The fall of the 200 year long British Raj in India could be attributed to innumerable events over their reign.
Although India has encountered many invasions through the ages, never before had invaders been so strongly opposed.
After 69 years of independence, we bring you ten such pivotal events that laid the foundation for the independence of our homeland.
First war of Independence, 1857
In the year 1857, the dominance of the East India Company was at its peak. Protests and rebellions were already prevalent. An upheaval began after a sepoy mutiny on May 10 in Meerut that encouraged many other such mutinies. Many kings, frustrated with Lord Dalhousie’s ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, also joined the rebellion. The policy dropped the practice of adoption of legal heirs in the absence of a natural one. Princely states without “true heirs” would thus be annexed by the British Empire.
Abusing the policy, the Company refused to provide adopted princes with a pension following a ruler’s death. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, was a prominent victim of this scheme. On the basis of maladministration, the states of Hyderabad and Awadh were also annexed.
Consequently, many states attempted to tear down the tyrannical rule of the Company; revolting in unity.
In Barrackpore, the introduction of the Enfield Rifle sparked an outrage in the Bengal Army. Incidentally, the cartridge in the rifle, rumoured to be greased with beef and pig fat, had to be bitten off to be loaded. A sepoy in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry, Mangal Pandey, infuriated about the rifles, revolted against the Company. Pandey shot Sergeant-Major Hewson, when he arrived in Barrackpore to investigate the matter. For his treason, Pandey was sentenced to be hanged.
His death, sparked an outrage across the nation, stirring religious sentiments in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Less than a month after Pandey’s death, soldiers in the Bengal Army were asked to use the Enfield Rifle, which they refused. All the soldiers were court-martialled and sent to prison for 10 years. On May 10, Sunday, 1857, a sepoy mutiny erupted, taking advantage of the absence of senior British officials, who were attending church. Both civilians and soldiers held protests in the streets. Buildings were set on fire, blacksmiths broke the chains off and released arrested soldiers and Britishers were attacked.
On May 11, the rebel soldiers arrived in Delhi to seek Bahadur Shah Zafar’s leadership. Zafar didn’t offer support initially, but later, he too joined the revolution. Britishers were massacred all the way from Delhi to Bengal. Although, the Company managed to suppress the revolution, the idea that an independent nation was not far-fetched embedded itself into the hearts of the countrymen.
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919
The one incident that instigated hostility amongst Indians, was that of the Jallianwala Bagh. On the festive occasion of Baisakhi, a crowd of pilgrims had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. The crowd, that also had non-violent protesters was fired upon on the command of one, General Reginald Dyer.
On April 13, 1919, to protest against the Rowlatt Act and the unwarranted arrests of freedom-fighter Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal, a crowd had joined Baisakhi pilgrims in a peace march. Policemen attempted to stop the march and fired upon the crowd, killing two people. The peaceful march turned violent and the protesters torched government buildings and five British officials died.
To handle the now unruly mob, Brigadier-General Dyer was called. All exits were blocked and an unsuspecting crowd of 20,000, was fired at and the peaceful protest screamed bloody murder. A stampede ensued and around 1650 bullets were fired for ten minutes as the innocents attempted to escape. Firing ceased only after the soldiers ran out of ammunition. An official death toll of around 400 was reported however, the actual figure is surmised to be much higher. The monstrosity of the incident inspired many other freedom-fighters to take vengeance. Their verve changed the face of the revolution for independence.
One such zealous fighter, Udham Singh, a witness of the massacre, shot Dyer dead 21 years later in 1940.
From the massacre, emerged revolutionaries, disparate from Gandhi’s pacifism, ones with aggressive dynamism and the will to impose themselves to become the fighters the country needed.
Bombing of the Assembly, 1929
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre sparked hostility amongst an entire new generation. A 12 year old boy, deeply impacted by the incident, vowed to take India’s freedom by force, if necessary. The boy grew up to be the legend that was Bhagat Singh.
When the Simon Commission came to India to revolutionize constitutional reforms in 1927, it faced strong opposition. During one such protest, Lala Lajpat Rai received injuries after being beaten by police SP James A. Scott with sticks. Rai passed away as he could not recover from his injuries. Freedom fighters Chandra Shekhar Azad, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh plotted to avenge his death but, Deputy SP Sanders got killed instead.
