It seemed inconceivable at the turn of the century that the British would ever leave India. While the British were talking of the “magnificent work of governing an inferior race,” the Indian Congress, the strongest force for Indian Nationalism, was promising “unswerving loyalty to the British Crown.”
Yet less than 50 years later, it was equally inconceivable that the Raj could survive. In that brief span, a few Indian leaders had given their countrymen a national identity and pride in being Indian that had thrust the country rapidly and inexorably towards independence.
On Tuesday, June 22, 1897, the British in India were engaged in celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen-Empress Victoria. They did so with military parades, dances and champagne dinners. At Poona, the summer seat of the Governor of Bombay, the festivities were particularly glittering. That night there was a dinner-party at Government House. As the guests left in their carriages they were startled by the sound of firing. A woman’s screams brought the guests and guards to two carriages in which one man, Walter Rand lay dying and another, Charles Ayrest, was dead. Political assassination had emerged as a weapon against the British Raj.
The authorities were caught off balance, but not for long. Surprise was replaced by angry panic. Was the murder of Englishmen a signal for a popular uprising? The Indians certainly had many reasons to revolt. A serious famine in Western India followed by the appearance for the first time in India of bubonic plague. Doctors knew neither the cause of, nor the cure for this terrifying scourge. In Bombay alone, 20,000 died, and by 1897 the disease had spread to the countryside. In Poona, the Chief Plague Officer, Mr. Rand, whose reputation as a stern disciplinarian had preceded him, had adopted brutal methods to prevent the spread of infection. British troops had been called in to destroy property believed contaminated . Men, women and children, from allegedly infected areas had been segregated in special plague camps. The troops were not gentle. While searching houses for suspected victims, they damaged religious shrines, looted, and often sent to camps people who were in fact free from the plague.
To the inhabitants of Poona, Mr. Rand’s men appeared to be carry on a reign of terror. The native - language press demanded retaliation. Everyone has the right of self defence. According to certain Hindu sects, no blame was attached even to killing if it were disinterested and a group of young men had therefore established a “society for removing obstacles to the Hindu religion” and murdered Mr. Rand and his assistant.
The authorities moved a large force of police into Poona. Secret agents moved among the people, but they could not find the assassins or any clue t
their identity. A collective fine on the city produced no more than money. But the failure of the police resulted in calls for strong action in the English-language newspapers . Indian nationalism seemed about to embrace violent revolution - a radical and frightening move away from the quiet nationalism that had been the pattern over the previous 30 years.
Indian nationalism was a child of the Raj - at first uncritical and only gradually becoming rebellious. The effects of English education in 19th Century India had been to produce a middle-class identifying itself in many ways with the alien rulers, speaking their language, cherishing their political philosophy, and hoping that the promises so frequently made to them that one day they would be accepted as partners would be fulfilled. As the second half of the 19th Century moved to its close, that fulfillment seemed as far away as ever. The reluctance of the government to share its powers with educated Indians and the unquestioning belief by the British in their racial superiority pushed the middle-classes into action.
At the turn of the century, members of Congress had no desire for independence for India, but only for active participation in the government of the country. They were not anti-British. On the contrary, they believed that the British had brought many blessings to India, and that being a part of the British Empire was not only a gift of Providence but good fortune as well.
The man who emerged during this time as leader of Congress, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, typified these middle-class Indians. He had many British friends and had visited England many times. He believed that the inequalities and inadequacies of Hindu society were the only reason for India’s political subordination to their foreign rulers. A cautious rather sickly man, he wanted India to progress gradually in partnership with “the genius of the British people.”
But there were others who did not share the faith and hope - and the innocence - of these fully Westernised Indians. Most of them were western educated also, but for them western education had brought unease - and unemployment. In British India there were only a limited number of outlets for the educated. The unemployed found themselves without a place in Westernised society, or in that from which their education cut them off. In fact they began to look upon those Indians who had found a place in the world of the British - as government servants, lawyers or businessmen - as just as much their enemies as the British themselves. Had they not become bastard Englishmen? To the educated unemployed, the appeal of religious nationalism offered a refuge, a chance of identity with something greater than themselves.
