India’s Freedom Movement


Background and Causes: The rapid expansion of British dominion in India, changes in the administrative set-up and mode of existence in those days disturbed the placid current of Indian life and produced commotion in different parts of the country.

The revolt of 1857 was a combination of political, economic and socioreligious causes. It was a national upsurge which was directed to achieve freedom from foreign domination. Lord Dalhousie’s high-handed Doctrine of Lapse abolishing the titles and pensions of the Indian chiefs agitated the Indian rulers. There was a general feeling of annoyance and discontent among Indian masses against their foreign masters. This hatred was mingled with alarm at the spread of Christianity.

Passing of the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856 was regarded by the Hindus as undue interference with their social and religious life. As a reaction to foreign rule, a sense of pride in India’s glorious past had been revived and people had come to feel that the foreigners were usurpers and intruders. Even in the ranks of the Indian army there was dormant unrest. Indian sepoys were becoming increasingly impatient of the haughtiness of English Officers. In short the whole nation was in ferment. Then a rumour spread that greased cartridges supplied to Indian soldiers contained the fat of cows and pigs. This outraged the religious feelings of Hindu and Muslim sepoys.

The Revolt: On 29 March 1857, the 34th Regiment was on parade in Barrackpore. Suddenly, Mangal Pandey, a sepoy, broke the ranks calling upon his fellow countrymen to rise in revolt against the British. He shot and killed two British Officers. The Indian soldiers present refused to obey their British masters’ orders to arrest Mangal Pandey. The latter was, however, arrested, tried and hanged. The news spread to all cantonments in the country and very soon a countrywide revolt broke out. On 10 May 1857 soldiers in Meerut refused to touch the new cartridges. Greased cartridges was the most important issue that led to the Revolt of 1857. The soldiers along with groups of civilians, went on a rampage shouting “Maro Firangi Ko”. They broke open jails, murdered European men and women, burnt their houses and marched towards Delhi. Very soon the revolt spread like wild fire all over northern India. The heroine of this first war of independence for India was Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, one of the most courageous and capable leaders of the mutiny. She fought the British forces strongly but fell. Among other notable figures who fell fighting were Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the last Peshwa and Tantya Tope, the brave commander of Nana Saheb’s forces.

The Result: The leaders of the revolt and their followers were fired with revolutionary zeal but they lost the war mainly because of lack of unity of purpose, effective organization, and a unified system of leadership. As against them, the British were well-organised and better-equipped and fought under one command. Thus the British were able to survive the most serious challenge to their rule in India. But the lessons of the revolt were not lost upon them.


The revolt of 1857 failed not because it lacked national spirit or patriotism but because it lacked adequate organisation and military power. The 1857 movement, however, generated greater awareness among the people about freedom; it was an important step forward towards germinating the seeds of a more effective nationalism in the years to come.

Soon thereafter, the country passed through a period of renaissance and reawakening. A number of factors gave impetus to the gradually growing national movement in the country. Some of these factors were as follows:

  • Religious Awakening: A number of prominent religious organisations such as Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and Ram Krishna Mission and religious leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Pt Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar, Dayanand Saraswati, Ram Krishna Paramhansa and Vivekanand generated a strong feeling of pride among the people in their motherland and culture. They inculcated among the people patriotism and inspired them to fight for freedom.
  • The Influence of Western Education: The spread of Western education through English language broadened the outlook of Indians and brought them very close to the western concepts of nationalism, liberty, and freedom. This aroused among the Indians a spirit of nationalism.
  • Emergence of Indian Press: The emergence of a good number of nationalist newspapers in the nineteenth century revealed to the people the evils inherent in British imperialism. The press as well as popular literature awakened patriotism among the people who grew restless against foreign domination.
  • Economic Exploitation: The policy of the Britishers to discourage industrial growth in the country so that India might continue to be a good market for their imported goods caused great frustration in the country. Secondly, agriculture also remained neglected at the hands of the Britishers causing economic misery to the people whenever the monsoon failed. Indians were growing more and more conscious of their persistent economic exploitation by the foreign rulers.

These were some of the factors that set the pace for a national movement to start in India. The first sign of political organisation in India was the formation of the Indian Association by Surendranath Banerjee in 1876.

Indian National Congress: Very soon the need for an all-India organisation to give shape to the national urges of the people was felt. This led to the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The organisation owed its origin to the inspiration provided by Surendranath Banerjee and A.O. Hume, a retired British Civil Servant, who suggested forming an organisation “for the mental, moral, social and political regeneration of the people of India”.

The first session of the Indian National Congress was held in Bombay in December 1885 under the Presidentship of Mr Woomesh Chandra Bonnerjee.

To begin with, the Congress was a moderate organisation committed to the use of constitutional means only for securing certain rights for Indians. From 1885 to 1905, the organisation remained in the hands of moderates as its leaders who were not prepared to lay down their lives for the motherland. They thought that their duty was only to highlight the weaknesses of the government and administration. During this period the party leadership pressed modest demands through prayers, appeals, petitions, deputations, etc. It avoided all extra-constitutional or agitational approach. Although the character of the Congress was moderate in its initial stages, it did in those days a great amount of spadework in national awakening, political education, uniting Indians and in creating in them the consciousness of a common Indian nationality.

