This is an essay I wrote for my history class.

How Did the World Wars Affect British-Indian Relations?

1. The background: British India

British colonial rule in India had a modest beginning. It first came about in the form of the East India Company, which was incorporated by royal charter in 1600, but did not differ markedly from the other European companies operating in the Indian subcontinent. Its importance grew as more Britons arrived to form small armies to protect the trading posts of the Company and construct fortresses for it. Britain was successful in enlarging its control of India a little at a time - for example, they secured territory and a taxation right in Bengal by means of intrigue.

The year 1857 marks a turning point in Indian history, as the Sepoy mutiny of Indian soldiers began then. It took the colonial authorities almost two years to quell the rebellion, but it made them realize the administrative defects of the Company. This meant the transfer of power from the Company to the Crown. Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India, and the thereto highest-ranking official in India, the Governor General, was made Viceroy. Now about one-third of the area of present-day India came under direct control of the British. The rest of India was divided into so-called maharaja counties with their own rulers.

The basis of British rule in India was the reliance on local leaders whom the populace trusted. Even though British interests varied from time to time, and the important Indians they relied on changed too, in general India was kept rather peaceful, and thereby its resources could be utilized efficiently. However, support for Indian independence did exist, as the Sepoy mutiny shows, and they grew as time went by. The two world wars added to these decisively, thus changing British-Indian relations irrevocably.

2. The First World War: economic crisis and Indian nationalism

One could think that the First World War did not affect India notably, as its most important events took place in Europe. However, Great Britain played a significant role in that war fighting alongside France, Russia, and the United States against Germany, and it wanted to utilize the vast resources of its colonial empire in the war effort. This naturally meant using the resources of India, as it was perhaps the most important part of the empire beyond Great Britain itself.

As India is one of the most populous countries in the world, it was natural that the British authorities wanted to recruit men to work for the war effort there. By the end of 1919 1,5 million people had been drafted in India. About 1 400 000 of them were sent overseas to help the Allies, either to fight in actual battles or to serve in other ways. This had a strengthening effect on nationalist feeling in India, as Indian soldiers were seen fighting alongside British and other white troops.

An important effect of the First World War on British-Indian relations was the discontent among the Indian population caused by the negative impact of the war on the Indian economy. In addition to providing troops, India assisted Britain monetarily - India spent about £146 million on the First World War. It should be noted that India's contribution was increased annually: in 1916-17 the amount spent by the Indian administration on the army rose by 16 per cent, in 1917-18 by 14 per cent, and in 1918-1919 by ten per cent. The war also caused a decrease in foreign imports to India, and in addition decreased exports therefrom. This stopped a potential boom in Indian exports, which probably would have occurred, as other countries wanted to get their hands on the great resources of the subcontinent. Because of these reasons prices rose sharply - according to an official survey the prices of exports rose an average of 190 per cent, and prices of Indian goods rose by 60 per cent.

The war affected the average Indian mostly by the increase in taxes needed to fund the war effort and the rise in prices. These factors caused large-scale resentment, and had quick political consequences. Even though in places the war actually had positive economic effects, as many local factories made great profits in the absence of foreign competitors, its negative impact was so much greater that violent clashes did occur. In some regions there was violence caused by lack of food, and in some areas the local officials went on strike. Fortunately for Great Britain, the troubles remained local, and there was no nation-wide uprising. Had such a rebellion occurred, the British authorities would not have been able to do much, there being only a few troops stationed in India, as the majority was needed for the war. This illustrates that the British position in India was rather precarious at this time, and it was weakened further by the growing anti-British sentiment and demands for independence, thereby moving British-Indian relations one step towards the relations of two independent nations.

In Europe, and later in America, the war was defended in the eyes of the public by saying that it was about defending the rights of peoples and the sanctity of international agreements. This gave impetus to Indian claims to independence, affecting British-Indian relations. Many Indians were of the opinion that because the purpose of the war was defending the rights of peoples and because India contributed to the war effort in a major way, its position should be re-evaluated. The Indian politician Surendranath Banerjea said:

"What is this war for? Why are these numerous sufferings endured? Because, it is a war of re-adjustment, a war that will set right the claims of minor nationalities --"

3. The Second World War: anti-colonialism and offer of independence

Several colonial powers were dealt severe blows in the Second World War, weakening their position and making them less keen to cling on to their independence-desiring colonies. It was also seen that smaller nations could hold their own against Western superpowers, as Japan was able to cause a lot of trouble to the United States. The anti-colonial sentiment so prevalent after the Second World War was also strengthened by the Atlantic Charter signed by Great Britain and the United States, in which the principle of self-determination of each people was endorsed.

India entered the war on the side of Great Britain when Viceroy Lord Linlithgow said so - nobody asked the Indians. This caused some resentment, but the Indians did not decline to co-operate, but wanted to know Britain's aims in the war as relevant to India. Was this really a war against fascism or was it a new imperialistic war after which colonial rule would continue as before? Great Britain did not answer, and Indian politicians refused to co-operate in the war effort.

As the Japanese made progress in Asia and the United States demanded British support in the region, it became evident to the British leadership that something had to be done about the situation in India. An answer had to be given, and it was, but when Lord Linlithgow read the document stating the Empire's aims in the war, he resigned. The former British ambassador to the Soviet Union, Sir Stanford Cripps, was willing to fly to India as the representative of Great Britain, however, and negotiate a reasonable compromise. Cripps was a friend of the notable Indian politician Nehru, and supported India's political ambitions. He thought his mission might succeed, but because of the action - or rather inaction - of the Viceroy the so-called Cripps offer failed. The Viceroy did not announce his approval of the plan, which virtually guaranteed the independence of India on the condition that she fully support Britain in the war. Linlithgow was of the opinion that no new arraignments should be made with regard to India, and he wrote to Prime Minister Churchill complaining that Cripps was trying to take away his constitutional powers.

4. Conclusion

The clearest way in which the world wars affected British-Indian relations was the speeding-up of India's process of becoming independent - in important ways, the wars moved the relations of these countries from those of colony and colonial master to those of two independent states. The First World War gave evidence of Indians being as good on the field of battle as white troops, thus giving strength to nationalist feeling and raising doubts about colonial rule. A similar effect was caused by Allied propaganda which propounded that the war was anti-imperialistic and about protecting the rights of all peoples, which of course invigorated Indian hopes for independence, as India partook in the war on the Allied side. Perhaps the most important reason for a new lack of belief in the justification of British rule in India was the economic crisis caused by the war. Inflation was rampant, and a potential boom in Indian exports never came about. Indians grew unsatisfied with the way the British were handling their affairs, which speeded-up the process of India's independence.

After the Second World War, India's independence was quite inevitable, as it had been promised in the Cripps offer. Great Britain was also not quite the world power it had been, as it had suffered great losses in the war. Global sentiment was also against colonialism after the war, which naturally strengthened Indian claims to independence. The Indian politician Madan Mohan Malaviya said that the First World War caused Indian independence to come about fifty years before it otherwise would have, and it is very probable that the Second World War had a similar effect. As India became independent in 1947, I would venture to assert that the world wars had an essential effect on British-Indian relations, speeding up the process of Indian independence, whose beginnings can already be seen in the Sepoy mutiny.


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