Indian National Movement

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Indian National Movement

India's movement toward independence occurred in stages prompted by the inflexibility of the British and, in many instances, their violent responses to peaceful protests. Many attribute the Indian Revolt of 1857 (known by the British as the Sepoy Mutiny) as the first battle in the struggle for Indian independence.

The 1857 Indian Revolt revealed the miscalculations of the British in understanding the social and cultural issues important to Indians. Indian soldiers called sepoys (from the Hindi sipahi) grew increasingly uncomfortable with the British encroachment on India's states and provinces as the English East India Company expanded its influence in the region. In addition, poor wages and harsh policies made nationals increasingly tired of the British presence in India.

Moreover, many of army's regulations were perceived by Indians as attempts to Christianize the Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim sepoys. Tensions came to a head when the British began using animal fat (from pigs and cows) to coat cartridge shells. Although steps were taken to correct the situation, distrust grew between the sepoys, who were vegetarians by religion, and the British, culminating in 1857 in the sepoy revolt.

In 1885, the Indian National Union was formed, which became the Indian National Congress and had as its goal the moderate position of seeing more locals in political representation. The Indian National Congress (INC) was created to help ease the tensions in the British relationship with Indians after the Sepoy Mutiny. In the beginning, the INC did not contradict British rule, but in the face of increasingly egregious acts by the government, the INC came to identify with the independence movement. The INC would dominate Indian politics and house many of the early leaders of the independence movement including Gopal Krishna Gokhale, leading those in favor of dominion status and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, leading those who saw self rule as the only option. Throughout the impendence movement leaders emerged from among the Congress' membership including Mahatma Ghandi, the leader of the non-violence movement, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the new nation.

The INC is the oldest political party in India. Originally the organization was made up of upper middle-class, often Western-educated men, who represented a political class of Indian civil servants invested in the interests of India. Although the first female prime minister of India, Indira Ghandi (1917–1984), came from the Congress party, women's participation in the independence movement was not in formal party membership but rather by support of campaigns led by the party such as the move to make and wear homespun cloth rather than buying imported fabric. The Indian National Congress began to clamor against British economic policies and demand independence in exchange for support of the British during both World Wars. Prior to entering World War II (1939–1945), the Congress attempted to negotiate postwar independence as precursor to Indian involvement. They were denied, the party outlawed, and its members jailed. After World War II the demand for self rule became especially strong because the prospect of dominion status no longer appealed to those who thought India had earned the right to self rule by troop support in both international wars.

Two factions developed within the INC that were defined by their stance on British rule in India: a moderate one that hoped to attain rights through negotiation and talks, and a revolutionary one in favor of agitating for rights through physical, and if necessary, armed resistance. The split deepened over time as the revolutionary faction led by Subhash Chandra Bose (1897–1945), one of the leaders of the leftist wing of the Congress party and president of the Congress from 1938–1939, argued that military action was the only way to ensure freedom. The other faction, led by future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), felt that socialism was a necessary element in the forward movement of a national identity. Bose wanted the INC to push for immediate British withdrawal from India, an idea opposed by moderates within the organization. His insistence on extreme measures resulted in his stepping down from office and a ban on his further election. Bose later organized a countermovement in the Indian army when, without consulting Indian leaders, the British declared India to be a warring state during World War II.

The INC served as a clearinghouse for all who supported independence from Britain before various splinter groups and factions formed. Although the INC was founded to include all Indians, the organization came to be seen as representative of Hindu rights, and Muslim Indians broke away to establish a new political organization, the All India Muslim League, in 1906. In later independence discussions, the fears of under-representation by Muslims led to pleas to protect Muslim rights, and eventually to create the nation of Pakistan.

The split in the INC was eased under the influence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) in 1920 when he became party leader. Gandhi, a lawyer by training, had been educated in London and had worked in South Africa, where he used nonviolence and noncooperation strategies to resist British rule. The British refusal to acknowledge him as a full citizen in South Africa contributed to the development of an anticolonial identity in Gandhi before his return to India in 1914. In a climate steeped in tradition, spirituality, and symbolism, Gandhi was an ideal figure around whom the political drive toward independence could congeal.

In the Indian National Congress, Gandhi turned to his previous experience in South Africa to establish the ground rules for the movement toward Indian independence. Other important INC figures included Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India's first prime minister in 1947 and served in that office for eighteen years. Nehru's father, Motilal Nehru (1861–1931), also became a leader in the INC and the independence movement after he was educated in England and returned to India to practice law.

The push for independence occurred in three interconnected stages: the noncooperative movement, the civil disobedience movement, and finally the "Quit India" movement. None of these stages were rigidly defined; they naturally flowed into one another as a result of contemporary events. The foundational principles of the noncooperative movement included resisting the British by not buying imported goods, refusing to pay taxes, and not working for the British, rather than violence as a means of gaining independence.

A major turning point occurred in March 1930 with the Dandi March, which sparked the civil disobedience movement. In what many consider a stroke of political savvy, Gandhi chose the British taxes and regulations on salt as the issue around which to stage a protest. Every Indian, whether aristocrat or peasant, knew the value of salt, which was used as a preservative. Gandhi's highlighting of the British monopoly on salt production helped showcase the issue of native choice in daily life. In a strategic move, Gandhi and seventy-eight supporters undertook a twenty-three-day journey by foot to Dandi, a coastal region where salt was abundant. Upon their arrival, Gandhi made natural salt, thus violating the British law that only imported salt could be used or purchased. Illegal salt was being made all over the country, and many Indians, including Gandhi, were being imprisoned for doing so. Salt thus became a symbol for the injustice and oppression of the British Empire. After the Dandi March, the entire nation became more aware of the fight for sovereignty from British rule.

In 1942 Gandhi announced the "Quit India" campaign. Backed by the INC, all thoughts turned toward eliminating the British presence in India and establishing self-governance. The issuance of the declaration resulted in the British government outlawing the Indian National Congress and in the subsequent arrests of INC leaders, including Gandhi. The public fray between the INC and the British brought the Quit India campaign into prominence across the country, and resistance grew.

When the British conceded independence to India, it came with such swiftness that many of the unresolved tensions were swept aside, only to come bursting forth later. Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900–1979), the last viceroy of British India, who was in good standing with Nehru, granted the demands of the Muslim League to create a separate state, Pakistan, for Muslims. Increasingly uncomfortable in Hindu-dominated India, many in the Muslim League had agitated for the formation of a separate Muslim state. At the time of his assassination in 1948, Gandhi opposed the partitioning of India, but the speed of independence overshadowed such concerns. Violence ensued as Hindus attempted to cross newly created borders into India, while Muslims fled to Pakistan, resulting in many deaths and clouding India's long-awaited freedom from the British Raj.

see also Empire, British; India, Imperial; Indian Army; Indian Revolt of 1857; Sepoy.


Chandra, Bipan. India's Struggle for Independence, 1857–1947. New Delhi: Viking, 1988.

Coward, Harold, ed. Indian Critiques of Gandhi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Low, D. A., ed. Congress and the Raj: Facets of the Indian Struggle, 1917–47. London: Heinemann, 1977; 2nd ed., New Delhi and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Moore, Robin James. The Crisis of Indian Unity, 1917–1940. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

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Indian National Movement

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