Before the Indian Independence Movement in the early 1900’s, India had been under the influence of a foreign ruler for its entire history. It was never in control of its own political destiny, nor was it ever considered a legitimate country. By the time the British took over the area, the citizens of India were beginning to grow restless with having no say in any political decisions. There was turmoil beneath the surface that the British were not really aware of, nor threatened by. This turmoil was evident in the minor rebellion of 1857, which was led by Indian soldiers. However, not until Mohandas Gandhi arrived in 1914 did the masses unite in their unhappiness and show Britain that they were capable of an uprising. Britain did not willingly accept this disloyalty, and it passed many legislative acts to try to suppress the masses and, more importantly, Gandhi. The spirit of the Indian people and its leader was not crushed, however, and they continued on in their search of independence. Not until only about 1957 did their perseverance pay off, and it was a long and hard battle against their oppressors to finally achieve freedom.
Prior to its search for independence, India had never enjoyed the privilege of deciding its own political fate. Even before the British arrived, there were many foreign rulers. However, there were elements that made the British rule different than the previous inhabitants. The earlier foreign rulers had slowly integrated themselves into Indian society; adopting their language, religion, social habits, and customs. The British, on the other hand, were determined to remain foreign. They did not want to become a part of the Indian nation, they were simply in the country to become wealthy and exercise their political influence, causing resentment on the side of the natives. They resented the fact that the British did not even attempt to adopt some of their beliefs, and in fact, they denounced most of them. As time passed, the gulf between the British people in India and the natives of the country widened. It is understandable that the Indians were bothered by this British condescendence because these foreigners on their land were critical of beliefs that were embedded in the Indian heritage. The people of India had always been proud of their rich culture and Hindu practices (Mehrotra 1971:115-8). The rejection of Hinduism was a major reason for unhappiness. The Indians were alarmed by the introduction of Christianity (Spear 1965:158). They also experienced racism on a very high level, and it is natural that the natives began to ferment. Although this turmoil remained beneath the surface, some of the British were aware that if they did not tone the racism down, the Indians would begin an uprising. Many British were afraid that the natives would realize that they all had common grievances and unite against the British, which would be disastrous for their power over the foreigners. Others British thought it was simply a matter of time until India won its independence; the natives just needed the right motivation and guidance (Mehrotra 1971:115-8).
The first surge of nationalism that occurred in India was the Minor Rebellion of 1857. This mutiny was sparked by angry sepoys, or Indian soldiers serving in the Bengal army of the British East India Company. They were forced by the British soldiers to use a certain type of cartridge that needed to bitten off, but they refused because they took this as evidence that the British thought of themselves as superior. The Indian sepoys were severely punished for their defiance, but they did not stand for this, and raised arms against their superiors. This was a very minor unplanned revolt; however, it symbolized what the rest of the natives were feeling. The sepoys were ahead of the rest of the country because the others did not seriously rebel until many years later. Since this rebellion was repressed, it actually had negative affects for the Indians: “The localized character of the revolt, its failure to throw up any outstanding ‘national’ leader…confirmed many Britons in their old belief that the people of India had ‘no conception of national independence’ or patriotism” (Mehrotra 1971:107). The British now believed more that they could control the Indians, as they had no capacity for self-government. They thought the natives were incapable of uniting and starting a threatening mutiny. These classic British clichés only grew stronger after 1857. However, the Indians now realized that they shared common grievances on a national scale (Mehrotra 1971:107-8). “From this concern with the new ideological invasion which could not be evaded arose the phenomenon which we call Indian nationalism” (Spear 1965:158). Despite the British resurgence of confidence in their ability to suppress the Indians, the natives were now very aware of the fact that the entire nation was looking for a way to free themselves from British rule.
It is interesting to consider why, after hundreds of years of foreign rule, the natives of India suddenly had this strong surge of nationalism beginning in 1857 and carried it through to the 20th century. The important thing that brought this on was the change in “ideologies, the groupings, and the technologies of both protest and acceptance” (Robb 2002:191). The influence of the Western world changed how Indians communicated with each other. With the installment of newspapers, postal system, and railways, the various parts of India could now share ideas. Previously, two Indian towns on opposite sides of the country could not talk to each other. With these new Western tools, natives from all over realized that they shared common grievances and hatred toward the British. Before the introduction of these technologies, the Indians had lacked solidarity, which is vital in creating a country-wide sense of patriotism (Robb 2002:191). These technologies, however, were a double-edged sword. They were an important reason why the British did not integrate themselves into Indian society. Before the invention of the steamer and railway, the British that came to India planned to stay there for a while, and had no choice to but to allow their social habits and customs to be affected by the natives in India. The steamers and railways made for easy travel between Britain and India. No longer did British live many years in India, now, they simply came to get rich and leave as quickly as possible. This caused resentment on the side of the natives, and the gap between the two sides continued to grow. The response on the side of the Indians was to use the technology to their advantage and unite under one common goal: to fight for their freedom (Mehrotra 1971:116).
The first major step toward Indian independence was the formation of the Indian National Congress (INC). The first meeting was in December 1885 in Bombay; among those who attend was Mahatma Gandhi, the future leader of the movement. At first the congress professed empire loyalty, western technology, and British liberties while trying to promote national interest. The INC was concerned with the elite’s responsibility to the rest of the nation and began to have its meetings at various locations in India and started to gather a following of mostly businessmen and professionals. However, World War I broke out in 1914, and dragged on until 1920. By the end of this time, the political scene in India had changed, and so had the INC. After 1920, it became a permanent opponent to the British government. It now sought participation from the masses of natives and was better organized. It was also more uncompromising in its demands toward Britain (Mehrotra 1971:183-4). After 1920, the INC quickly became the forum for the hopes and wants of the Indian people. The British were alarmed because the members of the congress were a new breed of Indian. “They criticized, they carped, they claimed rights” (Spear 1965:170-1). The INC represented the numerous forces of the country coming together. There were strong feelings of unity and patriotism at the meetings of the congress, and from the first meeting, the progress toward Indian independence rapidly sped up (Mehrotra 1971: 419).
