Britain had no option, but to grant independence to India on August 15, 1947

The independence of India was neither a voluntary withdrawal nor a forced extraction by a nationalist revolution. The decolonisation of the British Empire, on which the sun never set, was a case of failed politics of bait and switch against the mass non-violent movement.


AT the stroke of the midnight hour on August 14-15, 1947, India gained independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The Indian Independence Act, 1947 transferred the sovereign power over British India from the British Parliament to the Constituent Assembly of India. (By the same Act, India was partitioned and with regard to the territory falling in Pakistan, the sovereign power was transferred to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.)

The sovereignty lost in a series of bloody wars stood returned to the people of India. However, the independence of India was neither a voluntary withdrawal nor a forced extraction by a nationalist revolution. The decolonisation of the British Empire, on which the sun never set, was a case of failed politics of bait and switch against a mass non-violent movement. The engagements from 1917, after the First World War, to the end of the Empire in 1947 bear out the same. Imperial Britain was obliged to recognise independence when it was driven into a corner.

On the 75th anniversary of independence – Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav – it would be useful to recall the historical political developments which led to our independence in order to answer whether the British were compelled to leave India.

Rise of British Raj

The history of the rise of the British in India is well known. The British Raj was founded in India by the East India Company that started its trading ventures in BombayMadras and Calcutta. The English traders soon transformed their status to a ruling class to exploit the resources more systematically. A series of bloody wars, from the Anglo Mughal war (1686-90) to the second Anglo-Sikh war in mid-19th century, crystallised the British Raj in India.

A large part came under direct possession of the East India Company, but about 40 per cent of India was run through the collaborating princes, whose status in international law was that of vassals or feudatories. They enjoyed internal autonomy partly, but their hands and legs were tightly tied on external matters. The biggest among the Princely States were Hyderabad, Mysore and Travancore in the south, Gwalior and Bhopal in the centre, Cooch Behar in the east, and Kashmir in the north.

The rebellion of Indians in 1857-58 forced the British Parliament to get rid of the East India Company and make the British Crown, through a Cabinet Minister known as Secretary of State for India, directly responsible for the governance of British India. Supplementing the Act of 1858, the imperial British Parliament quickly enacted the Indian Councils Act of 1861 and the Indian High Courts Act of 1865, establishing the colonial legislature and superior judiciary respectively. A full-fledged imperial constitutional set was put in place.

Also read: The emergence and evolution of High Courts in India

The Act of 1858, while placing the responsibility of governance in the hands of the British Crown, set off British imperialism over India. The East India Company, though it pillaged India more ruthlessly, was grounded in India, with its servants marrying and living in India. But, under direct rule, the imperialists sat in London and decided what India needed!

Height of British imperialism

If we glean the pages of history, we’ll find that the British imperialists continued peacefully, albeit merrily, for many decades after 1858. The Indian Civil Service, consisting of mainly Oxbridge educated Europeans (Englishmen, Irish and Scottish), become the steel frame of British administration in India. The Indian Police, which had officers mostly recruited from a military background, was hard nosed.

Three grand imperial Durbars were held in Delhi in 1877, 1903 and 1911 at the height of the British Empire: dazzling displays of authority. The first Durbar proclaimed Queen Victoria as Empress of India; the second Durbar celebrated the succession of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress, respectively, of India with a pompous show organised by then Viceroy of India Lord Curzon; and the third Durbar coronated King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress, respectively, of India.

Bureaucrats, judges, princes and landed gentry dutifully attended the Durbars. The last Durbar also saw dramatic decisions from the Emperor King George V. The capital of India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, and the partition of Bengal was undone. Calcutta won Bengal, but lost the capital: an ingenuity of British imperialists!

British imperialists’ engagement with dissent

At the beginning of the 20th century, seismic geopolitical changes occurred. The First World War, triggered by the killing of Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, saw the fall of four empires like a pack of cards: the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire and the Russian Empire disappeared. The decolonisation movement, which had started with the American Revolution (1763-1783), was unexpectedly resurrected. European empires were thus forced to face challenges to their imperial policy. However, the general policy of the British Empire, unlike other European Empires, was to engage with dissenters.

Even though the general policy of British imperialists was to engage with dissenters in the colonies, which were more than 50, the actual process was knotty. British politics was sharply divided between conservatives and liberals. The stiff opposition from hawks among the conservatives was a hurdle in the task of engagement. There were imperial psychopaths like the Anglo-Irish Brig. John Nicholson, who ruthlessly suppressed the 1857 rebellion, and the British Col. Reginald Dyer, who mercilessly killed hundreds of innocent Indians at Jallianwala Bagh.

On the Indian side, the Indian National Congress (‘INC’), which was founded by the former British bureaucrat A.O. Hume to voice Indians’ demands, took the lead to engage constitutionally with British imperialists. However, the INC came under the tremendous pressure of revolutionaries to act tough. The Muslim communal politics and Hindu right wingers had their own differing perceptions of imperialists. Even the INC was a divided house, between the moderates, led by political leader, merchant, scholar and writer Dadabhai Nauroji, and political leader and a social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and the radicals, led by nationalist, teacher and independence activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

However, with the arrival of the lawyer and anti-colonial nationalist M.K. Gandhi from South Africa, INC went into an activist mode and started hard bargaining tactics on constitutional matters while mobilising people at the grass root level by satyagraha. The masses found it easy to associate with non-violent satyagraha, since it didn’t involve defying any law.

