, Indo-Aryan migration might have caused some amount of upheaval when it encountered the Indus Valley population. Consequently, some of the latter moved farther south, joined, and mixed with South Asian hunter-gatherers, the Ancient Ancestral South Indian (AASI), to create the Ancestral South Indian (ASI) population. The Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists mixed with groups of the Indus Valley periphery living in the northern fringe, to create the Ancestral North Indian (ANI) branch. More migration into the Indian subcontinent occurred in later times, though mostly from East Asia. These groups assimilated with one of the two dominant groups. Thus, most of the South Asian populations carry either the lineage of ASI or ANI or a mixture of both.

These Indo-European language speakers who came to India around 1500 BCE still rule the nation with the help of their Vedic culture and Sanskrit-based language, Hindi. People with ANI lineage have been successful in developing a political and social structure that has helped them to retain their hegemony over the non-ANI population of India. Researchers have found Indian groups, identified as "Brahmin-Tiwari" and "Brahmin-UP", with a higher amount of Aryan ancestry compared to Harappa and Indus Valley ancestry. It has been observed that groups of priestly status have higher Aryan ancestry, suggesting those with this mixture may have had a central role in spreading Vedic culture (Venkataramakrishnan 2018; cf. Narasimhan et al. 2018, 16).

Like most colonial powers, Indo-Aryans used their own language, Sanskrit, to establish their dominance over the colonised. In the nineteenth century, these ancient colonisers in collaboration with their colonial superiors from Europe, simplifying the Sanskrit grammar created a Sanskrit script (Devanagari) based on Hindi as the administrative language. Rulers of modern, post-1947 India have spent billions to propagate Hindi at the expense of hundreds of local, genuine languages. Recently, the state has sponsored massive projects to revive and standardise ancient Vedic texts and the Sanskrit language—the two major cultural tools of Aryan colonialism.

The social structure of the caste system, which the in-migrating Aryans had established on the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago, still rules society creating 'internal colonies' through the application of a racial philosophy (Brahmanism), the cultural hegemony of linguistics supremacy and Vedic knowledge. Historical evidence suggests that the non-Aryan groups of India's East, Northeast, Centre, and South, had resisted Aryan expansion into their territory. When the European colonial powers withdrew from India, the Aryan rulers of the modern North and West Indian states have subjugated East, Northeast, and Central India to exploit the natural and human resources of these 'internal colonies'. Only the South Indian states have successfully resisted the Aryan expansion to a large extent.

'Internal colonialism' is a broadly defined term that captures the complexities of structural, political, and economic inequalities between regions within a nation-state. It also depicts the international exploitation of distinct cultural groups. This term refers to the subordination of an ethno-racial group "in its own homeland within the boundaries of a larger state dominated by a different people" (Chávez 2011, 786; cf. Dey 2015). There is a basic conceptual difference between 'internal' and 'regional' colonialism, where a macro-region is economically underdeveloped and its population oppressed relative to a country's core, but the people of both regions are of the same ethno-racial stock (Stone 1979, 255).

In India 'internal' colonialism manifested itself in three different forms:

Subordination of ethno-racial and non-Hindu religious groups, namely indigenous people (mostly descendants of the Harappa, AASI. Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic people), Dalit (outcastes or untouchables, sweepers, latrine cleaners), and Muslims (a sizeable portion of whom, especially in Eastern India, are converted lower caste Hindus) by descendants of Ancestral North Indians (ANI);

Subordination of regions not dominated by the descendants of ANI of the North and West Indian states;

Subordination of rural populations by the urban elites where Anglicized India exploits rural Bharat.

It should be stated that the complexity of India's society, with its long history of colonial dominance, does not allow for an impermeable division between internal and regional colonialism. There are overlaps and grey areas which challenge any conventional definition. Moreover, 'regional colonialism' in India should not be confused with 'political regionalism' as the Anglicised urban elites act as 'clientele classes' of the colonial state, their English ways making them as ethnically distinct and dominant.

Brahmanical domination is increasingly questioned in India, and new identities, both geographical and social, are appearing across the country leading to an increase in conflict and growing resistance to the Indo-Aryan colonial hegemony.

(This piece is an abridged version of the author's paper titled 'India: The Context of Its Current Internal Colonialism'. Views expressed are strictly personal)

Dipankar Dey

Dipankar Dey

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