Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why did British leave ? The Story of Indian Independence

It's truly said a victory has thousand fathers, but a defeat is an orphan !!  As decades pass and very few left with clear memory of sequence of events, what would have been clearly dismissed as propaganda in another era has now a better chance of success. 

Every interest group is keen on explaining away events in a way it best suits them. The bigger the event and momentous the victory the bigger is the distortion.  

1) If you read Pakistani History World War 2 would be the only cause of Indian Independence. Muslim league's own contribution to Freedom struggle was minimal and negative so they necessarily have to undermine the Indian freedom struggle. 
2)  If you read British history, there is never much talk of Indian Freedom. Emphasis is on transfer of power to the colonies and the white man's burden and the good they did.
3)  Within India, several right and left wing groups groups never participated in the quit India movement. The Muslim league and the Hindu Mahasabha in fact very actively collaborated with British for power during quit India. As matter of fact Hindu Mahasabha even collaborated with Muslim League in formation of coalition ministries in Sind and Bengal, and Savarkar supported and appreciated this move of Hindu Mahasabha. 

There are several books that detail the events in the 1940s, but VP Menon's book on transfer of power in India is a must read in my view. VP Menon was Sardar Patel's right hand man in integrating the princely states in India and was intricately involved with the government both British and Indian from 1940s. As he worked for the Viceroy too before independence he was privy to the internal communication among the British and the British and the Indian leaders. 

Several myths such as Naval mutiny and INA trials miraculously  leading to independence is abundantly clear in it. At best it is like attributing the victory to night watchman who happens to score the winning runs or plays a  late cameo without concern to all those who setup that stage.

The link to the book:

The talks for transfer in power had began in earnest as soon as the Labour government came in power in Britain at the close of the world war 2 well before the INA trials. It was one of the stated manifesto goals of the Labour party before elections to reach a settlement with the Indians. The moment they were in power it was never so much a question of if and when, but only a question of how given the complexities of Muslim league, congress, princely states and the nature of British engagement if any that should remain. ( Besides the protests against INA trials were largely organized by socialist faction of Congress under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan, so if protests against INA trials were a cause, than JP should be credited more than anyone else.)  

Coming back to the question, on why British left there is no one single cause, event or individual which can be attributed as the sole cause, but a series of factors and events. I enumerate 3 major factors the way I see it (not necessarily in order of significance):  

1) India was no longer a profit center for the British.
I think this is a perspective many lack, on how much India had become a liability for the British rule. One often hears of argument of World war 2 and the economic crisis Britain was in as the major cause of freedom and so forth.

The argument of world war 2 and corresponding economic crisis is at best incomplete. For if I am facing bankruptcy I will get rid of my liabilities and not my cherished assets or profit making units. So implicit in the argument of world war 2 as the major cause of freedom is the assumption that India was already a liability. But how and when did India, the jewel in the crown and that source of prestige and power became such a liability ?

Swaminathan Aiyar, the fianancial editor of Times of India, provides an answer in this article published in 2003. This is worth a read:

The key argument:

Historically, conquered nations paid taxes to finance fresh wars of the conqueror. India itself was asked to pay a large sum at the end of World War I to help repair Britain’s finances.

But, as shown by historian Indivar Kamtekar, the independence movement led by Gandhiji changed the political landscape, and made mass taxation of India increasingly difficult. By World War II, this had become politically impossible.

Far from taxing India to pay for World War II, Britain actually began paying India for its contribution of men and goods. Troops from white dominions like Australia, Canada and New Zealand were paid for entirely by those countries, but Indian costs were shared by the British government. Britain paid in the form of non-convertible sterling balances, which mounted swiftly. The conqueror was paying the conquered, undercutting the profitability on which all empire is founded.

Churchill opposed this, and wanted to tax India rather than owe it money. But he was overruled by India hands who said India would resist payment, and paralyse the war effort. Leo Amery, secretary of state for India, said that when you are driving in a taxi to the station to catch a life-or-death train, you do not loudly announce that you have doubts about whether to pay the fare.

Thus World War II converted India from a debtor to a creditor with over one billion pounds in sterling balances. Britain, meanwhile, became the biggest debtor in the world. It’s not worth ruling over people you are afraid to tax.

So if Britain’s economic crisis played a role in India's independence, it emphasizes the importance of Indian freedom movement and not undermines it.

2) Mass awakening in India: Slowly it was becoming impossible for them to govern. By 1940s nation has a whole had become extremely restive. There was a very real fear of the them loosing complete control. Each successive wave of protests was stronger than the prior years.  During the quit India movement there were districts where parallel governments were formed and British had no say left. There is fundamental truth in Gandhi's oft repeated saying "The power of the rulers is derived from the obedience of its subjects". In the end 100 thousand white man cannot rule the subcontinent, if the Indian people simply did not cooperate with it.

 3) Evolution of the British opinion: It would impossible to peacefully transfer power if British public opinion was in not in favor or at the least indifferent to it. So ethical/moral reasons were also a part of the reason of British leaving India and the entire decolonization process was actually effected by it. For this one has to observe the steady change in the British political landscape and public opinion over the years. The political landscape in Britain had changed significantly by late 1930s and early 40s. and there was a large body of opinion which was anti-imperialist in its outlook and sympathetic to Indian Independence. It was no longer a political suicide to grant independence to India. Our Independence movement had definitely helped bring about this imperceptible change. The evolving stance of major members of the Labour party was decidedly in favor of self rule for the colonies by late 1930s. 

