INDIA: INDEPENDENCE AND PARTITION
When, in 1939, Indians in their hundreds of thousands answered the imperial call to arms, many British politicians dismissed the Indian nationalists as unimportant troublemakers and convinced themselves that, after all, the Raj would go on for ever. But the loyalty shown to Britain by India had not killed the desire for freedom: all it had done was to disguise it.
Consequently, when the war ended in 1945, the floodgates opened and India became ungovernable. But when the British at last decided to hand over power as soon as they could, they were faced with a new problem - who to hand it to. For the Muslims of India were now refusing to be part of a predominantly Hindu India. The British Raj was to end, not in glory, but amid the bloodshed of a holy war.
On September 3, 1939, Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India declared that India was at war with Nazi Germany. He did not bother to consult the leaders of the most powerful force for nationalism in India, the Congress: he considered that Indians were the King Emperor’s loyal subjects and that His Majesty’s enemies were their enemies. On the surface, the Indian situation in 1939 appeared exactly as it had on the outbreak of war in 1914.
But India had changed radically since the First World War. Millions of Indians had come to feel that His Majesty rather than His Majesty’s enemies was the real foe. The desire for freedom that, at first, had been the exclusive monopoly of the Western-educated middle classes had gradually seeped down through the different strata of Indian society until the demand for independence was turning into a force that threatened to shatter almost two centuries of British rule.
At first, nationalistic fervour had been channeled through the Congress which, although it was predominantly Hindu and drew its pride and strength from Hindu history, claimed nevertheless, to speak for all Indians. Congress was dominated by Mahatma Gandhi, whose charisma ensured that he was it’s effective leader whether he was the official president, in jail, or preaching self-denial and spinning cloth in remote villages. His disciple Jawaharlal Nehru, though more practical in his approach, was no less passionate in his concern for India’s freedom. An agnostic and social reformer , his ideals and his zeal inspired both the landless peasants and the middle classes.
But, during the 1930’s a force was growing that would eventually tear the sub-continent of India apart. In 1935 Muhammed Ali Jinnah had been persuaded to return from his London law practice, to lead those Muslims who were afraid of being dominated by Hindus. In that year Jinnah started to revitalise the moribund Muslim League party and to recruit the Muslim peasants into what had hitherto been the almost exclusive preserve of rich Muslim landowners.
This cold, impassive man who could not even speak Urdu, the language of the peasants, planned his strategy carefully and executed it ruthlessly. Branches of the League were opened in the remotest of villages and the membership fee was reduced to a minimum. In hundreds of pamphlets, speeches and meetings, alleged atrocities of Hindu on Muslim were reported. No means was considered too bad if it could be exploited to unite the Muslims into a cohesive force.
The Second World War came, then, at a critical moment in India’s history.
The War exposed two great questions: how much longer would Britain be able to hold on to the sub-continent and, if forced to relinquish “the brightest jewel in the British Crown,” how would she leave it, united, or driven by religious and political animosities into civil war.
Congress met to consider its attitude to Lord Linlithgow’s declaration of of war, There was indeed, overwhelming support for co-operation with the British: Nehru had hurried back from a visit to China, announcing that, in a conflict between democracy and Fascism, “our sympathies must inevitably be on the side of democracy...... I should like India to play its full part and throw all her resources into the struggle for a new order.” Nevertheless Congresses enthusiasm was soured by Linlithgow’s high-handed disregard for its opinion.
After much deliberation Congress informed the government that it would cooperate with the British but on certain conditions. First, Britain must give an assurance of full independence for India after the war and allow the election of a constituent assembly to frame a new constitution; second, although the Indian armed forces would remain under the British Commander-in-Chief, Indians must be included immediately in the central government and given a chance to share power and responsibility. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly how the mood of India had changed since the outbreak of the First world War, when Congress gave its enthusiastic and unconditional support to Britain.
Lord Linlithgow, a cautious Viceroy in times of peace, became positively unbending when war was proclaimed. He could not believe that the British Raj would ever come to an end. When Congress presented him with its demands, he chose not to take them seriously. A deadlock seemed to have been reached. “The same old game is played again,” Nehru wrote bitterly to Gandhi, “the background is the same, the various epithets are the same and the actors are the same and the results must be the same.” On October 23, 1939, Congress condemned the Viceroy’s attitude and called upon the Congress ministries in the various provinces to resign in protest.
Before this crucial announcement, Nehru had urged Jinnah to join the protest. “Our dignity and self-respect as Indians,” said Nehru, “has been insulted.”Jinnah characteristically refused.
Shortly afterwards however, he went much further than merely refusing to cooperate with Congress. At a meeting of the League in Lahore, in March 1940, he startled not only the British and the Hindus but also those Muslims who were not part of his inner circle. Out of the blue, in a resolution which later became famous as the “Pakistan Resolution,” Jinnah declared “Muslims are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory and their State.” This state was to be known as Pakistan, meaning “Land of the Pure.”
