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27 January 2009

Struggling To Prove It Was Freedom Struggle...

... that freed India in 1947
Surajit Dasgupta
Today, the attention of this writer was drawn to an article written by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar on the occasion of India's Independence Day in 2003 (though it appeared in print two days later as that was the closest Sunday, the day when Swami's column appears in The Times of India). The article insists the British left India, forced more by the indigenous uprising than by its weak economy post-World War II. And the person who brought the article to my notice through Orkut calls the waning of British power as a reason for India's independence an ill-researched theory floated, he guesses, by the Sangh Parivar (why?). The juxtaposition of Swami's Independence Day article with this blog-post, coincidentally penned right after the Republic Day, should help the readers reach their own judgement

Another Independence Day has come and gone. Right through history, imperial powers have clung to their possessions to death. Why, then, did Britain in 1947 give up the jewel in its crown, India?

For many reasons. The independence struggle exposed the hollowness of the white man’s burden. Provincial self-rule since 1935 paved the way for full self-rule. Churchill resisted independence, but the Labour government of Atlee was anti-imperialist by ideology.

Finally, the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946 raised fears of a second Sepoy Mutiny, and convinced British waverers that it was safer to withdraw gracefully.

But politico-military explanations are not enough. The basis of empire was always money. The end of empire had much to do with the fact that British imperialism had ceased to be profitable. World War II left Britain victorious but deeply indebted, needing Marshall Aid and loans from the World Bank. This constituted a strong financial case for ending the no-longer-profitable empire.

Empire-building is expensive. The US is spending one billion dollars a day in operations in Iraq that fall well short of full-scale imperialism. Through the centuries, empire-building was costly, yet constantly undertaken because it promised high returns.

The investment was in armies and conquest. The returns came through plunder and taxes from the conquered. No immorality was attached to imperial loot and plunder. The biggest conquerors were typically revered (hence titles like Alexander the Great, Akbar the Great, and Peter the Great). The bigger and richer the empire, the more the plunderer was admired.

This mindset gradually changed with the rise of new ideas about equality and governing for the public good, ideas that culminated in the French and American revolutions. Robert Clive was impeached for making a little money on the side, and so was Warren Hastings. The white man’s burden came up as a new moral rationale for conquest: It was supposedly for the good of the conquered. This led to much muddled hypocrisy. On the one hand, the empire needed to be profitable. On the other hand, the white man’s burden made brazen loot impossible. An additional factor deterring loot was the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Though crushed, it reminded the British vividly that they were a tiny ethnic group who could not rule a gigantic subcontinent without the support of important locals.

After 1857, the British stopped annexing one princely state after another, and instead treated the princes as allies. Land revenue was fixed in absolute terms, partly to prevent local unrest and partly to promote the notion of the white man’s burden. The empire proclaimed itself to be a protector of the Indian peasant against exploitation by Indian elites.

This was denounced as hypocrisy by nationalists like Dadabhoy Naoroji in the 19th century, who complained that land taxes led to an enormous drain from India to Britain. Objective calculations by historians like Angus Maddison suggest a drain of perhaps 1.6 per cent of Indian GNP in the 19th century. But land revenue was more or less fixed by the Raj in absolute terms, and so its real value diminished rapidly with inflation in the 20th century. By World War II, India had ceased to be a profit centre for the British Empire.

Historically, conquered nations paid taxes to finance fresh wars of the conqueror. India itself was asked to pay a large sum at the end of World War I to help repair Britain’s finances.

But, as shown by historian Indivar Kamtekar, the independence movement led by Gandhiji changed the political landscape, and made mass taxation of India increasingly difficult. By World War II, this had become politically impossible.

Far from taxing India to pay for World War II, Britain actually began paying India for its contribution of men and goods. Troops from white dominions like Australia, Canada and New Zealand were paid for entirely by those countries, but Indian costs were shared by the British government. Britain paid in the form of non-convertible sterling balances, which mounted swiftly. The conqueror was paying the conquered, undercutting the profitability on which all empire is founded.

Churchill opposed this, and wanted to tax India rather than owe it money. But he was overruled by India hands who said India would resist payment, and paralyse the war effort. Leo Amery, secretary of state for India, said that when you are driving in a taxi to the station to catch a life-or-death train, you do not loudly announce that you have doubts about whether to pay the fare.

