Indian Independence


European explorers and traders had been interested in India’s rich spices since the late 1500’s but the British were the first power to really establish control over the country in 1757 when the British Army defeated the Bengali Army and the East India Company was installed in power in Bengal. They later expanded their power throughout India by grabbing different states and provinces, sometimes by force, or by dubious legal technicalities and by 1835 English had become the official language of teaching and business throughout the country. This system of British control in India is often referred to as the Raj. It is important to realise that, before this point, the country we now refer to India was not united as it is today but instead made up of a series of local states, all with slightly different customs, different religions (mainly Islam and Hinduism) and different languages.


The early 1800s saw increasing tensions between the British and native Indians as the British acquired more and more areas of India and outlawed certain Indian customs which were ‘distasteful’ to them, such as the caste system and the funeral custom of sati (where a widow immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her husband). The British were also notorious for disrespecting Indian religious buildings and for treating slaves and servants brutally.


By 1857 tensions had risen to such a point that Indians in the central and northern regions of India rebelled against British control. Aptly called ‘The 1857 Rebellion’ this rebellion is usually seen as the start of the Indian Independence movement. Eventually, the British defeated the rebels by force after laying siege to Delhi for two months in 1858.


The British, it seems, had partially learnt their lesson: they abolished the East India Company and made Queen Victoria direct ruler of India, promising religious tolerance, equal treatment for the Indians and career opportunities in the civil service (albeit as sub-ordinates). However, this was all too late, the fire had already been lit and over the next one hundred years the people of India became increasingly politically aware, demanding representation in government, criticizing the British style education system that defamed India’s history and culture and challenging British rule.


During WWI India supported England in their fight against Germany in the hope of receiving increased independence. However this was not to be and, in their disappointment, the Indian people became increasingly anti-British. In 1915 Gandhi returned to India from South Africa where he had been fighting against Apartheid and encouraged the Indians to protest against British occupation non-violently by refusing to work for the British or by British products. Gandhi’s most famous protest was the ‘Salt March’ of 1930 where, followed by thousands of Indians, he walked 400km from Ahmedabad to Gujarat in protest against British taxes on salt. During the march he and his thousands of followers illegally made salt from seawater.


Gandhi’s civil disobedience protests intensified during WWII and the British, in desperate need of allies, tried to strike a deal whereby, in return for total support during the war they would grant India independence once they had defeated Germany. These talks, called the Cripp’s Mission, failed and the British Government imprisoned Gandhi and most of the other Indian leaders for the rest of the war.


However, Indian patience was wearing thing and in 1946, after the close of the war, the Royal India Navy mutined against the British inspiring similar revolts among the Air Force and the police. These rebellions effectively made British rule in India impossible and the British government agreed to grant India Independence as of midnight on the 15th August 1947 when President Nehru took power in India for the first time in nearly two hundred years.