The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

British Twentieth Century Imperialism and Anti-imperialism in South Asia

  • Faisal ChaudhryEmail author
Living reference work entry



The ‘short’ half-century from 1905 to 1947 in South Asia was framed by two partitions that say much about the contours of imperialism and anti-imperialism during this final phase of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. With the decision to partition the colonial province of Bengal along its east–west (and Hindu–Muslim) axis in 1905, mass agitation in India was given its most visible platform since the so-called ‘sepoy’ mutiny or Indian rebellion of 1857. By once more dividing a Bengal that nationalist fervour had successfully reunited by 1911, while splitting the Punjab in two as well, the end of British imperialism in the subcontinent in 1947 brought not only independence but also the carnage and tragedy that yielded the two new states of India and Pakistan.

The ‘short’ half-century from 1905 to 1947 in South Asia was framed by two partitions that say much about the contours of imperialism and anti-imperialism during this final phase of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. With the decision to partition the colonial province of Bengal along its east–west (and Hindu–Muslim) axis in 1905, mass agitation in India was given its most visible platform since the so-called ‘sepoy’ mutiny or Indian rebellion of 1857. By once more dividing a Bengal that nationalist fervour had successfully reunited by 1911, while splitting the Punjab in two as well, the end of British imperialism in the subcontinent in 1947 brought not only independence but also the carnage and tragedy that yielded the two new states of India and Pakistan.

Swaraj, the Partition of Bengal, and the Growth of All-India Party Nationalism

While the origin of official party nationalism in India dates to the middle of the 1880s, the English-educated ‘middle classes’ who launched the organisations that became the Indian National Congress (INC) were reformist more than anti-imperialist in bent. The demands articulated by the most visible among these early nationalists thus focused on increased opportunities for participation in the Government of India. These included calls for easing access to posts in the Indian Civil Service and for increased representation within the ranks of the limited institutions of quasi-parliamentary government that the Raj first established after the rebellion of 1857 and until the Indian Councils Act of 1861.

While the INC can scarcely be described as heading a mass-based people’s movement in its early years, events like the so-called Ilbert bill controversy of the 1880s did mean that even the politics of reformism harboured the seeds of more significant oppositional tendencies. Already prior to the INC’s formation, moreover, figures like the Parsi intellectual Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917), the renowned forefather of party nationalism in India and a member of the UK parliament from 1892 to 1895, had begun to voice key points of a nationalist indictment of the economic effects of imperial rule. By the time selections from Naoroji’s speeches and writings were prominently collected in his Poverty and Un-British Rule in India in 1901, he was joined in this effort by figures like the Maharashtrian nationalist and Bombay Supreme Court Judge Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842–1901) and, especially, the Bengali intellectual and Indian Civil Service member Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848–1909). Together such figures articulated ideas about the drain of wealth from India to Britain, the de-industrialization of the subcontinent’s economy through the stifling of handicraft production and the attendant consequence of de-urbanization, and the beginnings of a thesis about distorted agricultural commercialization. The latter, in particular, highlighted the Raj’s privileging of the production of export commodities and their movement by rail to coastal cities over grains for domestic consumption, the creation of a robust internal market, and the prevention of the spate of famines that haunted the Indian countryside throughout the late nineteenth century (Habib 1985; Roy 2000).

By the 1890s Congress nationalism was showing new and more vigorously agitational tendencies as well as signs of the tensions around religious communitarianism that would continue to complicate the politics of anti-imperialism in India throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The early 1890s marked the high point of the popular movement for cow protection that had been gaining momentum across much of north-west India for some two decades, especially with the support of the Gujarati religious luminary Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824–83) and his orthodox Hindu reformist organization the Arya Samaj. This was a budding sore point between increasingly mobilised members of the Hindu community and segments of Indian Muslim society – for whom the cow could be a more ready option than the goat for performing the rite of sacrificial slaughter associated with certain festival days in the Islamic calendar – and rioting around the issue broke out in 1893 in various parts of north India. Clearly symbolising growing inter-religious tension, such turbulence was also indicative of a new phase in the expression of nationalist discontent with the colonial government, whose registration scheme for licensing cow slaughter was taken both as an unfulfilled prohibition of the practice by the protection movement’s advocates and as express sanction for it by Indian Muslims.

One of the more prominent exponents of the majoritarian brand of nationalism that emerged from this mix of anti-imperialist agitation and communitarian strife was the Maharashtrian social reformer, lawyer, and early Congress ‘extremist’ Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), who along with Lala Lajpat Rai (1865–1928) in the Punjab and Bipin Chandra Pal (1858–1932) made up the famous triumvirate of ‘Lal, Bal, and Pal’, usually portrayed as moving the Congress away from its reformist origins and towards a more militant stance. Especially with partition of Bengal in 1905 by the notoriously high-handed Viceroy George Nathanial Curzon (in office 1899–1905), a more extremist ‘hot faction’ emerged within the Congress. This so-called garam dal faction was counterpoised against the more moderate naram dal or ‘soft’ faction headed by figures like Tilak’s rival, the Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915), a fellow Maharashtrian from the Ratnagiri district who was 10 years his junior.

