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The Movement for Independence, Rise of Indian Nationalism

Sepoy Rebellion, John Morley, partition of Bengal, Indian Civil Service, All-India Muslim League

The Sepoy Rebellion and its aftermath increased political awareness among the Indian people of the abuses of British rule. This growing consciousness found its strongest voice among an English-educated intelligentsia that grew up in India’s major cities during the last three decades of the 19th century. These men were journalists, lawyers, and teachers from India’s elite. Most had attended universities founded in 1857 by the British in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, and Madras (now Chennai). Studying the political theorists of Western democracy and capitalism such as John Stuart Mill convinced many that they were being denied the full rights and responsibilities of British citizenship.

Dissatisfaction with British rule took organized political form in 1885, when these men, with the support of sympathetic Englishmen, formed the Indian National Congress. Resolutions at the first session called for increased Indian participation on provincial legislative councils and improved access for Indians to employment in the Indian Civil Service. Initially the organization adopted a moderate approach to reform. For its first 20 years, the Congress served as a forum for debate on questions of British policy toward India, as well as a platform to push for economic and social changes. Central to a newly developed Indian identity was the argument, articulated by three-time Congress president Dadabhai Naoroji, that Great Britain was draining India of its wealth by means of unfair trade regulations. The Congress also took issue with the restraint on the development of native Indian industry and the use of Indian taxes to pay the high salaries and pensions of the British who ruled over India by “right” of conquest.

At the same time, a Hindu social reform movement that had begun 50 years earlier contributed ideas about the injustice of caste and gender discrimination. Reformers lobbied for laws to permit, for example, the remarriage of Hindu women widowed before puberty. In western India, one reformer, journalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak, impatient with the slow pace of the nationalist movement, attempted to mobilize a larger audience by drawing on Hindu religious symbolism and Maratha history to spark patriotic fervor. A similar thread of nationalism appeared in Bengal. By 1905 extreme nationalists had arisen to challenge the more moderate members of Congress, whose petitioning of the British government had had little success.

George Nathaniel Curzon, who was viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, presided over the affairs of British India at its peak, and he worked to weaken nationalist opposition to British rule. In 1905 he partitioned the administratively unwieldy province of Bengal into East Bengal and Assam (with a Muslim majority) and Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (with a Hindu majority). This measure sparked a set of developments in the nationalist movement that were to transform India's future. The Hindu elite of Bengal, many of whom were landlords collecting rent from Muslim peasants of East Bengal, were roused to protest not just in the press and at public meetings, but with direct action. Some pushed a boycott and swadeshi (literally “own-country,” but meaning here “buy Indian”) campaign against British goods, especially textiles. Others joined small terrorist groups that succeeded in assassinating some British officials. This movement echoed in other parts of India as well. By 1908 imports had fallen off significantly, and sales of local goods enjoyed a five-year boom that gave real impetus to the development of native industries.

The emergence of extremism, led particularly by Tilak, resulted in a split in the Congress in 1907. The election of a new Liberal government in Britain in 1906 and the subsequent appointment of a new Liberal secretary of state, John Morley, gave new heart to the moderates. Many extremists were imprisoned by the British for lengthy terms.

Finally, the partition of Bengal, the vehement agitation against it, and the prospect of liberal reform crystallized the opposition of the Muslim elite to the trend of Indian nationalism. They worried about the role of a Muslim minority in a fully democratic, independent India. In October 1906 a delegation of about 35 Muslim leaders called upon Lord Minto, the viceroy, to ask for separate electorates for Muslims and a weighted proportion of legislative representation that would reflect their historic role as rulers and their record of cooperating with the British. (These requests were later adopted in the reforms incorporated in the Government of India Act of 1909.) In December, this delegation, joined by additional delegates from every province of India and Burma, formed the All-India Muslim League (later the Muslim League). Although the Muslim League did not then generate a mass following, its leaders played an important role in the politics that accompanied the challenge to British rule and the partition of India in 1947.

Ultimately the opposition to the partition of Bengal was successful. In 1911 the division was annulled, and the eastern and western portions of Bengal were reunited as a presidency, with Calcutta as its capital. Assam became its own province, while Bihar and Orissa were joined as a province (divided into separate provinces in 1936). Also at this time, the British authorities announced that the capital of India would be moved from Calcutta (where it had been formally since 1858) to Delhi. There, a new adjoining city called New Delhi would be built to house the government offices; it was inaugurated as the capital in 1931. Although New Delhi was constructed on a grand imperial scale, the losses from World War I (1914-1918) dealt what was to become a mortal blow to the British Empire.

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