Given that the first stirrings of religious nationalism occurred in Bengal with the writings of Bankim Chandra Chatterji, there were others too, who claimed to find in the Hindu past a real hope for the future, for an India that was Indian rather than fake British. It was in the province of Bombay that his looking backwards in order to see the shape of the future first took the form of positive political action. The man who gave it that form was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Western educated, at first co-operative with the moderate English-thinking liberals but soon realised that they represented only a minority, cut away from the people of India. The British, Tilak was convinced, would never give India their freedom, and if they granted some political power it would only be to those who were most in sympathy with their rule. Tilak turned to the organisation of mass action in Bombay province whose inhabitants looked back in admiration to the 17th Century Maratha Empire, which had contained Bombay. There was a recent tradition of Maratha independence.
Tilak quickly assumed leadership of the Hindu masses in Western India. In doing so he was, paradoxically, taking a more orthodox western view of the tools of political change than the Liberal moderates of the Indian National Congress. The history of European democracy in the 19th Century, he said, was the history of revolution not reform. The British did not fear the men of Congress, but they had every reason to fear a popular uprising - and was not assassination a weapon of revolution? This fear turned the British against Tilak and the murders at Poona in 1897.
Yet try as they did, the police could find no connection between Tilak and the murders at Poona. He was therefore charged with sedition. The Governor was reluctant to press such vague charges, but gave in to the clamour of the English press. The trial was a travesty. Two articles by Tilak were subjected to the most perverse interpretation by the presiding judge who defined sedition as “the disaffection” or “want of affection” for British rule. The jury found Tilak guilty by a majority and he was sent to prison for 18 months.
When natural disasters - famine or plague - hit the sub-continent of India,its British rulers faced up to their responsibilities with varying degrees of vigour and success. The administration’s battle against the particularly severe famines at the end of the 19th Century was both energetic and effective. Development projects were set up in affected areas to provide work and wages, the construction of new railways was launched, partly to carry grain to where it was most needed, rent was remitted and a certain amount of free relief was granted. Mercifully, the measures had some effect.
The administration’s fight against plague, however, was not successful and the Indians were left with an abiding memory of the peremptory and often brutal nature of British paternalism. Well-intentioned action thus intensified nationalism.
The British learned with a vengeance the inadequacies of their short-sighted philanthropy during the Bombay plague of 1896-7. After a disastrous famine in 1896, bubonic plague broke out in Bombay and spread to Poona. Within a year it had killed 34,000 people. The British adopted drastic measures in their attempt to combat it. Lieutenant Walter Rand a man with a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, was appointed Plague Officer and decided on a draconian policy of isolation. Anyone showing symptoms or suspected of being a contact was shut away in a plague camp. Houses were broken into, hosed down, fumigated and limewashed with no concern for the sensibilities of the inhabitants. The soldiers carried out Rand’s orders with a toughness that, on occasion, became brutality. Complaints poured in about women being raped and money stolen.
All sections of the Indian community were outraged. The extremist Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who himself had asked the British for strong measures, headed a deputation to the Governor with suggestions about how the searches could be conducted more humanely. He was politely shown the door. As a direct result of British insensitivity, in 1897, Rand and his deputy were murdered by terrorists. Assassination had for the first time become a political weapon to be used against the British Raj.
In the First World War, when India forgot her quarrel with Britain and helped close the Imperial ranks, 139,000 Indians fought in the mud of the Western front. The British responded generously to such loyalty and to care for the wounded, set up special hospitals along the south coast most notably in Brighton, long known as” Doctor Brighton” for bracing air. George IV’s elaborate Indian style Pavilion was aptly fitted out as a hospital, as was the town’s ‘workhouse,’ tactfully renamed the Kitchener Hospital.
Every attempt was made to provide comfort for Britain’s Eastern soldiers. Different kitchens were opened for different religions. Untouchables were banished to the lawns and the wounded were cared for by orderlies of the same caste. The dead were treated with respect. Muslims were taken for burial to the nearby mosque and Hindus were cremated on a specially built ghat near Brighton, and their ashes scattered in the sea.
The news of Tilak’s sentence spread his fame - and his ideas. Young men began to think that their future lay in manipulation of the masses and the use of violence. The moderates had failed them, with their obsequious flattery of alien ideas and their feeble requests for a slice of the cake.
Tilak’s experience dramatised a conflict of generations. The leaders of Congress were men aware of the century of anarchy that had preceded British rule; but the young felt only the tensions of the time, and their own frustrations.
