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From the Archive: Britain’s Civilisation of India and The Legacy of Colonial Mentality

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 20th April, 2023 44 min read

From the Archive: Britain’s Civilisation of India and The Legacy of Colonial Mentality

"Even  after  seven  decades  of  independence,  the  legacy  of  the  British  still  continues  to  linger  in  the mind"1

Our upcoming collection, The Sphere, consists of weekly issues of The Sphere publication, which was owned by Illustrated London News. This publication spans between the years 1900 to 1964. It adopted a consciously international outlook, aiming to "hold pictures and thoughts from all lands". Encompassing nearly 160,000 images from almost 4,000 issues, the collection is an invaluable source for students and researchers alike. It provides a window onto the social and political transformations that occurred throughout the early to mid-twentieth century. 

With its global focus, the publication reported extensively on world events, such as the Boer War, the rise of communism; the First and Second World Wars; and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is evident, however, that The Sphere held a markedly pro-establishment position and frequently featured news and articles in support of the British monarchy and empire. An early issue, for example, stated how The Sphere “recognises the paramount importance to the British Empire”. Major chunks of content discuss Britain’s role in its colonies, often in a rather heroic and idealised tone. This article will pay particular attention to an article published in The Sphere about “Britain’s beneficent Sway in India". This article will also reflect more generally upon Britain’s civilising mission in British India and the legacy of this western superiority in the modern world. 

The Sphere: “Britain’s Beneficent Sway in India”On 2nd December 1911, The Sphere published an article titled “Britain’s Beneficent Sway in India”. In essence, this listed everything Britain had done for India since colonising the vast country. It could be argued that the tone adapted in the article is pretentious and self congratulatory. For example, the article boasted how:

“We [Britain] have given India not only internal peace and security of life and property but we have delivered her from the isolation of centuries, we have profoundly modified the most prominent characteristics of the country and we have set her diversified peoples on the pathway of intellectual expansion and national unification.”2

Further stating how they “equipped India with all apparatus and facilities for active association in modern life” and how it enabled the country to go through “social, political and moral evolution”, which in turn earnestly “uplifted the depressed masses”. According to the article, all this was achieved by the British equipping India with efficient railways, an irrigation system and implementing the English language, which they believed finally “unified” India. The article expressed oriental notions, explaining how “under our guidance” this implementation of Western thought in India had “set the better mind of educated India earnestly on the path of mental and moral elevation”. The article concluded with the statment:

“We have faithfully adhered to John Stuarts conception of our rule in India as not only one of the purest intention, but one of the most beneficent in act ever known among mankind.”3 – The Sphere, 2nd December 1911 

“Britain’s Beneficent Sway in India” evidently presents a rose-tinted view way of British colonial rule in India. Of course, the legacy of imperialism within India has been a long contentious debate in both society and academic discourse.4 Somewhat like the perspective adopted in The Sphere article, many historians have taken taken a lenient view when in comes to the legacy of imperialism in India, arguing that India’s political and economic system of today “owes much to the intuitions put in place by the British”.5 In an article by The Independent, published in 2015, in which the dispute between India and Britain over the ownership of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, was discussed, historian Andrew Roberts asserted that the diamond belonged to Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India”.6

Similar to The Sphere article published in 1911, Roberts went on to state that British rule led to “the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent”.7  Yet Amit Singh has sought to debunk Roberts' view, explaining how it is “unbelievably ignorant” to hold such an opinion that colonialism has a positive legacy. Singh asserts how India has “nothing to be grateful for”, considering the ‘damaging colonial legacy’ the British left behind, such as the partition of the subcontinent, the famines they caused, the resource exploitation and the bloody insurgency massacres, namely the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny being an alarming example. It is unbelievably ignorant, in Singh's view, for the three modern day countries, that were once British India, to be grateful for the centuries of colonial rule.

