The struggle for freedom can be broadly divided into four phases each contributing towards the sharpening of the divide between the rulers and the ruled. The first phase began when the British won the Battle of Plassey in 1757, and Robert Clive, the representative of the East India Company, became the Governor of Bengal. From then onwards, the British succeeded in consolidating their presence in India. This was the first phase, in which the British Governor-Generals and the Indian leaders both collaborated and clashed. Special significance is attached to the role played by the likes of Raja Ram Mohun Roy in bringing about social reforms in the Indian society sometimes with the help of the British, at times forcing them to act.
The British presence began to creep across the subcontinent and finally the first revolt against them a hundred years later, when the first war of liberation was started against the British in 1857. This signaled the beginning of the second phase, in which the transfer of power occurred from the East India Company to the British crown. The British began to consolidate their presence and began to physically change the Indian landscape by constructing the railways, introducing the telegraphic system, turning Calcutta and Bombay into major ports. By now a section of Indian, benefited by the policies introduced by Lord Thomas Macaulay, began to organise Indian opinion against what was clearly exploitative rule by aliens. This phase also witnessed massive social reform movements and important leaders like Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Keshab Chandra Sen, Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, among others revolutionised the Indian society. Along side, political thought against the British rule also began to take concrete shape, with leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and others taking a lead.
The third phase began with the first partition of Bengal in 1905. It is here that the national movement entered a crucial stage, and turned into a mass movement a decade and a half later. Leaders like Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Anne Beseant, among others, dominated this period, and took the Indian national struggle to a stage from where it became a mass movement. It was during this period that the leaders of the movement could convincingly project to the people of India the negative impact of the British rule over India. It was during this phase that the collective leadership of the national movement decided that political freedom was of paramount importance, and social reforms could wait till political freedom had been achieved.
The fourth and the final phase began after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, when Gandhi took charge of the nationalist struggle. The Indian nation and the world were introduced to a totally new concept of non-violent civil disobedience. Never before had the world seen anything like Gandhi before, and never before a political weapon as strong as Satyagraha been deployed by a political movement. The nearly two-and-a-half decades of struggle before independence in this last phase saw the emergence of important leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Azad, among several others. It was during this phase that the divide between the Hindus and the Muslims -- many say it was created by the British as part of their divide and rule policy -- could not be contained. And when the final act was played on the Indian subcontinent, the British divided the subcontinent into two countries -- India and Pakistan.
The First Phase (1757-1857):
fter the victory of Robert Clive over Siraj-ud-daula at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the stage was set for the English to take control over the subcontinent. A political vacuum existed in India after the decay of the Mughal Empire, and though the Maratha forces continued to challenge the British and other powers, Ahmed Shah Abdali routed them in the third battle of Panipat in 1761. Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan, along with several other potentates continued to rule in different parts of the country. The European nations were among the several actors on the Indian political scene of the late 18th century, and the policy of plunder and loot became was given official sanction. The English were the most organised to gain maximum territorial control, even as the other European powers, especially the French and the Dutch were reduced to being bit players.
It was the arrival of Warren Hastings that changed the complexion of the English presence in India. Hastings came to India as the Governor General in 1772, the same year that Raja Ram Mohun Roy was born. These two individuals independently changed the future of India. Hastings through his benevolence and Ram Mohan Roy through his radicalism. Much of the ground work for the work done by Ram Mohun Roy in the early 19th century became possible thanks to efforts led by Hastings. The tenure was Hastings was marked by a two-pronged strategy -- to increase the territorial presence of the British and to understand the Indian traditions to enable a more comprehensive exchange (social, religious and cultural) between the Indians and the English. The later Governor-Generals continued this.
In 1784, the William Jones established the Asiatic Society of Bengal, with Hastings as the first patron, William Carey, another brilliant Englishmen, worked hard to revive the regional languages. These English officers took upon themselves to discover the land that they had almost accidentally conquered. Hastings also established Mohammedan Madrassa in Calcutta, the first educational institution under government patronage. It was also during his tenure that the Supreme Court replaced the Mayor's Court in Calcutta. The new government was installed in Calcutta and it was made the capital of British India (and remained so until 1912). The Pitt's India Bill (the India Act, 1784) was also passed, giving the British parliament a direct say in the administration of India. Of course, Hastings was charged for gross misconduct by the British parliament for his role as the Governor General, and after a decade (and a cost of 7,000 pound sterling) was acquitted.
