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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 41

Why India Became Free

Wednesday 1 October 2008, by Sukumar Pathak


The end of the World War II in 1945 also saw the end of the colonial domination of the European nations, especially that of Great Britain overseeing the empire on which the sun never set. The years following 1945 saw a spate of grant of freedom to its dependencies: in 1946, Transjordan from a British protectorate became independent Jordan; in August 1947, India (and Pakistan) became free after 200 years of British rule; Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a British colony, was free in October 1947; in January 1948, Burma (now Myanmar), a British colony, got independence; in March 1957, Gold Coast (now Ghana) was granted freedom by Britain; in August 1957, Malay (now Malaysia) was made free by Britain; in 1960, Cyprus was given freedom by Britain, while in August 1962, Britain granted freedom to Jamaica and in October 1962, to Uganda. Freedom, freedom everywhere in Asia-Africa, at least so it seemed. At midnight of August 14, 1947 Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s world known leader, delivered his now famous “long ago we had made a tryst with destiny……” speech in New Delhi. In 1950, India proclaimed herself a republic within the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth).

After tenaciously holding on to her far-flung empire what caused such a cascading of goodwill or of remorse in the British as to induce them to suddenly withdraw from all their colonies, from even India, “the jewel in the British Crown”? Gandhiji, the great Indian leader, would often ascribe the end of foreign rule in India to a change of heart in the British. This line of thought used to receive repeated corroboration from Gandhiji’s followers. U.N. Dhebar, the then President of the Indian National Congress, for example, declared at a gathering of workers belonging to the trade union wing of his party in Calcutta in August 1958, that by following the peaceful path the Indian National Congress had brought about a change of heart in not only the British, but also among the Indian princes. But we know that it was not a ‘change of heart’ on the part of Britain but the body blows from Jewish militant groups like the Stern Gang that compelled it to leave Palestine. Nor did such a change occur in Cyprus—the organised terror attacks by members of the EOKA constituted the deciding factor there. If there was no change of heart of Great Britain following World War II in her other colonies, there was none in India either. Could it be, then, the freedom of movement organised by the Indian National Congress that made England quit? One may profitably have a close look at this freedom movement of the National Congress during British rule in India.

The Indian National Congress—the would-be tool for wresting freedom from the British—was founded by a very distinguished member of the ICS, Allan Octavius Hume, a Britisher himself, in 1885. The ICS, to which Mr Hume happened to belong, had been described by British Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1922 as “the steel frame of the whole structure of administration”. That was how the Indian National Congress was born and throughout its life-history the Congress could never escape from that circumstance. It remained to the day the British quit India a fellowship of educated liberals, of barristers and of ICS men. W.C. Bonnerjee, its first President, was a barrister and so were C.R. Das, Pandit Motilal Nehru, and his son Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru while others like Surendera Nath Banerjee, Aurobindo Ghosh (later on Sri Aurobindo), even the redoubtable Subhas Bose, were members of the “steel frame”, the ICS. The political objective of the Congress was very moderate in the beginning and its political method was milder still. Declared R. M. Siani, its President, in 1896: “Our business is to represent to the (British) government our reasonable grievances and our political disabilities and aspiration.” Three years before this, Dadabhai Naoroji, its President for the 1893 session at Lahore, had said: “I have never faltered in my faith in the British character. The British are a justice loving, fair-minded people.”

The appearance of Gandhiji on India’s political stage from 1920 onward brought about big changes in the way of working of the Indian National Congress: from a club of the rich and the upper middle class, under Gandhiji’s leadership the Congress became transformed into a political organisation of the masses. As Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru says in his An Autobiography (published by Allied Publishers, 1962):

The whole look of the Congress changed; European clothes vanished and soon only khadi was to be seen; a new class..., chiefly drawn from the lower middle classes, became the typical Congressmen. (p. 65)

Gandhiji, in that process, made himself the undisputed leader of the Indian people. This, however, did not make the freedom movement under him strong and result-oriented enough to be a real threat to British rule in India. The political guidance emanating from him was very much personal, whimsical, incomprehensible. Gandhism was politics mystified. To quote the great M.N. Roy, “Gandhism is, at best an illusion; in reality a fraud.” (Fascism) When the Non-Cooperation Movement was in full swing, in 1992 Gandhiji, all of a sudden, suspended the movement because at Chauri-Chaura village the mob had set fire to a police station resulting in the death of half-a-dozen or so policemen. To quote from Pandit Nehru’s Autobiography again,

The sudden suspension of our movement was resented by almost all the prominent Congress leaders. The younger people were naturally even more agitated. (p. 82)

Even before this, Gandhiji had suspended his movement against the Rowlatt Bill when the government gave a stern warning. Gandhiji, on receiving the warning, issued the most unexpected statement:
The Government of India have given me a grave warning. In response to this warning I have decided not to resume civil disobedience for the time being. (Jinnah and Gandhi by S.K. Majumdar, published by
Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay)

