Gandhi and the Nationalist Movement (1920-1948)

A Brief History of India. Editor: Judith E Walsh. 2nd edition. New York: Facts on File, 2011.

Even a handful of true satyagrahis [followers of soul force], well organized and disciplined through selfless service of the masses, can win independence for India, because behind them will be the power of the silent millions.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Satyagraha: Transforming Unjust Relationships through the Power of the Soul” (Hay 1988, 269-270)

Mohandas K. Gandhi led India’s nationalist movement from the 1920s to his death in 1948. Gandhi made nationalism a mass movement in India bringing rural Indians into the Congress Party through his unique combination of Hindu religiosity, political acumen, and practical organizing skills. Between 1920 and 1948 Gandhi led a series of campaigns against the British—the 1921-22 noncooperation movement, the 1930 Salt March, the 1942 Quit India movement—successfully mobilizing masses of urban and rural Indians in opposition to British rule. Gandhi’s 1921-22 campaign was a coalition of Hindus and Muslims, but in the late ’20s and ’30s communal violence, conservative Hindu intransigence, and Congress’s own misjudgments split Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League from the Congress movement.

In the end, it was as much the expense of World War II as Gandhi’s nationalist campaigns that ended British rule in India. But neither the British nor Congress or the Muslim League was able to devise a government scheme for a free India that would maintain a strong central government (an essential Congress demand) and yet provide protection within a majoritarian democratic system for India’s Muslim minority (the Muslim League demand). This failure meant that with independence in 1947 also came partition. The division of British India into India and Pakistan may have caused as many as 1 million deaths and made 10 million Indians refugees. Even as other Indian leaders participated in the detailed negotiations of Britain’s 1947 transfer of power, Gandhi worked tirelessly to stop Hindu-Muslim violence. He was assassinated in 1948 by a right-wing extremist who believed Gandhi to be too pro-Muslim.

The Economic Aftermath of World War I

World War I created economic hardships in India that lasted into the 1920s and were worsened by a poor monsoon in 1918 and an influenza outbreak that killed more than 12 million Indians. Prices rose overall by more than 50 percent between 1914 and 1918 (Sarkar 1983, 170). During 1920-22, rural conditions grew so bad that the Indian government passed legislation capping rents to protect large landowners from eviction. Poorer farmers received little help. Villagers on the edges of the Himalayas set forest preserves on fire in protest. Throughout the Ganges River valley peasants founded Kisan Sabhas (Peasant Societies) through which they organized protests and rent strikes against landlords. Congress took no action in these matters, unwilling to intervene in conflicts that might prove internally divisive while at the same time fearing to antagonize a middle landlord constituency that was a major source of support.

Labor strikes were also frequent in the early 1920s. Congress founded the All-India Trade Union in 1920, the same year that the Communist Party of India was founded by Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954). The Communist Party began to organize unions in India’s cloth, jute, and steel industries. There were more than 200 strikes in the first half of 1920 and almost 400 in 1921. By 1929 there were more than 100 trade unions in India with almost a quarter million members.

Gandhi and the Khilafat Movement

The noncooperation movement of the 1920s marked the start of Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian nationalist movement. After his return to India, Gandhi had attended Congress sessions annually, but his real entrance into Indian nationalist politics came only after the Amritsar massacre, the British violence that followed it, and with his support of the Khilafat movement in the 1920s.

The Khilafat movement began after World War I. British (and Allied) plans to carve up the old Ottoman Empire gave rise to a worldwide pan-Islamic movement to preserve the Ottoman sultan’s role as caliph (that is, as leader of the global Islamic community) and Islamic holy places in the Middle East. In India, the leaders of the Khilafat (the name derived from the Arabic word for “Caliphate”) movement were the Ali brothers, Muhammad and Shaukat. The younger, Muhammad Ali (1878-1931), had graduated from Oxford in 1902.

By 1920 Gandhi was president of the Home Rule League. He and other Congress leaders had reluctantly agreed to participate in the elections mandated by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, only to be outraged by the Amritsar massacre and the subsequent British violence in the Punjab. In 1920 the release of a British report on that violence further offended Congress leaders, offering, as Gandhi put it, nothing but “page after page of thinly disguised official whitewash” (Sarkar 1983, 196). When an Indian branch of the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement formed in 1920, Gandhi was interested. At a meeting in June 1920 with Gandhi and several nationalist leaders in attendance, the Khilafat leaders adopted a plan for noncooperation with the British government in India. The plan called for the boycott of the civil services, the police, and the army and for the withholding of tax revenues. Gandhi was ready to put his Home Rule League behind it. “I have advised my Moslem friends,” he wrote the viceroy, Frederic John Napier Thesiger Lord Chelmsford (1868-1933), “to withdraw their support from Your Excellency’s Government and advised the Hindus to join them” (Fischer 1983, 189).

The noncooperation movement began without the sanction of Congress. At an emergency September session of Congress held in Calcutta, delegates overrode the objections of longtime Congress leaders such as Jinnah and Chittaranjan (C.R.) Das (1870-1925) from Bengal, to approve a modified noncooperation plan that included the surrender of titles and the boycott of schools, courts, councils, and foreign goods. By the regular December Congress session, only Jinnah— who preferred constitutional and moderate forms of protest—remained opposed. His objections were shouted down, and he quit Congress in disgust. Congress, now firmly under Gandhi’s leadership, declared its goal to be “the attainment of Swaraj [self-rule] … by all legitimate and peaceful means” (Brecher 1961, 41). Against the background of a worsening economy, widespread kisan (peasant) protests, and labor strikes—all of which contributed to the general sense of upheaval and change—noncooperation began.

Reorganization and Change

Under Gandhi’s leadership the 1920 meeting reorganized Congress, making it a mass political party for the first time. The new regulations set a membership fee of four annas (1/16 of a rupee) per person. A new 350-person All-India Congress Committee (AICC) was established with elected representatives from 21 different Indian regions. The election system was village based, with villages electing representatives to districts, districts to regions, and regions to the AICC. The 15-person Working Committee headed the entire Congress organization.

