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To what extent was independence a gift from Britain Essay

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On 14 of August 1947, Prime Minister Nehru spoke of the handover of power being ‘a moment… in history, when we step out from the old to the new’. This message, coming from one crucial in the independence movement, unsurprisingly carries connotations of Independence coming through the actions of Indians, with a sense of growth alien to British interests and control. In contrast to the violent upsurge against the French in Indo-China, the reasons behind the annexation of India from the British Empire are both subtle and complex. While in a violent uprising it is relatively simple to discern that power has been taken, rather than given, the non-cooperation tactics employed in India clarifies little. The steady rise in pressure from Indian nationalists in conjunction with the apparently hurried withdrawal in 1947 have lead to a belief that Britain was effectively forced out of India. Whilst a possibility, this must however be regarded in relation to Britain’s changing objectives in an alien world to that of the early ideology of the Raj.

In terms of historiography, two divergent views can clearly be discerned. That of the neo-imperialist presents independence as a nurtured gift of British benevolence. Exponents of this theory such as Sir Percival Griffiths point out that, ‘other ruling powers have abdicated after defeat in war or as a result of successful insurrection, but it was left for Britain to surrender her authority… as part of a process of devolution which had been operating for some time.’ While as a superficial judgement this statement proves true, for Britain did never lose complete control, it does perhaps insinuate a control in withdrawal that is inconsistent with the hurried exit of 1947.

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The concept of a state abdicating control of an advantageous situation by its own volition makes little sense, nor is there any precedent for this policy before the First World War. Statements of Lord Hardinge in 1912 boldly spoke of the ‘permanence of British rule in India’1 and so the neo-Imperial stipulation of plans for ‘devolution, which had been in operation for some time’ cannot wholly be upheld, indeed it was not until 1942 that any affirmative time scale was introduced, or so claims the Nationalist interpretation. Here the Cripps offer of 1942 is seen as a ‘post dated cheque’ by the Indian scholar Sumit Sarkar2, and independence is presented as seized from Imperial Britain by virtue of irresistible pressure by congress and its allies. This too however must also be seen to be draw from only a partial reading of events.

As Griffiths points out, British control, though strained and tested, was not broken. Power was not seized, but granted by an act of the imperial parliament at Westminster. As such these polarized interpretations can be seen to reflect only half-truths, simplistic interpretations of a long and complex road to Indian freedom. In broad terms certain factors must be established and accepted, such as the vital and necessary role of a nationalist movement calling for independence. The claim that states do not willingly give up occupation must be considered in relation to possible economic motives, with the role of resistance within states leading to economic loss also taken into account. Due to statements such as that of Lord Hardinge’s in 1912, it must be conceded that Britain initially desired to continue the Raj before the First World War, however this cannot not be accepted ‘de facto’ there onwards.

One possible explanation for Britain’s withdrawal in 1947, which suggests independence was given willingly, is the diminishing importance of India and South East Asia. Both politically and economically Britain was, by 1947, deeply evolved in the Middle East. The oil-rich nature of many of these nations contrasted sharply with lack of Indian productivity for, as Lord Wavell specified, ‘India will never, within any time we can foresee, be an efficient country’3. This sentiment from the Viceroy in 1944 could be dismissed as simply seeking to save face except that it is from a private document to Prime Minister Churchill, and so can be seen as a reliable insight into the direction of British thought. The later mention of India possibly becoming ‘a running sore which will sap the strength of the British Empire’4 further suggests the lack of any economic basis for Britain holding onto India.

One of the primary reasons for this was that the prosperity and efficiency of the Raj rested with an Indian populace that, even by 1941, was only 7% literate. Not only is this figure inconsistent with the British desire for efficiency, when coupled with a lack of self sufficiency (on average between 1930-40 once every four years around three million tons of grain had to be imported to avert famine, 4.27 million in 19365) this clearly illustrates part of India’s economic weakness. Nevertheless, the fact that literacy was rising and these problems were not new, clearly indicates that economic inefficiency did not give immediate rise to any British need to quit India. Instead, the role of trade, particularly in the rapidly changing post war situation, is far more significant. Crucially it is here that major profit is made, and Britain’s dominance was in decline.

In contrast to Britain’s pre-war6 profits from cotton trade imports to India of �37.9 million7, the rise in imports from Japan and America (by some 400% overall8) can be linked with the decline in cotton trade profits to �27.2 million in 1919, a shift that Lawrence James terms as a ‘fracture’9 to the Anglo-Indian economic inter-dependency. This is perhaps the most accurate reflection but of greater interest is the �100 million of British War debt that the Indian Government assimilated in return for being able to tax Lancashire cottons.

