India is celebrated as the country of Gandhi, but few understand that he was only a part of the Indian freedom struggle and not its entirety. To summarize his position, a famous line by Gandhi is often quoted, “if someone slaps you on one side of your face, turn the other one to him”. While Gandhi might have followed this path, other leaders had different visions. The role of revolutionaries in this struggle has been neglected on popular platforms, and their sacrifices lived on as folk tales describing ancient and unseen times. The narrative of a perfect non-violent struggle that won freedom cannot account for the freedom struggle of an extremely diverse country. Moreover, while most agree that the independence of a nation is not a one-person deal, history books tend to disagree.
There have been many discussions about the success of the freedom struggle. While most claim that it was the nonviolent movement propagated by Mahatma Gandhi that led to this success, I want to advocate for the importance of the pressure created by more aggressive actions taken by leaders like Subash Chandra Bose.
- History: The Early Revolutionaries and Their Influence
The British came to India as traders under the name of East India Company and earned themselves a place among the Indian elite. Slowly, they began gaining power and started conquering kingdoms. One of the most important of these was the acquisition of Bengal after the Battle Of Plassey in 1757 (Roukis 943). Bengal was a major economic hub and would have been a great victory for the company. India was governed by the Company until Queen Victoria took charge in 1858. This change was because of the revolt of 1857, which was caused by the mistreatment of Indian soldiers in the army, unequal punishments which were used to demonstrate “the strength of British power and authority rather than to prevent crime or punish lawbreakers” (Peers 229). These inequalities led to the violent army revolt of 1857, during which many British officials were killed. Once Queen Victoria took charge of India, a period of relative peace was established, but the sparks of revolt lived on in secrecy.
The revolutionary movement for India had leaders living across the world. One of the leaders of the revolutionary movement, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Or Veer Savarkar) was inspired by this idea of an armed revolt within the army and wrote the book “The Indian War of Independence 1857” analyzing the history of that revolt. Almost concurrently, the Ghadar Movement in North America was being established. It was a movement started by the Sikhs in America. Ghadar, literally meaning revolt or mutiny, led an anti-colonial movement for India. It included a vast variety of people, from laborers to students and intellectuals. They even started their own newspaper that was printed in San Francisco and sent off to the rest of the world (Upadhyay 1).
Another revolutionary, Rash Behari Bose was a prominent figure from Bengal. Bengal was among the first provinces to be captured by the British, and it also became the birthplace of early revolutionary organizations (Mcquade 645).In December of 1912, he attacked Lord Hardinge who was the Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Hardinge was severely injured after this event. Three years later, seeing the weakness of the British, Rash Behari Bose sketched out a plan against them during the first world war. He planned mutinies across northern India and Singapore in 1915 but his plan was foiled due to the presence of an informant within the conspiring team. Following this failed attempt, he became a highly wanted person for the British. Due to this tension, he left India and traveled to Japan while continuing his revolutionary activities for India till his death in 1945.
These revolutionaries had created a strong movement, which would be handed over to the next generation of evolved revolutionary minds. They believed that aggression was the only way to force the British to leave India. Many of their efforts failed, but their influence lived on in the form of inspiration. A few years after the initiation of the non-violent movement, such leaders would emerge out of the non-violent form and take actions much like their revolutionary predecessors.
- Counterargument: Importance of The Gandhian Movement
Mahatma Gandhi was the pioneer of non-violent movements for independence in South Africa and India. He had been active in South Africa since the 1900s and had held many non-violent rallies and returned to India only in 1916 (Iodice 7). On his return, he joined the Congress Party and soon became an important leader. He led major events between 1919 and 1945 (Ali 39). His movements would inspire unprecedented mass support. Gandhi was also the one who revolutionized the Indian National Congress. He turned the Congress from a talking committee to a political entity, and the party’s successful image was largely his creation (Bose et al. 267). Furthermore, many have claimed that Indian independence was brought about only by the efforts of Gandhi.
Mahatma Gandhi started participating during a time when the freedom struggle was in a confused state. At that time, the revolutionary movement felt too extreme for the people and previous constitutional attempts had borne no fruit. With the novel idea of non-violence, he re-ignited the spark of passion within his countrymen. This was accompanied by the massacre in the city of Amritsar in 1919 (Iodice 9). This event caused mass agitation among Indians. Following this tragic event, Mahatma Gandhi started the Non-Cooperation Movement and asked Indians to boycott British schools and colleges, foreign cloth, and give up government jobs and titles. New institutions were set-up to teach the students who left the government institutions. These institutions were very much national and included a compulsory class for teaching the pupils how to spin and weave their own cloth. The cloth to be made is called Khadi, and wearing khadi became a sign of defiance towards the British.
Mahatma achieved many things within a very short span of time, and this came at the cost of many mistakes. While he achieved the love and support of the country through his “single-hearted devotion, his relentless will, and his indefatigable labor” (Bose et al. 267), he missed out on diplomatic and political opportunities. For example, in 1921, a large civil disobedience movement took place. After the arrest of protestors, as a compromise, they offered to release all prisoners and arrange a round table conference to discuss the future constitution of India. Although other leaders were affirmative, Gandhi delayed the decision. This led to an exceptional loss for the movement as the government changed its mind due to the delay. One other such incident also occurred in 1922, while the civil disobedience movement was near its peak popularity. Owing to an isolated violent event, Mahatma suspended the movement throughout the country. This event furthered the frustration within the movement.
