Early Indian Independence Movement

The beginnings of the Indian independence movement can be traced back to the Indian rebellion of 1857. Soldiers fighting for the British East India company’s rebelled against British rule. The revolt was harshly defeated creating a sense of injustice amongst the Indian elites. The late 19th Century also witnessed a resurgence in Indian culture and with it a sense of cultural pride. Foremost amongst these were people like the Debendranath Tagore and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Roy founded the influential Brahmo Samaj, which campaigned against the degradation of Hindu culture in particular they opposed superstitions such as Sati and idol worship. The religious revival of Hindu culture was also inspired by spiritual figures such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. In particular Swami Vivekananda became a hero of the Indian movement because of his exhortations for his fellow Indians to arise and transform the problems facing Indians.

In 1885 at the suggestion of a retired British civil servant a group of leading Indian elites formed the Indian National Congress. In the beginning the National Congress was a very loose relatively apolitical body. It professed allegiance to the British Raj. However over time Congress began to attract the attention of radicals such as Bipin Pal, and Tilak. These young revolutionaries were the first to call for complete Indian independence and in some circumstances advocated violent resistance. One weakness of Congress however was that it failed to attract any of the Muslim population, it was also weakened by division about what the goals of the Congress were.

In 1905 the partition of Bengal created a wave of popular unrest as people felt threatened by a British decision taken without consultation and seemingly promoting a strategy of divide and rule. It led to the first organised campaigns of swadesh – the boycotting of British goods was so successful it would be repeated several times. This also escalated the tensions between the British and Indian revolutionaries. In 1909 there was the infamous Alipore bomb trial where several Indian revolutionaries were put on trial including Sri Aurobindo. In 1909 the Muslims also formed their own body to represent their interests.

During the First World War there was initially a widespread feeling of good will towards the British war effort with the Indians contributing many men and resources to the war effort. However by the end of the war with rising casualties, an influenza epidemic and rising prices there was an increase in nationalistic feeling again. In response the British introduced some policies to appease growing calls for Independence. However these tentative reforms were overshadowed by the Amritsar massacre of 1919. The viceroy of India had allowed the army unprecedented powers in controlling any suspected revolutionaries. On 13 April 1919 a British commander Reginald Dyer ordered his men to shoot over 1000 rounds into a large unarmed crowd of civilians who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh a walled garden to celebrate a Sikh festival. Over 340 people died in the massacre and more than 1000 were seriously injured.
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The massacre enraged Indian public opinion swelling the ranks of the Independence movement. Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood in protest. But the lack of action against the British commander only served to fuel the antagonism to the British.

From 1919 -1922 there was a very strong movement of civil disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi He argued for non violent civil disobedience, protesting against unjust laws and hurting British economic interests. The movement was remarkably successful and Gandhi became a hero in the eyes of many ordinary Indians. They viewed Gandhi as a man of the people. However in 1922 following the brutal murder of an Englishman Gandhi called off the struggle saying the Indians weren’t ready. This put back the independence movement for several years. Although others carried the fight on, often through violent action. These included men such as Surya Sen and Bhagat Singh. But India would have to wait for another world war until 1947 until they finally achieved Independence.

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