The British Policy of Divide and Rule in Burma, Malaya and India

The British Policy of Divide and Rule in Burma, Malaya and India

II. British Burma:

In British Burma, the same policy was introduced with the help of ‘pseudo-anthropological’ tools such as the colonial census and population reports. After three successive wars against the Burmese kingdom in 1824-26, 1852-53 and 1884-85, the British attempted to break the Burman hold on Burmese politics and society by deliberately employing the ethnic minorities and hill tribes in specific sectors of the plural colonial economy. Groups like the Karens were singled out for missionary conversion and recruitment into the colonial police force (such as the Karen Rifles brigade), thereby immediately setting the different ethnic groupings against each other.

Other migrant races were brought in to man the colonial economy as well as the colonial police force. Sikh troops from India were used to curtail indigenous revolts, as in the case of British Malaya. As in the case of Malaya, the British also introduced a policy of ‘protecting’ the rights of the indigenous Burmans when it became obvious that they had been marginalised in the colonial economy that was set up. This involved the employment of Burmans into the civil service apparatus, but it effectively kept them out of other areas such as the economy.

The result was a deepening of ethnic and racial differences and the creation of even more resentment between the communities, which the British used to their advantage. As a consequence of this, Burma experienced a series of ethnic conflicts which intensified during the process of nationalist struggle. The postcolonial regime has also tried to deal with the enduring problem of racial and ethnic animosity for several decades, but most of their policies have failed due to their own Burman-centric approach.

In conclusion, it could be said that the British policy of divide and rule in Malaya was not unique. It was a standard policy that Britain was employing in all of its colonies in Asia as well as Africa, and its motivation was primarily based on realpolitik considerations that placed the economic and political needs of the colonial government before all else.

The British Policy of Divide and Rule: Some comparisons with British India and Burma.

The British policy of ‘divide and rule’ was not exclusive to Malaya alone, nor was it a practice carried out by Britain exclusively. It was a general policy adopted by most Western imperial powers which achieved its most rationalised and systematic form by the middle of the nineteenth century and it was carried out in most of their colonies in Asia and Africa until the middle of the twentieth century. ‘Divide and rule’ was generally responsible for sowing the seeds of racial, religious and ethnic discord and mistrust which led to many instances of inter-racial and inter-religious conflict. This in turn helped justify the presence of the colonial powers in the colonies as a foreign policing agent which kept the unstable situation in check by keeping the different groupings forcibly apart. Most of these colonies remain fragmented thanks to these policies which were not reversed or corrected during the hasty process of decolonisation in the 1940’s-60’s.

In British Malaya, a fragmented plural economy was created through the massive importation of large numbers of non-Malay Asian migrants, mostly from India and China. Sikh and Punjabi troops from Northern India were used to police the community and to keep the groups in check. They were also used to stem any attempts at revolt by the Malays. These groups were legally and forcibly confined to specific sectors of the economy, while the Malays themselves were gradually squeezed out of the economic mainstream of the colony. The policy of promoting Malays to allocated spaces within the colonial bureaucracy as part of the policy of ‘protecting’ Malay special privileges and rights further entrenched these differences and reinforced the boundaries of economic and political differences which coincided with artificially created ethnic boundaries.
The policies in Malaya can be compared to those employed in two other British Asian colonies: British India and British Burma.


I. British India:

‘Divide and Rule’ was the standard policy employed by the British in their dealings with India and the Indians from the very beginning, when the East India Company (EIC) first made its presence felt in the subcontinent.

From its earliest victory at the Battle of Pelasi (Plassey) in 1757, the EIC was already actively engaged in turning the Indian rulers against each other. At Pelasi, the small force of Robert Clive only managed to defeat the larger force of Siraj-ud-Dawla, the Nawab of Bengal, because he had managed to conspire with the Nawab’s uncle Mir Jafar and persuaded the latter to betray his nephew. After gaining control of Bengal and other parts of India, the EIC began to introduce reforms in law and taxation law which allowed it to earn more profit which also creating dependent class groupings within Indian society.