While the ‘moderate’–‘extremist’ split certainly speaks to the terms on which majori-tarian party nationalism negotiated its own evolving temperament, as contemporary historians observe, it does a disservice to the diversity of elements that underpinned the first truly mass and geographically expansive episode of anti-imperialist nationalist agitation that developed around the call for swadeshi (‘self-sufficiency’) in Bengal from 1905 to 1908 or 1911. Along with the old moderates who favoured constitutional methods while being ‘deeply offended at Curzon’s aggressive measures’ (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 95) in Bengal, such as Gokhale and the forefather of Bengali nationalism Surendranath Banerji (1848–1925), the historian Sumit Sarkar distinguishes three other orientations. While the ‘extremist’ politics favoured by Lal, Bal, and Pal, as well as figures like the Calcutta-born poet and yogi Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), clearly did leave room for tactical violence if necessary, more generally such figures called for passive resistance through the boycott of British goods and institutions. At the same time, already prior to 1905 other more diffuse strands – such as those emanating from the Nobel laureate, the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore – had been calling for Indians to ready themselves for a more confrontational stance against the Raj through a process of self-strengthening (atmashakti). Finally, at the most militant end of the spectrum were individuals, both male and female, who used tactics of revolutionary terror, including bombings and political assassinations (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 96; Sarkar 1988).

While the highpoint of swadeshi agitation had passed by 1908, in the previous 3 years notable achievements had been made, with cotton imports declining by up to a quarter in the first year of boycott and a concerted effort to avoid other imported consumer goods as well as major institutions of the colonial state such as courts and educational facilities. At the same time, events in Bengal provided a rallying point for anti-imperial nationalist sentiment to deepen in other parts of the subcontinent as well. They also provided a basis for Congress to increase its visibility and press its claim to the status of ostensible spoke for the nationalist cause outside Bengal, primarily in parts of Madras, the Punjab, and Bombay. As the historian Burton Stein notes, for example, in the south of India the swadeshi movement and the larger moderate–extremist split within Congress that it precipitated by 1907 was used by different elements of Madras’s Brahmin community to jockey for leadership over the regional Congress. While the Mylapore Brahmins of Tamil Nadu had dominated Congress activity in Madras until 1905, their upstart northern Telugu-speaking Brahmin adversaries opted to side with the more radical stance of figures like Tilak and Aurobindo. Supporting the singing of the banned Bengali anthem ‘Bande Mataram’ (‘Hail Mother India’) and pledging to unite the Madras and Calcutta division of the Congress, it was this same faction of Telugu-speaking Brahmins who would form the Andhra Mahasabha in 1910. A half-century later, the same body would succeed in its call for a separate Telugu-speaking province to be carved out from the old colonial province of Madras (Stein 2010, pp. 282–283).

In the Punjab swadeshi activism in Bengal ended up resonating with unrest or discontent that had its own independent cause. The main point of anger in this crucial wheat-growing bread-basket of the subcontinent was the colonial state’s decision to raise rates for canal waters. Some 30 years after irrigation in the province started to be transformed through large-scale canal construction – which, along with the railways, ended up being one of the only forms of heavy capital investment that the late colonial state would sponsor – the years 1906–07 saw the outbreak of significant peasant unrest in the Punjab. At the same time, the province was another site that proved only too well equipped for anti-imperialist social unrest to blend into inter-communitarian tension, owing to its mixed population of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Therefore, so too were the Arya Samaj’s efforts at consolidating support among the lower middle-class Punjabi Hindus just past their third decade (Fox 1985).

By the end of the first decade of the new century, much of the more militant leadership that had assembled around swadeshi – including Lajpat Rai and Tilak – would see their campaigning result in imprisonment or exile. By this time, moreover, the spirit of boycott had already been largely broken – in no small part because of the opportunistic decision of Bombay’s textile industrialists to ramp up prices and profits amid diminished competition, which sapped the Bengali peasant’s ability to persist in support of the boycott. Nonetheless, by 1911 they also saw victory, as the new viceroy Hardinge (who replaced Curzon’s own successor, the Earl of Minto, in 1910) opted to annul the partition decision. In the process, the colonial state’s about-turn also served to discredit the class of landed Muslim interests in East Bengal who had been the only group to support partition, thus further opening the way for the All India Muslim League, which it played a significant role in founding in 1906, to be seized by a new style of leaser by the time of the First World War.

The First World War, the Shifting Economics of Colonial Rule, and Political Leftism

It is telling that among the myriad effects of the First World War on the context of early twentieth-century imperialism and antiimperialism in India the movement of some one million Indian troops to foreign theatres of operation rarely ranks high on the list. While well over 60,000 would perish in foreign battlefields, those who returned proved greatly transformed by the traumas of battle as well as by what was, for most, their first sight of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Though it is difficult to quantify the effect that such exposure had on the views of those who returned to a home society ruled by Britain, the numbers underlying other aspects of the war’s impact are less difficult to capture. Used widely to protect Britain’s broader imperial interests in Asia and Africa throughout the late nineteenth century, on the eve of the war the British Indian Army was already among the largest volunteer forces in the world, if not the largest. In the 4 years after 1914 its ranks had swelled enormously, totalling some 1.2 million by 1918 with some 350,000 absorbed just from the Punjab (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 102; Bose 2006, p. 125). Not surprisingly, such a vast increase in manpower together with the need to support the wider military endeavour that Britain was fighting entailed a large-scale expansion of India’s war-related production, as well as of prices and the money supply.

