India’s struggle for independence was actively shaped, influenced and nurtured by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Reverentially worshipped as Mahatma and respectfully adored as ‘Father of the Nation’ from 1920 to 1947 for a period of nearly three decades.
During this momentous period of our history, Gandhi was undoubtedly the undisputed leader of millions of freedom loving Indians.
He strode like an unrivalled colossus transforming the freedom movement to a broad-based mass movement by his policy of non-violence based non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement, and finally, his slogan ‘Do or Die’ inspired the Quit India movement.
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A critical examination of the strategy adopted by him reveals that it was ‘Struggle-Truce-Struggle’ as coined by Bipan Chandra. In between the phases of struggle-truce-struggle, Gandhi invented the constructive activity programme of eradication of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim unity, promotion of Khadi and village reconstruction to channelize the energies of the multitude of Indians by carrying on peaceful and continuous agitation of all-round mobilization of superstition ridden, illiterate, and ignorant masses about the need of self-help and self-reliance by precept and practice. Gandhi had justifiably become an icon of the 20th century to many Indians and non-Indian protagonists and time is not far off, when he is going to be another avatar of God.
Anil Seal, a Cambridge historian and an uncharitable critic of Gandhi observes, “Gandhi’s own brand of social conservatism, which sought change through personal reformation rather than popular revolution, his project to uplift the Harijans while keeping them within the Hindu straight jacket, the very cause of their degradations, his desire to take India back to its traditional and rural roots, with support from many captains of industry, his commitment to harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims while stressing Hinduism as a distinctive force, and his hopes, through Satyagraha, of curbing the violence which lies just under the fragile crust of order in Indian society, all suggest that Gandhi’s contribution has been as ambiguous as India’s chequered past and its uncertain future”.
What Anil Seal perceives above about Gandhi is not the whole truth but only a partial biased perspective and there is many such who belittle his contribution. It is very difficult to understand and appreciate Gandhi, the ‘charismatic saint’, astute politician, social reformer, pure visionary and the greatest force for conservatism.
Gandhi was born at Porbandar, a small native state in Kathiawar in. 1869. His father was the hereditary Diwan of that tiny state. He belonged to the Vaishya community which had close contacts with the Jains and. perhaps that could be the basis of his firm belief in Ahimsa or non-violence and Pacifism. His autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, graphically, truthfully and vividly describes his life. Gandhi after becoming a bar-at-law went in search of new pastures to South Africa, where he developed as a mature lawyer-cum-political activist and put into practice his policy of passive resistance backed by non-violence.
Sumit Sarkar aptly observes:
“The South African experience (1893-1914) contributed in a number of different ways to the foundations of Gandhi’s ideology and methods, as well as to his later achievements. In 1909 itself, Gandhi recorded his social ideals in Hind Swaraj wherein he categorically states that “the real enemy was not British political domination, but the whole of modern industrial civilization”. Gandhi further advocated “Indian’s salvation consists in unlearning what she had learnt during the past 50 years or so. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like, have all to go, and the so-called upper class have to learn to live consciously and deliberately the simple life of a peasant. By patriotism, I mean the welfare of the whole people”.
Sumit Sarkar points out, “The Gandhian Social Utopia as out lined in Hind Swaraj is undoubtedly unrealistic and indeed obscurantist if considered as a final remedy for the ills of India or of the world and it never had much appeal for sophisticated urban groups which by the 1930-1940 would turn increasingly to either capitalist or socialist solutions based on industrialization”.
Sumit Sarkar continues further by observing, “it did represent a response to the deeply alienating effects of ‘modernization’ particularly under colonial conditions the artisans ruined by factory industries, the peasants rural or small town intelligentsia. After his return to India, Gandhi concretized his message through programme of Khadi, village reconstruction and (somewhat later) Harijan welfare”.
Amartya Sen comments, “I personally believe Gandhiji was mistaken on many subjects including his opposition to modern technology, his opposition even to railways and his opposition to religious conversions. But to give credit where it is due, he was altogether visionary in understanding why what he called the Vivisection of the nation can be very detrimental to a harmonious society”.
Percival Spear observes that Gandhi by his philosophy of thought and action “envisaged a peasant society of self supporting workers, with simplicity as its ideal and purity as its hallmark, the state would be a lose federation of village-republics. He rejected the mechanics of the west along with its glitter and preached the necessity of hand spinning and weaving while cheerfully receiving the contributions of Indian industrialists”.