Organizing for noncooperation brought new and younger leaders to prominence, the most important of whom was Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). Nehru was the son of Motilal Nehru, an Allahabad (United Provinces) lawyer and Congress member who had grown so wealthy and anglicized from his profession that, it was sometimes joked, his family sent their laundry to be washed in Paris. The son was raised at Allahabad within the aristocratic Kashmiri Brahman Nehru family and educated in England at Harrow and Cambridge. He returned to India in 1912 after being called to the bar in London.

Nehru was drawn to Congress as the Mahatma (a title meaning “great soul”) took control in the 1920s, deeply attracted to Gandhi’s philosophy of activism and moral commitment. Nehru’s second great political passion, socialism, also began about this same time. In the early 1920s Nehru spent a month traveling with a delegation of peasants through a remote mofussil region of the United Provinces. The experience, probably Nehru’s first encounter with rural poverty, filled him with shame and sorrow—“shame at my own easygoing and comfortable life,” he later wrote, and “sorrow at the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India” (Brecher 1961, 40).

Nehru shared his leadership of younger Indian nationalists with a contemporary, Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945). Bose was also the son of a wealthy lawyer, although his Bengali father had practiced in Cuttack, Orissa. Unlike Nehru, Bose had had a stormy educational career. He was expelled from an elite Calcutta college in 1916 because he and his friends beat up an Anglo-Indian professor said to be a racist. Bose then finished his college education at a Calcutta missionary college and was sent to England by his family to study for the ICS examinations. In 1921, however, having passed the exams and on the verge of appointment to the service, Bose gave it all up. “I am now at the crossways,” he wrote to his family, “and no compromise is possible” (Bose 1965, 97). He resigned his candidacy to return to India and join the Congress movement full time. Working under the Bengal politician C. R. Das and supported economically for most of his life by his lawyer brother Sarat, Bose (along with Nehru) became the leader of a young socialist faction in Congress. In 1921 during the noncooperation movement he was imprisoned, released, and then deported to Burma, accused by the British of connections with Bengali terrorists. In 1927 on his return to Calcutta, he was elected president of Bengal’s branch of the Congress Party.

A third young man, Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), later known as Maulana Azad, also joined the Congress movement at this time. Maulana Azad came to India at the age of 10, the son of an Indian father and an Arab mother. He received a traditional Islamic education but turned to English education after being convinced of the value of Western education by the writings of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. He took the pen name Azad (which means “freedom”) while publishing an Urdu journal in his youth. Interned by the British during World War I, he joined both the Khilafat movement and the Congress during the 1920s. He would become one of the staunchest Muslim supporters of Congress in the years leading up to and following independence and partition, serving as Congress president in 1940 and as minister of education after independence.

Noncooperation Campaign (1921-1922)

Gandhi predicted at the 1920 Nagpur Congress session that if nonco-operation was carried out nonviolently, self-government would come within the year. By July 1921 the movement was fully under way, with Congress calling for the boycott of foreign goods and supporters burning foreign clothes in public bonfires. Only 24 Indians turned in their awards and titles, Gandhi among them, and only 180 lawyers, including Motilal Nehru and C. R. Das, gave up their legal practices. But support among students was said to be very strong with the claim that new nationalist schools and colleges had enrolled 100,000 students by 1922. The boycott of British goods was also effective: The value of imported British cloth dropped by 44 percent between 1922 and 1924.

Gandhi traveled the country by rail for seven months, addressing public meetings, overseeing bonfires of foreign cloth, and meeting with village officials to organize new Congress branches. He wrote a weekly column in English for Young India and in Gujarati for Navajivan (New life). Everywhere he went he urged supporters to spin and wear khadi (hand-loomed cloth)—hand-spun and hand-loomed cloth would replace foreign imports—and he designed a Congress flag with the charkha (spinning wheel) at its center.

The combined Khilafat and Congress movement brought British India to the edge of rebellion. By the end of 1921, an estimated 30,000 Indians had been jailed for civil disobedience, most for short periods (Brecher 1961, 43). The government had banned all public meetings and groups. The Ali brothers and all major Congress leaders, old and young, were under arrest, including C. R. Das, Motilal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Subhas Bose.

Gandhi remained at large throughout 1921 and into 1922, but he was no longer in control of the movement. By 1921-22 the combined force of noncooperation protests, worker and peasant strikes, and communal riots had moved India close to a state of absolute upheaval. Muslim Khilafat leaders began to talk of abandoning nonviolence. On the Malabar Coast, Muslim Moplahs declared a jihad to establish a new caliph, attacked Europeans and wealthy Hindus, and forced poorer Hindu peasants to convert to Islam. Edward, the Prince of Wales’s visit to India in November 1921 was boycotted by Congress, and everywhere he went he was met by strikes and black flags. In Bombay city riots broke out on the occasion of the prince’s visit and lasted five days. Although pressed by Congress leaders, Gandhi refused to sanction a mass civil disobedience campaign, agreeing only to a small demonstration campaign in Bardoli, a Gujarati district of 87,000 people. But before even that could start, in February 1922 reports reached Gandhi that a nationalist procession in Chauri Chaura (United Provinces), seeking revenge for police beatings, had chased a group of police back to their station house, set it on fire, and hacked 22 policemen to death as they fled the blaze.

Gandhi immediately suspended the Bardoli movement and to the disbelief of Congress leaders, declared noncooperation at an end. “I assure you,” he wrote to an angry Jawaharlal Nehru, still in jail, “that if the thing had not been suspended we would have been leading not a non-violent struggle but essentially a violent struggle” (Nanda 1962, 202). Congress leaders watched helplessly as their movement collapsed around them. “Gandhi had pretty well run himself to the last ditch as a politician,” the viceroy Rufus Daniel Isaacs, Lord Reading, told his son with satisfaction (Nanda 1962, 203).

