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August 15, 1947 - From Bondage to Freedom

By Dr Eugene D’Souza

Every year on August 15, the Indian nation celebrates its Independence Day with great pride and enthusiasm. It is the day on which in 1947, the British transferred political power to the Indians after nearly 200 years of imperial rule over the country. This day is remembered as the day on which India shook the chains of bondage and made a passage to freedom after a long period of struggle and sacrifice of thousands of freedom fighters.
As we celebrate this national day, it may be of interest to many to know how it all started. It was exactly 400 years ago in 1608 that the British tryst with India began. In 1608, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the first ship of the East India Company named ‘Hector’ with William Hawkins as its captain arrived at the Surat port on the coast of Gujarat. Though the Portuguese had arrived in India a century and a decade earlier (1498), it was the British who eventually dominated the history of India.
The East India Company formed by a group of merchants acquired a Charter from the British Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 for exclusive trade with India. After the arrival of the first ship of the Company at Surat in 1608, the British obtained permission from the Mughal Emperor to establish trade settlements at Surat and other parts of the Mughal Empire. From a humble beginning the East India Company’s trade and commerce began to multiply and the Company established several trading posts in various parts of India especially on the east and west coast including Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.
For nearly 150 years the East India Company concentrated on trade and commerce, carrying Indian manufactured goods and spices to Europe and making huge profits by their sale in England and other European countries. Meanwhile, the gradual collapse of the Mughal Empire and the emergence of regional rulers and their mutual rivalries drew the East India Company in the vortex of the power struggle in India. The French who had arrived in India during the later part of the seventeenth century became trade and political rivals of the British, who eventually lost their race to the British in a bid to establish political power over India.
The British military success in the Battle of Plassey (1757) against the Nawab of Bengal marked the beginning of the imperial ambition of the East India Company. Under successive Governors General British territorial expansion was achieved with ruthless efficiency. Major victories were achieved against Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Marathas. Finally, the conquest of Sindh and subjugation of the Sikhs led to the political domination of the East India Company over the entire Indian subcontinent. In some regions, the British imposed indirect rule over the native rulers.
The rule of the East India Company for a century had adversely affected practically every section of the Indian society. The sepoy rebellion that broke out in May 1857 was taken advantage of by the disgruntled elements including the dispossessed rulers, landlords, peasants and artisans and craftsmen giving it a mask of general revolt. However, the Revolt of 1857, the first serious attempt of the Indians to get rid of the Company’s rule proved futile due to lack of unity and coordination and effective leadership among the rebels.
Though the Revolt of 1857 failed in its primary purpose of driving out the British from India, it succeeded in putting an end to the Company’s exploitative rule in India. Queen Victoria in her famous Proclamation of 1858 transferred political power from the East India Company to the British Crown and the Queen became the Empress of India.
The British cannot be absolved of their responsibility in ruining India’s economic structure. While their land revenue policy ruined the peasants and drove them to poverty and misery, their commercial policy proved disastrous to Indian industries especially the textile manufacturers. Following the Industrial Revolution in England, the British authorities converted India into a huge market for their manufactured goods and a source of raw materials. The net result of the British economic policies in India was the drain of huge amount of wealth from India to England.
On the other hand the British rule over India had some positive results. They established the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law. They also established a hierarchy of law courts and drafted the Indian Penal Code. The introduction and spread of the English education and establishment of the Universities in 1857 at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta led to the emergence of a new urban middle class which was receptive to the idea of socio-religious reforms and later actively participated in the freedom movement. Through various social legislations the British government tried to abolish such inhuman practices as ‘Sati’ and female infanticide.
Introduction of railways and telegraph in the mid nineteenth century and the construction of a network of roads and bridges facilitated travel, transport and communication between different parts of the country. Gradually, few Indians came to be associated with the legislative and executive functions of the government through various Acts which led to the gradual development of self and responsible government in India, the precursor of the Parliamentary democracy that was adopted following the independence of the country.
After 1858, local political associations especially in Bengal, Maharashtra and Madras came to be organized with the aim of securing reforms in various fields from the British government. A retired British civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume founded the Indian National Congress in 1885 which became a common forum to nationalist leaders from different parts of the country. Initially, the primary objective of the Indian National Congress was to secure political, economic and other reforms from the British rulers. However, gradually the Indian National Congress became the official organization of India’s freedom struggle.
The programme of the Indian National Congress passed from the moderate phase to militant phase from around 1905 following the partition of Bengal by the British government. The militant leaders in the Indian National Congress led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak preached a stronger brand of nationalism by adopting the programme of Swadeshi and boycott of British manufactured goods. Meanwhile few secret societies began to spread a message of revolutionary nationalism targeting British officials known for their highhandedness against the Indians.
The British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ to drive a wedge between the Hindus and the Muslims led to the foundation of the Muslim League in 1906 with the blessings of the British. Gradually, the Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah put forward the demand for a separate nation for the Muslims within India.
With the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian national movement acquired a new direction from 1920 onwards. With the doctrine of ‘Satyagraha’ and non-violence as his credo, Mahatma Gandhi launched a movement against the mighty British Empire with non-cooperation and civil disobedience as his weapons.
A number of leaders and thousands of followers accepted Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of ‘Satyagraha’ and non-violence and plunged into the freedom struggle that has few parallels in the history of national movement in any country of the world. Thousands of freedom fighters sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Millions of people including nationalist leaders underwent many years of imprisonment.
In order to pacify the Indian sentiments for freedom, the British government introduced certain reforms with a view of granting some degree of self and responsible government to the Indians, which were insufficient and insignificant. As the demand for ‘complete freedom’ became the focal point of the Indian National Congress, the British authorities became more rigid in their approach to the cause of India’s freedom.
The Second World War (1939-45) proved to be a catalyst in India’s freedom struggle. As the War was at its height, and the Japanese forces were fast advancing in South East Asia towards Burma and India, in August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to the British ‘to quit India and leave the country in the hands of God’. The Quit India Movement was widespread leading to British brutality and death of thousands of freedom fighters.
As the freedom struggle reached its penultimate stage, the British realized the futility of holding on to their Indian possession and made a number of proposals through various diplomatic missions to chalk out the programme of final transfer of power to the Indian hands after the end of the War. Meanwhile, the Muslim demand for Pakistan became so vocal that it led to communal violence among the Hindus and the Muslims, especially in Bengal and Punjab which ultimately led to the partition of Indian sub-continent into two nations-India and Pakistan.
At the mid-night of August 14-15, 1947, the Union Jack, the symbol of British political power over India was lowered from the flag post and its place was taken by the Indian tri-colour indicating the passage of India from bondage to freedom. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech in the Constituent Assembly summed up the pain that the country had undergone and hope for the future.
Besides the Indian National Congress other organizations, groups and individuals contributed to the freedom struggle. Peasants, factory workers, tribals and many others participated in the national movement. The martyrdom of Sardar Bhagat Singh and his companions and the role of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in leading the Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauj) from out side India are the glorious chapters in the history of India’s freedom struggle.
Thus, after nearly two centuries of bondage under the British rule, on August 15, 1947, India passed to the light of freedom. As we celebrate the Independence Day on 15th August every year let us pause for a moment and pay respect to Mahatma Gandhi and hundreds of nationalist leaders and millions of freedom fighters who laid down their lives so that we could breathe the air of dignity and freedom.