The various associations in late nineteen century like Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, the Indian Association, the Madras Mahajan Sabha, the Bombay Presidency Association and Indian National Congress worked with the idea that the people should be sovereign – a modern consciousness and a key feature of nationalism. In other words, they believed that the Indian people should be empowered to take decisions regarding their affairs. The dissatisfaction with British rule intensified in the 1870s and 1880s. The Arms Act was passed in 1878, disallowing Indians from possessing arms. In the same year the Vernacular Press Act was also enacted in an effort to silence those who were critical of the government. The Act allowed the government to confiscate the assets of newspapers including their printing presses if the newspapers published anything that was found “objectionable”. In 1883, there was a furore over the attempt by the government to introduce the Ilbert Bill. The bill provided for the trial of British or European persons by Indians, and sought equality between British and Indian judges in the country. But when white opposition forced the government to withdraw the bill, Indians were enraged. The event highlighted the racial attitudes of the British in India.
The need for an all-India organisation of educated Indians had been felt since 1880 and the Ilbert Bill controversy deepened this desire. The Indian National Congress was established when 72 delegates from all over the country met at Bombay in December 1885. The early leadership – Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Badruddin Tyabji, W.C. Bonnerji, Surendranath Banerji, Romesh Chandra Dutt, S. Subramania Iyer, among others – was largely from Bombay and Calcutta. Naoroji, a businessman and publicist settled in London, and for a time member of the British Parliament, guided the younger national ists. A retired British official, A.O.Hume, also played a part in bringing Indians from the various regions together.
A nation in the making
It has often been said that the Congress in the first twenty years as “moderate” in its objectives and methods. During this period it demanded a greater voice for Indians in the government and in administration. It wanted the Legislative Councils to be made more representative, given more power, and introduced in provinces where none existed. It demanded that Indians be placed in high positions in the government. For this purpose it called for civil service examinations to be held in India as well, not just in London.
The demand for Indianisation of the administration was part of a movement against racisim, since most important jobs at the time were monopolised by white officials, and the British generally assumed that Indians could not be given positions of responsibility. Since British officers were sending a major part of their large salaries home, Indianisation, it was hoped, would also reduce the drain of wealth to England. Other demandsin cluded the separation of the judiciary from the executive, the repeal of the Arms Act and the freedom of speech and expression.
The early Congress also raised a number of economic issues. It declared that British rule had led to poverty and famines: increase in the land revenue had impoverished peasants and zamindars, and exports of grains to Europe had created food shortages. The Congress demanded reduction of revenue, cut in military expenditure, and more funds for irrigation. It passed many resolutions on the salt tax, treatment of Indian labourers abroad, and the sufferings of forest dwellers – caused by an interfering forest administration. All this shows that despite being a body of the educated elite, the Congress did not talk only on behalf of professional groups, zamindars or industrialists.
By the 1890s many Indians began to raise questions about the political style of the Congress. Leaders such as Bepin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai were beginning to explore more radical objectives and methods. They criticised the Moderates for their “politics of prayers”, and emphasised the importance of self-reliance and constructive work. They argued that people must rely on their own strength, not on the “good” intentions of the government; people must fight for swaraj. Tilak raised the slogan, “Freedom is my birthright and I shall have it!”
In 1905 Viceroy Curzon partitioned Bengal. At that time Bengal was the biggest province of British India and included Bihar and parts of Orissa. The British argued for dividing Bengal for reasons of administrative convenience. But it was closely tied to the interests of British officials and businessmen. Instead of removing the non-Bengali areas from the province, the government separated East Bengal and merged it with Assam. Perhaps the main British motives were to curtail the influence of Bengali politicians and to split the Bengali people. The partition of Bengal infuriated people all over India. All sections of the Congress– the Moderates and the Radicals opposed it. Large public meetings and demonstrations were organised and novel methods of mass protest developed. The struggle that unfolded came to be known as the Swadeshi movement, strongest in Bengal but with echoes elsewhere too – in deltaic Andhra for instance, it was known as the Vandemataram Movement.
The Swadeshi movement sought to oppose British rule and encourage the ideas of self-help, swadeshi enterprise, national education, and use of Indian languages. To fight for swaraj, the radicals advocated mass mobilisation and boycott of British institutions and goods. Some individuals also began to suggest that “revolutionary violence” would be necessary to overthrow British rule.
The opening decades of the twentieth century were marked by other developments as well. A group of Muslim landlords and nawabs formed the All India MuslimLeague at Dacca in 1906. The League supported the partition of Bengal. It desired separate electorates for Muslims, a demand conceded by the government in 1909. Some seats in the councils were now reserved for Muslims who would be elected by Muslim voters. This tempted politicians to gather a following by distributing favours to their own religious groups.
Meanwhile, the Congress split in 1907. The Moderates were opposed to the use of boycott. They felt that it involved the use of force. After the split the Congress came to be dominated by the Moderates with Tilak’s followers functioning from outside. The two groups reunited in December 1915. Next year the Congress and the Muslim League signed the historic Lucknow Pact and decided to work together for representative government in the country.
