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India In The 1840s to 1947

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Since the 1840’s there had been developing bitterness towards the influence and control of the British in India, which led eventually to Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience and independence being granted in 1947. The Indian Independence Act partitioned India, and granted independence to the dominions of India and Pakistan. A variety of factors combined to bring about independence and how important Gandhi’s actions were in the preceding years has been an issue of great debate. Gandhi can be credited for raising national consciousness and an awareness of the common nationalist cause. However, the activity of other key individuals Nehru, and Jinnah, also played a decisive role in the granting of independence. In addition to this, the intransigence of the British in the previous one hundred years helped the growth of nationalism, encouraging ordinary people to demand independence.

British industrialisation in the eighteenth century meant India became increasingly important to the East India Company, providing vast amounts of raw materials, such as cotton and opium, thus it was for economic reasons that the Company’s power spread. Its influence in India commenced in 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, when the Nawab of Bengal surrendered his dominions to the Company. There was little resentment towards the British in their early years of rule.

To begin with “the Company’s government … respected the traditions and customs of the indigenous communities and a high caste identity of the army was deliberately encouraged.”[1] However, the army reforms of the 1820’s and 1830’s caused growing discontent amongst the Indian troops. The administration and command of the Bengal army was brought into line with the Company’s other armies, consequently caste privileges and monetary benefits were stopped. Such curtailments were regarded with great bitterness. This led to particular acts of unrest, in 1806 and in 1824 at Barrackpore. These smaller acts of unrest reflected growing discontent, which was present before Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience began.

Social and cultural reform came slowly as the British attempted to westernize the Indian people. The British tried to undermine the Hindu religion, by banning local religious practices such as Sati, as well as English becoming the language of teaching in schools, after Bentinck’s reforms of 1828 to 1835. This exacerbated Indian distrust and provoked a deep resentment of the British and their intentions.

Dalhousie also made changes in India. The improvement of roads and the introduction of an extensive railway system in order to improve military security, also meant that the army could reach areas of escalating unrest more quickly. The Indian people saw it as a further attempt to control and westernise them. This stemmed from the British fear that the educated Indian’s would band together and challenge their ruling authority as, “Unlike the mild Hindu, the studious Hindu would pose a serious threat to white supremacy,”[2] helping Gandhi to later draw on this existing foundation of discontent.

The major change in public opinion and heightening of discontent came with the annexation of Oudh (Avadh) in 1856, where an estimated seventy five thousand sepoys came from. Dalhousie had previously dispossessed local rulers by the application of the “Doctrine of Lapse”. “Up to the present time the English government has governed well, but their intellects have recently become corrupted.”[3] Godse said that, with the annexation they “filled the minds of the sepoys with distrust and led them to plot against the government.”[4] However, this concentrated discontentment could have been contained “if the British had not alienated a group of people on whom their security depended.”[5]

Given the insensitivity of the British, the controversy over the greased cartridges was merely the flashpoint of the discontentment, revealed by the uprising of 1857. A rumour about the rifle cartridges being greased with cow and pig fat, confirmed the sepoys’ suspicion that the British aimed to destroy their religion and caste in order to convert them to Christianity (this suspicion was fostered by the presence of Christian missionaries in India since 1813 and the rumour of mixing cow and pig bone dust with flour.) These long-standing grievances over respecting religion contributed to the outbreak of the uprising, which began at Meerut on the 10th May 1857, and took eighteen months to quash, leading to a questioning of supposed British invincibility.

During the conflict, the extent of British brutality made them a common enemy for the Indians, as “many were gleefully or casually tortured and defiled with pork and beef.”[6] Thousands of civilians were killed, inciting a bitter resentment in the Indian people which fuelled their desire for independence, existing long before Gandhi emerged.

The sepoy uprising of 1857 was confined to Northern India, but paralleled with civilian unrest on a wider scale. It is “difficult to ignore the evidence of autonomous mobilisation of the peasantry”[7] and their growing resentment towards British rule, at least in northern and central India. Better communication between the territories and the rebels distinguished this from earlier peasant revolts. The uprising revealed a growing readiness to act and demonstrate protests against British rule, and although Brendon argues that “two thirds of the country remained absolutely passive,”[8] a substantial number of people came out in protest. Thus, the British actions gradually provoked nationalist feeling in the wider population, ninety years before eventual independence.