The impatient young men of India, organising themselves into secret societies, reading about European revolutionary terrorism, waited another eight years for some great event that would make them the spearhead of mass protest. The British supplied it with their high-handed decision to divide up the province of Bengal. It had proved too large to be administered as a single unit; now it was to become two separate provinces - West Bengal with a Hindu, and East Bengal and Assam, with a Muslim majority. Here at last was the tinder to spark the flame of Hindu nationalism. Two weapons of protest emerged - the economic boycott of British goods and the terrorists bombs.
The Viceroy, Lord Curzon, who in March 1905 had dismissed the anti-partition agitators as “petty volcanoes” by October, was forced to admit “”the agitation is now being conducted by methods of open terrorism and violence.” During 1906, violence spread throughout Bengal. Now secret societies were formed, bomb factories set up. The government assumed special security powers. Leaders were deported without trial, political organisations were declared illegal, many arrests were made and sentences of flogging imposed for many minor crimes.
These methods appear to have worked to a certain extent. An attempt by young advocates of violent struggle to capture the leadership of Congress failed. The extremists suffered further setbacks. Their leader Tilak, was once more sentenced in 1908 to eight years in jail. As a sop to the nationalists, ‘safe men’ i.e. Indians with little leverage, were elected to Legislative Councils at vice regal level.
These reforms were the work of Lord Minto, and the cautious Secretary of state for India, John Morley. Both believed that small concessions would encourage those Indians who were loyal to Britain and that India’s future would remain firmly in British hands. Morley told Parliament that universal suffrage in India was “ a fantastic and ludicrous dream.”
The reforms were also well received by Indian Muslims who in 1906 - scared at the growing strength of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, had founded their own political organisation, the Muslim League. They asked for, and were granted separate electorates for Muslims. A dangerous precedent.
The commencement of hostilities in Europe in August 1914, produced an outburst of loyal enthusiasm in India, which in the light of subsequent events seems almost incomprehensible. Over a million men volunteered for the armed forces, messages of support came from every level of Indian life, and there were large cash contributions of war loans.
In November 1914, the Under Secretary of State for India emphasised the point in a statement in the House of Commons. “It is clear,” he said, “that India claims to be not a mere dependent but a partner in the Empire, and her partnership with us in spirit and on battlefields cannot but alter the angle from which we shall henceforth look at the problems of government of India.”
By 1915, the extremists had again emerged to voice popular fears and aspirations, their task eased by the death of Gokhale and Sir Pherozshah Mehta, the two most implacable opponents of the extremists in that year.
Indian Muslims too, were no longer so pro-British. The revocation of the partition of Bengal announced at the magnificent Delhi Durbar of 1911, as a sop to Hindu nationalism, had shocked them deeply. They were further alienated from the British by the fact that their spiritual overlord, the Caliph of Turkey, found himself at war with their temporal master the King-Emperor of Britain. Under this pressure, many Muslims, among them the future creator of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah urged the League to re-establish the link with the Congress party.In 1916, this occurred, and Britain was once again faced with a united Indian opposition. But the Congress was about to change from a body whose watchword was caution, into a mass rally and the vanguard of militant Hindu nationalism which in turn again split the Muslims from them.
The British managed to dissipate any remaining goodwill by one of the most unimaginative and ill-timed moves they had made during their rule of the Indian sub-continent. At the same time as the Secretary-of-State for India, Edwin Montagu, arrived in India to consult with Indian leaders and the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, about impending reforms, a committee under Mr. Justice Rowlatt was sitting to “investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies connected with the revolutionary movement in India.” The Rowlatt Bills effectively guaranteed that Indian nationalists would be suspicious of the proposed reforms.
These reforms - incorporated in the Montagu-Chelmsford Report - which the British hoped would both reward Indian loyalists and stifle unrest, were in fact quite radical, even by the changed standards of the time. The British government not only accepted the principle of self-government for India but was actually ready to prepare for it. But between the announcement of these reforms and their coming into force three years later events took place which were to produce a new national leader - Gandhi - who was to condemn any co-operation with “this satanic government.”
The Rowlatt Acts were the turning point for the growth of nationalistic fervour in India for, in the atmosphere of tension and indignation which united the political classes and the people as never before, a new leader, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, emerged, who was to become the symbol of India to the world. Gandhi, a lawyer of 49, had recently returned from South Africa where he had spent almost the whole of his adult life. There he had made his name as the leader of the Indian community in their fight against discrimination by the South African government, using his own method of protest which he called Satyagraha or “soul force” To draw suffering upon oneself and thus shame ones opponent into a change of heart, to die - but not to kill - for the truth. When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he found his own country strange to him and spent a year or two traveling around, finding out what the people were thinking.
At that time, although his reputation had preceded him, his views had always been those of moderates, and no one had really considered him as either a spokesman or potential leader. He believed however that experiments in passive resistance in India had shown that there was a place for his kind of non-violent approach to political action.
Gandhi was right. His moral condemnation of the new security laws struck a chord in the hearts of all classes. By using religion he made the political movement acceptable to all the people of India. He proposed a traditional Hindu method of protest - the hartal a closing of all shops and places of business as a sign of mourning. All over India people responded to Gandhi’s call. The Hartal in many places led to violent rioting. Horrified, Gandhi tried to call off the strike but it was like reasoning with a whirlwind, it merely grew more violent particularly in the Punjab. Thousands of demobilised soldiers had returned home with little hope of a future. The government of the Punjab, believing the ‘hartal’ to be merely a cloak for rebellion was determined to suppress any signs of revolt. The situation was ripe for an explosion. It took place on April 13, 1919 in the town of Amritsar.
On April 10, two nationalist leaders were arrested and a large crowd tried to enter the area of the city occupied by Europeans. They were turned back by armed police and began rioting, firing buildings and murdering Europeans in the very centre of the city.
The next day, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer,an Irishman born and educated in India, arrived in Amritsar. His first act was to prohibit all public meetings. This was done on April 3 by sending men with drums to announce the order at certain places in the city, but the places chosen were not where the people frequented and few heard the proclamation. April 13 was the date for the annual horse fair and large numbers of countrymen had journeyed to the city. At one o clock that day, Dyer was told that a public meeting had been called for 4.30 pm in a place called Jallianwala Bagh. This area was roughly a square, quite large, and almost completely surrounded by houses. Four narrow entrances wide enough to let three or four people walk abreast, led into the bagh from the surrounding streets. Dyer decided to wait and then when the meeting had begun make an example of those who had defied his orders. By four o’clock he heard that a crowd of between 5 and 20,000 had gathered.
His informants neglected to tell Dyer, a stranger to Amritsar of the layout and approaches of the bagh. His intention was to disperse the crowd by firing over their heads and speeding them on their way by driving his two armoured cars through what he believed to be an open space. He did not expect much trouble as he only took 90 men.
When Dyer arrived at the bagh he discovered that his armoured cars could not get through the narrow entrances. Moving with his men into the bagh itself he was faced by a vast crowd, being harangued by speakers who were, Dyer was convinced, inciting violence. There is little doubt that Dyer panicked, but did not do the sensible thing and retire. Instead he ordered his men to fire without warning into the crowd until their ammunition was exhausted. On his own admission, 1,605 rounds were fired. It was the crowds turn to panic. As men tried to climb the walls they were picked off while children ran screaming, some women threw themselves down a well It was all over in ten minutes . Dyer withdrew, ordering the entrances to be blocked so that no one would escape and no medical attention could be delivered. Officially, 379 were killed and over 1560 wounded. Unofficially there were probably many more.
Dyer went away thinking his action had saved the Punjab from anarchy. But he had not restored order in Amritsar. Two days later he declared martial law, which was not lifted until June 9.
In 1921, Gandhi, now in control of Congress, called a non-co-operative movement, The sheer force of his personality persuaded the Muslims to work with the Hindus, But they took care to state “that they did so as a policy only and not a creed, for their religion did not prohibit the use of violence in a righteous cause.” As had happened once before Gandhi's call for non violence was ignored.In August some Muslims of Malabar, murdered as many Hindu moneylenders as they could before the army arrived; in the riots that followed a demonstration against the arrival of the Prince of Wales in Bombay in November, 53 died and over 400 were injured; and on February 4 1922, a mob from Chauri Chaura village murdered 21 policemen. This incident was the last straw for Gandhi. On February 12, 1922 he called off the non-cooperation movement.
The young men of Congress, radical thinking, anxious for revolution, and frustrated by Gandhi’s unwillingness to use his growing power with the masses, were beginning to run ahead of him. After his release from prison in 1924 on grounds of ill-health, Gandhi turned away from politics altogether and settled down to campaign for the hand spinning of cloth to symbolise India’s ability to survive independently.
While the political life of India was stagnating, tensions between the two communities, Hindu and Muslim, were increasingly breaking out into rioting. A pattern of bloody conflict was being established that was to become a regular feature of Indian life. Muslims openly displayed the carcasses of cows in butcher shop, whereas before they had wrapped the beef in order not to upset their Hindu brothers; Hindu processions would bang their gongs as they passed a mosque instead of silencing them as before knowing that Muslims demand silence at prayer time.
In 1927, the government decided to bring forward the review of the 1919 reforms. It sent a commission headed by Sir John Simon and staffed entirely by Englishmen to investigate the workings of Congress. This suddenly revived its leaders who refused to meet the commission. Realising Gandhi’s importance , the then Viceroy Lord Irwin, opened up negotiations with him - and was condemned by the British in India for “taking tea with treason.”
Over the next few years, Congress leaders decided to demand, not self - government for India but, independence. As the new British government did not respond, Congress made its own unilateral declaration. On January 26, 1930, at gatherings all over India, the Congress flag was raised and those present read together a declaration of independence.
It was almost a non-event. The government of India took no action. The mass of the people did not understand what it was all about. They needed something both commonplace and dramatic to activate them; flags and declarations were meaningless.
Gandhi decided on salt. It was a weird idea, but typical of Gandhi’s immensely astute use of publicity. Everyone in India used salt; in tropical countries men can die without it. Salt was a government monopoly. No one was allowed to make his own; every pound bought was a tax paid to the government . Gandhi declared that he would walk in leisurely fashion to the sea and there gather illicit salt.
On March 12, 1930 Gandhi with 79 followers, set out from his retreat at Ahmedabad. The 79 soon became a crowd of many thousands. At their head strode the little figure , half-naked in the simple clothing of the Indian peasant. In his hand was a large iron-tipped staff. Every day of the march brought a rising excitement. Before him people threw down green leaves as if he were a conqueror. Gandhi expected to be arrested before he reached the sea at Dandi - and was taking a roundabout way in order to give the government time to react. The government refused to move, and Gandhi continued unimpeded on his way to the coast. By the time he had arrived at the sea shore, after walking 241 miles in 24 days Gandhi had become a figure known all over the world. On April 6 after a night of prayer, Gandhi walked into the sea as a ritual act of purification. Then he picked up from the beach a lump of natural salt. And that was all.
There was no police present and, except for the cry of an Indian woman poet of “Hail Deliverer” the anti-climax was complete. But within a week it seemed all India was making salt.
If a pinch of salt was enough to inspire enthusiasm, it was not, however, sufficient to maintain it. The government continued to ignore Gandhi and the salt-makers. Then two events unconnected with Gandhi changed the government’s mind. A band of terrorists raided an arsenal at Chittagong in Bengal and after murdering six people, escaped. On the other side of India near the North West Frontier, the city of Peshawar exploded into violence. Men of a native regiment of the Indian Army refused to fire on their co-religionists and for 12 days, until the arrival of British troops, the city was out of the control of the British authorities. Britain now wanted the Congress to join in a so-called Round Table Conference to be held in London. Gandhi who had been imprisoned in May 1930, was released early in 1931 and promised to approach the whole situation with an unbiased mind. Together, Gandhi and the Viceroy worked out a truce. The government would release political prisoners, Congress would call off civil disobedience and Gandhi would attend the next session of the Conference in London
Most of the radical Congress leaders were shocked by Gandhi’s decision, but Congress had in fact gained prestige. Its leader had been seen to negotiate with the Viceroy as an equal. If Nehru and others had not recognised that fact, Winston Churchill had. But no one really needed to worry. Gandhi was a poor negotiator .He did not impress English politicians and antagonised the other Indians at the Conference by maintaining that they represented only themselves and that Congress alone spoke for India. When Gandhi arrived back in India in December 1931, having achieved nothing, he found that a new Viceroy had arrested most of the Congress leaders.
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