This combination produced decidedly polarising effects at the different ends of the class spectrum. With the free coinage of silver rupees suspended since the early 1890s, Indian currency policy was controlled by the Secretary of State for India sitting in London, on the basis of a so-called gold exchange standard. With both a gold reserve and a paper currency reserve at his disposal, the Secretary of State’s policy throughout the 1890s was to stabilise the exchange rate of the rupee at 1 shilling 4 pence. If the general tendency towards deflationary policy became too much of a bottleneck, as was becoming the case during the first decade of the twentieth century as economic activity expanded, the mints could be selectively reopened to coin more silver rupees. With the enormous expansion in the price of silver during the war, however, the relationship between the nominal and intrinsic values of the rupee suddenly reversed. Whereas for the previous 20 years actual value was well below nominal value, when the opposite became the case after 1914 there was no choice but to allow the rupee to appreciate. The latter effect was exacerbated by the growing demand for silver fostered by the ramping up of wartime production, which necessitated increased coinage given what was then a still limited paper currency. The supply of silver rupees thus expanded from 1.8 billion to 2.9 billion during the war years (Rothermund 1993, pp. 72–73).

With the colonial state also resorting to an outright printing of money that was secured by accumulating credits on India’s behalf in the Bank of England, in the 5 years from 1914 to 1919 circulating paper notes jumped from Rs. 660 million to Rs. 1530 million (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 103). Given its multiple sources, war-induced inflation would persist for a significant period after 1919, a fact that helped expand the windfall profits that the war had brought to India’s ascending capitalists. Among the emergent industrial bourgeoisie who benefited most were west India’s textile mill owners, concentrated in Bombay and Ahmedabad, with the jute mill owners of East Bengal also seeing significant gains after a decline in orders at the very start of the war (though British jute magnates were dominant in the province); coal-mining capital also fared well. While these were among the few sectors that had already managed to establish themselves under imperial rule, the war marked a coming-out party for cement and, especially, steel, with the famous conglomerate of the Tatas capitalising on the de facto protection that the war brought with it (Rothermund 1993, pp. 67–69; Sarkar 1988, p. 171).

Further complicating these tendencies was the Government of India’s unchastened revenue demand, a virtual necessity in light of its priority of reorienting Indian society and economy towards serving Britain’s war-related needs. While the hated Indian land tax – which had been the principal mechanism for effecting the drain of wealth ever since the late 1700s – had by the 1880s already started to decline in importance in relation to other means of surplus appropriation, it remained a significant burden all the same. Given the increasing reliance on other sources of government demand during the war years – especially through the income tax and customs duties – it was India’s great mass of agriculturalists as well as its much smaller, though significant, band of urban workers who were hardest hit.

As prices of industrial goods and imported manufactures increased precipitously, the war had the opposite effect on the prices of agricultural commodities destined for export. This made for a particularly perilous circumstance for the Indian peasant, whose livelihood had been definitively fastened to the world market ever since the reversal of the long price depression that had characterised the East India Company’s rule in the years from 1820 to 1850. While the blow to the agrarian export economy produced a grave decline in earnings for the wealthier peasantry, as Sarkar notes, the agricultural poor and the landless were confronted with an even more dire situation; the fact that the price of the coarse food grains on which such groups relied for subsistence was increasing faster than the price of more expensive crops like rice and wheat became a particular source of distress. For urban workers as well, the high price of food grains meant that the wartime industrial boom amounted to little in the face of the erosion of their real wages. Overall, therefore, ‘the war meant misery and falling living standards for the majority of the Indian people’ (Sarkar 1988, p. 171).

As a harbinger of great economic dislocation, the war also portended the extreme volatility of social forces that would underpin Gandhianism during the 1920s and the attendant process by which Gandhi himself would transform Congress into the head of a true mass movement. Already before the 1920s, however, both mainstream party nationalism and other anti-imperialist forces experienced other crucial developments that bear mentioning. From 1915 to 1918, for example, the famous poet and Hyderabadborn Bengali activist Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) travelled the breadth of the subcontinent talking about nationalist themes and the empowerment of women. Well before sitting in jail alongside the men who dominated Congress nationalism in the 1930s, she had helped to launch the Women’s Indian Association in 1917 to call for female suffrage and the right to hold what limited legislative offices existed for Indians within the colonial government.

In these same years, other new varieties of radicalism, internationalism, and leftism were accumulating as well. It was in the years after 1918 that trade unionism became truly substantial, paving the way for significant strikes, especially in Bombay in the mid- to late 1920s. It was also in 1920 – at the October meeting of the Second Congress of the Communist International in Tashkent – that the Communist Party of India is often said to have been started. (The main wing of the party, however, records its birth as dating from a conference for Indian communists held in Kanpur, the largest city in contemporary Uttar Pradesh, in 1925.) The spirit of internationalism inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution absorbed a broad range of Indian figures who had already become convinced of the need to solicit foreign assistance – including that from Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany – during the war. They included the eminent socialist (and eventual exponent of a self-made philosophy of ‘radical humanism’) M.N. Roy. Well before the Bengali revolutionary had appeared at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Roy’s initial involvement in what the British feared would become a vast Indo-German conspiracy had brought him to Japan, Korea, China, the US, and then Mexico, where he proved instrumental in starting that country’s Communist Party as well.

