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Assessment of the Protest March by Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement

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Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns of the 1920’s and 1930’s were pivotal factors in attaining independence. Gandhi, a “central figure in the relationship of Congress and the Raj” was able to awaken Indians into political movements. However, he was “interested primarily in social matters”. It was thought that he was “diverting Indian attention from the main political task of ejecting the British” with “food fads, campaigns on public hygiene and untouchability.” This suggests other nationalists such as Nehru and Jinnah were significant in the attainment of independence, with a similar influence. Without the Raj stirring such animosity amongst Indians, it is unlikely that independence would have been so fervently sought after. Ruling through “repression, concession, procession” , the violent crackdowns on civil disorder and unrest, alongside several constitutional ‘advances’ provoked nationalist campaigns against colonial rule. Furthermore, the declaration of both world wars accelerated India towards independence. Whilst ordinary Indians became aggravated by the war tax, Gandhi launched the Quit India campaign. This rendered India ‘ungovernable’, leaving Britain unable to sustain its Empire financially. Following the war there were also anti-imperialist views, which also encouraged Britain to Quit India.

Events which took place in India during the 1840’s could be considered as a catalyst, igniting the growth of nationalism and leading to independence. Britain’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 over Nawab of Bengal was, “the beginning of an era of alien government and the disturbance of ancient habits and customs.” Over one hundred years the EIC secured power through military dominance, ruling India under the crown, whilst simultaneously attempting to westernise and modernise India arousing nationalistic feelings. Lord Bentinck, (Governor-General from 1828-1835) “regarded the subcontinent as a great estate to be improved” which only an “all-powerful government could accomplish.” He led policies influenced by the policy of utilitarianism, forbidding the practice of Suttee in Bengal, and reforming the judicial system. Bentinck could “hardly wait to drain the marshes of Bengal” ; he was resented by Indians who believed British rule intended to replace traditional customs and religions with Christianity. His policies were resisted, and can be considered a significant factor in developing Indian nationalism.

The Doctrine of Lapse, implemented by Lord Dalhousie in the late 1840’s, “intensified resentments that had been building up for many years.” His annexation policy resulted in the occupation of any princely state whose ruler died without a natural heir, and the claim of any succeeding revenue. This alienated local princes and their followers, sparking resentments towards the British Colonialists. Native rulers were deprived of their right to adopt an heir, approved by Hindu law. Dalhousie’s policy was a factor leading to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, known as the ‘First War of Independence,’ as it was the final annexation of Avadah that Newsringer believed “provoked the Great Rebellion.” Brendon believes this Mutiny was a “reaction against all sorts of grievances, some long-standing, others immediate.” The disrespect shown by British westernisation and modernisation programmes were aggravated by a disregard for Indian culture; pig and cow fat was used to grease Sepoy rifle cartridges. Brendon argues that the Sepoys were “never able to transform the uprising into a war of independence,” due to little nationalism and “lack[ing] unified command.” Hibbert agrees: it “affected only a small part of the country”. Similarly, Bandyopadhyay claimed it was “limited to upper India alone” therefore “not national.” Many regions experienced benefits of the British Raj in order to ensure loyalty, making it illogical to refer to the uprising as a “war.” However, historian Savarkar claims it was a “nationalist uprising” to overthrow British influence. Despite the Mutiny having little effect on the whole country, the hostility in Northern India would ultimately become, “the nationalism out of which modern India was to be born” and “was the beginning of this long struggle for national independence.”

In 1885 the Raj established the Indian National Congress, designed as a ‘talking shop’ for selected Indian elites to discuss grievances and prevent further outbreaks. Instead nationalism was encouraged: by the 1900’s the INC was a political movement. Featuring a predominantly Hindu body, the Muslim minority felt overlooked and were seeking the formation of a Muslim political party. It was presented at the Simla Deputation in 1906, and later founded in December 1906. Despite little immediate impact, “the British realised that its foundation marked the beginning of a new era in their relationship with the Indian people, an era in which their right to rule would be increasingly contested.” Only aided by Gandhi after 1915 did the INC “create fear and awe in the bureaucracy”; he appealed to the peasantry which “made a starting point of a new kind of revolution”

