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India and the End of Empire

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

British statesmen of all parties have proclaimed to the world that Britain is fighting this war against Germany not only to restore the independence of Poland and Czecho-Slovakia hut also to end “the tyranny of Nazi-ism and Hitlerism.” It has been further declared by both British and French statesmen that they have entered this war to establish a new world order in which justice, freedom, and equality will prevail, the rule of law be substituted for the rule of force, and the rights of all peoples, regardless of their race and religion, will be respected. However, a student of history must recognize the fact that the present war in Europe is in reality a war fought by the British Empire to maintain its supremacy in world politics and world commerce against the powerful onslaught of a rejuvenated Germany seeking opportunities for expansion.

India’s position in the Empire is particularly significant at this time. India is already at war with Germany. The Viceroy of India, on behalf of the British Government, without consulting the Indian people and their representatives, made the declaration of hostilities. Soldiers from India have been sent to Aden, Egypt, Singapore, and even to the French front. It has been reported that Mr. Gandhi and the All-India National Congress are seriously objecting to the British war policy in India. What is behind the present conflict in India? Are the Indian nationalists justified in making their present demands while the vital interests of the British Empire are at stake? If the present war continues for a long time, can Great Britain and France win the war against Germany while Britain faces Indian non-cooperation, which might develop into active civil resistance or even a revolt of the Indian nationalists against British imperialism in India? What should be done to bring about Indo-British understanding and cooperation?


What is happening today in India is nothing but a phase of the Indian people’s struggle for freedom from British rule, which has kept the people of India under subjection and crippled them morally, politically, economically, and culturally. Thousands of Indian revolutionists have been imprisoned and hundreds shot down in India by the British authorities for their efforts to stir up discontent and revolution in India. Thousands of Indians have been sent to “detention camps” on the charge of violation of the Defense of India Act. As early as in 1857, the violent opposition of Indians against British rule took the form of a national uprising, known as the “Sepoy Mutiny,” but regarded by Indians as the Indian War of Independence. This revolt was crushed by the British, supported by various Indian Princes, and using Indian manpower and financial resources. Later on the struggle for freedom took the form of the All-India National Congress, which was organized by far-sighted, politically-conscious, and Western-educated Indians who were supported by some British sympathizers. The purpose of the Congress was to secure for the Indian people the kind of political freedom free peoples enjoy in their own homelands.

The founders of the Congress thought that through political agitation and petitions to the British Government and people they could secure justice, recovering their sovereign rights as a free people and ultimately achieving dominion status for India within the British Empire. However, this program of “begging for freedom from the British rulers” did not produce any worthwhile results. Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, many Indian nationalists, some inside the Congress movement and some outside it, strengthened by the agitation of more than fifteen years, decided to use their own efforts to recover their complete independence from British rule. This revolutionary attitude of Indian patriots was strengthened by the Japanese success in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. A minority of radical Indian patriots started a campaign of direct action about thirty-five years ago, even using terrorism, to overthrow British rule in India. This movement was not supported by the conservative elements of the All-India National Congress.

The immediate result of the violent anti-British campaign in 1905-06, undertaken in connection with the partition of Bengal, was that the British Government was induced to make its first concession of value in the form of the Morley-Minto Reform, which came into effect in 1909. By this reform, only a limited number of Indians could be elected and appointed to legislative assemblies, and they had no real lawmaking power. Lord Morley makes it clear in his “Recollections” that he recommended this concession for the purpose of securing the support of “moderate Indian political leaders” against the radical and revolutionary element, thus checking the movement for Indian independence.

But this meager concession granted after long agitation did not check the progress of the Indian national movement; on the contrary, it gave momentum to the movement for complete freedom. When the World War broke out, the British needed Indian support and accepted it eagerly. However, while Indian politicians and leaders of the All-India National Congress and the Moslem League supported Britain in the crisis, there arose a demand for the immediate granting of home rule. On the one hand, the British Government made a solemn promise, through Prime Minister Lloyd George, that after the World War, India would be given concessions leading to the establishment of “responsible government” (which meant dominion status); on the other hand, British authorities ruthlessly suppressed all political agitation which might be regarded as subversive. In 1919 the Montague-Chelmsford Reform was introduced as a first step towards dominion status. But as this did not even confer full self-government for the provinces of India, not to speak of the central government, the majority of the Indian people was dissatisfied with it. Only the conservative and liberal leaders agreed to accept the reform as a partial fulfillment of the solemn promise of the British Government, while many leaders of the All-India National Congress expressed their undisguised disapproval of it as inadequate and as a breach of promise.