Hastings follower, Lord Cornwallis promulgated the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 that fixed the annual rent to be paid by the landowners to the government. This proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The East India Company actively discouraged Indian fabrics and handicrafts from being exported. By the end of the 18th century, with Tipu's death, and a peace treaty with the Nizam and the last of the remaining Marathas, the British were in full control. The interactions between the British officers in Calcutta and the Indians began to intensify and led to active exchanges on cross-cultural and religious issues. For the learned Indians, the world was opening up, and Ram Mohun Roy seized the opportunity to create a new thinking.
Ram Mohun Roy ushered the renaissance in India. As Rabindranath Tagore observed, "Ram Mohun was out of proportion to his surroundings but was the man for whom our history had been waiting through the night. He brought as a gift to his people a mind that comprehended the best aspirations of the East and the West, a mind that opened itself to the confluence of cultures. The vision of the modern age with its multitude of claims and activities shone clear before his mind's eye and it was he who introduced it to his country." Ram Mohun Roy was an outstanding student of the classical languages, Sanskrit and Persian. He could read Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic; of course, he was well versed in his own language, Bengali, and English. He also championed the cause of European languages.
His knowledge of the classics of all great civilisations and religions enabled him to speak about the unity of human beings and the equality of all races, a view which was far ahead of his own times. Ram Mohun Roy made outstanding contributions to the field of education (in 1817 he started the Hindu College, the college was later renamed as Presidency College), freedom of the press (he started the Sambad Kaumudi in 1821), development of the regional languages, independent judicial system. Macaulay's famous minutes of 1835, where he advocated the promotion of English language is something that Ram Mohun had advocated actively to Lord Amherst prior to his death in 1833. He founded the Brahmo Samaj, which aimed at reducing the importance of superstitions, traditions and rituals. Of course, his single biggest contribution was to influence the thinking of the British administrators in abolishing Sati. He campaigned vociferously with the Lord Bentinck, and the Sati was abolished in 1829, just a year after the Brahmo Samaj was formed. This was truly the age of reforms.
The British had grand plans of ruling India. The economic benefits of a colony were far too good for them to flee in the face of unorganised challenge. They had already set in motion the process of transformation of the subcontinent. In 1853, the first railway was started, and soon, the Howrah-Bombay railway line was used to transport cotton from the Deccan and shipped to the cotton textile mills of Manchester. The British designs on India did not encounter any major resistance, except the war with the Sikhs, but here, too, Duleep Singh was vanquished and he agreed to British protection (Duleep Singh gave the Kohinoor diamond to Queen Victoria). With the arrival of Lord Dalhousie, the British policy became more aggressive. He annexed Jhansi in 1854 and in 1856 the Nawab of Oudh was asked to abdicate. All these issues, coupled with several others, resulted in the Mutiny of 1857. But the British were far too well entrenched by then to surrender.
The Second Phase (1857--1905):
y 1857, the British rule extended to large parts of India. The process that had begun with the victory at Plassey a hundred years ago had seen the British presence spread across the subcontinent. The increasing British presence in the India was beginning to transform the Indian society in a manner that was unprecedented. A new educated middle class had come into being, amidst the old world of dominated by decaying aristocracy and feudal landowners. There was a clash of ideas and ideals as the likes of Raja Ram Mho Roy began to lead the movement to transform the Indian society, and rid it of its moribund social, religious, political and cultural ethos. Almost forcibly, these bands of committed nationalists pulled the Indian nation and its people by the scruff of their neck from traditionalism to modernism. And, while the changes that were initiated began to be accepted by the educated and prosperous sections of the Indian society especially in cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the vast majority of the population still continued to view them with deep rooted suspicion.
All this resentment (and there were innumerable social, political and economic reasons for Indians' ire against the British) came to a climax in 1857 when the Indian soldiers in the British army revolted. The mutiny received large-scale popular support from the people of India, especially in the northern parts. However, other parts of the country did not participate in the Mutiny, especially where the benefits of the British rule were felt directly, such as the presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
As P. E. Roberts lucidly explains in The History of British India, the causes of the Mutiny were "political, social, religious and military". Politically, Lord Dalhousie's annexations and the doctrine of lapse had "caused a thrill of uneasiness and suspicion across India." From the social aspect, "every annexation of a native state not only disposed a reigning house, but still further limited the rapidly narrowing field in which men of Indian race could display their political and administrative talents." In religious terms, Roberts observes that "to the devout Hindu...the hated and iconoclastic power of the British seemed to have invaded even the immaterial realms of faith and caste." And, as for the Muslims, they were waiting for a chance to get back their glory lost a hundred years ago. Finally, the conditions of the sepoys. Here, of course, Roberts upholds the British point of view that there were just too many disgruntled Indian soldiers in the British army, and the cartridge issue provided a good excuse for them to revolt.