“The eastern dependency has marched forward in the past 53 years, so steadfastly and in so many department of life and thought to a degree for which there is no parallels in history.” – The Sphere, 2nd December 1911 

Coming back to “Britain’s Beneficent Sway in India” in The Sphere, it would seem to be missing major chunks of the narrative of  of British rule in India. In short, the article, advanced the the age old colonial mentality that Eastern countries are incapable of development without Western involvement; that colonised people are always dependence upon their Western administrators. The supposed modifications and “internal peace and security of life” that the British gifted the Indian subcontinent resulted in major disruptions to traditional Indian culture. This article aims to explore the other side of the narrative, particularly looking at the ways the British tried to westernise India and the subsequent negative effect of this process. 

“The White Man’s Burden” and Orientalism: Britain’s Civilising Mission

Ronen Shamir and Daphna Hacker, drawing upon the work of Phillip Darby, expressed that British colonial rule was infused with a civilising mission due to the “Christian sense of moral duty”.8 These scholars content that the British upper classes felt they had “an obligation to help those less advanced”, a moral duty in a sense to “provide guidance and instruction”, while ruling over colonial subjects.These notions are conspicuous in the tone of The Sphere article, in particular when the article stated how the British “uplifted the depressed masses”, this implies that without the British they would have been stagnant and unhappy. 

Figure One: 1899 Pears Soap Advert

This idea of western superiority can be summed up by the critical concept, orientalism. Orientalism, as Edward Said put it, is a style of thought which is “based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between 'the Orient' and 'the Occident”.  Said argued that the idea of the Orient being a mysterious, exotic and weak place “was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”. The West, on the other hand,  are presented as rational and powerful. According to Said stated the term orientalism was essentially a powerful political instrument which was used to justify domination.10

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, titled “The White Man’s Burden”, further Said's argument. The poem, written in February 1899, was written in support of the United States’ take over of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. While the poem was directed at the United States, the poem is indicative of the European colonial mindset. Kipling insinuates how the white race are in essence morally obliged to civilise other races in order to serve their needs. Indeed, Kipling presents imperialism as a moral burden that has been placed upon the white race. It is a white man's burden to tame the native people which he describes as “fluttered folk and wild”.11 The use of "fluttered" and "wild" are indicative of the Orientalist perspective. Kipling suggests that non-white people are out of control and have no direction, thus they need to be put under the hands of the civilised white man. This perspective is again apparent in Figure 1, an 1899 advertisement for  Pear’s Soap, which shows an illustration of a man washing his hands with the text: 

“The first step toward lightening the white man's burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.”12

The advertisement further reads: 

“Pear's Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place---it is the ideal toilet soap."13

The advert insinuates another benefit of western civilising missions; “inferior peoples”, as they are able to receive access to goods like Pear’s soap, while also being morally cleansed. The advert oriental notions of the East being dirty and uncivilised to the extent this soap can help clean people overseas. It insinuates that only white people can be civilised and that other races need to adopt Western cultural habits. The idea that imperialism was the “white mans burden” and the fact it was common knowledge, to the extent soap adverts were using it as marketing techniques, highlights how white superiority was so legitimised in Western society. The concept of white superiority presented in the Kipling's poem and advert recalls the article on British in India in The Sphere. The article often mentioned how India was dependent upon Britain; that the British had provided the uncivilised people of India with both “moral and material evolution”. 

Shamir and Hacker draw upon an analogy which described colonialism “as consisting of two pillars of domination”, explaining how one pillar was direct exploitation, while the second was cultural domination.14 The civilising process was not just accomplished via force and authority, but also through “officialising procedures that established and extended their capacity to govern”.15 Under British colonialism all walks of Indian life underwent civilisation from education to law to civil administration to urban planning to military organisation. This article will now consider the Westernisation of the environment that took place, notions surrounding colour, as well as the introduction of LGBT laws.

Changes to the Indian Environment

Since the partition of India in 1947 scholars have explored imperialism from many different angles. It is only since the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, that the relationship between colonialism and the environment has been studied.16 Ramachandra Guha has proclaimed that ‘the colonial period was a watershed in the ecological history of India’, suggesting that colonialism had a direct impact on the Indian environment.17 For Guha, British colonialism left a ‘very visible’ ecological imprint on India.18  The Sphere discussed the implementation of irrigation systems and of an efficient railway system, yet the article fails to mention how in the process of the Westernisation of the Indian environment centuries of culture and heritage was wiped away in the form of traditional gardens and architecture. 

The British “imposed an imperial stamp” on existing Mughal architecture and culture.19  The vast Indian subcontinent, which now consists of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has an extremely rich cultural heritage. Each area in the subcontinent has varying forms of architecture and art. The subcontinent has been under different dynasties for centuries and they have all added to the subcontinents rich culture. The last dynasty, before British rule in 1857, were the Mughals. The Mughals, who were "dynastic Muslim rulers", ruled over the Indian subcontinent from the mid-1500s.20 In 1526 they conquered Northern India and established Agra as their imperial capital. 

The Mughals had immense wealth and power and have been famously known for "changing the face" of India religiously and artistically.  A defining characteristic of their reign was the Mughals love for gardens, in particular the Persian Charbagh gardens.21 When Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, arrived in Agra he disliked the heat and dust of Northern India. He therefore began to build garden enclaves along the Yamuna River in Agra. Akshay Badwe asserts that the Yamuna River in Agra evolved as a significant element in the Mughal's reign.22  These gardens were thought to provide a safe haven away from the chaos of the city. Babur began creating a Mughal imperial footprint of many Persian inspired Charbagh gardens and buildings along the forty kilometer Yamuna River. Each emperor, after Babur, built buildings with the aesthetically pleasing Charbagh garden along the riverfront, the most famous being the Taj Mahal. This subsequently led to Agra being dubbed as ‘a riverfront garden city’ and this became a key characteristic of the Mughal empire.23 These gardens and buildings had strong cultural and religious meanings behind them and became an important aspect of noble life in the seventeenth century. Historian Ebba Koch maintained how:

“The Yamuna, one of the great holy rivers of India, was to form the artery that bound all the gardens together.”24

This personification highlights just how essential the river and the gardens were to the life of the city. Within Terence Harkness and Amita Sinha’s article, they expressed how the riverfront with “its splendid tombs, palaces and gardens” were a gift from the Mughals to the land. The gardens and buildings were an embodiment of the Mughal’s power and imperial footprint.

Sharma maintained that when the British took over they we were faced with a ‘large corpus of built heritage of pre-British origin’.25  The heritage of the Mughal empire did not last long, as after the 1857 Indian uprising against British rule, the colonial power began destroying much of the Mughal environmental legacy from the Yamuna River, as a way of “keeping a clear military line in sight”.26  Thus, an imperial legacy which dated back to the Babur era was wiped away. All of this harks s back to what Shamir and Hacker were discussing about Britain’s cultural domination of India.

Figure Two: Water-colour sketch of the Taj Mahal at Agra in Uttar Pradesh, Charles J. Cramer-Roberts (February 1884), British Library Online Gallery


Figure Three: The Taj Mahal in 1903 reproduced in Bowe, Patrick, “The Taj Mahal Garden: A Changing Planting Policy”, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 27:3, (2007), p. 239. 

Colonial alterations to the physical and cultural landscape did not just leave a "very visible" ecological imprint as a result of the destruction of Mughal sites, but also through the renovation of them.  Herbert states that British "garden imperialism" is most evident in Lord Curzon’s treatment of the Taj Mahal gardens on the Yamuna river.27  In 1899, Lord Curzon "was appointed Viceroy of India",  through this role he was responsible for the upkeep and restoration of the Taj Mahal gardens.28  Most Mughal Charbagh gardens exhibited strong Islamic association with paradise.  Within the Holy Quran, when Jannah (paradise) is mentioned often images of flowing water, fruit trees and large shady trees are given.29 When creating the Taj Mahal gardens, Emperor Shah Jahan wanted to replicate the paradise gardens mentioned within the Quran. As Figure 2 shows initially the Taj Mahal’s large shady trees and uniformity was deliberately done to convey Mughal Islamic heritage.30 Patrick Bowe asserted that slight changes in the Taj Mahal’s "planting policy over time" drastically changed the meaning of the garden.31  Constance Villiers-Stuart stated that after visiting the Taj he thought that the large shady trees "blocked the full view of the magnificent" Taj Mahal monument;  this was a view held by many British visitors.32 Therefore, when Curzon was appointed to renovate the Taj Mahal gardens, he made the decision to completely ‘sweep away the traditionally dense planting’,  in favour for the lower ‘lines of cypresses’ trees depicted in Figure 3.  As Figure 3 depicts, this alteration was made to ‘open up wider views of the mausoleum’, in order for it to be seen at various points in the garden and heighten its use as a tourist attraction.33  Curzon adopted the concept of Swedisgh botanist, Carl Linnaeus, as through this controlling and organising of nature at the Taj Mahal he completely wiped away the centuries of Mughal cultural and religious significance, in favour for a British civilised garden look.