After the World War, to crush political agitation for further concessions, the British enacted repressive laws such as the Rowlatt Act, denying the fundamental civil rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly to the Indian people and at the same time empowering the authorities to put in prison all political suspects without regular trial. This was followed by the Amritsar Massacre, which might be called the Bloody Sunday of India. These oppressive measures roused Mr. Gandhi, a staunch supporter of Britain during the World War, to oppose the “satanic British rule in India.” During the special session of the All-India National Congress held in 1920, a resolution was adopted for the attainment of Swaraj [self-rule] through non-violent non-cooperation. This was the turning point of the political history of modern India.

During the period between 1920 and 1930, literally hundreds of thousands of Indian men and women were put in prison for participating in the non-cooperation movement. Mahatma Gandhi, true to his creed of non-violence, called off civil disobedience because on various occasions violence broke out among his followers. Mahatma Gandhi, the late Pandit Moti Lai Nehru (father of Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru), and other conservative leaders of the Congress had difficulty in checking the efforts of radical members, especially Subhas Chandra Bose, who wanted to make the goal of the Congress the “attainment of absolute independence of India outside of the British Empire, by all possible and legitimate means.” In 1930, radicals of India wanted to establish a “provisional government” for an independent India, but Mahatma Gandhi was content with the Declaration of Indian Independence, which was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence.

These agitations finally resulted in the decision of the British Government to reconsider the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 at several Round Table Conferences in London. The enactment of the Government of India Act of 1935 followed.

The greatest defect of this Act is that it uses the pretext of protecting minority rights to set up a vicious electoral system of “communal representation” under which religious minorities are granted special representation. This system is anti-national and anti-democratic, evidently designed to foster national disunity. Other provisions of the Act give the Governors of the provinces as well as the Viceroy dictatorial authority through the use of unlimited veto power over all laws passed by the legislature. The Governors and the Viceroy may also exercise legislative powers by “certifying” laws in spite of the refusal of the legislature to approve. Although the Act confers provincial autonomy, it places vital limitations upon the power of the provincial governments. The greatest grievance is that the Act denies the people of India the right of full control over finances and empowers the Viceroy alone to direct foreign affairs and national defense. Furthermore, the Act allows an unduly large representation of the Indian states ruled by Princes with the right to appoint personal representatives. Thus it perpetuates communalism and autocracy and discourages democracy.

The Congress disapproved of the Act of 1935 and yet for practical reasons decided to accept it in provincial governments in order to demonstrate that in spite of the Act’s failings the All-India National Congress could govern by majority vote. Thus, in the election following the application of the Act, the Congress Party secured majorities in eight out of eleven provinces. Meanwhile the Congress continued its campaign against the Act of 1935, seeking to replace it with a really democratic instrument framed by the Indian people. The agitation came to a head at the session of the Congress held at Tripuri in March, 1939. Here resolutions were passed expressing India’s demand to control foreign affairs and national defense. These resolutions are the grounds of the present conflict between the Congress and the British Government in India.


Early in August, 1939, Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, acting under the Government of India Act of 1935, dispatched Indian troops to points of international tension. The All-India National Congress Working Committee„ which is really the Cabinet of the Indian nationalists, protested on the ground that Indian defense forces should not be sent outside of India without the approval of the Indian people. Long before this incident, the “Forward Bloc” of the Congress was preaching Indian neutrality in case of any war in which Britain might be involved to preserve her empire.

Just after Great Britain declared war, the Viceroy made a declaration of war without consulting the Indian Legislative Assembly. Furthermore, the Government of India Act of 1935 was at once amended, without the consent of the Assembly, to give the Viceroy full power to control and direct the provincial governments to serve British imperial interests. This amendment destroyed the last vestige of freedom of the provincial governments. It was then that the Working Committee of the Congress took the stand of opposing the British Government in India unless India were allowed that independence for which the National Congress had been striving for more than fifty years. The resolution adopted by them reads, in part:

The Congress has repeatedly declared its entire disapproval of the ideology and practice of Fascism and Nazi-ism. . . . It has seen in Fascism and Nazi-ism the intensification of the principle of imperialism against which the Indian people have struggled for many years. The Working Committee must therefore unhesitatingly condemn the aggression of the Nazi Government in Germany against Poland and sympathize with those who resist. . . . The Congress has further laid down that the issue of war and peace for India must be decided by the Indian people, and no outside authority can impose this decision upon them, nor can the Indian people permit their resources to be exploited for imperialist ends. . . . If Great Britain fights for the maintenance and extension of democracy, then she must necessarily end imperialism in her own possessions and establish democracy in India, and the Indian people must have the right of self-determination to frame their own constitution… .