One month later Gandhi was arrested and tried for sedition. He made no attempt to deny the charges against him: “I am here …” he told the court, “to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me…. I hold it an honor to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system” (Fischer 1983, 202-203). The judge sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment.

Both during and immediately after the noncooperation campaign, British officials authorized several reforms that had long been sought by urban middle-class Indians. The India Act of 1921 made the viceroy’s Legislative Council a bicameral parliament with elected membership. A new Tariff Board in New Delhi in 1923 gave the Indian government the beginnings of fiscal autonomy. And in the same year, for the first time, the ICS examinations were simultaneously held in India and England. In the provincial and municipal elections of 1923-24 Congress candidates gained control of provincial ministries in Bengal and Bombay. A number of Congress leaders became elected mayors or heads of towns and cities: C. R. Das became mayor of Calcutta, Jawaharlal Nehru of Allahabad, and a west Indian Gandhi supporter, Vallabhbhai (Sardar) Patel (1875-1950), was elected the municipal president of Ahmedabad.

Gandhi was released from jail in 1924 for an appendicitis operation but refused to consider further campaigns against the government. Although he accepted the presidency of the 1925 Congress session, his focus was on relief projects and village work. “For me,” he said in this period, “nothing in the political world is more important than the spinning wheel” (Fischer 1983, 232). He traveled for much of 1925, now by second-class carriage, raising funds for Congress, promoting spinning and hand-loom weaving, and leading a campaign in Travancore to open a temple road to Untouchables. In 1926 he began a practice he would continue to the end of his life: For one day in the week he maintained complete silence. It was not until 1928 that he would again be willing to reenter active political life.

Post-Khilafat Communal Violence

The worldwide Khilafat movement ended in 1924 when the modernizing ruler of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, abolished the Ottoman caliphate. In India, Hindu-Muslim unity did not survive the end of the movement. With the collapse of Khilafat, local Muslim leaders in several provinces declared themselves “caliphs” and led movements to protect Islam, organize Muslim communities, and spread religious propaganda among them. Both Hindu and Muslim groups escalated their provocations of each other in these years, Hindu groups demanding an end to cow slaughter and Muslim groups responding violently when processions or loud music disturbed prayers at a mosque. Electoral politics also contributed to communal tensions in these years; separate electorates heightened the awareness of religious divisions. And elections encouraged Hindu candidates to court the majority Hindu vote. In Bengal even leftist Calcutta politicians, such as Subhas Bose, took strongly pro-zamindar positions to the irritation and disgust of Muslim peasants and tenants.

Beginning with the Moplah rebellion in 1921 and escalating between 1923 and 1927, communal riots erupted across northern India. The United Provinces had 91 communal riots in the 1923-27 period. The cities of Calcutta, Dacca, Patna, Rawalpindi, and Delhi all had riots. As the violence increased, the last remnants of Hindu-Muslim political unity vanished. The Khilafat leader Muhammad Ali had campaigned with Gandhi during the noncooperation movement and served as Congress president in 1923, but by 1925 Ali had broken his association with Gandhi. In the same vein, the Muslim League met separately from Congress in 1924 for the first time since 1918.

The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS

In the years after 1924, communal associations flourished in northern India linking religious populations across class lines and allowing economic and social tensions to be displaced onto religion. The north Indian Hindu association, the Mahasabha, had been founded in 1915 by the United Provinces Congressite Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946) and was originally a loose alliance of Hindu revivalists working for cow protection, language reform, and Hindu social welfare in the United Provinces and the Punjab. The Mahasabha had been inactive during the Khilafat and noncooperation movements, but in the increasingly hostile communal atmosphere of 1921-23 it revived. The organization gained new members in the northern Gangetic regions of United Provinces, Delhi, Bihar, and the Punjab. In a shared front with the older Arya Samaj it used many of the older society’s tactics, forming Hindu self-defense corps, demanding that Hindi replace Urdu, and using purification and conversion to bring Muslims and Untouchables into Hinduism.

By 1925 the Mahasabha had spawned a paramilitary offshoot and ally: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Force, or RSS). Founded at Nagpur in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1940), the RSS was a paramilitary religious society along the lines of an akhara (a local gymnasium where young men gathered for wrestling and body-building). RSS members took vows before the image of the monkey-god Hanuman, drilled in groups each morning, often in uniform, and pledged themselves to serve the RSS “with [their] whole body, heart, and money for in it lies the betterment of Hindus and the country” (Jaffrelot 1996, 37). By 1940 the RSS had spread from Nagpur into the United Provinces and the Punjab; its membership numbered 100,000 trained cadres.

Congress leaders maintained friendly relations with Mahasabha members during the 1920s, and in this period prominent politicians, such as Malaviya himself, were members of both organizations. But in 1926 Malaviya and Lajpat Rai organized the Independent Congress Party, a political group through which Mahasabha candidates could contest elections. In the 1926 provincial elections Congress candidates lost badly to Mahasabha candidates. And in Muslim separate electorates, where Congress Muslim candidates had previously been able to win, in 1926 they won only one Muslim seat out of 39 contested.

All Sons of This Land

In 1927 the British government appointed Sir John Simon (1873-1954) as head of a parliamentary commission that would tour India and make recommendations for future political reforms. From the start, however, the Simon Commission provoked opposition because it included no Indians. Demonstrations followed its members wherever they went, and Congress, the Muslim League, and all but two minor Indian political groups boycotted its inquiries.

To counter any Simon Commission proposals, Motilal Nehru headed an All-Parties Conference in 1928 to which Congress, the Muslim League, and the Hindu Mahasabha sent members. The conference was to develop a separate, Indian plan for constitutional reform. Its members agreed that the overall goal should be commonwealth status within the British Empire, But they could not agree on how minorities would be represented within this government. Jinnah, representing the Muslim League, was willing to give up separate electorates for Muslims; in return, however, he wanted one-third of the seats in the central legislative government to be reserved for Muslim candidates, and he also wanted reserved seats in the Muslim majority provinces of Bengal and the Punjab in proportion to the Muslim percentage of the population in each. (Reserved seats were seats set aside for candidates of a single community but voted on in elections by all Indians.) The Hindu Mahasabha delegates, however, led by the Bombay lawyer Mukund Ramrao (M. R.) Jayakar (1873-1959), absolutely refused seat reservations in the Muslim majority regions. In desperation Jinnah took his proposal to the December session of Congress. “If you do not settle this question today, we shall have to settle it tomorrow,” he told the Congress meeting. “We are all sons of this land. We have to live together. Believe me there is no progress for India until the Musalmans and the Hindus are united” (Hay 1988, 227-228). Again Hindu Mahasabha delegates blocked the proposal, refused all pleas for compromise, and Congress leaders ultimately yielded to them.

The constitutional plan that resulted from these debates was not itself significant. Within a year it had been overturned. Gandhi, who had finally yielded to Congress entreaties and reentered political life, arranged to have Jawaharlal Nehru elected President of Congress in 1929. Nehru and Subhas Bose had formed the Socialist Independence for India League in 1928, and Gandhi wanted to draw Nehru and his young associates back into the Congress fold and away from the growing socialist and radical movements. Under Nehru’s leadership, however, Congress abandoned the goal of commonwealth status, replacing it with a demand for purna swaraj (complete independence). Preparations began for a new civil disobedience movement that would begin under Gandhi’s leadership the next year.

But the Congress’s acquiescence in the Mahasabha’s intransigence in 1928 was significant for the effect it had on Jinnah. Jinnah left the Congress session and immediately joined the parallel All-India Muslim Conference meeting in New Delhi. The Muslim Conference then declared its complete and irrevocable commitment to separate Muslim electorates. Muslim political leaders were now split off from the Congress movement. By 1930 Muhammad Ali, Gandhi’s former ally, would denounce Gandhi as a supporter of the Hindu Mahasabha. Indian Muslims would remain on the sidelines in the 1930s civil disobedience movement. It was, as Ali told a British audience in London in 1930, “the old maxim of ‘divide and rule.’ … We divide and you rule” (Hay 1988, 204).

Non-Brahman Movements in South and West India

During the 1920s and 1930s, even as Hindu Muslim conflicts in northern India split the nationalist movement, lower-caste and Untouchable leaders in South India were defining Brahmans as their main political opponents. In Madras, E. V. Ramaswami Naicker (later called “Periyar,” or “the wise man,” 1880-1973) founded the Self-Respect Movement in 1925. Periyar’s movement rejected Sanskritic Aryan traditions, emphasizing instead samadharma (equality) and the shared Dravidian heritage of Tamils. For Periyar and his followers the Brahman-dominated Gandhian Congress stood for social oppression.

Another leader who rejected high-caste Sanskritic traditions was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), an Untouchable leader from the Mahar community of Maharashtra. Ambedkar had received a law degree and a Ph.D. through education in both England and the United States. Returning to India in the 1920s he organized a Mahar caste association and led regionwide struggles for the rights of Untouchables to use village wells and tanks and to enter temples. For Ambedkar caste was not a racial system. It was a socially mandated system of graded inequalities whose internal divisions kept lower castes from opposing the top. “All,” Ambedkar wrote, “have a grievance against the highest [caste] and would like to bring about their downfall. But they will not combine” (Jaffrelot 2003, 21). By the late 1920s Ambedkar and his followers were publicly burning copies of the Laws of Manu to symbolize their rejection of high-caste practices and traditions.

The Great Depression and Its Effects

The worldwide depression that began in 1929 with the stock market crash destroyed India’s export economy and changed Great Britain’s economic relationship with India. Before 1929 Indian imports to Great Britain were 11 percent of all British imports. Indian exports, in fact, were so lucrative that they maintained Britain’s favorable balance of trade in world markets. At the same time private British-run businesses in India remained strong, particularly in the mining, tea, and jute industries.

But the Great Depression cut the value of Indian exports by more than half, from 311 crores (1 crore = 10 million rupees) in 1929-30 to 132 crores in 1932-33. Indian imports also fell by almost half, from 241 crores to 133 crores. (Within India, agricultural prices were also devastated, falling by 44 percent between 1929 and 1931 and increasing tax pressures on peasant landlords, particularly at the middle levels.) The Indian government could no longer pay the home charges through revenues drawn from Indian exports; it now had to pay these charges through gold. Private British companies found direct investment in India less profitable than before 1929 and began to develop collaborative agreements with Indian businesses instead. Yet India’s economy remained tied to the empire: The value of the Indian rupee was still linked to British sterling, and India continued to pay home charges—the old nationalist “drain”—to the British government throughout the 1930s.

If the worldwide depression weakened older imperial business structures, it strengthened Indian capitalists. In the 1930s Indian industry spread out from western India to Bengal, the United Provinces, Madras, Baroda, Mysore, and Bhopal. By the 1930s Indian textile mills were producing two-thirds of all textiles bought within India. The growth in Indian-owned business enterprises even affected the nationalist movement, as new Indian capitalists contributed money (and their own business perspective) to Congress in the 1930s.

Despite the gains of Indian industrialists, stagnation and poverty characterized the Indian economy in the late 1930s. The global depression produced agricultural decline and increased India’s need to import food from other countries. Even though the Indian population grew slowly between 1921 and 1941, from 306 million to 389 million, food produced for local consumption in those years did not match this growth. The per capita national income (the yearly income for each Indian person) was estimated at 60.4 rupees in 1917 and 60.7 rupees in 1947. Over 30 years, the average Indian income had grown less than one-half of a rupee.

