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Welcome to the Occupation
By Kevin Filan

India: The British Occupation

Afghanistan |  India |  Israel |  Postwar Europe |  Vietnam


On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth granted a royal charter to "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London, Trading into the East-Indies." In 1757 the Company was transformed from a trading venture to a ruling enterprise, when Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-daulah, Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. Its policies left many formerly rich provinces utterly destitute: a 1769-70 famine, which the Company did nothing to alleviate, may have killed a third of Bengal's population. The Company, despite the increase in trade and revenues from other sources, found itself burdened with massive military expenditures as it sought to hold on to its territories. Help came from the British government … but help which would ultimately destroy the Company. After suppressing the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58, the Crown dissolved the Company, declared India a Colony; by 1877 Queen Victoria added "Empress of India" to her titles.

For the impoverished population, life was marginally better under the Crown than udner the Company. The universities of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Allahabad were established, and many of the new generation of English-educated Indians took up service with the British government. After Indian troops fought for England in World War I, there were widespread hopes that Indian self-rule was just around the corner. Unfortunately, the British had other ideas. General Dyer's April 1919 massacre of almost 400 unarmed Indians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar only served to increase anti-British feeling in India… and paved the way for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an Indian lawyer educated in England, to become the uncrowned king of the Indian Resistance Movement.

Decades in South Africa had given Gandhi a first-hand look at the power and brutality of racism, and had given him a chance to hone Satyagraha, his political philosophy. One core principle of Satyagraha was that of ahimsa, nonviolence. Since no individual or group could claim absolute knowledge of the truth, Gandhi reasoned, no one should use violence to compel others to act against their different but also sincere understanding of it. Gandhi believed violence used against oppression could never really end injustice. Unjust means would never produce a just outcome; they would merely inflame the prejudice and fear that fed oppression. In its place he proposed firm but nonviolent resistance to injustice. Gandhi believed this would open the eyes of oppressors and weaken the hostility behind repression; rather than adversaries being bullied into capitulation, they would be obliged to see what was right, and thereby change their minds and actions.

This idealism was backed by another weapon - the boycott. To keep Indians from buying British items, Gandhi's supporters would lie in front of stores which sold these products, forcing shoppers to tread on them. Rather than paying a salt tax, Indians marched en masse to the sea in challenge of the British monopoly on salt, braving rows of truncheon-wielding policemen. Refusing to wear Western clothing, Gandhi took to wearing clothes made with yarn he had spun himself - a custom he would continue throughout his life.

The British arrested many leaders, including Gandhi, and charged them with "sedition" - but they were fighting an uphill battle. World opinion increasingly favored the man known as "the Mahatma" (great soul) and turned against the British. Churchill's comment about "this seditious fakir ... striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy's palace" was turned against the British and became an emblem of British racism and injustice. When Gandhi visited India in 1931, textile workers put out of work by the Indian boycott rallied in solidarity with his principles. By 1935 the English had granted limited home rule; by 1947 India would be an independent nation and the sun would set on the British Empire.

Unfortunately for Gandhi, his vision of a unified India would prove elusive. The Indian subcontinent had long been home to a number of different and frequently quarreling groups. Tensions between Hindus and Moslems soon flared. Despite numerous fasts on Gandhi's part, riots swept the nation. Ultimately they would result in the creation of India and Pakistan, despite Gandhi's best efforts at unification. One of their last victims would be the Mahatma himself; on January 31, 1948, he was shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who felt Gandhi had made too many concessions to the Moslems.


 

 


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