Growth of Militant Nationalism 1906-1918: The activities and the programmes of the Indian National Congress from 1885 to 1905 indicated that most of the Congress leaders believed in constitutional methods for securing the favour of the Government and redressing their grievances.

They drew inspiration from the spirit of British liberalism. In the early stages the moderates in Indian National Congress sought political progress through boycotting the legislature and judiciary.

Swadeshi Movement (1905): After the year 1905, however, Indian nationalism entered a new phase. Militant nationalism attracted the youth throughout the country. At the Benares session of the Congress (1905) there was a feeling of revolt in the younger blood under the inspiring leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chander Pal.

There were certain valid reasons for the rise of extremism at this stage. Some of these were: the failure of reforms introduced by the Government under the Indian Councils Act, 1892; economic misery caused by foreign domination, successive famines and crop failures; unemployment; Indians’ humiliation abroad; revival of Hinduism; influence of western political concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity which brought revolution in France; and, at the top of it all, revolutionary leadership provided by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Babu Bipin Chander Pal.

Revolutionary Organisations: Many revolutionary organisations sprung up during 1905-13. The most important of them were:

Anushilan Samiti of Dacca: It was organised by Pulin Bihari Dass in 1905. It was the most important terrorist party with its centres in both Bengals. Its revolutionary activity comprised of violence, dacoity, assassinations, training in arms and making of bombs.

Anushilan Samiti of Calcutta: was founded by Barendra Kumar Ghose (brother of Aurobindo Ghose) in 1905. Though outwardly this organisation was meant for promoting social welfare and physical exercises, its real object was to paralyse the government.

The aims and objects of the two Anushilan Samitis were the same. Both employed identical means for realisation of their goals—achieving freedom by violence.

Even the newspapers during that period as Sandhya and Yugantar preached the gospel of blood and fire and advocated that “force must be met by force”.

Abhinav Bharat Society: was a secret terrorist organisation founded by V.D. Savarkar in 1906 with similar aims. It played an important role in Maharashtra.

Ghadr party: came into existence on 1 November 1913. It was founded by Lala Har Dayal who was in the U.S.A. at that time. It was violently antiBritish. He also founded the Yugantar Ashram. A paper called Ghadr was also started and circulated not only in America but also among Indians settled in other countries.

Komagata Maru case: It was an offshoot of the revolutionary activities abroad. Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship in which a number of Sikhs from India travelled to enter British Columbia in Western Canada. The Canadian authorities refused them permission to land and the ship had to return. It arrived back at Budge Budge near Calcutta, on September 29, 1914. It was arranged to send the passengers to Punjab by a special train which aroused suspicion and most of them refused to entrain for fear of being taken in custody by force. Troops were called and the men gathered around their leader Baba Gurdit Singh. Some of them marched towards Calcutta. Then suddenly shooting started. It was night by that time and the next morning rest of the Sikhs were sent by train to the Punjab. It all happened under suspicion by the Government that the party belonged to a most dangerous revolutionary movement.

The Surat Split (1907): The rise of extremists in Indian politics had its repercussions on the Congress party also. The Benares session of the Congress (1905) had already shown the widening gulf between the moderates and the extremists in the organisation. The Calcutta session next year (1906) showed that both the moderates and the extremists were heading fast towards a complete breach. And this actually happened in the Surat Congress (1907). The Surat session was greatly disturbed by rowdyism, confusion and disorder and police had to intervene to restore order. After the 1907 session, the moderates decided to have no truck with the extremists. The Congress organisation thus remained in the hands of the moderates; it, however, lost its popularity. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Babu Bipin Chander Pal—were the real leading personalities in Indian politics during those years.

They commanded a massive following throughout the country.

Thus the difference between the “Moderates” and the “Extremists” led to a split in the Congress at its session held in 1907 at Surat.

The period 1907-14 saw a series of terrorist movements in the country through underground organisations with their network all over the country. Revolutionaries tried to blow up the train in which the Lieut-Governor of Bengal was travelling. Mr Allen, district magistrate of Dacca, was shot at but somehow he could survive. An attempt on the life of Sir Andrew Frazor was made in November 1908. The Hindus of Bengal burnt many places causing huge loss to the Government. In March 1908, riots broke out in Tinnevelly and many buildings were set on fire. Official records were consigned to flames. Such revolutionary activities generated a lot of anti-British feeling among the Indians and the Government launched rigorous measures to eliminate terrorism in the country. Stringent laws were passed; terrorists were arrested and imprisoned; their leaders were externed to other countries; many youths were sentenced to death; and curbs were placed on public meetings and processions.

The Government relaxed its ruthless policy of repression against the terrorists following the outbreak of the First World War. The Government diverted its attention to war. Besides, it urgently needed the help of Indians to face the war.