Roy’s tireless intellectual production, together with his relentless and penetrating criticism of the mainstream of Indian nationalism, including Gandhi’s ‘counterrevolutionary leadership’ in calling an end to the first campaign of civil disobedience in the early 1920s, is indicative of the great diversity in Indian anti-imperialism that is typically obscured by the focus on better known-figures and organised party activity (Roy 1926, p. 47). In this respect, the origins of Gandhi’s role as anti-imperialist tactician in his struggles on behalf of the Indian community of South Africa (though, as is worth noting, not in any significant way the black one) should not be regarded as unique. Already prior to war and outside a path of intrigue as extensive as that which Roy would travel, for example, an institution like the Ghadar Party had been set up among Punjabi emigrants in North America. With the goal of supporting India’s liberation, assorted Ghadarites had made their way back to the Punjab on the outbreak of war in order to organise revolutionary activities by 1915, persisting in their oppositional activity for the next 30 years until independence was finally won. In a very different example, it was in this same period that in Malabar the beginnings of the modern state of Kerala’s communist tradition began congealing with the emerging, if often symbolically conflicted, low-caste empowerment politics of temple entry (Menon 2007).

Gandhianism, Islamic Universalism, and the Development of a Mass Basis for Politics in the 1920s

Before the 1920s, there was ample reason to believe that the relative quiescence that characterised the beleaguered Congress movement during the first years of the war had come to an end. With leaders like Tilak back from imprisonment or exile (the latter having been jailed in Mandalay), by 1916 Congress had reached its historic Lucknow Pact with the Muslim League. While the pact would continue in the spirit of moderate reformism in its demands on the British, it was more notable for what it suggested about efforts to forge an all-India anti-imperialist politics capable of bringing together the subcontinent’s extremely heterogeneous Muslim community during these years.

As would remain the case well into the 1940s, and much more than the Congress at the same point, the Muslim League was a party in search of a base. What it did have was a new generation of leadership, with the Karachi-born and English-trained barrister and INC member Muhammed Ali Jinnah (1846–1948) having joined the League in 1912 after being elected as the Muslim representative to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1909. Tellingly, Jinnah’s political career thus began in the wake of the so-called Morley–Minto reforms legislated through the Indian Councils Act of 1909. While portrayed by Congress leaders as a stalling tactic in lieu of real self-government, the Morley–Minto reforms increased the number of Indian representatives to the district, municipal, provincial, and central legislative bodies, while expanding their selection through elections rather than appointment. Partly in response to the ‘middle-class’ reformist Muslim leadership, Morley–Minto also inaugurated a system of reserved seats (at a proportion tending to exceed population levels) for Muslim representatives as well as separate electorates for those seats that were to be restricted to Muslim voters. Jinnah himself initially opposed such a system, given its tendency to ghettoise Muslim politics. After he separated himself from any official role in Congress by 1916, however, his ascent within the command structure of the League by championing Hindu–Muslim unity through the Lucknow Pact would be premised on persuading the Congress to accept separate Muslim representation and elections.

While it is true that by this time separate electorates and seats reserved on a ‘communal’ basis were becoming a nonnegotiable issue for the Muslim elite, the politics of imperial divide and rule was not confined to Muslims alone. This would be made most dramatically evident in the rift between Gandhi and the great leader of India’s Dalit community Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) over the ‘communal award’ of 1932, through which the British proposed to mandate a separate electorate for untouchables as well. Yet it had been cemented well before with the Government of India Act of 1919, which reaffirmed electoral ‘communalisation’ by providing for reserved seats not only for Muslims but for various other groups as well, including Sikhs, non-Brahmins, and landowners. The other crucial feature of the 1919 Act was to formalise the so-called Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 2 years earlier. Setting the pattern for imperial strategy for the next quarter century, the 1919 Act thus sought to appease the increasingly vociferous demands articulated by the nationalist mainstream for home rule by offering a system of dyarchy or dual government. By expanding the franchise and devolving a variety of non-essential powers of government to the provinces, where Indian politicians would be dominant, the offer of dyarchy proved effective in splitting the mainstream of party nationalism after 1917 once more.

It was against this backdrop that Mohandes Karamchand Gandhi (1868–1949) would step into the void of official leadership, with his charisma, invocation of traditional Hindu imagery, and unique blend of cultural traditionalism, agrarian anti-materialism, and tactical ingenuity accelerating Congress into his orbit. The symbolism to which Gandhi appealed allowed a much-needed expansion of populism within the mainstream of the nationalist movement. As Thomas and Barbara Metcalf observe, for example, Gandhi’s appeal to the imagery of khadi (hand-spun or hand-woven cloth) and charkha (the spinning wheel) ‘opened new opportunities for India’s women’. This took place by shifting the emphasis of the most audible stream within nationalist discourse from the notion of woman as guardian of an inner ‘spiritual’ order to woman as a lead sponsor in actively creating the nation by her own hand (Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, p. 185).

