World History 2 209 - 12.4.3 An Independent India

The significant role their troops in the British Army had played in World War I offered Indians some hope that Britain might now extend them more rights than before. Indians were also anxious to have the British government’s restrictive wartime measures lifted. However, it soon became clear that Britain had no plans for change. So, as in many other countries, in India a growing nationalist movement now advocated independence from colonial rule. The clash between Indian Nationalists and British rulers began almost immediately after the end of World War I.

In early April 1919, Indians began to gather in a walled square in Amritsar, a city in Punjab that was sacred to the Sikh population. They were protesting the passage of the Rowlatt Act, which allowed Indians suspected of engaging in revolutionary activities to be detained for two years without trial. At times the protests turned violent. Then, on April 13, the British Indian Army opened fire on the protestors, who had little chance of escape from the closed-in space. Hundreds were killed and more than a thousand wounded. The British commander of the unit ultimately resigned after an investigation. The massacre prompted the British government to make some legislative changes in India regarding who was eligible to vote and how many Indian representatives could sit in the national assembly. However, this small concession did not quell the continued criticism from Indian nationalists, who urged independence and self-rule. The Indian National Congress argued that India should be ruled by Indians. Its members proposed continued nonviolent disobedience and boycotts against British goods, along with a refusal to pay certain taxes.

In this chaotic and emotional situation, a lawyer named Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi began to take center stage. Gandhi adopted and advocated the practice of civil disobedience and nonviolence, wore traditional modes of dress, and renounced material possessions. In the 1920s, the movement for self-rule became a grassroots operation preaching civil disobedience to people throughout India. Gandhi became head of the Indian National Congress in 1921, and it soon became the party of the masses.

Link to Learning

This link presents a video clip of a British newsreel showing Mahatma Gandhi’s 1931 arrival in England for discussions regarding India’s constitution. Note the condescending tone of the narration.

Many British rules flew in the face of Indian traditions, such as those regarding the collection of salt, a common element of the Indian diet. Under the colonial system, Indians could not gather or sell salt; instead, they had to purchase it from the British and pay a heavy tax. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi began a protest known as the Salt March, in which he led his supporters on a two-hundred-mile, twenty-four-day march to the Arabian Sea to collect salt from the seawater. Despite British efforts to obscure the salt deposits at the beaches, Gandhi and his followers did collect salt, in violation of British law (Figure 12.17Figure B12_04_GandhiSalt). He and approximately sixty thousand others were arrested for these acts of civil disobedience. In numerous locations over the next several weeks, other nationalists similarly began collecting salt at coastlines in defiance of the law. Gandhi was not released from jail until the following year and agreed to suspend the mass act of civil disobedience.

A bald man bends down and picks up some of the earth. Four people stand around him. All are wearing white robes.
Figure 12.17 Mahatma Gandhi collects salt at the shore of the Arabian Sea in 1930, in defiance of British law. (credit: “Salt March” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

While the British were not inclined to embrace India’s independence movement, within a few years they did begin to relent on the question of self-rule. While retaining control of the military and foreign policy functions, they turned other government operations over to Indians via the Government of India Act in 1935. This was an important step toward more autonomy for India. Muslim representation in India remained an issue, however. For example, the Indian National Congress was dominated by the Hindu majority, but rather than recognizing that body as representing all those living in India, the British recognized the separate Muslim League as the representatives of the Muslim population. The Indian National Congress had achieved a measure of its agenda in favor of self-rule, but India was still clearly under British control.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax