My country the end of Colonial Rule and Dawn of Freedom

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Anupama Nair

With the end of the 19th Century, the arrival of the 20th Century was not very happy for India. The first partition of Bengal in 1905 brought the province to the brink of open rebellion. The British recognized that Bengal, with around 85 million people, was much too large for a single province and determined that it merited re-organization and intelligent partition. The line drawn by Lord Curzon’s government, however, cut through the heart of the Bengali-speaking “province,” leaving western Bengal’s bhadralok or respectable people, the intellectual Hindu leadership of Calcutta, tied to the much less politically active Bihari- and Oriya-speaking Hindus to their north and south. A new Muslim-majority province of East Bengal and Assam was created with its capital at Dacca. The Indians however, viewed that partition as an attempt to “divide and rule” and as proof of the government’s vindictive antipathy towards the outspoken bhadralok intellectuals, especially since Curzon and his subordinates had ignored countless pleas and petitions signed by tens of thousands of Calcutta’s leading citizens. Bengali Hindus who believed in Mother Goddess Durga that partition was nothing less than the amputation of their “mother province,” and mass protest rallies before and after Bengal’s division on October 16, 1905, attracted millions of people who were till then untouched by politics of any variety.

The new tide of national sentiment born in Bengal spread to the entire Sub-continent and “Bande Mataram” written by Bankim Chandra, from his popular novel Anand Math, and its music was composed by Bengal’s greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore. As a reaction against the partition, Bengali Hindus launched an effective boycott of British-made goods and dramatized their resolve to live without foreign goods by igniting huge bonfires of Lancashire-made textiles. Such bonfires, re-creating ancient Vedic sacrificial altars, aroused Hindus in Poona, Madras, and Bombay to light similar political pyres of protest. Instead of wearing foreign-made cloth, Indians vowed to use only domestic  or swadeshi cottons and other clothing made in India. Simple hand-spun and hand-woven saris became high fashion, first in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal and then all across India, the finest Lancashire garments were now viewed as hateful imports. The swadeshi movement soon stimulated indigenous enterprise in many fields, from Indian cotton mills to match factories, glass-blowing shops, and iron and steel foundries.

Increased demands for national education also swiftly followed the partition. Bengali students and professors extended their boycott of British goods to English schools and college classrooms. The movement for national education spread throughout Bengal, as well as to Varanasi (Banaras), where Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya  founded his private Banaras Hindu University in 1910.

One of the last major demands to be added to the platform of the Congress Party in the wake of Bengal’s first partition was Swaraj, which become the most popular mantra of Indian nationalism. Swaraj was first used in the presidential address of Dadabhai Naoroji, as the Congress’s goal at its Calcutta session in 1906. In England the Liberal Party’s victory of 1906 heralded the dawn of a new era of reforms for British India. The Viceroy, Lord Minto, and the new secretary of state for India, John Morley, was able to introduce several important innovations into the legislative and administrative machinery of the British Indian government. He tried to enact Queen Victoria’s promise of racial equality of opportunity, which since 1858 had served only to assure Indian nationalists of British hypocrisy. He appointed two Indian members to his council at Whitehall — Sayyid Husain Bilgrami, who had taken an active role in the founding of the Muslim League, and Krishna G. Gupta, who was the senior Indian in the ICS. Morley also persuaded a reluctant Lord Minto to appoint an Indian Satyendra Sinha to the viceroy’s executive council in 1909. Sinha (later Lord Sinha) had been admitted to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1886 and was advocate general of Bengal before his appointment as the Viceroy’s law member, a position he resigned in 1910. He was elected president of the Congress Party in 1915 and became parliamentary undersecretary of state for India in 1919 and governor of Bihar and Orissa in 1920. 


The reunification of Bengal helped to pacify Bengali Hindus, but the downgrading of Calcutta from imperial to mere provincial capital status was simultaneously a blow to egos of Bhadralok and to real estate values in Calcutta. Political unrest continued, and Lord Hardinge himself was nearly assassinated by a bomb thrown into his howdah on top of his viceregal elephant as he entered Delhi in 1912. The would-be assassin escaped in the crowd. Later that year Edwin Samuel Montagu, Morley’s political protégé, who served as parliamentary undersecretary of state for India from 1910 to 1914, announced that the goal of British policy toward India would be to meet the just demands of Indians for a greater share in government. Britain seemed to be awakening to the urgency of India’s political demands just as more compelling problems of European war pre-empted Whitehall’s attention.


In August 1914 Lord Hardinge announced his government’s entry into World War I. India’s contributions to the war became extensive and significant, and the war’s contributions to change within British India proved to be even greater. In many ways politically, economically, and socially the impact of the conflict was as great as that of the Revolt of 1857.


Then an incident happened on the afternoon of April 13, 1919, where 10,000 or more unarmed men, women, and children gathered in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh despite a ban on public assemblies. It was a Sunday, and many neighboring villagers had also come to Amritsar to celebrate the Baisakhi festival. Dyer positioned his men at the sole, narrow passageway of the Bagh, which was otherwise entirely enclosed by the backs of abutted brick buildings. Without any warning, he ordered 50 soldiers to fire into the gathering, and for 10 to 15 minutes about 1,650 rounds of ammunition were unloaded into the screaming, terrified crowd, some of whom were trampled by those desperately trying to escape. Many thousands lost their lives. However, Dyer, who argued that his action was necessary to produce a “moral and widespread effect,” admitted that the firing would have continued had more ammunition been available.


The governor of the Punjab province supported the massacre and, on April 15, placed the entire province under martial law. Viceroy Chelmsford, however, characterized the action as “an error of judgment,” and, when Secretary of State Montagu learned of the slaughter, he appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by Lord Hunter. Although Dyer was subsequently relieved of his command, he returned as a hero to many in Britain, especially the Conservatives, and in Parliament members of the House of Lords presented him with a jeweled sword with words inscribed “Savior of the Punjab.”

The Massacre in Amritsar turned millions of moderate Indians who were patient and loyal supporters of the British into nationalists who would never again place trust in British “fair play.” It thus marks the turning point for a majority of the Congress’s supporters from moderate cooperation with the raj and its promised reforms to revolutionary non-cooperation.


The last quarter of the British raj was racked by increasingly violent Hindu-Muslim conflict and intensified agitation demanding Indian independence. British officials in London, as well as in New Delhi which became the new capital of British India in 1911 tried in vain to stem the rising tide of popular opposition to their Raj by offering tidbits of constitutional reform, which proved to be either too little to satisfy the Indians. More than a century of British technological, institutional, and ideological unification of the Indian Sub-continent thus ended after World War II with communal civil war, mass migration, and in the end painful amputation of Bharat Ma.


Many of the younger members of the Congress Party were eager to take up arms against the British, and some considered M.K. Gandhi as an agent of the Imperial Rule for having called a halt to the first satyagraha in 1922. Most famous and popular of the militant Congress leaders was our beloved and most respected Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. He was so popular within Congress that he was elected its president twice (in 1938 and 1939) over Gandhi’s opposition and the active opposition of most members of its central working committee. After being forced to resign the office in April 1939,


Elections held in the winter of 1945–46 proved how effective Jinnah’s single-plank strategy for his Muslim League had been, as the league won all 30 seats reserved for Muslims in the Central Legislative Assembly and most of the reserved provincial seats as well. The Congress Party was successful in gathering most of the general electorate seats, but it could no longer effectively insist that it spoke for the entire population of British India.


The Indian Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1947. It ordered that the dominions of India and Pakistan be demarcated by midnight of August 14–15, 1947, and that the assets of the world’s largest empire, which had been integrated in for nearly ten thousand years be divided within a single month. Racing the deadline, two boundary commissions worked desperately to partition Punjab and Bengal, but, as soon as the new borders were known, roughly 30 million Hindus , and Sikhs fled from their homes on one side of the newly demarcated borders to what they thought would be “shelter” on the other. In the course of that tragic exodus of innocents, as many as a two million people—Hindus and Sikhs and not a single Muslim were slaughtered in communal massacres.


The transfer of power was completed on August 14 in Pakistan and August 15 in India, held a day apart so that Lord Mountbatten could attend both ceremonies. With the birth of the two independent nations, the British Raj formally came to an end on August 15, 1947.


What saddens me is the struggle of nearly 200 years for Independence ended in tragedy and Bharat the world’s oldest civilization was amputated and her children in tears.

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