This month saw the unveiling of a statue commemorating Mahatma Gandhi and the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s return to India to begin his struggle to create independence from British rule.
Not many countries would celebrate the very person who did so much to end their global dominance and set in motion the decline of the British Empire, but it is a fitting testament to both Gandhi’s methods and spirit of non-violent protest that he is now celebrated at the very epicentre of the country he did much to thwart, in Parliament Square, ironically close to the statue of his greatest critic and opponent, Sir Winston Churchill.
At it’s height, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the globe and a fifth of the world’s population, which led to the phrase ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’.
Gandhi’s rebellion was not the first time that the British Empire had lost a colony or even the first time such a major colony had revolted.
The American War of Independence was a costly lesson for Britain on the effects of absentee rule and punitive taxation. On the face of it, the uprising by Americans stood no chance against the might of the British Empire but there were many factors that led to the British downfall.
At the time, the British government was evenly divided between liberals in favour of a lenient response towards the colonists and conservatives who demanded complete obedience from the colonies.
Undoubtedly the largest obstacle for the British came from communication, messages and reports took weeks to arrive in London and responses were equally slow – it was a month after the famous surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown before the news arrived in England.
King George III was defiant in his response, yet over the next few weeks as the news of further losses started to trickle in, the reality of the situation fully hit home and by then, any counter strategy to reverse British losses were far too late. Perhaps if they had access to conference call technology it would’ve been a very different story.
The sun finally sets on the empire
Indian independence was a far more complex matter.
India had always been viewed as ‘the brightest jewel in the crown’ and cemented Britain’s position as a world superpower. As in the case for American independence there was a political split in Britain towards India, with Sir Winston being amongst the most fervent advocates of keeping India firmly within the empire.
The world was still recovering from the shock and devastation of the Second World War and attitudes towards European imperialism had hardened and there was considerable support for an independent India from the US.
India itself was in a state of ever growing disquiet after the war, sectarian unrest between Hindus and Muslims made Britain’s promise of Dominion status to India during the war all but impossible to successfully implement.
Certainly, Clement Attlee’s newly elected post war Labour government were determined to find a solution to what was a rapidly deteriorating situation.
The plan was to increase the power of provincial governments while stripping back the authority of central government – the thinking being that the Muslim population were mainly distributed across a couple of provinces, thus local government would better represent their wishes thus ruling out any need for a separate Muslim state. The proposals were readily accepted in principle but fell apart at the detail level.
The situation in India was deteriorating so rapidly that Attlee dispatched Lord Mountbatten to take up the position of Viceroy of India in 1947, with the sole task of delivering independence to India no later than 1948, preferably as a united India but with full authority to react to whatever the situation required to get Britain out with minimal damage to her reputation.
Upon arrival, Mountbatten assessed the situation to be far too volatile for even the already short timetable. Despite Mountbatten’s efforts, he concluded that if he was to stick to Britain’s request for a quick independence, then a united India was an impossible goal. Gandhi was utterly opposed to the partition of India and united support on both sides to call for a united India, however Mountbatten’s offer of a quick independence won favour.
Mountbatten brought the partition of India forward by a year to August 1947 causing massive confusion and triggering a massive diaspora across the soon to be implemented borders.
Historians rightly feel that Mountbatten was reckless with the speed in which he implemented independence and was far too concerned that any resulting chaos and loss of life should not happen under British rule.
For his part, once the decision had been made, Gandhi accepted the fact of partition and rather than oppose it, concentrated his efforts on restoring peace to the areas where violence and confusion had broken out.