In January 1915, Gandhi returned to India and instead of plunging into action, he spent a year in understanding the situation in India by undertaking travelling and in the next year too he maintained distance from the ongoing’ Home Rule movement. During the course of 1917 and early 1918, he involved himself in three significant struggles in Champaran in Bihar, in Ahmedabad and in Kheda in Gujarat. In the words of Bipan Chandra “the common feature of these struggles was that they were related to specific local issues and that they were fought for the economic demands of the masses”.
Interestingly, these movements involved the impoverished peasants at Champaran and Kheda and industrial workers in Ahmedabad. Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda struggles made Gandhi find a place among the people of India as a determined and committed person to a cause which will better the conditions of the masses in India and to earn the goodwill and confidence of the younger workers. In such a mood of goodwill and successful experience at the age of 50, Gandhi called for a nationwide Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act in March 1919.
As the constitutional method failed, Gandhi initiated Satyagraha. A Satyagraha Sabha was formed and contacts were established with the people interested in participating in the agitation against Rowlatt Act. Gandhi proposed that the form of protest to be observed should be a nationwide hartal or strike followed by fasting and prayer. In addition to this form of protest, they decided to offer civil disobedience against specific laws. Though 6 April was fixed as the date on which Satyagraha was to be launched, due to some confusion, hartal was observed on 30 March at Delhi followed by street violence and disorder. Same patternrwas also noticed in other parts too.
The situation in Punjab, Gujarat and Bombay was very volatile. Gandhi was not allowed to visit Punjab and was detained at Bombay. Gandhi made it his mission to pacify the people. The Punjab Government by its action of arresting two local leaders precipitated the matter to the verge of violent protests.
April 13, the Baisakhi day was the darkest day in the Punjab and on that day the British resorted to brutal shoot-out attack on an innocent gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, in which 179 died as per government account and many ware injured. This most inhuman and brutal act of General Dyer stunned the entire civilized Indians and anger and resentment knew no bounds and the entire nation was overwhelmed by the total atmosphere of violence and revengeful mood. Gandhi withdrew the movement on 18 April, as his philosophy of action was based on non-violence and he wanted to be a leader of the controlled mass action.
Bipan Chandra et al. write, “This did not mean, however, that Gandhiji had lost faith either in his non-violent Satyagraha or in the capacity of the Indian people to adopt it as a method of struggle. A year later, he launched another nationwide struggle, on a scale bigger than that of the Rowlatt Satyagraha. The wrong inflicted on Punjab was one of the major reasons for launching it”. Thus began the ‘Indian Experiment’ of Mahatma which lasted for more than two and a half decades in actively shaping and moulding the course of the national liberation struggle under the banner of Gandhian era.
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The Indian independence movement was a movement from 1857 (in many cases, even pre-dating 1857) until 15 August 1947, when India got independence from the British Raj. The movement azad hind fauj armed and concepts of Subhas Chandra Bose who was also the leader of the government and the Head of State of this Provisional Indian Government. Many political ideas also contributed to the movement.
European Rule[change | change source]
Vasco da Gama of Portugal had discovered a sea route to India. He had reached Kozhikode (Calicut, Kerala) in 1498. After this, many Europeans started coming to India for trading. They made their offices and forts in various parts of India. The British East India Company became the major force in India. The Company's troops led by Robert Clive defeated the rulers of Bengal in 1757. This battle became famous as the Battle of Plassey. That was the beginning of British rule, known as the British Raj, in India. In 1764, the Battle of Buxar was won by the English forces. After this, the British got control over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom passed many laws to help the British East India Company. The Regulating Act of 1773, the India Act of 1784, and the Charter Act of 1813 were designed to help trade with India.
Before the First War of Independence (1857), Indians in different parts of India had revolted against the British. Many such of the revolts and armed struggles had taken place in this Some examples include:
Revolt of 1857[change | change source]
Main article: Indian Rebellion of 1857
India's First War of Independence was a revolt of Indian soldiers and people against British rule. Historians had used the terms like the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Mutiny to describe this event. The rebellion by Indian troops of the British Raj started in May 1857 and continued until December 1858. Many reasons had combined to result in this rebellion.