Overall, while Gandhi was exceptionally successful at winning over people’s hearts, he wasn’t the best political leader. His efforts led to mass gatherings, but they couldn’t reach the government. The attitude of the government towards Gandhi in 1921 shows the lack of a major influence on the administrators. Many leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose were not satisfied with his clarity of goals and how to achieve them (Bose et al. 48). Gandhi’s actions were reactive and not proactive. Future leaders wanted to be proactive and shape the situation in India’s favor.
- Argument: History, Efforts, and Influence of the Indian National Army
Influential leaders left the Gandhian movement citing many organizational and ideological problems. One of the criticisms that came for the movement was that it had become a “one-man show” (Bose et al. 55) and didn’t offer much room for discussion. Subhash Chandra Bose left Congress in 1939 due to disagreements with the Gandhian wing of the party. He created a “radical and progressive party” (Bose et al. 308) inside the Congress, called Forward Bloc, which grew to a national level. When the second world war started, Mahatma asked Indians to cooperate with the British. The Forward Bloc started large scale propaganda against this decision by the Mahatma. This decision, even today, feels wrong as it diverges vastly from the non-violent philosophy of the party.
Moving ahead, while Bose was in house arrest in 1940, he slyly escaped from the eyes of the secret agents and traveled to Germany. There, he created the Indische Legion (Indian Legion) consisting of Indian prisoners of war held by Germany (Bakshi 24). Bose was able to inspire the soldiers to fight for the freedom of their motherland. Around the same time, the Japanese had conquered the South-East Asian territories. They also had created their own Indian legion but were unable to manage it. The Japanese asked the Germans for Bose to lead this legion. Once back in Asia, Bose proceeded to establish the Provincial Government of Azad Hind (Free India) consisting of about 1,500 officers and 60,000 men. The army has been called by different names including Azad Hind Fauj and Indian National Army or INA. Furthermore, this government was recognized by 11 countries.
The first move of the government was to declare war on Britain owing to their occupation of India. This government cleared the misconception that Indians believing in different faiths could not work, and fight, together (Ali 50). In 1944, the government launched an operation codenamed Operation U. This led to a battle on the eastern borders of India near the city of Imphal. Though they did have some victories, the “blunders” (Ali 53) of the Japanese practically destroyed the move and they had to retreat. During this entire sequence of events, 26,000 Indian soldiers laid down their lives.
After victory in the world war, the British in India must be feeling very confident and decided to hold publicized trials of officials of the Indian National Army. Because of the publicized trials, Indians came to know about the contributions of the INA, which enraged the public Further, it led to a large-scale mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy in which 20,000 Indian sailors took control of 78 ships (53). They also marched through the streets of Mumbai and Karachi, two major port cities, raising slogans of the “Jai Hind” used by the INA. This revolt also passed on to the Royal Indian Air Force, whose airmen went on strike and also raised slogans supporting the INA.
The INA was born through a culmination of thoughts and ideologies of the prior leaders. Early revolutionary leaders always believed that a revolt within the armed forces would have the greatest impact on the rulers. The INA led a major movement, and its reverberations started a mass uprising in other armed forces within India. Unfortunately, the importance of the INA and the revolutionary movement has been neglected. Even today, 73 years after independence, it is rare to come across people who understand the sacrifices made by these fighters.
These events should suffice to prove that the efforts of aggressive leaders were anything but small and negligible. When the armed forces and the general public revolted, the colonial rulers were left without a defense because the entire colonial rule was dependent upon the loyalty of Indians. Furthermore, Gandhi seemed to have been confused during the war. He left his non-violent ideologies to support the recruitment of Indians for the army. Moreover, near the virtual end of his political career, Gandhi raised an evolved motto of “Karo ya Maro” (Bakshi 51), meaning do or die. Hence, Gandhi himself had turned in support of more aggressive ideologies for independence. These aggressive actions were the most probable cause of the withdrawal of the British in 1947, months after the extensive revolts within the armed forces.
Throughout this article, I’ve attempted to prove that the independence of India was not achieved by a linear set of movements, or by one ideology. It was also not achieved entirely through nonviolent protests, as can be seen from the case of the INA and earlier revolutionaries. The movement led by Mahatma Gandhi had a large impact on the population in the early years. In later times, near the world war, aggression was rising within India. This is evident even from Gandhi’s do or die motto. The revolts following INA trials shook the confidence of the rulers, leaving them defenseless.
This alternative history of the freedom struggle should be brought to the masses. Moreover, clarifying history is important because it helps shape the future identity of the population. The revolutionaries had an immense influence on people and were the most probable cause of independence, that was granted only a few months after the series of mutinies in previous years.
- Ali, Tahseen. “The Untold and Alternate Story of the Indian Subcontinent’s War of Independence.” African and Asian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2003, pp. 37–61., doi:10.1163/156920903763835661.
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- Bakshi, G. D. Bose or Gandhi: Who Got India Her Freedom? KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, 2019.
- Bose, Subhas Chandra., et al. The Indian Struggle, 1920-1942. Netaji Research Bureau, 2014.
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