In 1793 the Zemindari system was introduced by the British in the region of Bengal. The law transferred the ownership of the land from the village communities to the Zemindars, the class of tax-collectors, who were responsible to the EIC directly. These Zemindars became a new class grouping within themselves and this division led to further alienation and antagonism in Indian rural societies. The Zemindars in turn became a new breed of land-owners under EIC protection and served the role of tax-farmers who provided the EIC with guaranteed revenue through their own unscrupulous and often brutal means of tax-extortion.

Then in 1818 the EIC introduced the Ryotwari system in the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras. This made the Indian peasants (the ryots) tenants on land that was previously theirs anyway. The ryot were forced to pay tent-taxes to the EIC and if they failed to do so they were forced off their property. The Ryotwari system created a class of itinerant peasants and a new class of rural homeless poor. They were often victimised by EIC forces and officials, as well as local Indian money-lenders and profiteers who eventually took over all their lands.

The strategy of divide and rule was further entrenched and institutionalised in the wake of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857. Even during the conflict itself the British were engaged in pursuing the policy in their dealings with the Indians. The British authorities won the support of the Indian feudal rulers, Princes and Talukdars by promising that their lands would be returned to them if they supported the British effort. This isolated the mass peasant base that supported the war of independence, and allowed the British to defeat them in stages. After the defeat of the Indian forces, the British effectively decapitated the political leadership of the country. The last moghul ruler of India, Emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar, was deposed by the British in 1856, but he was proclaimed emperor once again in 1857 by the Indians. After the defeat of the Indians in 1858, Bahadur Shah was once again deposed by the British, this time for good. He was sent into exile in Rangoon after his entire family was executed and their heads were presented to the emperor by the British soldiers, served on silver platters.

The British colonial government then took over the rule of India from the East India Company, and it began to introduce a number of policies which were designed to further entrench the pre-existing social divisions within the country: It worked to keep Muslims and Hindus apart in the colony, and it introduced a system of deliberate racial discrimination which favoured Muslims over Hindus in some areas and the opposite in others. This was part of a deliberate and orchestrated plan to maintain British rule in the colony. Government officials realised that the pre-existing racial and religious differences between Hindus and Muslims could be turned to their advantage if the two groups were made to oppose each other, instead of working together to oppose British rule. As Sir John Strachey put it: ‘The truth plainly is that the existence side by side of these hostile creeds is one of the strong points of our political position in India’ (1888). This climate of hostility was itself artificially created and intensified by the divisive policies outlined above. As Lieutenant Colonel Coke has explained it: ‘our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the separation which exists between different religions and races, not mix them. Divide et Impera should be our principle aim’ (1860).

The British government also sought to employ the different racial groups in different sectors of the colonial economy and administration, thus emphasising ethnic and cultural divisions even more. In particular those ethnic groups that were regarded as being ‘martial races’ (i.e. Rajputs, Sikhs,) were used to man the military and security apparatus of the colonial state both in India as well as in the other neighbouring colonies.

Minor principalities and small Indian kingdoms were also given limited autonomy and governed indirectly. By allowing some petty Indian rulers to enjoy some of the trappings of power, the British government hoped to ensure that a minor Indian elite and aristocracy could be maintained that was well-disposed towards their colonial rulers. As in the case of the Malay sultanates, the Indian courts were appointed British residents and advisors, who in fact assumed de facto powers to rule while the native rulers were reduced to puppets of the colonial regime.

These policies were perpetuated and intensified well into the twentieth century. It culminated with the fragmentation of the Indian nationalist movement along class, ethnic, ideological and religious lines and the emergence of the Muslim League of India in 1906. By this time, Indian Muslims were certain that their presence would no longer be welcomed in an independent predominantly-Hindu India. The British, however, did not relent in their aim to keep the two communities at odds with each other, for it feared the prospect of an emerging Indian nationalism that might lead to the overthrow of British rule in India. The net result of nearly a century of racial division and social engineering was the eventual partition of India in 1946-47, and the racial and religious conflict that preceded and followed in the wake of India-Pakistan’s independence.


Sir John Strachey, ‘India’, (London. 1888) in R.P Dutt, ‘India Today’, Manisha, India. 1986. (pg. 456)

D.G.E. Hall, ‘A History of Southeast Asia’, Macmillan Asian Histories Series, Fourth Edition. London. 1981.

Robert H. Taylor, ‘The State in Burma’ . 1988.

The Other Malaysia by Farish A.

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