The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of Indian nationalism. Indians felt like one and they tried to overthrow the foreign rule. This led to the Indian freedom struggle and finally independence. Read to know about the exciting history of India’s struggle for independence.
In the 6-part framework to study modern Indian History, we have so far covered:
- India in 1750.
- British Expansion.
- The changes introduced by the British.
- Popular Uprisings and Revolts against the British
- Socio-religious movements in India.
In this article (6th part), we discuss the emergence of Indian nationalism and India’s struggle for independence.
India has been unified under many empires in its history like the Mauryan Empire and Mughal empire. A sense of oneness has been there for ages – even though most of the centralised administration in India didn’t last long.
With the end of Mughal rule, India broke into hundreds of princely states. The British – which were instrumental in the fall of the Mughal Empire – held control over the princely states and created the British Indian Empire.
However, most Indians were extremely dissatisfied with the exploitative foreign rule.
The educated Indians realised that the British always gave priority to their colonial interests and treated India only as a market.
They advocated for the political independence of India.
Foundation of Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885
The late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of many political organisations in British India.
Indian National Congress (also known as Congress Party) founded in 1885 was the most prominent one.
Initially, its aim was to create a platform for civic and political dialogue between Indians and the British Raj and thus obtain a greater share of government for educated Indians.
Later, under the leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawarhal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Congress party played a central role in organising mass movements against the British.
Partition of Bengal (1905)
Indian nationalism was gaining in strength and Bengal was the nerve centre of Indian nationalism in the early 1900s.
Lord Curzon, the Viceroy (1899-1905), attempted to ‘dethrone Calcutta’ from its position as the centre from which the Congress Party manipulated throughout Bengal, and indeed, the whole of India.
The decision to partition Bengal into two was in the air from December 1903.
Congress party – from 1903 to mid-1905 – tried moderate techniques of petitions, memoranda, speeches, public meetings and press campaigns. The objective was to turn to public opinion in India and England against the partition.
However, Viceroy Curzon 1905 formally announced the British Government’s decision for the partition of Bengal on 19 July 1905. The partition took effect on 16 October 1905.
The partition was meant to foster another kind of division – on the basis of religion. The aim was to place Muslim communalists as a counter to the Congress. Curzon promised to make Dacca the new capital.
This resulted in a lot of discontent among the Indians. Many considered this as a policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ by the British.
This triggered a self-sufficiency movement popularly known as the Swadeshi movement.
The Swadeshi Movement (1905-1908)
From conservative moderation to political extremism, from terrorism to incipient socialism, from petitioning and public speeches to passive resistance and boycott, all had their origins in the movement.
Swadeshi is a conjunction of two Sanskrit words: swa (“self”) and desh (“country”).
The movement popularised the use and consumption of indigenous products. Indians started ditching British goods for Indian products.
Women, students, and a large section of the urban and rural population of Bengal and other parts of India became actively involved in politics for the first time with Swadeshi Movement.
The message of Swadeshi and the boycott of foreign goods soon spread to the rest of the country.
The militant nationalists led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghosh were in favour of extending the movement to the rest of India and carrying it beyond the programme of just Swadeshi and boycott to a full-fledged political mass struggle. For them, the aim was Swaraj.
In 1906, the Indian National Congress at its Calcutta Session presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, declared that the goal of the Indian National Congress was ‘self-government or Swaraj like that of the United Kingdom or the Colonies.
There were differences in the ideologies of the congressmen who were popularly known by the names Moderates and the Extremists. They had differences of opinion regarding the pace of the movement and the techniques of struggle to be adopted. This came to a head in the 1907 Surat session of the Congress where the party split (the two factions re-joined later).
This period also saw a breakthrough in Indian art, literature, music, science and industry.
It was, perhaps, in the cultural sphere that the impact of the Swadeshi Movement was most marked. The songs composed at that time by Rabindranath Tagore, Rajani Kanta Sen etc became the moving spirit for nationalists of all hues.
In art, this was the period when Abanindranath Tagore broke the domination of Victorian naturalism over Indian art and sought inspiration from the rich indigenous traditions of Mughal, Rajput and Ajanta paintings.
In science, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Prafulla Chandra Ray, and others pioneered original research that was praised the world over.
The Swadeshi period also saw the creative use of traditional popular festivals and melas as a means of reaching out to the masses. The Ganapati and Shivaji festivals, popularized by Tilak, became a medium for Swadeshi propaganda not only in Western India but also in Bengal.
Another important aspect of the Swadeshi Movement was the great emphasis given to self-reliance or ‘Atmasakti’in various fields meant the re-asserting of national dignity, honour and confidence.
Self-reliance also meant an effort to set up Swadeshi or indigenous enterprises. The period saw a mushrooming of Swadeshi textile mills, soap and match factories etc.
One of the major features of the programme of self-reliance was Swadeshi or National Education. In 1906, the National Council of Education was established. The vernacular medium was given stress from the primary to university level.
Corps of volunteers (or samitis as they were called) were another major form of mass mobilization widely used by the Swadeshi Movement. The Swadesh Bandhab Samiti set up by Ashwini Kumar Dutt was the most well-known volunteer organization of them all.