Also read: Mahatma Gandhi and the idea of India’s common national consciousness

After the First World War in 1917, the British moved fast to rearrange constitutional arrangements. The Imperial War Conference, held in London, resolved in its Resolution IX that the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) and India should have “a right… to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations”. The Conference decided to invite India in the future, which was an exception made among the non-dominion colonies. A quasi-dominion status was therefore conferred.

The engagement between the British and the Indians resulted in half-hearted proposals such as the Montague–Chelmsford Report. Based on the Report, the Government of India Act of 1919 was enacted by the British Parliament, replacing the bureaucratic and centralised system of governance under the Act of 1858 with a partly democratic and partly federal structure. The diarchal system crafted in the Act provided that a few departments would be under Indian nominees, and rest under the tight fist of British imperialists. However, the system with British-chosen Indians, who were not elected by Indians on the basis of adult franchise, was doomed to fail, and it did eventually fail!

Back in London, a comprehensive policy on imperialism was attempted by the British Government to diffuse the growing nationalist movements, particularly in India. The Imperial Conference, presided over by King George V, was convened on October 25, 1926 in London. The conference appointed the Inter Imperial Relations Committee headed by former Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour. The committee, in its report, didn’t frame the Constitution of the British Empire, but it declared inter alia that “Equality of status, so far as Britain and Dominions are concerned, is thus the root principle governing our Inter – Imperial Relations”. With regard to India, which was a Jewel in the British Crown, the Committee cleverly skirted the issue with general observations that “the position of India in the Empire is already defined by the Government of India Act, 1919.” 

The Balfour Report was considered in the next Imperial Conference in 1930; based on its recommendations, the British Parliament enacted the Statute of Westminster, which became the “founding document of [the] modern Commonwealth”. Balfour disappointed Indians.

A Commission chaired by British politician John Simon was appointed in 1928 to examine Indian constitutional affairs. The INC protested against it, since no Indian was part of the Commission. In 1929, the INC passed a resolution for poorna swaraj (complete self-rule) in Lahore. The civil disobedience movement was launched by Gandhi. The follow up Dandi march was a great success in the mass awakening of freedom from British rule.

Despite the pressure from nationalists, the Simon Commission’s Report, submitted in May 1930, did not recommend the grant of dominion or autonomous status to India. Due to the strong opposition from the INC to the report, and the success of its mass movement of civil disobedience and Dandi march, the Round Table Conferences were convened in London. Indians from all sections were invited to London, which included the Muslim League’s representatives, jurist, economist, social reformer and political leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as a representative of the depressed class, and the Hindu nationalist B.S. Moonje as a representative of the Hindu nationalist political party, the Hindu Mahasabha.

Taking an aggressive stand demanding dominion status (autonomous status within the British Empire), the INC boycotted the Round Table Conference. Gandhi later travelled to London to represent the INC and participated in the second meeting pursuant to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.

The Round Table Conferences yielded no tangible results due to the adamant stand of the British imperialists against dominion status for India as demanded by the INC. The unrepentant British Parliament went ahead unilaterally and enacted the Government of India Act of 1935, ignoring poorna swaraj or self-rule in the form of dominion status demanded by the INC. Elections were held under the constitutional experiment of the Act of 1935 in 1936 and 1937. The INC scored big victories for its aggressive stand against the British for demanding dominion status. The separatist Muslim League did well in the Muslim-dominated provinces of North-West Frontier, Baluchistan, Sind, Punjab and Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha lent support to the Muslim League, and helped it in forming coalition governments in these provinces.

The constitutional experiment under the Act of 1935 was short-lived. The INC provincial governments resigned in 1939 in protest against the unilateral decision of the Governor General of India Lord Linlithgow to involve India in the Second World War. The British Government in London sent its Minister Sir Stafford Cripps to negotiate with Indian nationalists. The INC came out with its fiercest political campaign at the instance of Gandhi by launching the Quit India movement in August 1942 and unequivocally demanding complete independence. It went beyond the earlier demand of dominion status. Lakhs of Indians courted arrest by offering satyagraha. The INC struck a popular chord with masses.

Also read: Satyagraha was Gandhi’s counter narrative to Marxist concept of class struggle

British wind up

The Labour party won the election in the general election to the Parliament in the United Kingdom, and in July 1945, the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister, replacing the British statesman, soldier and writer Winston Churchill of the Conservative Party. The hopes for complete independence soon started becoming a reality, but it was complicated by the demand for partition made by the Muslim League to form a Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

Decolonisation became the cornerstone of Attlee’s foreign policy. Finally, on February 20, 1947, he announced the decision to grant independence well before the originally intended date of June 30, 1948. However, after sorting out the Partition issue, Attlee hurried the independence by announcing on June 3, 1947 that India will be a completely independent nation on August 15, 1947 with a right to frame its own Constitution.

