In 1914 India had a population of over 320 million. The British king, George V, was Emperor of India, ruling through an appointed viceroy based in New Delhi. The viceroy appointed his own cabinet from about 6,500 British officials. The 1909 India Act allowed Indians a share in the work of the legislative councils.

The Indian Army was reorganized by Lord Kitchener while he was commander-in-chief in India (1902-09). Kitchener established an army of 10 divisions (155,000) backed by an internal security force of some 80,000 troops. About a quarter of the infantry and cavalry troops and almost all artillery personnel in the army were British.

Two divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian Army was sent to the Western Front in September 1914. Of the 70,000 sent to France, 5,500 were killed and well over 16,000 wounded. As a result of a suggestion made by King George V, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers. It has been claimed that several soldiers been brought in unconscious, woke up in the Banqueting Room, and thought they had died and were in Paradise.

As well as the Western Front the Indian Army was also sent to Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Palestine, East Africa and Egypt. By November 1918 the army contained 573,000 men and more than 1.3 men served during wartime, of whom about 72,000 men were killed.

In 1935 the British government passed the India Act that proposed the transformation of India into eleven provincial states.. The legislation also gave greater authority to the provincial assemblies to establish governments for questions falling within their own region.

The mainly Hindu supported Congress Party had considerable success in the elections of 1936. This concerned the Muslim minority that made up one fifth of the total population. The Muslim League now became a separatist party that demanded the partition of India.

The Congress Party was highly critical of British foreign policy in the 1930s. They accused the British government of being sympathetic to fascism after its policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler. When Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: "Europe has sold her soul for the sake of a 'seven days' earthly existence. The peace that Europe gained at Munich is a triumph of violence."

The Congress Party was completely opposed to the policies of fascism but they were furious when the Viceroy of India declared war on Nazi Germany without consulting them first. With this decision, the Viceroy made it clear that India was subservient to the British government.

Party leaders offered to support the British government they were willing to issue a statement that this was a war in favour of democracy throughout the world and not just Europe. When Britain declined this offer, all members of the party resigned from office. Many of these posts were filled by the Muslim League, thus creating even more conflict between the two religious groups.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the Indian Army numbered 160,000 men. The army had no tanks or heavy field artillery and had very little air support. Over the next five years a total of two million served in the army and took part in the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Burma.

Some political figures demanded a massive civil disobedience campaign during the war. The leaders of the Congress Party were in a difficult position. They wanted to make use of Britain's weakness, but did not want to do anything that would help a German victory. A compromise was drawn up where people would be selected to commit individual acts of civil disobedience. These people were arrested and placed in prison without trial. By May, 1941, over 2,500 people had been arrested.

In 1942, Japan was able to take control of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. It appeared possible that Japan would soon be launching an invasion of India. Stafford Cripps, a socialist and supporter of Indian Independence, was sent by Winston Churchill to meet the Congress leaders. In exchange for their support, the British government offered reform of the role of the Viceroy and a commitment that India would be granted dominion status once the war with Germany was over.

After their experiences of the First World War Congress leaders were unwilling to comply with the government demands in return for the promise of a reward in the distant future. Although the Congress leaders liked Stafford Cripps, they did not trust Winston Churchill, who had been one of the strongest opponents of Indian Independence during the 1920s and 30s. He was particularly hostile to Gandhi whom he described as a "nauseating, seditious Middle Temple lawyer... posing as a fakir (holy man)".

In August 1942, the Congress Party endorsed a new Quit India campaign. Mahatma Gandhi was chosen to organize the campaign. Within hours of the announcement, Gandhi and his fellow leaders were arrested and put in prison. Here they stayed without trial for the next two years.

During the war Subhas Chandra Bose formed a Indian National Army to fight against the British. Drawn mainly from soldiers of the Indian Army that were captured by the Japanese Army in the early stages of the war. About 7,000 of these soldiers fought under Bose against the British Army at Imphal and Kohima.

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Last updated: 16th December, 2001

Primary Sources

(1) Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan (18th August, 1940)

I believe all war to be wholly wrong. But if we scrutinize the motives of two warring parties, we may find one to be in the right and the other in the wrong. For instance, if A wishes to seize B's country, B is obviously the wronged one. Both fight with arms. I do not believe in violent warfare but all the same B, whose cause is just, deserves my moral help and blessings.

(2) George Orwell, BBC radio broadcast (20th December 1941)

The Japanese successes are still very serious for us. At present the pressure of Japanese troops has died down in Malaya, where heavy casualties have been inflicted upon them. Large Indian reinforcements have been landed in Rangoon. The Governor of Hong Kong states that heavy fighting is in progress, on the island itself.

In all this we must remember that the Japanese power, though great, can only aim at a rapid outright victory. The three Axis powers together can produce 60 million tons of steel every year, whereas the USA alone can produce about 88 million. This in itself is not a striking difference. But Japan cannot send help to Germany, and Germany cannot send help to Japan. For the Japanese only produce 7 million tons of steel a year. For steel, as for many other things, they must depend on the stores they have ready.

If the Japanese seem to be making a wild attempt, we must remember that many of them think it their duty to their Emperor, who is their God, to conquer the whole world. This is not a new idea in Japan. Hideyoshi when he died in 1598 was trying to conquer the whole world known to him, and he knew about India and Persia. It was because he failed that Japan closed the country to all foreigners.

In January of this year, to take a recent example, a manifesto appeared in the Japanese press signed by Japanese Admirals and Generals stating that it was Japan's mission to set Burma and India free. Japan was of course to do this by conquering them. What it would be like to be free under the heel of Japan the Chinese can tell us, and the Koreans.

(3) Mahatma Gandhi, interviewed by Louis Fischer (June, 1942)

The cry of "Quit India" has arisen from a realization of the fact that if India is to shoulder the burden of representing or fighting for the cause of mankind, she must have the glow of freedom now. Has a freezing man ever been warmed by the promise of the warmth of the sunshine coming at some future date? If the British wish to document their right to win the war and make the world better, they must purify themselves by surrendering power in India. We are asked to fight for democracy in Germany, Italy and Japan. How can we when we haven't got it ourselves? I do not want Japan to win. I do not want the Axis to win. But I am sure that Britain cannot win unless the Indian people become free. Britain is weaker and Britain is morally indefensible while she rules India.

(4) F. C. Hart worked for the Indian Special Branch and was interviewed about his work in 1975.

On one occasion in Patna City a number of women laid themselves down on the ground right across the street and held up all the traffic. When the Superintendent of Police arrived on the scene he was at first

nonplussed. If they had been men he would have sent in policemen to lift them out bodily, but he dare not do it with women. So he thought for a bit and then he called for fire hoses and with the hoses they sprayed these women who were lying on the ground. They only wore very thin saris and, of course, when the water got on them all their figures could be seen. The constables started cracking dirty jokes and immediately the women got up and ran.