Britain in India: World War I through the 1960s

Marykathryn Huffman
(mar. Gough)
4/24/06 Prof. Bratt
STBR 372 Essay #3

By 1914, India had long been subjected to the harsh treatment of Imperial Britain, a country used to enforcing their rule militarily. India’s population was used heavily and thoughtlessly in the wartimes of the early twentieth century. This was in part because the empire, when it entered World War I “covered a quarter of the earth’s land surface and had a population of 425 million of whom 366 million were coloured, and of these, 316 million lived in India” (353, James). Racism ran rampant in the fighting ranks. Government discrimination was highlighted by the circumstances, as the British tommy was trusted and admired, the independent Australian soldiers despised, and the coloured were distrusted and disrespected (354-5, James). Convinced even yet of their superiority, the British “ruthlessly exploited [India’s manpower] to… [support] the imperial armies on every front” (353, James).

Instituting British education for Indians in India had had the ‘undesirable’ by-product of nurturing in the nation as a whole a deepened and more informed desire for self-government (414-415, James). As Indians began to lay hold of the intellectual tools now necessary to legitimately lay their case on the table and be heard in their own society, Britain entertained their plea — to an extent. During World War I, India threw itself into the war against Hitler with vigor and sincerity, providing both men and money for the Imperial army. Britain’s ‘thank you’ was a commitment “to policies designed to set India along the road to ‘responsible government’ within the empire. Originally the promise had been for ‘self government’ but Curzon had objected” (415, James). The British majority just didn’t believe that India could create, support, or maintin peace on its own if given ‘self-governement’. India was a nation split by the ancient and often explosive tensions existing between Hindus and Muslims, and some would have said that the British “cynically exploited racial and religious antipathies in order to ‘divide and rule’ ” (412, James).
From about the year 1919, Gandhi “was the conscience of the [Indian National C]ongress, [and] wished all Indians to remain a simple folk, …encourag[ing] them to cultivate the agrarian virtues which he believed would regenerate India” (413, James). Gandhi tried to limit violence coming from the popularization of his resistance, but in 1922 he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison, though he was then released two years later for health reasons ( After several more imprisonments and releases — and his famous fast unto death — Gandhi officially resigned from congress in 1933, though he still unofficially retained his importance and position to a degree ( The Muslim League, on the other hand, was led by Dr. Muhammad Jinnah, and while in 1919 the League worked with the mostly Hindu Congress to a large degree, the more powerful the Congress became the less the League trusted them. In the ensuing two decades, they became more and more antagonistic to a whole-India solution, and worked towards partition and the granting of Pakistan as their own independent Muslim state (423, James). Relations between Hindus and Muslims were so strained in the late 1920s that even a simple argument between two young boys quickly escalated into a violent ten day riot (413-4, James)! Salman Rushdie portrays this general phenomenon very well in several scenes of his novel, Midnight’s Children. Because of this explosive tension, Nehru and others considered religion “India’s greatest bane” because of the “dogmatism and narrow-mindedness [it fostered]” and the way it set the stage for the violence and discrimination that discredited them as one unified, responsible people (413, James).

