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This chapter was written for a book on the political effects of the Second World War. It dealt with the effects of the war on politics in India.

At the outbreak of the war, British policy for India was the pursuit of All-India federation as enshrined in the 1935 Government of India Act. India was to achieve independence by gradual stages as a self-governing Dominion within the Commonwealth, with continuing military, trading and financial links to Britain. It would be a federation, in which the Princes would act as a conservative brake on the demands of more radical nationalists. There were five unwritten assumptions. (1) nationalism should be weakened less by repression, except in obvious cases of insurrection, than by the encouragement of moderate politicians to co-operate in government. (2) the staged advance should be a result of British initiative, not Indian pressure. (3) the administration would need to be very gradually Indianised, under British leadership, and decisions over tariffs and taxes would increasingly need to be made by Indians, and reflect their interests, not British or imperial ones. (4) rapid social and economic change should be avoided, especially if it could be used by nationalists to arouse anti-British discontent. (5) communal rivalries must operate within the political frameworks established by the British, not on the street. The war broke all five of these assumptions. Under the pre-war plan, defence was the last matter to be delegated to Indians. But it had now become the primary political issue. The war strengthened the diehard influence in London, especially through putting Churchill into Downing Street. It also soured the relationship between Congress and the Labour Party, whose priorities, once Labour took office and Congress declined to support the war, seemed to have diverged. The wartime negotiations for India – the ‘August Offer’ of 1940 and the Cripps Mission of 1942, were very different from the Round Table Conferences that had preceded the 1935 Act. They were much less the result of British initiative, than political crisis and pressure in India.

The war also divided Congress, deepening divisions that had already emerged once some of its leaders had taken up opportunities for provincial government. Gandhi opposed war on principles of non-violence. Nehru favoured resistance to Japanese expansion not by means of the Indian Army, but popular militias. Others, such as Rajagopalachari, were prepared to enter a national government in return for a firm promise of independence. Subhas Bose favoured confronting Britain with an ultimatum: to hand over power or face open revolt. Early in the war, Gandhi forced the co-operating Congress leaders to hand in their resignations, and won a majority for individual, limited civil disobedience which would register symbolic protest without seriously disrupting the war effort. As Japan came to the borders of India, the British Government sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India with a promise of post-war Dominion status with the right to secede from the Commonwealth, a constitution-making body elected by the provincial legislatures, with individual provinces allowed not to join it, and immediate places on the Viceroy’s executive. The offer divided Congress more painfully than ever, and the eventual rejection, over the question of whether the executive would work as a Cabinet or not, left little choice but resort to full civil disobedience if Congress unity were to be preserved. In violently repressing the ‘Quit India’ movement, the British broke their own rule that coercion should be avoided in favour of co-operation wherever possible, and united their opponents in ways that pre-war policy had been designed to avoid.

The war also placed unprecedented strain on the administrative machinery of the raj. Under ‘Indianisation’, the British component had been set to decrease, but not at the pace now required by wartime demands elsewhere. In many places, local politicians began to supersede the raj almost by default. Congress officials became a parallel source of authority. Relations between British civil servants and moderate, co-operating Indian politicians, which had become almost cordial in the days of provincial self-government before the war, rapidly deteriorated after the resignations, the resort to civil disobedience in wartime, and the repression of ‘Quit India’. The Indian Army too expanded its recruitment beyond traditionally loyal catchment areas, to embrace groups less tolerant of British rule.

War also forced the British to make demands on the colonised which in peacetime they avoided. Imperial interests took precedence over Indian ones. The most obvious instance was the wartime inflation created by the Government of India’s mounting liabilities and declining revenues. Famine in Bengal in 1944, itself partly caused by wartime decisions concerning shipping, pushed the British to intervention in local economies on an unprecedented scale. The methods included price-fixing and requisitioning. Lacking the popular base to justify the sacrifices which such policies created, the consequence was mounting unpopularity.

Arguably the most decisive wartime development lay in the increased leverage gained by the Muslim League and the escape of communal rivalries from the flimsy bonds with which the British had sought to contain them. Jinnah’s Muslim League seized on the ‘Pakistan demand’ – that India was two nations and not one – as a means of maintaining nationalist credentials, while also making a distinctive appeal to Muslims who might otherwise have been tempted into the Congress camp. He gambled that the British would never countenance the destruction of Indian unity, so vital to its strategic and economic interests, and Gandhi would never accept the loss of India’s Muslim provinces. The ‘Pakistan demand’ was a bargaining counter – nations, unlike minority communities, bargain as equals – which Jinnah expected to trade away for an equal say in a united India. The effect of the war was to turn the bargaining counter into the central plank of Muslim political strategy. Muslims were prominent in the Army out of all proportion to their share of the population, and the possibility of war with the USSR in 1940 made it vital that the Muslim North-West was secure. The Pakistan demand also ensured that the alliance of Congress and India’s Muslims which had formed powerfully in the First World War could not be reassembled. The consequence was to give Jinnah a dangerous veto over constitutional revisions, and communal tension a decisive part in the postwar negotiations. At the war’s end, none of the assumptions that had guided pre-war policy still stood.


This chapter was published in Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones (eds.), What difference did the war make? Themes in Contemporary History (Pinter, 1995), which you can find here.