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After centuries of British presence in India, the 1947 Indian Independence Act was passed, creating the new state of Pakistan and granting India its independence. The end of the Raj was something many had cause to celebrate: after centuries of exploitation and colonial rule, India was finally free to determine its own government.
But how did India manage to shake off centuries of British colonial rule, and why, after so many years, did Britain finally agree to leave India so quickly?
1. Growing Indian nationalism
India had always been made up of a collection of princely states, many of which were rivals. At first, the British exploited this, using long-standing rivalries as part of their plan to divide and rule. However, as they grew more powerful and more exploitative, former rival states began to unite against British rule together.
The 1857 Rebellion led to the removal of the East India Company and the establishment of the Raj. Nationalism continued to bubble under the surface: assassination plots, bombings and attempts to incite rebellion and violence were not uncommon.
In 1905, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced that Bengal would be partitioned from the rest of India. This was met with outrage across India and united nationalists in their front against the British. The ‘divide and rule’ nature of the policy and the utter disregard for public opinion on the matter radicalized many, particularly in Bengal. Just 6 years later, in the face of potential uprisings and ongoing protests, the authorities decided to reverse their decision.
Following the huge Indian contribution to the British effort during the First World War, nationalist leaders began to agitate for independence again, arguing their contributions had proved that India was quite capable of self-governance. The British responded by passing the 1919 Government of India Act which allowed created a diarchy: shared power between British and Indian administrators.
2. The INC and Home Rule
The Indian National Congress (INC) was founded in 1885 with the aim of having a greater share in government for educated Indians, and to create a platform for civic and political dialogue between the British and Indians. The party quickly developed divisions, but it remained largely unified in the first 20 years of its existence in its desire for increased political autonomy within the Raj.
It was only after the turn of the century that Congress began to support the growing home rule, and later independence movements in India. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, the party gained votes through its attempts to eradicate religious and ethnic divisions, caste differences and poverty. By the 1930s, it was a powerful force within India and continued to agiitate for Home Rule.
In 1937, the first election was held in India and the INC gained the majority of votes. Many hoped that this would be the start of meaningful change and Congress’ clear popularity would help force the British to give India more independence. However, the outset of war in 1939 stopped progress in its tracks.
3. Gandhi and Quit India Movement
Mahatma Gandhi was a British educated Indian lawyer who led an anti-colonial nationalist movement in India. Gandhi advocated for non-violent resistance to imperial rule, and rose to become President of the Indian National Congress.
Gandhi was deeply opposed to Indian soldiers signing up to fight for the British in the Second World War, believing that it was wrong for them to be asked for ‘freedom’ and against fascism when India itself did not have independence.
In 1942, Gandhi gave his famous ‘Quit India’ speech, in which he called for an orderly British withdrawal from India and once again urged Indians not to comply with British demands or colonial rule. Small scale violence and disruption occurred in the following weeks, but a lack of co-ordination meant the movement struggled to gain momentum in the short term.
Gandhi, along with several other leaders, was imprisoned, and on his release (on grounds of ill health) 2 years later, the political climate had changed somewhat. The British had realised that widespread discontent and Indian nationalism coupled with the sheer size and administrative difficulty meant that India was not feasibly governable in the long run.
4. The Second World War
6 years of war helped hasten the British departure from India. The sheer cost and energy expended during the Second World War had exhausted British supplies and highlighted the difficulties with successfully ruling India, a nation of 361 million people with internal tensions and conflicts.
There was also limited interest at home in the preservation of British India and the new Labour government was conscious that ruling India was becoming increasingly difficult as they lacked majority support on the ground and sufficient finance to maintain control indefinitely. In an effort to extricate themselves relatively quickly, the British decided to partition India on religious lines, creating the new state of Pakistan for Muslims, whilst Hindus were expected to stay in India itself.