The Question of Who Truly Freed India

Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India bidding his farewell to the country after India had gained independence. Ullstein bild / Contributor/Getty Images
15 August, 2015

In September 1947, barely a month after India became independent from British rule, Vishwa Nath, the founding editor of the Delhi Press—that originally launched The Caravan in 1940wrote a scathing editorial about the culture of public memory surrounding colonial rule in India. Although this was a time that was largely characterised by the triumph of independence, it was also replete with uncertainty around the ability of Indians to govern themselves. In his editorial, Nath rejects this notion and challenges the idea of an invisible colonial Britain. “Do these people forget the unending fight for liberty that the country has waged during the last 150 years,” he asks of those who believed that India gained independence solely due to the statesmanship of Britain. Nath concludes by taking to task those who denied Indians agency in their own struggle for independence, viewing it as British magnanimity instead.

15 August 1947 will go down in world history as a landmark. It was on this day that a vast sub-continent holding one fifth of the human race was freed from a foreign power’s domination.

It has become a tendency with our national leaders to sing unending songs about the manner in which this transfer of power has taken place; they point out that the way it has come about is unique in the history of the world, and is solely due to the statesmanship of the British.

Public memory is proverbially short, and national leaders are no exception. They seem to have forgotten the case of Phillippines [sic], India’s next-door neighbor.

When the United States of America declared the Phillippine independence, it proved itself a really liberty-loving non-imperialist nation because there were none of those compelling reasons for the United States to free the Phillippines with which Britain was confronted in the case of India.

While the USA made a promise of freeing the Phillippines years before and faithfully fulfilled it in spite of its becoming the strongest power in the world, Britain has been making vague declarations about its intentions without any willingness to carry them out. And if today Britain had not been so weak and desperately short of men and material, it would never have parted with power so smoothly as it has done now. In spite of a socialist government in office, Britain has not shed its imperialism; if it had been possible, it would have even embarked on fresh conquests. The deliberate foisting of the Dutch on Indonesia by Britain helping the former to reconquer Indonesian territory should open everybody’s eyes.

It is being said that India got her freedom without any fight. Do these people forget the unending fight for liberty that the country has waged during the last 150 years, starting from the Revolt of 1857 to the “Quit India” movement of 1942, the Indian National Army (INA), and the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) rebellion?

Have these people forgotten the thousands of patriots such as Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil and Jatindranath Das who were hanged and shot mercilessly, the massacre of Jallianwalla Bagh, the indignities of the Martial Law days, the millions who were thrust into jails, and the innumerable men, women and children beaten down with lathis, mowed down with bullets and bombarded and strafed from the air during the various Civil Disobedience movements?

Have these people forgotten Balia and Azamgarh, Ashti and Chimur, and thousands of other such places, which have not come into limelight at all?

If all these were not a part of our war of independence, what were they? Mere theatricals put up for a show? If a total be made of all the casualties inflicted by British lathis and bullets, it will be more than double the casualties suffered by any country in the world fighting for its independence from the foreign yoke.

Not only are the praises lavished on the British Viceroy and the British Government a sign of great inferiority complex, they are also derogatory to our national honor and bound to create a great deal of mischief. Freedom, which comes on a silver salver is not worth a two pence; only that freedom is real which is won by hard struggle. And all those who go about crying that Indian Independence is not a reward of our own strength and sacrifice but a gift from Britain weakened by world forces, they are doing a big national disservice.

Britain never conquered India by arms, and has never been able to hold her in captivity because of its arms and navy. It enslaved India by deceit, craft, dishonesty, setting one party against another and deliberately creating factions where none existed before. It is always possible for crafty and scheming people, powerless in themselves, to take advantage of the situation, and Britain was lucky that it came to India while the Moghul empire was cracking up and all around there was nothing but confusion and disorder. And, once it acquired some power, it consolidated its gains by making promises and treaties one day and breaking them the next day, bribing ministers and court officials and indulging in open thugee [sic].

The reason it has been able to continue here for so long has been that it somehow hypnotised the people about its invincibility and the utter incapacity of the Indians to rule themselves or do anything worth while for that matter. But when the World Wars, especially the war with Japan called the bluff, Britain knew that its days were numbered. The moment Indians realised their inherent strength—and Britain’s weakness, India has become free.

Even if international circumstances were favorable and Britain had emerged as a strong power it could not have kept India in bondage for any length of time. When every one of the 400 millions knew his strength and rose in rebellion, no power on the earth could keep him subdued. “Quit India” campaign, Subhash Bose’s INA and the RIN revolt made this too patent to be ignored. If India is free today, it is due to her own strength and not because her freedom has come to her as a gift from Britain.