The History Of Indian Freedom Struggle (1857-1947)

In primeval times, people from all over the globe were eager to come to India. Initially, the Aryans came from Central Europe and settled down in India. Later, the Persians followed by the Iranians immigrated to India. Then came the Mughals and they too settled down permanently in India. Changes Khan, the Mongolian, invaded and plundered India many times. Alexander the Great too, came to conquer India but went back after a battle with Porus.

He-en Tsang came from China in pursuit of knowledge and visited the ancient Indian universities of Nalanda and Takshila. Columbus was willing to come to India, but instead landed on the shores of America. Vasco-da-Gama from Portugal came to trade his country’s goods in barter for Indian species. Also, the French came and established their colonies in India.

Lastly, the Britishers came down and ruled over India for almost 200 years. Soon, after the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British achieved political power in India. Their dominance was established during the tenure of Lord Dalhousie, who became the Governor- General in 1848. He occupied Punjab, Peshawar and the Pathan tribes in the north-west of India. And by the year 1856, the British conquest and its authority were firmly established.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857

Introduction of the zamindari system by the British, where the peasants were ruined through ridiculous charges made from them by the new class of landlords. The craftsmen were destroyed by the incursion of the British manufactured goods. The religion and the caste system which formed the stiff foundation of the traditional Indian society were endangered by the British administration. The Indian soldiers as well as people in administration could not rise in hierarchy as the senior jobs were exclusively reserved for the Europeans. Thus, there was all-round discontent, dissatisfaction and disgust against the British rule, which burst out in a revolt by the sepoys at Meerut whose religious sentiments were snubbed when they were given new cartridges greased with cow and pig fat, whose covering had to be stripped out by biting with the mouth before using them in rifles. The Hindu as well as the Muslim soldiers, who bluntly refused to use such cartridges, were arrested which resulted in a revolt by their fellow soldiers on May 9, 1857.

The Mutiny of 1857, which began with a revolt of the military soldiers at Meerut, soon became prevalent and posed a serious challenge to the British rule. Even though the British succeeded in crushing it within a year, it certainly became a popular revolt in which the Indian rulers, the masses and participated so enthusiastically that it came to be regarded as the First War of Indian Independence.

The rebel forces soon captured Delhi and the revolt spread to a wider area and there was uprising in almost each and every part of the country. The most ferocious battles were fought in Delhi, Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, Allahabad, Awadh, Agra, Meerut and western Bihar. The Hindus, the Muslims, the Sikhs and all the other brave sons of India fought shoulder to shoulder to throw out the British. The revolt was controlled by the British within one year; it began from Meerut on 10 May 1857 and ended up in Gwalior on 20 June 1858.

The Struggle for Freedom

It started with the birth of congress. The credit for the birth of the Indian National Congress is given to A.O. Hume, a retired British civil servant who inaugurated it. He collected widespread facts of the imminence of a terrible revolution by the half-starved and desperate population. Thus he set about to find ways and means to direct the popular impulse into an innocuous channel. He wrote a letter to Graduates of Calcutta University in 1883 and as a result, the Indian National Union was formed in 1884. It was to meet in Pane later that year for constitutional agitation, on an all-India basis; this organization was renamed the Indian National Congress. In December 1884, the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society was held at Madras and there some leading public figures met and decided to inaugurate an all India national movement.

Right from its birth, the Indian National Congress took its job seriously. They were a class of elite and erudite people. However, in 1907, there took place a split in the Congress, as there were some members who were dissatisfied with the scheme of affairs under the Moderate leaders. Blistering and spirited leaders like Bain Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, parted company with them.

This was the time when extreme nationalists came to the forefront; this was sparked off by the Partition of Bengal into west and east Bengal in 1905, by Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy and Governor-General. He declared that the step would help to develop the administration of the highly populated region, where the Bengali Hindu intelligent men exerted considerable influence on both local and national politics. The partition created two provinces: Eastern Bengal & Assam, with its capital at Dhaka, and West Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta. This hastily implemented action outraged the Bengalis. There were widespread agitations across the state. It was October 16, 1905, the day on which the partition came into effect, was observed as a day of mourning and fasting throughout Bengal. RabindranathTagore, the famous Nobel-laureate and writer, spoke out against this political event by means of a highly inspiring poem. There was a mass-scale fasting by the people and no food was cooked on that day.

This was the time when the Swadeshi Movement was first initiated. Indians all over the country came together in groups, made public bonfires of foreign clothes, cigarettes, soap and anything that came handy. They vowed to use only native manufactured products. A large number of young leaders in Bengal took up the massive task of educating people. On August 15, year 1906, a National Council of Education was introduced under the educationist and revolutionary, Aurobindo Ghose.

The British government came down heavily on these exhibitions and protests. In 1907, leaders Lala Lajpat Rai and Sardar Ajit Singh were exiled from the Punjab. In 1908, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested and sentenced to a period of six years imprisonment. Aurobindo Ghose was also arrested, prosecuted and when acquitted, escaped to Pondicherry to escape the clutches of the British. In later years he founded the Aurobindo Ashram; a center for the evolution of another kind of life which would in the end be moved by a higher spiritual consciousness and embody a greater life of the spirit.

