India: Toward Freedom (1885-1920)

A Brief History of India. Editor: Judith E Walsh. 2nd edition. Brief History New York: Facts on File, 2011.

This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India—that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious…. That men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-Western Provinces and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one great Indian nation, is impossible.

~Sir John Strachey, India, 1888 (Embree 1972, 3)

The men who participated in the Indian nationalist movement from its beginnings in the Indian National Congress in 1885 to Mohandas Gandhi’s assumption of leadership in the 1920s all came from the English-educated elite. They agreed broadly on the issues that most affected them as a class—the need for greater access to the ICS and for middle-class appointments to the Legislative Councils—and they agreed on the terrible effects of “the drain” of Indian wealth to Great Britain. But on the questions of whether the nationalist movement should work for social reform or Hindu revivalism or whether its members should see themselves as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition or as freedom fighters, they had no such easy answers. Early nationalists spent as much energy fighting one another over these matters as they did in fighting the British.

In the decades between 1885 and 1920, in response to nationalist pressures British rulers offered a series of constitutional concessions, giving Indians marginal participation in India’s government while conceding as little real power as possible. At the same time, British officials worked to “divide and rule.” To preserve British power, officials encouraged minority constituencies to define themselves in opposition to one another, as Muslims against Hindus, Dravidians against Aryans, or Untouchables against Brahmans.

In the end, however, despite all their efforts, it was the British themselves who brought about the unity of Indian nationalists. Unbridled demonstrations of imperial power and British racism in both 1905 and in 1919 brought elite urban Indians not only into unity but looking outside their own elite class for broader support for their movement against the British.

The Indian National Congress

In December 1885, 73 mostly self-appointed delegates from all over British India met in Bombay for a three-day conference. This was the first meeting of the Indian National Congress. It had originally been scheduled to meet in Pune, for Ranade and Pune’s Sarvajanik Sabha were among its leading organizers, but an outbreak of cholera forced its relocation to Bombay. Its delegates represented every province of British India; 54 delegates were Hindu (most of whom were Brahman), two delegates were Muslim, and the rest came from the Parsi or Jain communities. All were English educated. “Congress,” as it came to be called, began its existence as a supraregional political association, a three-day yearly forum through which middle-class Indian men could petition and memorialize the Indian government, just as regional associations had already been doing but now on a wider basis.

The immediate impetus for the meeting came from Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), a retired ICS official who believed, as he told the viceroy, Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lord Dufferin (1826-1902), that such a gathering would stabilize the English-educated elite. Hume helped organize the first meeting of Congress, circulating letters to English-educated graduates to encourage their support and serving as its first secretary. But many Congress attendees already knew or knew of each other before the first meeting. Surendranath Banerjea, W. C. Bonnerji (the first Congress president), Romeshchandra Dutt, Pherozeshah Mehta, and Badruddin Tyabji had all come under the influence of Dadabhai Naoroji while in England in the 1860s and 1870s. Leaders of regional political associations in Pune, Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta knew of each other from shared protests against the 1878 Vernacular Press Act. And Banerjea’s Indian Association had already organized two national conferences, one in 1883 and one held at the same time as the Bombay meeting in 1885.

Until Gandhi reorganized it in the 1920s the Indian National Congress met for only three days each year, each meeting organized by members from the region in which it was held. It had limited funds, and for its first nine years its only full-time officer was Hume, its general secretary. In its first years, Congress grew quickly: from 73 delegates in 1885 to 600 in 1887 and almost 2,000 in 1889. Through Hume’s efforts, Muslim participation grew to almost 14 percent of the delegates by 1887. Attendance at the 1887 and 1888 sessions was particularly broad based, with more than half the delegates traveling to the meeting from outside the region in which it was held.

Congress delegates came from every British Indian province and spoke many dialects, but they shared the elite status and high-caste background common to the English-educated elite. They agreed (as did the English educated generally) that Indians needed greater access to the ICS and that middle-class Indians should serve on the government’s Legislative Councils. The ICS was the premier service in India; appointment within the civil service gave Indians the only direct governmental power they could have in British India. ICS appointments were chosen by open competitive examinations, but the exams were held only in England, and the maximum age for examinees (in 1876) was 19. As late as 1880 the 900-member ICS had only 16 Indians. In a similar way, the Legislative Councils also offered Indian members a voice, if not in government decisions, at least in the debates that preceded them. But while the councils had had appointed Indian members since the 1860s, in practice only Indian princes and zamindars were ever nominated.

Seven successive years of Congress oratory and petitions succeeded in 1892 in having the maximum age for taking the ICS exams raised to 23. In the same year the Indian Councils Act provided for indirect elections to the central and regional Legislative Councils in Bengal, Bombay, and Madras. Through an elaborate procedure local municipal boards, universities, and landowners’ associations (among others) submitted lists of elected representatives to the government for final selection. Nevertheless the process brought prominent regional leaders such as Banerjea and Tilak onto their respective regional councils and moderate Congress members, such as Mehta and Gokhale, onto the central Legislative Council. Despite constant Indian pressure, however, the ICS examinations, the key to Anglo-Indian dominance within the service, would not be held in India until the 1920s.

