One of the most controversial interpretations of recent Indian history is that the British governed the subcontinent through a strategy of divide and rule which led to Hindu-Muslim conflict and ultimately the 1947 partition. Divide et Impera has often been portrayed in vernacular tracts, Congress publications, and scholarly works as a fundamental cause of communal tension.

The similar assumptions, methodology, and sources upon which these assessments rest, however, have resulted in a clouding of key issues and a misreading of the historical record. The studies generally focus upon twentieth-century developments such as Hindu and Muslim political parties or communal riots and then project their findings backward to earlier periods. Because British attempts to play Hindu and Muslim against one another apparently intensified antagonism following the Morley-Minto reforms, it is argued that similar policies prior to 1900 helped create the initial estrangement between the two communities. Communal activities are admittedly easier to examine once Hindus and Muslims began to organize for elections and legislative proceedings, but preoccupation with formal competition and a concomitant simplistic explanation of the origins of communalism have postponed a much-needed investigation of the formative period in the nineteenth-century when British rule and changes within Indian society set the stage for subsequent communal organization.

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