When Great Britain was involved in World War I, India’s national movement though assumed new dimensions. One of them was the Home Rule Movement. The importance of the Home Rule movement lay in the fact that for the first time, the independence of India clearly became the objective of the Indian national movement. On April 28, 1916, the Home Rule League was set up with its headquarters at Pane.

Gangadhar Tilak went on a tumultuous tour of the country, appealing to everybody to unite under the banner of Home Rule League. Annie Besant, an Irish lady, who was a member of the Theosophical Society of India, played a key role in this movement. In order to quell the growing revolutionary fervor and spirit, the British government enforced stricter laws to prevent agitations and meetings. The public at large especially the youth began to indulge in acts of terrorism, blowing up railway lines and picketing shops bombing parliamentary meetings. It was at this juncture that a new leader appeared on the political horizon.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a barrister who came back to India from South Africa at the age of forty nine. In South Africa, he had already built an incredible reputation for himself as a political leader. Almost immediately after arriving in Bombay, he was offered to lead the national movement. Gandhi opted to travel and know the country thoroughly first and to make acquainted himself with the masses.

Meanwhile in 1917-18, came the Rowlatt Act; the power of internment without trial proposed by Justice Rowlatt which. It amongst other things gave the courts the right to try political cases without a jury while provincial governments, apart from the center, Gandhi intensely opposed the Rowlatt Act saying that since it raised issues of trust and self-respect, and hence should be met by a moral response.

This dreadful incident of Jallianwala Bagh added fuel to the fire of nationalist movement. On April 12, 1919, General Dwyer, who had taken over the command of the troops in Punjab, the day before, prohibited all public meetings or gatherings. Unfortunately a large number of men, women and children had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden in Amritsar on the occasion of Baisakhi and also to show their resentment against the government policies. Infuriated, General Dwyer fired sixteen hundred rounds of ammunition on the crowds, resulting in a stampede and a bloody massacre of thousands of men women and children.

The cruelty of the Jallianwallah Bagh tragedy shocked the whole country. It deeply moved the national leaders who now keenly began to search for more effective, newer, ways to express their anguish and discontentment against the government. To show his solidarity with the Indian masses, Tagore rejected the title of knighthood, earlier conferred upon him by the British government.

By the time, the Khilafat Movement was also launched in September 1919 as a communal movement to protect the Turkish Khalifa and save the empire from dismemberment by Great Britain and other European powers. The Ali brothers initiated the Movement. Its conferences were organized in several cities in northern India. Subsequently, the Ali Brothers produced the Khilafat manifesto. The Central Khilafat Committee started a fund to help the nationalist movement in Turkey and to organize the Khilafat Movement at home.

In the year 1920, under the leadership of Gandhi, the Indian National Congress launched his first innovative protest, the Non Cooperation Movement; Non-violence was to be strictly observed. It involved surrender of all titles, honorary offices and nominated posts in local bodies. People stopped attending government functions and royal court functions and ceremonies. Parents were requested to withdraw their children from all kinds of government-run educational institutions. British courts and the army were boycotted. Indians were to stand for elections to any government body or legislature. Unfortunately, the Non Cooperation Movement came to an unexpected end, with the Chauri-Chaura incident which took place in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh in the year1922.

The incident took place when members of a Congress and Khilafat procession were picketing the local bazaar in a campaign directed both against liquor sales and high food prices. Being provoked by some policemen, a section of the crowd attacked them. The police opened fire on the people. In retaliation, the entire procession killed around twenty policemen and set the police station on fire. A shocked Gandhi decided to withdraw the movement.

In the year1925, a band of young revolutionaries in UP looted a large amount of cash belonging to the government treasury from a Kakori bound train on the Saharanpur- Lucknow railway section. The Government detained a large number of young men and tried them in the robbery case.

Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqualla Khan, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri were hanged; four others were sentenced to a life term to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Chandra Shekhar Azad remained as a fugitive but was ultimately shot down in a park at Allahabad.

In 1930, Civil Disobedience Movement was launched under Gandhi’s leadership; it proved to be one of the most important phases of India’s freedom struggle. In November 1927, the Simon Commission was constituted by the British Government to prepare and finalize a constitution for India, and consisting of members of the British Parliament only.

It was boycotted by all sections of the Indian social and political platforms as an all white commission. The opposition to the Simon Commission across the country was pervasive. Massive manifestations were held in Calcutta on 19 February1928, the day of Simon’s arrival in the city. On 30th October 1928 when the Simon Commission was expected to arrive in Lahore, it was greeted by black flags… The police canned the mob, during which, Lala Lajpat Rai was fatally injured and succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.

Bhagat Singh, a young Marxist from Punjab, vowed to avenge Lala Lajapt Rai’s death. Accompanied by the Chandrashekhar Azad, Rajguru and Sukhdev, plotted to kill Scott a police officer who had brutally beaten up Lalaji. However instead of Scott, they mistakenly killed a junior officer named Mr. Sanders, thereby facing the wrath of the administration. The British, under the Defense of India Act, empowered the police to arrest people and stop processions.