While Congress petitions on English-educated issues brought some limited success, escalating conflicts between social reformers and religion revivalists split the English-educated elite in the 1890s, and violent communal clashes divided the broader Indian society. These conflicts took their toll on Indian political associations. Interest in both Congress and regional political associations declined in the 1890s, and Muslim attendance at Congress sessions was cut almost in half. Annual Congress meetings began attracting fewer delegates from outside the state where they were held and making up the difference with more local members.

Hindu Race/Hindu Nation

As was true of much of 19th-century society, early Indian nationalists imagined “the nation” using two different and often contradictory sets of ideas and images. One strand of 19th-century thought conceived of the nation in terms of citizenship and constitutionalism. Nations, in this view, were composed of individual citizens living within a territorial state, their political obligations and rights defined by a constitutional contract between each citizen and that state. Congress and regional political leaders known collectively to their contemporaries as the “moderates,” men such as Ranade, Gokhale, Mehta, or Banerjea, advanced this concept of the nation, citizenship, and constitutionalism. They spoke the language of British constitutional democracy and presented themselves as the government’s “loyal opposition,” as leaders of India’s citizenry struggling to obtain for them their inalienable rights.

Comfortable themselves with a style of life, dress, and habits adapted to British colonial public life, these leaders enjoyed their new elected or appointed positions within British government and their status within elite urban Indian society. They looked forward to middle-class Indians making gradual gains in influence and power within British-ruled India but were not troubled by the idea that such gains might be far into the future. They frequently (if not always) supported social reforms; these would, as they saw it, modernize Indian society, ridding it of the degraded practices of the past.

But there was a second way of imagining “the nation” current in the 19th-century world. Nationhood, as social anthropologist Susan Bayly has pointed out, “was widely regarded both in India and elsewhere as an expression of collective moral, spiritual, and racial essences” (1999, 156). This second view conceived of the nation as a unit bound together by racial ties of blood and ethnic ties of culture. The language of race itself was in constant use in whatever was said or written in this period about Indian communities. Writers frequently referred to the Hindu or “Mohammedan” races and talked of castes (varnas or jatis) as racial entities. Both Westernized social reformers and Hindu cultural revivalists used “race” without self-consciousness to describe the deeper ties that might bind a religion, a caste, or a regional community together. Ranade could describe how social reforms would benefit the “chosen race” of the Hindus as easily as Arya Samajis could describe the rituals through which Muslims and/or Untouchables might reenter the “Aryan race” (Bayly 1999, 175).

By the late 19th century, the linkage of “race” and “nation” was commonplace, with both British and Indians referring interchangeably to an Aryan or Hindu “race” or an Aryan or Hindu “nation.” But at the turn of the century some Indian leaders, beginning with Tilak in Pune, began to place this more general sense of a Hindu race/nation in a deliberately and more explicitly political context, linking anticolonial protests to a Hindu communal identity through the religious language and symbols of Hinduism. Contemporaries labeled Tilak, along with such men as Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) in the Punjab and Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) in Bengal, as “extremists,” not for their evocation of a Hindu cultural identity, but because they questioned the inevitability of Indian self-government and were willing to use a variety of means, including violence, to bring Indians closer to self-rule.

Hindu Revivalism

Up to the 1890s Western-educated Indians had supported social and religious reforms. They founded movements such as the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal or the early Arya Samaj in North India and used such organizations to move contemporary caste practices and Hindu customs regarding women’s education and social behavior closer to the norms of British colonial modernity. But at the turn of the century, even as such adaptations became well integrated into middle-class urban lifestyles, a renewed interest emerged in what contemporaries called “Hindu revivalism,” that is, the maintenance of extant Hindu beliefs and practices and the defense of such practices from further erosion.

In Calcutta young English-educated men turned away from the “male” worship of the Brahmo Samaj churches to become fascinated with the mystic visions of Ramakrishna, a semi-illiterate priest in a north Calcutta temple. In novels and newspaper pieces writers discovered anew the inspiring bravery and devotion of the sati. Women’s literature and manuals denounced the denaturalizing effect of higher education on women— for, as one manual writer noted in a common joke of the period, “If a girl can become a ‘bachelor’, what else does she need to become a man?” (Gupta 1885, 23). The Arya Samaj had long stood uncompromisingly for social and religious reform in northern India. Now it split in the 1890s. One sect continued the old work of education and reform, but a second and larger group committed itself instead to the revival of the “Aryan race,” to the conversion of orthodox Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Untouchables to the Samaj through new shuddhi (purification) ceremonies, to proselytizing for the use of Hindi and the Sanskritic Devanagari alphabet in north India, and the protection of the cow.