Thus World War II converted India from a debtor to a creditor with over one billion pounds in sterling balances. Britain, meanwhile, became the biggest debtor in the world. It’s not worth ruling over people you are afraid to tax. That’s why the British left. Our school textbooks do not mention this as a key reason why India got its independence. Yet, that is the case.
-- Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, The Times of India, 17 August 2003

Not as simple as that, Swami. There is also a question of racial affinity involved. And that has little to do with India's freedom struggle or the part thereof that was led by Gandhi. To this day, the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Canada genuflect, albeit symbolically, before England's Queen. That a mountain was made out of a molehill by the British when an Australian premier put his right arm around the Queen's waist during an official reception of the latter is still fresh in public memory.

If that is banal, in terms of concrete diplomacy, we all know which countries readily accepted to be in the Commonwealth and which ones did not. It was a clear case of White, Black and Brown divide. What to talk of Dominions, the UK even exploited an independent Australia by testing its nuclear bombs on the soil of the latter. Specific to the case in question, one must note that in 1914 the Emperor had declared war on behalf of the whole Empire but soon offered the parliaments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and a free Ireland the right to support the war or stay away. It was racial consideration again that secured the support of the first two. In Canada, British stooge MacKenzie King saved the day for the empire. In South Africa, an Anglophile Gen JC Smuts prevailed on his boss Gen JBM Hertzog to make the country participate in war.

But India had no such power -- or Indian-dominated parliament -- to decide its own course of action. What would otherwise have been the decision of such a parliament in India is a matter of speculation. Apparently, the visible political leadership in India put its foot down. Perhaps a Black country can tell whether that was a Brown country's ego clashing with the White imperialist's designs. If still the Indian National Congress deserves some genuine appreciation, to not be subservient to an imperial power is the natural choice to exercise. It's strange that the columnist, citing historian Indivar Kamtekar, compares India with countries that lack self-esteem and are happy seeing us behave better than slaves. Why he does not compare India with a self-respecting Ireland is a question he must answer.

In any event, no formal plea to join the rest of the Empire in WWI was made to India -- for want of an empowered senate or otherwise -- and there is a probability a confusion prevailed on Britain as to whether India was still an asset or had become a liability. On the one hand, the talk of compensation to India, instead of compensation from it, post-World War I obfuscates the fact that the Indian Army did participate in World War II -- we sacrificed 1,500,000 civilians and 87,000 soldiers (more than any of the Commonwealth countries, all of which together lost 600,000 soldiers) for our imperial lord's war -- though, perhaps, the Indian nation didn't extend to the war its moral support. On the other, this army of Indians, while adding teeth to the British forces in some fronts of the World War -- Indians won as many as 30 Victoria Crosses -- merely added overheads in several other military posts that remained inactive during the war. And if the Empire had to be seen as a united kingdom (pun intended), such costs of maintenance incurred by the King worldwide could not be wished away.

It is also wrong to suggest India was the only colony to be 'paid' after WWI against the trend with other Commonwealth countries. If India got some money, the Dominions that had supported the Empire in the war got altogether new (tax paying) territories as reward under the Treaty of Versailles. South Africa was given South-West Africa (now Namibia), German New Guinea went to Australia and New Zealand 'earned' itself Western Samoa.

Finally, that India won independence at a time when many other colonies remained dependent is also a half-truth. The fact is, several colonies were freed thereafter in quick succession.

Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) got independence in 1948. British Commonwealth Occupation Force retreated from Korea in 1952. Ghana and the Federation of Malaya got independence in 1957. The Federation of the West Indies became self-governing colony in 1958. Nigeria got independence in 1960. Sierra Leone, Cyprus and Tanganyika were freed in 1961. Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago gained freedom after the Federation of the West Indies collapsed in 1962. Uganda got independence the same year. Zanzibar and Kenya got independence in 1963. Malawi, Malta and Zambia were declared as free states by the United Kingdom in 1964. Gambia was set free in 1965. Guyana, Botswana, Lesotho and Barbados followed in 1966. Mauritius and Swaziland got independence in 1968.

The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are too far away from 1947 to be recalled in this context. However, the fact remains, even if one were to find the 1960s distant from 1947, the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference was being convened biennially all throughout (with one exception), deliberating on ways to set the remaining British colonies free, since 1944.

