Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

Section1 Decolonization, Nationalism, and Independence in South Asia

After centuries of European expansion, and the seeding of European economic and political systems, as well as European cultural values in most parts of the globe, peoples in Asia and Africa rapidly began to regain their independence and to reassert their own sense of identity. One of the first, and most important examples of decolonization, which became a model for other parts of the world, was South Asia, where three new states—India, Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh—emerged from Britain’s Indian Empire.

The End of Empire in South Asia

Unlike World War I, during World War II many Indian nationalists refused to support the British war effort. Angered that the British had not consulted them before declaring war on India’s behalf, leaders of the Indian National Congress in government positions resigned in protest and demanded immediate self-government. As tensions heightened, particularly after the fall of Singapore, in 1942 Gandhi demanded that the British “Quit India” and made plans for a new campaign of non-violent resistance to British rule. Exasperated by these tactics as the Japanese threatened India’s borders, the Viceroy ordered Gandhi and other Congress leaders arrested.

            Meanwhile, however, the Muslim League continued to support the British and to cooperate during the war. So too did many Indians not associated with the Congress. The Indian Army remained loyal and fought gallantly during the war. Japanese efforts to recruit an army of “liberation” from among Indian prisoners of war, under the radical nationalist leader Subha Chandra Bose, were notable for their failure rather than their success.

            Nevertheless, realizing that they must come to terms with Indian nationalist demands, eventually the British sent a Cabinet level mission to negotiate terms of independence for India following the war. Although these wartime negotiations achieved little, after the war the British Labour Government of Clement Attlee determined to grant Indian independence as quickly as possible.

Demands for Pakistan. Both the British and the Indian National Congress hoped that India would become self-governing as a single state. The Muslim League under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, however, demanded guarantees that the Hindu majority would not dominate Muslims. Eventually they came to believe that only a separate Muslim state, Pakistan, to be formed out of those territories where the majority of the people were Muslims, would achieve this goal. When Gandhi called on the British to “Quit India,” Jinnah and the League insisted that the British must “Divide and Quit.” In 1944 Jinnah told his followers: 

“We are nearer realisation of our goal of Pakistan and the achievement of our freedom than ever before. . . . Muslim India will not rest content until we have realised our goal. . . . For us Pakistan means our defence, our deliverance, and our destiny.”[2] 

Despite British suggestions for a federation in which Muslims would control their own provinces while still remaining part of India, the Muslim League proved unable to come to terms with the Indian National Congress. In the summer of 1946 Jinnah declared, "We have exhausted all reason. There is no tribunal to which we can go. The only tribunal is the Muslim nation."[3] Soon, violence broke out between Muslims and Hindus. As the bloodshed worsened, the last British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, decided to partition India. At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the independent states of India and Pakistan were born. 

The Partition of India.  Meanwhile, commissions appointed by the viceroy had worked secretly to establish the new boundaries. After partition, Pakistan consisted of two separate regions—West Pakistan comprising the old provinces of Sind, the Northwest frontier, and part of the Punjab, and East Pakistan carved out of Bengal. The two regions were separated by nearly 1,000 miles.

            When the new boundary lines were announced, millions of Muslims and Hindus scrambled to make sure they ended up on the right side of the new borders. Chaos engulfed northern India. As communal violence reached new levels, between 500,000 and a million people died. Gandhi was particularly upset by the violence. “What is there to celebrate?” he asked bitterly, “I see nothing but rivers of blood.”[4] Nor did the turmoil end with independence. The so-called princely states, states that had remained internally self-governing under the British raj, also sought guarantees that they would have a say in their own future. In the end, however, their demands were ignored, and one by one they were absorbed by India or Pakistan.

            Under Jawaharlal Nehru, who became the first Indian prime minister, India invaded and annexed the large princely state of Hyderabad on the grounds that while its ruler was Muslim, its population was mostly Hindu. When Pakistan claimed the state of Kashmir on the same grounds, however, Nehru reversed his logic and insisted that the Hindu prince had a right to declare his state part of India even though the majority of Kashmiris were Muslims.

            Fighting between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir soon led to clashes between the newly created Indian and Pakistani armies. When a ceasefire at the beginning of 1949 silenced the guns, Kashmir had been effectively partitioned between India and Pakistan—though in legal terms its future remained up in the air. Kashmir became a major cause of tension between the two new countries leading to further conflict in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

Pakistan and Bangladesh

Despite their success in achieving a state of their own, the Muslim League proved unable to hold the new Pakistan together. The differences between Eastern and Western Pakistan were enormous. They were separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, as well as by language, ethnic background, and culture. After independence the two regions drifted even further apart. In 1958 Pakistan fell prey to an authoritarian government in which the military frequently intervened. West Pakistan dominated both the army and consequently the political leadership of the country—even though the majority of Pakistanis lived in East Pakistan.

