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Colonialism and Nationalism Part-1 Notes

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Main perspectives on colonialism: Liberalism, Marxism, Postcolonialism

Liberal Perspective: Colonial Interpretation

  • The Battle of Plassey (1757) is the dividing line in the colonial history of modern India as it led to the foundation of formal colonial rule.

  • In order to gain legitimacy, the British Administration promoted kind of history writing which was sympathetic to their mission in India and showed the colonialism as an necessity for Indians to make them modern and civilized.

  • The group of thinkers and historians belonging to this school also projected the Indian National Movement, whether vide the 1857 rebellion or later the rise of Congress and other organizations, as mere cover of elites.

  • This particular school of colonialism is known as colonial school of history.

  • The colonial perspective on Indian history developed through phases.

  • British did understand the importance of culture, society and Indian people to rule effectively upon them.

  • In fact, it is important to note that from early 19th century, reconstruction of Indian history was the main agenda of colonial power.

“Every accumulation of knowledge and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise dominion, founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state…it attracts and conciliates distant affections; it lessons the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection; and it imprints on the hearts of our countrymen the sense of obligation and benevolence” said by Warren Hasting.

  • Among the early writings on Indian history and culture were the works of Christian missionaries already active in various parts of India by that time.

  • And these missionaries contributed to highlight the backwardness and primitiveness of Indians in order to justify their presence.

  • They believed Indian history was stagnant since ages and made no progress altogether for a very long time.

  • Beside missionaries, several trained Orientalists and philologists writing about Indian past and culture.

  • Most of the sources used by these colonial historiographers were old Sanskrit texts like Vedas and Smritis and their conversations with pundits and Satirizes in different parts of India.

  • The Missionaries and Orientalists did find ancient similarities between Indian and European cultures.

  • Both of these argued that since a very long time where Europeans have moved much ahead, Indians have remained stagnated and there is noting progressive in recent Indian history.

  • They believe the ‘backwardness’ of Indian society and culture was due to the dominant Hindu beliefs.

  • Based on the writings of some missionaries and Orientalists, earlier colonial administration initiated some ‘reforms’ from above and gave the Missionaries free hand to spread their faith and ideology.

  • Missionaries were unable to give insight of Indians history so company administration took accounts of orientalists into consideration like Sir William Jones, Sir Wilson, H.T. Colebrook, and Rajendra Lal and another.

  • Unlike missionaries who relied only on Sanskrit sources, Orientalists used works of foreign travelers in India like Megathenese, Al-Baruni and others as well.

  • Orientalists tried to relook at ancient Indian history and discover it’s so called greatness and found the "golden age" of Indians.

  • According to Orientalist interpretations during this ‘golden age’ the essence of Indian civilization was formed.

  • They identified the essence of the Indian civilization in the form of richness of its language and religious texts.

  • They argued that the ancient Indian civilization had quite a developed form of Law and other political institutions which have been lost due to corruption in the last century.

  • Orientalists tried to link Indian history with the Biblical stories. For example, they saw the story of Noah’s Ark as an almost parallel to the story of Manu.

  • Despite the glorification of the Indian past, Orientalists viewed contemporary India as inferior and backward as compared to its past.

  • The Oriental school in Britain was not, however, immune from its biases. Most of them projected the necessity of the British rule in India as they found Indians lacking in discipline and modernity.

  • The backwardness of contemporary India was a result of centuries of stagnation, they reiterated.

  • Utilitarian were against of any kind of external colonies but for India they justified saying for Indian economy backwardness it was important to do so.

  • The Missionaries and other Orientalists justified colonialism on the basis of cultural backwardness whereas Utilitarian's emphasized the need to support Indian economy so that it becomes a vibrant partner in future for Britain.

  • Utilitarianism represented by James Mill, T.B. Macaulay and others became important source of Indian history.

  • Their approach was quite different from Orientalists as they opposed the view that Indian past was glorious

  • J S Mill was the first to argue that Indians were culturally backward and therefore needed British rule for their modernization and development

  • Orientalist had glorified India’s past, the Utilitarian had condemnation for it

  • The Utilitarian's emphasized the weakness of Indian civilization and society

  • They argued that there was tremendous need for rationality and individualism if the society was to progress.

  • In order to draw a dividing line between ancient India and modern India, one of the proponents of this school, James Mill, divided the history of India into three parts namely,

  1. Hindu civilization

  2. The Muslim civilization, and

  3. The British period.

  • He argued that the pre-British Hindu and Muslim civilizations were not only backward and stagnant but conformed to the image of ‘oriental-despotism

  • Colonial School was trying to show the superiority of European culture and civilization and at the same time attempting to portray the Indian society as inferior.

  • British should be appreciated as they are carrying the ‘the white men’s burden.’

  • This ethnocentrisms and racism became the source of Colonialists criticism of 1857 rebellion and any subsequent national movement for independence

  • These historians believed that the rise of Indian nationalism was not a result of British colonialism.

  • Instead they believed that what is called ‘India’ in fact consisted of religious castes, communities and interest.

  • Broadly, “the colonial historians tried to show that Indian nationalism was nothing more than an unprincipled, selfish, amoral bid for power by a few Indian elites”.

  • Nationalism was used as a mere ideology by these elite groups to legitimise their narrow ambitions and to mobilize public support.



  • Colonialist perspective on colonialism was based on the justification of the colonial rule.

  • It tried everything to prove the worth of external administration of the various societies in Asia and Africa and elsewhere.

  • For colonialist historians, India needed colonial administration in order to realize its potential and its long due modernization.

  • According to Bandyopadhyay, the history writings all colonial powers “escaped serious interrogation outside of the specific contestations of the nationalist struggle” as they had the monopoly over the literature.



  1. Nationalist : It's an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests.

  2. Utilitarianism : Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group. When used in a sociopolitical construct, utilitarian ethics aims for the betterment of society as a whole.

  3. Orientalism : Orientalism is the study of near and far eastern societies and cultures, languages and peoples by Western scholars. I t can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers and artists.

  4. Missionaries : a person sent on a religious mission, especially one sent to promote Christianity in a foreign country.

  5. Proletariat: The working class, usually the poor.

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