Born to a Gujarati bania family, educated as a lawyer, and having made his way to South Africa by 1893, Gandhi would remain keenly aware of the goings-on in India, with his earliest well-known tract, Hind Swaraj, appearing in 1908. By 1915 Gandhi had returned from Natal, initially remaining distant from Congress nationalism and dipping his toes into the waters of several local agitations instead. From 1917 to 1918 he thus involved himself in Gujarat in an episode of agrarian protest over the colonial state’s land revenue demand, followed by a second experiment in the industrial centre of Ahmedabad where he helped to conciliate a labour dispute in the city’s textile mills. His third major campaign during these years found him in the eastern province of Bengal, where he lent his support to peasants against the European indigo planters who supervised the forced regime of production to which they were subject.

By 1919, with mainstream party nationalism able to win no more than dyarchy, with the hated wartime emergency powers for detention and trial without jury (inaugurated by the so-called Rowlatt Acts) retained, and with seething discontent among the urban and agrarian poor, Gandhi saw fit to expand his strategy for agitation far and wide. After he set up his own organisation Satyagraha Sabha, drawing on the existing infrastructure of home rule leagues and allying with the leaders of ‘Pan-Islamist’ (or, perhaps less derisively, ‘Islamic universalist’) sentiment, the Muslim brothers Mohamed and Shaukat Ali, the protests of 1919 were the most significant in India since the 1857 rebellion. They also marked the inauguration of a new method of hartals or work stoppages which were designed to unfold in co-ordinated fashion with urban marches and other forms of direct action. Alarming to the British, the new emphasis on such tactics elicited a resort to martial law in various areas; the most notorious consequence of this took place in the Punjabi city of Amritsar, where on 13 April 1919 the commanding general Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on peaceable protesters gathered at the Jalianwalla Bagh, killing 379 and injuring more than 1200 (Bose and Jalal 2004, pp. 111–112; Metcalf and Metcalf 2006, p. 168).

Now more vocally calling for the old strategy of ‘passive resistance’ to be supplemented by a confluence between ahimsa (nonviolence) and his new philosophy of ‘questing for truth’ through satyagraha, Gandhi ascended rapidly over the next few years. Both on its surface and at a much deeper level for the great many, especially in the north Indian belt from Gujarat to the Uttar Pradesh, where so many revered the Mahatma (or ‘the great soul’), it was a Gandhian nationalism that became the idiom for confronting British imperialism en masse. Fresh from capturing leadership, Gandhi continued his alliance with Muslim political leaders attempting to spearhead a mass movement among Indian Muslims to express concern over the fate of the Ottoman Empire’s claim to the Islamic caliphate, the survival of which was feared to be in jeopardy after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Allying with these ‘pro-khilafat’ Muslims, Gandhi once again expanded his tactic of organised mass agitation through what became the truly all-India ‘non-cooperation movement’ of 1920–22. As Sarkar notes, even in a relatively isolated province like Assam, non-cooperation would attain a strength that no later episode of nationalist anti-imperialism would again rival (Sarkar 1988, p. 217). Likewise, so was the ‘Malabar Rebellion’ of 1921 a chapter in noncooperation. (It was also, more immediately, a chapter in pro-khilafat agitation among a Mappila community of Muslim tenants in south-west India who had been invoking Islamic imagery in protest against their largely Nair and Nambudiri landlords since the mid-nineteenth century.)

Again taking British imperialism by storm, the ferocity of non-cooperation was scarcely contained. Gandhi’s decision to muster the immensity of his reputation to call for its end in February of 1922 – not, as suggested earlier in the quotation from M.N. Roy (1926), without criticism – followed from peasant unrest in the Uttar Pradesh district of Gorakhpur, which resulted in the burning of a police station in the town of Chauri Chaura and the deaths of 22 officers trapped inside. As the incident at Chauri Chaura suggests only too well, mass agitation may have found crucial inspiration in Gandhian nationalism but was never exhausted by it. Throughout the 1920s, as significant episodes of satya-graha continued, there was also a dramatic upsurge in labour and peasant unrest, both through highly visible organised action and on a more spontaneous basis. The textile mills of Bombay played host to their first widespread strike in September of 1925, with some 250,000 millhands participating and communist trade unionists playing a significant role in its organization. This was only a prelude, however, to the much bigger industrial action that would be conducted among Bombay’s millhands 3 years later in 1928, with worker participation roughly doubling (Chandravarkar 1981). Likewise, during these same years the subcontinent witnessed a dramatic expansion in the membership of the new kisan sabhas (‘peasant associations’). Marching largely to the beat of its own drummer, such peasant (and also ‘tribal’) resistance was more often than not feared as a source of potentially uncontainable unrest in the countryside, by British colonialists as well as mainstream party nationalists. With the growth of such subaltern movements, the demands and ideologies of those at their forefront also proved varied and nimble. Calls for abolition of zamindari landlordship, threats of rent and revenue strikes against government and private landed interests alike, and agitation against the government’s attempts to increase its tax demand – as in the Krishna–Godavari river delta in 1927 – would become an important feature of these years and a sign of things to come (Sarkar 1988, pp. 241–242).