Reasons for the failure of the Swadeshi Movement
- The main drawback of the Swadeshi Movement was that it was not able to garner the support of the mass. The British use of communalism to turn the Muslims against the Swadeshi Movement was to a large extent responsible for this.
- During the Swadeshi phase, the peasantry was not organized around peasant demands. The movement was able to mobilize the peasantry only in a limited way.
- By mid-1908 repression took the form of controls and bans on public meetings, processions and the press.
- The internal squabbles, and especially, the split in the Congress (1907), the apex all-India organization, weakened the movement.
- The Swadeshi Movement lacked an effective organization and party structure.
- Lastly, the movement declined because of the very logic of mass movements itself — they cannot be sustained endlessly.
However, the movement made a major contribution in taking the idea of nationalism, in a truly creative fashion, to many sections of the people. The peasant participation in the Swadeshi Movement even though less, marked the very beginnings of modern mass politics in India.
The Split in the Congress (1907)
The main public leaders of the two wings, Tilak (of the Extremists) and Gokhale (of the Moderates) were aware of the dangers of disunity in the nationalist ranks.
A split was avoided in 1906 by choosing Dadabhai Naoroji as president of INC in the Calcutta session. Also, four compromise resolutions on the Swadeshi, Boycott, National Education, and Self-Government demands were passed. However, the hope of a united Congress was short-lived.
The Extremists wanted to extend the Swadeshi and the Boycott Movement from Bengal to the rest of the country but the Moderators opposed it.
The Extremists were fumed by the rumours that the Moderates wanted to scuttle the four Calcutta resolutions. This created friction among them which led to the split at the Congress session was held on 26 December 1907 at Surat, on the banks of the river Tapti.
The Indian National Congress split in December 1907. By 1907, the Moderate nationalists had exhausted their historical role. They failed to meet the demands of the new stage of the national movement and even failed to attract the younger generation.
Almost at the same time, revolutionary terrorism made its appearance in Bengal.
Britain’s policy towards INC
- The British had been suspicious of the National Congress from its inception but they were not overtly hostile either.
- In 1888 Viceroy Dufferin ridiculed INC as representing only the elite — ‘a microscopic minority’.
- Lord Curzon said: “The Congress is tottering to its fall, and one of my greatest ambitions while in India is to assist it to a peaceful demise.”
- The intimidating policies of the British towards INC changed once the Swadeshi and Boycott Movement began. The strengthening of the militant nationalist trend alarmed the British.
- A new policy, known as the policy of the carrot and the stick was invoked. It was three-pronged. It was described as a policy of repression-conciliation-suppression.
- The Extremists were repressed, though mildly in the first stage. The purpose is to frighten the Moderates. The British also tried to pacify Moderates through some concessions and promises if they disassociated themselves from the Extremists. However, the British always wanted to suppress Extremists.
Minto-Morley constitutional reforms (1909)
The Government of India which was headed by Lord Minto as Viceroy and John Morley as the Secretary of State offered fresh reforms in the Legislative Councils. They began discussions with Moderates within Indian National Congress regarding this. However, when the decision was taken, not just Moderates but the country as a whole were disappointed.
- The Indian Councils Act of 1909 increased the number of elected members (but most of them were still indirectly elected) in the Imperial Legislative Council and the provincial legislative councils.
- An Indian was to be appointed a member of the Governor-General’s Executive Council.
- The Act permitted members to introduce resolutions; it also increased their power to ask questions.
- Voting on separate budget items was allowed.
The real purpose of the Morley-Minto Reforms was to divide the nationalist ranks and encourage the growth of Muslim communalism. For the latter, they introduced the system of separate electorates under which Muslims could only vote for Muslim candidates in constituencies specially reserved for them.
The Ghadar Movement (1914)
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 gave impetus to the nationalist feelings of Indians. The Home Rule League by Lokmanya Tilak and Annie Besant were formed during First World War.
At the same time, a revolutionary movement gained popularity – The Ghadar Movement. (Note: The word Ghadar means ‘revolt’)
The Ghadar Movement was an international political movement founded by expatriate Indians to overthrow British rule in India.
The early membership was composed mostly of Punjabi Indians who lived and worked on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. The movement later spread to India and Indian diasporic communities around the world.
The main leader initially was Bhagwan Singh, a Sikh priest who had worked in Hong Kong and the Malay States.
Later Har Dayal took leadership and played a crucial role in the Ghadar movement. He issued a Yugantar Circular praising the attack on the Viceroy. He urged Indians in the USA not to fight against the US but use their freedom in the US to fight the British.
The Ghadar militants toured extensively, visiting mills and farms where most of the Punjabi immigrant labour worked. The Yugantar Ashram became the home and headquarters and refuge of these political workers.
- The Komagata Maru incident involved the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru, on which a group of people from British India attempted to immigrate to Canada in April 1914. Most of the ship passengers were denied entry and forced to return to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). There, the Indian Imperial Police attempted to arrest the group leaders. A riot ensued, and they were fired upon by the police, resulting in the deaths of 22 people.
- British Government passed orders that no passenger be allowed to disembark anywhere on the way — not even at the places from where they had joined the ship — but only at Calcutta.