George Orwell, one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century and more of a critic of Gandhi, has raised this question "On the other hand, this (freedom to India) was done by a Labour government, and it is certain that a Conservative government, especially a government headed by Churchill, would have acted differently. But if, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi's personal influence?".

Bertrand Russel chronicles the feeling of average Britisher here:
Take, for example, the "battle" which occurred during the campaign against the salt tax, which was described by an eyewitness, Webb Miller, in an account of which the following is a summary: "The raid which Gandhi had planned on the salt-pans at Dharasana was now carried out by 2,500 volunteers, led by his second son, Manilal. Before they advanced, Mrs. Naidu led them in prayer and appealed to them to be true to Gandhiji's inspiration and abstain from violence. `You will be beaten, but you must not resist, you must not even raise a hand to ward off blows.' Round the depot a barrier of barbed wire had been erected and a ditch dug. As the first picked column of the volunteers went forward, police officers ordered them to disperse; they still advanced in silence. Suddenly scores of police fell upon them and rained blows on their heads. Not one man so much as raised his arm to fend off the blows. Soon the ground was carpeted with the prostrate bodies of men writhing in pain, with fractured skulls or broken shoulders, their white clothes stained with blood. Then a second column advanced, without wavering, knowing well what awaited it. There was no struggle; the volunteers simply marched forward until they, too, were struck down. Now the tactics were varied. Groups of twenty-five men advanced, sat down and waited. As they sat, the enraged police fell upon them, beat them on the head and kicked them in the abdomen or the testicles. Some were dragged along the ground and thrown into the ditches. Hour after hour this went on, while stretcher-bearers removed the inert, bleeding bodies. Over three hundred casualties were taken to hospital with fractured skulls and other serious injuries: two died. Mrs. Naidu and Manilal Gandhi were arrested."
This sort of thing filled every decent English person with a sense of intolerable shame, far greater than would have been felt if the Indian resistance had been of a military character.
There was, of course, also an opposite effect. The police and some of the British authorities in India were rendered furious as a reaction from their own shame, and became more brutal than they would have been against less passive opponents. But this was not the effect that was produced at a distance by those who read of what was being done. English people who were not familiar with India, and had no direct financial interest in maintaining the British raj, felt that something must be done to put an end to such atrocities. General Dyer, who at Amritsar ordered soldiers to fire for ten minutes upon a packed, peaceful mob, unable to escape, killing many and wounding many more, was recalled, and a Conservative Government even went so far as to deprive him of his pension. It is true that he had a number of admirers who presented him with a large sum of money and a Sword of Honour, but this did not represent average British feeling. People who were neither exceptionally rich nor exceptionally brutal began in the end to feel that if British rule could be preserved only by such methods, then it was not worth preserving.

In short reasons for decolonization were growing resistance in the colonies, changing moral perceptions in the west, and reduced economic incentives in holding on to the empire. 

Many countries for which the Indian subcontinent was the supply base (countries in south and southeast Asia), got their freedom at about the same point as we did mainly because having a standalone base for the smaller countries did not make sense and shifting perceptions in British public opinion which made this possible. Many had their own freedom movements. Some like Kenya and other African countries had to wait longer.


Anoop Shetty said...

hey, good one swapan

Abraham Yeshuratnam said...

Gandhi could not win any success in South Africa because the government was unyielding. Nelson Mondale was thrown into jail and he had to remain several years as prisoner. During his periodical visits to India from South Africa, Gandhi was surprised to find the liberal atmosphere in India. Apart from press freedom, the British were training Indians in self government after passing the Act of 1915. So Gandhi abruptly left South Africa and launched his political career in India. The liberal British made him a hero by giving lot of publicity. Labour Party in England was also supporting Gandhi. Several measures were passed to help India to become free. Even without Gandhi, India would have become free. Was there a Gandhi in Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore? Gandhi foolishly injected religion into politics, and this led to the partition of india. If Gandhi had not gatecrashed into Indian politics, Jinnah would not have asked for Pakistan.

Unknown said...

It's true to some extent but we may have differences with his way but he became the leader of masses with the help of Britain. Actually the Gujratis are most clever persons and they know how to project a little work on ground as major on screen, the way Modi is doing these days.

Unknown said...

It's true to some extent but we may have differences with his way but he became the leader of masses with the help of Britain. Actually the Gujratis are most clever persons and they know how to project a little work on ground as major on screen, the way Modi is doing these days.

Dhaval Deolasi said...

British prime minister Lord Clement Atlee who gave independence to India clearly said that Gandhi’s non-violence movement had next to zero effect on the British. Former Chief Justice P.B. Chakrabarty of the Kolkata High Court who had earlier served as acting governor of West Bengal, had a prolonged discussion regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India with Lord Atlee when he spent two days in the Governor’s palace at Calcutta during his tour of India in 1956. His direct question to him was that since Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Then, he asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi’s influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Atlee's lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, “minimal".

Unknown said...

Nice post

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