Linnaeus came up with the theory of imperial ecology, he believed that since ‘God had given domain to man, nature existed to serve him’.34  Further expressing that, chaos in nature is unthinkable, therefore he believed the ‘best way to understand nature’ was to both control and organise it in a civilised manner.35 Alan Lester maintained that 'racial otherness' towards the community had 'influenced British spatial strategies’, meaning physical spaces within the colony.36 Lester’s comment, in combination with Linnaeu's concept of imperial ecology can be used to explain how British colonials in India used civilised botanical gardens, almost as a colonial tool to ‘create an oasis of Britishness in an alien’ environment.37

This perspective can be seen in the creation of the Victoria Gardens in Bombay in 1861.38 The Victoria Gardens, designed by George Birdwood, were created as a visual tribute to Queen Victoria.  Birdwood, taking an imperial ecology stance, presented a very Eurocentric view within the garden, by creating roads similar to Britain, separate areas for labelled exotic plants and also implemented a clock tower near the entrance. Marshall asserted that a key aspect of the "British imperial experience" was the ordering of colonial society, in order to replicate the society at home.39 The plants at Victoria Gardens were controlled and organised in a civilised British manner. Christopher Hill made the analogy that Victoria Gardens "became the classroom, in which the native visitor…would learn how to be civilised".40  This suggests that the British were the teachers and the garden almost acted as an arena in which the British could further civilise the “depressed masses” of India, by creating an "oasis of Britishness". Britain’s civilisation and Westernisation of India’s landscape, whether that be through the destruction and renovation of the centuries of cultural heritage or implementation of British garden culture further highlights western superiority.  In their process of civilisation India lost centuries of cultural legacies and religious symbolism. 

"Fair and Lovely": Colourism in South Asian CultureThe implementation of Western thought and ideal in British India can also be seen in the attitudes towards one's colour and Western ideas of beauty. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have vastly different cultures and traditions, even within each of these countries there are great disparities in terms of language, culture, religion and people. There is not one type of typical look for South Asian people and many have distinct features based on their geographical location in the subcontinent. In particular, "people up North generally have fairer skin", while "people down South generally have darker skin with a wide spectrum falling in the middle as we progress geographically from North to South".41 These differences can be attributed:

“To the mixture of the immigrant Aryan population with the ancient tribes of the Indus valley civilisation up North and the Dravidian population flourishing down South.”42

Even with these disparities in skin colour a key feature of South Asian culture has been their battle with colourism. A key notion within South Asian culture has been that fairer skin is more beautiful and darker skin is less attractive. Dark skin is seen as a major problem for one to have, to the extent that it effects marriage and job opportunities. British colonialism had a major effect on creating this stigma. Prior to colonialism ancient Indian texts, such as the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, often praised dark skinned characters. In fact all skin tones were celebrated in the texts.43 This suggest that prejudice related to skin colour in South Asia was virtually non-existent in those days. One cannot make the audacious statement that the British were the only ones to implement this colour bias into South Asian culture, as the Mughal empire also believed fairer looking women were pretty. The idea of fairer skin tones being more superior was institutionalised during British rule.