Reunion of the two wings of Congress: The efforts, which were being made since 1907 to unite the two wings of the Congress, succeeded in the Lucknow session of the Congress in 1916. The extremists were admitted to the Congress at this session.

This was briefly followed by a Home Rule Movement spearheaded by Tilak and Mrs Annie Besant. She had joined the Congress in the year 1915. The movement strengthened further the cause of self-government and highlighted the necessity of involving the general public for attaining the goal of independence. The movement grew very popular among the younger generation and was an important step forward in the direction of preparing people psychologically to get ready for a fight to achieve freedom.

Lucknow Pact (1916): It was executed between the Congress and the Indian Muslim League in 1916.

The war between Turkey and Britain aroused anti-British feelings among Muslims and paved the way for co-operation with the Congress.

Both Congress and the Muslim League, in their session at Lucknow in 1916, concluded the famous agreement known as the Lucknow Pact which included the recognition of separate electorates.

In the Lucknow session of the Congress, the Home Rule Leagues were able to demonstrate their political strength.

The Gandhian Era of Non-Cooperation (1918 to 1935): The finest period of the Indian Naitonal Congress was from 1918 to 1947 when Mahatma Gandhi dominated the Indian political scene. The period is also referred to as the “Gandhian era” in the history of the Congress. In India’s struggle for freedom, it was the most intense and eventful phase culminating in India’s throwing off the foreign yoke in 1947.

Gandhiji entered the Indian political scene at a very opportune time. There was a void in Indian politics. Gokhale had died in 1915. Tilak also died in 1920. Lajpat Rai was a constitutionalist. The Congress thus needed imaginative leadership supported by a dynamic political philosophy. Gandhiji’s entry into Congress at this crucial phase provided it not only a leadership of the highest order but also the political philosophy of non-violent Satyagraha which in later years became the most potent weapon to drive the Britishers out of this country.

Rowlatt Act: A sedition committee appointed by the Government in 1918 with Justice Rowlatt as chairman made certain recommendations for curbing seditious movements in the country. On the basis of these recommendations, the Rowlatt Act was passed giving unbridled power to the Government to arrest and imprison suspects without trial and crush civil liberties. The Act caused a wave of anger in all sections of the people throughout the country. People saw in the Act Government’s determination to deny them the right to self-determination and liberty.

The Act aroused Gandhiji’s conscience against the British Government and he decided to launch a fight against the measure. He gave a call for Satyagraha against the Act on 6 April 1919. His call for hartal met with a remarkable success all over the country. Gandhiji was arrested at Palwal on 8 April 1919. This led to a further intensification of the agitation at Delhi, Ahmedabad and the Punjab.

Following some disorders and disturbances at certain places, Gandhiji suspended the Satyagraha on 18 April 1919.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (April 1919): The arrest of Dr Kitchlu and Dr Satyapal on 10 April in connection with the Satyagraha caused serious unrest and agitation in Punjab. The people of Amritsar, who took out a procession to protest against their arrest and demand their release, faced heavy police firing. This made the crowd also violent who killed five Europeans and set several buildings on fire. General Dwyer, the Lt-Governor of Punjab, decided to teach Indians a lesson. The whole of Amritsar was converted into a military camp. A public meeting was announced on 13 April 1919 in the Jallianwala Bagh. Thousands of people assembled there. Before the meeting could start, General Dwyer ordered heavy firing on the crowd. This killed hundreds of innocent men, women, and children. At least 1200 were wounded and left unattended.

The massacre was a turning point in Indo-British relations almost as important as the mutiny of 1857; it lit the flame of liberty and inspired people to launch a more unrelenting fight for freedom. The tragedy provided much strength to Gandhiji’s mission to launch a campaign against the British, which ultimately led to their exit from India. This incident, in other words, proved to be a milestone in India’s struggle for freedom.

On 13 March 1940, Sardar Udham Singh, an Indian patriot hailing from Punjab, shot down Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lt Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, while he was addressing a meeting in Caxton Hall, London. Lord Zitland, the Secretary of State for India, who was also one of the perpetrators of that heinous slaughter, escaped with bullet wounds.

Udham Singh mounted the gallows on 31 July 1940, with a smile on his face, proud and conscious of the fact that he had fulfilled his pledge to the people and avenged national humiliation.

Shaheed Udham Singh’s remains (ashes) were brought back from London to India on 19 July 1974, to enable the people of this country to pay homage to the great martyr after 34 years.)

Swaraj Agitation: The Reforms of 1919 having failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people of India, Indian National Congress launched an agitation for ‘Swaraj’ or Self-Government under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Non-cooperation Movement: The Calcutta session of Congress in September 1920 gave a new dimension to the national freedom movement. It passed a resolution moved by Gandhiji to launch a non-cooperation movement against the British for attainment of Swaraj. The movement received support from a large number of Muslims also. The policy of progressive, non-violent cooperation adopted by Gandhiji turned out to be a unique technique in political agitation not tried elsewhere.