At the same time, it was not just Gandhi who displayed a knack for charismatic leadership coupled with tactical ingenuity. By 1927 Ambedkar had emerged as the crucial figure giving voice to the demands for caste equality (and abolition), especially among his own community of Mahar untouchables in Maharashtra. As his visibility increased, he would also become unsparing in criticising Gandhi’s paternalistic and ineffectual approach to India’s Dalits, which focused on conciliation rather than confrontation by calling on upper castes to treat untouchability as an unwanted accretion rather than a fundamental feature of Brahmanical domination. In Tamil Nadu, these same years witnessed Erode Venkata Ramaswami (1879–1973), known to his followers under the title of Periyar, break with Congress after supporting non-cooperation in the south of India to launch his anti-Brahmanical ‘self-respect’ movement.

The Political and Economic Contexts of the 1930s

In terms of the high politics of British rule in India during the period from the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s and before the Second World War, there occurred a continuation of already established patterns of imperial retrenchment. In the face of ever more vociferous demands for autonomy and, by December 1929, purna swaraj (‘complete self-rule’), London persisted in offering only vague possibilities of constitutional reform by increasing the franchise, expanding legislatures, and devolving non-essential powers to the provinces. True sovereignty through control over the political centre and key issues like defence and finance remained off-limits. To an observer in the 1930s it would hardly go without saying that the days of British imperialism in the subcontinent were numbered.

The historic purna swaraj declaration itself was meant as a direct response to the parliamentary ‘Simon’ Commission of 1928 and its tepid recommendations along the above lines in the wake of the extreme anti-imperialist tumult of the 1920s. Gandhianism had dealt the final blow to Congress’s old moderates long ago, and by 1930 it was a younger, more left-leaning, and still almost entirely male leadership that was taking over the party, which had now become the premier font of majoritarian nationalist politics in India. This included figures like Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) and Subhas Chandra Bose (1897–1945), both of whom would play ever more important roles in the years to come. After the failure of the Simon Commission, it was with Gandhi’s historic ‘salt march’ in March 1930 that the next great wave of all-India anti-imperialist agitation would be unleashed. This took shape through the civil disobedience campaigns of the early 1930s. While the salt tax was deemed an obscure target to inaugurate this new phase of struggle, the symbolic richness of the choice was made manifest as Indians of all stripes supported the Mahatma’s procession to the coastal city of Dandi. The insistence of a figure like Naidu on participating alongside the largely male group that Gandhi had assembled portended what would also become of the thousands of largely rural women (along with some urban-based elite women) who would consciously break the law, openly selling and buying salt in countless market towns. It was the subcontinent’s women, above all, in other words, who would vindicate Gandhi’s tactic.

While civil disobedience would be renewed several times over the next 4 years, amid large-scale arrest and repression, the first phase of the campaign reached a limit in March 1931. At this point Gandhi once more found himself with cold feet when faced with the possibility of uncontained peasant radicalism and the possibility of revolutionary violence. (It was during this period that the young Punjabi revolutionary and Marxist Bhagat Singh (1907–31), along with his fellow revolutionaries Sukhdev Thapar (1907–31) and Shivaram Rajguri (1908–31), would be tried for the last time and convicted in the famous Lahore Conspiracy case that resulted in their execution.) Ongoing calls in the agrarian context to suspend the payment of rent, for example, fell foul of Gandhi’s general preference for ‘national unity’ over arousing excessive inter-class and inter-caste discord by too freely sanctioning a national liberation movement focused on the inequities of Indian society rather than just the goal of independence. By March 1931 Gandhi would enter into his much-reviled pact with Viceroy Irwin in advance of the second of the three Round Table Conferences that would take place on constitutional reform in London and as part of which he would call to end the first phase of the civil disobedience campaign. Unfortunately, Gandhi banked on obtaining more than would be in the offing at the second conference, which took place at the end of 1931. He would miss the third conference at the end of 1932 altogether, although from his jail in Pune his vow to fast to the death in the name of opposing the fractionalization of Hindu unity did succeed in persuading Ambedkar to sign the so-called Poona Pact. (It was by the terms of the latter that Ambedkar withdrew his support for Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award, which would have created separate electorates for India’s untouchables. In exchange, Ambedkar won Gandhi’s support for an increased number of seats for the ‘depressed classes’ instead.)

While the first inkling that Britain might one day leave India would emerge with the Government of India Act of 1935, that piece of legislation was roundly condemned by anti-imperialist forces across the political spectrum. Although it would do away with the system of dyarchy and bring all government offices under the control of elected Indian officials, the Act’s arrangements for power at the federal centre were deemed too little, too late. Among the condemnations were those that came from Jinnah, now the leader of the Muslim League, who used the Act’s deficient though explicit proposals for the future structure of a federal centre as an occasion to return to politics after the League had been largely sidelined from the mid-1920s. (The ‘Pan-Islamist’ politics of the Gandhi-allied khilafat movement proved to be little to Jinnah’s staunchly secularist liking.)