Cow Protection Riots

Cow protection riots, pitting Hindus against Muslims, occurred repeatedly across northern India during the 1880s and 1890s, from Bombay and Maharashtra in the west to the Bengal in the east. The earliest riots were in the Punjab in 1883, followed by large-scale communal riots from 1888 to 1893 in the United Provinces, Bihar, Bengal, and even Rangoon. In 1893-95 violent riots broke out in the city of Bombay and in the wider Maharashtra region.

At issue was the Muslim slaughter of cows for meat, particularly as part of religious festivities such as Bakr-Id (the festival in the last month of the Islamic calendar). Such slaughter demonstrated to Hindu revivalists how contemporary society failed to protect Hindu religious practices and the Hindu way of life. Linked with cow protection were campaigns to replace Urdu written in the Perso-Arabic script with Hindi written in the Sanskrit-based Devanagari script and the Arya Samaj’s use of “purification” rituals to bring converts into the Arya Samaj fold.

The founder of the Arya Samaj, Dayananda Sarasvati, had himself written a pamphlet urging the protection of cows in 1881. From the late 1880s cow protection societies appeared among Hindu populations in northern India. These societies emphasized long-standing Hindu customs venerating the cow, held meetings protesting cow slaughter, and even petitioned the government to prohibit this slaughter on hygienic grounds. They were funded by a range of local elites, including zamindars, middle-class lawyers, and even, in Bombay, a Gujarati mill owner. Regional politicians, such as Tilak in Bombay, helped organize such meetings and participated in their protests.

Bitter competition between local Hindu and Muslim elites for government employment helped fuel the communal riots that grew out of cow protection conflicts. In different regions, class and cultural conflicts helped the violence to escalate. In the Punjab the cow protection riots built on long-standing conflicts between Muslim peasants and Hindu traders and moneylenders. In the United Provinces multiple social tensions supported the riots: in rural regions conflicts between Muslim landlords and Hindu peasants and in urban towns between Hindu bankers and Muslim artisans and workers.

Cow protection conflicts merged easily with more general violence over religious festivals and processions. Although in prior decades Hindus and Muslims had participated in each other’s religious festivals, by the late 19th century the two communities were openly split along religious lines. “What boon has Allah conferred upon you,” went one turn-of-the-century Maharashtrian song, “That you have become a Mussalman today? The cow is our mother, do not forget her” (Sarkar 1983, 60).

Age of Consent Act, 1891

Controversy over the 1891 Age of Consent Act gave public expression to the feelings of many middle-class Hindus that the protection of Hindu customs and a Hindu identity was now of much greater urgency than the reform of social customs. The immediate cause for the act was the death in Calcutta of an 11-year-old girl, Phulmoni Bai, from lacerations caused by intercourse with her 35-year-old husband. As the law set the age of statutory rape at 10 for girls, the husband could not be prosecuted. The Age of Consent Bill raised the age of statutory rape for girls from 10 to 12 years old. Although proposed by the government, the reform had long been sought by Indian reformers, and the act was supported by an Indian National Congress dominated by its moderate faction.

In both Bengal and western India, however, opposition to the bill was virulent. By custom Hindu marriages were consummated immediately following the wife’s first menstruation. Under the bill, for girls who menstruated before the age of 12 the custom would now be criminalized. “The Hindu family is ruined,” wrote Bangabasi, the conservative Bengali newspaper that spearheaded opposition in Calcutta (Sarkar 2002, 234). In west India, Tilak opposed the bill in his newspaper Kesari. In both regions opponents of the bill held mass meetings and sent petitions. In Pune young Hindu men broke up a meeting attended by social reformers and wrecked the hall in which they met.

The bill became law in 1891 despite substantial Indian opposition. In the aftermath of the controversy social reformers were vilified in Bengal and Bombay as Western turncoats who had betrayed their own religion. Every year since its founding in 1887, Ranade’s Indian National Social Conference had held its annual meetings at the same time as the Congress session and under Congress auspices. Now in 1895 Hindu revivalists threatened to boycott the next meeting of Congress if Ranade’s conference met under the Congress banner. To pacify the revivalists, Ranade’s conference was barred from the session. Disagreements over social reform issues would not be allowed to divide the Congress. Congress would include, said its president Surendranath Banerjea, both “those who would reform their social customs and those who would not” (Wolpert 1989, 263).

Although they lost their struggle, opponents of the Age of Consent Bill still profited from their efforts. Bengali newspapers that supported the protests turned from weekly to daily papers on the strength of their increased circulation. In Pune, Tilak’s opposition to the act made him a hero to lower-middle-class Hindus in Deccan towns and mofussil regions and gained him increased financial support from wealthy Hindu conservatives.