- It triggered off a wave of resentment and anger among the Indian community and became the occasion for anti-British mobilization.
- A number of Ghadar leaders, like Barkatullah and Tarak Nath Das, used the inflammatory passions surrounding the Komagata Maru incident as a rallying point and successfully brought many disaffected Indians in North America into the party’s fold.
- Ghadar leaders completely underestimated the extent of preparation needed at every level — organizational, ideological, strategic, tactical, and financial — that was necessary before an armed revolt could be organized.
- An almost non-existent organizational structure; the Ghadar Movement was sustained more by the enthusiasm of the militants than by their effective organization.
- The movement failed to generate an effective and sustained leadership that was capable of integrating the various aspects of the movement. Har Dayal’s ideas did not form a structured vision but remained a shifting amalgam of various theories that attracted him from time to time.
- Lacking a mass base, despite the remarkable heroism of the individual revolutionaries who operated in small secret groups, the movement could not withstand suppression by the strong colonial state.
- The Ghadar Movement came to an abrupt end with the arrest of Har Dayal.
The Home Rule Movement (1916-1918)
The Home Rule Movement under the leadership of Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak was an important political movement that set the stage for India’s struggle for independence.
Annie Besant, who was a proponent of Free Thought, Radicalism, Fabianism and Theosophy, had come to India in 1893 to work for the Theosophical Society.
In 1914, she decided to enlarge the sphere of her activities. She started a movement for Home Rule on the lines of the Irish Home Rule League.
She realized that she needs the cooperation of both Moderates and Extremists. In the annual session of the Congress 1915, it was decided that the Extremists be allowed to rejoin the Congress along with the Moderates.
Tilak set up the Home Rule League in the Bombay Province.
The two leagues worked in different areas.
Tilak promoted the Home Rule campaign which linked the question of Swaraj with the demand for the formation of linguistic states and education in the vernacular medium.
Members of Gokhale’s Servants of India Society, though not permitted to become members of the League, encouraged the demand for Home Rule by undertaking lecture tours and publishing pamphlets.
During the Lucknow session of the Congress in December 1916, the famous Congress-League Pact was declared. Both Tilak and Annie Besant had played a role in bringing about this agreement between the Congress and the League, much against the wishes of many important leaders, including Madan Mohan Malaviya. This pact is popularly known as the Lucknow Pact where separate electorates for Muslims were accepted.
The turning point in the home rule movement came with the decision of the Government of Madras in 1917 to place Mrs Besant and her associates, B.P. Wadia and George Arundale, under arrest.
Montague Declaration was introduced by the British government as a sign of a conciliatory effort. Henceforth, Home Rule or self-government movement was not treated as a seditious activity. However, this did not mean that the British were ready to grant self-government.
In 1920 All India Home Rule League changed its name to Swarajya Sabha.
The main achievement of the Home Rule Movement was that it created a generation of ardent nationalists who formed the backbone of the national movement. In the later years, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian freedom struggle entered its truly mass phase.
Champaran movement in Bihar (1917)
Mahatma Gandhi, after his struggle against apartheid in South Africa (racial discrimination against blacks) for almost twenty years, returned to India in 1915. On Gokhale’s advice, he spent a year travelling around British India to understand the problems of Indians.
He initially maintained a distance from political affairs, including the Home Rule Movement that was gathering momentum at this time.
Mahatma Gandhi began his experiments with Satyagraha against the oppressive European indigo planters at Champaran in Bihar in 1917.
Champaran issue had actually begun in the early 19th century when European planters made agreements with Indian farmers that forced them to cultivate indigo on the 3/20th of their holdings (known as the Tinkathia system).
Resistance kept surfacing within planters and cultivators, because of the exploitation measures adopted by the British behind the indigo cultivation.
In 1908 Raj Kumar Shukla, a local man persuaded Gandhiji to come to Champaran to investigate the problem. Gandhi reached Champaran but faced resistance from the Commissioner who ordered him to immediately leave the district. Gandhiji refused. He preferred to take the punishment for his defiance of the law. This step was unusual because even Home Rule leaders used to obey the Government.
The British Indian government didn’t want to create a controversy and ordered the local Government to retreat. They allowed Gandhiji to proceed with his enquiry and even nominated him as one of the enquiry members of the Government.
Meanwhile, Gandhiji started investigating the grievances of peasants along with Brij Kishore, Rajendra Prasad and other members of the Bihar intelligentsia. J.B. Kripalani toured the villages and recorded the statements of peasants.
Gandhiji had little difficulty in convincing the Commission that the Tinkathia system needed to be abolished and that the peasants should be compensated for the illegal enhancement of their dues. The Commission founder planters guilty of exploitation.
The commission of enquiry decided to make refunds to the peasants. Gandhi asked for 50%. But the representative of planters offered to refund to the extent of 25%. In order to break the deadlock, Gandhiji agreed to a 25 per cent refund to the farmers. For Gandhi, it was not the money but the principles that were of utmost importance. In his belief, the submission of British landlords was more significant than the percentage of refunds.
Ahmedabad Satyagraha in Gujarat (1918)
In Ahmedabad, a dispute was brewing between workers and mill owners over the question of a ‘plague bonus’.