Despite their outrage at the 1935 Act, mainstream party nationalists opted not to boycott the proposed elections for provincial ministries in 1937, with Congress’s sweeping success proving nearly unqualified and the Muslim League’s dismal performance a sign of how little support Jinnah still had as the ‘sole spokesman’ for India’s Muslims. Winning a total of only 4 percent of the Muslim vote, as the historian Ayesha Jalal has been most important in demonstrating, Jinnah’s League was caught in the basic contradiction that would bedevil any brand of all-India Muslim politics for the next 10 years. With the two most populous Muslim states of the Punjab and Bengal dominated by elites and politicians whose interests favoured maximal provincial autonomy, there was scarcely any convergence with the interests of elites and politicians in the Muslim minority provinces, whose fate would be tied to the prospect for power over the federal centre. According to this view, there was no straight line from the demands of the Muslim League to a demand for secession in order to form an Islamic homeland (Jalal 1985). Of course, outside the realm of high politics the notion of a Muslim state in north-west India, consisting of what would become the provinces of the eventual West (though not East) Pakistan, had initially been articulated in 1930 by the famous poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) and again in 1933 by Chaudhri Rahmat Ali, a student at Cambridge. As such, it was also gaining popular momentum within the broader context of mounting anti-imperial agitation in the years that followed.

Setting the larger context for the high and popular politics of India anti-imperialism during these years was the shock of the Depression, which was heard around the world and reverberated across the decade. From the standpoint of a colonial economy like that of India, still dealing with the dislocation produced by the First World War, the Depression initially manifested itself through the sudden collapse of a wheat price that had become acclimatised to a general increase in agrarian prices following the First World War. While internal supply and demand conditions in India remained the same, the release of American wheat stores took their toll on world market prices. A similar fate (though for very different reasons) was met by the price of rice.

Yet it was not simply cash crop production that was hit by the Depression. With British imperialism’s dominant mode of surplus extraction having already shifted since the 1870s and 1880s to appropriation via credit rather than tax-based mechanisms, by 1929 the Indian peasant had grown deeply dependent on borrowing. Therefore, even if the path of credit terminated in the person of the reviled moneylender, it clearly commenced in the esteemed high streets of London. The larger collapse in liquidity was thus anathema to the subsistence agriculturalist as well, given the reliance of the peasant on usurious loans to service revenue, rent, and debt payments. All of these burdens thus increased when prices for agricultural commodities plummeted, given that both government and landed and moneyed power-holders refused to lower their respective demands.

It can be no surprise that Gandhi’s decision to call off civil disobedience before the Second Round Table Conference took place just as discontent was spreading from the subcontinent’s wheat-producing areas to its eastern and southern rice-growing regions (Rothermund 1993, pp. 98–99). With the colonial state’s refusal to accept the nationalist demand for a prohibition on the export of gold, it is equally unsurprising that from 1931 to 1936 some Rs. 3 billion worth of gold left India. The product of distress sales by a desperate peasantry selling off ornaments, trinkets, and, in effect, the last reserves of what little wealth they had, the outflow was the direct consequence of the marked appreciation of gold and the inability of anyone but the Secretary of State in London to control India’s monetary policy. Once it became more lucrative for the moneylender to demand the surrender of objects made of precious metal rather than whatever nominal debt he was owed, there was little choice for the peasant but to comply. In the process the enormous disinvestment from the Indian countryside that took place maintained Britain’s allimportant imperial interest and self-image as creditor, including that to an India with which it had long run a trade deficit but upon whose exports the imperial centre’s traditional surplus with the rest of the world was based (Rothermund 1993, p. 102).

Finally, in urban areas the Depression produced a more varied set of effects. While unemployment and low wages were common in many important sectors, such as jute and cotton textiles, for industrialists in others the limited tariff protections that were allowed in these years proved significant. Sugar, pig iron, and cement are three notable examples. Ultimately, however, ‘the 1930s were good times for urban consumption’ though much less so for ‘urban investment’, with the Rs. 155 million worth of alcohol imported in this time, rivalling the total invested in machinery for cotton textile production (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 122).

War, Partition, and the End of British Imperialism

To continue with the focus on economic context, the last years of the British imperial enterprise in the subcontinent once again produced a whiplash effect wrought, in major part, by the consequences of international geopolitics for world capitalism. Viceroy Linlithgow’s unilateral declaration of India’s entry into the war alongside Britain on 3 September 1939 inaugurated a new phase of anti-imperialist outrage among party nationalists, though much less within the Communist Party of India. (The latter’s anti-fascist stance in support of the Allied war and its eventual opposition to the last great Gandhian episode of civil disobedience that took place through 1942s Quit India movement would largely sap the goodwill it had been building up since the high point of communist–socialist unity after 1936.)

While the effects of the Second World War were not wholly different from those of the First, they were also much more dramatic. Initially at least the war brought with it increasing prices that reversed the pattern of the Depression years, with the full employment of existing industrial resources, another windfall in the profits of India’s capitalist class, and significant difficulties for the agrarian and urban poor. With little new capital investment, even though wages and profits should have increased purchasing power for ordinary consumption, the prioritisation of export for provisioning Britain’s war effort ended up seriously compounding what Rothermund calls the regime of ‘forced saving’ to which India was being subjected (1993, p. 115). With goods from the subcontinent bought by the British government on credit, in the longer term the vast sterling balances that India was accumulating in London would fundamentally alter its foundational role as debtor to Britain’s creditor. Although the heart of the economic relationship on which British imperialism had come to be premised would thus be inverted, in the immediate term such balances could not be touched. Moreover, the enormous increase in the Indian money supply on which such expansion was based made for a grave inflation shock. While in the 10 years from 1929 to 1939 the money supply increased from Rs. 3.4 to 4 billion in coins (and dropped from Rs. 2.6 billion to 1.6 billion in paper notes), by 1945 it had reached Rs. 22 billion. Overall, during the war the printing presses thus produced the equivalent of Rs. 11 billion in sterling balances in the Bank of England and another Rs. 5 billion in other credits. Herein was to be found not only the inversion by which the war would result in a national debt of Rs. 9.5 billion and credits totalling approximately Rs. 16 billion but also one source of the extreme duress that the rural poor, labour, and the urban salaried would face. With a dramatic decline in what the economist Amartya Sen calls ‘exchange entitlements’, it was the millions in rural Bengal who would suffer the worst of this duress, with the catastrophic famine of 1943–44 taking some 3.5 to 3.8 million lives (Bose and Jalal 2004, p. 129; Rothermund 1993, p. 116; Sen 1999).