The Marriage of Religion and Politics

The Age of Consent controversy showed Bal Gangadhar Tilak the role religion might play in political organizing. In the decade after 1891 Tilak and others organized two festivals that used Hindu religious icons and images for political ends: In 1893 a new festival began celebrating the birthday of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, and in 1895 a second festival celebrated the memory of Shivaji. Both festivals became Hindu community events, with songs, dances, scriptural readings, and (in the Shivaji celebration) a religious procession led by huge portraits of Shivaji and his Brahman guru. The Ganesh festival was deliberately timed to draw Hindus away from the Muslim festival of Mohurram, which both communities had previously celebrated. Both new festivals encouraged Hindus to see themselves as a distinct community separate from Muslims or Christians: By 1895 Tilak’s opposition to the Age of Consent Act combined with his role in organizing the new festivals had made his faction strong enough to take over Pune’s political association, the Sarvajanik Sabha.

Tilak encouraged his followers to use violence against social reformers, Muslims, and the British. He himself had ties to revolutionary societies now organized in Maharashtra. His supporters threw rocks at Pune social reformers; his followers paraded noisily in paramilitary fashion past Muslim mosques; in Kesari Tilak used references to the Bhagavad Gita to justify the use of violence, arguing that violence committed with no thought of gain or reward was not morally wrong. “Shrimat Krishna,” he said in comments at the time of the Shivaji festival of 1897, “preached in the Gita that we have a right even to kill our own guru and our kinsmen. No blame attaches to any person if he is doing deeds without being actuated by a desire to reap the fruit of his deeds” (Wolpert 1962, 87).

In June 1897 bubonic plague spread through Maharashtra. Pune’s plague commissioner, Walter Charles Rand, took drastic measures to combat it. Rand ordered British troops to fumigate and lime all houses where plague was suspected. The soldiers forced all inhabitants (including women in purdah) out of their homes and took anyone thought infected to an isolation camp outside the city. Often family members only saw their relatives when told to come and collect their dead bodies. The measures provoked fury among Pune’s residents and failed to contain the plague. As the plague raged, Pune’s Anglo-Indian elite organized an elaborate gala to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Two brothers, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapedar, assassinated Rand and one other officer as they left the celebrations. Both the Chapedar brothers were subsequently caught and hanged.

The brothers were followers of Tilak, and rumors linked him with the assassinations. Based on articles written for Kesari Tilak was arrested in July and tried for sedition. The six Europeans on his jury found him guilty; the three Indians said he was innocent. Tilak was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in Bombay but released after one year on grounds of ill health. From this time on Tilak acquired the unofficial title of “Lokamanya” (revered of the people).

Bengal Partition

If the Age of Consent controversy revealed deep divisions among elite Hindu communities, the British government’s partition of Bengal in 1905 overrode many of those divisions. Bengal’s partition provided the context for India’s first national protest against British actions and united many in support of the nationalist cause.

The partition was planned during the 1899-1905 viceroyalty of George Nathaniel Curzon (1859-1925). In some ways Curzon was fortunate, taking office as new government procedures brought the 19th-century mass famines under control and as a more stable Indian rupee began to lower the growth rate of “home charges.” During his term as viceroy, Curzon oversaw the overhaul of government bureaucracy, the building of more than 6,000 miles of new railroad tracks, and the passage of several land measures designed to protect cultivators from eviction for debts (including the Punjab Land Alienation Act in 1901).

Curzon’s imperious and autocratic character, however, created conflicts. His resignation in 1905 resulted from an internal political dispute in which he ultimately refused to follow orders from his superior in London, the secretary of state for India. His arrogance and racism made him contemptuous of English-educated Indians—he once called the Indian National Congress an “unclean thing”—and his government took a number of actions that antagonized elite Indians (Sarkar 1983, 104), including reducing the number of Indians on the municipal boards of cities and passing the Universities Act in 1904, a series of measures that tightened government controls over universities and their affiliated colleges in order to control student protests.

Curzon’s most provocative government action, however, was undoubtedly the partition of Bengal. With 78.5 million people in 1901, Bengal was India’s largest province and an unwieldy administrative unit (Schwartzberg 1992, 217). Its partition was planned for almost two years within Curzon’s administration and formally announced in July 1905. The division created two provinces. One of approximately 38 million people was made by combining predominantly Muslim eastern Bengal with the smaller province of Assam. The second was a somewhat larger western province of almost 55 million people that merged Bengali-speaking regions north and west of Calcutta with Hindi-speaking Bihar and Oriyan-speaking Orissa. One benefit of the plan, from the perspective of British officials, was that it offered Muslims a separate province in which they were a majority. A second advantage was that in both new provinces Bengali-speaking Hindus were in the minority, thus enabling the government, as one official wrote in a private memo, “to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule” (Sarkar 1983, 107).