The non-cooperation movement envisaged:

  • surrender of titles and honorary offices and resignation from nominated posts in local bodies;
  • refusal to attend Government darbars and other official and semiofficial functions held by the Government officials in their honour;
  • gradual withdrawal of children from schools and colleges, owned, aided or controlled by government and in place of such schools and colleges, establishment of national schools and colleges in various provinces;
  • gradual boycott of British courts by lawyers and litigants and establishment of private arbitration courts by their aid, for the settlement of private disputes;
  • refusal on the part of military, clerical and labouring classes to offer themselves as recruits for service in Mesopotamia;
  • withdrawal by candidates of their candidature for election to the reformed Councils and refusal on the part of the voters to vote for any candidate who may despite the Congress advice offer himself for election;
  • boycott of foreign goods; and
  • adoption of Swadeshi in piece-goods on a vast scale.

The movement caught the imagination of the masses and spread like wild fire through the length and breadth of the country. Top-ranking lawyers such as Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das gave up their legal practice and actively joined the movement. Tukli and Charkha became the symbols of the movement and could be seen in every home. Charkha appeared on the national flag also. Khadi soon replaced European clothes. Large quantities of foreign goods were consigned to flames and a number of educational institutions set up by Congress gave a new direction to education. The non-cooperation movement led to a complete boycott of Prince of Wales when he visited India in 1921. This infuriated the British Government and it tried to beat back the noncooperation movement by passing the Seditious Meeting Act and arresting under it thousands of Indians. Except Gandhiji, all prominent Congress leaders were put behind the bars.

Chauri Chaura Incident (1922): Gandhiji got ready to face the repressive measures of the British Government with a call for civil disobedience movement in Bardoli and a no-tax campaign at Guntur. Before the civil disobedience could be started, a strong mob at a place called Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh clashed with police which had opened fire on it. The mob retaliated by burning down a police station and killing 22 policemen. This went against Gandhiji’s strict injunction to avoid adoption of violent methods and he abruptly called off the agitation. Thus, the Non-cooperation Movement was immediately withdrawn after the ChauriChaura incident.

Khilafat Movement: After World War I, peace was concluded between the Allied Powers and Turkey by the Treaty of Sevres (1920). This treaty imposed on Turkey terms which spelt disintegration of the Ottoman empire and undermined the Caliphate which was the backbone of the movement towards Pan-Islamism, popular among Muslims everywhere. This was resented by the Indian Muslims. There was a widespread feeling among them that the peace concluded with Turkey was not only unjust but also antiIslamic. Mahatma Gandhi who was at that time waging a non-violent struggle against British rule in India, threw his weight on the side of the Muslims in this matter, and condemned the machinations of British imperialism. He thus won over the Muslims to the cause of India’s freedom struggle. He started a country-wide non-cooperation movement in which both Hindus and Muslims participated whole-heartedly.

Swaraj Party: Gandhiji’s decision to suspend the non-cooperation movement caused sudden frustration among the masses. His decision came in for severe criticism by his colleagues such as Moti Lal Nehru, C.R. Das and N.C. Kelkar. They formed a new party—Swaraj Party—and emphasised the need for entering the legislative councils by contesting elections in order to wreck the legislature from within. The Swarajists did not consider that Satyagraha was an effective method of political struggle. They were for giving a fight to the bureaucratic government in the legislature. In the elections held in 1923, the Swarajists captured 45 out of 145 seats. In the provincial elections, the Swarajists got few seats but in the central provinces they secured a clear majority. In Bengal, they were the largest party. For a considerable time, the Swarajists followed vigorously the policy of undiluted opposition. But after the death of C.R. Das in 1925, the Swarajists drifted towards a policy of co-operation with the government. This led to dissension within the party and it vanished in the year 1926. It should be conceded that the Swaraj Party emerged at a time when a great despondency had overtaken the people following the suspension of civil disobedience movement by Gandhiji. The Party rescued the people from the mood of bewildered frustration and made them aware of the role they could play in the governance of the country.

Simon Commission: The activities of the Swarajist Party had induced the British Government to have a second look at the working of the dyarchy (See Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms) in the country. Under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1919, the British Government appointed the Simon Commission in November 1927, to inquire into the working of the system of government, the growth of education, and development of representative institutions in British India. All the members of the Commission were whites and it had no Indian member. Indians felt greatly insulted and humiliated by this. Political leaders of all parties decided to boycott the Commission. Wherever the Commission went there were cries of “Simon Go Back”. It was while leading a demonstration against the Simon Commission in Lahore that a fatal lathi-blow was dealt to Lala Lajpat Rai.

Nehru Committee Report (1928): The Committee was set up under the Chairmanship of Motilal Nehru to determine the principles of the Constitution before actually drafting it. The Chief architects of the report were Pt Motilal Nehru and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. The recommendations evoked a lively debate concerning the goal of India—Dominion status or independence.

Lahore Congress: At its annual session held in Lahore in December 1929, under the presidentship of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution declaring complete independence to be the goal of the national movement.

