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Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

To what extent was Gandhi the main reason for Indian independence in 1947?

For 350 years, India was one of numerous British colonies throughout the world. The jewel of the empire was a great asset in economic terms as well as a major military utility.

The first major threat to British presence in India was the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 which occurred over a number of factors causing dissatisfaction amongst millions of Indians. Maharajahs were seeking to gain independence from the British East India Company and rule within their individual provinces. There was also resistance from the Indian Military who opposed the use of animal fat being used to grease sepoy guns affecting the religious beliefs of soldiers. After the mutiny was overcome, the British Raj came into existence which would rule India for another 100 years until its demise in August 1947. Thus, there were desires for independence since before Gandhis involvement in the move towards independence.

The purpose of this essay is to analyse Gandhis role towards Indian independence in 1947 and whether it was solely due to his contribution. It will be considered whether other factors sufficiently contributed to this, or were they mere coincidences?

One of the factors believed to lend weight to the argument that Gandhi was a main contributor to Indian independence was that he was very popular with the Indian people and had a huge following. This is exemplified by Pandey who states that there is perhaps no other great politician in the modern world who had such a large following as Gandhi, or was so reverently respected by the masses he led1. This respect and

Pandey, B.N, The Breakup of British India, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969, p. 87.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

authority over the masses allowed Gandhi to achieve success in his lifelong campaign to rid India of British control, such as his first civil disobedience campaign in 1920 and the Salt March in 1930. His popularity was depicted by Nehru after his assassination who said, Friends and Comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere...Our beloved leader, Bapu as we call him, the Father of the Nation, is no more2. This is an unambiguous demonstration of Gandhis status and influence in matters of the state. His death was a devastating blow to the Indian people.

Gandhis campaigns are considered to have fronted a mobilization of the masses that lead to great danger to dismember the nationalist movement altogether, as Patrick French observed. February 1922, Gandhi abruptly resolved to suspend civil disobedience altogether, following the burning to death of 22 Indian policemen in Chauri Chaura by a mob of supposed satyagrahis.3 Gandhis aim was to involve the Indian public in matters of their own country, which was unprecedented. However incidents such as Chauri Chaura clearly showed that the public were not prepared to follow the Gandhian way to independence and that his influence evidently had not reached all sections of society. This demonstrates that Gandhis influence over the masses was not as large as is perceived.

The main way in which Gandhi showed open opposition to the British was through his non-violent civil disobedience campaigns. An example being the Salt March in 1930; this consisted of the production of salt without permission from the British government. The result was that masses of people followed Gandhis example and defied British rule by obtained salt from the seas. The success of this campaign is illustrated by Fischer as
2 3

Jawaharlal Nehru, 30 January 1948. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 41.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

he states it appealed to the illiterate peasant and it appealed to a sophisticated critic4.The use of such a simple yet effective tactic of disobedience which involved all sections of Indian society helped unite all of India under a single cause, that is to say, diminishing the British salt monopoly.

However in 1942, during World War Two, Gandhi also launched what became known as the Quit India movement. This was an unsuccessful movement, as support, whilst not with the British, was with India itself and the general thinking was that if Britain lost the war, Indias occupants would only be replaced by another imperialist nation (Japan). Thus, Indians remained relatively loyal to the British. French argues that from the late 1930s

onwards, Gandhi was a liability to the freedom movement, pursuing an eccentric agenda that created as many problems as it solved5. The lack of wisdom and support that Gandhi displayed in selecting an appropriate time for this campaign demonstrated that he no longer possessed the ability to exercise any influence over the people, as he had done in other campaigns.

Gandhi went from a reformist seeking independence to a social reformer, seeking equality within Indian society. This is exemplified by French when he states that a remarkable amount of Gandhis time and energy was taken up not with the fight against British rule, but with the promotion of social change6. It could thus be said that he could not have been the main reason for independence given that he began to focus on social reforms such as the improvement of the treatment of untouchables of India rather than the attainment of independence some 14 years prior to the transfer of power.

4 5

Fischer, L, The Life of Mahatma , Harper Collins, 1997, p. 337. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 105. 6 French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 20.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

Gandhis political agenda in India was peppered with successes and failures; however the failures outnumbered his successes. Indeed, there was no direct change in British occupation as a result of Gandhis involvement. India was still a British colony7. It is for this reason that many do not believe that Gandhi affected the Indian independence to a large extent. Rather, other factors are believed to have lent weight to independence. One of these factors takes the form of Subhash Chandra Bose.

Subhash Chandra Bose was a high ranking member of Congress who was ousted by Gandhi due to his radical ideas. Bose, after fleeing India due to being placed under house arrest, sought to overthrow the British through violent means. He achieved this by working alongside Japan and creating the INA (Indian National Army). As the British were taking heavy defeats in Asia with the loss of Burma and Malaysia, it gave the impression as French personifies, that the British rulers were no longer invincible8. The INA and Bose received great support both within and outside India as they were seen as fighting for Indian Freedom as expressed by French, the support Bose managed to generate for his newIndian National Army was powerful and genuine.9 Bose brought about the belief that he could take back India and free it from the British. This brought him great fame and support. He was responsible for the upsurge of violence and disturbances which disrupted British infrastructure thus helping the Indian cause at the time.