Femininity and expectations of beauty standards for women were viewed and redefined through a Westernised lens due to British colonialism. Colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent embedded the idea that individuals with fair skin were the ruling class, where as darker skinned individuals were the subjects. A paper written by the American Sociological Society stated how “whiteness became identified with all that is civilised, virtuous and beautiful”.44 The British favoured light skinned Indians and gave them more preference in the employment sector. For example, light skinned Indians were frequently hired for government jobs, while darker skinned Indians were given more tedious work.45

This notion of white superiority, in terms of skin colour, can be most clearly seen in a 1884 Pears Soap advertisement. The advert displays a white and black child, in the advert the white boy hands the black boy the Pears Soap when in the bath. The next image displays the black boy getting our of the bath and his body had turned white. The advert shows the black boy smiling after seeing his new complexion. Far from simply selling people a soap, this advert is reaped with white superiority. It places the white complexion on a pedestal and shows how one can “climb the social ladder by gaining a white complexion”.46

“Even years after independence from the British, partition of India and independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the idea of colourism still remains deeply rooted systematically in our cultures throughout the subcontinent.”47

To this day South Asian people have grappled with this particular legacy of colonialism and these notions have been deeply embedded into South Asian culture. In a 2022 BBC documentary on colourism in South Asian culture Tan France, a British Pakistani, maintained how growing up in a traditional South Asian immigrant family “you are always reminded of the fact that lighter is seen as more beautiful”.48 All South Asians, whether you live in South Asia or are a 1st, 2nd or even 3rd generation immigrant, have experienced colourism to varying extents. Growing up conversations surrounding ones skin tone are extremely common, children are often told not to go play out in the sun as “you’ll become too dark”. When it comes to marriage, in particular arranged marriages, women are told no one will want to marry them if they are too dark and in an arranged marriage setting lighter skinned brides are preferred by both the groom and in laws. South Asian women often grow up in an environment where the whole family are invested in trying beauty “remedies” to lighten their skin to avoid this. Prior to ones wedding brides are urged to have bleaching facials so she can “be nice and fair” on her wedding day. Often at weddings the first comments from wedding guests relate to how fair or dark the bride was looking. This discrimination is further evidenced via a 2015 survey conducted by the Indian National Museum on beauty ideals. The study surveyed 100 college students, when asked to describe “pretty” 71% of the students used words such as “fair” and “light”. Lighter skin holds a great deal of power and superiority in South Asia, while having a darker complexion is seen as a disadvantage.49

Tan went on to explain how this concept is everywhere in South Asian culture, particularly in family, as well as Bollywood movies and songs. In Bollywood movies most of the heroines and heroes are fair and beautiful, while the villains are darker. This colonial mindset of fairer being better has even perpetuated its way into Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu songs. A song in a Hindi film, which was released in 2015, is titled “Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan”, the title translates to “white wrists” and the song repeatedly states how her lover should look at her white wrists. In the chorus of a Punjabi song by Imran Khan he says the line:

 “Gora Gora Rang Tera Kala Kala Til N Rah Jande Rahiya Na Lut Le Na Dil Ni”

This roughly translates to “your fair complexion with a beauty mark steals the heart of people passing by”. Another line from the Punjabi song “Kala Chashma” states: 

“Tenu kala chashma jachda ae, jachda ae gore mukhde te”

This translates to “Black sunglasses look good on you, it suits your fair face”. While another Hindi song includes the line “Chura ke dil mera goriya chali”, which translates to “a fair girl is leaving after stealing my heart”. This is just a handful of examples, however the list is endless and even songs written in 2023 include references to the “gora rang” [meaning white skin] and pretty women. 

Furthermore, this South Asian obsession with fair skin has been further promoted by the beauty industry. The South Asian beauty scene is flooded with skin lightening creams, bleaching facials and other harmful tactics to get that desired skin tone. Most famously and most widely used in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan is a skin lightening cream called “Fair and Lovely”. A study conducted by The Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) surveyed 1,238 women and 746 men on their use of skin lightening creams. The results showed how 59.6% of women and 46.1% of men had used fairness product. 31.2% justified this by stating how they wanted to look “beautiful”, while 36.2% felt if they looked fairer they would finally “feel culturally accepted”.51

Colourism is rife in South Asia. In the process of Britain’s civilisation and Westernisation of India, the people of the subcontinent and their diaspora worldwide have been left with a toxic mentality surrounding their colour, to the extent that the mentality presented in the 1884 Pears Soap advert that one can “climb the social ladder by gaining a white complexion” is a permanent part of South Asian culture now.52