Historic Dandi March: To work towards the achievement of the goal, Gandhiji again drew up a civil disobedience plan. Along with his 79 trained followers, he started his famous march from Sabarmati Ashram on 12 March 1930, for the small village Dandi to break the Salt Law. Gandhiji covered a distance of 387 km in 24 days and all along the route thousands of people greeted him and took vow to shake the roots of the British Empire through a non-violent movement. On reaching the seashore Gandhiji broke the Salt Law by picking up salt from the seashore. This march of Gandhiji is known in the history as Dandi March. Following this, reports about violation of Salt Law, Sedition Law and Forest Laws by people in other parts of the country started flowing in. Another round of boycott of foreign goods and picketing of liquor shops was witnessed on a massive scale all over the country. Even the ladies came out in large numbers to take part in this civil disobedience movement that shook the British Government. Soon thereafter followed extremely repressive measures such as mass arrests, lathi charges, police firing, gagging the Indian press; the Government tried to crush the movement in all possible ways. But despite all this, the movement continued. About 100000 people went in jails.

First Round Table Conference (1930): The first Round Table Conference held in London on 12 November 1930, was totally boycotted by the Indian National Congress. The Conference, which was inaugurated by His Majesty the King and presided over by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, aimed at abridging the gulf between the Government and the Congress leaders on basic issues so that the non-cooperation movement might come to an end. The Conference was attended by 89 delegates from British India and 16 delegates of Indian States who were all yesmen of the Government. Three principles were suggested by Prime Minister MacDonald as the basis of discussions at the Conference. Firstly, a federation for India; secondly, full responsibility to the provinces with necessary safeguards; and thirdly, partial responsibility at the Centre with certain limitations. But as the Congress boycotted the Conference as a part of its programme of non-cooperation, nothing substantial came out of it. In the words of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Conference offered India two bitter pills—safeguards and federation. To make the pills eatable, they were sugarcoated with responsibility.

Mr Jawaharlal Nehru made the following remarks about it: “We are all agreed that the Round Table Conference and its various productions are utterly useless to solve even one of India’s problems. As I conceive it, the Round Table Conference was an effort to consolidate the vested interests of India behind the British Government so as to face the rising and powerful national and economic movements in the country which threaten these interests. Essentially, in international parlance, it was a fascist grouping of vested and possessing interests, and fascist methods were adopted in India to suppress the national movement. And because the mere preservation of all these vested interests in India cannot solve our economic ills—whether those of the masses or even of the middle classes—the effort is foredoomed to inevitable failure.”

Gandhi-Irwin Pact and Second Round Table Conference: Early in the year 1931, two moderate statesmen, Sapru and Jayakar, initiated efforts to bring about rapprochement between Gandhiji and the Government. Their efforts resulted in six meetings between Gandhiji and Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy, that finally led to the signing of a pact between the two on 5 March 1931. This pact is known as Gandhi-Irwin Pact. In terms of the Pact, the civil disobedience movement was withdrawn and Gandhiji agreed to attend the Second Round Table Conference. At the Conference held in September 1931, Gandhiji demanded the establishment of a responsible Government immediately. The communal issue, raised by the delegates of minorities, however, became more predominent than the national issue. Gandhiji attended this Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. Gandhiji’s voice as the sole representative of national interest appeared lonely. The Conference was closed on 11 December 1931, without any concrete results and Gandhiji had to return to India in disgust without achieving anything.

Poona Pact: In 1932, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald gave the Communal Award which conceded separate electorates on communal basis. Besides, the Award was not fair to Hindus and its main aim was to divide Indians. It was based on undemocratic principles and had no historical basis.

The Award created immense dissatisfaction among the Hindus. At Calcutta session of the Congress, the Award came in for severe criticism. The Award was characterised as one that would lead to a special kind of despotic government. It would be tyranny of one community over another and it was this despotism which the Communal Award sought to install. Gandhiji staked his life to get the award annulled and went on a fast unto death. Ultimately the fast ended in the Poona Pact which repudiated the Award. The leaders of the various groups and parties among Hindus and Dr B.R. Ambedkar on behalf of the Harijans signed the Poona Pact.

Government of India Act, 1935: The Simon Commission completed its work in 1930 and submitted a report which formed the basis of the Government of India Act, 1935. This Act introduced provincial autonomy, abolished dyarchy in the provinces, making ministers responsible to the legislatures and Federation at the Centre, where Defence, External Affairs and Ecclesiastical matters were left in the hands of the Governor-General and all other subjects were transferred to the Ministers responsible to the Legislature.

Although the Congress opposed this Act, yet it contested the elections and formed ministries first in six provinces and then in two more when the new Constitution was introduced on 1 April 1937. The Muslim League formed a ministry in Bengal. Punjab too came to have a non-Congress ministry. The Congress High Command exercised a great hold upon the ministries of each province. A sub-committee formed by the Congress Working Committee maintained regular touch with the Congress Party in all the provincial legislatures.