The employers wanted to withdraw the bonus once the epidemic had passed but the workers insisted it stay.
The British Collector asked Gandhiji to work out a compromise. Gandhiji persuaded the mill owners and the workers to agree to arbitration.
The workers demanded a 50% wage hike while the mill owners offered only a twenty per cent wage hike. They threatened to dismiss all workers who did not accept it.
Gandhiji advised the workers to go on strike. He himself started fasting for workers.
Gandhiji was peculiar in that workers should get at least a thirty-five per cent increase in wages.
Finally, the strike was withdrawn after mill owners agreed to a thirty-five per cent increase the workers had demanded.
Anasuya Behn was one of the main lieutenants of Gandhiji in this struggle.
Kheda Satyagraha in Gujarat (1918)
The Kheda district of Gujarat was on the verge of famine owing to the failure of the crops.
The yield had been so low that the cultivators were unable to pay the revenue. But the government insisted that the cultivators should pay the tax.
Gandhi saw the justice of the cause of the cultivators. Enquiries by members of the Servants of India Society and Vithalbhai Patel too confirmed the genuineness of the peasants’ case.
Gandhiji advised the withholding of tax payments, and asked the peasants to ‘fight unto death against such a spirit of vindictiveness and tyranny’.
The peasants of Kheda, already deprived because of plague, high prices and drought, were showing signs of weakness when Gandhiji came to know that the Government had issued secret instructions directing that revenue should be recovered only from those peasants who could pay.
The Government said that if well-to-do cultivators paid up the poorer section would be granted suspension. This was agreed to and the campaign ended.
The Kheda Satyagraha marked the beginning of an awakening among the peasants of Gujarat, the beginning of their true political education. In addition, it gave the educated public workers the chance to establish contact with the actual life of the peasants.
Rowlatt Satyagraha (1919)
During the First World War of 1914-18, the British instituted censorship of the press and permitted detention without trial.
The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi on 18 March 1919, indefinitely extending the emergency measures of preventive indefinite detention, incarceration without trial and judicial review enacted in the Defence of India Act 1915 during the First World War.
It was enacted in light of a perceived threat from revolutionary nationalists to organisations of re-engaging in similar conspiracies as during the war which the Government felt the lapse of the Defence of India Act would enable.
This act was passed on the recommendations of the Sedition Committee chaired by Sir Sidney Rowlatt.
Gandhiji launched Satyagraha against the inhuman Rowlatt Act.
The protests were particularly intense in the Punjab Gandhiji was detained while proceeding there.
Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919)
The passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919 resulted in large-scale political unrest throughout India.
A large peaceful crowd had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab to protest against the arrest of pro-Indian independence leaders Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satya Pal.
In response to the public gathering, the British Brigadier-General R. E. H. Dyer surrounded the Bagh with his soldiers.
General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on the nationalist meeting killing hundreds. The brutality at Jallianwala Bagh stunned the entire nation.
This event caused many moderate Indians to abandon their previous loyalty to the British and become nationalists distrustful of British rule.
Non-cooperation Movement (1920)
Gandhiji called for a campaign of “non-cooperation” with British rule. Indians who wished colonialism to end were asked to stop attending schools, colleges, and law courts. They were asked to not pay taxes. In sum, they were asked to adhere to a “renunciation of all voluntary association with the British Government”.
Gandhiji said that if non-cooperation was effectively carried out India would win swaraj within a year.
When Congress met for its annual session at Nagpur, C.R. Das moved the main resolution on non-cooperation. Many groups of revolutionary terrorists, especially in Bengal, also pledged support to the movement.
The goal of the Congress, by this time, changed from the attainment of self-government by constitutional means to the attainment of Swaraj by peaceful means.
Khilafat Movement (1919-24)
The Khilafat movement was a political protest campaign launched by Muslims of British India to restore the caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate, who was considered the leader of the Muslims.
To further broaden the Indian freedom struggle, Gandhiji joined hands with the Khilafat Movement.
The movement collapsed by late 1922 when Turkey gained a more favourable diplomatic position and moved towards Nationalism. By 1924, Turkey abolished the role of the caliph.
However, the tremendous participation of Muslims in the Non-Cooperation Movement and the maintenance of communal unity, despite the Malabar developments, was in itself no mean achievement.
Chauri Chaura incident (1922)
On 4 February 1922, at Chauri Chaura (a place in modern Uttar Pradesh), the British police opened fire at a large group of people who were participating in the Non-cooperation movement.
In retaliation, the demonstrators attacked and set fire to a police station, killing all of its occupants. The incident led to the death of three civilians and 22 policemen.
Mahatma Gandhi, who was strictly against violence, halted the non-cooperation movement on the national level on 12 February 1922, as a direct result of the Chauri Chaura incident.
In spite of Gandhi’s decision, 19 arrested demonstrators were sentenced to death and 14 to imprisonment for life by the British colonial authorities.
Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose, and many others recorded their disagreement on Gandhiji’s views.
Bardoli Satyagraha in Gujarat (1928)
In January 1926, the officer charged with the duty of reassessment of the land revenue demand of the taluq had recommended a 30% increase over the existing assessment.
