By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
In 1928, the Indian National Congress demanded that the British grant India dominion status, along the lines of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. If Britain refused to do so, the congress announced that it would encourage a massive civil disobedience movement. But, no dominion status was granted. Thus, in 1930, began a large-scale disobedience campaign which lasted four years. One of its most dramatic examples was Mohandas Gandhi’s Salt March.
Gandhi’s Salt March
For 24 days, Mahatma Gandhi—dressed in traditional garb—walked 240 miles to the coastal village of Dandi. This was intended to challenge the British colonial monopoly on salt and its heavy taxation of this household necessity. By highlighting the injustice of a law that disadvantaged indigenous households for the economic benefit of Britain, Gandhi again demonstrated the subordinate status of Indians in their own country.
Gandhi told Indian, European, and North American journalists that,
The British Government, powerful though it is, is sensitive to world opinion which would not tolerate repression …of civil disobedience …so long as disobedience remains civil and therefore necessarily non-violent.
Gandhi realized that non-violent protest put its practitioners in a morally superior position vis-à-vis the targets of their protest. The British colonial power was now on the defensive. Therein lay the revolutionary potential of nonviolent resistance.
Soon after, Gandhi was imprisoned. As thousands of his followers marched on the salt works, chanting ‘Long Live Revolution’, police and soldiers fell on them mercilessly. This aroused worldwide indignation.
The American reporter Webb Miller observed,
The spectacle of unresisting men being methodically bashed into a bloody pulp sickened me so much I had to turn away.
The British Empire suddenly didn’t look so civilized. The peaceable revolution was under way.
At one point, as many as 60,000 protesters were in prison for civil disobedience. And fissures began to appear in British resolve. In 1935, the British parliament passed a new Government of India Act. It gave Indians greater control over provincial governments and a share in the administration at the federal level. It wasn’t independence, but Indians had achieved a degree of self-government.
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The Second World War
At the same time, tensions between Hindus and Muslims rose to dangerous levels. Muslims accounted for one-quarter of India’s population and insisted on a role in administering a future independent state of their own. The idea to create Pakistan now emerged.
The conflict between Hindus and Muslims took a back seat with the outbreak of the Second World War. Britain expected subjects of the crown to support it in the war against Germany, as they had in the First World War. And on September 3, 1939, the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, declared India, as part of the empire, to be at war with Nazi Germany.
The unilateral statement didn’t sit well with many Indian leaders. But there was no consensus about how to respond. Many Indian soldiers spent the remainder of the war fighting for an empire from which they would soon declare independence.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contended that he had no intention of presiding over “the liquidation of the British Empire”. The British now offered the compromise resolution of dominion status in the empire instead. But Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the dominant factions in the Indian National Congress had moved beyond a cooperative union. They demanded independence.
Tensions reached a peak in August of 1942. In an address to the All India Congress, Gandhi made the case that Indians could no longer tolerate British imperialism.
Quit India Resolution
The congress passed the Quit India Resolution. It demanded an end to British rule the very next day. This didn’t sit well with the British, and the British authorities imprisoned Gandhi and other leaders of the congress almost until the end of the war. And Britain didn’t quit India.
The future governor-general of post-war Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, now criticized the Quit India campaign, and threw the support of his organization, the All-India Muslim League, behind the British war effort. In turn, the Muslim League’s influence reached new heights.
As World War II drew to a close in 1945, Indian soldiers returned home. Meanwhile, the British troops who remained in India were too few, and too tired of war, to defend British rule. Still, the challenge remained of how to handle the tension between Hindus and Muslims. Riots and bloody confrontations racked the land. A civil war seemed imminent.
Dividing India: A British Solution
In March 1947, in an effort to restore peace and order, British King George VI sent his cousin Lord Mountbatten to India as Britain’s last viceroy on the subcontinent. Mountbatten realized that a united India was no longer possible. And so, he worked out a plan to partition the colony into two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan.
Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s first prime minister on August 15, 1947. He famously stated, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom.”
Gandhi assumed no official role in the new Indian government, though his spiritual and political influence remained immense. He’d always stressed Hindu and Muslim unity. Now, while he celebrated India’s independence, he mourned its division as Pakistan became independent.
Common Questions about Gandhi’s Revolution and the Birth of Two Sovereign Nations
Mohandas Gandhi realized that a non-violent protest put its practitioners in a morally superior position vis-à-vis the targets of their protest. The British colonial power was now on the defensive.
Britain expected subjects of the crown to support it in the war against Germany, as they had in the First World War. And on September 3, 1939, the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, declared India, as part of the empire, to be at war with Nazi Germany.
Lord Mountbatten realized that a united India was no longer possible. And so, he worked out a plan to partition the colony into two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan.