Empires - Road to independence

With the British government assuming direct control over Indian affairs following the Rebellion of 1857, the political trajectory of the sub-continent changed. The authority of the Viceroy (representative of the British monarch) gave him enough autonomy to conduct policy from within India.

Forces of change

The British only manned the top positions of the government and the army. This meant that while Indians increasingly played a larger role in government, they were excluded from the policy making process.

The impetus for change arose both within India and Britain. The Indian National Congress was started in 1885 by Alan Octavian Hume, an officer in the Indian Civil Service. This characterised the spirit of the political process taking place within India, which sought greater Indian involvement in the governing of India. At the same time in Britain, the political debate centred on widening the eligibility of voters. Both these processes suggested greater popular participation in government.

Events began to move quickly thereafter. The creation of Dominion status (effectively independence) for Canada (1867), Australia (1901) and South Africa (1910) was followed shortly by the First World War and Irish Home Rule. This changed India's domestic understanding of its role within the British Empire. It imparted fresh energy to demands for Home Rule and Dominion Status, particularly as this was thought to have been denied purely on racial grounds.


But while demands for greater participation in government grew, there was limited public support or understanding of what this meant. The return of Gandhi from South Africa in 1915 began to change this. His movement sought to broaden the appeal for Home Rule amongst the wider population, on economic and social grounds. Gandhi's basic refrain was: British rule has impoverished India materially and spiritually, and India can only restore itself through a process of internal regeneration. The presence of the British precludes this, hence they should go.

Religious divisions

Popular rule, which Gandhi's message implied, worried parts of the Muslim community, who were in a numerical minority but who had ruled India under the Mughals for more than 300 years. They moved to clarify their position within a democratic India. They sought, but did not receive, guarantees of minimum levels of representation within governments at the national and provincial levels. This sense of apprehension was particularly strong in two major provinces: Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east.

The British made few firm decisions through the 1930s, intensifying the problem. The Government of India Act of 1935 failed to assuage worries. Though it did accord a measure of Home Rule, it was seen to be inadequate as the Viceroy and the provincial governors retained significant powers - far greater indeed than their counterparts in Australia and Canada.

Impact of the Second World War

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the agitation against the British was initially suspended, but increased after 1942 with widespread civil disobedience. The surrender of Singapore, together with Japan's occupation of Burma and incursions into India's north east exposed the frailty of British power, and led Gandhi to call on the British to leave India to 'God and the Japanese'.

The conclusion of war, and the clear support of the Americans for self-determination, left the British with little choice but to leave. Within Britain, as well, the political mood had changed. The final settlement however left the sub-continent divided along communal lines, with the two provinces of Bengal and Punjab divided, and becoming the core of the newly created state of Pakistan, which had an eastern wing, centred on Bengal, and a western wing centred on Punjab. The borders of the new states were determined on the basis of the communal composition of each district. At midnight on August 14th 1947, many people on both sides of the border had no idea which country they would find themselves in on the following morning.

The constitutional settlement was however complicated further by the status of Indian princes and their kingdoms. Theoretically sovereign, they were actually given little choice about which state to join. If they adjoined the new borders, their rulers could decide which side to join. If not, they had to choose the state in which they found themselves. Independence was not a choice offered to them. This was the origin of the Kashmir crisis.

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