Gandhi and Jinnah Jinnah and Gandhi in Bombay, 1944. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to the rose-tinted view of decolonisation, the end of British rule in India was marked by blunder and duplicity, writes Sean Ledwith

The two dominant nation-states of South Asia will celebrate 70 years of independence on 14/15 August. The peoples of India and Pakistan will rightfully recall a vast movement of insurgency that climaxed in 1947 to throw off the yoke of two centuries of imperialist plunder by the British Empire. The celebration will be tempered by bitterness, however, at the price of their respective freedoms. The hitherto single state of India, as ruled by the British Raj, was torn in two amid ferocious communal violence that caused up to a million deaths and saw another 15 million displaced.

The dominant view for the apologists of empire is that partition was inevitable as the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority had proved themselves incapable of living together in an independent state without British supervision. The historical reality is that the sectarian divide that mutilated the fight for Indian independence had been consciously encouraged by the British for decades; and that the struggle to overthrow the Raj had witnessed numerous examples of multi-faith unity that could have averted the disaster of 1947. Thanks to the lasting influence of Richard Attenborough 1982 film Gandhimost in the West perceive the movement for independence as being led primarily by the Mahatma and his largely rural-based protest movement. Less well-known is the crucial impact of urban strikes by the Indian working class, alongside mutinies by soldiers and sailors that dealt the death blow to the Raj.

Noxious nostalgia

Alongside these misconceptions stands the prevalent notion that British rule in India was generally benevolent and somehow a nicer version of imperialism than that practised by other European powers. This rose-tinted nostalgia is still evident in the perception of the British ruling class regarding the former ‘Jewel in the Crown’of their lost global empire. Joanna Lumley’s recent TV travelogue through India characteristically lamented the grinding poverty of millions in the country without acknowledging the direct responsibility of her ancestors for exacerbating their misery. Likewise, Christopher Nolan’s recent film Dunkirk noticeably failed to recognise the contribution of Indian soldiers to defeating the Nazis in WWII. Most British people remain completely unaware of the appalling famines and massacres that took place throughout the two centuries of colonial rule. The imperialist airbrushing of history means the atrocities of British occupation, such as blowing rebels out of the mouths of cannon or Churchill allowing three million to starve in the middle of WWII, are virtually unknown outside India.

Indian holocausts

Britain’ssupposedly nicer version of imperialism was, in reality, founded on rapacious degradation and exploitation of the sub-continent. When the British, in competition with the French, started to make incursions into India in the eighteenth century, the country actually had a higher level of manufacturing development under the Mughal Empire than any European state. At the start of that century India was the world’s biggest economy, about ten times the size of Britain’s, and accounted for about a third of global GDP. The Mughal dynasty, however, was on a downward trajectory and ultimately fell prey to the machinations of British traders, most significantly in the notoriously corrupt form of the East India Company.

From the mid-1700s, the EIC initiated an asymmetric economic relationship that enriched the British and caused regression on the sub-continent. India’s thriving handloom industry of the pre-Raj era was systematically destroyed and the country was converted into a captive market for textiles from Britain’s own accelerating industrial revolution. The generals and shareholders of the EIC forcibly took over the tax-raising powers of the Mughal princes and used them to accumulate vast profits for themselves and to plunge the countryside into extreme poverty. The British insistence in Bengal that the countryside be re-aligned to the production of cash crops caused a famine in 1770 that killed 10 million. Marxist historian Mike Davis has termed this and later similar events, the Late VictorianHolocausts,that have been largely erased by the collective memory of the West.


The Indian Mutiny of 1857 necessitated the winding up and the EIC and its replacement by direct rule by the British government, symbolised by the absurd declaration of Victoria as Empress of India in 1877 (a country she never set foot in). Marx preferred to label the uprising of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence to emphasise the emancipatory dimension of the conflict. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs rose up simultaneously against the injustices of the East India Company and fought the common enemy of colonial rule, underlining that there was nothing inevitable about the partition that would come almost a century later. This was the episode that witnessed the full extent of the barbarism the British army could inflict on an insurgent population. Apart from tying captured rebels to cannons and blowing them apart, the avenging forces of the EIC disembowelled prisoners and desecrated temples. Marx included reports from the British army in his account of the crushing of the rebellion:

An officer in the civil service, from Allahabad, writes: “Wehave power of life and death in our hands, and we assure you we spare not.” Another, from the same place: “Not a day passes but we string up from ten to fifteen of them (noncombatants).” One exulting officer writes: “Holmes is hanging them by the score, like a ‘brick’.” Another, in allusion to the summary hanging of a large body of the natives: “Then our fun commenced.”

Oriental barracks

Apart from necessitating the dissolution of the Company, the uprising persuaded the British to consolidate the familiar divide-and-rule tactics that would have tragic consequences in the run-up to independence in 1947. Sectarian regiments were intentionally created to undermine the possibility of another widespread rebellion overwhelming the colonial power. Colonial administrator, Charles Wood, bluntly outlined the plan:

I wish to have a different and rival spirit in different regiments, so that Sikh might fire into Hindu, Gorkha into either, without any scruple in case of need.