The British rulers continued to forcibly take regions ruled by Indians and made these regions part of the British Raj. They did not give any respect to old royal houses of India like the Mughals and the Peshwa. They also made the Indian soldiers of their army use a special type of cartridge. The soldiers had to open the cartridges with their teeth before loading them into their guns. The cartridges supposedly used cow and pig fat. For Hindus the cow is a sacred animal and they do not eat beef. For the Muslims they do not eat pork. Thus, the use of these cartridges made soldiers of both the religions turn against the British. Although the British tried to replace the cartridges, the feelings against them stayed.
Rebellion broke out when a soldier called Mangal Pandey attacked a British sergeant and wounded an adjutant. General Hearsey ordered another Indian soldier to arrest Mangal Pandey but he refused. Later the British arrested Mangal Pandey and the other Indian soldier. The British killed both by hanging them.
At the beginning the British were slow to respond. Then they took very quick action with heavy forces. They brought their regiments from the Crimean War to India. They also redirected many regiments that were going to China to India. The British forces reached Delhi, and they surrounded the city from 1st July 1857 until 31st August 1857. Street-to-street fights broke out between the British troops and the Indians. Ultimately, they took control of Delhi. The massacre at Kanpur (July 1857) and the siege of Lucknow (June to November 1857) were also important. The last important battle was at Gwalior in June 1858 in which the Rani of Jhansi was killed. With this, the British had practically suppressed the rebellion. However, some guerrilla fighting in many places continued until early in 1859 and Tantia Tope was not captured and executed until April 1859.
The Results[change | change source]
India's First War of Independence was a major event in the history of modern India. The Parliament of the United Kingdom withdrew the right of the British East India Company to rule India in November 1858. The United Kingdom started ruling India directly through its representative called the Viceroy of India. It made India a part of the British Empire. They promised "the Princes, Chiefs, and People of India," equal treatment under the British law. In 1877, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.
The British sent Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal Emperor, out of India, and kept him in Rangoon (now called Yangon in Burmese), Burma where he died in 1862. The Mughal dynasty, which had ruled India for about four hundred years, ended with his death.
The British also took many steps to employ Indian higher castes and rulers into the government. They stopped taking the lands of the remaining princes and rulers of India. They stopped interference in religious matters. They started employing Indians in the civil services but at lower levels. They increased the number of British soldiers, and allowed only British soldiers to handle artillery.
Organised movements[change | change source]
The period following India's First War of Independence was an important period in the Indian independence movement. Many leaders emerged at the national and provincial levels, and the Indians became more aware of their rights. Social movements also helped in shaping people's outlook, tried for social changes, and tried to remove bad social practices and evils like illiteracy and caste system. During this period, many social and religious leaders worked to inspire the Indian society. They included men like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sri Aurobindo, Subramanya Bharathy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Rabindranath Tagore and Dadabhai Naoroji.
They spread the message of self-confidence, removing of social evils, and making India free from domination of foreign power. Lokmanya Tilak was one such leader who was not very modest in his views. The British arrested him. In the court he declared: "Swaraj (independence) is my birthright". This concept of Swaraj later became a main policy and philosophy of India's independence movement in the following decades until India became independent.
In 1885, at the suggestion of Allan Octavian Hume, a retired British civil servant, seventy-three Indian delegates met in Bombay. They founded the Indian National Congress. The delegates represented educated Indians in professions such as law, teaching, and journalism. A few years before, Dadabhai Naoroji had already formed the Indian National Association. It merged with the Indian National Congress to form a bigger party.
To begin with, the Indian National Congress was not a very active political party. It met annually and gave some suggestions to the rulers of the British Raj. The suggestions generally related to civil rights and opportunities for Indians in the government jobs. Despite its claim to represent all Indians, it represented only the educated and higher class of the society. But, it failed to attract all Muslims. Many Muslims had become distrustful of Hindu reformers who raised their voice against matters like religious conversion and killing of cows for their meat. For Hindus, the cow is a sacred animal not to be killed. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan launched a separate movement for Muslims, and founded in 1875 a college in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh state, India. Later, this college became Aligarh University in 1921. The objective of the college was to give modern education to India's Muslims. By 1900, the Indian National Congress had become a national party, but did not represent all groups of Indian society, particularly the Muslims.