Later, the gang hatched a conspiracy to bomb the Central Legislative Assembly. It was decided that the Assembly would be bombed during the declaration of the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Dispute Act by the Viceroy. The bombings were never intended to be fatal and the sole objective for the revolutionaries was to get their voices heard. They didn’t try and escape, instead, they continued to shout the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”. They were arrested and hanged on March 23, 1931.
Kakori Conspiracy, 1925
To wage a war against the British and their machineguns with pistols was absurd. To level the playing field, the revolutionaries needed advanced weaponry, for which, they needed money. A meeting held at Shahjahanpur, Ram Prasad Bismil plotted to rob the Britishers. On August 9, the Number 8 Down Train Saharanpur-Lucknow passenger train was stopped by Rajendra Nath Lahiri. On Bismil’s command, Ashfaqulla Khan, Chandra Shekhar Azad, and six others raided Government Treasury’s money.
The guards were as the raiders busted into the vaults and fled with Rs 4,000. Since none of the passengers were looted, the British suspected it to be no ordinary robbery and began a manhunt. Bismil was arrested on September 26 and lodged cases against 40 revolutionaries of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) for waging a war against the Empire with arms, robbing British Government Treasury, and killing passengers. Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqulla Khan, Rajendra Nath Lahiri and Thakur Roshan Singh were sentenced to be hanged on these charges.
After the Kakori robbery, the HRA took new form in a ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and Army’ (HSRA) with Chandra Shekhar Azad as its new commander. Azad expanded the HSRA in secret, recruiting revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Batukeshwar Dutt, among others.
The years from 1919 to 1947 witnessed many national movements. The period is also known as ‘Gandhi Yug’ as all movements from the period, violent or non-violent were either invoked or inspired by Gandhi.
Non-Cooperation Movement, 1920
The Non-Cooperation Movement was initiated in a Calcutta session in 1920. In the session, Congress laid direct, firm attacks against the British Rule, by boycotting the Legislative Councils and beginning the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Annie Besant spoke against Gandhi and called the movement the biggest jolt to India’s independence. Along with Besant, Surendranath Banerjee, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah also opposed the movement. But, Congress accepted the proposal as it received support from the Ali brothers and Motilal Nehru. This movement marks the beginning of the ‘Gandhi Yug’. The movement, that started on August 1, 1920, was the first nation-wide movement where Hindus and Muslims worked jointly.
Nearly 90,000 students dropped out of government schools and colleges to join the 800 national institutions in the country.
Led by Narendra Dev, C R Das, Lala Lajpat Rai, Zakir Hussain and Subhash Chandra Bose, several national institutions were established. Bose was even appointed as the principal of National College, Calcutta. Many lawyers also abandoned their practice including Motilal Nehru, C R Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Vallabhbhai Patel, Asaf Ali, T Prakasham and Rajendra Prasad.
Foreign clothes were boycotted and burned publicly and soon, their import was cut down by half. Mahatma Gandhi returned his Kaisar-i-Hind medal. Congress activists were ordered to collect funding. The ‘Tilak Swaraj Fund’ even crossed its target and managed to collect one crore. Usage of khadi cloth and charkhas was widely encouraged. Volunteers from Congress worked parallelly as police forces.
On July 21, 1921, in Karachi, Ali brothers declared that for any Muslim to be a part of the army is prohibited and asked them to resign. Following the brothers, Gandhi too asked Hindus to break all ties with the British Empire. With the Swadeshi movement gaining popularity, the nation unified and the British Empire’s stronghold weakened. To maintain the building pressure on the government, the Civil Disobedience Movement was started but in 1922, the movement received a harsh blow.
Chauri Chaura Incident, 1922
On February, 1922, in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh, some volunteers were beaten up by the police for opposing the sale of alcohol and a price-hike in edible items. Following the incident, protesters marched towards the Chauri Chaura marketplace and attacked the police. To disperse the crowd, the police fired shots in the air which only stirring the crowd even more. Protesters pelted stones at officers, who took shelter inside the police station. The station was torched by enraged protesters and any officers that escaped the station were murdered and tossed back into the flames.
Twenty two policemen were killed in the midst of the violence. Disappointed, Gandhi put a stop to the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Civil Disobedience and Salt Satyagraha, 1930
Over the next six years, thousands of people started backing the movement, strengthening the revolution. Gandhi proposed the movement three times and it was eventually initiated in the year 1930.
In December 1929, During the Congress session, the proposal for freedom was accepted and it was decided that January 26 would be celebrated as the Independence Day. Meetings were organised on the date and Congress hoisted an Indian flag. Along with the Independence Day declaration, Gandhi also announced the Civil Disobedience Movement. Gandhi declared that salt laws would be broken by making salt themselves without paying the British Salt Tax.
Using salt as a symbol against the British Raj, Gandhi embarked on the Dandi March. The British couldn’t challenge such a protest with mere weapons. On March 12, along with 78 of his supporters, Gandhi began the march. Gandhi and his supporters arrived at Dandi on April 5 and the next day, they made salt on the seashores delivering a sharp blow to the tyrannical empire. The fact that many women were also a part of the historical march held great significance.
Britishers responded to Gandhi’s emboldened act with his arrest and the arrest of 60,000 others. Martial law was enforced at several places and Congress was declared an illegal organisation. However, Gandhi’s impression could no longer be challenged. His Satyagraha movement provided immense emotional and moral support against the dominion of the British.
Azad Hind Fauj, 1942
As the independence movement gained force, members of the Congress divided themselves as two separate ideologies emerged, those of non-violence and violence. The latter sect believed in projecting strength.
In 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed which, Subhas Chandra Bose didn’t agree with. Tensions arose between the two leaders. So when Bose was elected as president of the Indian National Congress for a second time, Gandhi wasn’t pleased. He presented Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya to challenge Bose in the elections. Bose established victory by 200 votes. Gandhi expressed discontent and took Sitaramayya’s defeat as his own. He went on a hunger strike and demanded a re-election.
Bose gave up and resigned as President of Congress on April 29, 1939. He formed a new party, the All India Forward Bloc, the same year. On July 4, 1943, Bose assumed leadership of the Azad Hind Fauj in Singapore. After Singapore, Bose marched on to Burma where he established second headquarters for the army in January, 1944. With his army, Bose managed to reclaim some parts of Burma from the British Empire. However, with Russia and USA forming an alliance with the British against Japan, the British towered over the Azad Hind Fauj and with the Bose’s death, the army faded into history.
Quit India Movement, 1942
To protest against sending Indian troops to fight at WWII, Gandhi started the Quit India Movement on August 9, 1942, which served the most significant role for independence. Gandhi’s slogan ‘Do or Die‘ from the Quit India speech sparked a new fire amongst the public.
The movement that is also known as the ‘August Kranti’ is considered to be the last stand for independence. After the failure with Cripps’ mission, Indians felt cheated. The second World War aggravated tensions in India as British forces continued to lose in South-East Asia. It was conjectured that an attack from Japan was imminent in India. Russia, USA and China pressurised Britain into employing Indian troops in the war and Stafford Cripps was sent to India in March, 1942 to negotiate with nationalist leaders. The British were reluctant to allow complete independence. Indian nationalist leaders dismissed all of Cripps’ propositions.
After taking control in Myanmar, Burma and Singapore, Japan was marching towards India and WWII resulted in an inflation period, leaving Indians in utter discontent. On July 5, 1942, Gandhi wrote in Harijan, “Britishers! Don’t leave India for the Japanese. Instead, leave us altogether in a systematic position.”
After the failure of the Cripps’ mission, a Congress meeting was held in Bombay on August 8. It was decided that India would take charge of their own protection and the British will have to leave at all costs. At the session, Gandhi gave a 70-minute long speech which came to be known as the ‘Quit India speech’. The speech inspired new vigour, new courage, new resolutions, new faith, determination and confidence amongst the countrymen, who then gave it their all in the struggle for independence. Gandhi’s slogan ‘Do or Die‘ was chanted in every corner of the country. On August 9, the Empire started ‘Operation Zero Hour’ to cripple the revolution and arrested all Congress leaders vital to the revolution.
Gandhi was held at Aga Khan Palace in Pune while the arrested Congress executives were moved to Durg, Ahmednagar. But, even without its leaders, the revolution was too powerful. General public held processions and meetings and made the ‘Quit India’ the first movement to attain success sans leadership.
After striving through all struggles, the dream of independence became a reality. All these people, their sacrifices, the revolution remains immortal in our hearts even today, and forever.
(Transcribed by Siddhant Pandey)