Salt March

Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March was the most famous of all his campaigns. It drew participants from cities, towns, and villages all across British India and gained India’s freedom struggle worldwide attention and sympathy. At its end, by Congress estimates, more than 90,000 Indians had been arrested. Despite these successes, however, the Salt March did not achieve Indian independence.

Congress leaders, such as Nehru, were initially dismayed at Gandhi’s choice of focus for the campaign—the salt tax—but salt was necessary for life, and British laws made it illegal for any Indian to manufacture salt or even pick up natural sea salt on a beach without paying the tax. The salt tax touched all Indians, the poor even more aggressively than the rich. It illustrated the basic injustice of imperial rule. This focus on an issue that combined the political and the ethical was characteristic of Gandhi’s best campaigns.

The march began on March 12 when the 61-year-old Gandhi and more than 70 satyagrahis (practitioners of satyagraha) left Gandhi’s ashram at Sabarmati on foot. It ended on April 6 after marchers had walked 240 miles over dusty dirt roads and reached Dandi on the Gujarati seacoast. “Ours is a holy war,” Gandhi told one of many crowds that gathered along the way:

It is a non-violent struggle … If you feel strong enough, give up Government jobs, enlist yourselves as soldiers in this salt satyagraha, burn your foreign cloth and wear khadi. Give up liquor. There are many things within your power through which you can secure the keys which will open the gates of freedom. (Tewari 1995)

When the march reached the coast, Gandhi waded into the sea, picked up some sea salt from the beach, and by so doing broke the salt laws. He urged Indians throughout the country to break the salt laws and boycott foreign cloth and liquor shops.

Civil disobedience now occurred in all major Indian cities. In Ahmedabad, 10,000 people bought illegal salt from Congress during the movement’s first week. In Delhi a crowd of 15,000 watched the Mahasabha leader Malaviya publicly buy illegal salt. In Bombay Congress workers supplied protesters with illegal salt by making it in pans on their headquarters’ roof. Nehru, the Congress president, was arrested on April 14; Gandhi on May 4. The former Congress president Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) took Gandhi’s place leading a march of 2,500 nonviolent volunteers against the Dharasana Salt Works. Row after row of marchers advanced on police guarding the works, only to be struck down by the policemen’s steel-tipped lathis (long bamboo sticks). “Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows,” reported a United Press reporter (Fischer 1983, 273-274).

In some places the campaign grew violent, but this time Gandhi, who had perhaps learned from the disastrous end of his earlier campaign, made no effort to stop it. In Bombay Gandhi’s arrest led to a textile workers’ strike, and crowds of protesters burned liquor shops and police and government buildings. In eastern Bengal, Chittagong terrorists seized and held the local armory through five days of armed combat. In the Northwest Frontier Province, peaceful demonstrators in Peshawar were killed by police fire, and the army had to be called in to stop the rioting that followed. In Sholapur, Maharashtra, news of Gandhi’s arrest led to a textile strike and rioting that lasted until martial law restored order.

The 1930 campaign was much larger than the earlier noncooperation movement, reflecting the larger mass basis developed by Congress during the 1920s. The campaign involved fewer urban middle-class Indians and more peasants. Participation in it was also a greater risk. Police violence was brutal, even against nonviolent protesters, and property confiscations were more widespread. Nevertheless the movement saw at least three times as many people jailed as in 1921, more than 90,000 by Nehru’s estimate, the largest numbers coming from Bengal, the Gangetic plains, and the Punjab.

Organizing Women

Women were active participants in the 1930 civil disobedience movement. Women’s visibility in the campaign was itself a testament to the changes that had reshaped urban middle-class women’s lives over the past century. Women’s active involvement also demonstrated that support for independence was not limited to male family members. Sarojini Naidu was arrested early in the campaign, and Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, led women protesters in picketing liquor shops after her husband’s arrest. In Bombay, where the numbers of women protesters were the greatest, the Rashtriya Stree Sangha (National Women’s Organization) mobilized women to collect seawater for salt, picket toddy shops, and sell salt on the street. In Bengal middle-class women not only courted arrest but also participated in terrorist activities. In Madras the elite Women’s Swadeshi League supported spinning, the wearing of khadi, and the boycott of foreign goods, if not public marches. In the North Indian cities of Allahabad, Lucknow, Delhi, and Lahore, middle-class women, sometimes 1,000 at a time, participated in public demonstrations, even appearing in public on occasion without veils. Not all husbands approved their wives’ activities, however. In Lahore one husband refused to sanction the release of his jailed wife; she had not asked his permission before leaving home.

The Round Table Conferences (1930-1932)

Civil disobedience coincided with the opening of the first Round Table Conference in London. Facing a new Congress campaign and under pressure from a new Labor government, the viceroy Edwin Frederick Lindley Wood, Baron Irwin (1881-1959), later known as Lord Halifax, invited all Indian political parties to a Round Table Conference in London in 1930. Gandhi and the Congress refused, but 73 delegates came, including the Indian princes, Muslim leaders, Sikh leaders, and representatives of the Hindu Mahasabha. British officials thought that a federated Indian government with semi-autonomous provinces might still allow the preservation of substantial British power at its center. Federation and provincial autonomy also appealed to many constituencies attending the first Round Table Conference. For the Indian princes (who controlled collectively about one-third of the subcontinent), such a federated government would allow the preservation of their current regimes. For Muslim leaders from Muslim majority regions (the Punjab or Bengal, for instance), provincial autonomy was an attractive mechanism through which they might maintain regional control. Even the Sikh representatives and those from the Hindu Mahasabha saw provincial autonomy as an opportunity to preserve local languages and regional religious culture—although whose languages and which religious cultures was never debated.

Only Jinnah of the Muslim League at the conference and Congress leaders jailed far away in India were opposed to the plan. Jinnah wanted a strong centralized Indian government, but one within which Muslims (and he as their representative) were guaranteed a significant position. Congress was entirely opposed to federation. They wanted to replace the British in India with their own government, not struggle for political survival in provincial backwaters while the British ruled at the center.