While by the end of the war the fate of British imperialism was in many ways sealed, the 1940s would witness questions of independence that were increasingly consumed by questions about the structure of the proposed federal centre. The renewed rift within Congress after 1937, which pitted an increasingly pronounced left wing led by Subhas Chandra Bose against the organization’s more conservative right wing and what was, by then, Gandhi’s often stifling moderation, was only temporarily repaired by the shared outrage over the declaration of war on India’s behalf. The reinvigorated spirit of unity that resulted did lead the rejection of Sir Stafford Cripps’s Mission to India in March 1942, the gestures of which towards self-government proved insufficient for party nationalists in the Congress. However, this unity could not conceal the lasting difficulties that were to result from the crisis that Congress had experienced in its conference of early 1939 at Tripuri, a village in the then Central Provinces, where Gandhi up-ended Bose’s attempts to win re-election as president. Despite the latter’s electoral victory, Gandhi had used his great personal stature to persuade both Congress’s right and left, Nehru included, to make it effectively impossible for Bose to lead. Combined with the general failure of the Congress left to resist the anti-labour and anti-kisan policies of its party ministries in the provinces, the atmosphere was such that Bose was left with little choice but to withdraw his candidacy. Opting in June 1939 to form a new ‘Forward Bloc’ within Congress – with communist support – he would be altogether ousted from the INC by the end of 1939 (Sarkar 1988, pp. 373–374).

In this sequence of events are to be found the origins of Bose’s later efforts to launch the last great internationalist chapter in Indian anti-imperialism with his Azad Hind Fauj (‘Indian National Army’, INA), with its widespread participation of women and its famous female ‘Rani of Jhansi’ regiment as well as its tilt towards the Axis powers. Escaping from India in 1943 and making his way towards Japan, Bose sought to recruit a religiously and ethno-linguistically diverse range of Indian expatriates and surrendered soldiers from the British Indian Army in East and South-East Asia. These he planned to use to lead a march back to Delhi in order to strike at a Britain embroiled in the Allied war. While the INA would be halted in 1944, and Bose himself would die in a plane crash in 1945, the British decision in that same year to try three INA officers – one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Sikh – would incite the last great episode of mass people’s protest during the anti-imperialist struggle.

In the story of Bose’s exile from Congress, there can also be found evidence of the conflicting nature of the forces that comprised Indian anti-imperialism at nearly every level. While the politics of Hindu–Muslim strife had hardly begun in the 1940s (or even in the twentieth century), whatever clear momentum towards partition that had developed in these years was not ultimately determinative of the choice of partition. Instead, the rush of events that followed the end of the war derived principally from the inability of mainstream party nationalists to come to consensus over what the federal structure of the post-colonial state should look like. Amid the squabbling, recrimination, and back and forth, almost nothing was certain with respect to how ‘nations’ and ‘states’ in the subcontinent were to be aligned once the British were finally to leave.

With the Simla conference of June 1945 bringing together Gandhi, the Congress, and Jinnah, with the 1945–46 elections in which Jinnah’s Muslim League had finally won any semblance of right to call itself an All-India Party for the subcontinent’s Muslims, and with the so-called Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, exactly what the Pakistan demand was supposed to mean remained largely up in the air. From the standpoint of Jinnah’s brand of Muslim League anti-imperialism, the idea of binding together the Muslim-majority areas of the north-west and Bengal in the north-east was meant largely as a means for creating a loose confederal structure.

In this latter vision – as the Cabinet Mission of 1946 found the British largely endorsing – the ‘Pakistan’ entity, complete with its large Hindu and Sikh minority communities, was to function as a counterbalance to a ‘Hindustan’ entity that would have its own large community of Muslim minorities. Therefore, that Jinnah’s endgame should have eventually come apart may not have been an entirely obvious outcome, even if it was, perhaps, naive to imagine that Congress’s leadership – now securely in the hands of figures like Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel (1875–1950) – would ever prefer a weakened centre over a non-partitioned Bengal and Punjab. That the ultimate fruit of antiimperialism in India was to be both independence and the enormous human tragedy of partition, however, cannot be doubted. With an effective population exchange across religious lines of some 12 million persons and widespread, gruesome, and semi-organised communitarian slaughter, Britain’s sudden insistence on quitting India as fast as it could in 1947 would pave the way to a new era of American neo-imperialism, complete with its Cold War battles against the Soviet Union. The latter itself being no stranger to neoimperialism in Asia, it would be a very different constellation of global forces that would have to be met by the states that the struggle against British imperialism in the subcontinent gave rise to, India, Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh as well.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA