India's Path to Freedom

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India's path to independence from the British Empire is usually seen as a glorious example of a nonviolent process. In fact, the Indian National Congress  and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in a dual strategy of political action and mobilization of the masses into nonviolent resistance, managed to bring about the British withdrawal that brought freedom - but also partition - to India in 1947.

The British were not the only foreign rulers in recent Indian history. In fact, they gradually replaced the rule of the Muslim Mughals. From 1526 to 1858, India had been under Muslim rule (already for the second time). The Muslim conquerors and those Indians who converted to Islam formed the dominant class in this empire. Then, from 1601, when the British East India Company, endowed with privileges from the English queen, began to build up the sea routes for the Indian trade on a large scale and founded trading houses on the subcontinent, that fostered  a slow shift of power toward the British already began. Gradually, they established military and civil jurisdiction, waged war against insurgents, imposed harsh terms of trade on India, and also began to expand and take over the existing administration. Repeated uprisings by Indians led Britain to strip the British East India Company of its trading monopoly in 1833, making it once again a pure trading company. In 1858, the Company finally lost its administrative role to the British government, and Queen Victoria became Empress of India.

India raises its voice

During all this time, there were repeated uprisings and aspirations for independence. The fact that the country was being squeezed out by the British, that textiles from British industrial production virtually destroyed Indian textile production, that increasing poverty led to great famines, proved, as it were, the illegitimacy of British rule over India. At the same time, during the time when India was a crown colony, it had been an endeavor of the British endeavored to provide enough Indians with a good English education so that they could be used in the administration, because it was impossible to fill all important posts with people from the mother country. Thus, the families of the Indian upper class sent their sons to good English colleges, where they came into contact with the ideals of European culture - universal ideals that, which they themselves, however, were not to enjoy, and all the less so after returning home to India, when they took to take up their responsible occupations where they and were , nevertheless, treated as an inferior race. Thus, the British raised a class of salon revolutionaries who founded the Indian National Congress (INC, 1885) and the Muslim League (1906). - Iin the beginning they were powerless debating clubs that could only draft resolutions and submit them to the colonial administration.; Oonly after World War I were they admitted as political parties and successively participated in the country's government.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), who had been sent by his family to study law in London, to study law, discovered pacifism and vegetarianism there, read the Bhagavad Gita and studied Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. About Christianity he said: "If God could have sons, then we were all his sons. If Jesus was God-like or God himself, then we were all God-like and could become God ourselves. "[1] By the end of his studies, Gandhi had become a lawyer, and the foundation had been laid for his satyagraha (meaning "holding fast to the truth") approach to life, which went beyond the mere nonviolence of ahimsa.

At his first post as a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi witnessed how dark-skinned people-Indian contract workers and the native colored population -were repeatedly deprived of their rights., Hand he began to represent them in court and before their "masters" and employers by working out a philosophy of moral superiority that appealed to the conscience and morality of the opposing side in each case. In the course of his activity, his claim of truthfulness towards himself expanded into an all-encompassing philosophy, into which he integrated his continued efforts for purity of life and simplicity of lifestyle. were integrated. His approach succeeded and made him well known. Gandhi's satyagraha is also often seen as a tactic to "turn" the opponent by appealing to his own conscience, but Gandhi's aspiration was higher.: Hhe sought the common moral ground on which agreement became possible and mutual respect could grow.

When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, his reputation as a civil rights activist and accomplished organizer preceded him. He became a member of the INC and soon began to steer its direction, even as he stepped back in the party from 1936 behind Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who would eventually become the first prime minister of a free India. For Gandhi, more important than political work in the party was the neednot only to mobilize the people so that they stood up for their rights, and tobut actually to empower them morally and ethically to achieve self-reliance, dignity and freedom for themselves. He knew that India would only gain independence only if the effort was supported by the whole populationeople and not just a group of salon revolutionaries.

Without a concrete plan, he always went wherever he was called because of blatant abuses. His cautious approach, always based on fundamental respect for the law, allowed him to politely but clearly criticize obvious injustices and oppression. He was often successful in this; his fame and recognition grew, and he was given the honorary name Mahatma (roughly translated: great soul).

"The ordinary people had to grow "[2]

Wherever Gandhi was called to investigate and work to remedy grievances, he and his activists attended to the overall living conditions of the local population. This led them to teaching the rural population principles of hygiene and healthy eating, how to cleaning wells in villages, and to building schools. Above all, they had to fight against the apathy that was the result of centuries of oppression and de facto lack of rights for ordinary people. The oppression had many faces.: It was the inferiority of the casteless to the caste Hindus, of the lower castes versus the higher ones, of the poor versus the rich, of the powerless versus the big landowners and factory owners who did good business with the colonial masters. IOn the countryside, there was a widespread spiritual immobility, a dull acceptance of conditions, whatever they might be, which occasionally expressed itself in individual eruptions of desperate aggression and which had to be tackled as well as the other problems. Gandhi had nothing else in mind than to awaken a spiritual strength in the Indian population with which they could become aware of their human dignity and understand and claim their rights. In concrete terms, this meant that people had to be enabled to perceive themselves as citizens and not as slaves of the system. They had to be able to act calmly and peacefully against individual ordinances, i.e., to practice targeted noncooperation[3], without falling into a rage and throwing the entire system overboard. They also had to learn to bear the consequences of their peaceful resistance with dignity, for often enough this meant financial loss and imprisonment. Gandhi himself spent close to five years behind Indian[4] prison bars during his efforts for Indian independence; for Jawarhalal Nehru, it was actually more than ten.