The Growth of Mass Nationalism
After 1919 the struggle against British rule gradually became a mass movement, involving peasants, tribals, students and women in large numbers and occasionally factory workers as well. Certain business groups too began to actively support the Congress in the 1920s. The First World War altered the economic and political situation in India. It led to a huge rise in the defence expenditure of the Government of India. The government in turn increased taxes on individual incomes and business profits. Increased military expenditure and the demands for war supplies led to a sharp rise in prices which created great difficulties for the common people. Indian industries expanded during the war, and Indian business groups began to demand greater opportunities for development. The war also lead the British to expand their army. Villages were pressurised to supply soldiers for an alien cause. A large number of soldiers were sent to serve abroad. Many returned after the war with an understanding of the ways in which imperialist powers were exploiting the peoples of Asia and Africa and with a desire to oppose colonial rule in India. Furthermore, in 1917 there was a revolution in Russia. News about peasants’ and workers’ struggles and ideas of socialism circulated, inspiring Indian nationalists.
The advent of Mahatma Gandhi
It is in these circumstances that Mahatma Gandhi emerged as a mass leader. In 1895, along with other Indians, Mahatma Gandhi established the Natal Congress in South Africa to fight against racialdiscr imination. He arrived in India in 1915 from South Africa. Mahatma Gandhi spent his first year in India travelling throughout the country, understanding the people, their needs and the overall situation. In Ahmedabad he led a successful millworkers’ strike in 1918.
The Rowlatt Satyagraha
In 1919 Gandhiji gave a call for a satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act that the British had just passed. The Act curbed fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression and strengthened police powers. Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and others felt that the government had no right to restrict people’s basic freedoms. They criticised the Act as “devilish” and tyrannical. Gandhiji asked the Indian people to observe 6 April 1919 as a day of non-violent opposition to this Act, as a day of “humiliation and prayer” and hartal. Satyagraha Sabhas were set up to launch the movement. The Rowlatt Satyagraha turned out to be the first all-India struggle against the British government although it was largely restricted to cities. In April 1919 there were a number of demonstrations and hartals in the country and the government used brutal measures to suppress them. The Jallianwala Bagh atrocities, inflicted by General Dyer in Amritsar on Baisakhi day(13 April), were a part of this repression.
During the Rowlatt Satyagraha the participants tried to ensure that Hindus and Muslims were united in the fight against British rule. This was also the call of Mahatma Gandhi who always saw India as a land of all the people who lived in the country – Hindus, Muslims and those of other religions. He was keen that Hindus and Muslims support each other in any just cause.
Khilafat agitation and the Non-Cooperation Movement
The Khilafat issue was one such cause. In 1920 the British imposed a harsh treaty on the Turkish Sultan or Khalifa. Indian Muslims were keen that the Khalifa be allowed to retain control over Muslim sacred places in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. The leaders of the Khilafat agitation, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, now wished to initiate a full-fledged Non-Cooperation Movement. Gandhiji supported their call and urged the Congress to campaign against “Punjab wrongs” (Jallianwala massacre), the Khilafat wrong and demand swaraj.
The Non-Cooperation Movement gained momentum through 1921-22. Thousands of students left government controlled schools and colleges. Many lawyers such as Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, C. Rajagopalachari and Asaf Ali gave up their practices. British titles were surrendered and legislatures boycotted. People lit public bonfires of foreign cloth. The imports of foreign cloth fell drastically between 1920 and 1922. But all this was merely the tip of the iceberg. Large parts of the country were on the brink of a formidable revolt.
Mahatma Gandhi was against violent movements. He abruptly called off the Non-Cooperation Movement when in February 1922 a crowd of peasants set fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura. Twentytwo policemen were killed on that day. The peasants were provoked because the police had fired on their peaceful demonstration. Once the Non-Cooperation movement was ove r, Gandhiji’s followers stressed that the Congress must undertake constructive work in the rural areas. Other leaders such as Chitta Ranjan Das and Motilal Nehru argued that the par ty should fight elections to the councils and enter them in order to influence government policies. Through sincere social work in villages in the mid-1920s, the Gandhians were able to extend their support base. This proved to be very useful in launching the Civil Disobedience movement in 1930. Two important developments of the mid-1920s were the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organisation, and the Communist Party of India.
Revolutionary nationalists such as Bhagat Singh and his comrades wanted to fight colonial rule and the rich exploiting classes through a revolution of workers and peasants. For this purpose they founded the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928 at Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi. Members of the HSRA assassinated Saunders, a police officer who had led a lathicharge that caused the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. Along with his fellow nationalist B.K. Dutt, he threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929. The aim, as their leaflet explained, was not to kill but, “to make the deaf hear”, to remind the foreign government of its callous exploitation. Bhagat Singh was tried and executed at the age of 23.