British officials anticipated mass meetings and memorials to protest the division, but they were unprepared for the sustained political protest that occurred or for the new forms that protest took. Partition protests lasted several years, spreading beyond Bengal to Bombay, the Punjab, and Madras and involving substantial numbers of English-educated students, professionals, and their families. Initially even Congress moderates supported the protest, although as violence broke out, they quickly withdrew their support. Antipartition leaders called for the boycott of British goods and the support of swadeshi (the native country’s) products. Schools and shops closed. Public bonfires burned imported cotton goods. Schoolchildren sang “Bande Mataram” (“Hail to the motherland”)—a slogan and song from an 1880s Bengali novel. Processions chanted the slogan and shouted out in unison the names of the three most popular “extremists” who led them: “Lal, Bal, Pal”— Lala Lajpat Rai from the Punjab, “Bal” Gangadhar Tilak from Pune, and Bipin Chandra Pal from Bengal. Terrorist cells sprang up in Bengal, as they had in Maharashtra earlier, and their members planted bombs and attempted the assassination of several British officials.

The swadeshi boycotts were surprisingly effective, demonstrating the degree to which Indian middle-class tastes had already shaped British imports. By 1906 Calcutta customs officials had noted substantial decreases in imported products: a 22 percent decrease in cotton fabrics, a 44 percent decrease in cotton threads, a 55 percent fall in imported cigarettes, and a 68 percent drop in imported boots and shoes. By 1908 imports were down overall by 25 percent. Indian merchants and textile producers raised both prices and profits (Wolpert 2009, 285). In Bombay, the Tatas, a Parsi industrialist family loyal to the British, launched India’s first indigenous steelworks, thus reducing the Indian government’s need for imports of Belgian steel.

The government attempted to stop the protests by arresting middle-class students, banning public meetings, and imprisoning protest leaders. In London, the new Liberal government considered offering constitutional reforms in the hope that this would undercut further protest.

Muslim League

Whether and to what extent elite Muslims would join the Indian National Congress was an open question throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As early as 1869 the prominent Muslim leader (and British loyalist) Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan had declared Hindus and Muslims to be two separate communities and urged Muslims to work independently on their own society. For Sayyid Ahmad, the different “nationalities of India—the Muslims, the Marathas, the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Banias, the Sudras [sic], the Sikhs, the Bengalis, the Madrasis, and the Peshawaris” could never become a single homogeneous nation (De Bary 1958, 747).

Nevertheless, by 1887, largely due to the efforts of Allan Octavian Hume, Muslim attendance at Congress sessions had risen to almost 14 percent of the delegates. But after 1893, as communal conflict escalated in north India, revivalist Hindu groups demanded cow protection and the Hindi language, and political festivals in Maharashtra defined Hindus as a separate communal and political entity, Muslim willingness to support a Hindu majoritarian institution such as the Indian National Congress declined. Muslim participation in Congress dropped to just over 7 percent of the delegates for the years from 1893 to 1905. Protests against the partition of Bengal only alienated Muslim leaders further as many east Bengali Muslim leaders could see great benefits for themselves and their communities in a separate Muslim majority province.

In 1906 at the height of partition conflicts, as rumors circulated of possible new British constitutional reforms, a deputation of 35 elite Muslims, most from landed United Province families, met the viceroy, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynymound, Lord Minto (1845-1914), at Simla. Their leader was Aga Khan III (1877-1957), the spiritual head of the Nazari Ismaili Muslim community and one of the wealthiest men in India. If there were to be reforms involving elections to the Legislative Councils, the deputation told Minto, they must include separate electorates for Muslims. (Separate electorates gave a community a special electoral category in which only that community could vote.) Only separate electorates could guarantee Muslims a voice among elected representatives, the delegates insisted. As the Hindus were the majority, they would vote only Hindus into office. Neither Muslim interests nor the Indian Muslim population, the Simla delegation insisted, could be adequately represented by non-Muslim candidates.

Many scholars have pointed to the 1906 Simla conference as the beginning of an explicit British policy of “divide and rule” in India. By encouraging Muslims to see themselves as a separate political entity— one defined in opposition to Congress—the British hoped to prolong British rule. In 1906 the viceroy assured the Simla deputation that Muslim interests would be considered in any new reforms. Encouraged by this support, the Simla delegates and an additional 35 Muslims from all provinces in India met at Dacca several months later and founded the All-India Muslim League. Only Muslims could become members of this league, whose specific purpose was defined as the advancement of Indian Muslims’ political rights. Modeling themselves on the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League met annually over the Christmas holidays. With its inception Muslims had a nationwide political organization that paralleled that of the “Hindu-dominated” Congress.

The Surat Split

The credibility of Congress moderates was badly damaged by their inaction during the swadeshi movement. While Gokhale (Congress president in 1905) initially supported the boycott, he and other moderates withdrew their support within a month from fear of government reprisals. Instead the moderates hoped that the new Liberal government in Britain, and especially its pro-Indian secretary of state, John Morley, would withdraw the partition.