THE first Independence Day was observed on January 26, 1930 and it showed the enthusiastic mood of the country. Gandhiji now felt the time was ripe for his Civil Disobedience Movement. Salt suddenly became a powerful word. The Salt Tax was to be attacked, the salt laws were to be broken. Then came Gandhiji’s Dandi March from his Sabarmati Ashram to the Dandi beach. On April 6, 1930 Gandhiji began the breach of the salt laws at this beach. All Congressmen were exhorted to do likewise. An abounding enthusiasm was seen in the people and salt law-breaking spread like a prairie fire to every nook and corner in India. But persons with some social-political standing began to come together against the Civil Disobedience Movement. These were the men who became alarmed at the widespread popular participation in it, fearing that the Congress was increasingly turning to the Left. The Indian vested interests drew back from this struggle. British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in a speech appealed to the Congress to give up its path of agitation. A cable arrived from Sir Tejbahadur Sapru and Srinivas Shastri at Allahabad in January 1931 when the Congress Working Committee was meeting. Sir Tejbahadur and Mr Shastri requested the Congress to give them the opportunity of a discussion. The request was granted. Someone from the Indian liberals then suggested that Gandhiji should write to the Viceroy for an interview. Gandhiji agreed to that suggestion and went to meet Lord Irwin, the Viceroy. The Civil Disobedience Movement, which had evoked so much response from the people of India, was toned down. A few days later the Congress Working Committee was summoned in Delhi by Gandhiji, who had several meetings with Lord Irwin. At the end of it all the Indian National Congress under Gandhiji’s advice agreed to discontinue the movement. To discontinue the movement while it was at its peak! In his Autobiography, Pandit Nehru says he was apprehensive that by its Delhi Pact with the British Viceroy the Indian National Congress had jeopardised the objective of independence. (p. 258) The ‘Quit India’ Movement, which had been launched in August 1942 with a tremendous burst of popular energy and enthusiasm by Gandhiji, met the same end a little later: when rumours reached him in prison in July 1943 that Gandhiji had offered to withdraw the ‘Quit India’ Movement, Nehru wrote in his prison diary:
With all his (Gandhiji’s) great qualities he has proved a poor and weak leader, changing his mind frequently……..

And what were the British rulers’ opinion of Gandhiji? Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India during most of the World War II years, had opined that “Gandhi was the most successful humbug in world history”. General Wavell, Lord Linlithgow’s successor, had had a very poor opinion of Gandhiji’s political morality. Wavell opined in his Viceroy’s Journal that Gandhiji’s mask of non-violence used to hide an extremely cunning person. When Gandhiji went on a hunger-strike in prison in 1943, Lord Linlithgow dispatched a telegram to the War Cabinet to the effect that he was “strongly in favour of letting Gandhi starve to death”. Churchill’s distaste for Gandhiji is well-known. On a Gandhi-Irwin (then Viceroy) meeting in 1931 in New Delhi, Churchill’s acid-like comment was: “It is nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, posing as a fakir, striding half-naked the steps of the Viceregal Palace.” So neither the Congress as a political outfit nor the man at its helm inspired either awe or reverence among the British rulers and the conclusion may be drawn that that there was no compulsion as far as the British were concerned to leave India.

But there were compulsions from other more potent sources. One such compulsion or pressure, created by the British rulers themselves, was the trial of the INA personnel staged at the Delhi Red Fort following the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in 1945. The Indian National Army (INA) was formed with soldiers of the British Indian Army who were taken prisoner by the Japanese when the British withdrew helter-skelter from Burma (now Myanmar) and other South Asian countries. Subhas Chandra Bose (Netaji) took command of the INA after he went to Japan by submarine from Germany. The INA led by Bose went upto to Kohima in Nagaland alongside the Japanese Army. It failed, however, to make its mark on the front and in any case after Japan’s surrender, when two of its cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were bombed out of existence with nuclear bomb attacks by the Americans in August 1945, the INA could not do much on its own. It was given out that Subhas Bose had died in a plane crash at the Taihoku airport in Formosa (now Taiwan). Lord Wavell, the last British Viceroy in India, however, made this remark in his Viceroy’s Journal:

I wonder if the Japanese announcement of Subhas Bose’s death is true. I suspect it very much.

Anyway, what Subhas Bose could not achieve with his INA soldiers on the battlefront, the INA trials succeeded in achieving. The trials engendered widespread indignation throughout India from Kashmir to Cape Comorin. The trials united the whole Indian people in a resolute intention that the British must go and go immediately. It affected the British Indian Army too as well as the British Indian Navy. The Intelligence Reports were becoming so alarming that on December 1, 1945 the then Commander-in-Chief observed:

Should the situation so deteriorate that we cannot rely on the Indian armed forces, I may have to ask His Majesty’s Government to send as many British formations as can be made available.

A parliamentary delegation was sent to India during this time and this delegation, upon extensive enquiries, reported back that the police as well as the Indian Army had become thoroughly permeated with anti-British feelings which had made them entirely unreliable and that the sooner the British left India the better. There was a revolt by the personnel of the British Indian Navy ship Talwar at the Bombay port. All in all, the political situation following the INA trials drove the British Government to dismantle their empire despite the boastful assertion of Winston Churchill on November 10, 1942: “I have not become the King’s first Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

There was another compelling reason—more compelling than anything else—behind the 1945 British decision “to liquidate the Empire”, namely, the six-year World War II from 1939 to 1945. From this war the country of Britain emerged battered and bruised. Counted among the victors in this war though she was, it was only as a token of courtesy to a former imperial power. As a matter of fact, however, she had been defeated both in Europe and in Asia by Germany and Japan respectively. As Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had been saying repeatedly in 1945-46: “In the context of history the British Empire has ceased to exist.” To quote Professor A.J.P. Taylor from his From Napoleon to Stalin (p. 131):

At Munich (1938), for the last time Europe seemed the centre of the world. Still, the most gloomy or clear-sighted observer could not have foretold that within ten years only one of the four Munich Powers would be numbered, though with some doubt, among the Great and even this one (UK) is a pensioner of an extra-European Power (USA).

It was the dreadful dressing-down that Britain got from Germany in Europe—the retreat from Narvik, the retreat from Dunkirk, the terrific bombing during what has come to be called the Battle of Britain—and from Japan in Asia—the retreat from Singapur, the retreat from Burma. When the British battleship Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese bombers in 1942 with it also sank the sun of the British Empire in Asia, including India. The contribution of Subhas Bose’s INA was that its trials greatly hastened the Englishmen’s departure from this country.

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