The Mutiny was an undirected (though temporarily effective) means to challenge the British. In less than two years, this challenge was effectively countered. The British realised that it was improper to let a company -- the East India Company -- to rule such a vast area and so many people. Hence, the administration of the Indian subcontinent was taken over by the British government. Within the next few years, the British government undertook several important measures. The establishment of the high courts and universities in the presidencies. For the British, the period immediately after the Mutiny was "one of material, moral and intellectual progress, of improvements in communications, of commercial development, of administrative and legal reforms, and of constitutional experiments."
However, the Indian response to this was quite different and was felt on political, religious, social and economic aspects of Indian life. Politically, soon after the revolt, the indigo uprising occurred in Bengal. The indigo uprising forced the British planters to close down their factories (this led to the growth of the jute industry in Bengal) because of complete unity of the peasants. The Bengali intelligentsia marshaled all resources to help the landowners as well as the peasants. But agrarian unrest spread across India, and large parts of Bengal and Maharashtra were engulfed in peasants' protests. In all these cases, the educated, city-dwelling middle class rose to fight for the cause of the peasants. This changed the tenor and tone of political debate in the Indian society.
In the three presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras several important political organisations and individuals were actively engaged in political discourse. In Calcutta, there was the Indian Association formed by Surendranath Banerjea and Anand Mohan Bose in 1876, in 1884, the Madras Mahajan was formed by M. Viraraghavachariar, G. Subramaniya Iyer, P. Ananda Charlu, and the Bombay Presidency Association was formed by Pherozeshah Mehta and K.T. Telang in 1885. And, of course, the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, with illustrious presence of the likes of Justice Mahadev Ranade, in 1870. It was at this stage that the efforts of a Scotsman, A. O. Hume resulted in the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The formation of the Congress forever changed the complexion of the relations between the rulers and the ruled, though these changes manifested only in the 20th century.
Socially, the impact of English education began to be felt substantially on the Indians, and instead of the army of clerks that Lord Macaulay had envisaged, the educated Indian began to raise inconvenient questions. This attitudinal change also brought with it several important legislative changes. The age of consent bill and the debate over it that led to the breaking of ranks by of Bal Gangadhar Tilak with his social reforms-minded contemporaries like Gopal Ganesh Agarkar and Justice Mahadev Ranade. The rising level of education also resulted -- perhaps not surprisingly -- in the rise of religious identity. The earlier period of the 19th century had witnessed a tremendous degree of soul searching amongst the Hindus, and had ushered in significant reforms, with the help of the British rulers.
The later part of the 19th century saw the same process continuing, though the need for the British to effect this change was increasingly questioned. Clearly, the period of renaissance and reforms was now being replaced a certain degree of religious assertiveness. The growing importance of leaders like Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others is an indication of this trend where the Indian leaders were willing to accept westernisation while rejecting the role of the British. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya's novel Anand Math (with the song Vande Matram), the formation of several politico-religious organisations like the Arya Samaj, the establishment of the Aligarh University, the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav are among the innumerable examples of this trend.
Of course, the single biggest achievement of this period was the understanding of the economic impact of colonialism. Dadabhai Naoroji and Justice Mahadev Ranade are the two leaders who correctly assessed the adverse impact on the Indian economy of the colonial rule. As is explained in India's Struggle for Independence (edited by Bipin Chandra), "They clearly understood the fact that the essence of British imperialism lay in the subordination of the Indian economy to the British economy. They delineated the colonial structure in all its three aspects of domination through trade, industry and finance. The essence of 19th century colonialism lay in the transformation of India into a supplier of food stuffs and raw materials to the metropolis, a market for metropolitan manufactures, and a field for the investment of British capital." This critique of colonialism helped not only India, but countless other countries under colonial rule in their struggle for freedom.
The process of political maturity reached its height in the last decade of the 19th century, and the Indian leaders began to challenge the British rule in all its forms. The main battles were waged across newspaper columns, and here again, the Indian leaders redefined the concept of freedom of speech with their acerbic tone. Tilak bore the brunt of the British wrath on this issue and was imprisoned for his more than effective use of the print medium.
The different forms of activism reached a climax when Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. It is then that all the different aspects of Indian struggle against the British combined into one stream, and the Swadeshi movement was launched across India with devastating effect.
The Third Phase (1905--1919):
he third phase of the Indian struggle for independence was one of consolidation of the British Raj. The Congress witnessed a split in its ranks when the Extremists were driven out of the party, and most of the leaders of the Extremist group were either jailed or conditions were created that forced them out of public life. At the end of the phase, in the middle and late 1910s, the freedom movement did witness a revival and the Congress was reunited. The period also saw armed revolt against the British, and one of the most unique episodes of the freedom struggle -- the Ghadar movement. The secular, democratic, struggle that was crushed mercilessly by the British. By the middle of 1910s, Gandhi had returned to India and within the next few years began to take charge of the Congress party and provide an altogether different direction to the movement. On a different level, this period also witnessed a revival of Indian culture, arts and science. The Swadeshi movement began in this period.
In 1905 Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. His aim was clear. He wanted to deprive the Congress of its large base in Bengal. To Curzon, "Bengal united is power and Bengal divided will pull in different directions". The unstated, yet not completely hidden agenda was to divide the Hindus and the Muslims. A ploy that did not work in 1905 but gathered storm during the latter years and eventually led to the partition of the country.
Then came the saga of the ship Komagatu Maru. In order to prevent the entry of Indian migrants into Canada, the Canadian authorities had decreed that only those migrants who sailed directly to Canada would be allowed inside the country. But briefly, this ruled was changed by the Canadian Supreme Court after it was challenged. Based on this verdict, the ship Komagatu Maru was chartered by Gurdit Singh in Singapore and set sail for Vancouver. Carrying 376 Indian passengers, the ship reached Yokohama in Japan. In the meanwhile, the Canadian authorities had plugged the loophole of non-continuous travel, and when the ship reached Vancouver, it was not allowed to port. The ship's passengers set up a 'Shore Committee' comprising Husain Rahim, Sohan Lal Pathak and Balwant Singh. The ship was forced out of Canadian waters, and before it could reach Yokohama, World War I started. The British government ordered the ship to return to Calcutta.
When it reached Calcutta, the atmosphere was charged and rioting broke out. Eighteen passengers were killed in the clashes with the authorities, and 202 were arrested. The Ghadar movement fizzled out thereafter. In 1914 Tilak was released from jail and he picked up the threads of his agitation. Though still out of the Congress, he was keen to associate with the Congress once again. He joined hands with Annie Besant to start Home Rule League in western and southern India. While the Congress did not officially endorse the Home Rule League movement, it did not discourage the movement either. The Lucknow Congress of 1916 saw the triumphant return of the Lokmanya back into the mother party. Importantly, the guided by Tilak, the Congress worked out a pact with the Muslim League. Tilak's portrayal as a Hindu chauvinist is completely wrong when his role in the Lucknow Pact is considered carefully. Tilak announced, "When we have to fight a third party -- it is a very important thing that we stand on this platform united, united in race, united in religion, united as regards all different shades of political creed."
The British administration responded to this situation by another promise of reforms. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. The Montagu Declaration, for the first time, spoke of developing "self-governing institutions" within the British Empire. This once again pacified the Moderate leadership of the Congress. Tilak went to England to fight a defamation suit. And the stage was set for Gandhi to take charge of the movement. The British government had managed to push through the Rowlatt Act that severely curtailed civil liberties of Indians. The law had been passed ostensibly to curb terrorism. Gandhi decided to launch a mass Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act. The agitation against the Act gathered strong force, and the entire country was in no mood for surrender. Punjab was tense. Gandhi tried to reach Punjab, but was deported back to Bombay. In Amritsar, the arrest of two local leaders caused rioting, and the administration of the city was handed over to General Dyer. Prohibitory orders were issued, but people disregarded them and on Baisakhi day -- April 13, a large crowd had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, to attend a public meeting.
General Dyer ordered troops to fire upon the gathered crowd. Official records maintain that the firing killed 379 people. Unofficial estimates were higher. The brutality of the massacre shocked the country and the world. Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood. For the first time ever, the ambivalence of the people who had supported the British rule vanished. There was now no question about it -- the British had to leave India. It was not anymore an issue of debate. When and not if was the issue. Gandhi responded to this with the first non-cooperation movement and the Khilafat movement.
