India Topic 4: The Road to Independence, 1942-48.


WW2 - The Threat of Invasion, 1942.

The British were desperate to find a compromise that would satisfy all parties in the wake of war. Indian politicians rose to the occasion, forwarding the interests of their own communities in an attempt to work towards a satisfactory solution.

However, the threat of invasion remained significant at the hands of the Axis forces, aided by Bose, who were getting worryingly close to the Indian subcontinent. After the events of 1942, the whole of Asia now lay open to the Japanese. Viceroy Linlithgow confesses that he did not have sufficient armed forces in India to hold out against a Japanese landing on the Cuttack coast.

The sea-borne threat that faced India was only removed when the US navy defeated the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea in the beginning of May 1942. However, there was still the land-borne threat of the German and Japanese forces linking up in the Middle East.

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The Cripps Mission, 1942.

After the entry of the USA into the war in December 1941, President Roosevelt put pressure on Churchill to accept self-government. Labour members of the coalition supported the principle of home rule. With Congress on the back foot and the support of the Muslim League, there appeared to be an opportunity to reach a compromise.

From 22 March to 11 April 1942, Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, was dispatched to India to discuss the British Government’s Draft Declaration on the Constitution of India with representative Indian leaders from all parties. Cripps offered dominion status after the war. Provinces and princely states would have the right to opt out. All parties were invited to join a government of national unity until the war was won.

This was not what Congress wanted: it would prevent the creation of a united India. The Cripps Mission failed and the issue of India’s constitution was postponed until the end of the war.

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Quit India, 1942.

On 8 August 1942 at the All-India Congress Committee session in Bombay, Gandhi launched the 'Quit India' movement. It was the shout that greeted every British person as they walked around in India.

The next day, Gandhi, Nehru and many other leaders of the Indian National Congress were arrested by the British Government. Disorderly and non-violent demonstrations took place throughout the country in the following days.

This was an unsuccessful protest as very little was achieved. Congress was declared illegal and its funds were seized. For the next two years Congress virtually ceased to exist. The field was left open for the Muslim League.

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Wavell's Appointment as Viceroy, 1943.

He was appointed as Viceroy in October 1943 whilst he was a Field Marshall in the war.

His appointment by Churchill could indicate the Prime Minister’s lack of understanding that when a person with political and negotiating skills was needed, he chose a military man.

Wavell reinstated regular meetings with the 11 governors of the provinces of British India, enabling them to present the British with a unified, Indian point of view. This was therefore difficult for the British government.

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The Bengal Famine, 1943-44.

The Bengal famine of 1943-44 was a major famine in the Bengal province in British India during World War II. An estimated 2.1 million people died from starvation and diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions, and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed large segments of the economy and social fabric. The starving often resorted to begging in Calcutta in numbers in the thousands.

Wavell attempted to coordinate rationing but Churchill originally refused to divert British merchant shipping in order to take grain to starving Bengal. He showed no concern to the people of India.

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The Failure of the Simla Conference, 1945.

The Simla Conference 1945 was a meeting between the Viceroy and the major political leaders of British India at Simla, India.

Convened to agree on and approve the Wavell Plan for Indian self-government, it reached a potential agreement for the self-rule of India that provided separate representation for Muslims and reduced majority powers for both communities in their majority regions.

The conference failed to achieve anything and finally ended on 14th July, 1945.

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The Impact of War on British Rule and Indian Natio

British investment in India had fallen during the 1930s. Indian capitalists were taking the lead role in investing in their own country. From 1933, Britain paid £1.5 million a year towards the running costs of the Indian army and, in 1939, the British government agreed to pay for an army modernisation programme. While this helped the Allied cause in the war, it also gave the Indian army a sense of competence and self-worth.

During the war, imports of Indian goods and exports to India had fallen. From 1939 and 1945 Britain spent more than £1,000,000,000 on India. This expenditure could not be continued. In 1945 Britain was economically exhausted. Britain was in fact in debt to India as a result of loans financed by Indian banks. The Indian Army had remained loyal to Britain during the War and many middle class Indians supported the British against the Japanese, but once the War ended there was less support for Britain.

