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
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
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.