Hijras and The Legacy of LGBT LawsAnother way that the British “profoundly modified” Indian culture was through the implantation of western notions surrounding sexuality. The British attempted to eradicate India’s third sex – Hijra. They likewise left an anti-LGBT legacy in India. The South Asian transgender community, known as the Hijras, have been a part of the Indian subcontinent since the beginning of its civilisation.53 Hijra’s are intersex people or transgender people who live in communities in the Indian subcontinent and follow a kinship system known as guru-chela system. Hijras live on the margins of society and unfortunately face discrimination. Yet, they tend to make a living by dancing at ceremonies and weddings, as well as working as sex workers.54

“The Hijra community are the oldest gender non-conforming community in South Asia.”55

Twenty-first century South Asian culture is still extremely conservative. When it comes to marriage and sexuality many Asian parents have strict ideas in mind for what religion or caste is appropriate for their child to marry into. Being an open homosexual is a major taboo within South Asian families, to the extent that it could lead your family to disown you. However, while these sexual prejudices and discrimination towards Hijras are engrained into South Asian culture now, this was not always the case. Western societies have only began to be “more accommodating to multiple gender and sexual expressions” in the last 20 years or so, however looking back at pre-colonial times one can argue that Indian religious and cultural heritage has been accommodating to “multiple gender and sexual expressions” long before the Western world.56

The Hijra community has been an integral part of Indian society for centuries, in particular in pre-colonial India Hijras had a significant cultural and religious impact. India has a long history within regards to sexuality, sensualism and eroticism. In particular, ancient India had played a major role in shaping perceptions around sexuality, which are still in use in modern India, an aspect of this was the Karma Sutra. The ancient Sanskrit text is often thought to be a manual on sex positions, however, in reality, it is a guide to the art of living a pleasurable life and the nature of love. The Karma Sutra does not just include information for heterosexual people, but there is also reference to performance of fellatio by feminine people of a third sex.57 This has often been interpreted as referring to males and female trans people or two biological males (one who identifies as a man and the other that dresses up as a woman). Furthermore writings in the ancient Sanskrit text, Manu Smriti, also make references to a third sex.58 In their schlarship, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, expressed how “Hindus embraced a range of thinking on gender and sexuality as far back as the Vedic period, around 4000 B.C”.59 In particular in Hinduism’s first sacred text stories of gender morphing figures and same sex love are told. The Hindu god, Shiva, is often perceived as a multi-gendered figure. This all suggests an age old openness to the thought of the third sex.60 For thousands of years, Hijras were an accepted part of social structures in the Indian subcontinent, in particular during the Mughal empire Hijra’s held a high status. The Mughal empire respected the Hijra community and they held important positions such as bodyguards in royal courts, servants for elite households, political advisors and military commanders.61 This status of and respect for Hijras deteriorated following the start of British imperial rule. 

“It was not until the 1850s that Hijras became the subject of a panic among India’s British colonisers.”62

The arrival of the British in India saw the lives of the Hijra community change drastically. They viewed Hijras as a “criminal tribe” that need to be eradicated and inaccurately referred to them as eunuchs.63 The British brought with them age old Victorian prejudices about what was considered civilised in terms of ones sexuality. Enze Han and Joseph O'Mahoney, authors of British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality, have observed how the British brought with them the “Victorian Christian puritanical concept of sex".64 In the nineteenth-century, Western imperialism was well known for its “civilization, culture and ideology”, therefore the British were “unable to digest the contradictions associated with gender” in India.65 Victorian Britain had strict norms related to gender and sex, homosexuality was seen as a point of great concern. Victorian society believed in the “separate spheres” concept, which meant “men and women occupied separate spheres because they were naturally different”.66 However, the Hijra community “lived outside of recognisable gender categories” and presented a threat to colonial rule, so subsequently they attempted to eradicate the problem.67 Han expressed how they also “wanted to protect innocent British soldiers from the 'exotic, mystical Orient”, that is why they  saw it as the “white mans burden” to make India undergo moral evolution by eradicating the Hijra community, in order to avoid British soldiers being led astray.68