On 8 April 1929, to protest against this decision, Bhagat Singh and an accomplice, Batukeshwar Dutt threw handouts and threw the hand grenades durng an ongoing session in Delhi’s Central Assembly. However, Bhagat Singh was found guilty, and was hanged on 23 March 1931. On 13th March 1940, nearly more than two decades after the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, Udham Singh, a revolutionary shot dead General Dwyer, the masterbrain behind the massacre, during a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asia Society, at the venue Caxton Hall in London. He was hanged in London on June 12, 1940.

At its historic Lahore Session held in December 1929, The Congress, under the president-ship of Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted a resolution to this effect. It authorized the Congress Working Committee to launch a Civil Disobedience Movement throughout the country. It was decided that 26 January should be observed all over India as the complete Independence Day. In April 1930, there were violent conflicts between the police and the masses in Calcutta. Thousands of people were incarcerated in the course of the Civil disobedience movement While Gandhi was in jail, the first Round Table Conference was held in London in November 1930; it was completely boycotted by the congressmen and therefore, futile. The ban upon the Congress was removed due to the economic hardships caused by the Salt Satyagraha; movement for truth led by Gandhi. Later Gandhi and other members of the Congress Working Committee, was released from prison in January 1931.

The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed in March 1931, with the government agreeing to release all political prisoners. As a result, Gandhi agreed to discontinue the civil disobedience movement and participate in the second Round Table Conference, which was held in London in September 1931. However, this meeting too was a fiasco. In December 1931, a disconsolate Gandhi returned to India, determined to resume the Civil Disobedience Movement in January 1932.

Until the enforcement of the Government of India Act of 1935, during the next few years, the Congress and the government were perpetually involved in conflicts and negotiations. In the meantime, the gap between the Congress and the Muslim League was mounting with both sides indulging in accusations. The Muslim League disputed the claim of the Congress to represent all people of India, while the Congress disputed the Muslim League’s assert to voice the aspirations of all Muslims.

During World War II, the Congress decided that India could co-operate with Britain on condition that complete independence be granted to India after the war was over. India’s arbitrary entry into the World War II was totally opposed by Subhash Chandra Bose, President of the Congress in 1937 and later in1939.

Resigning from Congress in 1939 Subhash floated a new party, the All India Forward Bloc. In 1941 he adroitly escaped from house arrest in Calcutta, and resurfaced in Germany. There he brought together German and Japanese help to fight the British in India. Subhash was reportedly killed in an air crash in August 1945. His end is still shrouded in mystery

Meanwhile the split between Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Congress’ objectives widened further. Early in 1940, Jinnah publicly declared the creation of Pakistan as the vital goal of the League. During the ongoing World War II, after the fall of France in 1940, The British offered that a constituent assembly as well as Dominion status would be discussed after the war.

In March 1942, the British government, by means of the Cripps Mission attempted to secure Indian cooperation and support for their efforts in the still going World War II. The mission was headed by Sir Cripps; a senior Labor Party politician and government minister in the War Cabinet.

In India, Cripps met with the Indian leaders, but he failed to present any concrete proposals for greater self-government. Soon, The Congress leaders felt that the British were not interested in granting India self-government or respecting Indian public opinion on the war. Offended by this, the Congress halted all talks with Cripps.

The nation guided by Gandhi, demanded immediate self-government in turn for war support. Finding the British unresponsive, Gandhi gave the final call for the British to Quit India. This movement was launched on August 8, 1942 in Bombay and immediately caught on like wild fire across the country. It was a “Do or Die” attempt on the part of the leaders as well as the masses.

With The victory of Britain’s Labor Party’ in the elections of 1945,it was a shot in the arm for the Indian freedom fighters, as the party had long championed the cause of India’s freedom and helped reassess the merits of the traditional policies. While the British were negotiating to transfer power to India, the Muslim League renewed its demand for the formation of Pakistan.

Ali Jinnah, who was opposed to sharing power with the Indian National Congress, declared 16 August 1946 as Direct Action Day, which led to communal rioting in many places in the northern part of the country leading to thousands of people lost their lives.

On 3 June 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, announced plans for the split o the British Indian Empire into a secular India, and Islamic Pakistan, which was divided into east and west wings on either side of India.

At midnight on August 14, 1947, India became an independent nation, with Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister. Gandhi was against the idea of a divided India, thus he spent the day fasting and praying in Calcutta. Muslims in the northwest and northeast of India were taken on board into Pakistan. Violent clashes between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were followed. The area of Kashmir became a source of controversy that erupted into the First Indo-Pakistani War which lasted from the year 1947 to 1949.

India and Pakistan were granted full autonomy. In the year 1948, Mountbatten was succeeded by C.Rajgopalachari, a veteran Congress leader. While, Mohammed Ali Jinnah assumed charge as Pakistan’s Governor General a Liaquat Ali Khan as Prime Minister.

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