Although Bose did manage to damage the infrastructure of India significantly and gain a lot of support for his actions, it is clear that he and the INA alone could not have given India independence without a joint Japanese invasion of India as well. This is
7 8

Fischer, L, The Life of Mahatma , Harper Collins, 1997, p. 344. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 135. 9 French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 206.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

expressed by James when he argues that in the end neither Bose nor the INA made much impact on the outcome of the far eastern war10. Boses threat to invade India remained unrealistic as the Indian army remained loyal to Britain and the Raj was able to maintain control of India until 1947. Bose died in 1945 and the INA diminished with him.

The involvement and influence of Jinnah is also considered to determine Indian and subsequently, Pakistani independence. He was a ruthless and intelligent leader. He was able to perceive what would weaken the British and take advantage of it, namely that the British needed the support of a minority, in this case being the Muslims. Jinnah used his position to gain influence and authority with the British. By using the knowledge of Britains increasing desire to leave India, he was able to manipulate the need for Muslim cooperation with his power over the Muslim minority. He refused to help by giving his support, as the sole leader of the Muslim League. As expressed by French Jinnah was absolutely, completely impossible11. Jinnahs ruthless leadership helped incite the communal violence which occurred in the last years of the Raj during which the British authorities finally lost complete control of India.

However, Jinnahs role is not as pivotal as may be led to be believed. Certainly, he was the sole leader of the Muslim League, yet the belief that he and his party represented the whole Muslim population in India was always contested by Congress. Many Indian Muslims did not desire a separate Muslim state, but were happy to reside in India alongside the Hindus. His influence is not as crucial as thought to be as what he did possess was only religious influence. There were no other ideological, political or other
10 11

James L, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Brown and Company, 1994, p. 504. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 27.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

agendas uniting the Muslims under his authority. Furthermore, his policies often resulted in violence between Muslims and Hindus. However the religious tension was already there as James stated a street squabble between two schoolboys, one Hindu, the other Muslim, led to ten days of rioting in Dacca in 192912. When this event occurred Jinnah was not present therefore showing his input was not needed to incite and cause violence.

Many historians have considered that the British themselves were the main cause of Indian independence through both indirect and direct actions. This can be seen through the harsh repressive regime which the British enacted during World War One by way of the Defence of India Act 1915 and the consequent Rowlatt Act in 1919. This was seen as a way to curb growing opposition against the Empire when it was at its weakest and is exemplified by French who states that the Act made repression easier13. This clearly shows that the British were not seeking parley with the Indian public, rather they sought to suppress them.

In the aftermath of World War One, it was thought India would receive some recognition for their part in the war. Instead, the Rowlatt Act was passed. The passing of this law was seen as a great insult to Indian servitude during the war. The Act had a detrimental effect on Indian opinion of the British, which led to a rise in nationalist and independent feelings within the nation. This measure led to the most infamous legacy which the British left in India.

12 13

James L, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Brown and Company, 1994, p. 413. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 14.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

General Dyers response to a huge gathering consisting of thousands of people in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, on April 13 1919 consisted of a unit of soldiers firing at the crowd. Churchill described the event, stating that the firing only stopped when the ammunition had reached a point of exhaustion14. The fact that the province, under a martial law at the time, was by and large unaware of their restrictions demonstrates the sheer ruthlessness in attitude towards the Indians.

The events of that day acted as a catalyst for change in the revolutionary struggle for independence. The Amritsar massacre brought figures such as Gandhi and Bhagat Singh into the limelight. It can thus be seen that the actions of the British government, both on the day and during the aftermath led to an increase in nationalistic inclinations and agitation against the British Empire. This served to aid the call for independence from the tyrannical British.

It must also be noted that there were attempts, in a number of ways, to control and maintain the increase in progressive feelings, demonstrating that there were active attempts to sustain and preserve the Empire. The policies of Winston Churchill are key in reflecting this.

Churchills imperialistic views were more than adequately demonstrated when he openly stated that I hate those Indians, they are a beastly people with a beastly religion15. This exhibits that he did not share Indian feelings of independence and that he would be committed to the preservation of the British Empire. Churchill also spoke

14 15

Winston Churchill, July 8 1920. Winston Churchill, September 1940.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

fiercely against the Round Table conferences which were aimed at achieving representation for Indians in politics.

When he became Prime Minister he had the power to subdue the independence movement and did so effectively by imprisoning thousands of Congress and other party members. As the Indian public relied on their leaders, especially Gandhi for guidance and support, many of the political movements and campaigns which occurred during Churchills war time era died out, or were greatly reduced in support. Consequently, it can be adduced that Churchill did not assist but rather hindered the independence movement. I have not become the Kings First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire16. Clearly, he was not prepared to see India independent during his time in government.

