India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

India gained its political freedom from the United Kingdom at the price of great suffering and loss of life. One million people lost their lives during the migrations between India, envisioned as a Hindu state, and the newly created Pakistan, which became a primarily Islamic state.

Summary of Event

Although Indian poets and philosophers had long dreamed of a united India stretching from the Himalayas to the oceans, in actuality the subcontinent for centuries was the site of warring states. Such unity as existed was imposed from the outside, such as that imposed by the British. Coming first as traders, they later turned India into a colony. Anticolonial movements;India Nationalism;India India;partition Postcolonialism;India Postcolonialism;Pakistan British Empire;dissolution [kw]India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom (Aug. 15, 1947) [kw]Independence from the United Kingdom, India Gains (Aug. 15, 1947) [kw]United Kingdom, India Gains Independence from the (Aug. 15, 1947) Anticolonial movements;India Nationalism;India India;partition Postcolonialism;India Postcolonialism;Pakistan British Empire;dissolution [g]South Asia;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] [g]India;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] [g]Pakistan;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] [c]Independence movements;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 15, 1947: India Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[02110] Attlee, Clement Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;India Gandhi, Mahatma Iqb{amacr}l, Muhammad Jinnah, Mohammed Ali Mountbatten, Louis (first Earl Mountbatten of Burma) Nehru, Jawaharlal Roy, Ram Mohan

The British first introduced the Western concept of nationalism, made Indians aware of their national identity, and fostered the growth of an independence movement. The British also brought the idea of white superiority—that Indians because of their color were racially inferior, their society barbarous, and their culture in an early stage of evolution. Added to the humiliation of racial inferiority was that of economic exploitation. To maximize its profits, the British East India Company that first ruled India exploited Indian labor and appropriated land and raw materials.

Indians found an early spokesperson for the cause of independence in the British-educated Indian patriot Ram Mohan Roy. Roy advised the Indian people to copy Western methods and combine them with revived Hinduism to create an independent India. Growing resentment over continued economic exploitation as well as British disregard for Indian religious law resulted in the first open demonstration for independence, the Sepoy Rebellion Sepoy Rebellion (1857) of 1857. The rebellion was suppressed. The British, however, improved the administration of India and the rights of Indians by placing India under colonial control, rather than control by the East India Company, through the Government of India Act Government of India Act (1858) of 1858. Even though some provincial councils were established and Indians could serve as counselors to the viceroy, the appointed British ruler in India, power remained with the British. No matter how well educated or capable, Indians remained in the lowest level of the civil service.

Economic exploitation continued but on a larger scale. The English cotton mills needed raw material, so large areas of India were turned from rice cultivation to that of growing cotton, thus endangering the food supply. The British further impoverished India by destroying its cotton industry through flooding the market with cheap British textiles that were free of tariffs. Indians were also recruited for military service at a lower pay scale than their British counterparts. Until World War I, Indians provided an effective, inexpensive police force for the British Empire.

Frustrated, Indians in 1885 founded the Indian National Congress Indian National Congress (which later also became known as the Congress Party) to express their desires and to make plans for achieving independence. World War I raised Indian expectations. Even though the British assumed dictatorial control through the Defense of India Act Defense of India Act, British (1915) (1915), Indians hoped that by backing the war effort they would be rewarded with greater political freedom. On the contrary, the British reasserted their control through the repressive Rowlatt Acts in 1919. Protests resulted in the Amritsar Massacre Amritsar Massacre Massacres , in which about four hundred peacefully demonstrating Indians were killed and more than one thousand wounded because of firing ordered by a British general. Indian public opinion turned further against the British, who were perceived to have approved of the action. Indians saw themselves as second-class citizens in their own land.

Few were more outraged than Mahatma Gandhi, who emerged as the leader of the Indian drive for independence. Trained in law in England, Gandhi practiced in South Africa. Offended by discrimination against nonwhites, he devised a policy of noncooperation that he used with great effectiveness in India. Gandhi identified with the masses. He dressed in homespun, observed religious and dietary laws, and lived in humble surroundings. His followers worshiped him and called him “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul.” Because of his education and experience, Gandhi had the ability to unite educated Indians with the masses. The combination eventually provided the means for freeing India of foreign control.