The Congress Ministers rendered valuable service to the people during their term of office. They acted as the true servants of public. They won immense popularity through their hard work in the fields of public health, education and rural uplift. The Congress ministries passed a number of public welfare laws.

The Muslim leaders were, however, not happy with the Congress rule which they described as tyrannical. According to the Muslim League leader, Mr Jinnah, the Congress was drunk with power and was oppressive against Muslims.

Congress Ministries Resign: The Second World War broke out in Europe on 3 September 1939, that brought Britain also within its fold. Without consulting the Indian leaders, the Viceroy declared India also as a belligerent country. This evoked sharp criticism from Indians and the Congress took the stand that India could not associate herself in a war said to be for democratic freedom when the very freedom was denied to her. The Congress demanded that India should be declared an independent nation. Then only would the country help Britain in the war. The Viceroy in his reply dated October 17, 1939, rejected the Congress demand as impracticable and took the stand that the Government could think over the entire constitutional scheme after the war. The Congress condemned the Viceroy’s reply and the Congress ministries everywhere resigned on 22 December 1939. The provinces under the Congress again came under bureaucratic rule. Jinnah was happy over this and he called upon the Indian Muslims to celebrate the resigning day of Congress Ministries as the day of deliverance. Later, Jinnah built up a demand for Pakistan.

August Offer: On 8 August 1940, the Viceroy came out with certain proposals, known as ‘August Offer’ declaring that the goal of British Government was to establish Dominion Status in India. It accepted that framing of a new Constitution would be the responsibility of the Indians. It also laid down that full weight would be given to the views of minorities in the Constitution. Maulana Azad, President of the Congress, rejected the August Offer which aimed at bringing the Congress in the War. The Muslim League, however, welcomed the Offer as it ensured that no further Constitution would be adopted without the prior approval of Muslims. The League declared that the most difficult problem of India’s future Constitution could be solved only by a partition of India. In brief, the August Offer failed in gaining Indians’ cooperation for war and, in fact, further widened the gulf between the Congress and the Britishers as well as between the Congress and the Muslim League.

Individual Civil Disobedience or Individual Satyagraha: The Congress Working Committee decided to start individual civil disobedience on 11 October 1940. Vinoba Bhava was the first Satyagrahi who was arrested on 21 October followed soon by many more including Nehru and Patel.

Cripps Mission: In 1942, a realisation dawned upon the British Government that it could not ignore the Indian problem any further. The war situation had worsened for the Britishers with Japanese advance to India’s borders. By 7 March 1942, when Rangoon fell, Japan had occupied the whole of South East Asia. Calcutta was threatened and refugees had to get out of that great city. Indians were happy at the reverses of the British army. Subhas Chandra Bose openly asked Indians in his broadcasts from Berlin not to trust the British Government. In England too, public opinion was building up for a reconciliation with India. President Roosevelt of the USA. and the Chinese ruler, Chiang-Kai-shek, also pressurised the British Government to enlist the co-operation of Indians in the war by assuring them of independence after the war was over. On top of it all, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru made vigorous efforts for a compromise between the Congress and the British Government.

All these factors impelled or rather compelled the British Government to send Sir Stafford Cripps on a mission to India to resolve the deadlock and to unite the Indian people against the Japanese menace.

Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India on 22 March 1942, and had a series of interviews with prominent leaders of this country. After prolonged negotiations with Indian leaders, Cripps put forward his proposals envisaging that:

  • India should be given the status of a Dominion after the war;
  • during the war period, the Defence portfolio would remain in the hands of the Viceroy and except that all other subjects would be transferred to representative Indians;
  • after the termination of the war, a Constituent Assembly would be set up to decide the future of India.

It was a package deal which the Indian leaders were asked to accept or reject as a whole. The Cripps proposals, however, did not satisfy the Indians. These proposals amounted to opening the door to the possibility of an indefinite number of partitions. There was widespread frustration in the country because of the proposals. No party agreed to accept these proposals and the Cripps Mission thus ended in failure.

Quit India Movement: With the failure of the Cripps Mission, the British Government started painting a tainted picutre of India by giving an impression to the world outside that India was not fit for immediate freedom as it was a divided house. This added to the growing frustration in India. In the meantime, Japanese threat to India increased. Its attack on Bengal seemed ready. This gave rise to a new strategy in the mind of Gandhiji. He thought that there would be no cause left for Japan to attack India if the British immediately left this country. He proposed the passing of a “Quit India” resolution by the Congress demanding an immediate transfer of power to India. The failure to accept this demand would mean launching of a non-violent agitation against the British. Consequently, the Congress Working Committee passed the “Quit India” resolution at its meeting held on 14 July 1942. The Working Committee appealed to the Britishers for the transfer of power failing which it would start a non-violent movement under the leadership of Gandhiji. A meeting of the All-India Congress Committee confirmed the above resolution on 7 August 1942. The British Government acted swiftly. Before the movement could start all the Congress leaders, including Gandhiji, were put behind the bars within hours. The Congress was declared an illegal organisation and its offices were seized and locked. A revolutionary upsurge swept the country thereafter from one corner to the other and the Government used its entire machinery to crush the rebellion by ruthless measures and wholesale arrests without trial. As one historian has described, the mass-scale arrests of Congress leaders was immediately followed by “rule by ordinances, firings, lathi-charges…even bombings from airplanes were reported from some places. At some places, people driven to desperation retorted in kind, attacking railways and the police…More than 2000 unarmed and innocent people were shot down and about 6000 were injured by the people and military. Tens of thousands were wounded by lathis, about 15,000 jailed and about a million and a half of rupees were imposed as collective fines.”

