indian subcontinent british

Written by Abrish Nayyar 1:15 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

The Indian Subcontinent and the Remnants of British Raj

The Indian subcontinent has always submitted to different cultures, religions, and rulers, and the same happened when the British took over. Abrish Nayyar describes the various long-term effects of British colonialism in the subcontinent, with a focus on the eventual social, cultural, and psychological implications.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Abrish Nayyar is a student of BS Mass Communications at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). Her subjects of interest are the history of the subcontinent, sociology, and mass media.


From the expansive Indus Valley civilization to the three separate states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Indian subcontinent has been home to a range of cultures, religions, and rulers, with every era marking a shift in the norms and beliefs of people. Of course, the longer the rule lasted, the more notable its impact has been. The evidence for this statement is in plain sight with the architecture of Shah Jahan’s time still serving as an inspiration to thousands.

The British originally arrived at the banks of the Indian Ocean as traders, setting up the East India Company in the Indian subcontinent soon afterward. Their initial interest was in the exclusive variety of spices that only the subcontinent had to offer. As the years went by, their business grew, and so did their desire to have the most authority over these profitable resources.

It took the British decades to gain control of the entire Indian subcontinent, but the effects of their century-long reign exist even today. This impact manifests either in the beliefs of the people, their lifestyle, or even the structure of the government.

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Social Impact

When the British left the Indian subcontinent around seventy-five years ago, they could only take their material possessions with them. The style of governance, social hierarchies, and the divides they had created persist in a variety of ways even now. Firstly, it is important to note that the British were the first rulers to introduce a somewhat democratic system in the Indian subcontinent, a drastic shift from the hereditary system that had prevailed for centuries.

Before them, the nation had been governed by dynastic Emperors, with the crown being transferred from one member of a bloodline to another; this began with the Lodhi dynasty and ended with the Mughals. As a result, the legal and governmental structure of the countries that were once part of the Indian subcontinent contains elements of the institutions that the British initially established and operated.

In this context, one must consider the bureaucratic structure of our governing bodies: the established status quo and red-tape culture are now an integral part of daily life. The English were the ones to initiate such organizational discipline, where almost every individual with responsibilities had secretaries and assistants. Consequently, the commoners, or civilians, were forbidden from directly approaching the ones with power.

The foreigners are also credited for coining the concept of ‘civil servants’, who are individuals working for the government and state institutions but are not a part of it. Likewise, the central government ensured that the role of local representatives and governments was reduced to nothing, which is a predicament that continues to plague the three countries still; where the capital city has the most concentrated authority and only the most menial ministries have been consigned to the provinces.

Moreover, the legal systems existing in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today, and the regulations therein, are founded on the ones imposed by the British. The disregard of the original foundation is an intriguing observation because Pakistan, with both its wings, was created on an Islamic ideology. However, despite the efforts of certain rulers over the years, the Sharia law is yet to be fully implemented in either country.

Arguably, though, this is mainly because Western laws are perceived as more humane or rational as opposed to the clearly outlined, supposedly harsh commandments of Islam. In terms of administration, the divide-and-rule policy has been one of the most influential legacies of the English—either as a tactic of administration, or to establish the superiority of one group over the other.

The British people often implemented this specific tactic to ensure that the citizens remained disciplined, and to prevent them from forming a united front. This approach was adopted on a greater scale after the revolt of 1857, as the British realized that they could not fight against a united Indian subcontinent: they would have to ensure that the population consisted of smaller groups, each fighting for their own causes.

Today, sectarianism and casteism, in particular, continue to thrive, facilitating an almost backward approach to social issues and hindering all potential progress towards a unified front. For the governments as well, these factors guarantee that the people remain focused on their conflicts with each other, rather than questioning the authority. Thus, the social effects of the century-long colonization are made evident enough in just the daily news.

Cultural Impact

Culture is defined as the customs, behavior, and ideas of a specific group or society. The East India Company delegation arrived from the far-off European nation of the United Kingdom, whereas the subcontinent itself was a colorful blend of various religions, ethnicities, castes, and races, each with its own set of traditions, festivals, and norms. Although the Indian subcontinent had existed in harmony for several centuries, the arrival of the British added a tinge of the West to the pre-existing culture, while also introducing some foreign ideas.

It is an undeniable fact that clothing is one of the most reliable communicators of culture. Today, a plain solid-colored suit and tie are the standard formal wear, despite our ‘national’ dress being shalwar kameez. Of course, this was not the case before the colonization occurred. Although formal instances were rare, the Mughal courts especially were the torchbearers of extravagant clothing and colorful attire, including an assortment of jewelry as well.

However, since the day the British took over the reins of the Indian subcontinent, people who looked up to them adopted their attire and mannerisms. While waistcoats have been integrated into desi wear to provide a formal look, the fact remains that the standard is still Western.

Moreover, clothes often serve as an indicator of class as well. Individuals who spent the majority of their time in the company of the colonizers were often from a more privileged class either in terms of education, connections, or wealth. At the end of the day, they were the people with the resources and wits to entertain the rich outsiders and to adapt to their style of living almost immediately.

Even today, across all the countries that previously were the subcontinent, individuals from the lower classes and castes are highly unlikely to be wearing western outfits; their image will remain traditional, whereas the elites continue to mold their selves to fit into a foreign frame.