Gandhi and Nehru (in separate jails but in communication) had previously refused to end the civil disobedience movement, but now Gandhi suddenly reversed himself, perhaps from fear that the Round Table talks might resolve matters without the Congress or perhaps because enthusiasm was waning by 1931 both among demonstrators in the field and within the Indian business community. Gandhi met Irwin and reached a settlement: the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Civil disobedience would end; he would attend the Round Table Conference; jailed protesters would be released; and Indians would be allowed the private consumption of untaxed salt. Indian business leaders—the Tatas in Bombay, the Birlas in Bengal—approved the agreement. For Nehru, Subhas Bose, and the Congress left wing it was a betrayal, an abandonment of the campaign in exchange for no constitutional gains at all. Still if Gandhi’s pact with Irwin won no concessions, his meeting with the viceroy served to irritate British conservatives and proimperialists. In Britain Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then a member of Parliament, expressed his disgust at the sight of “this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor” (Fischer 1983, 277).

The second Round Table Conference, however, made it clear that no Indian government could be designed without an agreement over how power at the center would be shared. The delegates deadlocked (as in 1928-29) over the question of how and to whom separate electorates should be awarded. In 1932 Gandhi returned to India to rekindle a dispirited civil disobedience movement. The new Conservative viceroy Freeman Freeman-Thomas, Lord Willingdon (1866-1941), however, immediately ordered the movement shut down. The Congress Party was declared illegal, its funds confiscated, and its records destroyed. Within months more than 40,000 Indians, including Gandhi and the entire Congress leadership, were in jail. The leadership would remain in jail for the next two years.

The Poona Pact

With no agreement from the Round Table Conference and with Congress leadership in jail, the British made their own decision on communal awards. They awarded separate electorates to Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Europeans, women, and the “Scheduled Castes” (that is, Untouchables). At the second Round Table Conference, Gandhi had refused to consider such awards. Ambedkar, a delegate to the conference, had been willing to accept reserved seats for Untouchables, but Gandhi had been adamant. Untouchables (or Harijans—“children of god”—as Gandhi had taken to calling them) were Hindus and could not be split off from the Hindu community.

When the 1932 awards were announced, Gandhi began a fast to the death in protest. Between September 18 and September 24 he took neither food nor water, as Congress leaders, Ambedkar, and British officials scrambled to define a new agreement before Gandhi died. The Poona Pact, signed on September 24, replaced separate electorates with reserved seats for Untouchables. Ambedkar, who had held out against great pressure and had feared that all Untouchables might be blamed for causing Gandhi’s death, now commented only that if Gandhi had accepted seat reservation at the Round Table Conference, “it would not have been necessary for him to go through this ordeal” (Fischer 1983, 317).

After the Poona Pact Gandhi increased his interest in and activity on Hindu Untouchability. He founded a weekly newspaper, Harijan, toured Untouchable communities in 1933-34, and encouraged his followers to work for the opening of wells, roads, and temples to Untouchable communities. His 1932-34 speeches to Untouchable groups were disrupted by Sanatanists (orthodox Hindus), and in Pune there was a bomb attack on his car. Gandhi’s relations with members of the Hindu Mahasabha also cooled in this period, particularly with Malaviya with whom he had been close in the 1920s. In the longer term his increased involvement with Untouchable concerns created loyalties toward Congress among Untouchable communities that lasted well into the postindependence period.

Government of India Act, 1935

In Great Britain, Parliament passed the Government of India Act of 1935, in spite of opposition from both sides: Conservatives such as Churchill thought it a covert attempt to grant India dominion status; Laborites such as Clement Attlee saw it as an effort to invalidate the Indian Congress. The act continued British efforts to preserve their power over India’s central government, even while ceding Indian provinces almost entirely to elected Indian control. It created a Federation of India made up of 11 provinces, all the princely states, and a small number of territories. The provinces were to be run by elected Indians and the princely states by the princes. At the act’s center was the “steel frame” that would preserve British control over India: The viceroy and his administration remained in control of the central government with a separate, protected budget and authority over defense and external affairs (Jalal 1985, 17). Two central legislative houses were also included in the act but never functioned, rejected for different reasons by both the princes and the Congress. Provincial autonomy, however, began in 1937 after nationwide elections that enfranchised 35 million Indians (about one-sixth of India’s adult population).

Congress in Power

The Congress Party swept the provincial elections of 1937, winning 70 percent of the total popular vote and the right to form governments in eight out of 11 provinces: Madras, Bombay, Central Provinces, Bihar, United Provinces, Northwest Frontier, Orissa, and Assam. Regional parties won control of three out of the four Muslim majority provinces: Bengal, Punjab, and Sind. (Congress had won the fourth, the Northwest Frontier.) The Muslim League, in contrast, won only 5 percent of the total Muslim vote—109 seats out of 482 Muslim contests—and none of the Muslim majority provinces.

In their provincial governments and coalitions, winning Congress politicians made few concessions either to Muslim representatives or to Muslim sensibilities. In the United Provinces, Congress officials told Muslim League representatives that they could participate in the government only if they left the league and joined the Congress Party. Congress-dominated provincial assemblies sang “Bande Mataram,” and regional Congress discourse extolled the virtues of the cow, the Hindi language, and the Devanagari script. For Jinnah, working later in the 1940s to rebuild the Muslim League, Congress provincial governments provided a clear illustration of the dangers Islam and Indian Muslims would face in an India ruled by a Hindu-dominated party.

On the national level, Gandhi and the Congress “old guard” faced a challenge from the party’s left wing. In 1938 Subhas Bose won election as Congress president, supported by leftist and socialist Congress members. He was opposed by Gandhi, Congress businessmen, and more moderate Congress politicians. Bose and Gandhi had been opponents within the Congress, disagreeing on economic policies and political tactics. Unlike Nehru, however, Bose was unwilling to yield to Gandhi’s overall leadership. Gandhi tolerated Bose as Congress president for the first term, but when Bose narrowly won reelection the following year, Gandhi engineered the resignations of most Working Committee members. Bose worked alone for six months before giving up and resigning the presidency. He and his brother Sarat resigned also from the Congress Working Committee and returned to Bengal to form their own party, the Forward Block, a left-wing coalition group.


After the losses of the 1937 election, Jinnah had to rebuild the Muslim League on a more popular basis. To do so, by the 1940s he was advocating the idea of “Pakistan” and stressing the theme of an Islamic religion in danger. At the 1940 Lahore meeting of the Muslim League, Jinnah declared—and the League agreed—that Muslims must have an autonomous state. “No constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to the Muslims,” the League stated in its 1940 Lahore Resolution, unless it stipulated that “the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority … should be grouped to constitute ‘Independent States’ in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign” (Hay 1988, 228). The idea of a separate Islamic Indian state had been expressed 10 years earlier by the Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). The imagined state had even been given a name by a Muslim student at Cambridge in 1933: He called it “Pakistan,” a pun that meant “pure land” and was also an acronym for the major regions of the Muslim north (P stood for the Punjab, a for Afghanistan, k for Kashmir, s for Sindh, and tan for Baluchistan).

The difficulty with the idea of Pakistan was that it did not address the political needs of most Indian Muslims. Most Muslims were scattered throughout India in regions far from the four northern Muslim majority provinces. Minority Muslim populations needed constitutional safeguards within provincial and central governments, not a Muslim state hundreds, even thousands, of miles from their homes. Jinnah himself had worked throughout his career to establish just such safeguards within a strong centralized government. Some scholars have suggested that his support for Pakistan in the 1940s began as a political tactic—a device to drum up Muslim support for a more popularly based Muslim League and a threat to force concessions from Congress leaders, particularly from Gandhi for whom the idea of a divided India was anathema.

The idea of a state ruled by Islamic law where Muslim culture and life ways could reach full expression had great appeal to Indian Muslims. Muslims in majority regions imagined Pakistan as their own province, now transformed into an autonomous Muslim state. Muslims in minority provinces (always Jinnah’s strongest constituency) thought of Pakistan less as a territorial goal than as a political identity—a Muslim national identity—that would entitle Indian Muslims to a protected position within any central Indian government. Even as late as 1946-47, Muslims in minority provinces supported the idea of Pakistan with little sense of what it might mean in reality. As one Muslim, a student in the United Provinces at that time, later recalled,

Nobody thought in terms of migration in those days: [the Muslims] all thought that everything would remain the same, Punjab would remain Punjab, Sindh would remain Sindh, there won’t be any demographic changes—no drastic changes anyway—the Hindus and Sikhs would continue to live in Pakistan … and we would continue to live in India. (Pandey 2001, 26)

Quit India!

On September 3, 1939, the viceroy, Victor Alexander John Hope, Lord Linlithgow (1887-1952), on orders from Britain, declared India at war with Germany. This time, however, the Indian National Congress offered cooperation in the war only on condition of the immediate sharing of power in India’s central government. In April 1942, in an attempt to win over Congress leaders, the British government flew Sir Stafford Cripps (a personal friend of Nehru’s) to India. With British prime minister Churchill completely opposed to any concessions to Indian independence, even as a possible Japanese invasion loomed on India’s eastern borders, Cripps offered Congress leaders only a guarantee of dominion status (a self-governing nation within the British Commonwealth) at the end of the war. Gandhi called Cripps’s offer “a post dated cheque” (Brecher 1961, 109).

With Cripps’s mission a failure, Gandhi and the Congress opened a new civil disobedience campaign: “Quit India!” The government immediately imprisoned all major Congress leaders. Nevertheless, an uncoordinated but massive uprising spread throughout the country leading to more than 90,000 arrests by the end of 1943. Protests were marked by sporadic violence and included attacks on railways, telegraphs, and army facilities. The British responded with police shootings, public floggings, the destruction of entire villages, and, in eastern Bengal, by aerial machine-gun attacks on protesters.

Beginning in 1942 and lasting through 1946 a terrible famine erupted in Bengal. The famine was caused not by bad weather but by the conjunction of several other factors: the commandeering of local foods to feed the British army, the wartime stoppage of rice imports from Burma, profiteering and speculation in rice, and perhaps also a rice disease that reduced crop yields. By 1943 tens of thousands of people had migrated into Calcutta in search of food and an estimated 1 million to 3 million people had died from famine-related causes.


At the end of World War II, with a new Labor government in place, huge war debts to repay, and a country to rebuild, the British wanted to exit India. The combined costs of war supplies and of an Indian army mobilized at 10 times its normal strength had more than liquidated India’s debt to Great Britain. Instead of home charges, it was now Great Britain that was in debt to India. British officials in both London and New Delhi knew Britain could no longer maintain its empire in India.

The biggest obstacle to British withdrawal, however, was the politicized communal identities that had grown up over the 20th century, fostered by Indian nationalists and politicians and by the British themselves through their “divide and rule” tactics. Such identities divided Muslims and Hindus, but they also existed among Sikhs, South Indian “Dravidians,” and Untouchables. The problem was how to reunite all these political groups within the majoritarian electoral structures of a modern democratic state, while simultaneously protecting their minority interests.

The Congress Party won 91 percent of all non-Muslim seats in the winter elections of 1945-46 and was returned to power in eight provinces. By the 1940s Congress had built an all-India organization with deep roots throughout the country and with a unity and identity developed over its more than 50 years of struggle against British rule. The party’s goal was a strong, centralized India under its control. For Congress socialists, like Nehru, such centralization would be essential if India was to be rebuilt as an industrialized, prosperous state. Minority groups’ fears over such centralization, meanwhile, were an irritant for Congress. From the Congress perspective political differences between Hindus and Muslims could wait for resolution until after independence.