In short, everywhere Government repression was very harsh and a police state was established to deal with the danger which constituted the gravest threat to the British Rule since the rebellion of 1857. At last, the Government succeeded in crushing the movement. Although the movement failed, it created a history in the Indian struggle for freedom.

As Dr Ishwari Prasad, a renowned historian, has put it, “The August Revolution was the revolt of the people against tyranny and oppression and can be compared with the fall of Bastille in the history of France and with October Revolution of Russia. It was a curious mixture of violence and non-violence. Its sustaining impulse was hatred of the British as the rulers of the land. Its objective was ‘Quit India’ and methods were violence and sabotaging the administrative machinery. It was symbolic of a new confidence and a new stature that the people had attained… All talk of Dominion status was consumed in the fire of the revolt. India would have nothing short of independence. Quit India had come to stay.”

Gandhiji’s Fast: Pained by the attitude of the British Government, Gandhi undertook a 21-day historic fast inside the jail. His condition deteriorated after 13 days and all hopes for his life were given up. But as a result of his inner moral strength and spiritual stamina he survived and completed his 21-day fast.

Wavell Plan: The war situation in Europe improved in the beginning of the year 1945. India’s goodwill was, however, needed as the war against Japan was expected to last for about two years. The situation within the country was worsening day by day as a result of deteriorating economic situation and famines. The British Government was compelled to come forward with some sort of plan to satisfy the Indians After consultations with the British Government on the Indian problem, Lord Wavell and Mr Amery, the Secretary of State for India, issued a statement known as Wavell Plan. The Plan, which chiefly concerned Viceroy’s Executive Council, proposed certain changes in the structure of the Council. One of the main proposals was that the Executive Council would be constituted giving a balanced representation to the main communities in it, including equal representation to Muslims and Hindus. Soon after the Wavell Plan was issued the members of the Congress Working Committee were released from jails. A conference of 22 prominent Indian leaders called at Simla to consider the Wavell Plan, reached no decision. What scuttled the conference was Mr Jinnah’s unflinching stand that Muslims approved only by the Muslim League should be included in the Executive Council. Communalism thus again became a stumbling block. For the Britishers, however, the dissension between the Congress and the Muslim League was a source of happiness.

Struggle for Freedom—New Phase: The struggle for freedom entered a decisive phase in the year 1945-46. Two important events—the INA trial and the Naval Mutiny—during this period completely turned the scale against the British Government and, at the top of it all, the coming of the Labour Party in Power in England finally set the pace for the fulfilment of Indians’ dream for freedom.

INA Trial: To elucidate, despite the best efforts of the Congress to win the legal battle the trial of Indian National Army (INA) prisoners at the Red Fort of Delhi in November 1945 led to their outright conviction on the charge of waging war against the King Emperor. The pressure of the Indian public opinion against this conviction, however, soon mounted high. This shook the British Government and it was compelled to suspend the sentences imposed on the INA convicts. Further, disaffection spread fast among the soldiers. The chief defence advocate during the INA trial was Bhulebhai Desai. Other defence lawyers were Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Asaf Ali.

Naval Mutiny: In 1946, the navy in Bombay openly rebelled against the British as a political measure. The Britishers for the first time seriously realized that with this awakening among the Indians and revolt in armed forces, it could not perpetuate its hold on India anymore.

The Labour Party came to power in England in the year 1945 by defeating the Conservatives by a sweeping majority.

The new Labour Prime Minister, Mr Atlee took a very realistic view of the situation in India. He sent a delegation to India to report to him on the Indian situation. The delegation expressed the view that the granting of freedom to India could not be put aside any further. Consequently, in a statement made in the House of Commons, Mr Atlee recognised the unity among the people of India, despite certain divisions, for achieving independence which could no more be ignored. Indians alone, he said, could now solve the social and economic problems which they were faced with. On 14 February 1946, he announced a proposal to send a Cabinet Mission to India for making an endeavour to help India achieve freedom as speedily and fully as possible.

Cabinet Mission: The Cabinet Mission, which consisted of Lord Pathick Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps, and Mr A.V. Alexander, arrived in India on 23 March 1946, and met the Indian leaders to negotiate handing over power. The mission met leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League but could not arrive at an agreed solution. Consequently, it drafted its own plan for the future political set-up of India.