Gandhi’s campaigns of civil disobedience “alerted the world to India’s struggle” and motivated many Indians towards gaining independence. His 1920s non-cooperation campaign was the first of mass resistance in India, despite not immediately progressing to independence as “this radical and idealistic notion did not commend itself.” Nevertheless, through his campaigns Gandhi was able to awaken the political consciousness of the masses and gain support from regions not yet influenced by the INC. His programme of non-cooperation began in January 1921; boycotting British goods, services and elections, urging politicians to leave their posts, and withholding taxes. Successes included polling average hitting 5-8%, examination boycotts, and lawyers striking. Moreover, the value of foreign cloth and imports fell from Rs. 1,020 million to Rs. 570 million in 1921-22. Gandhi recognised that religious unity was required in order to achieve independence: this meant gaining support from the Muslim community of India, “thus he saw the Khilafat cause as offering a great opportunity for uniting the two communities into a single mass movement” and consequently the Muslim league “pledged to help Gandhi by their full support in the Non-cooperation movement” . Bakshi states: “Gandhi’s style of launching a political movement was indeed a novel phenomenon in the freedom struggle”. Here Bakshi implies that Gandhi was one of the most significant leaders in the fight for independence, due to him uniting Muslims and Hindus. Dismissing this view, Brown argues: “long term his actions did little to ameliorate its position or stem the tide of radical discrimination.” This implies that his civil disobedience campaigns of the 1920s had little effect on Britain’s position regarding independence, as “the movement failed to win swaraj within a year.” However, Gandhi was able to awaken nationalism in areas not yet influenced by the INC as “the tribal populations in India, while maintaining their territorial anchorage, were also developing a consciousness that connected them to a wider colonial struggle.” He represented opposition to the peasants, believing he was a “protective power”, which in turn “broke their barrier of fear and unleashed their energy into unprecedented mass activism.” This showed the pivotal role Gandhi played in rekindling the public’s political power, teaching fearlessness and enabling opposition to British rule. This evolved over the following 20 years and ultimately led to independence.

Gandhi intensified his 1920’s campaigns with the succeeding Salt March of 1930, gaining momentum as he led 100,000 Indians in opposition to the recent British law: taxing salt. The “sale or production of salt by anyone…was a criminal offense punishable by law.” Salt was a necessity across India, and considered “invaluable” to agricultural labourers. Additionally salt “was readily accessible” and Indians “could easily collect themselves free” . The salt tax became a symbol British hatred, impacting all of India. Despite Gandhi’s efforts to abolish the tax the Raj refused. However, it was the ensuing civil disobedience which “seriously challenged British authority in India” as nationalism spread. The March began in the Sabartmati Ashram near Ahmedabad and ended in Dandi, on the coast 240 miles away, lasting 23 days and gathering followers along the way. Brown claims that mid-1930 civil disobedience posed a threat to British colonial rule in India. Conversely, Lawrence states that Gandhi and his salt march “never came close to toppling the Raj.” This is supported by Nojeim, arguing that “Non-violent resistance during this period was not an unmitigated success.” Gandhi’s campaign impacted the Raj, but was not a step towards independence: Brown argues that by 1933 civil disobedience “had virtually disintegrated as a political movement,” implying a lack of unity being the reason for failure.

Indian independence cannot solely be accredited to Gandhi’s campaigns of civil disobedience as there are several other factors which contributed to independence, with the most important factor being the actions of the British Raj itself. During the First World War over one million Indians volunteered for military service trusting that Britain would reward this support with constitutional progress.

A campaign for Home Rule followed in 1916, followed by the Montague Declaration in 1917 that promised eventual self-government. However in 1919 the Rowlatt Act “showed the real face of the Raj.” Authorising imprisonment without trial and providing imperial authorities the power to deal with revolutionary activities and censorship. This proved to the Indians that the Raj was not willing to cooperate, and was criticised by Gandhi as “evidence of a determined policy of repression.” Consequently Rowlatt Satyagraha movements protested in various ways against the Raj ultimately leading to riots after Governor General O’Dwyer authorised the arrest of two opposition leaders in Amritsar. The Raj appointed General Dyer to suppress the movements and restore order in Amritsar where he did so by, “put[ting ]on a show of force,” and ordering without warning his troops to fire into a crowd of 15,000 Indians gathering for a festival whilst a political speaker addressed the crowd, killing over 1000.Following this, Dyer employed a series of policies intended to humiliate and punish those responsible such as a curfew, blackouts, expropriation, torture, arbitrary arrests and trials where the defendants were convicted on false confession. Brendon argues Dyers actions “typified the “brutal and immoral” nature of imperialism,” and it “significantly loosened Britain’s grip on the subcontinent as a whole.” As Indians now “saw him as the Id of the Raj.” Brendon believes it was the actions of the British which epitomised British rule in India as an immoral regime and ultimately provoked a “tidal wave of anger over Amritsar” giving Indians “some excuse for their belief that the British Raj was over,” ultimately, conjuring the belief that the Raj was coming to its end. James’ interpretation is similar to that of Brendon as he believes “Amritsar had “shaken the foundation” of the Empire.” James likewise believes it was the actions of the British which questioned the underlying principle of the Raj and its moral right in India and as Newsringer states that “as far as a growing number of Indians were concerned, the Amritsar Massacre had deprived the British of any moral right to rule.” In addition, Judd argues that the killings at Amritsar and policies of humiliation towards the Indians “prompted shocked reactions within Empire and beyond,” implying the response abroad may have pressured Britain to leave Indian as opinion towards imperialism changed. Newsringer supports this as he claims “the Amritsar Massacre caused an outcry in Britain” further exemplifying Judds views as an “outcry” against these actions. Therefore actions of the British Raj significantly hindered their position demonstrating the Raj as an oppressive regime inducing unrest and altering the opinions at home of the British right to rule India, influencing campaigns of 20 years to follow which would ultimately lead to independence.

British legislation in India was impacted by the growth in nationalism; as news about the Amritsar Massacre was spreading, the emergence of the INC and the All Muslim League increased the political consciousness of the Indian people. The British Raj, introduced new reforms in an attempt to mitigate grievances and repress nationalism. This was achieved through introducing more Indians into government whilst India was “practically wet-nursed to freedom through a series of progressive, constitutional stages.” In December 1919 the Government of India Act was passed. It detailed new divisions of constitutional responsibilities and instated changes to the structure of councils and the electorate, allowing more Indians in provincial government’s power, and a greater representation in the central government. Despite promising eventual self-governance for India, Bandyopadhyay believes, “the Act of 1919 had impressed neither any section of Indian opinion,” Indians striving for Home Rule were dissatisfied, and the INC were similarly sceptical as they were only “allowed some share of power without endangering British control over the central government.” Extensive power was limited to Indians controlling only ministries deemed ‘safe’, such as public health and education, whilst decisive areas such as revenue and justice were dominated by Britain’s. Bandyopadhyay believes that this legislation was not implemented to steer India towards Independence, instead it was to keep India in the Empire.

After little achievements at both the Round Table Conferences, further civil disobedience campaigns went ahead escalating unrest throughout India. Consequently, the British government now had to appear to make progress towards dominion status. The 1935 Government of India act envisaged a federation of India, moreover introducing diarchy at the centre. However, this was “subject to various safe-guards,” whilst “departments like foreign affairs, defence and internal security remained completely under the control of the viceroy.” Judd similarly refers to the lack of control as he argues the “Viceroy, who was British, could veto legislation…and if necessary rule as an autocrat with the backing of armed services, a situation which remained the case right up to Independence in 1947,” he argues, “these constitutional advances were… at least partly illusory” and that they were “serving to disguise Britain’s determination to hang on to India for as long as possible.” Britain was creating a façade of shifting power, when in truth “British authorities in India gave with one hand and took away with the other,” clarifying that British legislation was preventing Indian independence. Pearce supports this, stating that the Raj “had been planning to transfer a measure of power, but only in order to reconcile Indians to further British rule,” therefore, “in reality, India was still a very long way from real-self government.” British legislation, as Bridge believes “act[ed] primarily to protect Britain’s interests rather than hand over control in vital areas.”

The declaration of war was advantageous in the fight for independence. After war was declared in 1914 thousands of Indians volunteered to support Britain in the war against Germany; alongside, generous donations from numerous Princes in Allied support. Nevertheless, India soon felt “profound and far reaching implications” of war. They now experienced a “financial burden, imposed by India’s contribution of men and money to the Allied cause.” Indian revenues had altogether contributed 146 million to the war effort, and with military expenditure increasing, revenue demands rose 40% from 1916-1919. Indians feeling the repercussions of war through increased taxation also led to a decline in living standards for ordinary civilians. This aggravated the disgruntled view of colonial rule, made worse by the “grave shortages of basic commodities such as kerosene” and “soaring inflation” which “severely stretched the budgets of average consumers” as prices of food grain rose by 93%, and Indian made goods by 60%. Many Indians felt the “disorientating effect of foreign military service on hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers”, with Indian troops experiencing heavy losses. Furthermore, “the political expectations aroused by the Allied war aims” led the INC to believe that Indians should be given power; Allies such as America were anti-imperialist and would frequently express the importance of a nations right to self-governance. This generated nationalism amongst Indians who applied these beliefs to their own ongoing fight for independence, increasing pressure on Britain: “as the war crisis deepened, the nationalist movement itself underwent a remarkable transformation”. Judd believes that “after the First World War… it was no longer possible to sustain British control on the basis of the earlier self-confident and paternalistic imperialism,” Both Judd and Copland believe that opinions regarding imperialism changed as a result of war; the freedom they had fought for contradicted Britain’s position in India. This, along with increased pressure from Allies, drove India towards eventual independence.

The outbreak of the Second World War was similarly advantageous in the fight for independence as it majorly influenced British policy in India. The same day war was declared on Germany, the Viceroy, without Indian consent, declared India at war. It was this “tactless action” which Pearce believes demonstrated “how far India was from self-government”, and left Indian politicians feeling “slighted” and “that they had been badly treated.” Subsequently, Nehru announced that Britain would not receive support without recompensing “important post[s] in the central government” to Indians, and that “Britain should promise to concede full self-government immediately the war was ended.” Despite Nehru’s attempted negotiations, Britain failed to meet his conditions and led to “a nationwide civil disobedience campaign … designed to make Britain ‘Quit India’.” It was Gandhi’s Quit India campaign which Misra considered as, “the greatest rebellion since that of 1857” , demonstrating Indian dissent. Brendon supports this, concluding that “independence was therefore imminent.” Pearce believes, because “Britain was exhausted by its war effort” and “could no longer afford to coerce rebellious colonial citizens” thus, Gandhi’s “Quit India campaign had made India virtually ungovernable.” War had stood Britain “under pressure from the United States to reach an agreement with Indian nationalists”, fuelling further campaigns for home rule and civil disobedience in India. Moreover, “a second war had exposed the inadequacy of Britain’s resources to sustain an Empire. In the end Britain quit quickly.”

In addition to Gandhi, other notable individuals played pivotal roles in the attainment of independence. Jawaharlal Nehru was another key nationalist figure alongside Gandhi, having significant political influence in the fight for independence. His rejection of the 1935 Government of India Act as a “charter of slavery” pressured the Raj to consider independence as he conjured up dissatisfaction and insisted on full self-governance for India. Furthermore, under Nehru’s Congress “the prestige of the party ‘went up by leaps and bounds’” alongside “it’s membership, which rose from 473,000 in 1935 to 4.5 million in 1939,” this rise in profile and membership emphasises Nehru’s influence on the rise of nationalism which, combined with his focus on home rule aided India towards independence. Nehru’s persistent pestering at the Raj to grant them independence was demonstrated by his “unsympathetic” attitude towards World War Two as “he had long warned that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement encouraged ‘international blackmail and gangsterism of the worst type.’” Nehru taking advantage of Britain’s vulnerability announced that India would only support the war effort if they were promised independence afterwards. Brendon states that Nehru was “Gandhi’s successor” who’s “prestige had been augmented by seven prison terms” exemplifying his significance in the attainment of independence.

Independence can also be accredited to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All Muslim League. At the beginning of his political career he worked with the INC “working for Hindu Muslim Unity,” he believed unity was “the key to India’s independence from Britain” and this “was only possible if Muslim rights were properly protected.” However, this unity had disbanded by the 1940’s where he, “manipulated the popular appeal of Islam and the political conditions created by the 2nd World War” and campaigned for an independent Pakistan. Jinnah was able to “face the facts” that an independent united India was not possible and instead rallied the Muslim population towards Pakistan. Talbot highlights his significance as he stated, “even Muslims who did not want Pakistan were impressed by the importance of supporting Jinnah.” This unity of Hindus and Muslims heightened the nationalist movement and made it more powerful which posed more of a threat to the Raj’s rule in India. Additionally, in recognising this unity was farfetched for the independence of India and campaigning instead for partition Jinnah successfully sped up independence.

Moreover, the appointment of the Labour Prime minister Clement Atlee in 1945 meant that independence was more definite as he was “committed to India’s independence” and “personally piloted the India Independence Bill through every stage of the House of Commons until it became law on July 18 1947.” Highlighting Atlee’s personal involvement in assuring India’s early independence which contrasts to the Liberal “wait and see policy.” His assignment of Mountbatten as Viceroy also hurried India towards independence as he was given the task of the “liquidation of the Raj as early as possible” and on June 3rd 1947“announced the decision regarding the transfer of power immediately.” Due to, “pressures from below with the rising tide of violence which limited his room for manoeuvre” partition was inevitable for India. This underscores the hurried transfer of power which may not have been possible if “Die-hards such Churchill” would not have granted independence in this same decade. The contribution of these individuals was significant in the attainment of Indian independence alongside Gandhi’s efforts.

Conclusively, Britain was compelled to leave India in order to preserve and portray a benignly superpower image, besides uphold its economy. After events such as Amritsar respect for the Raj had disintegrated along with cooperation. It was this cooperation with enabled Britain to govern India, and without it eventual independence was prolonged yet unavoidable. Ultimately, the exploitation of Britain’s vulnerability during the Second World War was the perfect opportunity in which nationalists could pressure the Raj to grant India Independence.

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