This ability to obtain concessions from the British Government due to its financial constraints illustrates both Britain’s decline as a world power and thus India’s rising parity. Furthermore, the fact that after World War Two India passed from being Britain’s debtor to its creditor acutely reflects the gradual decline in the strength of Britain’s economic grasp over India. Coupled with the realisation that it was no longer necessary to have political control as a prerequisite of stable trade, the economics of Britain’s situation appears to make withdrawal beneficial.

The prospect of a repetition of the costly insurrection of 1942 and of Muslim separatism exploding into civil war threatened not only further financial loss, but also to expose the weakened state of the ICS10 and other agencies of coercion. As Ian Copland suggests, with its shrinking resources Britain may well have wished to extricate itself from its responsibilities in India11. Britain’s ‘steel frame’ of institutions such as the ICS, the Indian Army and the Police force had become seriously degraded, effectively loosening control over and within India. The move therefore to not fund a mass of inefficient bureaucracy whilst still profiting from trade, would be a shrewd one.

Declining profitability is perhaps the strongest evidence for independence being a gift from Britain, with India being a ‘net liability’ that had to be ‘cast off’ according to R.F.Holland12. Although the situation was not as extreme as that of the Congo, where Belgium simply withdrew after the 1958 Copper Crash, a downward economic spiral can be clearly discerned. Holland’s thesis cannot be automatically assumed for, as Anita Singh asserts, India was the ‘key to achieving equality with the superpowers and reviving her war torn economy’13.

Economically, Holland’s synopsis bears a closer relation than that of Singh to the dwindling profitability of India, especially in the post war climate, however it would be na�ve to see this as the only significant factor. While India’s economic role disputed, its importance surpassed its financial value for, as Howard Brasted assesses, ‘to have left would have accelerated the loss of Britain’s global influence’14. Holland’s point is not entirely moot and economic loss can perhaps be best seen as a contributory factor to independence, along with other reasons ranging from the United States led ideological shift away from imperialism to Labour’s priority of primarily focusing on Britain’s recovery. Whilst its value may have been that it softened a British resolve that was never predominantly altruistic, its significance is eclipsed by the strength of nationalism in India.

The oil rich Middle East was Britain’s primary concern in terms of economic recovery and the inefficiency of India only exacerbated this. Wavell’s condemnation of a possible future ‘running sore’ refers not only to this inefficiency, but also the increasingly detrimental effect of both peaceful and militant nationalists. In contrast with the 300 million Indians, there were only around 400,000 British in control. As Lawrence James suggests the Raj was ‘never a totalitarian state which could do what it liked when it chose’15. Throughout its history ‘the Raj operated under powerful constraints such as the costs of its armed forces and administration16,’ thus the importance of Indians in running the country as a whole correlates to their importance in economic factors. In this light, it cannot be said that nationalist pressures (as opposed to direct action by Congress which had a significant impetus with regard to taxation) had a large impact on the economics of Britain and India but economics can be seen to have greatly aided nationalism.

Stemming from the days of the East India Company rule, the free-trade policy favoured Britain and stifled the growth of Indian post war industry. Congress’ opposition to free trade was, as Brasted states ‘protectionism in all but name’17, and therefore appealed to Indian industry. This perhaps best highlights the value of the economy to the Indian nationalist movement and eventual independence. Excluding terrorist insurgence such as that of 1942, nationalist action rarely directly affected the British economically, but rather helped to arouse the Indian population. Lord Lytton referred to the Indian peasantry as ‘an inert mass and if it ever moves at all, it will not move in obedience to its British benefactors’18. Thus economic reform was used a platform with which to arouse the masses and make evident that it was Congress, and not the Raj, which spoke for the people.

Ghandi in particular must be assessed in this light as many of his policies attempted to mobilise Indians and sting the British, in some cases over economic issues. Both his Satyagraha of non-cooperation and salt tax march were attempts to defy British rule by disregarding financial laws to aid the nationalist cause. While non-cooperation illustrates the attempt to economically cripple the country, Ghandi’s salt tax march does perhaps reveal a more potent defiance. In reality, the salt tax march was rather bagatelle in terms of economic effect, only reducing East Indian Company profits by 2%. Instead, its significance lay in that the tax ‘symbolised the power and intrusiveness of the Raj19’.

President Roosevelt’s talk of a ‘prejudicial reaction on American public opinion’ not only if India is not allowed to secede after the war, but also if Britain is unwilling to ‘concede the right of self-government’20must be seen as significant when considering Britain’s economic and military dependence. This also reflects the discrepancy between Britain’s position and the ideological shift away from imperialism. The war against expansionist powers such as Germany and the post World War One promotion of self-determination in Europe had a dramatic effect upon the political psyche; particularly under a Labour government, the foundations upon which the Raj were built were becoming unfashionable.