In July 1945, the Labour Party won the general election with a large majority. The new prime minister, Clement Attlee was in favour of Indian independence. The new government called for elections in India and the Muslim League won all of the seats reserved for Muslims and took control of two provinces. In February 1946 there was a mutiny in the Indian navy. The mutiny spread to the Indian army. This showed that Britain could not govern India.

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The Labour Government's Indian Policy.

In 1945, the Labour Party was voted into cabinet, led by Clement Attlee. They were fixed on giving independence to India, but the issue of how and to who remained: Muslim demands for separate representation within the Indian subcontinent had become stronger and clearer. 

After the mutiny in the Indian Navy in 1946, Attlee decided to send the Cabinet Mission to try to reach a compromise before there was serious trouble.

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Attempts at Political Settlements, 1945-46: Impact

The new British Labour government’s India Committee decided to recommend that elections should be held throughout India to allow people to choose their own representatives to a constituent assembly. This would give the British government a clear indication as to the Indian opinion and page the way for negotiations about a final political settlement. 

However, the elections in the spring of 1946 were carried out against a background of violence and mayhem. Elements of the Indian army mutinied in February 1946, as did 20,000 sailors and their officers in the Indian navy based in Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi. Congress persuaded the mutineers to surrender.

However, Congress and the Muslim League was more advantaged in working with the British than working against them, for the moment.

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The Failure of the Cabinet Mission, 1946.

Given that the Labour Government was pledged to implement Indian independence, there was every expectation that the new, peacetime mission would be successful. Attlee insisted that the mission did everything possible to maintain a united India.

The mission had an additional, confidential brief that they should aim to create a positive desire for a speedy transfer of power. The men stayed in India for more than three months, determined to break the deadlock between Congress and the Muslim League.

They nearly succeeded but each party argued that their way was the only way.

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Direct Action, 1946.

Jinnah was outraged at what he saw as the deceitfulness of both the Congress and the Raj, and he removed all agreements made with the Cabinet Mission.

Two days later, he called for a universal Muslim hartal and urged Muslims to prepare for a day of Direct Action on 16th August 1946.

In Calcutta, the police were ordered by the Muslim League to take a special holiday and the streets were given over to the mob. Within 72 hours, more than 5,000 lay dead, at least 20,000 were seriously injured and 100,00 residents were made homeless.

Muslims and Hindus murdered each other, and looting and arson spread across India.

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Mountbatten's Decision to Withdraw.

Mountbatten decided that Partition was the only answer when it came to withdrawing. This was because of the vast division between Hindus and Muslims.

This greatly upset Gandhi because his dreams of a united India seemed to disappear before his eyes. 

He spent a month meeting Congress and Muslim League leaders, Relations with Nehru and Gandhi were cordial (more than cordial in the case of Lady Mountbatten), but he did not get on well with Jinnah.

Jinnah believed (quite rightly) that Mountbatten favoured Congress. Rioting broke out in The Punjab and the North West during Mountbatten’s discussions

Within a month he had decided that partition was inevitable because Jinnah threatened civil war if a Hindu dominated India was created.

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Reasons for the Partition and the National Respons

The plan for partition and the reallocation of power was drawn up in April and May 1947.

Plan Balkan was the first draft, allowing the Indian states and provinces to decide on their own future. Nehru assures Mountbatten that this wouldn’t work because Congress would be sure to reject this plan. Jinnah was also fighting for a separate Muslim state. The plan was torn up. 

The second plan was the Mountbatten plan. The remnants of the Raj were losing control of India: vast areas of north west India were in a state of riot and rebellion. In May 1947, Mountbatten carried his plan for Partition, involving the complete separation of India and Pakistan, to London for government and then parliamentary approval.

On 15th July 1947, it was announced that the House of Commons that, in precisely one month’s time, two separate dominions of India and Pakistan would be created on the Indian subcontinent.

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The Boundary Commission.

The work of the Boundary Commission was to draw a boundary between India and Pakistan that would accommodate Hindus and Muslims in separate states.

The commission comprised of equal numbers of Hindus and Muslim judges and a chairman. 

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British Withdrawal and Communal Violence.

British assets in India were divided, 82.5% to India and 17.5% to Pakistan.

The partition displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises in the newly constituted dominions; there was large-scale violence, with estimates of loss of life accompanying or preceding the partition disputed and varying between several hundred thousand and two million.

The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to the present.

Pakistan became independent on 14th August 1947. India followed one day later.

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