“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
It was with these historic words that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, welcomed India’s freedom from British occupation and control at midnight, August 15th, 1947.
The British landed in India in the early 1600s when the English East India Company (then known as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies) began trading in Bengal and other parts of the country. The Mughal Empire was at its very peak of glory and expansion at the time. Through the greater part of the 17th century, the company established various trading posts and set up industries across the country. The quick decline of the Mughal administration and the re-emergence of regional states and kingdoms in the 1700s laid the foundation for the East India Company’s military ambitions to take root and thus started the colonization of various states.
From Company Raj to Crown Raj
While in common parlance we speak of a 200-year-old British rule in India, the East India Company did not have control over most of the country for nearly 100 years. The British faced stiff resistance from a number of regional monarchs. Major-General Robert Clive’s victory over Siraj-Ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey (1757) marked the beginning of British conquests in India. Throughout the next century, the company faced regents valiantly defending their kingdoms, many of which fell only due to the policy of Divide and Rule adopted by the British.
It wasn’t until well into the 1800s that the company finally managed to bring most of India under its administration. The Princely state of Mysore was conquered in 1799, the Marathas were subjugated in 1819, and the Sikhs in about 1849. Shortly after this, in 1857, a number of armed revolts broke out across the northern belt, with the Sepoy Mutiny considered the most significant. These were quelled mercilessly, but in 1858 the administration of India was transferred to the British Crown. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876. The Revolt of 1857 is regarded by Indians as the First War of Independence as it roused strong patriotic sentiments and managed to unite the fragmented princely states against a common nemesis.
The Rise of the Revolutionaries
Through the early years of the 20th century, India remained at the centre of British interest purely for economic reasons. With the onset of World War I this changed, with over 1.4 million Indian soldiers and British officers from the British Indian Army participating in the Allied cause, this went greatly unrecognized. Back in India, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the country as a whole started to realize the great military potential Indians held and this led to a demand for self-governance.
The turn of the century also witnessed the rise of the revolutionaries – young, passionate men and women who believed in sacrificing their lives for the nation’s cause. Some of the best known among these were Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen, Khudiram Bose, Jatindra Nath Das, Udham Singh, and Tiruppur Kumaran. The fiery sentiments of Ram Prasad Bismil and Chandra Shekhar Azad spread like wildfire and the youth of the country were incensed. The more severe the punishments meted out to these revolutionaries, the more vociferous Indians became in their demands.
From Dominion to Independence
In 1915, Gandhi’s return to India signalled the start of a new era. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly referred to as Mahatma, became the focal point of the Indians rallying for independence. He was a phenomenal force and his non-violent methods appealed to the masses. Millions of Indians from the far reaches of the nation responded to his call for Civil Disobedience, long fasts, abstinence from using foreign products, and salt satyagraha. Initially, the INC leaders had only launched a demand for dominion status.
Pressured into taking some action to mollify the Indians, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act in August 1935. This was a significant act passed by the British parliament. It detailed the demarcation (borders) of India, separating it from other crown territories such as Burma and Aden. It made provisions for the establishment of the Federation of India and established the different provinces. Despite the intentions of the British, the act only further angered Indians rather than pacifying them, because it clearly showed that the British were far from granting India dominion status, much less Independence.
Subhash Chandra Bose was head of the INC in the 1920s and 1930s and his radical views were well received. This forced the INC to concede that the country would not remain content as a British dominion, and full independence became the need of the hour.
While the goal was clear, there was little consensus among Indian leaders at this time as to the method. Subhash Chandra Bose had actively started to recruit and train the members of the Indian National Army. He had gathered quite a bit of support from international quarters. Many Indians enlisted and were in favour of an armed conflict to regain independence. Many national leaders, however, were in support of Gandhi due to his mass appeal.
In December 1945, general elections were held in British India to elect members who would represent the people at the Central Legislative Assembly and at the Council of State. The INC won 59 of the 102 seats contested.
Partition and Independence
The Muslim League was a political party (similar to the INC) which had been established in the early 1900s to represent the Muslim populace of India. Through its early years, the Muslim League had worked for hand in hand with the INC to gain independence. By the time it became clear that India’s independence was imminent there arose a demand from the Muslim League (under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah) for a separate country to house the Muslim population. The British too favoured the two-nation theory. It was then decided that Pakistan would be formed on 14th August 1947 as a Muslim state, and India which chose to remain secular would gain independence the following day.
Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India went on to stay as the first Governor-General of the country to oversee the transition from British India to the Republic of India (1950). It is during this time that the Constituent Assembly was set up to draft what would later become the longest written constitution in the world.
India’s struggle for independence has been a long and painful journey and sweet success came with the establishment of the world’s largest democracy. This struggle finally broke the shackles of regionalism and religion and united the entire country in pride and nationalism. India’s independence movement also helped spark a number of non-violent civil rights movements across the world. The ideals of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (non-cooperation) which had been largely adopted by Indians in the latter part of the struggle have demonstrated the efficacy of civil disobedience versus an armed struggle.
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