The Congress leaders were quick to protest against the increase and set up the Bardoli Inquiry Committee to go into the issue.
In July 1927, the Government reduced the enhancement to 21.97 per cent. But the concessions were too meagre and came too late to satisfy anybody.
The constitutionalist leaders now began to advise the peasants to resist by paying only the current amount and withholding the enhanced amount.
Gradually as the limitations of constitutional leadership became more apparent, Vallabhbhai Patel was invited to lead the campaign.
The government ignored Vallabhai’s request which resulted in the start of Bardoli Satyagraha.
The no-tax movement was launched in Bardoli taluq of Surat district in Gujarat in 1928.
The main mobilization was done through extensive propaganda via meetings, speeches, pamphlets, and door-to-door persuasion. Special emphasis was placed on the mobilization of women and many women activists were recruited for the purpose.
Members of the Bombay Legislative Council like K.M. Munshi and Lalji Naranji, the representatives of the Indian Merchants Chamber, resigned their seats.
The government was forced to conduct an inquiry. The inquiry was done by a judicial officer, Broomfield, and a revenue officer, Maxwell. They came to the conclusion that the increase had been unjustified. The government later reduced the enhancement to 6.03 per cent.
The boycott of the Simon Commission (1927)
On 8 November 1927, an all-white, Simon Commission was appointed to recommend whether India was ready for further constitutional reforms.
Indian National Congress boycott Simon Commission because no Indian was present in the commission. There were protests in many places.
In Lahore, Lala Lajpat Rai, the hero of the extremist days and the most revered leader of Punjab was hit. He succumbed to the injuries in November 1928.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades sought to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. They killed the white police official, Saunders, in December 1928.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose emerged as the leaders during the Simon Commission boycott movement.
Nehru Report (1928) and the attempt to draft the Indian Constitution
Britain did not acknowledge the right of Indians to frame their own constitution.
British policy, until almost the end of the Raj, was that the timing and nature of Indian constitutional development were to be decided exclusively by the British Parliament, but it was assumed that Indians would be consulted as appropriate.
In December 1927, at its Madras session, the Indian National Congress took two major decisions in response to the setting up the Simon Commission: first, it decided to not cooperate with the Commission; second, it set up an All Parties Conference to draft a Constitution for India.
The committee of the All Parties Conference to draft the Constitution was chaired by Motilal Nehru with his son Jawaharlal Nehru acting as a secretary. There were nine other members in this committee.
The report submitted by the committee in 1928 was called the Nehru Report – which was actually a memorandum to appeal for dominion status and a federal set-up of government for the constitution of India.
The Nehru Report also rejected the principle of separate communal electorates on which previous constitutional reforms had been based. Seats would be reserved for Muslims at the Centre and in provinces in which they were in a minority, but not in those where they had a numerical majority.
The Nehru Report also recommended universal adult suffrage, equal rights for women, freedom to form unions, and dissociation of the state from religion in any form.
However, Jinnah withdrew his support to the report and proposed his ‘Fourteen Points’ which were basically a reiteration of his objections to the Nehru Report.
Young and radical nationalists led by Jawaharlal Nehru had objections to the Nehru Report of Motilal Nehru. Their slogan was ‘Complete Independence.’
Purna Swaraj or Complete Independence Campaign (1929)
In the Lahore session in 1929, Jawaharlal Nehru was made the President of INC. He declared ‘Purna Swaraj’ or Complete Independence as the only honourable goal Indians could strive for.
On the banks of the river Ravi, at midnight on 31 December 1929, the tricolour flag of Indian independence was hosted.
The first task that the Congress set itself in the new year was that of organizing all over the country public meetings at which the Independence Pledge would be read out and collectively affirmed on 26 January.
Civil Disobedience Movement and Dandi March (1930)
The Lahore Session of Congress (1929) authorized the Working Committee to launch a programme of civil disobedience including non-payment of taxes.
Gandhi’s ultimatum to Lord Irwin, stating the minimum demands in the form of 11 points, had been ignored, and there was now only one way out: civil disobedience. Gandhi selected salt as his main tool of disobedience.
In every Indian household, salt was indispensable; yet people were forbidden from making salt even for domestic use, compelling them to buy it from shops at a high price. The state monopoly over salt was deeply unpopular. By making salt his target, Gandhiji hoped to mobilise a wider discontent against British rule.
Gandhi, along with a band of seventy-eight members of the Sabarmati Ashram started to march from Ahmedabad to the coast at Dandi. There he broke the salt laws by collecting salt from the beach.
On 6 April 1930, by picking up a handful of salt, Gandhi inaugurated the Civil Disobedience Movement – a movement that was to remain unsurpassed in the history of the Indian national movement for the country-wide mass participation it unleashed.
Like other parts of India, the civil disobedience movement was also launched in North-West Frontier Province (Khyber–Pakhtoonkhwa). The local Congress sought help from the Khudai Khidmatgars, the most popular socio-political organization in the province.
Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars, popularly known as the Red Shirts, played an extremely active role in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
The city came under the control of the masses for at least a week and the soldiers of the Garhwali regiment refused to fire at the unarmed crowds of Peshwar demonstrations.
Nehru’s arrest on 14th April was followed by public protests in Madras, Calcutta and Karachi.