            As the West continued to dominate the East, a growing nationalist movement began in Bengal under the leadership of the Awami League. When the League won the elections of 1970, however, West Pakistani leaders refused to accept the results. The Awami League responded by proclaiming the independence of East Bengal under the new name of Bangladesh. When troops arrived from West Pakistan to suppress this challenge, civil war broke out. Tens of thousands were killed and millions took to the roads as refugees. Even as the army arrested him, however, Mujib Rahman, leader of the Awami League, called on his supporters to fight on for independence: 

You should not be misled by the false propaganda of the military rulers. Our struggle is most rewarding. Certain is our victory. Allah is with us. The world public opinion is with us. Victory to Bengal!”[5] 

As some 10 million East Pakistanis fled into India, the Indian government decided to intervene in the struggle. The Indian army invaded East Pakistan, crushed the Pakistan Army, and thus insured the survival of Bangladesh.[6] 

Independent India

While Pakistan turned to authoritarian government, India remained a remarkably strong democracy. In 1950, India adopted a new constitution that established a federal republic with an elected president and parliament. Although the president was the head of state, real power rested in the hands of Prime Minister Nehru, who remained prime minister under the new constitution, and dominated Indian politics until his death in 1964. 

Politics and social reform. Nehru confronted the daunting task of cultivating a new sense of Indian national identity. India remained a country of vast diversity, particularly in language and religion. In order to prevent further separatist pressures like those that had already ripped Pakistan from India, the Indian government did its best to create a secular sense of Indian national identity and to enact social reforms. The new constitution abolished untouchability and the government reserved specified percentages of government jobs and university scholarships for ex-untouchables.[7] The new constitution also granted women the right to vote and to hold office. A series of subsequent laws removed remaining barriers to legal equality. By the late 1950s, a large percentage of women were voting, and many were being elected to state and national offices. 

Economic policies. India's overriding concern was economic development. Heavily influenced by Marx and the socialist model, Nehru and his colleagues adopted what they called “democratic socialism” in an effort to industrialize India as rapidly as possible. Important sectors of the economy, especially heavy industry, were brought under government ownership, for example, and the government instituted a series of Five Year Plans for economic development. On the other hand, Indian farmers were free to own their own plots, and private entrepreneurs flourished in many businesses. Rapidly growing population, however, overwhelmed these efforts to increase prosperity and poverty remained widespread. 

Nehru and the Bandung Generation. As part of his determination to industrialize and develop India economically, Nehru also sought to establish a sense of solidarity among the former colonial peoples of the world. For Nehru and others, the world seemed to have been divided into three parts: the First World of the Western capitalist nations; the Second World of the socialist nations; and the Third World made up of all the rest. Although he sympathized with Marxist revolutionaries in the Third World, Nehru believed that India and other poor countries would need help from both sides in the Cold War if they were to develop economically. Consequently, he advocated a policy of nonalignment—meaning that India would remain neutral in the Cold War, while maintaining friendly relations and seeking aid from both sides. Other Third World leaders soon adopted Nehru’s policy in what became known as the Non-Aligned Movement.

            In 1955, Indonesia's President Sukarno invited the leaders of these Third World Nations to meet in Bandung, Indonesia. Sukarno set the tone for the movement in his opening speech: 

“This is the first inter-continental conference of coloured peoples in the history of mankind...Sisters and brothers....We, the people of Asia and Africa...more than half the human population of the world, we can mobilize what I have called the Moral Violence of Nations in favour of peace.” 

            Nehru's nonaligned policy did not solve all of India's international problems, however. In 1962, for example, India and China waged a brief war over a disputed border. Nor did Indian nonalignment solve the troubles with Pakistan. Moreover, continued population growth constantly threatened any gains India might make through economic development. After Nehru’s death in 1964, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, tackled these problems. 

            Indira Gandhi dominated Indian politics for nearly twenty years. She had been born in 1917 into her father's aristocratic Brahmin family in Allahabad, India. As a young child, she saw at first hand the development of the Indian National Congress. After attending university in India and at Oxford, in 1942 she married Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi). The two spent over a year in jail for their nationalist activities during World War II.

            After independence, Mrs. Gandhi became one of her father's closest advisors. In 1966 she became Prime Minister of India. Her policies soon generated enormous controversy. She advocated drastic measures to control India's growing population, for example. As her list of opponents grew, in 1971 she was accused of rigging the elections that kept her party in power. In 1975, the Indian courts convicted her of voting fraud. Instead of resigning, she declared a state of emergency, suspending the constitution.

            Over the next two years, Gandhi used her emergency powers to force through numerous unpopular laws—including a forced sterilization program designed to bring India’s population growth under control. As opposition mounted, however, in 1977 she finally rescinded the emergency and held new elections. Angry voters promptly defeated her. As opposition parties wrangled among themselves for the next several years, however, in 1980 the people once again elected her prime minister.

            One of Gandhi's greatest challenges was to hold India together, as numerous separatist movements began to demand their own autonomous states. Mrs. Gandhi refused to endorse separatism in any form. In 1984, she ordered an attack on the sacred Golden Shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar. The shrine had become a symbol of Sikh demands for a separate homeland. The Sikhs resisted the attack and nearly a thousand people were killed. In revenge, several months later, Mrs. Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards assassinated her.

            Mrs. Gandhi's career demonstrated the extent to which older traditional roles and identities were breaking down under increasing modernization. Her assassination also showed that not everyone was pleased by these developments. As western-educated nationalist elites moved farther and farther away from their traditional heritage and identity, in many places the older pre-colonial identities and cultural values began to re-emerge.