Its recommendations were as follows:

  • There should be a Union of India comprising British India and the Indian States;
  • The federal centre should have control over defence, foreign affairs and communications;
  • The Provinces should form three groups (a) Group of the Hindu majority provinces—Bombay, Central Province, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madras, Orissa, Delhi, Ajmer-Marwar and Coorg; (b) Group of the Muslim majority provinces—Punjab, NWFP, Baluchistan and Sind; (c) Group of Bengal and Assam;
  • A Constituent Assembly should be set up to draft a Constitution for the Union and after that it should break up into three groups to frame the Constitution for the Group of Provinces;
  • Any Province could withdraw from any Group after the first general election and the entire set-up might be revised after 10 years.

The Mission also recommended that an interim Government should be formed by the major political parties.

The Commission rejected demand of the Muslim League for division of India i.e., creation of Pakistan. It gave certain valid reasons for rejecting this demand.

The Muslim League accepted the proposal but criticised it particularly on the issue of Pakistan. The Congress only agreed to the proposal for the formation of a Constituent Assembly and declined the offer to join the interim government proposed by the Mission. On persuasion by Lord Wavell, however, the Congress joined the interim government along with the Muslim League but the latter adopted an obstructionist policy from the beginning.

Constituent Assembly: The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in July 1946. In the Muslim electorate, the Muslim League secured 73 out of 78 seats. The Congress won 199 out of 210 seats. The Muslim League, however, stuck to its negative policy and announced its decision to boycott the Assembly before it could even hold its first meeting fixed for December 9, 1946. A conference of the representatives of the Muslim League and the Congress called in London to sort out the differences between the two led to no agreement. The Congress challenged the right of the Muslim League to remain in the interim government as it did not attend the Constituent Assembly’s meeting.

The Constituent Assembly commenced its business with Dr Rajendra Prasad as its Speaker. But the non-participation of the Muslim League in the Assembly disrupted the working of the interim government itself. The Cabinet Mission’s objective thus failed to materialise.

The mischievous drama played by the Muslim League eventually bore fruits for it. It made certain Congress leaders say openly that let the Muslim League be granted Pakistan. This, they argued, would at least enable the Congress to keep in its hands peaceful progress of the rest of the country. Thus, the possibility of creation of Pakistan, discouraged by the Cabinet Mission, began gaining a new lease of life. For Mr Jinnah this was a decisive political gain and he had all reasons to feel happy about it. The Muslims too were in the grip of communal feelings fanned by Mr Jinnah and they rallied around him in support of his demand for a separate Pakistan.

The Mountbatten Plan: The formula for transfer of sovereignty to Indians worked out next was the Mountbatten Plan of 3 June 1947. It offered a key to the political and constitutional deadlock created by the refusal of the Muslim League to join the Constituent Assembly formed to frame the Constitution for India. It laid down detailed principles for the partition of India and the speedy transfer of political power in the form of Dominion Status to the newly born Dominions of India and Pakistan. Its acceptance by the parties concerned resulted in the birth of Pakistan.

The Indian Independence Act, 1947: The Indian Independence Bill, 1947 containing the main provisions of the Mountbatten Plan of 3 June 1947, was rushed through the British Parliament in the short period of 12 days (4 July to 16 July). It received the Royal assent on 18 July 1947 and passed as the Indian Independence Act 1947.

The Act laid down detailed measures for partition of India and speedy transfer of the political power to the newly born governments of India and Pakistan. It contained the following main provisions:

  1. The Constitution framed by the Indian Constituent Assembly will not apply to the Muslim-majority provinces.
  2. The Muslim-majority provinces will themselves decide the question of a separate Constituent Assembly.
  3. The question of the division of Bengal and the Punjab will be decided by their respective Legislative Assemblies. They will also decide about the Constituent Assembly they want to join.
  4. The Sind Legislative Assembly will separately decide about the Constituent Assembly it wants to join.
  5. There will be a referendum in the provinces of N.W.F. and Baluchistan to decide which of the Constituent Assembly each province would like to join.
  6. A referendum will be held in the Sylhet district of Assam to decide whether it wants to join India or Pakistan.
  7. A Boundary Commission will be appointed to decide the final lines of demarcation between India and Pakistan.
  8. Power would be transferred to Indian hands by the 15th August 1947.
  9. British paramountcy would lapse and the Princely States would be free to join India or Pakistan or to proclaim their independence.

Contribution of Sardar Patel

Sardar Patel, the iron man of India, who was appointed as Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India in 1947 on attainment of independence, was a great administrator who integrated all the princely States with the Indian Union. When India was declared independent on 15 August 1947, there were more than 550 States in the country being ruled by Indian Princes as hereditary monarchs. Sardar Patel handled this tricky problem adroitly and steered India clear of possible balkanisation by all available means, e.g., appeal, tact and even pressure. He appealed to the patriotism and of the Indian princes, made them conscious of the utter futility of bids to establish independent Kingdoms, and where necessary (as in the case of Junagadh and Hyderabad) used strong-arm methods to achieve the great objective of India’s political unification.