Following the uprising of 1857, the Act for the Better Government of India was passed in 1858. It was exactly the justification the British government needed to take over and gain all profits from trade (by 1900, India was paying ten million pounds per annum in interest and there was a new emphasis on “consolidation rather than improvement.”[9]) The Government avoided drastic social and political change, so as not to give rise to other similar rebellions: Christian missionaries were withdrawn; princes would not be deposed, provided that their states accepted “British overlordship and advice,”[10] and greater care was given to land holders rights.

During the second half of the century, more economic progress was made with improvements in communication, education and agriculture, with the construction of a great railway system and the introduction of major canal schemes. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 increased trade with India, which took on a new significance. British rule created a “country that… fulfilled the aspirations of Indians, rather than colonial designs of what a modern India ought to be.”[11] Yet from the 1870’s, the emerging Indian middle class started to recognise the concept of nationalism with events unfolding in Ireland. Home Rule for example, effectively started in Ireland in 1870, and it became dominant in British politics when Gladstone was converted to it in the 1880’s, this growth of a nationalist movement could be seen with hindsight, to have influenced the emerging Indian intelligentsia. This drive towards nationalism was developing even before Gandhi’s campaign began.

The growth in support for India’s re-emergence as an independent state, in part led to the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, which was to greatly influence the development of nationalism. With poverty increasing and constant resistance to their requests, members of Congress became increasingly radicalised. The partition of Bengal announced by Curzon in July 1905, created a major political crisis, and the Congress took up the cause. The policy of swadeshi (self sufficiency for the country), was endorsed by the party in protest. The boycotting of British goods and revival of Indian made products aimed to improve economic conditions and this protest happened ten years before Gandhi’s return from South Africa.

The Morley-Minto reforms evidenced that putting down opposition in Bengal could not restore stability; the Indian Councils Act of 1909, allowed the election of Indians into various legislative councils and more Muslim representation in government, giving the locals more power in legislative affairs. It was a “watershed, ending one hundred years of white colonial rule,”[12] showing the impact the movement was having on British decisions before Gandhi became involved.

Gandhi only returned from South Africa in 1915 as something of a hero, his work there had been widely publicised in India, but there was already a growing desire for a representative of the people. Gandhi felt pressured into recruiting Indians to fight to help his desire for Indian independence, feeling that British respect might be rewarded, but he only recruited one hundred men, as thousands hid away from him and he lost much support. They questioned the sincerity of his belief in non-violence, even Gandhi’s friend Andrews admitted that, “personally I have never been able to reconcile this with his own conduct in other respects, and it is one of the points where I have found myself in painful disagreement.”[13]

Subsequently, in 1916 the collaborative agreement between the INC and the Muslim League, the Lucknow Pact, aimed to give the Indian people more authority in the running of their own country. It showed the League’s altered stance, as they previously supported British rule to safeguard Muslim interests.

During the First World War, the Indian army fought in every major theatre of operations and with the British claiming that “they stood for the protection of democracy around the world,”[14] the Indians sought democracy for their own country. Montagu, Secretary of State for India, presented his constitutional reform to give more representation to native Indians, becoming law in 1919. In reality, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms did not go far enough to satisfy Indian expectations of self-government; as a result, Gandhi called upon people not to seek election to legislative councils under the Reforms Act of 1919, during the 1921 elections.

Inadequate attempts by the British to deal with Indian grievances by giving them partial ruling power in a limited capacity did not pacify them, and the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919, simply added to criticism with its “emergency measures”[15] to control unrest and conspiracy. The necessity of the implementation of this measure shows the threat which was posed by protesters, but it deeply disappointed Indian leaders.

