India – The Broader Context of Colonialism

British withdrawal from India, 1945-1947: the broader context of colonialism

In 1919, in the immediate aftermath of World War One, the British Empire covered more of the globe than at any time in its history. The defeat of the Ottoman and German Empires meant that Britain added territories in the Middle East and Africa to its empire in the form of mandates given to it by the League of Nations.

But it is strangely ironic that Britain’s imperialist power also faced grave challenges at this time. For example, national identities had formed in many self-governing colonies which now pressed for greater clarity on their status as independent countries within the British Commonwealth.

Furthermore, the United States and the Soviet Union became more vocally critical of the practice of colonialism in the post-war world. Thirdly, despite the economic rewards that colonies brought, many people in Britain and other colonial powers began to question the expense involved in maintaining colonies as post-war economic realities began to bite.

In the 1920s, European colonial powers began to face growing opposition from within their territories, often led by educated elites who sought a role in local administration or even national autonomy. The war led to a reawakening of nationalist impulses in such places as Egypt and Ireland, with the former gaining independence from Britain in 1922, after a massive revolt in 1919. In 1922, the newly formed

Irish Free State was granted dominion status within the British Commonwealth. Significantly, the All- India Congress Party campaign for Indian independence gathered momentum under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi. Faced with mass opposition, Britain greatly extended Indian participation in government during the 1930s.

In the 1930s, tensions in the British mandated territory of Palestine were exacerbated by the increasing levels of Jewish immigration from Germany which followed Hitler’s accession to power. Britain, which had publicly committed itself to supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was faced with a widespread Arab uprising in 1936. Meanwhile, Iraq, over which Britain also exercised a mandate, gained its full independence in 1932. As the decade wore on, it was evident that the notion of international accountability and responsibility in colonial affairs was becoming increasingly acknowledged and accepted. Indeed, the League of Nations mandate* system was significant in this regard, as was the British notion of dominion** status which was clarified in the 1931 Statute of Westminster and which accorded significant levels of autonomy to dominion territories (not least in Ireland).

Other colonial powers now began to face mounting opposition. In North Africa, Italy experienced resistance in Abyssinia, while the French were faced with communist revolts in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, and also in Indo-China, where the creation of a nationalist guerrilla organisation, the Viet Minh, by Ho Chi Minh, would have significant implications for international relations in later decades.

Furthermore, the impact of the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression would be pronounced, with widespread unrest affecting many colonial economies. Changing patterns in world trade, rising unemployment and falling export prices led to strikes and riots in many colonial territories between 1935 and 1938.

By the end of the decade, then, the development of nationalism in Asia and North Africa and the emergence of new, radical nationalist leaders, such as Sukarno in Indonesia and Nehru in India, meant that European colonial empires were under great strain. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and its dramatic passage through the 1940s significantly undermined European colonialism.

Changing social, economic and political circumstances led to a major realignment of the nature of Britain’s relationships with its colonies. It was in India that this change was perhaps most significantly realised in the period between 1945 and 1947.

By 1945, India, for long regarded as the jewel in the empire’s crown, had high expectations of independence. Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of various non-violent campaigns aimed at British withdrawal from India, including a campaign to boycott British cotton imports in 1920-22, and movements of non-cooperation and civil disobedience in the 1930s.

When Clement Attlee led the Labour Party to power in 1945, he quickly set about negotiations on British withdrawal. This was partly due to the anti-imperialist ethos of his party. It was also due to British gratitude for Indian assistance in the war effort, in which some two million Indians served in the British forces or on the Allied side. But a further factor was Attlee’s fear that growing Indian impatience and discontent about the slow pace of the move to independence (caused in part by the war) and the dilution of plans for greater autonomy might lead to violent unrest. Attlee hoped to secure a united, independent India, where Muslims and Hindus would live together in one large state, linked to Britain with trade and military agreements. But it soon became evident that internal religious and ethnic tensions in India would make this difficult to achieve.

The Government of India Act of 1935 had conferred a measure of Home Rule on India, expanding on a similar act in 1919. Sir Stafford Cripps, a British cabinet minister, led a mission to India in 1942 which sought Indian cooperation in the British war effort in return for the concession by Britain of dominion status for India after the war. The rejection of Britain’s terms was followed by the Congress Party’s “Quit India” campaign. Cripps was also part of the 1946 British Cabinet Mission which proposed a federal union of India in the long-term, but with provision for autonomous provinces to evolve as well, thus allaying Muslim fears of Hindu domination. However, while tentatively accepting the federal proposal, the Muslim and Hindu sides remained deadlocked over the issue of Muslim autonomy. Lord Louis Mountbatten replaced Lord Wavell as Viceroy in early 1947. His background as both a royal and an experienced military administrator in South East Asia during the war suggested that he would be an effective representative in negotiations with the Muslim League and the Congress Party.

But despite Mountbatten’s skills, it soon became evident that partition was unavoidable. British and nationalist politicians were unable to agree a balance of power between a united Indian government and provincial governments. Put simply, Muslims would not accept Hindu domination, despite that fact that Hindus and Sikhs constituted the majority across the sub-continent. Consequently, it was planned that India would be split into Muslim-controlled Pakistan, and Hindu-dominated India.

The loss of India represented a damaging blow to British national esteem and morale, coming so soon after the end of the war, where initial euphoria in the wake of victory was being eroded by grim economic realities. But the consequences in India were, in the short-term, appalling. When Mountbatten announced that independence would happen ten months earlier than anticipated, on 15 August 1947, an estimated one million people were killed in sectarian violence as some 15 million Hindus and Muslims on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Religious and ethnic tensions were released in widespread violence as law and order broke down during the transfer of sovereignty.

While most of the 600 princely states that survived from the period of British rule formally joined either India or Pakistan in the days preceding British withdrawal, the inadequacy of the nation-state model of governance in accommodating many diverse regional identities quickly became apparent.

The state of Hyderabad, which had a Muslim majority, was forcibly integrated into India while in the late 1940s, the two states went to war over Kashmir, a state with a majority Muslim population but ruled by a Hindu dynasty, before UN intervention secured an uneasy truce. Pakistan itself was partitioned in 1971 when Bangladesh was created.

The issues and events that surrounded British withdrawal from India, together with the key
personalities involved, are the subject of investigation in this case study.

*Mandate: A League of Nations mandate refers to the legal status and administrative structure of territories transferred from the control of one country to another following World War One.

**Dominion: Former British colony accorded self-government. The Statute of Westminster of 1931, in simple terms, established the equality of dominions with the United Kingdom within the Commonwealth and enhanced the powers of dominions to make laws for themselves without having them imposed from London.

Background – Withdrawal from India

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