(BRITAIN, IRELAND and INDIA – continued)

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Gandhi versus Britain

After the world war, British conservatives believed that with determination Britain could hang onto its empire and extend its imperialism in the Middle East. And they continued to believe that British rule in India was better for the people of India than the people of India ruling themselves. Meanwhile, in India people had been encouraged in their desire for independence by Britain describing itself as fighting the Great War for the sake of Belgian self-determination. People in India, moreover, were upset by the privations of the war years and the great influenza epidemic of 1918 which left five million Indians dead.

Mohandas Gandhi had become a prominent political leader in India – an Indian who had read Thoreau, Emerson and the New Testament in addition to India's sacred literature. Gandhi was not a pacifist. He believed in self-defence but he also believed that for a movement, such as independence from the British, peaceful resistance would be less costly in human lives than armed opposition. He saw inaction as cowardice and a sin greater than ill-considered aggression. His strategy was cold-blooded: the sacrifice of lives in order to shame the oppressor into making concessions. note24

In India, Gandhi's protests spread among the masses. Violence erupted in the Punjab and Gujarat areas and in the city of Delhi. And although Gandhi regretted the violence, he was not dissuaded from continuing his campaigns. At Amritsar between April 10 and April 12, 1919, a mob murdered five Europeans and attempted to murder an English missionary woman and an English woman doctor. A crowd of Indians set fire to an Anglican Church while students were inside studying. A mob looted two British banks, killing three managers. They set fire to a British railway depot, killing a British official there, and they attempted to burn down other buildings associated with British rule. British authority in India responded to the violence by declaring assemblies illegal, but the next day at Amritsar a mob gathered, and the British officer in charge, General Reginald Dyer, ordered his troops to fire into the crowd, killing 379 and wounding 1,208 in less than ten minutes.

On the street where a British woman had been assaulted, Dyer posted soldiers and ordered any Indians wanting to pass across a 140-meter (150-yard) part of the street to crawl on their stomachs, sealing off the street for residents for six days. Word of this humiliation spread to people across India.

The Jalianvala Bagh (Amritsar) Massacre was a turning point in India's drive for self-rule. Many who had been for gradual steps toward autonomy (self-rule with the British in charge of foreign affairs) swung to favoring complete independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and his family gave up their splendor and pro-British attitudes in favor of local dress and political action. Nehru joined the Congress Party, which was leading India's independence movement and to which Gandhi belonged.

British newspapers praised General Dyer, describing him as having prevented another Sepoy Mutiny. It pained Indians to see English ladies standing in front of British men's club and hotels collecting money for a sword of honor to give Dyer. But by mid-year, 1920, a government inquiry in London condemned Dyer, upsetting some British patriots. Britain's Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, told the House of Commons that killing people in order to terrorize them to obedience should be forbidden as policy, that Britain's policy toward India had never been and should never be "based on physical force alone." British rule in India, he said, was based on "cooperation and goodwill" between the two races, and he described firing into unarmed crowds as "frightfulness."

In Britain opinion continued to be divided on the issue, with many believing that it had been a necessary show of force. British authorities attempted to appease Indian opinion by setting up government councils with Indian representatives that were to function under British control.

Political assassination and terrorism in India continued. Men believing in terrorism as a strategy for independence entered the Congress Party. They were elected to its committees and their resolutions were accepted by the membership. Bombs of a more powerful type were manufactured. Robbing wealthy Indians as a method of obtaining funds was discarded in favor of attacks on post offices and railway cash offices.

Gandhi's influence resulted in women entering India's nationalist movement in numbers, these women remaining exceptions in a land where women - Hindu as well as Muslim - were subservient. Women in India still married in their infancy and childhood and were to be described as chattel to their husbands. note25

Gandhi's movement of "non-cooperation" with the British had widespread appeal and participation from a variety of the Indian population. A violent clash in the town of Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh in February 1922 was followed by Gandhi calling off his campaign of mass civil disobedience – the third time he had called off a major campaign. But with Gandhi as a focal point for Indian independence, British strategists decided it would be a good idea to arrest him. They moved fast. He was arrested on March 10, tried for sedition and sentenced to six years in prison starting on March 18.

The publication of E M Forster's novel A Passage to India in 1924 eroded confidence among the British that their rule in India was justified. That same year, Gandhi was released from prison. And in 1925, at odds with other leaders of the Congress Party, he retired from politics. He turned his attentions instead to a war against taking drugs and drinking alcohol and to attempting to transform the world through spiritual power. Soon, however, he would return to political action.


A New History of India, Sixth Edition, by Stanley Wolpert, 1999

Rise and Fall of the British Empire, by Lawrence James, 1997

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker, 2008

My Own Story, by Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette, written in 1914, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.