In 1947, India stepped out of the British Empire. Time to look at the history and consequences for Indian politics.
by Ian Copland
‚At the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom‘. With these stirring words Indian Prime Minister-elect Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed the imminent coming of his country’s independence from Britain. The date was 14 August 1947. Initially the handover had been fixed for the following day. However Hindu astrologers pronounced 15 August inauspicious: hence midnight. As for the year, 1947, one could be excused for thinking that the UK’s decision to let India go precisely at that point was influenced by the Second World War and particularly by the impact of that conflict on its continued ability to hold India in thrall by force of arms. And that would be right. Nevertheless, the ‚devolution of power‘ in India (as it was described in London) owed nearly as much to promises made decades earlier.
No sooner had the Subcontinent been conquered, and the British Raj established, than liberal imperialists like Thomas Macaulay were contending that imperial control should last only so long as it took to impart ‚civilization‘ to South Asia and ‚improve‘ its peoples to the point where they were fit to run their own affairs with the aid of ‚English institutions‘. When that day comes, Macaulay told the Westminster Parliament in 1830, ‚ it will be the proudest day in English history‘. In August 1917 the Secretary of State for India announced that, henceforward, the ultimate goal of British policy in the subcontinent would be to transfer power into Indian hands.
Yet, despite this pledge, it is possible that the British would never have left if they had been allowed to get on with the job, as it were, and had not faced a great nationalist movement led by the Indian National Congress (INC), the best organised movement of its kind anywhere in the colonial world. The movement was not merely formidable in terms of numbers (the INC had four million paid-up party members by the 1940s) but blessed with brilliant leadership: M.K. Gandhi – the ‚Mahatma‘ or ‚Great Soul‘ – and ‚Pandit‘ Nehru were both astute tacticians and men of unimpeachable moral character. Specifically, it is now generally accepted that the exit of 1947 was primarily driven by the sober realisation in London that the war-weakened UK no longer possessed the money (or manpower) needed to suppress yet another revolt in India on the scale of the Congress rebellions of 1930 and 1942.
No revolution in New Delhi
Still, while there is strong evidence in the official files for this conclusion, the fact remains that the INC did not win power by an act of revolution – and this, too, requires explanation. One factor was that, while Congress often used revolutionary rhetoric, it was at heart an institution modelled on English parliamentary practices and committed (at least from the early 1930s) to the principles of democracy. Another factor was that the party’s end-strategy was to arrange things so that it could inherit the state that the British had built up: a state that had a functioning bureaucracy, assured tax-revenues, an army and navy, a judiciary and a splendid capital in the shape of the planned city of New Delhi. This strategy required that the Indian state be handed over rather than seized by means of a long and possibly ruinous insurrection.
Meanwhile, for its own part, the government was pressing on with its policy of staged devolution: In July 1935 London enacted a new Indian constitution which made the country’s eleven provincial administrations responsible to mostly elected legislatures, and extended the franchise from six to thirty-six million. Although the INC had, from the start, rejected the imperial timetable as being far too slow, nevertheless some of its High Command now called for the party to take part in the elections scheduled for 1937 as a way of effecting change from within. This faction prevailed. In the event, the party carried six provinces with absolute majorities.
At this point the nationalists became part of the governing structure, and the consequences were momentous. First, it gave some of the Congress leaders a taste for government, and more generally confirmed for the party that constitutional change offered a genuine way forward. Second, while the Congress Ministries lasted only until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, they lasted long enough to convince the British that the nationalists could (and would) rule responsibly when the transfer of power was eventually effected. Thirdly, the 1937 experience helped normalise the practice of voting for the country’s political elite. Today the Indian Republic is the world’s largest functioning democracy. One of the main reasons why it has succeeded in this respect (while other new states have not) is surely this pre-history.