The reaction from Hindus and non-league Muslims was immediate and contemptuous. Gandhi dismissed the concept of two nations with the strongest reproach he knew calling it an “untruth.” The Muslim Congress leader, Abdul Kalam Azad, described it as “meaningless and absurd,” while Nehru said angrily that “all the old problems...pale into insignificance before the latest stand taken by the Muslim League leader in Lahore.”
Jinnah’s concept certainly appeared “meaningless and absurd” in 1940. Even Jinnah himself did not really think it would materialise. Because Linlithgow was so obsessed with the image of Congress as anti-British, he encouraged any development which undermined the organisation’s attempts to act as a united opposition to the British. Thus, in April, the Viceroy assured Jinnah that no constitution for India would be enforced by the British government without the approval and consent of the Muslims of India.
During the summer of 1940, the war in the West burst into life. Everywhere the Allies were in retreat as the Germans swept through Europe. Now more than ever Britain needed the support of her Indian subjects, and the time seemed right for a settlement. A precise date for India’s freedom after the war would have brought both Congress and the League into the government and they might even have evolved a pattern of mutual cooperation.
It was not to be.. Linlithgow’s main interest was not the formation of a united and free India: he was far more concerned with maintaining the status quo by playing on the fears and suspicions of the two communities of Muslim and Hindu. He did, however, go as far as recommending to London that India be conceded Dominion status a year after the war, but the implacable enemy of Indian independence, Winston Churchill, considered the suggestion too revolutionary.
As a result the so-called Linlithgow Offer of August 8, 1940, made its appearance. Though it stated that Dominion status for India was the objective of the British government it referred neither to a date nor method of accomplishment. Only Jinnah got something more precise. The British would not contemplate transferring power to a Congress-dominated national government the authority of which was ”denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life.” By sitting tight and refusing to cooperate with Congress, Jinnah had managed to give a little more substance to the chimera of Pakistan.
Congress reaction was predictable. The “refusal to part with power,” it proclaimed, was “a direct encouragement and incitement to civil order and strife.” As for virtually giving the Muslim League a veto on the form of power that might be transferred, that was creating an insuperable barrier to India's progress.
At a meeting in September, Congress members seemed in a chastened mood. There seemed now, no alternative but to rely on the Mahatma’s vision and leadership. This was however anything but inspiring, suggesting a campaign not for independence, but for freedom of speech. The first man chosen to lead the movement, a gaunt spare man in his early forties named Vinoba Bhave, travelled through villages making a simple statement written by Gandhi. The third time he spoke, the police caught up with him. He was arrested and put away for three months. The next in line to lead the campaign was Jawaharlal Nehru. He informed the government of his intention, but was arrested before he could make his protest. This time the sentence was four years. Even Winston Churchill was unhappy by the severity, but the government remained unmoved.
Other protesters followed and all were arrested- without publicity. By August 1941, some 13,000 had been convicted. Compared with previous campaigns, however, it was a very tame affair. Even the announcement by the British Prime Minister and the American President of the Atlantic Charter, which claimed in August 1944 that both governments respected “the rights of all peoples to chose the government under which they live, “only raised hopes momentarily. Churchill hastened to make it clear to the British Parliament that the Charter applied only to European nations and that India “was quite a different problem.”
But a new phase in the seemingly endless struggle was about to open. On December 4, 1941, the government took the initiative and unexpectedly released all Congress prisoners including Nehru. Three days later, equally unexpectedly, the Japanese attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Panic seized Congress. At a meeting in January, 1942, Nehru came to the forefront to argue that Congress should once again offer the British co-operation in the war effort and make preparations to resist the Japanese, if necessary with guerrilla warfare.
Certainly it was beginning to look as if nothing could resist the Japanese advance and that their forces would soon be threatening India itself. It was no longer a time for non-violence, nor for its spokesman, Gandhi, and the Mahatma stood down in favour of Nehru, who certainly felt no moral objection to warfare.
When on February 15, 1942, the Japanese occupied the supposedly impregnable bastion of Singapore, both China and America began to show anxiety about affairs in India. The Chinese leader, Chaing Kai-shek, during a visit to India, called for the “immediate transfer of real power,” to the Indian people so that they could rally against the invader. The British felt compelled to make some gesture if only to satisfy their allies; and action became even more imperative when Rangoon fell on March 7. Four days later it was announced in London that a British cabinet minister, Sir Stafford Cripps would go to India with new proposals.
