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The Movement for Independence, The World Wars and the Emergence of Gandhi

Rowlatt Acts, Rowlatt Satyagraha, Congress movement, Direct Action Day, hartal

India was a major source of support for Britain’s war effort. Some 750,000 Indian troops served in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; more than 36,000 were killed. India supplied wheat and other goods to British forces east of Suez, and with the loss of trade with Germany and the other Central Powers and the continuance of heavy taxation, the economic cost of the war was evident. Political resistance to British rule continued, although mainly at a more moderate level. A small, mostly Sikh revolutionary movement appeared briefly in Punjab.

Shortly after the war began, Indian lawyer Mohandas Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, where he had organized and led an Indian ambulance corps when the war broke out. When he came to India in 1915 he was already an important political leader because of an earlier trip to India in 1901 and 1902 and because of his efforts for civil liberties in South Africa. He met with the viceroy and the leaders of the Congress, and in 1916 he forged a pact with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, for Congress-Muslim League joint action. Gandhi also became involved in a number of campaigns of nonviolent resistance, in which he honed the nonviolent techniques he had developed in South Africa.

In 1917 Edwin Montague, the secretary of state for India, had announced a policy of the “gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” As the war ended the British introduced a fresh set of reforms, culminating in the Government of India Act of 1919. This act brought some Indian control over certain executive departments in the provinces and greater representation of Indians in the central legislative council. Also, the act made it easier for Indians to gain admission into the civil service and into the officer corps of the army, an aspect of the law which encountered resistance from some British.

In the same year that it passed these reforms, however, the legislative council also passed the Rowlatt Acts. The Rowlatt Acts, which detractors called the Black Acts, made permanent some restrictions on civil liberties that had been imposed during the war. Specifically, the acts gave the government emergency powers to deal with so-called revolutionary activities. There was an immediate wave of disapproval from all Indian leaders, and Gandhi stepped in and organized a series of nonviolent acts of resistance. Gandhi called these acts satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”). These included nationwide work stoppages (hartal) and other activities in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs participated together. One of these protests coincided with a Hindu festival in Amritsar. Despite a last-minute ban on public meetings, thousands of unarmed pilgrims and protesters gathered in a public square to celebrate on April 13, 1919. Without warning, British troops opened fire on the peaceful crowd, killing nearly 400 people. The success of the Rowlatt Satyagraha followed by the Amritsar incident brought public sympathy to the nationalist movement, and with it a new level of prestige.

In 1920, when the government failed to make amends, Gandhi began an organized campaign of noncooperation. Many Indians returned their British honors, withdrew their children from British schools, resigned from government service, and began a new boycott of British goods. Gandhi reorganized the Congress in 1920, transforming it from an annual gathering of self-selected leaders with a skeleton staff to a mass movement, with membership fees and requirements set to allow even the poorest Indian to join. Gandhi ended the noncooperation movement in 1922 after 22 Indian policemen were burned to death. A lull in nationalist activity followed. Gandhi was jailed shortly after ending the noncooperation movement and remained in prison until 1924. In 1928, a British committee began to study the next steps of democratic reform, sparking a revival of the Congress movement. In its 1929 annual session, the Congress issued a demand for “complete independence.”

Gandhi then led another even more massive movement of civil disobedience. It climaxed in 1930 with the so-called Salt Satyagraha, in which thousands of Indians protested taxes, particularly the tax on salt, by marching to the Arabian Sea and making salt from evaporated seawater. Tens of thousands, including Gandhi, were sent to jail as a result. The British government gave in, and Gandhi went to London as the sole representative of the Congress to negotiate new steps of reform.

In 1935, after these negotiations, the British Parliament approved legislation known as the Government of India Act of 1935. The legislation provided for the establishment of autonomous legislative bodies in the provinces of British India, the creation of a federal form of central government incorporating the provinces and princely states, and the protection of Muslim minorities. The act also provided for a bicameral national legislature and an executive arm under control of the British government. The federation was never realized, but provincial legislative autonomy went into effect April 1, 1937, after nationwide elections. In these elections, the Congress saw victory in much of India, except in areas where Muslims were a majority. Congress governments, with significant powers, took office in a number of provinces.

When World War II broke out in 1939 the British declared war on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders, and the Congress provincial ministries resigned in protest. After extended negotiations with the British, who were searching for a way to grant independence some time after the war’s end, Gandhi declared a “Quit India” movement in 1942, urging the British to withdraw from India or face nationwide civil disobedience. Along with other Congress leaders, he was imprisoned in August that year, and the country erupted in violent demonstrations. Gandhi was not released until 1944.

The Muslim League supported Britain in the war effort but had become convinced that if the Congress Party were to inherit British rule, Muslims would be unfairly treated. Jinnah campaigned vigorously against Congress during the war and increased the Muslim League’s support base. In 1940 the League passed what came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, which demanded separate states in the Muslim-majority areas of India (in the northwest, centered on Punjab, and in the east, centered on Bengal) at independence. Many Muslims supported the Muslim League in its demand, while Hindus (and some Muslims) supported the Congress, which opposed partition of British India. Another round of negotiations over Indian independence began after the war in 1946, but the Congress and the Muslim League were unable to settle their differences over partition. Jinnah proclaimed August 16, 1946, Direct Action Day for the purpose of winning a separate Muslim state. Savage Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Calcutta the next day and quickly spread throughout India. In September, an interim government was installed. Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of Congress, became India’s first prime minister. A united India, however, no longer seemed possible. The new Labor government in Britain decided that the time to end British rule of India had come, and in early 1947 Britain announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948.

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