Why did Indians want independence from Great Britain?

The global war: Gandhi alone did not lead India to independence

India provided the largest volunteer army in the world and helped determine the outcome of the war. But the end of the war also shaped India: in 1945 the soldiers suddenly turned against the colonial rulers.

World War II remains the central event in modern world history - we are still influenced by its effects. India played a not insignificant role in the outcome of this war: the subcontinent played an important role in the victory of the Allies; both the British Empire and its allies benefited greatly from the services of Indian labor and the country's resources.

Above all, India had the largest volunteer army in the world - more men were gathered in it than in all other British colonial troops put together. The approximately 2.7 million Indian soldiers were deployed everywhere; they fought both in the far east, for example in Hong Kong, and in the west, for example in Italy. And the army also played an important role within India: It was one of the largest employers and devoured 45 percent of the state's revenue.

The interest shown by science and the general public in the history of the Indian military is far less than its importance. The national myth has it that India owes its independence to the non-violent mass movements that the Indian National Congress led under the leadership of Gandhi. In school books as well as in academic works, the millions of Indians who "spontaneously" joined Gandhi's movement are praised.

A more realistic picture emerges if the independence achieved in 1947 is related to the previous world war, and especially if the army is taken into account. The thesis of the spontaneous mass movement becomes fragile as soon as one realizes that millions of Indians in the armed forces of British India fought against the Axis powers - although they never threatened the Indian subcontinent, but rather claimed that they would free it from British control wanted to.

Service against payment

Regardless of this, the British colonial government was able to build up a huge army without imposing conscription. Of course, the British were helped by demographics - with its 350 million inhabitants, India was a huge recruiting reservoir. The British also benefited from the fact that mercenaries had long existed in Indian society, and the predominantly agricultural economic structure also favored recruitment: the army consisted of almost 80 percent soldiers who had previously lived as farmers.

In this peasant class of society, nationalism was not very strong at the time. Many farmers went straight to the colonial army and were ready to fight the imperialists' war - because they paid them well and regularly. These soldiers did not have love for the British in their hearts, they had joined the army for economic reasons, Gandhi had already written that. But the fact remains that there were no notable mutinies between 1939 and 1945, so most of the soldiers were reasonably satisfied with the service.

Things were different with the higher grades. Some high-ranking members of the army were anti-Axis and effectively on duty out of loyalty to the British. In the steadily growing officer corps of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Indian Navy, however, the mood was critical. The university-educated urban middle class Indians opposed the British in many ways. However, because of wartime pressures, the Indian government was forced to open cadre positions to these urban and educated Indians, which was to have long-term implications.

Cooperation with the axis

During the war, loyalty still held up to a large extent - although it was severely tested: From 1942 there were military splinter forces that worked against the British. Behind them stood Subhash Chandra Bose, a leader of the Indian independence movement. Although Bose had officiated as chairman of the Indian National Congress, unlike Gandhi he was convinced that independence would have to be achieved by military means. He organized mass protests against the participation of Indian soldiers in the colonial army, ended up in prison for this, escaped and was now looking for allies to liberate India from colonial rule.

Bose came into contact with Italy and Germany - the enemies of the British - and finally came to Berlin, where he promoted his cause with mixed success: The National Socialists neither wanted to serve as a basis for the Free India that Bose intended to proclaim, nor to create one allow provisional government. But Bose was allowed to build an "Indian Legion".

From Indian prisoners of war made by the Axis powers, Bose put together around 2,500 men who were trained as a possible liberation army in Königsbrück (Saxony) and Annaburg (Saxony-Anhalt), but were subordinate to the Germans. In 1943 the Wehrmacht deployed Bose's «Legion» on the western front, and in 1944 it was subordinated to the Waffen SS.

Bose himself was back in Asia at this point. He had already changed scene in 1943: he first traveled to Tokyo in a German submarine and negotiated with the Japanese. He then positioned himself in Japanese-occupied Singapore, where he proclaimed the "Provisional Government of Free India" (Japan, Germany and Italy recognized this government in exile) and established an "Indian National Army" of around 40,000 men. With her and together with Japanese troops, he wanted to advance to the East Indies in 1944, in the hope that his arrival would trigger a broad revolt against the colonial power.

The British had been very concerned about the "Indian Legion". It was never used against the colonial power, but its very existence caused fear and represented a threat to the loyalty of the Indian soldiers. When they met Bose's “Indian National Army” in Burma in 1944, they did not defer to it . The soldiers were aware that desertion would have brought severe cuts: They and their families would have lost their pensions and access to scarce goods.

Disappointment at the end of the war

The scenario changed dramatically, however, when Japan surrendered on September 2 and the war ended. The Indian soldiers had assumed that military service would pay off for them, they expected land and permanent employment. But when the British demobilized the vast army, nothing of the sort happened and the soldiers felt abandoned. Out of sheer frustration, they then turned to the political parties.

Indian politicians welcomed the unemployed ex-soldiers with open arms and also looked after the civilian population, who felt the effects of the war economy at the time. And the greatest catastrophe of the war has now increasingly become a political issue: in 1943 a devastating famine raged in Bengal, which cost more human lives than the fighting during the war. The Indian army suffered 24,000 dead, 64,000 wounded, 11,000 missing and 70,000 prisoners of war. Up to four million people were believed to have died in the Bengal famine.

The absence of the monsoons had led to a decline in rice production. The government, for its part, bought up crops to supply the troops and then proved unable to import wheat and rice from other areas; there was a lack of cargo ships and locomotives. Failure became an issue, and politicians began to stress the British guilt for the devastating disaster.

Finally, an indictment by the British against officers of the “Indian National Army” broke the barrel. When the British tried to try three representatives from Bose's army in November 1945, the National Congress and the “All-Indian Muslim League”, which was also striving for independence, sided with the Liberation Army. Even the previously loyal soldiers now supported these two political forces en masse.

When there was still a major revolt in the royal air forces and the Navy in February 1946, it was finally clear that the tide had turned and the army was now turning against the British government: the Indian armed forces were no longer loyal to their white masters .

A collective amnesia

In general, it now became clear that the British would no longer be able to hold India with their conventional means. With India delivering many goods and supplies to Britain during the war, the sterling balance has shifted in India's favor. At the same time, the British economy was struggling with a recession, and the heavily indebted country narrowly escaped national bankruptcy.

The increasing demand for industrial products had also led to the establishment of a corresponding infrastructure in India - and enabled local capitalists to lay a foundation for a life in independence. It was clear to the Indian industrialists that once the British left they would have the big field to themselves.

When the Cold War began and the USA and the Soviet Union rose to become the dominant superpowers, the end of the British Empire was finally in sight. For all these reasons, decolonization in early 1947 was clearly foreseeable and almost inevitable. In many ways, then, the war and its unsatisfactory end for the soldiers favored the independence movement. Even so, not much is said about World War II today, the Indians prefer to brush it under the table.

One could almost speak of a consciously cultivated collective amnesia. Instead of asking uncomfortable questions and making voluntary cooperation with the British an issue, people prefer to cultivate national myths - and ignore the world war and its significance for the history of the country.

Kaushik Roy is Professor of History at Jadavpur University in Kolkata and Global Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research in Oslo. - Translated from the English by cmd.