In 1919, on April 13th, was the Amritsar Massacre — Rushdie has a stunning treatment of the Massacre in Midnight’s Children as well. In this tragic act of controlling violence, 379 people were killed and 1200 were wounded — and punishment of the British general responsible was both ‘belated and mild’ ( Close to Christmas that year, the Government of India Act introduced new reforms that showed some amount of success here and there, but the amount of responsibility actually laid on Indian officials was still minimal and very controlled ( During World War II, India found itself trying (in the footsteps of WWI Ireland) to undermine British imperialism and get around it where possible. As James points out, “divisions over what, if any, part it ought to play in India’s struggle against Naziism and fascism contrasted with Congress’s determination to use the war as a chance to squeeze concessions from Britain” (424, James). However the moral factors in Britain’s involvement in the war (i.e., fighting a despicable form of government) made it difficult for India to throw itself very strongly against the empire. On August 8th of 1940, Britain had offered India ‘partnership and a new constitution’ once the war was over, but India had refused, demanding immediate independence and holding to that demand when the war ended; unwilling to receive autonomy at Britain’s hand, they demanded instead that Britain leave India (the Quit India campaign) (
World War II caused a sort of civilian version of shell-shock which psychologically shifted the public opinion of the actual value of Imperialism. In part because of this shift, for the first six months of 1942 the United States began pushing Britain to come to some sort of terms with the Indian Congress. However Congress, Gandhi, and the League were all discredited by the obvious lack of internal harmony in India displayed by the Quit India campaign, and U.S. support for an agreement with India fell sharply. Always before, Britain felt much better about granting independence to a colony, if simply because they were already used to political life. But in India it was so new, and had its roots almost solely in and motivated by the desire to get rid of its foreign rulers, that Britain felt that it was leaving a shallow system that hadn’t gained any part of maturity yet (544-545, James). The definition of national maturity, however, is murky and convoluted. Governmental and political maturity cannot be richly ripe enough for naturalization until the nation within and its constituent individuals have reached a truly loving, creative maturity themselves. One must ask, does that ever happen?
Upon coming out of the war it became clear, in spite of Britain’s dubiousness and hesitancy, that Indian self-government wasn’t an Indian pipe-dream any longer — it was only a matter of time. Though the consensus of outside powers seemed to be that it might not be safe to leave governing in Indian hands, the “question [was no longer] of how long the raj would last, but how it was to be dismantled and what would replace it” (427, James). Thus, Britain rolled up its collective sleeves and set-to organizing a peaceful and advantageous withdrawal from India and the colonies in which each territory would take over government for itself, becoming independent and productive on its own (542-547, James). “Never was an empire dismantled with such a sense of hope for the future,” James states; the officials involved in the passing on of responsibility saw themselves more as ‘midwives’ than workers in a funeral home (542, James). Throughout 1946, the Indian population grew increasingly violent, and the British drew up plans to flee before any peaceful accord had been reached or official transfer taken place. But Earl Mountbatten (and his charming wife) arrived in February of the next year, throwing his whole being into an effort to close matters and hand rule over before the nation literally bubbled with blood (549-551, James). The date of independence was to have been in June of 1948, but in light of the threat of civil war and the efforts of the Mountbattens, India’s independence process was quickened and occurred on August 15th, 1947 (552, James). Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, had taken a special interest in withdrawal from India, and personally sent the Mountbattens to take over the situation. Attlee had made a few concessions he had disliked, as they were not in Britain’s favor, ultimately trade-wise and positionally because of the Cold War. One of these was the concession of a partitioned India, where Hindu and Muslim land would be parted with an official line, and each would operate independently of the other. Already the two groups were acting independently from each other. Inevitably the line could not be drawn such that Hindus and Muslims were really parted, and unfortunately many were left just slightly in the other religious group’s territory, feeling threatened and alone — however, many of these moved. Upon being granted independence, there was massive bloodshed in India– maybe 500,000 deaths, although no one knows exactly (553-554, James). Religious fear and hatred took the country by the throat and crushed millions of lives without restraint or compassion. The establishment of the two groups’ separateness refused to come about without a violent show of independence in the form of inflicting suffering and causing blood to flow. Even Gandhi was a victim of the wild changes in people’s hearts and the burning desire for deserved recognition that bubbled to the surface of the culture during this time (assassinated by a Hindu on Jan 30, 1948) ( Strife continued as the two new territories struggled over Kashmir and other states. The government continued to seek organization and individuality at once, with some measure of success, although the fighting between Pakistan and India took ages to come fully to a stop, even when the issue was taken to the UN for support ( A constitution was drafted, India declared a federal republic, and President Rajendra Prasad elected (January 26, 1950 – installed formally in 1952) ( Months later, the Delhi Pact “between Prime Minister Pandit Nehru and Liaqat Ali Khan [promised] fair treatment to each other’s minorities” ( Throughout the 50s, India worked on their relations with France, Portugal, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R., gradually becoming somewhat of a leader of the many small, anxious ‘post-colonial nations’ and other ‘nonaligned nations’ ( Britain contributed to India and several other nations in the 50s with inclusion in The Colombo Plan, which aimed to help the countries economically each with a portion of 8 billion pounds over the course of six years ( In October of 1955, a commission was set to reorganize the lines between states, as they had been drawn at independence by the British, according to regional, cultural, and ethnic ties expressed as simply as possible in linguistic similarities ( This was able to relieve the arduous task of the hatred intrinsic to it (to some extent), as identity was described in different terms than those exclusively designating one’s religious affiliation. This took up quite a bit of the rest of the 1950s with tousling over lines and identities in the political arena.

In the end, Britain finally did pull out of India, due to post-war circumstances and to India’s continued insistence, with many doubts and fears but without much choice. Some of their worst fears came true. Atrocities and acts of terror and horror occurred all over the newly-split nation — exactly what Britain had been attempting to police and soften and change in their presence in the country. It is possible that their presence only exacerbated over years the emotions pent-up in Indian hearts. It is possible that their presence there simply added another layer to the layers and layers of maneuverings and lies through which the country had learned to find their way through together toward the future, a foreign layer that exponentially complicated the process of learning each other. Perhaps the civility they sought to donate to India could have been found in the rich wells of heritage the people had, as Gandhi indicated, and if Britain had simply listened and explored India as itself they would have been able to help the country heal itself. No one can say now, and speculation can only help us figure ourselves and our own future out. But what we can say is that the Indian people were deeply, irrevocably changed, and left to work toward an integration of states that wouldn’t have ever before been believed.


James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage, 1995.
Stearns, Peter N. ed. VI. “The World Wars and Interwar Period”, “The Contemporary Period”. The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. 2001; Houghton Mifflin Company. < (ff)>. accessed between May 2006 – December 29th, 2006.
Weil, Simone; Panichas, George A. The Simone Weil Reader. Rhode Island/London: Moyer Bell, 1999.


Afternotes (no room at the inn…)

In the words of Simone Weil, in an essay titled ‘The Power of Words’, one might say that “in the end, a study of modern history leads to the conclusion that the national interest of every State consists in its capacity to make war. . . What is called national prestige consists in behaving always in such a way as to demoralize other nations by giving them the impression that, if it comes to war, one would certainly defeat them. What is called national security is an imaginary state of affairs in which one would retain the capacity to make war while depriving all other countries of it” (273, Weil). If that’s maturity, I’ll eat my hat! The definition of national maturity is very murky and convoluted. “Perfect love drives out all fear,” and governmental and political structures of any maturity cannot be richly ripe enough for naturalization until the nation within and its constituent individuals have reached a truly loving, creative seedling knowledge of themselves. It is not ripe until those who live in that structure have set their feet on the path toward that maturity ( i.e. not ‘toward that prosperity’), for the path toward maturity leads to ever-deeper love on as grand a scale as nations could wish. But the question remains, does that ever happen? And how?
My favorite example of this seedling self-knowledge and desire for maturity is the Velvet Revolution in ’89 in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Massive non-violent protest ( i.e., velvet) intimidated the Communists into handing the country over to the people, who then voted a playwrite and political dissident named Vaclav Havel out of jail and into the interim (and 1st) presidency — because they loved him, trusted him, and because he’d given them heart and courage.
Reading about Imperialism this semester and considering how its ethic played out, I can’t help but think that we have much in common with the British Empire’s particular blindnesses. Believing themselves merciful and full of the best intent, they were far better at analyzing others than at analyzing themselves and humbling themselves under God’s mighty hand. They much preferred to use their own ‘mighty’ hand as they felt He intended, for maximum order and ‘civility’ and comfort. Thus, the goal was so tightly bound to the fruits of the labor that people were not really present, Be-ing, eyes fixed on the Savior in trust and humility. Wrong propagates unnecessarily in those circumstances.
Weil writes something else in the same essay which feels relevant to me. She says, “It is clear that neither absolute dictatorship nor absolute democracy exists anywhere, and that every social organism everywhere is a compound of democracy and dictatorship in different proportions; it is clear, too, that the extent to which there is democracy is defined by the relations between different parts of the social mechanism and upon the conditions which control its functioning; it is therefore upon these relations and these conditions that we should try to act. Instead of which we generally imagine that dictatorship or democracy are intrinsically inherent in certain groups of men, whether nations or parties, so that we become obsessed with the desire to crush one or the other of these groups, according to whether we are temperamentally more attached to order or to liberty” (275, Weil).
Does that, or does that not sound like us? Many would say that western democracy ought to be spread, like gospel-truth, everywhere. And yet, doesn’t Democracy itself seem to operate like another imperial power in its self-propagating efforts? Curiosity and concern drive me to ask: what do we do but take pride in our newer, ‘better’ standard of living, carelessly subverting the ageless wisdom of other Peoples with capitalistic products and advertising? I’m the first to attest to the power of the word/image, both seen and heard — but also to the fact that we hog it, world-wide, wherever possible. That has consequences, fully intentional or no. Everywhere, we are smothering or invalidating identities with the very Ideas of Democracy itself because we’ve left empathy by the wayside and respond only to our own feelings about what we see. I keep finding myself mentally stamping those bumper stickers that say “God bless America” underneath with the words: “with humility and wisdom”. After all, isn’t it the meek who inherit the Earth? How could we be so pretentious and hard-nosed?
Perhaps promoting the Empire as a thing-in-itself was one of the main mistakes, and had that not been done, a more modest Britain would have resulted. What would the world have looked like then? Could Britain, with its talented and brilliant figures, have survived walking a tightrope rather than packing down dirt under their feet all over the globe? …Can we?
Who are we?

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