As soon as he arrived he discovered that India was more deeply divided than he had imagined. Nehru, eager for a compromise, was hopeful. Gandhi was not. Jinnah seemed to think that the only real enemy was Congress. “Pakistan is our only demand,” screamed the Muslim League newspaper “Dawn” and by God we will have it.” Extremist Hindu parties defied the Muslims to come out into the streets and fight. Sikhs threatened everybody who wanted to divide their homelands between two countries. And there were many who saw in the Japanese advance on India every reason not to negotiate with the British for less than they might receive from negotiations with the victorious Japanese. It was to be the extremists, not sophisticated leaders like Nehru who would decide the fate of the Cripps mission.
When the offer was spelt out it amounted to little more than the Viceroy’s proposals of August, 1940. Churchill was not going to let India go easily. Cripps offered full Dominion status after the war, with the right to leave the Commonwealth. But the British, Cripps emphasised, would not hand full power to a government unacceptable to large minorities. Again the possibility of a separate Muslim state had been given official recognition . Gandhi is reported to have said, “why accept a post-dated cheque on a bank that is obviously crashing.”
It was deadlock again but with a difference. Japanese aircraft were bombing Indian cities and there were rumours of invasion fleets massing off the southern coasts. Whilst most Indians supported the views of Nehru, the once influential nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, was assuring Indians from a radio station in Germany that “Japan has no designs on India. Japan is our ally, our helper. Co-operate with the Japanese in order to eliminate the British domination and establish a new order.”
Bose, once a leading member of Congress had always been a revolutionary. After being freed from a British jail, he slipped away on January 17, 1941 to reappear in Berlin two months later. He saw his opportunity when Japan entered the war, and in March 1943, he arrived in Tokyo to organise the Indian National Army.
Congress was frustrated and confused. Every attempt to find a solution seemed only to push Hindus, Muslims and British even further apart. In this mood Congress once again looked to the Mahatma for guidance. His answer was to mean the party’s eclipse for the rest of the war and the subsequent enhancement of Jinnah and the Muslim League. In the famous “Quit India” resolution of July 6, 1942, Congress told the British to “purify themselves by surrendering power in India.”
As the meeting of the all-India Congress Committee in Bombay on August 8 came to an end Gandhi told his audience “We shall either free India or die in the attempt, this is open rebellion.” He spoke with a quiet though almost frightening fury. The government in Britain could not remain inactive in the face of a call for “open rebellion.” Early on the morning of August 9 the whole of the Congress leadership was quietly arrested.
In reaction to the arrests, mass demonstrations took place in all the principal cities. As tension grew the Army fired upon the angry crowds. Still the violence continued. As always violence bred violence.With the arrest of those who believed in Gandhian methods, the field was left wide open to those who did not. Trains were derailed, telephone wires were cut and bombs thrown. In one area of Bengal, nationalists declared themselves a part of “Free India, expelled British officials and maintained their independence for four months.
The campaign was viscous but short-lived. The sympathy of the masses was a sympathy of silence and inaction. The Muslim League openly rejoiced in the arrest of the Congress leaders. By the end of August, though outbreaks of violence were still occurring, the rebellion had been broken. The government announced at the end of November, 1942, that just over 1000 people had been killed. The British had achieved what they wanted - a quiescent India.
In fact they gained more than that. Since the Indian middle-classes actively supported the government, and the armed forces remained untouched by the events of the spring and summer of 1942, Churchill could claim that the rebellion had made one thing clear - the “non representative character” of Congress and its powerlessness to throw India into confusion.
Considering the amount of damage that had been caused, Churchill’s remarks were somewhat less than the whole truth. With Congress impotent, Jinnah set about building the Muslim League into a powerful mass party whose demands for the establishment of Pakistan would be irresistible when the final reckoning came. By 1945 the League claimed over 2 million active members and many more sympathisers.
In April 1943, the League captured the governments of Bengal and, a month later, that of the North West Frontier Province. In none of these provinces had the League previously had a majority - only the arrest of Congress members made it possible. With all the Muslim dominated provinces except the Punjab under Jinnah’s control, the artificial concept of a separate Muslim State was turning into a reality. In December 1943, the triumphant Jinnah asked the League to adopt as its slogan, “Divide and Quit.”
Two months before, Lord Linlithgow, the longest reigning Viceroy of all, had laid down his office to be succeeded by General Lord Wavell, who had already served over two years as India’s Commander -in- Chief. Wavell considered himself to be a simple soldier and his approach to Indian problems was straight-forward and honest. His biggest fault in an ambience of endless discussion and dialogue was his inability to talk easily. However, unlike Linlithgow, Wavell believed that the end of the British Raj was in sight and was determined to bring Indians into central government; then to work out, with their co-operation, the problems of independence.
By 1944, Jinnah’s power and prestige were on the wane. A general sympathy towards the jailed Congress leaders was developing among Muslims, and much of the blame for the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943-4 during which two million died, had been laid on the shoulders of the province’s Muslim League government. The numbers at Jinnah’s meetings, once counted in thousands soon numbered only a few hundreds. In despair, Jinnah left the political scene for a stay in Kashmir.