It gave Gandhi a cause for resistance, having assumed the unofficial leadership of Congress, he called for “hartal” to be observed on the 6th April 1919, and Indians suspended all business and fasted to signify their hatred of the legislation. “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal on the day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.”[16] The suspension of economic activity proved to be effective as in 1905; it was greatly detrimental to Britain’s position.

Further discontent was caused when a peaceful demonstration in Amritsar on the 13th April 1919, descended into massacre when Brigadier-General Dyer opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians, who were unable to escape. Considered “one of the most brutal episodes in the history of the Raj”,[17] nearly four hundred people were killed; it was followed by public floggings and humiliation. Indian nationalist leaders spoke out against British brutality; Nehru condemned it as “absolutely immoral”[18], and “indecent”[19].

Gandhi now became fully committed to his campaign, announcing that he could no longer co-operate with such a “satanic regime”[20]. His first campaign began in 1920; the non co-operation movement which he believed would bring “swaraj” (independence) within a year, and he urged Congress to follow this policy. Indians were instructed to resign British titles; lawyers, civil servants, police and soldiers were asked to resign; students to boycott government schools and politicians to boycott elections. However, the voters of the boycotted elections “did not respond as readily as Gandhi had hoped,”[21] which contributed to the campaign’s abandonment. Whilst it involved millions of people and could be considered the “perfect implement of mass resistance in the circumstances of twentieth century India,”[22] Gandhi was not able retain control of the developing movement, and one act of violence saw twenty two policemen killed. This led to the campaign being terminated in 1922. Subsequently, Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison.

In March 1922, the Government of India repealed the Rowlatt Act, and twenty three other laws. Gandhi was released from prison in January 1924, but by this time he was considered a spent force by the British. His radical philosophies such as the elimination of westernisation, made him appear increasingly out of touch, and he continued with the unrealistic aspiration of representing every Indian citizen. Co-operation between Hindus and Muslim broke down after the Satyagraha campaign and Gandhi alienated Muslims, as he seemed to only support Hindu interests.

Gandhi was not politically active for most of the rest of the 1920’s arguably, because his support base had disintegrated; he was sidelined by the Indian people, no longer the “leading spokesman of the independence movement.”[23] In 1927, the British government appointed a reform commission under Simon, in which there were no Indian members and it was boycotted by the Indian political parties. In December 1928, Gandhi threatened the British with a new campaign of non-cooperation, if it did not grant India dominion status. On the 26th January 1930, Congress under Nehru’s presidency, celebrated India’s Independence Day at its meeting in Lahore, which shows the feeling of a final move towards independence. Nehru emerged as a powerful speaker and prominent organiser. However, Gandhi’s period of inactivity highlights his preoccupation with how, not when, independence would be accomplished, as he believed Indians had to be ready for their own freedom, whilst Nehru wanted independence immediately.

Gandhi then launched his new campaign of civil disobedience, against the tax on salt in March 1930. It began with the Salt March to Dandi from 12 March to 6 April, on which he was joined by thousands of Indians, arriving on the anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre; the march secured worldwide publicity for the campaign. Of all of his campaigns, it was the most successful at destabilising British hold over India. Whilst it continued until 1934, by September 1930, the movement had begun to decline, showing the fleeting nature of Gandhi’s impact.

The Second Round Table Conference was held from September to December 1931, Congress participation was secured by the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, and Gandhi was invited to attend as the official representative. During the Conference, Gandhi proved divisive, claiming that the Untouchables were Hindus and should not be treated as a “minority”, a claim which was rejected by all other Indian representatives. His refusal to make any kind of compromise meant an agreement could not be reached with the Muslims on representation and safeguards. His negotiations with the government failed and he returned to India. In light of his failure at the conference, Gandhi retired from Congress in 1934.

The Government of India Act of 1935 was a key stage in the road to independence. It provided the establishment of fully responsible government, subject to “safeguards,”[24] for the eleven provinces. It ended the system of diarchy, and introduced a greater degree of autonomy to the provinces after 1937, whilst central government decisions would still be taken by the British. The Indian police force, army and civil service would now be half owned by Indians. But “in the temper of the 1930’s the Act received a frigid reception In India.”[25] This was because the act was “hedged with too many safeguards, checks and balances,“[26] so there was never complete ruling responsibility for the provinces.