Aside from this Christian moral standpoint, which dominated the Victorian standpoint, another reason why the Hijra community caused immense anxieties for the British was due to their “divide and rule” policy. One of the major ways the British maintained control in their colonies was through intense classification of people. The Hijra community hindered this policy, as it was difficult to classify them. Due to their differences, the Hijra community presented a threat to colonial policy and the British lacked “the understanding and language to classify Hijras in British India”. They were not only unable to comprehend the community, but “the English language was unable to translate them”.69 The British referred to Hijras as “eunuchs”, which are castrated men, this term not only “does a disservice to their spiritual significance”, but was also incorrect as many were intersex.70

While these British anxieties towards homosexuals were there since their arrival in the subcontinent they were heightened in August 1852 when a Hijra, Bhoorah, was murdered in Northern India’s Manipuri district.71 Bhoorah, like many other Hijras, performed at births of children and at weddings and it was speculated that she was killed by an ex-lover of hers. Jessica Hinchy expressed how Bhoorah’s murder and the subsequent unfair trial by the British increased Britain’s moral panic about the community.72 In the trial, the British judges suspected two suspects, one being Bhoorah’s ex and the other being the man she was in a relationship with at the time of her murder. Despite Bhoorah being the victim of the crime the British judges instead criminalised Hijras and described them as “cross-dressers, beggars and unnatural prostitutes” during the trial.73 With judges expressing how “their existence was a "reproach" to the British government”, an "opprobrium upon colonial rule” and believed that India was incapable of moral transformation with their presence.74 Lawrence Preston maintained how Hijras were viewed as a “breach of public decency”, they were placed on the margins of society and viewed as filthy people who were “addicted to sex with men”.75 Due to these colonial anxieties, in 1860 under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code the British were officially able to prosecute Hijras for simply existing. Section 377 made it illegal for anyone to “voluntarily have carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" and Hijras could be officially punished with imprisonment or fines.76 In a further attempt to eradicate the community the British implanted the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, which legally labelled Hijras as a “criminal tribe”.77 This law gave the police the power to increase surveillance on the community and violence towards Hijras, in some cases the police would cut the Hijras hair and strip them if they were seen wearing female clothing. This act allowed the British to “rip the Hijra community from their property, their money and houses”.78 Due to Britain’s civilising mission the community that were once given prestige jobs in the Mughal period were ripped of their cultural and religious significance and left at the margins of society having to result to begging or selling their body for money. 

As of 2021, it is illegal to be a homosexual in 69 countries with two thirds of these countries being under British control at some point in time.79 Homosexual relations are still illegal in both Pakistan and Bangladesh under Section 377, however in the 2018 the Indian Supreme Court decided to repeal Section 377 which criminalised Hijras and homosexual relations.80 While this is no doubt a ground breaking decision, the centuries of discrimination of the Hijra community, under the British, has left a damaging cultural legacy in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Britain’s moral civilisation of the Indian subcontinent has left a cultural stigma towards LGBTQ individuals, in particular a families' izzat (honour) is extremely important in South Asian culture and having a son or daughter who are homosexual is seen as damaging a family's izzat. Hijras still live on the margins of society and are ridiculed. The community still has to result to begging, selling their bodies or performing at weddings to earn money. Understanding their struggles during and after colonial rule offers valuable insights into the broader impact of Britain’s civilising mission. 

Conclusion: Legacy of Colonial Mentality

This article has surveyed a handful of ways in which the British imposed Western ideals on to the Indian subcontinent. It is important to acknowledge the factors discussed and understand the harmful legacy of colonialism upon South Asian way of life. One could argue that the countries that were once British India would not be how they are today without the British. Yet in the process of giving India “internal peace and security of life” Britain undoubtedly left a lasting colonial footprint in South Asian society and culture. Britain, as a colonial power, held a lofty, idealistic position and claimed that the Western way of life was the best and that this needed to be imposed upon the Indian subcontinent. Britain’s attempts to deliver India “from the isolation of centuries” and into the modern Western world has had a negative lasting impact. As has been observed in this essay, the British destroyed centuries of cultural Mughal legacies, implemented colourism and discriminated against the third sex of India all because they believed that this was not the civilised way of doing things. 