In 1927 the British government in England decided to send a commission headed by Lord Simon to decide India’s political future. The Commission had no Indian representative. The decison created an outrage in India. All political groups decided to boycott the Commission. When the Commission arrived it was met with demonstrations with banners saying “Simon Go Back”. The decade closed with the Congress resolving to fight for Purna Swaraj (complete independence) in 1929 under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru. Consequently, “Independence Day” was observed on 26 January 1930 all over the country.
The March to Dandi
Purna Swaraj would never come on its own. It had to be fought for. In 1930, Gandhiji declared that he would lead a march to break the salt law. According to this law, the state had a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of salt. Mahatma Gandhi along with other nationalists reasoned that it was sinful to tax salt since it is such an essential item of our food. The Salt March related the general desire of freedom to a specific grievance shared by everybody, and thus did not divide the rich and the poor. Gandhiji and his followers marched for over 240 miles from Sabarmati to the coastal town of Dandi where they broke the government law by gathering natural salt found on the seashore, and boiling sea water to produce salt. Government tried to crush the movement through brutal action against peaceful satyagrahis. Thousands were sent to jail.
The combined struggles of the Indian people bore fruit when the Government of India Act of 1935 prescribed provincial autonomy and the government announced elections to theprovincial legislatures in 1937. The Congress formed governments in 7 out of 11 provinces. In September 1939, after two years of Congress rule in the provinces, the Second World War broke out. Critical of Hitler, Congress leaders were ready to support the British war effort. But in return they wanted that India be granted independence after the war. The British refused to concede the demand. The Congress ministries resigned in protest.
Mahatma Gandhi decided to initiate a new phase of movement against the Br i t ish in the middle of the Second World War.The British must quit India immediately, he told them. To the people he said, “do or die” in your effort to fight the British – but you must fight non-violently. Gandhiji and other leaders were jailed at once but the movement spread. It specially attracted peasants and the youth who gave up their studies to join it. Communications and symbols of state authority were attacked all over the country. In many areas the people set up their own governments. The first response of the British was severe repression. By the end of 1943 over 90,000 people were arrested, and around 1,000 killed in police firing. In many areas orders were given to machine-gun crowds from airplanes. The rebellion, however, ultimately brought the Raj to its knees.
Towards Independence and Partition
From the late 1930s, the League began viewing the Muslims as a separate “nation” from the Hindus. In developing this notion it may have been influenced by the history of tension between some Hindu and Muslim groups in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, the provincial elections of 1937 seemed to have convinced the League that Muslims were a minority, and they would always have to play second fiddle in any democratic structure. It feared that Muslims may even go unrepresented. The Congress’s rejection of the League’s desire to form a joint Congress League government in the United Provinces in 1937 also annoyed the League.
The Congress’s failure to mobilise the Muslim masses in the 1930s allowed the League to widen its social support. It sought to enlarge its support in the early 1940s when most Congress leaders were in jail. In 1940 the Muslim League had moved a resolution demanding “Independent States” for Muslims in the north-western and eastern areas of the country. The resolution did not mention partition or Pakistan. At the end of the war in 1945, the British opened negotiations between the Congress, the League and themselves for the independence of India. The talks failed because the League saw itself as the sole spokesperson of India’s Muslims. The Congress could not accept this claim since a large number of Muslims still supported it. Elections to the provinces were again held in 1946.
The Congress did well in the “General” constituencies but the League’s success in the seats reserved for Muslims was spectacular. It persisted with its demand for “Pakistan”. In March 1946 the British cabinet sent a three-member mission to Delhi to examine this demand and to suggest a suitable political framework for a free India. This mission suggested that India should remain united and constitute itself as a loose confederation with some autonomy for Muslim-majority areas. But it could not get the Congress and the Muslim League to agree to specific details of the proposal. Partition now became more or less inevitable.
After the failure of the Cabinet Mission, the Muslim League decided on mass agitation for winning its Pakistan demand. It announced 16 August 1946 as “Direct Action Day”. On this day riots broke out in Calcutta, lasting several days and resulting in the death of thousands of people. By March 1947 violence spread to different parts of northern India. Many hundred thousand people were killed and numerous women had to face untold brutalities during the Partition. Millions of people were forced to flee their homes. Partition also meant that India changed, many of its cities changed, and a new country – Pakistan – was born. So, the joy of our country’s independence from British rule came mixed with the pain and violence of Partition.
Women in the freedom struggle: Ambabai from Karnataka
Women from diverse backgrounds participated in the national movement. Young and old, single and married, they came from rural and urban areas, from both conservative and liberal homes. Their involvement was significant for the freedom struggle, for the women’s movement, and for themselves personally. Ambabai of Karnataka had been married at age twelve. Widowed at sixteen, she picketed foreign cloth and liquor shops in Udipi. She was arrested, served a sentence and was rearrested. Between prison terms she made speeches, taught spinning, and
organised prabhat pheris. Ambabai regarded these as the happiest days of her life
because they gave it a new purpose and commitment. Women, however, had to fight for their right to participate in the movement. During the Salt Satyagraha, for instance, even Mahatma Gandhi was initially opposed to women’s participation. Sarojini Naidu had to persuade him to allow women to join the movement.
The capacity to act independently without outside interference