The Pulse

When Burma Was Still Part of British India

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The Pulse

When Burma Was Still Part of British India

When Burma became Burma and India became India.

When Burma Was Still Part of British India
Credit: War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection via Wikimedia Commons

The British colony of Burma was part of the British run-state in India, the Empire of India, from 1824 to 1937. Burma was separated from the rest of the Indian Empire in 1937, just ten years before India became an independent country, in 1947. Imagine, then if Burma had remained a part of India, instead of becoming a separate entity in 1937.

Like many regions that were not necessarily part of the historical empires of India, Burma was acquired by the British in order to protect their Indian empire. For similar reasons, Aden, Egypt, and other places came under British protection or control throughout the 19th century.

Burma acquired a border with British Bengal in 1785, when Burmese forces seized the coastal kingdom of Arakan. A Burmese invasion of Assam, north of Bengal, was seen as a threat to British India, and led to the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). As a result of this war, the British acquired parts of Lower Burma (in southern Myanmar). Further wars in 1852 and 1885 led to the conquest of the rest of Lower Burma and Upper Burma.

The entirety of today’s nation of Myanmar was constituted as the province of Burma within the Indian Empire. While Burma was actually the geographically largest province in India, it only had 9 million people in 1908. The neighboring province of Bengal, meanwhile, had 75 million people. This obviously caused great fear among ethnic Buddhist Bamar (Burmese) of economic competition and demographic replacement in their homeland. As noted in Scroll:

By 1931, Indians made up 7 percent of Burma’s population. They were also extremely prosperous and controlled large parts of the economy. Indians owned so much property that, for example, during the 1930s, they paid 55 percent of the municipal taxes in Rangoon – the capital of British Burma. The local Burmese, on the other hand, paid only 11 percent.

All this led to a desire for separation from the rest of British India by the 1930s; however, support was far from universal. In an election held for the local legislature in the province in 1932, The Anti-Separation League [from India] won 42 seats compared to the Separation League’s 29. As many minorities, both native ethnic groups like the Karen, Kachin, and Shan, and new groups, like the Indians and Chinese, knew, a separate Burma would be one not very hospitable to diversity. One argument made for the separation of Burma from the rest of British India was the fact that Burma was never part of India. But, then, in the broadest sense, neither was the Kingdom of Assam. Or the Andaman Islands. Or Tawang, which formerly lay in southern Tibet. So a particular need for a separate colony from the rest of India was not clearly evident.

Nonetheless, Burma was separated from the rest of India in 1937 with little opposition from Indian nationalist leaders agitating for independence from Britain, as they were concerned primarily with obtaining independence for the historical region of India itself. The British feared that violence and riots by Bamar against ethnic Indians and other groups would grow out of control unless they separated Burma from India.

This may not have been the best thing for most of Burma’s minorities, though. As Frontier Myanmar notes, the “emphasis on anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign for separation contributed to the rise of Burmese ethno-nationalism that would have implications for the country in the decades ahead.”

Simply put, because of the chauvinism prevalent in much of the majority Bamar (Burmese) ethnic group in Myanmar, the country has been the home of some of the world’s longest conflicts. Since Burma became independent in 1948, it has been in a constant state of civil war between the central government and minority groups. There are at least 15 armed rebellions throughout the country, many of which control territory; most are resisting domination by the majority Bamar.

One wonders if instead, these various groups could have been better accommodated in independent India’s system, with is made up of ethno-linguistic states and a federal system granting a wide range of powers to local units. The Burmese dream of restoring a sort of ethnic purity to their nation is simply anachronistic. Whether for good or not, people flowed around colonial empires, and settled in new places. Whites in South Africa, Chinese in Singapore, and Indians in Fiji are all testament to this. Despite all these people originating in other places, they are still living in their new homelands, where they have a voice in politics and society. When the British left India, Anglo-Indians were granted two parliamentary seats, and in general, all major ethnic and religious groups were accommodated in the new nation. On the other hand, in Burma, many groups have suffered since the 1962 military coup, in particular those of South Asian descent. Not only the Rohingya of Arakan, but also Indians, are deprived of full citizenship, and the right to participate in many sectors of the economy, and hold certain jobs.

Perhaps Burma should have remained a part of India, after all. The condition of almost all its ethnic groups would be better off, including the Bamar, who would be free to participate in the affairs of their own state, as well as that of a larger nation.