The British imperial power, which was wholly reluctant to grant even dominion status, agreed, in the changed political circumstances, for dominion status with a liberty to Indians to declare complete independence by framing their own Constitution. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 was passed by the British Parliament immediately after the announcement of June 3, 1947. Section 7(1)(a) said that the British shall “have no responsibility” towards British India. Sec 7(1)(b) declared the British suzerainty (paramountcy) over Princely States “lapses”. Section 8 granted the power to frame a Constitution to the Constituent Assembly.

Also read: Indian Independence Act, 1947: A forgotten title!

What triggered decolonisation?

The policy of decolonisation has its roots in the American Revolution. It was resurrected after the collapse of a series of empires in the aftermath of the First World War.

The British imperialist wisely decided to formulate a policy on decolonisation. On sensing the rise of nationalist movement, particularly the mass movement under the INC in India, the United Kingdom of Britain and the United States of America issued a joint statement in 1941 known as the ‘Atlantic Charter’, declaring the goals for the world after the end of the Second World War (respect the rights of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live; and wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them). The United Nations charter endorsed decolonisation by recognising “equal rights” and “self-determination” (see, for instance, Articles 1(2) and 55 of the United Nations Charter). However, western jurists said it has only a “hortatory effect”.

The question has been begging for an answer in the 21st century after the end of the Cold War: did the British wind up voluntarily, or were they forced out? British researcher Jonjo Robb, in his article Was British decolonisation after 1945 a voluntary process? (2015) concludes that:

“… Britain was [not] desperate to cling onto every colonial possession, every island, every enclave and every atoll that it had annexed. To be sure, there will have been a number of colonial territories in which Britain had little or no economic or strategic interests and so little desire to retain. Rather ironically, a few of the small islands making up the remnants of the British Empire, the renamed ‘British Overseas Territories’, may provide appropriate examples. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that decolonization in many places ran counter to British interests and the desires of the government in London. If we imagine a world devoid of nationalism, anti-colonial International opinion or even the impact of the Second World War, it is difficult to envisage Britain willingly liquidating its colonial possessions and, as we have seen, its vestige of world power status. This was a reluctant retreat indeed, and far from voluntary”.

About India, Robb writes:

 “Initially, the transfer of power in India appears to validate the notion that Britain embraced decolonisation as a voluntary process. Less than two years after gaining power, Clement Atlee’s government had already announced a date upon which the Raj, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Britain’s empire, was to be terminated in favour of an independent Indian state. This hurried retreat, unsurprisingly described by Churchill as a‘scuttle, was complete by August 1947. The most prestigious of Britain’s colonial possessions had been hurriedly liquidated in an act that signified Britain’s unwillingness to maintain its imperial burden”.

This is, of course, a rather inaccurate account of the end of British rule in India. Indeed, the transition was rushed, and Atlee’s government had made a clear declaration of its intent to relinquish British control over the subcontinent. Arguably, however, this was done out of necessity rather than choice. The immense growth in nationalist sentiment in India throughout the Second World War effectively guaranteed that immediate Indian independence was a fait accompli. As [British academic] David Sanders notes, Atlee’s government ‘had recognized that the Raj could not be preserved in the face of continued and growing nationalist-inspired civil disorder.’Given Britain’s enhanced defence obligations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Atlee held that ‘in view of our commitments all over the world we have not the military force to hold India agst [sic] a widespread guerrilla movement or to reconquer India’, and that‘we should have world opinion agst [sic] us and be placed in an impossible position at UNO [United Nations Organisation].’ Fundamentally, Britain’s position in India following 1945 was untenable. Britain lacked neither the manpower nor the political support to hold India against its will any longer. Ronald Hyam’s statement that ‘the transfer of power in India must be considered a geopolitically prudent response to the realities of declining power’ reflects the realism of the situation. Britain, put simply, had no other choice. It would therefore be quite inaccurate to state that India was voluntarily ‘given up.” (Emphasis supplied)

That nothing comes of nothing is a known proverb. The British Parliament had absolute sovereign power over India. There was no obligation in international law which obliged the British to decolonise its possessions. The self-determination declaration in the Atlantic Charter was a self-imposed burden. The British imperialists tried to play Machiavellian politics by granting concessions to Indians to participate in governance in 1919, partial self-rule in 1935 and finally, dominion status in 1942. However, each time its concessions or overtures were smartly rejected by the INC. The mass movement based on Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence attracted international attention. (The United Nations has declared the observation of Gandhi’s birthday of October 2 as International Day of Non Violence.)

If the demand of independence was not met, the threat of India lapsing into civil unrest loomed large. The revolutionaries instilled such fears. The Indian National Army, led by nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose, had its deterrent effect. The Naval mutiny in 1946 sent strong signals. The British were indeed prima facie compelled to grant independence. However, a detailed research on this issue is for historians to ponder over.

Also read: Indian polity: The story of two transitions

India set off decolonisation

The independence of India “kickstarted” the decolonisation process. Indians not only got independence for India, but also set the tone for self-determination and decolonisation elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Once the jewel in the Crown was lost, what remained in the British Empire?