In the late 1940s, Burma and Palestine too had become unmanageable and unprofitable just like India. Another vital point was that most countries that were retained after Britain lost India earned for the falling Empire money in dollars, the currency of the new superpower, the United States of America. Those who see India's freedom struggle as a mass movement that forced the British to yield in 1947 may of course seek satisfaction from the fact that Britain still has some 13 odd colonies, as of January 2009, after it returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Let us, Indians, be ruthlessly objective once to acknowledge that our grandfathers were mostly compliant subjects of the Empire, if not traitors of the nation. Some, like this blog-writer's grandfather, were traitors too. In the pre-independence era, my grandparents, their four younger sons (including my father) and a daughter excommunicated my eldest uncle, refusing to accept him as a member of the family, for he was a freedom fighter. Irony has it that after independence, they would seek pride in being among the kin of Pritilata Waddedar (the revolutionary from Chittagong who sacrificed her life on 23 September 1932 while executing the Surya Sen-inspired raid on the Pahartali European Club, at the entrance of which hung the abominable racist sign: "Dogs and Indians not allowed"). Whether I am a Kali Yuga descendant of Dwapara Yuga's Kunti, who acknowledged her abandoned child Karna as her son at an opportune moment, I wouldn't know.

Glorious exceptions: Freedom fighters are celebrated for they were few and far between

The consciousness of nationalism may have been there in our collective psyche ever since the great Indian middle class (when "middle class" referred to one's education, not his income) emerged. The problem was, people were scared to antagonise the Raj and hence preferred silence to speech and action. Many also preferred a hassle-free life -- so what if it was under a foreigners' regime? So they served the British empire while sympathising with nationalists in quietude and occasionally helped the sporadic freedom fighters by providing them with logistics and overnight shelters. This scenario remained unchanged throughout. India was never a European country like Hungary where one fine morning millions poured out into the streets for a political cause without being egged on by blurting mikes. The Congress could hardly change this Indian character. If you have seen documentaries showing processions of freedom fighters led by Gandhi, they were all formally enrolled Congressmen. And they were the minority. The majority was serving the British Empire as butlers when those demonstrations were happening.

This blog-writer, however, acknowledges that the uprising in India was a factor, though secondary, that influenced the British decision to withdraw from this country. The countries that would be freed post-1945 were, as such, as explained above, listed in a chunk by political consensus -- the Labour Party didn't brave it against all odds, contrary to the popular perception -- in Britain for economic reasons, with India being the first entry in the list due to the added factor of freedom struggle.

The writer is a mathematician and linguist, and has been a corporate communicator, a science journalist, a teacher and a marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations


Red Baron said...

Frankly speaking I whole heartedly agree that the factors which Indian historians term "secondary" such as World War 2 and Clement Atlee were more important in India's freedom than a half baked,disunited freedom struggle whose leaders main purpose was their political gains and hence resulted in the unfortunate partition.The British used a lot of brains to build their empire.A tiny Island faced with total disunity and repeated invasions from Vikings and growing in the shadows of Europe's eternal power the French,went on the build the largest empire in human history is indeed a work of genius.As highlighted by the blogger we have to examine to what extent we are to blame for allowing the British to trick us.The concept of nationalism and nation state was missing ,and since very rarely "Indians" as a whole resisted foreign rule.It was empires which succeeded whether it was Chandragupta Maurya defeating the Greeks,Rajputs defeating the Arabs or Ala ud din Khilji defeating the Mongols the success was effective statesmen leading Imperial armies and not the common man uniting to overthrow a foreign invasion.Likewise the initial disparage towards Mughals was not out of patriotism but selfish intentions,as people should recall Hemu was fighting for the Suri dynasty who were as foreign as Mughals.British exploited this fact or infighting and lack of patriotism ,which was not peculiar to India alone and managed to succeed.Their downfall is attributed to the sever damage to British colonial system by the Germans in World War 2 ,where blitz tactics made Britain first fight for its own survival and only later with American help defeat the Germans.Yes British may whine and shout about their greatness but I will never be convinced that World War 2 could ever be won without US intervention.
The Indian independence movement too reflected a shadow of the past disunity.Discussing them would be opening a Pandora's box.
The only thing which I don't agree with the blogger is the "racial" issue,I feel its a bit overrated.ANZAC's gallant role is often discredited by British,ANZAC officers and soldiers were repeatedly pushed in Gallipoli to be massacred by Ottoman machine guns and Aussies often used to be guinea pigs for British war crimes.One example found in the book "Scapegoats of the Empire" . American revolution also proves the point that unfair taxation can not be tolerated and is not question of "racial affinity" .Unfortunately such a revolution could not succeed in India due to the lack of unity in the freedom struggle.Even the Americans had a group called the Loyalists who fought for the British and their weapons were few,yet determination and courage boundless.

samith nataraj said...

firstly i am most relived that i am not the only one thinking so........ continue analysing everything only then will we know the truth...our freedom struggle was merely a workers union strike and that during recssion..so the owner closed the factory..they simply dusted dirt off their shoulders
is this article already on orkut?

Sanket said...

Is there any document which lists the total number of members of INC and participants in India's Congress-led freedom movements.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.