The Congress victory in the 1937 elections meant they now had a clear majority, but the Muslim League only secured 109 of the 402 seats which were allotted to them. This proved that whilst the majority of Hindus supported the Congress, only a small proportion of the Muslims supported the Muslim League. Following the victory, the Congress leaders who had been in favour of the provincial part of the 1935 Act, pushed forward with it with the condition that, “the leader of the Congress party in the legislature is satisfied and is able to state publicly that the Governor will not use his special powers of interference or set aside the advice of ministers in regard to their constitutional activities.”[27] This showed that Congress was willing to concede and move forward.

When the Second World War began in 1939, Viceroy Linlithgow announced India was now at war with Germany. The two million Indian soldiers were to fight on the side of the people who had invaded their country. Congress decided that it would support participation in the war, but only with India as an independent state with a wartime national government. Congress condemned the British as fascists and eight ministers resigned in protest, as Cripps attempt to persuade the Indian nationalists to accept the declaration failed. With the prospect of independence after the war, the Muslim League made its first formal demand of partition and the creation of Pakistan in the 1940 Lahore Resolution, which was drafted by Gandhi and other leaders.

In 1940, Churchill as British Prime Minister, made no effort to hide that he was against Indian independence and anti-Gandhi. “The mere mention of India, brought out a streak of unpleasantness or even irrationality in Churchill.”[28] When Gandhi was arrested in 1942, for condemning Indian involvement in the war, Churchill felt Gandhi should be treated like anyone else and let to die if he went on hunger strike. This contempt hampered any progress which the nationalist movement could have made with the government, as “the personal qualities, political capacity and national cause of Gandhi were (all) incomprehensible to Churchill.[29]” In the coalition government, the Labour members, supported Indian nationalism and Gandhi argued that “if the British were fighting for their own freedom they could scarcely deny freedom to their colonies.”[30] Consequently, under pressure from cabinet members, Churchill agreed that after the war a new constitution would be made, followed by the “transfer of responsibility from British to Indian hands.”[31] This was a crucial step towards independence, in which Gandhi played no part. American public opinion also turned against Gandhi and according to Brendon, foiled “Nehru’s hope of hitching “India’s wagon to America’s star and not Britain’s.”[32]

The Quit India Resolution was passed by the Congress in August 1942, which gave Gandhi authority to “take whatever steps necessary to expel the British.”[33] Gandhi’s speech launching the movement said that “everyone who desired freedom would have to be his own guide.”[34] Misra argues that this implied they should take whatever action, even if meant violence which shows the inconsistency in his views and campaigns. Cripps’ disapproved, “In this chaos, Gandhi proposes to set up a provisional government if he can.”[35] By Gandhi’s admission, “once given the certainty of Indian freedom in the future, he cared little how long the period of transition lasted.”[36] The campaign began with strikes and violence in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. The Congress leaders were quickly arrested on the 9th August, within hours of the declaration, in order for the government not to be seen to give way to violence and disorder.

In June 1945, Clement Attlee was elected Labour Prime Minister, and had long been in favour of independence. This change in government and their attitude towards India would be crucial; because the promise of independence had been made, it was just a matter of when it would happen.

With the end of the war in September 1945, India no longer had its economic benefits to Great Britain. The USA put a halt to Lend-Lease which had maintained the economy during the war years and Attlee’s negotiations at the Washington Loan Agreement, did not come out as favourably as was hoped, so reviving the economy was difficult. With the USA as Britain’s major financial supporter, their disapproval of Britain maintaining an empire had serious implications.

In March 1947, Mountbatten was sworn in as the last viceroy of India. With the passing of the Indian independence act in July 1947, a civil war broke out. On the 14th August 1947, Pakistan was declared a separate nation, and on the 15th August 1947, India became independent. Violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims followed. Gandhi decided not to attend the independence celebration because independence had not been granted the way he wanted as partition meant the creation of Pakistan.

Ultimately, the growth of the nationalist movement in India was built upon by Gandhi in the way that he commanded much publicity as a figurehead of the movement. However his Satyagraha campaign and attitude infuriated many, and the British government’s intransigence when faced with his campaigns, could have in fact delayed the granting of independence. It is certain that the creation of Congress and the growth of popular support developed nationalist feeling, but this was as a result of British provocative actions: the early mistreatment of sepoys; the passing of the Rowlatt Acts and the Amritsar massacre. Despite Indian revolts, the early Indian Uprising, being followed by Gandhi’s non-co-operation, civil disobedience and quit India movements, the British showed that they would only leave India when it suited them. As Jordan says, “The British left India for economic reasons, not because they were ground down by decades of Satyagraha,”[37] and when they were no longer seeing economic benefits from rule in India, was when it was time to leave.


[1] BandyopÄdhyÄy, S. “From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India” Orient Longman (2004)

[2] Brendon, P. “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1787-1997” Vintage (2008)

[3] Coohill, J. ”Indian voices from the 1857 rebellion” History Today (2007)

[4] Coohill, J. ”Indian voices from the 1857 rebellion” History Today (2007)

[5] Marshall, Prof. P. “British India and the “Great Rebellion” BBC History (2009)


[6] Brendon, P. “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1787-1997” Vintage (2008)

[7] BandyopÄdhyÄy, S. “From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India” Orient Longman (2004)

[8] Brendon, P. “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1787-1997” Vintage (2008)

[9] Brendon, P. “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1787-1997” Vintage (2008)

[10] Judd, D. “Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present” Phoenix (2001)

[11] Marshall, Prof. P. “British India and the “Great Rebellion” BBC History (2009)


[12] Copland, I. ”India, 1885-1947: The Unmaking of an Empire” Longman (2001)

[13] Andrews, C. “Mahatma Gandhi, his life and ideas” Anmol Publications (1987)

[14] Story of Pakistan, “Montague-Chelmsford Reforms” (2003)


[15] British history timeline, “History, World Wars” (2010)


[16] Gandhi, M. “An autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with truth” Beacon Press (1957)

[17] Judd, D. “Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present” Phoenix (2001)

[18] Tharoor, S. “Nehru, the invention of India” Arcade Publishing (2003)

[19] Tharoor, S. “Nehru, the invention of India” Arcade Publishing (2003)

[20] Gandhi, M. “An autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with truth” Beacon Press (1957)

[21] Kulke, H. “A History of India” Routledge (2004)

[22] Copland, I. ”India, 1885-1947: The Unmaking of an Empire” Longman (2001)

[23] Copland, I. ”India, 1885-1947: The Unmaking of an Empire” Longman (2001)

[24] Phillips, C. & Wainwright, M. “The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives 1935-1947” M.I.T Press (1970)

[25] Mehrotra, S. R. “Towards India’s Freedom and Partition” Rupa & Co. (2005)

[26] Phillips, C. & Wainwright, M. “The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives 1935-1947” M.I.T Press (1970)

[27] Mehrotra, S. R. “Towards India’s Freedom and Partition” Rupa & Co. (2005)

[28] Toye, R. “Churchill’s Empire: The world that made him and the world he made” Macmillan (2010)

[29] Guha, R. “Churchill and Gandhi” The Hindu Online Newspaper (2005)

[30] Guha, R. “Churchill and Gandhi” The Hindu Online Newspaper (2005)

[31] Declaration for discussion with Indian leaders by His Majesty’s Government “Sir Stafford Cripps’ Mission to India” (March 1942)


[32] Brendon, P. “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1787-1997” Vintage (2008)

[33] Misra, M. “Vishnu’s Crowded Temple” Penguin Group (2007)

[34] Misra, M. “Vishnu’s Crowded Temple” Penguin Group (2007)

[35] Cripps, Sir S. “Statement on India” The Times (August 1942)


[36] Cripps, Sir S. “Statement on India” The Times (August 1942)


[37] Jordan, S. “Gandhi: Some ugly truths revealed” (2009)


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