The Salt March was notable for at least three reasons:
- It was this event that first brought Mahatma Gandhi to world attention.
- It was the first nationalist activity in which women participated in large numbers. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had persuaded Gandhi for this issue.
- It was the Salt March that forced upon the British the realisation that their Raj would not last forever, and that they would have to devolve some power to the Indians.
Gandhi-Irwin Pact (1931) and the Round Table Conferences (1930-32)
British convened a series of “Round Table Conferences” in London to discuss constitutional reforms in India.
The first meeting was held in November 1930. However, without the pre-eminent political leader in India, it was an exercise in futility.
Gandhi was released from jail in January 1931. In the following month, he had several long meetings with the Viceroy. These culminated in what was called the “Gandhi-Irwin Pact’.
The terms of the agreement included the immediate release of all political prisoners not convicted for violence, the remission of all fines not yet collected, the return of confiscated lands not yet sold to third parties, and lenient treatment for those government employees who had resigned. The Government also conceded the right to make salt for consumption to villages along the coast. They also gave the right to peaceful and non-aggressive picketing.
The Congress’s demand for a public inquiry into police excesses was not accepted, but Gandhiji’s insistent request for an inquiry was recorded in the agreement.
Congress, on its part, agreed to discontinue the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
A second Round Table Conference was held in London in the latter part of 1931. Here, Gandhiji represented the Congress. Gandhi opposed the demand for separate electorates for “lower castes”. For him, separate electorates to the “Untouchables” will ensure their bondage in perpetuity. He thought this would prevent their integration into mainstream society and permanently segregate them from other caste Hindus.
But Ambedkar was in favour of separate electorates for depressed classes. He believed it is the only path for a community so handicapped to succeed in the struggle for life against the organised tyranny of higher castes.
During the second Round Table Conference in London, Winston Churchill, leader of the right wing, strongly objected to the British Government negotiating on terms of equality with the ‘seditious fakir’. He demanded a strong government in India.
The discussions with Gandhi failed as the British Government refused to concede the basic Indian demand for freedom. Gandhiji resumed Civil Disobedience after reaching back
The government launched its strike against the national movement by arresting Gandhi. British government promulgated ordinances that gave the authorities unlimited power – the ‘Civil Martial Law.’ Civil liberties no longer existed and the authorities could seize people and property at will.
In 1934 the inevitable decision to withdraw Civil Disobedience Movement was taken by Gandhi.
However, many political activists were not in favour of stopping the movement. They included Jawaharlal Nehru who was critical of Gandhiji’s decisions regarding the timing of the withdrawal of CDM.
The support that the movement had garnered from the poor and the illiterate, both in the town and in the country, was remarkable indeed.
Nevertheless, the participation of Muslims in the Civil Disobedience Movement was certainly nowhere near that of the Non-cooperation movement 1920-22.
For Indian women, the movement was the most liberating experience to date and can truly be said to have marked their entry into the public space.
The Communal Award (1932)
After the Third Round Table Conference, in November 1932, the then Prime Minister of Britain Ramsay McDonald gave an order which is known as the Communal Award.
It was part of Britain’s policy of ‘Divide and Rule.
The award granted separate electorates in British India for the Forward Caste, Lower Caste, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Untouchables (Dalits) etc.
The Congress Party was unhappy at the extension of communal representation but became particularly outraged at the British offer of separate-electorate seats for “depressed classes”.
Gandhi viewed the McDonald Award as a nefarious British plot to wean more than 50 million Hindus away from their higher-caste brothers and sisters.
The idea of a separate electorate for Muslims had been accepted by Congress as far back as 1916 as a part of the compromise with the Muslim League. Hence, Congress took the position it was opposed to separate electorates but not in favour of changing the Award without the consent of the minorities.
Gandhi demanded that the representatives of the Depressed Classes should be elected if possible by the universal, common franchise. At the same time, he did not object to the demand for a larger number of reserved seats for the Depressed Classes. He went on a fast unto death on 20 September 1932 to enforce his demand.
In the end, political leaders succeeded in bringing an agreement, known as the Poona Pact.
In this pact, the idea of separate electorates for the Depressed Classes was abandoned but the seats reserved for them in the provincial legislatures and Central Legislature were increased.
After being released from prison Gandhiji shifted to Satyagraha Ashram at Wardha after abandoning Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad for he had vowed in 1930 not to return to Sabarmati till Swaraj was won.
Government of India Act (1935)
The growing demand for constitutional reforms in India led the British Parliament to enact the Government of India Act 1935.
The Act promised some form of representative government.
The Act provided the establishment of an All-India Federation based on the union of British Indian provinces and the Princely States.
Defence and foreign affairs would remain outside the control of the federal legislature, while the Viceroy would retain special control over other subjects.
Governors, appointed by the British Government, retained special powers. They could veto legislative and administrative measures, especially those concerning minorities, the rights of civil servants, law and order, and British business interests.
The Governor also had the power to take over and indefinitely run the administration of a province.
The Act of 1935 was condemned and unanimously rejected by Congress. The Congress demanded the convening of a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise to frame a constitution for an independent India.
Resignation of Congress ministries (1939)
Congress won the elections to the provincial assemblies held in February 1937. Its election manifesto reaffirmed its total rejection of the 1935 Act.
One of the first acts of the Congress Government was to release thousands of political prisoners and to cancel deportation orders on political workers.
The difference between the Congress provinces and the non-Congress provinces of Bengal and Punjab was most apparent in this realm. In the latter, especially in Bengal, civil liberties continued to be curbed and they never released prisoners.
However, Congress could not attempt a complete overhaul of the agrarian structure by completely eliminating the Zamindari system.
Later the Second World War broke out. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru promised Congress support to the war effort if the British, in return, promised to grant India independence once hostilities ended. The offer was refused. Gandhi withdrew support to the British in War.
The Congress ministries resigned in October and November 1939, in protest against Viceroy Lord Linlithgow’s action of declaring India to be belligerent in the Second World War without consulting the Indian people.
The resignations brought the Left and the Right in Congress closer because of a common policy on the question of participation in the war.
Crisis at Tripuri (1939)
Subhas Bose had been a unanimous choice as the President of Congress in 1938. In 1939, he decided to stand again — this time as the spokesperson of militant politics and radical groups.
However, with the blessings of Gandhiji, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, J.B. Kripalani other leaders put up Pattabhi Sitaramayya as a candidate for the post.
Bose accused Patel and other top leaders of Congress as ‘rightists’. He openly accused them of working for a compromise with the Government on the question of the federation. Bose had, therefore, appealed to Congressmen to vote for a leftist and ‘a genuine anti-federationist.’
Nevertheless, in reality, the difference between ‘right’ and ‘left’ was not very vivid within the Congress and most Congressmen were anti-federationist.
Subhas Bose won the election on 29 January on the popularity of his militant politics but only by a narrow margin – 1580 votes against 1377.
But the election of Bose brought the brewing crisis to a head at the Tripuri session of the Congress.
Gandhiji declared that Sitaramayya’s defeat was ‘more mine than his.
Bose argued in his presidential address at Tripuri for a programme of immediately giving the British Government a six-month ultimatum to grant the national demand for independence and of launch a mass civil disobedience movement if it failed to do so.
Subhas Bose believed that the Congress was strong enough to bunch an immediate struggle and that the masses were ready for such a struggle.
However, Gandhi’s perceptions were very different. Gandhi believed the time was not yet ripe for an ultimatum because neither Congress nor the masses were yet ready for struggle.
The internal strife reached its climax at the Tripuri session of the Congress, held from 8 to 12 March 1939.
Bose had completely misjudged his support and the meaning of his majority in the presidential election. Congressmen had voted for him not because they wanted to have him as the supreme leader of the national movement – but mainly because of his policies and militant politics. They were not willing to reject Gandhi’s leadership or his views.
Bose resigned from the presidency. This led to the election of Rajendra Prasad in his place.
Subsequently, Subhas Bose and his followers formed the Forward Bloc as a new party within Congress.
As Bose planned a protest against an AICC resolution, the Working Committee removed Bose from the presidentship of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee and debarred him from holding any Congress office for three years.
Individual Satyagraha (1940)
Gandhiji decided to initiate a limited satyagraha on an individual basis by a few selected individuals in every locality. The demand of a satyagrahi was for the freedom of speech to preach against participation in the War.
The satyagrahi would beforehand inform the district magistrate of the time and place where he or she was going to make the anti-war speech. If the Government did not arrest a satyagrahi, he or she would not only repeat the performance but move into the villages and start a trek towards Delhi, thus participating in a movement that came to be known as the ‘Delhi Chalo’ (onwards to Delhi) movement.
Vinoba Bhave was to be the first satyagrahi on 17 October 1940 and Jawaharlal Nehru the second.
Individual Satyagraha served a dual purpose — (1) it gave expression to the Indian people’s strong political feelings, (2) it gave the British Government another opportunity to peacefully accept the Indian demands.
Cripps Mission (1942)
The Cripps Mission was a failed attempt in late March 1942 by the British government to secure full Indian cooperation and support for their efforts in World War II.
The mission was headed by a senior minister Sir Stafford Cripps, traditionally sympathetic to Indian self-rule.
However, he was also a member of the coalition War Cabinet led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had long been the leader of the movement to block Indian independence.
Churchill was persuaded to send Sir Stafford Cripps, to India to try and forge a compromise with Gandhiji and the Congress.
The Declaration promised India Dominion Status and a constitution-making body after the War. He proposed that the Constitutional Assembly members would be elected by the provincial assemblies and nominated by the rulers in the case of the princely states.
At that time, the demand for a separate nation for Muslims – Pakistan – also got momentum.
The Pakistan demand was accommodated by the provision that any province which was not prepared to accept the new constitution would have the right to sign a separate agreement with Britain regarding its future status.
Talks broke down, when, Congress objected to the provision for Dominion Status rather than full independence.
Congress insisted that if it was to help the British defend India from the Axis powers, then the Viceroy had first to appoint an Indian as the Defence Member of his Executive Council.
After the failure of the Cripps Mission, Mahatma Gandhi decided to launch the “Quit India” campaign also known as the ‘August Revolution’.
