Was Britain divided about Indian independence, 1930-47?

Indian infantrymen on the march in France during the First World War, 1914. The British Indian Army saw service in the Middle East and East Africa, at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. 43,000 of its soldiers were killed and 65,000 wounded over the course of the war. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By 1857 the British East India Company had extended its rule over most of India (a term at the time that included the territory of the modern states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). However the Company`s control was badly shaken in 1857 by a rebellion led by Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The British suppressed the revolt ruthlessly and in 1858 the British Crown assumed direct control of India. The remaining third of Indian territory was ruled indirectly by client princes (both Hindu, Muslim and Sikh).

One of many ways in which India was central to the British Empire was in providing armed forces. Indian troops played key roles in many British campaigns. During the First World War (1914–18) over a million Indian soldiers fought on behalf of the British Crown. Moderate nationalists like Mohandas Gandhi of the Indian National Congress supported the British war effort in the hope that self-government might follow.

This hope proved to be unfounded and so protests demanding greater independence resumed. Nationalist opinion became more radical from 1919 after the British commander General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed crowd who’d gathered to listen to a political speaker during a religious festival at Amritsar in Punjab – an event that came to be called the Amritsar Massacre.

During the 1920s and 1930s the Indian National Congress challenged the legitimacy of British rule in India through a popular policy of nonviolent protest. Between 1929 and 1931 attempts to negotiate greater self-government for India across a wide variety of groups identified by the British and including Congress failed. Distrust between the Hindu-dominated Congress and the Muslim League grew and was sometimes exploited by the British as part of their traditional ‘divide and rule’ policy.

The campaign over Indian independence was waged in Britain too. During the 1920s and 1930s attitudes among some British people towards India began to shift. This was partly a result of Gandhi's protests (he visited Britain to campaign in 1931) and the work of other nationalist leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. At the same time, India stopped being as important to Britain's economy as it had been in the past. Also, Britain had given self-rule to the Irish Free State in 1921 and this made it harder to deny self-rule to India.

Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi with a police guard while touring London's East End, 19 September 1931. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Britain introduced a range of measures that gave more and more independence to India. The number of Indians who were eligible to vote was increased. Indians began to serve on the Council of the Viceroy and also got jobs as ministers in the government. By 1929 Indians were playing an important role in running their country.

It seemed that there was a step-by-step process towards greater independence for India. The Labour Party and the political Left generally favoured greater Indian independence. But many others were vigorously opposed to this process. Very prominent among these opponents was Churchill and he and his allies clashed bitterly with Conservative leader Baldwin over India, one of the key reasons why Churchill became an increasingly isolated figure in Britain in the 1930s (his ‘wilderness years’). Churchill and his supporters fought hard but unsuccessfully to block Baldwin’s Government of India Act in 1935. Under the Act, India was divided into self-ruling territories which were to be a united federation along the same lines as Australia or Canada. However, India didn’t have the same levels of independence as these countries.

As war in Europe looked more likely in the later 1930s there was less focus on India in Britain. Once war broke out, India more than played its part, contributing 2.5 million men and women in its armed forces and spending eighty per cent of its wealth on the war effort in 1943 and 1944. The war proved to be just as traumatic for India and its people as it did for so many other countries. There was a constant threat of invasion by Japanese forces. Around 25,000 Indians captured by the Japanese formed the Indian National Army and fought against the British.

In 1943 and ‘44 the province of Bengal was devastated by famine. While Churchill’s reputation as a war leader grew in Britain and most of the world, in India he was less well regarded. Leo Amery was Churchill’s Secretary of State for India and in his later memoirs he was very critical of Churchill’s attitudes towards India and Indians and in particular his failure to help the Bengal famine victims. At one point he claimed that Churchill actually hated Indians. We need to be careful not to accept Amery’s account as the whole truth as the two men disagreed a great deal. But there’s little doubt that the British reaction to the Bengal famine was inadequate. Some three million died from hunger and diseases related to famine. Indian cities were flooded with refugees. The British governor of Bengal censored the press, accusing them of exaggerating the situation. However, there was no hiding the fact of the deaths, nor that the British destroyed 50,000 small boats which could have helped ferry supplies because they feared the craft could be used by the Japanese. Although a new governor was appointed in October 1943 the damage was done. One of the key arguments in favour of British rule – efficiency and benefit of the ordinary people – was severely undermined by British actions.

Politics and the fight for independence didn’t end when the war started. In 1940, the Muslim League, fearing Hindu domination in an independent India, demanded the creation of a separate state of Pakistan to be carved out of Muslim-majority areas after the war. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress continued to campaign for an immediate British withdrawal and complete independence. They were imprisoned in 1942 and Gandhi went on hunger strike but was released two years later. Gandhi and fellow campaigners were probably encouraged by the fact that the USA in particular was very opposed to empires and colonies and British rule in India was a constant source of tension between the two allies. In order to pacify American concerns and to keep India on board in the war against Japan Churchill agreed to a declaration that after the war an elected body would frame a new constitution for India.

By the end of the war it seemed clear that independence was inevitable but there were still voices of opposition including Churchill. These opponents were largely drowned out, however. In 1947, a year earlier than planned, Britain partitioned its Indian Empire between the Hindu-majority dominion of India and the Muslim-majority dominion of Pakistan. Indian Princely States chose to accede to either India or Pakistan. Widespread atrocities were committed as thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fled their homes across the frontiers of the new states in the largest mass migration of the twentieth century. India and Pakistan fought a war over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Independent India became a republic within the British Commonwealth in 1950 and went on to become a successful democracy under the leadership of its first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, aligned towards neither world power blocs during the Cold War.

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

History Learning site brief overview of Indian history 1900 to 1947
The National Archives Case Study: The End of the British Empire in India
The National Archives: The Road to Partition 1939–1947
BBC British History in depth: British India and the Great Rebellion (of 1857)
BBC From Empire to Independence: The British Raj from 1858 to 1947
British Pathe Various newsreels relating to the history of India under the Raj
Churchill and Empire – Richard Toye, Churchill Archive
Churchill and Ghandi - Shabnum Tejani, University of London