The symbolic attacks were also designed to arouse Indians, bringing awareness to issues that Ghandi saw as repressive, and that the populace had accepted ‘de facto’. Initiatives, even down to Ghandi only wearing a homespun dhoti (loin cloth), sought to arouse the Indian peasantry by appealing to their needs thus generating growing political awareness. The nature of India’s eventual independence as an official handover makes evident the dominance and eventual success of this peaceable strain of nationalism.

Rather than seeing this as an emancipation of the Indian populace from a repressive Raj, it was instead an ignition of political thought on a grand scale. Consequently, by visually illustrating that he and Congress spoke for the common man the Raj could be undermined, thus negating the only justification for imperialist rule. Actions such as Nehru’s arrest after the salt tax march demonstrated repression but it was the widespread support that was crucial. The fact that it was an over emphatic response that caused an end to the initial 1922 Satyagraha, showed the ripe state of nationalist support far removed from the ‘inert mass’ that Lytton’s prophecy was based on.

Ghandi’s association and appeal to the common Indian through these policies led to Congress’ membership increasing from 100,000 in 1920 to over two million by the end of 1921. This rise in support was crucial in exerting political pressure on the British and led to the overwhelming majority of Congress in the 1936 elections. This delivered the tangible evidence for Congress to claim to speak for the Indian people instead of the Raj. A single party taking over 70% of the vote is overwhelming by modern standard however, its significance surpasses this obvious assessment.

Whilst marking the strength of Congress, it also testified to the unity of much of India, an area that could not even be conceived of as being one nation before British rule. This fact stands as a tribute to British rule however it was also part of its undoing. The unity that the Raj encouraged in terms of centralising and homogenising the police and other services gave rise to a sense of cohesion within India that had not existed before; it is only under these circumstances that nationalism could exist and so enable Congress to gain a 76% majority.

The general rise of mass protest would put vast moral and eventually economic pressure on Britain however threat of such large crowds turning to violence also appealed to some nationalists. While the 1857 Mutiny was a violent expression of anger, it is not until insurgence in 1905 that such actions were distinctly nationalistic. Similarly, events such as the 1913 assassination of Lord Hardinge, while reflecting Indian discontent, did not offer a serious threat to British rule. In contrast, the violence and delay to supplies in the 1942 ‘Quit India’ movement did seriously affect the Raj, so much so that the Royal Air force fired upon rioters. Similarly, the formation of the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose21 to fight with Japan reflected not only the depth of nationalist convictions, but also the sense of nationhood within India. This growth of violence made military suppression the only antidote. Indian nationalists and the British alike had however realised that, ‘the day has passed when you can keep India by the sword.’22

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 had demonstrated to the nationalists the resolve of some British to maintain control in India. Such actions united Indian opposition and considerably weakened the justification for British rule in India. Not only had the increasing association of Indians within the ICS weakened British control, oppressive policies were not in the nature of the Raj for the ‘British people would not consent to be associated with repression’23, as Lord Wavell specified. Instead of this physical control, political measures such as the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 were employed in satiate nationalist agitation. Claims of historians such as Griffith that devolution had been planned for some time can be seen in the 1917 British Secretary of State’s announcement of developing ‘self-governing institutions… of a responsible government’ however crucially such moves also talks about India as an ‘integral part of the British empire’24.

The Montagu-Chelmsford report reflection that nationalism will grow ‘and that in deliberately disturbing it we are working for her highest good’, is a frank admission that, as Anita Singh observed, British policy aimed to ‘put off independence to the kalends’25. The failure to dissolve nationalism despite concessions aimed at ‘satisfying the legitimate aims of all but the most advanced Indians’26 meant that reforms aimed at forestalling Congress pressure, instead intensified it. According to Ian Copeland this increasing demand led to constitutional reforms being used as a ‘bargaining chip’27 and this view appears to be an accurate reflection upon the development of British policy. Reforms such as the Government of India Act of 1935 and in particular the Cripps offer of 1942, were direct responses to nationalist pressures which as Wavell and the British realised by the end of the war had ‘laid down a course from which we cannot now withdraw’28. Such reforms cannot therefore be seen as British initiatives but rather as tactics to delay what, by the time off the mass civil disobedience of the 1942 ‘Quit India’ movement, had become inevitable.

Despite Churchill’s promise during the war that he did not intend to allow ‘the liquidation of the British Empire’, historians such as Howard Brasted have instead argued that ‘the war did in fact slow the transfer of power, and not cause it’29. This point is however hard to substantiate. It must be remembered that it was as late as1935 that the Government of India Act ensured the power of the Raj through the Viceroy’s power of veto over Indian legislation. There was perhaps a growing realisation before the war that India would have independence however all reforms up to this point suggested a slow transferral and there is little evidence to support a change in foreign policy.

Some reasons for the withdrawal in 1947 were also as ignoble as the previous methods of rule. Whilst the Raj had often employed ‘divide and rule’30 tactics, the dominance of Congress over the Princes, the threat of Muslim-Hindu violence and even the financial reasoning for pulling out can be seen as less than altruistic. To condemn Britain with regard to economics is unfair as it war forced into the situation by the war but moreover to condemn Britain leaving because of its declining control is unwarranted.

Far from being reproachable, to say that the Raj was forced to end by the growth of nationalism is not to automatically decry British policy. Congress’ dominance in the 1936 elections followed by their success in government, justified independence by demonstrating the capability of Indians to administer themselves. In ‘Macaulayesque’31 terms Britain’s task was complete, for Congress’ growth and success exploded any myths of British racial superiority. To say that this manner of leaving gives credit to the British is not to denigrate the achievement of Indians who did have to overcome the stalwart resistance of the Raj . The timing of independence, while aided by factors such as the war, was an Indian success and not a British gift. However, to end here is to wrongfully deny any British benevolent contribution.

In leaving, Britain left a considerable legacy of democracy and education that is as significant today as it was in 1947. Nationalist leaders such as Ghandi, Nehru and even Bose were all Oxbridge educated and perhaps even nationalism indirectly must reflect positively upon the British, for it is only due to the Raj that as vast an area as India developed a sense of cohesion. There are as many, if not more negative aspects of British imperialism (especially to modern day sensitivities) however Britain’s decision to withdraw denotes much of its rule. In contrast to situations such as France’s catastrophic attempt to control Indochina, Britain’s lasting legacy and indeed gift was that it left peacefully. The timing was not Britain’s however certain aspects and its very nature are to be appreciated for, as Trevor Royle32 suggests, ‘it is one of the Raj’s enduring strengths that when the time came to go they departed with exemplary grace and dignity’.


J.Brown – Modern India, OUP

Sir P.Moon, Wavell: the Viceroy’s Journal- OUP

Lawrence James, Raj- Abacus

R.F.Holland, European Decolonisation – Macmillan

Anita Singh, The Origins of the Partition, OUP

Lady Balfour, Personal letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, Longmans

Ian Copeland- India- Longmans

S.Wolpert, Morley and India – California University Press

T. Royle , The Last Days of the Raj – Cambridge University press

Sarkar, Modern India – Macmillan

The Economist, 5 April 1919

Modern History Review, Volume + No. 2, November 1990

Words- 2,987

Orig- no edit 3,385

1 J.Brown – Modern India, OUP 1985, p. 197

2 Sarkar, Modern India, Ch.6

3 Lord Wavell to Churchill, Oct 1944 – Sir P.Moon, Wavell: the Viceroy’s Journal, p. 94

4 Ibid.

5 Lawrence James, Raj – Part Five, chapter 3

6 World War I

7 1913-14

8 The Economist, 5 April 1919

9 Lawrence James, Raj – Part Five, chapter 5

10 Indian Civil Service, originally British dominated but increasingly ‘Indianised’

11 Ian Copeland , Raj – p.85

12 R.F.Holland, European Decolonisation

13 Anita Singh, The Origins of the Partition, OUP, Ch. 7

14 Modern History Review, Volume + No. 2, November 1990

15 Lawrence James, Raj – Epilogue

16 Ibid

17 Modern History Review, Volume + No. 2, November 1990

18 Lady Balfour, Personal letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, Longmans, pp.20-1

19 Lawrence James, Raj – Part four, chapter 2

20 Roosevelt to Churchill, 1942- in India by Ian Copeland, p.111

21 Leader of Congress in 1938 and Cambridge educated

22 Lord Chelmsford, 1919 – James, Raj, p.

23 Lord Wavell to Churchill, Oct 1944 – Sir P.Moon, Wavell: the Viceroy’s Journal, p. 94

24 Government Announcement of Aug. 1917, Ian Copeland- India, p.96

25 Anita Singh, Modern History Review, Volume + No. 2, November 1990

26 S.Wolpert, Morley and India, p.139

27 Ian Copeland, India, p.29

28 Lord Wavell to Churchill, Oct 1944 – Sir P.Moon, Wavell: the Viceroy’s Journal, p. 94

29 Modern History Review, Volume + No. 2, November 1990

30 Using Prince’s and Muslim pressure groups to counter Congress

31 Lord T. Macaulay, MP in 1830’s and altruistic promoter of education within India who’s thoughts generated much of Kipling’s work and set up a number of schools.

32 T. Royle , The Last Days of the Raj, p.281

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