Partition of Bengal[change | change source]
In 1905, Lord Curzon (George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston), the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899-1905) of India divided Bengal province into two provinces: Eastern Bengal & Assam, with its capital at Dhaka, and West Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta (Kolkatta). At that time Calcutta was the capital city of the British Raj. The people became very angry at that partition (division), and created the phrase "divide and rule" for the policy followed by the British Empire. The leading intellectual figures of India at that time expressed their unhappiness at this partition. For example, Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Indian poet (originally from Bengal) composed a poem against this partition.
World War I[change | change source]
During the First World War, Indians gave support to the United Kingdom. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers went to many parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to fight. Many Indians, including the princes and rich people of India, contributed money and materials to the war funds of the United Kingdom. However, many Indian soldiers died in foreign lands. In India, flu spread like an epidemic killing many people. The tax rates increased in India, and prices also increased. The Indians became restless. In August 1917, Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, announced in the British Parliament about many steps to give more rights to Indians. A new law named the Government of India Act of 1919 gave many rights to the Indians in the provincial government. These rights related to farming, local government, health, education, and public works. The British administrators kept matters like taxation, finance, and law and order under their control.
The Rowlatt Act[change | change source]
In 1919 the British made a new law named the Rowlatt Act. Under this law, the government got many powers to arrest people and keep them in prisons without any trial. They also got the power to stop newspapers to report and print news. The people called this act the Black Act. Indians protested against this law in many places.
The positive impact of reform was seriously undermined in 1919 by the Rowlatt Act, named after the recommendations made the previous year to the Imperial Legislative Council by the Rowlatt Commission, which had been appointed to investigate "seditious conspiracy." The Rowlatt Act, also known as the Black Act, vested the Viceroy's government with extraordinary powers to quell sedition by silencing the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting any individuals suspected of sedition or treason without a warrant. In protest, a nationwide cessation of work (hartal) was called, marking the beginning of widespread, although not nationwide, popular discontent.
The agitation reached a peak in Amritsar (Punjab, India). In Amritsar, on 13th April 1919, about 10,000 Indians had assembled to protest against the Rowlatt Act. The British military commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire at the civilians without any warning. The troops fired 1,650 times. Some historians estimate that the troops killed 379 persons and injured about 1,137 persons. This incident became famous as Jallianwala Bagh massacre. With this killing of innocent people, the British lost the trust of the Indian people.
Gandhi's way[change | change source]
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (also known as Mahatma Gandhi) had received his education at London. He was a barrister (lawyer). In 1893, he went to South Africa. After Gandhi was thrown off a train because he was a colored person sitting in a first-class seat, he took that emotion and used it to begin to fight the injustices that many people of color faced at the time. He became successful and the government of South Africa removed most of such rules and restrictions.
When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, few people knew him. Under the leadership of Gandhi, Indians began to use a different method to get freedom over the next few years.
Civil disobedience[change | change source]
In December 1929, the Indian National Congress Party agreed to start a movement for complete independence from British rule. The Party decided to start a movement named to disobey the British rule. It became the civil disobedience movement. They decided to observe 26th January 1930 as the complete Independence Day. Many other political parties and revolutionaries came together to support this movement.
Gandhi started this movement. He led a number of 72 persons on a 400 kilometer route from Ahmedabad to Dandi (both in the Indian state of Gujarat), on the coast of the Arabian Sea. There they made salt from the seawater and broke a law of British India prohibiting making salt without paying taxes, so this event is referred to as the Salt March. Thus the civil disobedience movement began, and it soon spread throughout India. Indians started to break unfair laws in a peaceful manner in protest against the British rule.
Revolutionary activities[change | change source]
Many Indians did not believe in such peaceful protests. They thought that the British would not give independence to Indians so easily. They believed in armed struggle to oust the British from India. In some way, this had continued for years after the partition of Bengal in 1905. Many revolutionaries and leaders emerged from time to time.
The elections[change | change source]
The rulers of the British Raj made a new law to govern India, named the Government of India Act 1935. This law aimed at constitutional process to govern India. It had three major aims: to establish a federal system with many provinces, to give self-ruling position (autonomy) to the provinces, and to give the Muslim minority protection through giving them some separate electorates. In such separate electorates only Muslims could stand for elections. In February 1937, elections took place for the provincial assemblies. The members of the Indian National Congress won in five provinces, and held upper position in two more provinces. The Muslim League's performance in the election was not good.
The peak[change | change source]
During the Second World War, the rulers of the British Raj declared India to be a party to the war. They did not discuss the matter with Indians and their leaders. The Indians and their leaders became divided over this matter. Some supported the British, while many did not. British rulers of India wanted the Indians to fight and die in the name of freedom, yet they had denied this freedom to India and the Indians for more than a hundred years. This created a lot of dissatisfaction among Indians, and two big movements for India's independence took shape. The first was the Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose. The second was Quit India Movement of Mohandas Gandhi.
The Indian National Army[change | change source]
Subhas Chandra Bose and many leaders did not like the British decision to drag India into the Second World War. He had twice (in 1937 and 1939) become president of the Indian National Congress Party, the leading Indian political party of that time. However, he and many other leaders of the Indian National Congress Party differed on many matters. He resigned and formed a new party named All India Forward Bloc. The British government of India put him under house arrest, but he escaped in 1941. He reached Germany and secured the support of Germany and Japan to fight the British in India. In 1943, he traveled in submarines of Germany and Japan, and reached Japan. He organised the Indian National Army. The INA fought the troops of the British Raj in northeastern India. Despite many difficulties, INA recorded many victories. However, with the surrender of Japan in 1945, INA's operations stopped. Bose died in a plane crash, but circumstances of his death are not clear.
The British government of India put on trial three Indian National Army officers at the Red Fort in Delhi. The British had chosen for this trial one Hindu, one Sikh, and one Muslim of the INA. This made many Indians of all religions very angry. A naval mutiny also broke out in Bombay. Ultimately, the British ruled that these officers were guilty, but they set them free seeing the public anger. When India became independent, the government of India did not allow the former officers and soldiers of the INA to join the armed forces of the independent India. However, the government granted them very good pensions and other facilities. The Indian public also gave them much respect.
Many consider Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose a controversial figure due to his association with the Axis Powers. But, in India, people consider him a patriotic hero of the Indian independence movement.
Quit India[change | change source]
On 8th August 1942, the leaders of the Indian National Congress Party met in Bombay (Mumbai). The leaders adopted a policy to force the British out of India. Gandhi's slogan "Do or Die" became a national slogan, and the movement became the Quit India Movement. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Indian National Congress Party had supported the British, but they had demanded freedom for India after the war. The British did not agree to this proposal. On 14th July 1942, the Indian National Congress Party passed a resolution demanding complete independence from the British rule. However, this did not have support of some other political parties.
Gandhi had asked the people to keep the Quit India Movement as a peaceful movement. Many people started the movement in many places of India. But at some places, the movements turned violent. Gandhi refused to eat until the violence stopped. He was successful in ending the violence.
The British action was very quick. They arrested over 100,000 people. They levied fines on many people. They dropped bombs on the people who demonstrated against the British Raj. The troops of the British Raj even beat people with sticks and caned them. The British arrested all the leaders of the Congress Party. Gandhi's wife, Kasturba Gandhi, died during detention, as well as his secretary Mahadev Desai. Gandhi's health had also become very bad. In 1944, the British set him free fearing that Gandhi's death might result in a very large protest by Indians. Gandhi continued to oppose the British, and demanded that all other leaders be set free.
The Second World War had reduced the economic, political, and military strength of the British Empire. They were also aware that after the war Indians would begin a larger movement for independence. The mood of the British people and the British Army had also changed. After the Second World War, most of them were no longer willing to support the British ruling class in India. That position was now clear to the leaders of the United Kingdom. By early 1946, those leaders set free all the political prisoners held in India and opened independence discussions with the Indian National Congress Party. On the 14th of August 1947 Pakistan gained independence and a day later on the 15th of August India gained its independence as well.
India's independence (1947 to 1950)[change | change source]
In 1947, Britain handed India its formal political Independence. A short time after that, Gandhi, who was aging and ill, died from a bullet fired by a Hindu extremist named Nathuram Godse. The national leadership was then passed to his chief lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru. On 3rd June 1947, the Viceroy Lord Mountbatten announced partition of India into two countries: union of India, and an Islamic Pakistan. In this partition, many people died and got separated from their families. On midnight of 15th August 1947, India became an independent country, and still is to this day. On 26th January 1950, India adopted their constitution. The Indian constitution is the longest constitution in the world.