Attempts to handicap the independence effort can also be seen through the use of the divide and rule tactic. It was believed that marginalising sections of society would cause feuds within the population itself rather than with the British. Fischer noted that when unrest and political ambitions stirred the Hindus, the British used the Muslims against the Hindus17. This sectioning of Indian society through religious methods such as the partitioning of Bengal in 1905 helped create tension between the different faiths of India. This consequently helped the British cause, as each faith saw the other as the enemy and therefore the unification, which Gandhi and others thought would liberate India from the British, disappeared and paved the way for communal violence which was greatly detrimental to the independence movement.

16 17

Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942. Fischer, L, The Life of Mahatma , Harper Collins, 1997, p. 217.

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

On the other hand, whilst the factors stated above illustrate that the British were attempting to stop the independence machine from moving forward, James states that there was a general understanding that, in principle, a limit now existed to the life of the Raj18. From this we can deduce that that there was a realisation toward the latter half of the British Rajs existence that independence would have to take place in order for the British Empire to endure as a major superpower

The central factor affecting this was public opinion. Before the 1900s there was a low rate of literacy, as the people of India did not posses or were unable to access the facilities to educate themselves. However the early 1900s saw many of the elite and middle classes of the Hindu caste system being given upper class education in England, which was then taken back to India. Literacy rates in British India rose from 3.2 per cent in 1881 to 7.2 per cent in 1931 and 12.2 per cent in 194719. This contributed to a greater unwillingness to accept an illegitimate occupation therefore when events such as the Rowlatts Act and the Amritsar massacre occurred public opinion altered. Subsequently, the Indian men that were educated and taught in the British way led the public into battle against the British. As such, the British supplied India with the Gandhis and Nehrus which led to their demise.

World War Two is widely acknowledged to have brought about changes within many colonial powers. Certainly, Britain was no exception. As such, this war raises another factor said to have afforded Indian independence.

18 19

James L, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Brown and Company, 1994, p. 422 (9.46AM 24/04/2009)

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

When war was declared by India on the axis powers by Viceroy Linlithgow it was an event of turmoil. His decision was taken without consultation with the executive legislative council, which was in breach of the Government of India Act (G.O.I.A. 1935). This betrayal deterred Indian politicians and the public from trusting the British and increased unrest in India as, once again, the British had broken their promise.

World War Two provided India with the ammunition to fight the British, by way of the economic debt which Britain incurred during the conflict from both America and India. French states that debt had now reached the prodigious total of 3,000 million which made British post-war financial independence from the USA impossible.20 The British could no longer afford an empire and as they were dependant on America, they had no choice as French exemplifies but to make substantial cuts in public spending21. America was a firm believer in self determination, whilst its ally, Britain was an imperialist. Therefore the substantial war debt to America would have acted as an incentive for Britain to introduce reform in the form of the Cripps Mission 1942.

In contrast, it can also be argued that the war was not the main reason for change as India was not granted independence during war time but two years after. The Cripps mission had failed as Indians and the British were not able to reach an agreement therefore Churchill could show the Americans that the British did attempt some form of reformation and it was the Indians that threw them out.

To many historians, Gandhi was considered the main contributor to Indian independence and that without his involvement in the movement, India would not
20 21

French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 196. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997, p. 196.


Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

have been able to separate from the British Empire. Ever since the Indian Mutiny in 1857 there had not been a united and relatively successful opposition to British occupation in India. His many campaigns had helped destabilise the British Raj, and for a time had accelerated the diminishment of British rule therefore allowing the commencement of a united, independent India.

Whilst in some respects this could be construed as true, the other factors discussed and analysed in this essay cannot be ignored. During the latter years of Gandhis life he lost touch with Indian politics and did not possess the ability to compete with the likes of Jinnah as he had been able to do years earlier. Certainly, the involvement of the British themselves, of other political figures within India and indeed occurrence the World Wars all contributed to independence.

As such, the most accurate stance to undertake would be that the culmination of a number of factors led to the British downfall in India. However, in my opinion, it was crucially brought about by the British involvement, as I believe any progressive or repressive action the British took such as the G.O.I.A. 1935 just added to the hostility shown against them and made independence inevitable. Throughout its existence, the British Raj believed that, as Griffiths states there was no alternative to British rule and could be none for a long time22. As such, the efforts to keep India as a colony could be seen as methods that continuously alienated the Indian population, serving to increase the desire for independence. WORD COUNT: 2,987


Griffiths, P, Sir, The British Impact on India, MacDonalds & Co, 1952. p. 296.


Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

Primary Sources 1. Jawaharlal Nehru, 30 January 1948. (9.30AM 24/04/2009) 2. Winston Churchill, September 1940. (9.38AM 24/04/2009) 3. Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942. (9.40AM 24/04/2009) 4. Winston Churchill, July 8 1920. %20Bagh.shtml (9.36AM 24/04/2009) 12

Candidate Name: Shelim Ahmed

Candidate Number: 1015

Secondary Sources

5. 6. 7. 8. 9.

Fischer, L, The Life of Mahatma, Harper Collins, 1997. French, P, Liberty or Death, Harper Collins, 1997. Griffiths, P, Sir, The British Impact on India, MacDonalds & Co, 1952. James L, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Brown and Company, 1994. Kenny, K, Ireland and the British Empire, Oxford University Press, 2004.


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