In 1906, however, as protests continued, the moderates maintained control over the Congress session only by endorsing (if somewhat belatedly) the swadeshi movement. Even the 81-year-old Dadabhai Naoroji now declared that swaraj (self-rule) was the goal of Congress. In 1907 at Surat, however, the extremist faction was again frustrated in their attempt to elect Lajpat Rai as Congress president. Someone threw a shoe at the moderate president-elect as he attempted to speak, and the session dissolved in chaos. The moderates walked out of the meetings and in the aftermath of the Surat debacle effectively shut the extremist faction out of Congress.

In 1907 the Liberal British government and its India appointees escalated their efforts to shut down the swadeshi movement. Police attacked and arrested student picketers. Officials threatened colleges supporting the protests with the withdrawal of their grants, scholarships, and affiliations. Public meetings, assemblies, and strikes were banned; swadeshi committees became illegal; even schoolchildren were prohibited from singing “Bande Mataram.” Extremist leaders were arrested, charged with sedition, or exiled. In 1907 Lajpat Rai was deported without trial to Mandalay in Burma. In 1908 the Bengali extremist Aurobindo Ghosh, who had led Bengali protests through his English-language weekly, Bande Mataram, was jailed and charged with sedition. (Two years later, in 1910, fearing further imprisonment Ghosh would flee Calcutta for the French colony of Pondicherry where for 40 years he would head a religious ashram.) In Pune the government arrested Tilak in 1908, charging him with sedition on the basis of editorials supporting Bengali terrorism. Tilak’s sentence to six years’ imprisonment prompted a violent general strike in Bombay that left 16 people dead. The arrest and imprisonment of extremist leaders gave the moderates full control over Congress but no access to the substantial Indian public now in sympathy with extremist aims.

Morley-Minto Reforms

Long-rumored constitutional reform became official in 1909 with the announcement of the Morley-Minto reforms, officially known as the Indian Councils Act of 1909. Although written by Liberal officials in London, the act was announced by the viceroy, Lord Minto, in Calcutta to give a great impression of government unity. The reforms put additional Indian members on the Legislative Councils, both at the center and in the provinces, and more important, they changed the method of selection for the councils to “direct elections” from the various constituencies—municipalities, district boards, landowning groups, universities, and so forth—from which recommendations for the councils had come since 1892. The act also established separate electorates for Muslims: six within the landlord constituencies of the Imperial Legislative Council and others in the provincial councils. The Imperial Legislative Council was not a voting body: Its members only commented on government policies when official (British) members of the council introduced them for discussion. The 1909 act, however, gave council members greater freedom to ask questions during such discussions.

Morley himself, the Liberal secretary of state for India, denied that the reforms would in any way lead to self-government in India. In the context of Indian nationalist politics where extremist calls forswaraj were now common, the Morley-Minto reforms offered little. But to moderates, who had long interested themselves in elections and appointments, the reforms were attractive.

In 1911, two years after the Morley-Minto reforms became law, the British celebrated a great durbar (the Persian name for a grand court occasion) in Delhi to celebrate the coronation of the British king George V. At a spectacle calculated to demonstrate the permanence of British rule, the British made their real concession to the power of the swadeshi movement. They revoked the 1905 partition and reunited Bengali-speaking Indians with a smaller, new province of Bengal. (At the same time Bihar and Orissa became separate provinces and Assam a separate territory.) At the same durbar, however, the British also took their revenge on Bengal and Bengalis: The viceroy announced the transfer of the capital to Delhi. The government would now be closer to the summer Simla capital and further from the troublesome political activities of Bengali babus (gentlemen). “New Delhi,” the British section of Delhi, would be designed by the architects Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

Bengal’s reunification embittered Indian Muslims without satisfying Indian nationalists. “No bomb, no boons” was one Muslim slogan in Dacca and eastern Bengal (Wolpert 1989, 286). At the 1912 ceremonies to open the new capital, the viceroy, Charles Hardinge (1858-1944), was almost killed by a bomb. His assailants were never found, and terrorist violence continued in the Punjab. In 1913 the Muslim League moved significantly away from its former loyalist position when it adopted self-government as its goal.

World War I

When Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, the Indian viceroy, Lord Hardinge, was at once informed that India was also at war. Indian nationalists of all factions supported Great Britain in World War I, assuming that support for Britain in a time of crisis would translate later into significant self-government concessions. Tilak, released from prison in 1914, raised funds and encouraged enlistment in the army. The lawyer and nationalist Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), who was returning to India from South Africa by way of England, also urged support for the war.

During World War I the Indian army expanded to more than 1.2 million men. Indian casualties were high. Within two months of the war’s start 7,000 Indian troops were listed as dead, wounded, or missing in action in Europe. Fighting in 1916 in the Persian Gulf, thousands of Indian soldiers died from lack of adequate food, clothing, mosquito netting, and medicines. By 1918 more than 1 million Indians had served overseas, more than 150,000 had been wounded in battle, and more than 36,000 had died.

Within India the war brought increased income taxes, import duties, and prices. From 1916 to 1918 Indian revenues increased approximately 10 to 15 percent each year. Increased amounts of Punjabi wheat were shipped to Great Britain and its Allies during the war, with the result that in 1918, when the monsoon failed, food shortages increased and food prices rose sharply. The war also cut off India from its second largest export market; prewar Indian exports to Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914 had a value of £24 million. Products from the Central Powers (the countries allied with Germany) were also among India’s most popular imports. The war was a boon, however, to indigenous Indian industries such as cotton cloth, steel, and iron. In all these industries production grew more quickly in the absence of European competition.

Lucknow Pact, 1916

Anticipating possible constitutional concession at the end of the war, nationalist leaders looked for ways to renew the movement. In 1916 both Annie Besant in Madras and Tilak in Pune founded “home rule leagues,” organizations that argued for Indian self-government (on the model of Canada) within the British Empire. Within a few years the movement had hundreds of chapters and 30,000 members. In 1916 at a meeting at Lucknow, the newly reunited Indian National Congress joined with the Muslim League in the Lucknow Pact (otherwise known as the Congress-League Scheme of Reforms). The joint pact called for constitutional reforms that would give elected Indian representatives additional power at the provincial and the central levels. All elections were to be on the basis of a broad franchise. The principle of separate electorates for Muslims was accepted, and the percentage of such electorates was specified province by province. Half the seats on the viceroy’s Executive Council were to be Indians. India Office expenses were to be charged to British taxpayers.

New Leaders

Both the reunification of Congress and the Lucknow Pact were made somewhat easier by the natural passing of an older generation of nationalist leaders and the rise to prominence of younger ones. Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta died in 1915, Lokamanya Tilak in 1920, and Surendranath Banerjea in 1925. Two younger men appeared who would dominate Congress throughout the 1920s-40s: Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), a successful Muslim lawyer and Congress politician, joined the Muslim League in 1913; and Gandhi, already known in his homeland for leading Indian protests against the British in South Africa, returned to India in 1915.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah

Jinnah was born and educated in Karachi, the son of a middle-class merchant of the Muslim Khoja community who had migrated to Sind from Gujarat. Sent to England for university and law education in 1892, Jinnah was drawn into nationalist politics during his first year in London when he worked for the parliamentary election of Dadabhai Naoroji. Back in India, he rapidly established a successful law practice in Bombay, became a delegate to the 1906 Congress, and was elected (under Morley-Minto provisions) to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1910. Jinnah impressed Indian politicians and British officials alike with his intelligence, his skill in argument, his anglicized habits, and his fastidious dress and appearance. When the Muslim League declared its goal to be self-government in 1913, Jinnah joined. He initially hoped to bring the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress into unified opposition to British rule.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi, like Jinnah, was born in western India, in the small Princely State of Porbandar (now a district in the modern state of Gujarat). His father served there as dewan (minister) before moving on to another small state nearby. Also like Jinnah, Gandhi was educated first in India and then sent in 1887 by his family to study law in London, an experience that anglicized him, too. When Gandhi returned to India in 1890 he wore British-style frock coats and trousers, insisted that his wife and children wear shoes and socks, and wanted his family to eat oatmeal regularly. Unlike Jinnah, however, Gandhi did not succeed as a lawyer, either in Gujarat or Bombay. After several years of trying to establish himself in practice there, he accepted a legal assignment with an Indian Muslim business firm in Natal, South Africa.

From 1893 to 1914 Gandhi lived and worked in South Africa. It was in South Africa that he discovered his avocation as a political organizer and his religious faith as a modern Hindu. The diverse South African community was made up of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, and Christians who came from regions as different as Gujarat and south India. Gandhi led this multiethnic, multireligious community in a variety of protests against British laws that discriminated against Indians. He developed the nonviolent tactic of satyagraha (literally “truth-firmness” or “soul force”) that he would later use in India. “I had … then to choose,” he would later remember, “between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked” (Hay 1988, 266). He led nonviolent campaigns in 1907-08 and 1908-11 and a combined strike and cross-country march in 1913-14.

It was also in South Africa that Gandhi developed the religious and ethical ideas that merged the Western education of his youth with the beliefs and principles of his family’s Hindu religion. By the age of 37, Gandhi had simplified his diet according to strict vegetarian rules, had taken a Hindu vow of celibacy (brahmacharya), and had exchanged his Western dress for a simpler Indian costume, a dhoti (a long cloth wrapped around the lower body), shawl, and turban. In South Africa and later in India Gandhi’s political philosophy would rest equally on the Jain principle ofahimsa (nonviolence) and on the conviction that the means by which a political goal was achieved was fully as important as its end result. In India Gandhi would undertake fasts to the death on several occasions, a form of personal satyagraha by which he hoped to win over the hearts of his opponents.

In 1915 when Gandhi returned to India, he was already famous there. The diversity of the South African Indian community had given him a broader background and experience than that of most nationalist leaders with their more limited regional bases. Nevertheless, Gandhi was not an immediate success in India. His simple dress of dhoti, shawl, and turban made him seem idiosyncratic to Westernized audiences. He spoke too softly and tended to lecture his listeners on the need for Indian self-improvement. His initial speeches to Congress and the Home Rule League were not well received.

After his return to India, Gandhi made his base in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, founding there an ashram and traveling by third-class railway coach throughout British India. In the first years of his return he organized a satyagraha against indigo planters in Champaran district in the foothills of the Himalayas, campaigned for a reduction of land revenues in Kheda district in Gujarat, and fasted to compel his friends and financial supporters, the industrialist Sarabhai family, to pay their workers higher wages. These campaigns gained Gandhi visibility and sympathy within India. But to the more anglicized nationalists he may still have seemed as incomprehensible as he did to Edwin Montagu (1879-1924), the British secretary of state for India, who met Gandhi on a tour in 1917. He “dresses like a coolie,” Montagu wrote in his diary, “forswears all personal advancement, lives practically on the air, and is a pure visionary” (Wolpert 2009, 308).

The Amritsar Massacre

The end of World War I brought with it a new offer of constitutional reforms from the British government, but the reforms themselves were broadly disappointing to almost all factions of Indian nationalists. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms (or the “Montford reforms,” as they are sometime abbreviated) were promised as a move toward responsible government. They were announced in 1917 and implemented two years later in the Government of India Act of 1919. The Montford reforms offered Indians “dyarchy” (or dual government) at the provincial level; under this plan the government transferred responsibility for some governmental departments—education, public health, public works, agriculture—to elected Indian ministers, while reserving other departments—land revenue, justice, police, irrigation, and labor—to ministers appointed by the British. Indian legislative members would continue to be elected into these provincial governments through the various constituencies established in earlier reforms.

From the British perspective the Montford reforms had the advantage of bringing elected Indian officials into collaboration with the existing British Indian government, even as they cut off those same officials from the more extreme wing of the nationalist movement. From the nationalist perspective, the reforms ceded little if any real power to Indians. They gave Indian ministers the responsibility for traditionally underfunded departments, while giving them no control over or access to the revenues through which the departments were funded. Congress leaders split over how to respond. Jinnah proposed rejecting Montford outright. Tilak and Besant feuded over the wording and extent of their rejections. The remnants of the old moderate faction considered founding a separate party to allow them to accept the reforms.

But the unity that factions in the Indian National Congress could not find among themselves, British officials created for them. During World War I the Defense of India Act (1915) had created temporary sedition laws under which, in certain circumstances, political cases could be tried without juries and suspects interned without trials. In 1918 when the Rowlatt Committee recommended that these laws become permanent, the Indian government immediately passed the Rowlatt Acts, ignoring the unanimous objections of all Indians on the Imperial Legislative Council. Jinnah resigned his council seat in 1919 when the acts became law. Gandhi called for a nationwide hartal (strike) to protest them.

When the strikes in Delhi and North India turned into riots and shooting, Gandhi immediately ended the hartal, calling it a “Himalayan miscalculation” (Fischer 1983, 179). But in Amritsar, the sacred city of the Sikhs in the Punjab, the government responded to the city’s hartal by deporting Congress leaders and prohibiting all public meetings. On April 13, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer (1864-1927), the commander in charge of the city, heard that a gathering was to take place at Jallianwalla Bagh (Jallianwalla Garden). Dyer posted his troops at the entrance to the walled garden where some 10,000 people had already gathered. Without warning, he ordered his troops to fire. A later parliamentary report estimated that 1,650 rounds of ammunition were fired, killing 379 people and wounding another 1,200. In the months following the Amritsar massacre, Dyer maintained rigid martial law. At one site where a British woman had been attacked, he ordered Indians who passed to crawl. Those who refused were to be publicly flogged.

Dyer was subsequently forced to resign from the military, and the Indian Hunter Commission condemned his actions. But in Great Britain he was a martyr. The pro-imperial House of Lords refused to censure Dyer, and on his return to England a British newspaper raised £26,000 for his retirement.

In India, public outrage brought Indians together in opposition to the British. Rabindranath Tagore, who had been knighted after receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, renounced his knighthood. The 1919 session of Congress was moved to Amritsar. The 38,000 people attending demonstrated that Congress was united as never before. In the 1920s Gandhi would move nationalism to a new level. By building up the Congress organization in Indian villages, Gandhi would make the Congress Party a mass movement.