In 1947 Britain lost control of India, the colony that British prime minister Disraeli had once called the “jewel in the crown of England”.
Indian independence was a massive blow to British imperialism. In the 1880s India bought nearly one fifth of British exports. As Winston Churchill said, India made the difference between Britain being a first and a third rate power.
The British ruling class reaped huge economic benefits from India and kept a tight grip on political decision making. In the 1880s, Indians occupied just 16 out of more than 900 civil service posts.
Britain’s revenge for being driven from its colony was to partition it into two separate states, India and Pakistan. Partition took place along religious lines. Areas with a Muslim majority became Pakistan, those with a Hindu majority became India.
The convulsions of partition saw communal rioting that left one million dead. The partition plan flowed from Britain’s policy of divide and rule.
They had deliberately promoted communalism, for example by making voters register as Hindu or Muslim. They helped to create communalist political organisations that organised Indians on the basis of religion. These tactics intensified at the start of the 20th century as an Indian nationalist movement emerged.
The most important organisation involved in this movement was the Indian National Congress (INC), which was founded in 1885. Initially it was based on a small elite of Indian intellectuals and capitalists, but it began to attract mass support from workers and peasants who suffered under British rule.
The politics of the INC’s most famous figure, Mahatma Gandhi, fitted well with the aspirations of the organisation’s leaders. His policy of non-violent civil disobedience allowed the INC to mobilise the masses without the danger of their struggle spilling over into a wider revolutionary upheaval.
The leaders of the INC wanted to become the rulers in their own land, but the bitterness of Indian peasants and workers also worried them.
The militant working class grew bigger during the First World War as the British loosened their grip on the Indian economy. In 1919 there was a huge upsurge in the struggle. The response of the British was brutal’they massacred at least 400 unarmed protesters at Amritsar.
In 1920 and 1921 tens of thousands of workers struck in all major cities. In 1928-9, Bombay was paralysed by a wave of major strikes in the textile industry. In Lahore the British were temporarily driven out of the city.
Anger towards Britain grew when, during the Second World War, it announced India was at war with Germany without consulting any Indians.
A huge “Quit India” campaign was launched by the INC in 1942. Strikes, mass demonstrations and guerrilla attacks upon the authorities began to stretch Britain’s resources.
Brutal repression was used to break the protests. The British killed 2,000 people in Bombay alone. Another wave of struggle broke out in 1946. Indian sailors revolted in a mutiny that involved 78 ships and 20,000 sailors. Over 300,000 workers in Bombay held a general strike in solidarity with the sailors.
INC leaders, worried that the revolt was getting out of hand, persuaded the sailors to abandon their action. But Britain’s rulers were by now convinced they could no longer control India.
A British civil servant was dispatched to India to draw a line on a map, marking the borders of India and Pakistan. Publication of his partition plan sparked a wave of reaction across much of India.
One survivor recalled how Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who had been living together peacefully for many years “suddenly found they couldn’t trust their neighbours any more”.
There was nothing inevitable about the horror of partition. Each wave of struggle against British rule had managed, at its high point, to draw together different religious groups into a common fight.
It was only when the level of struggle was low that communalist organisations grew, and the British could get away with their divide and rule tactics.
One socialist explained at the time that it would have been far easier “to unite the Hindus and Muslims at the barricade than on the constitutional front”.
And yet this is precisely what the INC’s leaders feared. Communalism for them was a lesser evil than the possibility of social revolution.
Two articles on India from the International Socialism journal are available online:
» India: imperialism, partition and resistance by Sam Ashman
» India after the elections: a rough guide by Chris Harman