His prestige was restored unwittingly by Gandhi. The Mahatma, who had been released from prison on medical grounds in May 1944, met Jinnah in Bombay in September. There he offered the Muslim leader a plebiscite in the Muslim areas after the war to see whether they wanted to separate from the rest of India. Essentially, it was an acceptance of the principle of Pakistan - but not in so many words. Jinnah demanded that the exact words be said; Gandhi refused and the talks broke down.
Jinnah however had greatly strengthened his own position and that of the League. The most influential member of Congress had been seen to negotiate with him on equal terms. Other Muslim leaders, opposed both to Jinnah and to the partition of India, lost strength.
After the breakdown of the Gandhi-Jinnah talks, Wavell thought it was time for the British government to take a fresh initiative. The government agreed. With the war in Europe coming to an end and the Japanese being forced to retreat, it was essential to pave the way for a peaceful settlement of the Indian question. On June 14, 1945, exactly five weeks after the German surrender, the Viceroy broadcast new proposals and invited Indian political leaders now released from jail, to a meeting at Shimla. The proposals were those of 1942 with the addition that the Viceroy’s council was to be reconstituted to consist entirely of Indian members except for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief.
Representations on the new council would be dictated by religious not political criteria: there were to be equal proportions of Hindus and Muslims. Bose still appealing from Singapore for Indians to join the Indian National Army, was horrified. Suspecting that the Congress moderates and the British were about to do a deal. He launched a series of apocalyptic broadcasts urging Congress members to reject their leaders.
He need not have worried. Jinnah and the Churchill government in London made it impossible for Congress to accept the suggested formula. Jinnah insisted that the Muslim League alone had the right to nominate the Muslim members of the council; Congress, which since its inception had claimed to represent all Indians and not just Hindus, naturally enough would not accept this. Throughout the negotiations Jinnah was receiving discreet support from the Tories in London and at least one member of the Viceroy’s staff was encouraging Jinnah to hold out. It was stalemate once again!
Gandhi dominated Indian nationalism for three decades, but as the pace of nationalistic fervour quickened, new men - and new ideas - took the stage. Gandhi’s homespun, peaceful philosophy no longer seemed the way to achieve freedom. More direct methods were advocated by men who looked firmly to the future of their country in the modern world. Jawaharlal Nehru represented the growing voice of a new, urban and industrial India. Subhas Chandra Bose (centre) called for a bloody revolution to drive out the British. And Muhammed Ali Jinnah (right) an aristocratic Muslim leader, forced the issue of religion into the limelight and almost single-handedly created both the idea and the actuality of an autonomous Muslim Pakistan.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru emerged from the ranks of Congress as the true heir of Gandhi. A Socialist and an agnostic, his patent honesty and obvious zeal fired all classes of Indian society.
His upbringing did not seem to suit him for the role of agitator against the British. From a rich, aristocratic family, he was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, “In my heart of hearts,” wrote Nehru, “I would rather admire the British.”
He was converted to the cause of nationalism by the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, and was to spend a total of nine years in British jails before he became the first prime minister of a free India. Perhaps the most serious criticism that can be made of this inspiring leader was the way he ignored the communal tensions in India instead of coming to terms with them. For this, he must take his share of the blame for the foundation of the separate state of Pakistan.
Unlike most of India’s leaders, who preferred to work for independence through constitutional channels , Subhas Chandra Bose, believed passionately that any method - anarchist, Fascist, Communist - was justified in the struggle to free India from the Imperial yoke.
Thus, when war broke out in 1939, unlike his fellow Congress leaders, he was not troubled by divided loyalties, since it seemed obvious to him that Britain’s enemies must be India’s allies.
He fled from India to Germany in 1941 where he started the Free India radio and set up an Indian Legion for Hitler. In 1943 he went to Tokyo to organise the Indian National Army that fought alongside the Japanese in Burma. But, for most Indians, the links with Britain were too strong, and only 14,000 men ever went into battle with the Japanese. Bose did not see a free India as he was killed in a plane crash in 1945.
Many men have set out to rule a state: few have created a state to rule. In his early years, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, an elegant and successful lawyer, showed few signs of future success. A member of Gandhi’s Congress Party, he made many speeches exhorting Hindu and Muslim to live and work together in peace.
But, by the time he returned to India in 1935 from a five year stay in London, he was convinced that his mission was to save Indian Muslims from Hindu domination. By playing on the fears and prejudices of the Muslim masses, Jinnah ruthlessly built up the moribund Muslim League until he could justifiably claim that his party spoke for all Muslims.
In 1940, he astonished the world and, indeed, his own followers by demanding a separate Muslim country in the sub-continent. By refusing to countenance any other solution to the growing communal tensions, he was rewarded in 1947 with a new country of Pakistan.
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