Gandhi was joined in his drive for political independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, also from an upper-caste Hindu family. Both Gandhi and Nehru envisioned an independent India as an essentially Hindu state. This troubled the Muslim minority, concentrated in the northwest, who thought they would suffer from discrimination in such a state. The Muslims found a leader in Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Following the advice of the theologian Muhammad Iqbāl that only a separate state could bring Muslims together in the true spirit of their religion, Jinnah resigned from the Congress Party to head the Muslim League Muslim League . Its objective was the establishment of a Muslim state.





The growing religious rivalry weakened but did not stop the drive for independence. Some accused the British of covertly supporting the rivalry, continuing a “divide and rule” policy that had been effective in keeping India a colony for nearly two centuries. The accusation was not without foundation. The British in the interwar period found their control of India increasingly to be a burden. They had a deficit trade balance with India, the Indian army with its antiquated equipment ceased to be an effective fighting force, and serving in the Indian civil service was no longer attractive to ambitious young Britons. To minimize costs, the British tended to support existing institutions and the status quo. As a result, India stagnated socially. Even though the British had introduced legislation supporting basic human rights, increasingly neither the will nor the means existed to enforce these regulations. The 495 princely states, whose rulers retained their absolute powers and lavish lifestyles in contrast to the poverty of the masses, posed obstacles to enforcement.

In 1935, the British parliament granted India a new constitution, extending the franchise and giving the separate provinces greater independence. Many maintained that India could then have been granted full independence without violence and bloodshed had it not been for the determined opposition of a small but influential group of conservative British statesmen. Among them was the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. Although he was a noted historian, he seemingly was blind to demands of subjugated peoples for liberation. Part of Churchill’s strategy in dealing with India was that of supporting the Muslim faction. The outbreak of World War II consequently found the Indians divided and resentful over the viceroy bringing them into the war without their consent. The Congress Party refused to back the war effort. The Muslim League, however, gave its limited support, expecting British backing for a separate state.

Hoping to retain Indian support, the British offered them a plan that promised full independence after the war. Remembering the betrayal after World War I, Gandhi and Nehru responded in August of 1942 with their “Quit India” demand. The British government under Churchill overreacted. Gandhi and Nehru, together with their sympathizers, were imprisoned and the Congress Party was banned. The British restored order, but at the price of their right to continue to rule India. Gandhi’s hunger strikes and the threat of rioting by his loyal followers secured his release and that of most of his followers by 1944.

In 1945, the British offered another plan, which would create a federal state with considerable power in the hands of the several provinces. The Indians were firm in their demand for complete political freedom. Massive unrest was avoided, because in 1945 the Churchill government was replaced by a Labour government under Clement Attlee. Sympathetic to Indian aspirations, Attlee announced that independence would be granted as soon as power could be transferred safely.

Largely because of the power given it by the wartime Churchill government, and over the bitter objection of Gandhi, the Muslim League demanded the creation of a separate Muslim state called Pakistan. The last viceroy and the person assigned the task of supervising the division of the Indian subcontinent into Muslim and Hindu states was Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten completed his onerous task ahead of schedule. The division resulted in the greatest human migration in history, as Muslims and Hindus fled to either Pakistan or India. One million lost their lives along the way. Independence Day was enthusiastically celebrated on August 15, 1947, in both Delhi and Karachi, the capitals of India and Pakistan. Nearly a century after the struggle began, the Indians gained their independence. The dislocations of peoples and the tragic loss of life and property, however, remained a bitter legacy.


The impact on human rights Human rights;India Human rights;Pakistan of the independence of India and Pakistan was immediate, far-reaching, and controversial. Both Indians and Pakistanis gained political as well as religious freedoms in separate sovereign states. Even the British were relieved with dignity of the stigma of colonialism. Controversy, however, remained.

Religious minorities in both Pakistan and India continued to suffer persecution. With Pakistan moving increasingly in the direction of becoming an Islamic state, the question of human rights, especially for women, became acute. The constitutions, of which there were three in twenty-six years, specified that laws would contain no provisions going against the Qur՚ān. The governments, following a pattern set by the strong-willed Jinnah, who died after little more than a year in office, were often military dictatorships that committed numerous civil rights abuses. The dictatorial style of government, combined with economic exploitation and cultural differences, caused the East Pakistanis, separated from West Pakistan by more than 1,000 miles, to seek independence. After a bloody civil war, the new state of Bangladesh was established in 1971 in the territory that had been East Pakistan.

Pursuit of basic human rights in India was more successful. The constitution that went into effect in 1950 guaranteed all basic freedoms. Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India’s first prime minister and retained that office until his death in 1964, was determined despite formidable obstacles to enforce its provisions. His greatest accomplishments domestically were removing the stigma of caste, improving the condition of women, and fighting poverty. In foreign relations, Nehru pursued a formal policy of nonalignment during the Cold War. Domestically, Nehru attacked the legacy of the caste system: Untouchability was declared illegal, but the problem of a permanent Dalit underclass, especially in rural areas, persists into the twenty-first century. The custom of sati, or the immolation of widows, had already been abolished by the British. Hindu women now were given the vote and could aspire to all vocations or professions without discrimination. They could marry across caste lines and were allowed to divorce. They could also both inherit and control property.

In his war on poverty, Nehru initiated a series of ambitious economic plans that included not only socialistic planning but changing the educational system to provide a greater emphasis on vocational, professional, and scientific training. By 1966, India had become the world’s seventh most industrially advanced nation and had developed a sizable middle class. Nehru died in 1964. Despite continued religious unrest, separatist movements, border disputes, foreign invasions, and the assassination of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, who both served as prime minister, political independence and respect for basic human rights endured. India’s citizens exercise their right of franchise in higher proportion than in most Western democracies. Anticolonial movements;India Nationalism;India India;partition Postcolonialism;India Postcolonialism;Pakistan British Empire;dissolution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Das, Durga. India from Curzon to Nehru and After. New York: John Day, 1970. This clearly written book begins with the political awakening of India at the turn of the century, discusses independence and the Nehru era, and finally speculates about India’s future. Also examines India’s cultural diversity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Das, Manmath Nath. Partition and Independence of India. New Delhi: Vision Books, 1982. Das, an eyewitness to partition and independence, deals with his subject in a lucid and coherent manner. He is critical of British policies and believes that they contributed greatly to the difficulties of partition and independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golant, William. The Long Afternoon: British India, 1601-1947. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. A romanticized version of British Indian history leading up to and including partition and independence. Although he is British, the author is prone to place blame equally on the British and the Indians for what he terms “chaos.” The numerous eyewitness accounts are of value; anecdotes hold the reader’s interest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hay, Jeff. The Partition of British India. New York: Chelsea House, 2006. A brief work examining the history of the partition of British India. Part of the publisher’s Arbitrary Borders series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahajan, Sucheta. Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000. A comprehensive study of the political history of British India, colonialism, and an independent Indian state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menon, Ritu, ed. No Woman’s Land: Women from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. Writings by women, focusing on women’s everyday lives in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Several essays discuss how the partition of India has affected the condition of women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Vincent A. The Oxford History of India, edited by Percival Spear. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. An excellent, concise, and comprehensive history of India. It is especially of interest to those seeking more information on development of customs, religions, the rise of Muslim power, and dynasties that predate British rule and independence. The chronological tables, maps, and photographs are also useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spear, Percival. India: A Modern History. 1961. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972. A widely used college and university textbook for introductory courses on Indian history. Spear writes in a layperson’s language and leaves no loose ends. The bibliography is annotated and cites a number of primary documents for those wishing to do further research on partition and independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Wolpert’s classic book is of particular value to those seeking more information on developments after partition and independence. The author is critical of the government of Indira Gandhi and is pessimistic about India’s future. The “priority ranking” of the bibliography should be of value for in-depth research on India.

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India and Pakistan Clash over Kashmir

Gandhi Is Assassinated

Ceylon Becomes an Independent Dominion

India Invades Hyderabad State

Indian Government Bans Discrimination Against Untouchables

Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation

India-Pakistan Conflict Prompts U.N. Peacekeeping Response

Gandhi Serves as India’s First Female Prime Minister

Categories: History