Quit India Movement (1942)
The Quit India Movement was launched at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee by Mahatma Gandhi on 8 August 1942, during World War II, demanding an end to British rule in India.
In this struggle, the common people of the country demonstrated unparalleled heroism and militancy.
However, the repression that they faced was the most brutal that had ever been used against the national movement.
At the historic August meeting at Gowalia Tank in Bombay, Gandhiji was particular about complete freedom and no more piece-meal approach from the British.
He proclaimed: ‘Do or Die’ – which meant either free India or die in the attempt.
Gandhi asked government servants to openly declare their allegiance to congress and not to resign.
In the meantime, underground networks were consolidated in various parts of the country. The prominent members of underground activities were Achyut Patwardhan, Aruna Asaf Ali, Ram Manohar Lohia, and Sucheta Kripalani.
The pattern of activity of the underground movement was that of organizing the disruption of communications by blowing up bridges, cutting telegraph and telephone wires, and derailing trains.
Congress Radio operated clandestinely from different locations in Bombay city, whose broadcast could be heard as far as Madras. Usha Mehta was an important member of the small group that ran the Congress Radio.
A significant feature of the Quit India Movement was the emergence of what came to be known as parallel governments in some parts of the country. Satara (Maharashtra) emerged as the base of the longest-lasting and most effective parallel government.
A significant feature of peasant activity was its total concentration on attacking symbols of British authority and a total lack of any incidents of anti-zamindar violence.
In February 1943, Gandhiji declared the fast in Aga Khan Palace where he was held in detention, as this was his answer to the Government which had been constantly exhorting him to condemn the violence of the people in the Quit India Movement. Gandhiji not only refused to condemn the people’s resort to violence but unequivocally held the Government responsible for it.
The resignation of the three Indian members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, M.S. Aney, N.R. Sarkar and H.P. Mody, who never wished Gandhi to suffer, made a severe blow to the British.
Finally, the Congress leaders were released to participate in the Simla Conference in June 1945. That marked the end of the phase of confrontation that had existed since August 1942.
Simla Conference (1945) and the Wavell Plan
The Simla Conference of 1945 was a meeting between the Viceroy of India (Lord Wavell) and the major political leaders of British India at the Viceregal Lodge in Simla.
Wavell proposed a separate representation of Muslims within a united India. Talks, however, stalled on the issue of the selection of Muslim representatives. The All-India Muslim League claimed to be the sole representative of Indian Muslims. The Indian National Congress opposed this claim as the Congress had more Muslims in its support than the Muslim League.
This scuttled the conference, and perhaps the last viable opportunity for a united, independent India.
On 14 June 1945 Lord Wavell announced a plan for a new Executive Council in which all members except the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief would be Indians. This executive council was to be a temporary measure until a new permanent constitution could be agreed upon and come into force.
RIN Mutiny (1946)
The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt started in February 1946 at Mumbai when the naval ratings on HMIS Talwar protested against the poor quality of food and racial discrimination by British officers.
From the initial flashpoint in Mumbai, the revolt spread and found support throughout India, from Karachi to Kolkata, and ultimately came to involve over 20,000 sailors in 78 ships and shore establishments.
Karachi was a major centre, second only to Bombay. Sympathetic strikes took place in military establishments in Madras, Vishakhapatnam, Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Jamnagar, the Andamans, Bahrain and Aden.
A revolt in the armed forces, even if soon suppressed, had a great liberating effect on the minds of people.
The naval mutiny proved to be the last nail in the coffin of British colonial aspirations in India.
India was seen to be on the brink of a revolution. The mutiny witnessed the demoralization of British officials and the changing loyalties of Indian officials.
However, communal unity evident in the RIN revolt was limited despite the Congress, League and Communist flags being jointly hoisted on the ships’ masts. Muslim ratings went to the League to seek advice on future action for Pakistan.
The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League condemned the mutiny, while the Communist Party of India was the only party that supported the rebellion.
The mutiny was suppressed by British troops and Royal Navy warships.
The revolt was called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Sardar Vallabhai Patel who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis.
Mountbatten Plan (1947)
The legislature representatives of the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the Sikh community came to an agreement with Lord Mountbatten on what has come to be known as the 3 June Plan or Mountbatten Plan. This plan was the last plan for independence.
The plan announced by the Viceroy Mountbatten on 3 June 1947 included these principles:
- The principle of the partition of British India was accepted by the British Government.
- Successor governments would be given dominion status.
- Autonomy and sovereignty to both countries.
- The successor governments could make their own constitution
- The Princely States were given the right to join either Pakistan or India, based on two major factors: Geographical contiguity and the people’s wishes.
The Mountbatten plan led to the enactment of the India Independence Act of 1947.
India Independence Act (1947)
The Indian Independence Act of 1947 passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom divided British India into two new independent dominions; the Dominion of India (later to become the Republic of India) and the Dominion of Pakistan (later to become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan).
This Act received Royal Assent on 18 July 1947.
India and Pakistan became independent on August 15th, 1947.
India continues to celebrate August 15th as her Independence day, while Pakistan chose to celebrate August 14th as her Independence day as per their cabinet decisions.
Learn more about India’s Struggle for Independence
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