The Working Committee has noted that many rulers of Indian States have offered their services and resources and expressed their desire to support the cause of democracy in Europe. If they must make their professions in favor of democracy abroad, the Committee suggests that their first concern should be the introduction of democracy within their States, in which today undiluted autocracy reigns… .

The Working Committee therefore invites the British Government to declare in unequivocal terms what their war aims are in regard to democracy and imperialism and the new order that is envisaged, in particular how these aims are going to apply to India and to be put into effect at present… .

On October 10, the authorities of the Congress by resolution again invited the British Government “to state their war aims and peace aims.” It demanded that “India must be declared an independent nation. . . .” Further, the resolution made it clear that the Congress leaders would be satisfied with a declaration that India would be given full dominion status immediately, but that the application of the status would be limited in certain fields for the duration of the war. But the British authorities refused to make any concessions. On October 17, the Viceroy stated that the attainment of dominion status was the ultimate goal of British rule in India, but that there could be no consideration for the modification of the Act of 1935 during the war. “I am authorized now by His Majesty’s Government,” the Viceroy’s statement continued, “to say that at the end of the war they will be very willing to enter into consultation with representatives of the several communities, parties, and interests in India and with the Indian Princes, with a view to securing their aid and cooperation in the framing of such modification as may seem desirable.” The Indian viewpoint on the Viceroy’s statement was very well expressed by Lord Snell in the House of Lords:

A large section of the Indian people say: Why should we be asked to fight for the establishment of democratic principles which are not extended to ourselves? “We have indeed,” they say, “been given some promises that we shall have dominion status given to us at the discretion of others at a time which is not named”; but they ask for more definite promises… .

The Indian reaction has been swift. Political non-cooperation has already begun. At this writing, six provinces out of the eight which were ruled by the Congress Party ministers are now ruled by the provincial Governors, who are using emergency powers. Mahatma Gandhi has declared that there would be no civil disobedience movement started immediately, although all preparations for such a momentous step are being considered.


Lord Zetland, Secretary for India in the present British Government, has recently declared that for England to agree to the demands of the All-India National Congress would mean a breach of the promise made by the British to the Indian Princes and a betrayal of the rights of minorities like the Moslem communities of India. Also, he maintained, it would mean that India, as a result of the inability of the Indian people to defend their country, would be open to foreign invasion.

Let us examine the validity of these official statements. In the past, British Governments have dethroned several Indian Princes and taken over the administration of their states on grounds which were satisfactory only to themselves. The Indian Princes do not enjoy sovereign rights and the concession of dominion status to India could not constitute a breach of promise.

The British have always used the arguments of the leaders of the Moslem League as a weapon to keep India under subjection. But the Moslem minority of India comprises a little more than one-fifth of the population, and the opposition of the minority ought not to stand in the way of freedom. Furthermore, this Moslem minority, under the leadership of the All-India Moslem League, is more concerned with Pan-Islamism and extra-territorial patriotism than it is with Indian interests.

The question of Indian national defense is of vital importance to the cause of Indian freedom. Indeed, every Indian patriot is conscious of the fact that without adequate national defense, the fate of India might be the same as that of Ethiopia, of China, of Czecho-Slovakia, of Poland. During the last fifty years, the National Congress has been advocating measures that would enable the Indian people to assume full responsibility for national defense. But since the days of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British policy has been to disarm the nation and to deprive the people even of the most fundamental facilities for military training. As a result, although the British during the last fifty years have spent more money for Indian military expenditures in India than Japan has for both naval and military purposes, India has virtually no navy, and an Indian army without British officers and forces cannot defend the country. There are no adequate provisions for training Indian officers in India. Indians are not even allowed to enter the Indian Air Force or the mechanized and chemical warfare divisions. If the British are really interested in allowing the Indian people to assume the responsibility of national defense, they should follow the policy undertaken by the government of the United States for the defense of the Philippines. However, not all of the British dominions are able to defend themselves without British aid and yet the British have allowed them full freedom. Why should there be one standard for India and another for the dominions?

If the present war continues for a long period and the British refuse to consider the National Congress demands favorably, Mahatma Gandhi and others may be forced to fall back on civil disobedience—which might lead to a national revolt, and this might even be supported by outside forces. It may be suggested that a revolt can be ruthlessly suppressed by British military forces. But such a suppression of freedom will not crush the national movement for all time; on the contrary, it would make Indo-British friendship and cooperation impossible. A free India voluntarily may serve as the most valuable ally of Britain; an enslaved India, on the other hand, would be a constant menace to Britain and may become a factor in bringing about the destruction of the very existence of the British Empire.


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