This re-configured Indian army became the backboneof the British Empire in the following decades, demonstrating a crucial capability for suppressing anti-imperialists rebellions in other locations such as Afghanistan and Egypt. British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, noted how India’s pre-eminent status in the empire became increasingly founded on this bottomless pit of military reserves: ‘a barracks in the Oriental seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them.’

Dragon’s seed

The partition that would ultimately unfold after WW2 had been cynically piloted by the British in Bengal at the start of the century as a direct response to the growing demands for independence. The Congress Party was founded in 1885 by middle class Indians with initially timid proposals for home rule within the British Empire. Even such limited reforms were unpalatable to the die-hard colonialists who came to dominate the upper echelons of the Raj. The official acting on the orders of Viceroy Curzon explained how the rationale of the 1905 partition was explicitly designed to undercut the electoral base of the Congress Party:

Bengal united is a power; Bengal divided will pull in several different ways. That is what Congress leaders feel; their apprehensions are perfectly correct and they form one of the great merits of the scheme… in this scheme… one of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.

Remarkably, the British were forced to abandon this prototype partition six years later due to opposition from both Hindus and Muslims. The notion of seeking to fragment the opposition was not jettisoned, however, and shortly before the outbreak of WWI, the British finally agreed to concede a democratic element in provincial elections. Once more, however, the colonial power planted the dragon’s seed of communalism by creating separate Hindu and Muslim electorates, ignoring the complex reality that areas such as Punjab and Bengal had been thoroughly mixed for centuries.

State terrorism

The trigger for an irreversible campaign for independence came at the end of WWIwhen another largely forgotten episode of British state terrorism took place in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. General Edwin Dyer ordered his troops to open fire without warning on a mixed crowd of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who had congregated to celebrate the start of a religious festival. After slaughtering about 400 people in cold blood, Dyer issued an order that Indians in the city should be made to crawl on their bellies as a sign of submission. Incredibly, the British ruling class were divided over the morality of Dyer’s atrocity; he was eventually forced to resign but not before the House of Lords passed the following motion:

That this Housedeplores the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer, and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of order in face of rebellion.

The horror at Amritsar provided the ballast for Indian independence to become a truly mass movement, uniting peasants and workers, rather than just the goal of a self-limiting middle class section of the native bourgeoisie, organised in the form of the Congress Party. Gandhi’s adoption of the outward appearance of an Indian peasant and his support for boycotts of British goods transformed the opposition to colonial rule into an authentic anti-imperialist struggle. Yet Gandhi’s insistence on non-violet resistance served to contain the radical potential for a social transformation that could have gone beyond the displacement of one ruling class by another.

Quit India

The notion of inevitable partition still looked fanciful just ten years before it took place. The Muslim League that would demand the creation of Pakistan in 1947 could only gain the support of less than 5% of the Muslim population in provincial elections in 1937. It was the crisis of British imperialism triggered by the outbreak of global war again two years later would set India on the tragic path to partition. The British army was routed by the Japanese in South East Asia in the early years of WW2, leading to mass disillusionment among the Indian soldiers who, for the second time in one century, had been forced to fight in a war for their imperial masters without being asked. One group of 40 000 Indian POWs being held by the Japanese agreed to participate in a possible invasion of British India, under the leadership of Congress dissident, Chandra Bose. Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ campaign, launched in 1942, made the long-term position of the British in the sub-continent totally untenable.

Once again, it was the duplicity of the British administration that undercut the potential for a unified anti-colonial opposition to develop fully. In contrast to Congress, the Muslim League had voiced support for the British war effort. After its disastrous electoral performance in 1937, the League had adopted anti-landlord populism in order to boost its support among the peasantry in the Punjab and Bengal. The British identified the revived fortunes of the pro-British Muslim League as an opportunity to fragment and weaken the oncoming tide of Indiannationalism. With Congress’ senior leadership behind bars for the duration of the war, the Muslim League was able to re-build its support and in elections in 1946, its support among Indian Muslims eligible to vote shot up to almost 80 percent.

Alternative path

Even at this point, however, there was a chance partition could have been avoided. The British foolishly decided to put on trial members of the pro-Japanese army. The outraged response from the population once again united all faiths and forced the trial to be abandoned. The incident provided the spark for a mass mutiny in the Indian navy that eventually involved 20’000 sailors across the country demanding immediate independence. One participant recalled that six ships harboured in Bombay

‘pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the three flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party …we came from widely different regions… belonged to Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh families. The years spent in the navy had made them – the ratings of the RIN – Indians.’

A general strike in support of the rebels gained the support of almost half a million people in the region. The episode demonstrated that even on the eve of partition the potential existed to avoid the catastrophe of splitting the state in two.

However, the mutiny and strikes belatedly persuaded the British independence was unavoidable and it was time to cut and run. In early 1947 Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, brought the date for independence forward by nine months. This left Congress and the League scrambling for influence in the new state. Jinnah, leader of the League, decided the voice of Muslims could not be guaranteed in an independent India and only at this point did the founding ofPakistan become inevitable. Congress leaders, including Gandhi, persuaded the rebels and strikers to abandon their mass action, in fear that they would inherit an armed rebellion from below. One imperial colony gave way to two capitalist states that would go to war with each other three times in the following decades. Unified resistance on numerous occasions before 1947 had demonstrated that India’s workers, peasants and servicemen could have forged an alternative path to freedom.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters