India's Independence

India's Independence

India’s independence from England was the result of many generations of resistance, culminating in a series of large-scale independence movements from 1919 to the early 1940s led by Mahatma Gandhi.


5 - 12


World History, Social Studies

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In the 1600s, India was ruled by the Mughal empire, which had been in control for hundreds of years. India was made up of smaller city-states and had established trade routes and a long history of art and culture. However, there were colonial powers like England, Portugal and the Netherlands that were taking control of pockets of land. Companies from those countries were using trade to gain power. One of the most prominent companies was the East India Company from Britain, which at one time controlled half of the world’s trade. It recruited its own army and began seizing control of India region by region. Sometimes it took control through military force, such as through winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Other times it gained power through economic dominance.

For a time, the British government allowed the East India Company a lot of leverage in taking over regions in India because England was benefiting financially. However, when decades of unrest and resistance by Indians against the East India Company eventually resulted in Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British government dissolved the East India Company but kept control of its land. This is how Britain took over large portions of what is now modern-day India.

The Sepoy Mutiny and the British Raj

One of the first united actions that Indians took against British control was the Sepoy Mutiny. Indians were angered by the increasing pressure to convert to Christianity by the British, and they were also growing concerned about attempts to Westernize their country. When Hindu and Muslim soldiers were seemingly forced to use guns and ammunition with animal products, which is against both religions, a rebellion was sparked. The fighting spread through northern and central India over the course of several months, uniting groups of Indians in a common cause. There was a lot of violence and death on both sides, and the conflict stretched on for more than a year. The rebellion ended on June 19, 1858 when the British recaptured a town called Gwalior and fighting ended. This victory marked the beginning of the British Raj (meaning “rule”) in India, but modern Indians note this mutiny was an early example of nationalistic action taken by Indians.

Throughout the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, India generated large amounts of wealth for England, with people referring to it as “the jewel in the crown” because of its valuable natural resources and industry. Despite this, conditions for Indians under British rule grew worse and worse over the same time period. Poverty in India increased from about 23 percent to more than 50 percent from 1810 to the 1950s. The death rate increased, and the life expectancy of the average Indian was less than 22 years. Resistance to British rule rose due to these conditions, and Indians advocated for more representation and control over the local government. A British man named Allan Octavian Hume brought together a group of Indians to serve on the Indian National Congress in 1885. Hume purposely chose Indians that were Western-educated because he hoped that they would be more agreeable to British rule, culture, and politics. Despite being supportive of British rule at the beginning, the Indian National Congress would slowly become a nationalist entity, and later members would be strong supporters of an independent India. One of these leaders was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi and the Modern Indian Independence Movement

Mahatma Gandhi was born in India and went to law school in England. He also worked as a lawyer in South Africa. He returned to India in 1915 as a strong supporter of Indian nationalism, and he joined the Indian National Congress to advocate for Indian self-rule. He used many forms of nonviolent resistance, also called passive resistance, to draw attention to the cause of self-rule and gain support. These methods included writing speeches and letters, leading marches, organizing protests and demonstrations, boycotting British goods and institutions, leading prayer meetings, and more. In addition to bringing the people of India together behind the cause of an independent country, his protest methods inspired future civil rights leaders around the world, including Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.

The first major movement Gandhi led was in response to violence after the Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919. The Rowlatt Act took away many civil rights of Indian people. After the British began firing on a crowd at a peaceful protest against the act, Gandhi organized a large-scale protest campaign, the Non-Cooperation Movement, in response. As part of the campaign, he organized a boycott of cloth goods made in Britain and famously weaved his own cloth. The spinning wheel became a symbol of independent India.

Gandhi continued to lead major protests into the next decade, gathering more support from the Indian people. In 1930, the Indian National Congress declared independence from England, which was ignored by the British government. In response, Gandhi organized the Salt Satyagraha, in which Gandhi led followers on a long march to the sea and made his own salt from seawater in defiance of the law. This was a symbolic act protesting the British sale and control of salt, as well as commenting on India’s ability to provide for itself. Gandhi was arrested and thrown in jail in 1930 because of these actions, but jailing Gandhi did not put a stop to the protests. Sarojini Naidu, a famous female poet, led a non-violent takeover of the Dharasana Salt Works, a British-owned salt company, after Gandhi was arrested.

India Achieves Independence

During World War II, India’s industry was growing while England was suffering losses from the war, and by the end, the British lacked resources to hold onto their colonies. They began losing power politically as well as economically. Indian leaders began setting up parallel governments, where, in certain areas, Indians had their own rulers and laws alongside the British ones. In 1942, Gandhi organized the Quit India Movement, a large push to get the British to agree to leave India. Many British officers and policemen responded to the protests of the Quit India Movement with violence. In response, Indians destroyed bridges and railroad tracks and sometimes reacted with physical fighting. Unlike previous situations where Gandhi chastised Indians for not using passive resistance, Gandhi did not condemn the non-peaceful actions of the protesters and instead blamed the British for having not given up control.

After World War II, several different factors came together at the same time for India to gain independence. Because of the war, Britain had depleted resources, and it seemed unlikely that it would be able to continue controlling India. In 1946, the Royal Navy in India went on strike due to poor working conditions and low pay. There was also violence and fighting between Hindus and Muslims, which further strained British control.

On August 15th, 1947, India became an independent country. Pakistan also became an independent country and cites its independence day as August 14th. At the time, leaders in the British, Hindu, and Muslim communities thought that if they divided British-controlled land into a Hindu-led country and a Muslim-led country, it would stop the violence. Though the partition of India and Pakistan led to violence between the two groups, independence was at last achieved after generations of resistance and advocacy by Indians.

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Last Updated

February 20, 2024

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