The Last Phase (1919-1947):
Time: Nearing midnight
Date: August 14, 1947
Place: The Indian Parliament, New Delhi
Event: India's Independence
awaharlal Nehru rose to address the Indian Constituent Assembly near midnight on August 14, 1947. He began: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time has come when we shall redeem our pledge not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance." The speech is etched in the memory of many Indians who are still amongst us today.
Describing the electrifying effect of the speech, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre write in the Freedom at Midnight, "In the hall, the hands of the clocks over the Speaker's stand crept up on the Roman numeral XII. Heads bowed, the representatives of what would become the second-most-populous nation in the world sat in attentive silence waiting for chimes of midnight. Not a figure stirred as those twelve heavy tolls marked the end of a day and an era. As the echoes of the twelfth stroke fell, a toneless shriek reverberated through the hall from the figure poised in the gallery...the conch shell's bleat heralded the birth of a nation. To the world it played retreat for the passing of an age."
The long and mighty struggle for independence had finally come to an end.
Though India had been divided, it was at last a free country. Nearly two centuries of foreign rule had ended. Nowhere in the world had such a peaceful transfer of power taken place earlier. Thanks to British constitutionalism and Indian leaders’ complete and unquestioned adherence to Gandhi's non-violent civil disobedience, India had become an independent nation without any major violent struggle. For Gandhi, non-violence was a matter of principle, for his colleagues, it was a matter of policy.
It was Gandhi who had chartered the course of the last 27 years of the freedom struggle, taking it through two major civil disobedience movements, countless other agitation, including the Quit India movement. Several important segment of the national movement separated from the mainstream. Subhash Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauj, Bhagat Singh's Navjawan Bharat Sabha, the Swarajists and their belief in constitutionalism, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League's demand for separate statehood for the Muslims. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism, the assertion of the dalits. All these trends manifested themselves during the period 1920-1947.
But the country had to be partitioned. Thus, freedom turned out to be a half-victory. The British -- pushed by Jinnah -- were connived that the Muslims needed a separate nation, the Congress leaders were turned around to this view after much deliberations. Only Gandhi remained unconvinced. Partition, in retrospect, was inevitable. This is because Jinnah and the Muslim League were in no mood to compromise. A non-partitioned free India would have immediately witnessed a religious civil war between the Hindus and the Muslims. The partition riots killed half-a-million people. It remains a matter of conjecture how may would have died had their been a civil war.
It was a small miracle that India did not get sub-divided into many countries. The "Balkanisation" of India was a major concern then, as it has been during the last five decades. The civil disobedience movements of the early 1920s and then in the 1930s turned into mass movements, something that the Congress had never been able to do before Gandhi took charge. The Dandi march, the Purna Swaraj declaration, the various missions sent by the British, the Round Table Conferences in London, fallout of the Great War, the Quit India revolution (the August Kranti), were among the important events that unfolded during these exciting decades.
As India's Struggle for Independence (edited by Bipin Chandra) emphasizes, "The Indian national movement was basically the product of the central contradiction between colonialism and the interest of the Indian people. The leadership of the movement gradually arrived at, and based itself on, a clear, scientific and firm understanding of colonialism -- that the British were using their political control to subordinate the Indian economy and society to the needs of the British economy and society."
The modernisation of India began with the British, though there is a raging debate whether it should have taken the form and direction it took. From Robert Clive to Louis Mountbatten, the British had ruled India with an uncompromising mind. India was the Jewel in the British Crown. Two centuries may not appear to be a long time in the history of a country, especially when the country has a history of a few thousand years, as is the case with India. But the British were unlike any other rulers who had invaded India and ruled the country. While all the previous rulers got assimilated into the India milieu, the British steadfastly remained different. There is no doubt that the British rule changed the way in which Indians perceived their country as well as themselves.
On August 15, 1947, at 7.00 am, the new prime minister of India, Jawharlal Nehru climbed up the ramparts of the Red Fort -- that power of Mughal rule in India -- and unfurled the Indian tri-colour. An "anti-colonial, civil libertarian, democratic, secular and socially radical society" was born. It was to provide a guiding light for innumerable nations in Asia and Africa in the next two decades to overthrow the colonialism from their own land. Nehru went on to become the beacon of anti-colonialism and non-aligned movement in the world. Gandhi's philosophy became the single-largest contribution in political and philosophical thought of the 20th century.
An era had ended, and a new one had begun.