The critical role that violent outbreaks of rebellion played in the Indian Independence Movement is too often overlooked. In fact, by the 1940s violent rebellion had become the rule rather than the exception in India.
Whenever politically-minded people discuss social change–particularly Western liberals–I find that there is an unfortunate tendency to fetishize non-violence, and demonize any and all acts of violence that are undertaken in the name of progressive and revolutionary principles.
One popular example used to uphold the ideal of non-violence is Gandhi’s role in the Indian Independence Movement. The short and simplified narrative states that Gandhi was able to rally the masses with peaceful, non-violent tactics, and thus we in the modern world today should be able to do the same in order to create progressive political, economic, and social change. But a cursory historical analysis quickly demolishes the idea that Gandhian non-violence was sufficient to drive the British out of India. While Gandhian non-violence was certainly instrumental in creating a unified independence movement, it was ultimately the threat of widespread violent insurrection that eventually toppled the British Raj.
Quit India 1942
The Quit India movement, launched in 1942 by Gandhi and other Congress leaders, is perhaps the best example of the successful use of violence in the Indian Independence Movement–notably because it was endorsed by Gandhi himself. The movement saw widespread insurrectionary acts across India, with the participation of millions of common people. (Read a more in-depth account of the Quit India Movement, its context, and its impact here). Government buildings were bombed, trains were sabotaged, and mass strikes paralyzed the economy. Mobs dragged officials out from their homes and killed them; police stations were burned to the ground. The British counter-attacks were even more brutal; troops indiscriminately razed neighborhoods and raped women in “troublesome” villages. By the time the rebellion had died down, 763 Indians and 63 British police and troops had been killed, and 1941 Indians and 2012 British police and troops had been injured (Hutchins 1973: 230-31).
The rebellion was eventually quelled, and failed to drive the British out immediately. However, it was one of the defining events that shifted British perception of their level of control over India. The historic level of rebellion made it clear that India was rapidly becoming ungovernable, and that if the British attempted to hold on much longer, they would face even more violent upheavals.
The Indian National Army
In parallel to the mass mob violence of the Quit India Movement, a traditional military campaign was being fought by Indian nationalists. From 1942 to 1945, the Indian National Army (INA)–a group of armed militants whose members consisted of recently freed Indian POWs and Indian expatriates living in South-East Asia–was engaged in guerilla warfare against the British, and steadily pushing its way toward India. It was lead by Subhas Chandra Bose, a renowned leftist leader, and whose advocacy for violent revolution against the British occupation put him in direct opposition to Gandhi and his followers. Funded by an alliance of convenience with the Germans and the Japanese (who were eager to fund internal instability in the British Empire), Bose’s plan was to fight his way through South-East Asia, invade India, and overthrow the British Raj.
Like the Quit India movement, the INA was to be unsuccessful as well. By 1945, the Allied campaign against Imperial Japan in South-East Asia had defeated the INA and captured many of the would-be revolutionaries. Bose was killed in a plane crash while attempting to flee to the Soviet Union. However, despite the military defeat, the impacts of the INA’s efforts for Indian liberation shook the stability of British rule to its core; popular riots in support for the freedom of INA’s soldiers began breaking out across the Indian sub-continent, and the atmosphere was insurrectionary–rejuvenating the spirit of the Quit India Movement. The name of Subhas Chandra Bose was on the lips of millions. Even Gandhi declared that “the hypnotism of the INA has cast its spell on us.” The amount of violent unrest, and the upsurge of passion for independence, was unprecedented in the history of the sub-continent.
The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny
Arguably, the final straw that broke the British camel’s back was the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946, a general strike and revolt by Indian sailors that eventually involved over 20,000 sailors, 78 ships, and 20 shore establishments. The general sentiment of militancy in India due to the ongoing trials of the INA soldiers, served to escalate a disagreement between the common Indian sailors and the British officers over the quality of food into an outright revolt for the end of British rule. Naval skrimishes between loyal British ships and the mutineers began breaking out, and cities across India began burning from rioters and strikers supporting the uprising.
British forces eventually prevailed once more, and the mutineers were either killed or captured. But the implications were clear–Britain could no longer maintain its control over India. The first official negotiations between Indian political leaders and British officials began over the logistics of independence began shortly after the mutiny ended, and on August 15, 1947, India was free after 89 years of (official) foreign occupation.
Lessons for the Present
There are several key points to take away from this superficial overview.
First, and most obvious, is that the notion of non-violence being central to Indian independence is flat-out wrong. It was widespread violent uprisings, both by professional soldiers and the general population, that destroyed the foundation of British hegemony. And additionally, this is not just a conclusion drawn from historical analysis, but a literal reflection of British political elites at the time, who declared that Gandhi’s influence on kicking out the British was “minimal” when compared to the impacts of the INA and the Navy mutiny.
Second, is that the level of violence utilized in the final stages of the Indian Independence Movement far overshadows the specific acts of violence that debates in the liberal-democratic West typically revolve around (hitting cops, breaking windows, etc). We do see escalation of violent tactics in places like Greece, but for the most part, “violence” in the West is restricted to property damage–and low-cost property damage at that.
And third, is that acts of violent insurrection do not have to obtain success in the traditional military point of view. It is enough to simply impress upon the enemy–whether the enemy is a foreign colonizing power, or a domestic dictatorship–that the status quo is becoming ungovernable.
There is a rather large gap between the types of “violence” being discussed in the West, and the types of violence utilized in the India of the 1940s. On one hand, this could be an argument for why people shouldn’t worry so much about breaking windows or fighting cops or whatever–but on the other hand, it could be an argument that violence is actually ineffective, unless it is as widespread and popular as it was in India, and presents an existential threat to those in power (I, personally, would stress the latter interpretation. I really can’t think of any good that comes out of petty vandalism and other types of impotent expression of anger).
Of course, all this doesn’t lay to rest the debate of violence and non-violence. There are still questions of historical contingency, political context, and public opinion. Was the situation in India different enough from the situation of the United States today to undermine any argument for violent revolution? Does the existence of a democracy–however flawed it may be–de-legitimize the need for violence? Does the use of violence alienate the public from participation in radical political projects?
The question of violence is far from resolved from simply a cursory reading of Indian history–but at the very least, it should be clear that Gandhian non-violence was far less effective than the mainstream imagination might have you believe.
“Subhas Chandra Bose–His Legacy and Legend” by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. (JSTOR access needed)
India’s Revolution: Gandhi and the Quit India Movement (1973) by Francis G. Hutchins