Indian nationalism

The main political party in India, the Indian National Congress (INC), had made major advances towards home rule between 1919 and 1935. They argued that should India be granted home rule it would govern India within the British Empire just as white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand had been doing for decades.

In 1937 there were national elections across India for the first time and the INC gained the majority of votes. Many Indians were hopeful that this would be the first step in eventual independence for India but Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939. This had major implications for India’s hopes for gaining independence because Britain relied heavily on India for soldiers - in fact Britain had one of the smallest armies of all the major European powers because they had always relied on the millions of men they could call upon from India. Britain had taken this important issue for granted and it would be a major factor in India’s eventual independence in 1947.

On 3 September 1939 the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared to the Indian people that Britain was at war with Germany which meant that India was also at war with Germany. The Indian politicians elected only two years earlier were not consulted and many Indians who held out hope that there was a future for India within the British Empire began to call for complete independence.

  • In protest at Lord Linlithgow’s announcement that India was also at war with Germany, all of the INC politicians who were elected in 1937 resigned from their positions.
  • The second largest party, the Muslim League, supported the war and encouraged Indians to volunteer.
  • The INC was determined to help Britain defeat Nazi Germany but on the condition that Britain granted India full independence after the war. Parliament refused and the leaders of the INC, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, were imprisoned for long periods during World War Two for organising illegal protests.
Photo of Indian soldiers at their arrival in England to fight in Europe – 1940
Indian soldiers arrive in England to fight in Europe, 1940

Despite general anger at British arrogance, many Indians volunteered to join the fight against fascism. However, at the same time in India there was growing anger at the harsh wartime laws and there were frequent incidents of British soldiers using lethal force to break up peaceful demonstrations.

Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948

Portrait of Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was a leading figure in the movement for Indian independence. In the 1880s he studied law in London and then went on to take up a post as a lawyer in South Africa in 1893.

In 1915 Gandhi returned to India from South Africa at the invitation of one of the leaders of the INC. Initially Gandhi refused to get involved in politics but the harsh methods used by the British authorities in India to keep control during World War One forced him to begin organising demonstrations, protests and boycotts. Many in India were growing angry at Britain’s refusal to hand over meaningful power to Indians despite hundreds of thousands fighting to defend Britain during World War One.

Gandhi promoted non-violent civil disobedience campaigns in response to the Amritsar Massacre. These campaigns continued until 1922 when Gandhi called them off due to his fear a non-violent solution could not be realised yet.

In 1930 Gandhi returned with his most ingenious protest, the Salt March. The British had been taxing salt in India for decades but this hurt the poorest people most. To show the world the injustice of British rule Gandhi marched to the coast with a growing number of people to symbolically collect salt from the sea without paying any tax to the British. This protest forced the British to recognise Gandhi as India’s most important leader. They invited him to London to begin negotiations on the Government of India Act that would introduce national elections and give more power to Indians.

In 1942 Gandhi launched his final campaign - the Quit India campaign. The aim was simple; Indians would make India ungovernable for the British and they would have no choice but to leave. While the British knew they could rely on American support in fighting the fascists in Europe and Japan, the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made it clear that American soldiers would not be sacrificed to save the British Empire. This agreement, known as the Atlantic Charter, signaled the end of Britain’s grip on India and in 1947 Hindu-dominated India (led by Nehru) and Muslim-dominated Pakistan (led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah) were granted full independence.

Ghandi at a glance:

Timeline showing the order of events involving Gandhi, which lead to the Government of India Act