But this is not to say that everything went according to plan in 1947. It did not. The final imperial blueprint for the handover, the plan drawn up by a three-member Cabinet Mission, after lengthy discussions with the Indian party leaders, in May 1946, envisaged that power would be transferred to a single sovereign (but federally-constituted) successor state. This only partly met the desires of the Nehru-led INC, which centred on a ‚union‘ rather than a federation: Nehru believed that a strong central government was required to implement the ‚command economy‘ that would oversee the country’s development. It certainly did not equate with the desires of the All-India Muslim League, which since 1940 had been pushing for the six so-called Muslim provinces – Sind, Punjab, Bengal, Assam, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province – to be cut adrift so as to form the basis of a separate and sovereign ‚Pakistan‘.
Even so, the Cabinet Mission Plan came within an ace of being accepted by these two major parties. For several months, members of League and Congress served together in an Interim Government headed by the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten. As historian Ayesha Jalal has argued, Pakistan might have been an attractive option for Muslims living in the designated homeland areas, but less so for the League leaders who hailed, mostly, from Bombay, Delhi and the United Provinces.
Ethnic violence and (forced) migration
So, maybe if it had been left to the leaders (particularly the more moderate ones) of both major parties to resolve matters, India might have stayed united. But in 1946 the people took a hand and voted for separation. This happened in three ways: First, at the beginning of the year, new elections were held. Although the INC again won the popular vote by a large margin, the Muslim League for the very first time gained control of the two provinces that formed the cornerstone of its putative homeland, Punjab and Bengal, displacing the regional, mainly Muslim, coalitions which had held sway there since the early 1920s.
Second, around the middle of the year, violent clashes between Muslims and Hindus erupted in Calcutta. From there they spread to rural Bengal, to the towns of Bihar and Punjab, and, last but not least, Delhi. Some of these killings were reflex, but more and more of them, as time went by, were premeditated actions, planned and carried out by organised mobs. By 1947 some of these communal mobs had become fully-fledged militia armies.
Third, as the killing spread, minority populations became fearful. Some stayed and hoped; others prepared to fight to the death. Some Sikh families, forewarned that Muslim mobs were approaching, slaughtered their women and children to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Enemy. Most, though, sought refuge with their co-religionists: Sikhs and Hindus headed for the parts of the country that were slated to become India, and Muslims set their sights on Pakistan. They travelled by trains, ships, aeroplanes, and on foot. Many were ambushed and murdered. All told probably a million people died. Thirteen million more migrated, east and west, between 1947 and 1951 – the largest mass movement in modern history.
Although a section of Indian nationalists loyal to the Hindu Mahasabha (the forerunner of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party) still refused to accept the inevitable, the INC leaders by June 1947 had reluctantly reconciled themselves to a division of the country in preference to all-out civil war.
Some commentators have pondered whether the transfer of power in 1947 could have been better managed. Why, for instance, so fast an exit after decades of foot-dragging? Might a devolution policy tilted more towards the INC have avoided the demarche of Partition and the attendant costs, economic and human, which have been visited upon the region as a result of ongoing Indo-Pakistan rivalry?
However, unlike the vexed issue of the coming British exit from Europe, no-one today doubts the rightness of this earlier “Brexit”. Moreover, reservations about the way it was managed must not be allowed to obscure the fact that it happened. The importance of this event in modern world history cannot be overestimated.
True, the U.S. had given the Philippines Commonwealth its independence a year earlier. But India was the really big domino. Far and away the biggest, richest, and most iconic colony of modern times, India’s ‚fall‘ made the demise of the rest of the European overseas empires inevitable because it signalled that old style colonialism was no longer either proper or beneficial. Sure enough, within a decade Britain, France and the Netherlands had all liquidated their holdings in Asia (albeit in the latter two cases after ineffectual attempts to restore the pre-War status quo). By the 1980s almost all the colonial dominos had toppled. Is there a lesson here for contemporary Europe?
Ian Copland is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Philosophy, History and International Studies at Monash University, and a former editor of the journal South Asia. He is a student of modern India and Pakistan and of comparative colonialism. His most recent research has focused on the policies and practices of India’s Congress Party during the first three decades of independence.