In 1947, India gained its long-sought independence from Great Britain. Over the course of a century, Indians had pursued their independence and received it in small steps.
The Indian subcontinent was divided into often warring states for centuries, and the idea of a united Indian country stretching over the entire region was embraced only by philosophers and poets until the nineteenth century. When the British made India a colony under the auspices of the East India Company in the eighteenth century, they also gave the country a national identity, though one that was deemed inferior in every possible way to the national identity of white nations. The British also exploited the Indians economically, taking their land and raw materials and limiting the advancement of the Indian peoples within the British colonial system.
Origins of Modern India
As the Indians embraced the concept of nationalism in the mid-1850s, an independence movement was born. The first open demonstration calling for Indian independence came with the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, known in India as the 1857 Indian Revolt. It was caused by British economic mistreatment of Indians, increased British intrusion into the states and provinces of India, and disdain for Indian religious law.
Though the rebellion was put down, the British made changes in how India was administered. With the passing of the Government of India Act, control of India was removed from the East India Company and put directly under the British government. Also, Indians were then allowed to serve as counselors to the British colonial ruler, the viceroy.
British exploitation of India and its people continued in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries despite these changes. Indians were only permitted to hold positions in the lowest level of civil service, and were used as a cheap police force for the whole of the British empire well into the second decade of the new century. The Indian people saw their food supply compromised as many rice farms were turned into cotton farms to provide raw materials for cotton mills in Britain. India's own cotton industry suffered as the products of these mills entered the Indian market without tariffs.
Independence Movement Grows
Because of this British exploitation, the Indian National Union was founded in 1885. It was soon known as the Indian National Congress, and later the Congress Party. The group initially wanted to see more local Indians in political representation. Soon, the Indian National Congress became identified with the independence movement, because the British continued to act in ways that were offensive to Indians. While India supported the British war effort during World War I, sending troops and backing the British did not result in more freedom. It only led to more authoritarian legislation such as the 1919 Rowlatt Acts.
Some Indians protested the laws, resulting in the Amritsar Massacre. A British general ordered his troops to fire on Indians who were peacefully demonstrating, resulting in the deaths of four hundred Indians and injury to one thousand more. In the wake of this event, more Indians withdrew their support from the British who seemed to have supported the massacre.
New leaders of the Indian independence movement emerged in the early 1920s, including Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), known as Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had been educated by the British, studying law in Great Britain. Though of upper-caste Hindu background, he lived humbly and was able to garner support among both educated Indians and the masses. Gandhi came up with a noncooperation policy that proved effective in the movement. Working with Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) also wanted independence, and both men envisioned the new country of India as a Hindu state.
While the independence movement went forward in the decades between the world wars, there was a Muslim minority living primarily in the northwest area of the subcontinent that felt threatened by the idea. A Muslim member of the Congress Party, Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), resigned to serve as the head of the Muslim League, which wanted to found a Muslim state. This division did not greatly affect the independence movement.
The British control of India was becoming a heavy load for the mother country between World War I and World War II. In addition to having a trade deficit with India, Britain could find few young British citizens to serve in the Indian civil service. Although human rights legislation was introduced in India, Great Britain did not want to enforce the laws and often lacked the means to do so. India was allowed to languish with an ineffective Indian army and no evolution in existing institutions.
Independence took another step forward in 1935 when the British parliament gave India a new constitution. More people gained the vote, and individual provinces had more independence. As Great Britain entered World War II, the British viceroy decided, without the Indian people's consent, that India would support the war effort. The Muslim League gave limited cooperation to Great Britain in the hope of gaining British support for their own separate state, because part of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's Indian policy was support of the Muslims. The Congress Party refused to assist the British in any way.
To win India's support during World War II, the British devised the Cripps Plan. The primary provision was a promise to grant full independence to India at the end of World War II. Because of previous failed promises by the British, Gandhi and Nehru demanded the British leave the subcontinent in August 1942 so that Indians could establish self-governance. Churchill and the British government put Gandhi, Nehru, and some of their supporters in prison. The Congress Party was also banned. While order was temporarily restored in India, the end was near for British rule.
In prison, Gandhi went on numerous hunger strikes. Riots were also threatened by his supporters. By 1944, Gandhi, Nehru, and their followers had been freed from prison. The following year, the British tried to appease Indian demands for independence with the 1946 proposed Cabinet Mission Plan. This idea offered to create a federal state divided into provinces with significant amounts of power. It was rejected by the Indians.
A year earlier, a new administration had taken office in Great Britain, led by Labor Party leader Clement Attlee. He supported Indian independence and publicly announced it would be given as soon as the transfer of power could be safely completed. One big task remained. Though Gandhi and the Hindus did not want a divided country, the Muslim League successfully argued for a separate Muslim state called Pakistan. This division was granted with the Indian Independence Act of 1947. The last British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979) supervised the transfer of power and the division of the subcontinent. Independence Day came on August 15, 1947, for both India and Pakistan.