The First World War brought about many changes in the Indian political scene. The British had promised India their independence numerous times, but no real changes had taken place. The Indians grew more frustrated as the war went on. By the time the war ended, Indian nationalism was extremely strong. The war contributed to this nationalism because post-war, the Indians realized that the British were not as mighty as they had previously thought. They realized that there were many superpowers of the world besides Britain and even the power of the mighty British navy was challenged on the seas. They looked more negatively at European tactics and ideas in general after World War I. More importantly, this change of the political situation in India paved the way for Mahatma Gandhi, the eventual head of the fight toward independence. “It [WWI] provoked a revolution in the Indian consciousness which in turn found expression in the ascendance of Mahatma Gandhi” (Spear 1965:181-2). Gandhi migrated to India in 1914 from South Africa, where he had fought for social injustices against immigrant Indians. Once in India, Indian political independence became his priority. Gandhi adopted an ethical system that rejected Western ideals of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He believed in social justice that pertained to the individual, especially the underprivileged. Above all Gandhi practiced nonviolence and empathy for others over individual pursuit of happiness (Ritchie 2000). Gandhi wanted to gain the support of the masses. He led week-long fasts and marches as a form of protest against the British. These had a significant impact and he soon had the entire country of India following him and looking to him as a leader. In 1921 he decided to begin living like the masses; he dressed, ate, and lived like the average Indian native. They felt that despite his financial means, as he had a good amount of money, he was truly practicing what he preached and rejecting Western beliefs of putting self-interest over social justice. The natives thought of Gandhi as being on the same social level as them, which is why they listened to his preaching and united under him (Spear 1965: 194-7).
Gandhi was causing serious rebellion of the masses against British rule, and they did not just sit back and watch. They passed many legislative acts to try to suppress the mutiny of the natives. The first of these was the Rowlatt Bills in 1919. These Bills allowed for the incarceration of “dangerous” persons in India without trial or legal representation. Gandhi strongly opposed this because it was just another way that the British flaunted their political dominance, so he fasted for three weeks to show his disagreement (The King Center 2000). Second was the 1919 Government Act of India, which stated that a commission would be created after ten years to decide whether India had the capacity for more self-rule. This commission was called the Simon Commission, which reported in 1930 and had no Indians on it. The ruling was self-government for the provinces, but nothing else. The INC was outraged because it wanted dominion status, which is a self-governing commonwealth while being one of a number of such territories united in a community of nations. While the Simon Commission was reporting, Gandhi led a civil disobedience crusade. He marched 250 miles to the sea to produce in his own salt as a way of protesting the newly imposed salt tax, and was eventually arrested because of this. Next came the Round Table Conferences of 1930 and 1931. A sympathetic Viceroy, Lord Irwin, was appointed, who believed that India deserved dominion status. The first conference failed because neither INC members nor Gandhi were present. However, Irwin convinced Gandhi to attend the second one and he agreed to end the civil disobedience campaign, but this conference also failed because an agreement over religion could not be achieved. Finally came the 1935 Government Act of India, which proposed that an elected Indian assembly would have a political say in everything, except defense and foreign affairs, and that the eleven provincial assembles would have full control over only local affairs. Nationalists in India were not pleased with this because they wanted dominion status granted immediately. Once again, it also failed to take of the age-old religious issues between Muslims and Hindu’s. The Muslim League actually wanted a split from India after the Hindu’s dominated Congress in 1937. Gandhi, however, was opposed to this idea because he felt a united India was a stronger India (History Learning Site 2000).
World War II broke out in 1939 and halted the Indian issue temporarily, at least in Britain’s eyes. During the war, the British promised dominion status for India at war’s end because many Indians fought for Britain against Japan. In 1945, after the war had ended, attempts to draw up a constitution that was satisfactory failed yet again because of the quarrel between the Muslims and Hindu’s. The Muslim League took direct action in 1946 to try to get an Independent Muslim state, which caused India to break out in civil war. Once again in 1947, Britain promised India their freedom. This time, there was more merit to this promise. The 1947 Indian Independence Act was written in August of that year. It created Pakistan, which was a Muslim state that was separate from India. Both countries were granted their independence, and all of Gandhi’s hard work as well as the undying support of the Indian people had finally paid off (History Learning Site 2000).
It is only natural for a nation of people who have been oppressed for their entire history to have an uprising and demand freedom. The Indians were no different in this aspect. They dealt with British rule for decades and slowly built up a strong sense of nationalism. The rebellion of 1857 was symbolic of how the country was feeling and showed that the natives of India did hope to have political freedom one day. The reorganization of the Indian National Congress after the First World War was a breakthrough for the people of India. It gave them a chance to express their political goals and find more efficient ways to achieve political freedom. World War I also led to the ascendance of Mohandas Gandhi, who showed the masses what needed to be done to show the British that the Indians were capable of achieving political freedom. Despite the many legislative acts that were passed by the British to try to repress this rebellion, the natives were persistent in their struggle and eventually came out on top. They survived two World Wars and many empty promises for freedom. Eventually, all this hard work and belief in their cause paid off. The Indian Independence Movement shows that determination and faith can help achieve goals, which is why it has been called by historians one of the most important and significant advances of an oppressed people in modern history.