A century of accumulated grievances erupted in the Indian mutiny of sepoys in the British army, in 1857. This was the signal for a spontaneous conflagration, in which the princely rulers, landed aristocracy and peasantry rallied against the British around the person of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah. The uprising, however, was eventually brutally suppressed. By the end of 1859, the “emperor” had been deported to Burma where he died a lonely death, bringing to a formal end the era of Mughal rule in India.
The Mutiny, even in its failure, produced many heroes and heroines of epic character. Above all, it produced a sense of unity between the Hindus and the Muslims of India that was to be witnessed in later years.
The rebellion also saw the end of the East India Company’s rule in India. Power was transferred to the British Crown in 1858 by an Act of British Parliament. The Crown’s viceroy in India was to be the chief executive.
The Freedom Struggle.
The British empire contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The British constructed a vast railway network across the entire land in order to facilitate the transport of raw materials to the ports for export. This gave intangible form to the idea of Indian unity by physically bringing all the peoples of the subcontinent within easy reach of each other.
Since it was impossible for a small handful of foreigners to administer such a vast country, they set out to create a local elite to help them in this task; to this end they set up a system of education that familiarized the local intelligentsia with the intellectual and social values of the West. Ideas of democracy, individual freedom and equality were the antithesis of the empire and led to the genesis of the freedom movement among thinkers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra and Vidyasagar. With the failure of the 1857 mutiny, the leadership of the freedom movement passed into the hands of this class and crystallized in the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The binding psychological concept of National Unity was also forged in the fire of the struggle against a common foreign oppressor.
At the turn of the century, the freedom movement reached out to the common unlettered man through the launching of the Swadeshi movement by leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose. But the full mobilization of the masses into an invincible force only occured with the appearance on the scene of one of the most remarkable and charismatic leaders of the twentieth century, perhaps in history.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a British trained lawyer of Indian origin from South Africa. He had won his political spurs organising the Indian community there against the vicious system of apartheid. During this struggle, he had developed the novel technique of non-violent agitation which he called ‘satyagraha’, loosely translated as moral domination. He was thus heir to the ancient traditions of Gautama Buddha, Mahavir Jain and emperor Ashoka, and was later given the title of Mahatma, or Great Soul. Gandhi, himself a devout Hindu, also espoused a total moral philosophy of tolerance, brotherhood of all religions, non-violence (ahimsa) and of simple living. He adopted an austere traditional Indian style of living, which won him wide popularity and transformed him into the undisputed leader of the Congress. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, “He was a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take a deep breath” and revitalized the Freedom Movement.
Under his leadership, the Congress launched a series of mass movements – the Non Cooperation Movement of 1920 -1922 and the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. The latter was triggered by the famous Salt March, when Gandhi captured the imagination of the nation by leading a band of followers from his ashram at Sabarmati, on a 200 mile trek to the remote village of Dandi on the west coast, there to prepare salt in symbolic violation of British law.
These were populist movements in which people from all classes and all parts of India participated with great fervor. Women too, played an active role in the struggle. Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali and Bhikaji Cama, to name but a few, inspired millions of others to take the first step on the road to emancipation and equality. In August 1942, the Quit India movement was launched. “I want freedom immediately, this very night before dawn if it can be had.’.. we shall free India or die in the attempt, we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery”, declared the Mahatma, as the British resorted to brutal repression against non-violent satyagrahis. It became evident that the British could maintain the empire only at enormous cost. At the end of the Second World War, they saw the writing on the wall, and initiated a number of constitutional moves to effect the transfer of power to the sovereign State of India. For the first and perhaps the only time in history, the power of a mighty global empire ‘on which the sun never set’, had been challenged and overcome by the moral might of a people armed only with ideals and courage.
India achieved independence on August 15,1947. Giving voice to the sentiments of the nation, the country’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we will redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance …. We end today a period of ill fortune, and India discovers herself again.”
The progress and triumph of the Indian Freedom movement was one of the most significant historical processes of the twentieth century. Its repercussions extended far beyond its immediate political consequences. Within the country, it initiated the reordering of political, social and economic power. In the international context, it sounded the death knell of British Imperialism, and changed the political face of the globe.