In contrast to Congress, Jinnah’s Muslim League existed mostly at the center. The league was a thin veneer that papered over a wide range of conflicting Muslim interests in Muslim majority and minority regions—a veneer that Jinnah used, nevertheless, to justify the league’s (and his own) claims to be the “sole spokesman” of Indian Muslims (Jalal 1985). By 1945 Jinnah’s advocacy of an independent Muslim state and his campaign of “Islam in danger” had rebuilt the Muslim League. It had also completely polarized the Muslim electorate. In the winter elections of 1945-46 the Muslim League reversed its losses of eight years earlier, winning every Muslim seat at the center and 439 out of 494 Muslim seats in the provincial elections. The politicized atmosphere of the 1940s destroyed long-established communal coalition parties and governments in both Bengal and the Punjab, replacing them with Muslim League governments. For Muslims, religious identity was now the single most important element of political identity. For the league (and more broadly for the Muslim electorate) that identity needed political protection through constitutional safeguards before independence arrived.

A British cabinet mission, sent to India after the 1945-46 elections, was unable to construct a formula for independence. Jinnah refused to accept a “moth eaten” Pakistan, a Muslim state that would consist of parts of Bengal and parts of the Punjab (Sarkar 1983, 429). Congress refused a proposal for a loose federation of provinces. Plans for an interim government foundered on arguments over who would appoint its Muslim and Untouchable members. As the Congress left wing organized railway and postal strikes and walkouts, Jinnah, intending to demonstrate Muslim strength, called for Muslims to take “direct action” on August 16, 1946, to achieve Pakistan.

Direct Action Day in Calcutta triggered a series of Hindu-Muslim riots throughout northern India unprecedented in their ferocity and violence. Between August 16 and 20 Muslim and Hindu/Sikh mobs attacked one another’s Calcutta communities killing 4,000 people and leaving 10,000 injured. Rioting spread to Bombay city, eastern Bengal, Bihar, the United Provinces, and the Punjab. In Bihar and the United Provinces Hindu peasants and pilgrims massacred at least 8,000 Muslims. In the Punjab Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs turned on one another in rioting that killed 5,000 people.

As public order disintegrated, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister, declared the British would leave India by June 1948. When Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979), India’s last British viceroy, reached India in March 1947, the transfer of power had already been advanced to August of that year. The British moved peremptorily to make their final settlement of political power. When Nehru privately rejected “Plan Balkan”—so named because it transferred power to each of the separate Indian provinces much as had occurred in the Balkan States prior to World War I—the British settled on a plan that granted dominion status to two central governments, India and Pakistan (the latter to be composed of a partitioned Bengal and Punjab, plus the Northwest Frontier Province and Sind). Congress, the Muslim League, and Sikh leaders agreed to this plan on June 2, 1947. The British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act on July 18 for implementation August 15.

India became independent at midnight on August 14, 1947. The transfer of power took place at Parliament House in New Delhi. “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,” Nehru said in his speech that night,

and now the time comes when we shall 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. (Brecher 1961, 137)

Nehru became India’s first prime minister. Lord Mountbatten, at the invitation of Congress, served as governor-general of the Indian Dominion through June 1948. Regulations governing the new state devolved from the Government of India Act of 1935.


Two secret British commissions, directed by the British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe, drew the boundaries that would separate India from east and west Pakistan. The boundaries were not announced until August 17, two days after independence. It was only then that the real impact of partition began to be felt, as majority communities on both sides of the border attacked, looted, raped, and murdered the remaining minorities. Within a month newspapers were reporting 4 million migrants on the move in northern India. One nine-coach train from Delhi, crammed with refugees, crossed the border into Pakistan with only eight Muslim survivors on board; the rest had been murdered along the way (Pandey 2001, 36). Estimates of people killed in partition violence ranged from several hundred thousand to 1 million. The entire population of the Punjab was reshaped in the process. By March 1948 more than 10 million Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs had fled their former homes on either side of the border to become refugees within the other country.

Gandhi’s Last Campaign

During 1945-47 Gandhi took no part in the final negotiations for independence and partition. He could neither reconcile himself to the division of India nor see an alternative. Instead he traveled the villages of eastern India attempting to stop the spreading communal violence. In Calcutta in 1947 Gandhi moved into a Muslim slum, living with the city’s Muslim mayor and fasting until the city’s violence ended. In January 1948 he conducted what would be his last fast in Delhi, bringing communal conflict to an end in the city and shaming Sardar Patel, now home minister of the new government, into sending Pakistan its share of India’s prepartition assets. On January 27, 1948, Gandhi addressed Delhi Muslims from a Muslim shrine. Three days later, on January 30, 1948, the elderly Mahatma was shot to death as he walked to his daily prayer meeting. His murderer, Naturam V. Godse, was a right-wing Hindu with ties to the paramilitary RSS. Gandhi’s assassination had been planned by a Brahman group in Pune that thought Gandhi dangerously pro-Muslim. Godse was ultimately tried and executed for his act. Revulsion against Gandhi’s assassination provoked anti-Brahman riots in the Mahasabha strongholds of Pune, Nagpur, and Bombay and caused the RSS to be banned for a year.

Gandhi had not attended the ceremonies marking independence and partition, nor had he asked for or accepted any role in the new government. The nationalist movement he had led since 1920 concluded with India’s independence but also with a division of Indian lands, homes, and people more terrible than anything imagined. Yet Gandhi had raised no objections to the final settlement. The viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, hearing that Gandhi opposed partition, had called for a meeting. “It happened to be a day of silence [for Gandhi],” Mountbatten later recalled, “for which I was grateful. In retrospect I think he chose to make that a day of silence to save him the embarrassment of accepting the Partition. For he had no other solution” (Brecher 1961, 141). Less than a year later Gandhi was dead, the most famous victim of partition violence and upheaval. It would now be his heirs and successors in the new government of India who would take on the responsibility of shaping the newly independent Indian state.