The idea of white superiority that has been observed in this article is not just one of the past, it is still happening today, The implantation of Western standards and mindset that only the west is best has carried on until the twenty-century. The 2022 World Cup which was held in Qatar is a case in point. The World Cup in 2022 has exposed Western standards. Qatar hosted the World Cup and became the first Muslim and first Middle Eastern country to host it, despite this milestone Qatar faced a great deal of backlash. The country has been criticised by the western media for restricting human rights by banning the purchase of alcohol at the stadiums and the banning of LGBT signs during matches. These bans were only limited to the stadiums, however the western media portrayed it as a general ban. Similar to many other eras and phases in history, the West had tried to impose their values on the Qataris. Qatar is a Muslim country where drinking alcohol is prohibited and other cultural and religious values are implemented into society. The backlash following these rules harks back on to orientalist and imperialistic views that believe that Western values are universal, but this is not the case. For example, if a person from a Muslim country was to visit a western country they would not expect to hear the adhan (call for prayer) 5 times a day, as these are not the cultural or religious norms of that country. 

Even in the twenty-first century the West and its values are still being held on a pedestal and held to be the norm for all. Looking back at history and also present day examples it is important that as a society we all begin to decolonise the mind. While the British Empire is no more the age old views that the East need the West to progress are still prevalent. Many countries praise themselves on being multicultural, however diversity and multiculturism is not just including people of colour in societal events or workplaces, but also decolonising the mind from the colonial mentality that the Western way of thinking should be the standard for all. Acceptance of the customs of other diverse cultures has proved far more difficult for the West than it has been willing to admit.

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  3. Ibid. 
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  8. Shamir, Ronen, Hacker, Daphna, “Colonialism's Civilizing Mission: The Case of the Indian Hemp Drug Commission”, Law & Social Inquiry, 26:2, (2001), p.435
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  10. Maliyana, Yana, "Edward Said’s Orientalism and the Representation of the East in Gardens of Water by Alan Drew", Passage (2013)
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  14. Shamir, Ronen, Hacker, Daphna, “Colonialism's Civilizing Mission: The Case of the Indian Hemp Drug Commission”, Law & Social Inquiry, 26:2, (2001), p.435
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  16. Pouchepadass, Jacques, “Colonialism and Environment in India: Comparative Perspective”, Economic and Political Weekly, 30:33 (1995), pp. 2059.
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  33. Ibid.
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  35. Ibid. 
  36. Ibid
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  39. Ibid. p.  142. 
  40. Ibid. 
  41. Rakibu Islam, Muhammad, "Did colourism always exist in the Indian subcontinent?", The Daily Star, 5th January 2019.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Dr Shuchi, "Aesthetic Norms of Femininity and the Issue of Colorism in India", pp. 6847.
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  55. Hand, Shahrazad, "How the British Attempted to Erase the Hijra", Brown History, 10th November 2022.
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  61. Shukla, Nikita, "South Asia’s Hijra Community", Sanitree, Accessed via: 
  62. Biswas, Soutik, "How Britain tried to 'erase' India's third gender", BBC, 31st May 2019.
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  64. Wong, Tessa. "377: The British colonial law that left an anti-LGBTQ legacy in Asia", BBC, 29th June 2021.
  65. Goel, Akshara, "Hijras Disposition during British Colonization", 20th December 2020.
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  68. Wong, Tessa. "377: The British colonial law that left an anti-LGBTQ legacy in Asia", BBC, 29th June 2021.
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  71.  Hinchy, Jessica, Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, C.1850-1900, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), P27.
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  74. Biswas, Soutik, "How Britain tried to 'erase' India's third gender", BBC, 31st May 2019.
  75. Preston, Laurence W. (1 April 1987). "A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth-Century India". Modern Asian Studies. 21 (2): 371–387.
  76. Wong, Tessa. "377: The British colonial law that left an anti-LGBTQ legacy in Asia", BBC, 29th June 2021.
  77. Ibid.
  78. Goel, Akshara, "Hijras Disposition during British Colonization", 20th December 2020.
  79. Wong, Tessa. "377: The British colonial law that left an anti-LGBTQ legacy in Asia", BBC, 29th June 2021.
  80. Ibid. 

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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