Along similar lines, another cultural shift that can be witnessed is that when the British first arrived, they considered Bengali men to be effeminate. This perception now seems to be in direct opposition to the image we have of the men from the subcontinental region, where most males are the epitome of masculinity. This indicates a drastic change, where the people were forced to alter their behavior, attitude, and appearance, just to be taken seriously by the outsiders.

Bengali men were often referred to as skinny, bony, and prone to laziness: this, of course, was the claim of those who believed their own selves to be hard workers putting in hours of extensive physical labor, which a Bengali could not even fathom. This perspective is undoubtedly biased because the subcontinent had been, up till that point, a state with almost an exclusively agrarian economy.

Bengal is to this day known for the quality and quantity of fish it produces. By no means can either of these tasks be considered ‘soft’ labor, and yet, the men partaking in these were made the butt of a joke for multiple decades. Likewise, language holds the same symbolic meaning because, at any formal platform, representatives are supposed to converse in English; be it business-related conventions, a speech at the UN, or even a cricketer giving an interview to a sports journalist, they all are supposed to conform to what is expected of them by responding in a foreign tongue.

Originally, the Urdu-Hindi controversy caused such a tedious debate spanning multiple decades, that the British simply chose a third language, English, to be the medium for all official communication. Today, Pakistan and India continue to have English as an official language alongside Urdu and Hindi respectively, whereas Bangladesh only lists Bengali as its official tongue.

Furthermore, ‘table etiquette’ is another practice the local people have adopted from the British and is now commonplace. Before the advent of the Westerners, people across the subcontinent tended to dine on the floor, often eating with their hands out of just one dish. Not only did the English introduce tables and separate plates for each individual but forks and spoons also became part of the norm thereafter. Although the Indians today have maintained their own traditions in this aspect to a great extent, Pakistanis today prefer tables and chairs over the floor.

One of the few positive reminders of the ideas introduced by the British is merit-based selection in industries and sectors. From selection in schools and colleges to hiring for jobs, a person’s qualifications and abilities are considered more often than their connections, family name, or wealth. People are often going into newer professions and businesses, rather than continuing the ‘family trade’ that has been ongoing for decades. This suggests that nepotism no longer works for most industries—a person is not meant for a position in a firm just because their father had that role too, rather their appointment to a role depends on their own merit.

This shift in perspective and requirements has contributed significantly towards improving the productivity and output quality of more than one industry. However, in the same vein, it can be argued that nepotism continues to thrive today in the entertainment industry in particular. Additionally, families with wealth also have the connections to ensure secure and satisfying employment for their relatives. So, although many differences in culture can be recorded, it is debatable how effective their measures for success were.

Psychological Impact

The British occupied the region for a very long time, and it is only natural that their beliefs and psyche became a part of the psychology of the people. Although the people who introduced the ideas may have exited the land, the ones who were affected by those concepts remain.

To begin with, beauty standards, to this day, are extremely eurocentric. From slim noses to pale skin, a foreign standard has been set for the local people, and individuals not complying with these are considered unattractive. A very popular example of this could be the renowned brand ‘Fair & Lovely’, which recently changed its name to ‘Glow & Lovely’—a superficial change with little effect in the public eye.

This fairness cream has been popular in all three countries for several decades, as it claims to make one’s skin brighter and lighter. Whether this statement is credible is another debate, but the fact remains that the company continues to make sales, by profiting off insecurities the public has of their skin tone. This is very unsettling because the geographical position of these countries implies great sun exposure, and as a consequence, a greater amount of melanin in their skin—it is not only natural for the skin to be tan, but rather it is a necessity to prevent them from diseases, etc.

In stark contrast to how far the locals push themselves, foreigners are placed on a pedestal when they visit. According to journalists, this practice is more common in Pakistan than in other countries; people from outside the land are treated like kings as the local people scramble to ensure that they have no complaints regarding their visit and the facilities provided to them. From police escorts to the most hospitable places of stay, every person a tourist comes into contact with ensures that no visitor leaves unsatisfied.

It can be argued that this is because Pakistan’s image in the global sphere is worse than India or Bangladesh, but the fact remains that local people need validation from their guests, particularly if they happen to be fair-skinned. Comparably, the idea of the ‘American Dream’ continues to flourish. This is partly due to the fact that these countries are still developing, and the infrastructure, social systems, and overall quality of life of the West are perceived to be significantly better as opposed to their own homeland.

However, it could also be because the British were the last ones to undertake any major developmental projects in the region. The railway system of Pakistan has essentially been at a standstill for the last few decades, buildings that were built hundreds of years ago are crumbling due to lack of maintenance, and many government offices have simply been refurnished to suit the tastes of whoever holds them at the time.

At the end of the day, the fact remains that many of the local people feel trapped in their own homes, while also believing that a foreign land will somehow be kinder to them. The psychological impacts are arguably the most prominent today; from how people view themselves in opposition to foreigners, to a need for validation from their own oppressors of the past, the glorification of the West is yet to exit the subcontinental society.


In a nutshell, it is important to acknowledge that the reign of the British lasted for a smaller period of time than other foreign rulers that the people of the subcontinent had, especially the Mughals. Each group had brought its own values, ideas, and customs with them, and left traces of themselves behind.

However, all previous intruders had been Asian or part of a culture with not many stark differences from the Indians; the English introduced a set of beliefs and norms that had never been before in the region, and perhaps that is why their impact is easier to identify.

Although the English are long gone, and the previously colonized countries have been independent for seven decades, their social, cultural, and psychological attitudes maintain a degree of similarity to the practices and beliefs adopted during the nineteenth century under the British Raj.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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