Thus, the freedom movement developed on the basis of truthfulness (satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahimsa), using the tools of passive resistance, civil disobedience (against individual laws that brought undue hardship), and noncooperation, by partially or totally ceasing to cooperate with the system that was recognized as corrupt.

In December 1928, the INC finally passed a resolution asking for self-government (as a dominion of the Empire) within the year. Otherwise, it would demand complete independence and fight for it with satyagraha. By December 31, 1929, the British government had did not responded, so action had to be taken.

Most famous in this context is Gandhi's salt march. In India, there had been a salt monopoly since 1882. No one was allowed to own salt that had not been produced by the government and taxed accordingly. Salt was often needed for religious ceremonies; it was also used to preserve, disinfect and pickle food. All this made salt a potent symbol of oppression, but also of resistance. It was against this backdrop that Gandhi took action, setting out on March 12, 1930.with a growing group of followers on the 240-mile walk from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the Arabian Sea .in Dandi on March 12, 1930. When Gandhi arrived on the beach at Dandi on the morning of April 6, 1930, he picked up a lump of salt and held it up high. This action earned Gandhi a prison term of about eight months and sparkedThis was the beginning of a nationwide boycott of the salt tax, as Indians learned to make their own salt from seawater. Personally, this action earned Gandhi a prison term of about eight months.

Not all resistance actions remained peaceful. When violence began to escalate across the country, Gandhi took responsibility, called for an end to all actions, and began a fast, which he did not end until the country was reasonably calm again.

Freedom and its price

The INC and the Muslim League, both of which had political responsibility in India, disagreed on issues of cooperation in the predominantly Muslim provinces and joint action against the British colonial power. The desire for power on both sides and, on the Muslim side, fear of Hindu predominance in free India may have promoted the discord and its deepening between the major parties and its deepening to the point of ultimate hostility. The British, who were preparing their retreat, did their part by supporting the Muslim League and its partition plans, but no longer gaveiving significant consideration to the plans of the INC, which had been the voice of India for so long. The concept of a free India as a federation of decentralized states was rejected, and, under the leadership of the London lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the borders were drawn between India and West and East Pakistan (today Bangladesh). Thus, at midnight on August 15, 1947, two independent states were created, and an unprecedented migration began as Muslims fled India and Hindus fled the newly formed Pakistan. - Tthe demarcation of the borders had surprised many who no longer felt safe in the "wrong state". Religiously motivated pogroms in the course of the partition cost about half a million lives, and about 14.5 million people crossed the borders that had just been drawn.

Gandhi's noble project of satyagraha, which strived for universal humanity on the basis of spirituality and love and which wanted to bring about equal rights for all religions, the abolition of intangibility and the liberation of women for the whole populationeople, always succeeded only selectively. Gandhi and his followers, who led simple and undemanding lives in their ashrams, were figures of identification, but at the decisive moment their example faded and the instincts of the masses gained the upper hand. In retrospect, it is easy to say that centuries of oppression, backwardness, dependence and entrapment in religious dogma cannot be shaken off in thirty years of struggle for liberation.

A different freedom

If Gandhi's satyagraha had had the far-reaching success he had wished for, then the people of India - whether man or woman, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, poor or rich - would have been able to consciously meet each other as brothers and sisters. The struggle for external signs of attainment such as power or wealth would also have lost its meaning. People would have gained the freedom to set out on their own journey to spiritual humanness without the burden of an external struggle - for wealth or power, or against oppression. Gandhi, himself, was always the tangible example thereof:.He was  the eminent man, dressed in a hand-woven white dhoti, sitting at the spinning wheel, and being as needless in outward appearance as he suggested to others.

The question of who man is when he cannot define himself by religious or national belonging or on the basis of certain traditions and their values is still unresolved for the vast majority of humanity today. Whenever we "define" ourselves, it means demarcation. In doing so, we form units, but not an all-encompassing unity. In this way, we repeatedly create causes for conflicts and wars.

Basically, there can only be a movement towards real, especially spiritual, freedom when people achieve it for themselves individually. The radical change that people experience on this path internally then enables the transformation externally. Any freedom movement that intends a spiritual awakening must be based on individual effort. If enough people say goodbye to a thinking of demarcation and the striving for power, parties and states can also find new ways. In the end, Gandhi and Nehru both had spiritual aspirations, but they also had political tactics, even if both of them must be credited with not wanting the alienation and the eventual break with the Muslim League and, above all, the partition. Nevertheless, they contributed their part.


Further reading:

Mahatma Gandhi: The Story Of My Experiments With Truth

Pankaj Mishra: From The Ruins of Empire. The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking of Asia. London 2012

V. P. Naipaul: India – a wounded civilization

Shashi Taroor: Nehru. The Invention of India


[1]     In his autobiography The Story Of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

[2]     V.S. Naipaul: Indien – eine verwundete Kultur, Berlin 2006, S. 49 Please look up the correct English title!

[3]     This term was shaped by Gandhi at the 1919 Congress of the INC in Amritsar. Noncooperation as an expression of satyagraha later became one of the practical methods to achieve independence from a regime considered corrupt.

[4]     He had also spent about three years in prison in South Africa.

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