What we were taught… and not taught about India’s Independence Day: Indian American students

High school graduates being recognized at the Aug. 6, 2022, India Day Festival organized by GOPIO-CT, in Stamford, CT. Photo: GOPIO-CT

On August 15, 2023, Indians worldwide will celebrate their motherland’s 77th Independence Day.  For millions, this day commemorates the anniversary of the British imperial power’s withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent after a long fight for independence.

But how much is taught about the lasting British impact on India?  Is the damage done to the nation downplayed both by schools and by the media?  How free are we from the imperialist ideals that were ingrained in the minds of our ancestors since the mid-1800s?  To answer these questions, News India Times interviewed 3 Indian American high schoolers.

I want to note that I was never taught the extent of the toll colonization took on India in school.  I was never taught about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or that Britain’s looting of India decreased the nation’s share of the world’s economy by 20%, according to MP Shashi Tharoor.  If anything negative was said about British rule, it was always countered with how without colonization there would be no railroads.

Aadya Bharadawaj, a senior at Kent Place High School, told News India Times that “Indian Independence Day holds profound significance as it commemorates the hard-fought struggle for freedom from British colonial rule. But to me it still remains a reminder of the impact of British influence on Indian society was extensive, reshaping traditional practices and norms. The policies enforced by the British administration from 1858 to 1947, such as the prohibition of female inheritance, imposition of European mercantilism, and the transformation of Hindu law to align with Victorian ideals, had far-reaching consequences that still impact so many families like mine to this day. Not to mention, the British fostered colorism and religious divisions that persist even today. I can’t help but notice that contemporary education seems to always overlook these crucial aspects. Sure, our textbooks might highlight battles and Gandhi’s peaceful protests, but they always neglect the enduring aftermath of the occupation. We cannot forget that India, once strong, emerged from colonization in disarray- the need to recognize the comprehensive impacts of that era remain vital and rather overdue.” In the interview, she emphasized the fact that she educated herself on these topics because they were not taught in school.

Tanisha Ramachandra is a sophomore who transferred to Wardlaw Hartirdge in Edison, NJ from a school in Bangalore in her freshman year.  In a phone interview, she told News India Times that her old school taught students about “British colonialism, the partition, and freedom fighters” since first grade.  In the interview, she reported a confrontation in which a teacher told her that “India desperately needed the British and the border was necessary. I think Indians have to look past minor systemic flaws and be appreciative of everything they gained.”

In response to the teacher’s comment, Tanisha told News India Times, “I was well aware that not every teenager would be as well educated in Indian history having grown up with a different curriculum in the U.S. But, to have a grown adult with a PhD who considers themselves to be ‘progressive’ call the millions of lives lost and families torn apart by the partition just ‘minor flaws’ felt so incredibly dismissive. It doesn’t seem right that my great grandparents and many others faced such indescribable trauma as young adults just for them to be labeled as a part of ‘minor systemic flaws.’ I think that everyone should be taught about the partition to a certain extent to understand its overall impact and be respectful. South Asian immigrants and their families make up a large part of the population of the United States so it’s important to be aware of their history and challenges they faced to reach where they are today.”

Zarah Khan, a junior at Westfield High School, shared how colonialism affects her life having a Hindu mother and a Muslim father.  “I always used to think that the Hindu Muslim conflicts went back centuries.  No school ever taught me that the issue was born of England’s divide and conquer tactics to weaken the harmony of their colonies.  They purposefully ignited inter-religious tensions to create in-fighting.  This is a real problem that continues today.  Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India are constantly discriminated against and targeted by extremist groups.  It’s tensions like this that creates problems for inter-religious love like my parents.  This is why I hate when people tell us that colonialism is in the past.  It left real issues that heavily impacted my family today.  So no, I won’t ‘get over it.’”

So this Independence Day, take time to consider how our history is told.  We need to take control of the narrative and tell our own stories.  And we need to consider: will we truly be independent from our former colonists until we distance ourselves from the imperial values that were instilled in the generations before us?



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