How India threw off British rule

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2007 - 9:38 Author: Sacha Ismail
Indian independence celebration

The following text is a speech given at a 2007 Workers' Liberty’s London forum on “Sixty years since Indian independence”. The other speaker was Sarbjit Johal from South Asia Solidarity Group.

The BBC, the Mayor of London, museums, schools, many parts of the establishment, are commemorating the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, but in their own way — basically by celebrating the cultural commodities of present day India. This is both a boon to bourgeois New Labour-style “multiculturalism” and, with India becoming one of the world’s most important economies, a smart business decision. The left and the labour movement need to have something different to say.

India is a country of hundreds of millions of people that for more than a century was exploited and oppressed by the ruling class of this country, with the support or acquiescence of at least a section of the working class too. The story of its people’s struggle for independence, and of the Indian workers and peasants who fought within that struggle for social as well as national liberation, is an inspiration; it is a vital part of international working-class history, not least for the British working class. Understanding this story is crucial to understanding the class struggles of South Asia today.

How Britain ruled India

The patterns of Indian society today are, of course, shaped by what the Indian ruling class has done since 1947. However, they are also rooted in two centuries of British rule.

Before 1857, British rule in India was exercised not by the British state as such, but by the East India Company, which over a long period, beginning in the 1750s, established military control or indirect domination over most of the subcontinent. In 1857, what the British empire christened the Sepoy Mutiny, but could more properly be called the Indian rebellion, occurred. It was an uprising of Britain’s Indian troops, which in some areas developed into broader popular revolt.

There are debates about the extent to which this rebellion was in the modern sense a revolution or national liberation struggle, but it was certainly very significant. After 1857, Britain took precautions against further instability by reorganising the bits of India it controlled under direct rule.

The India which Britain conquered from the mid-18th century was not “underdeveloped” by the standards of the time. The Mughal empire which administered it was in decay and decline; its common people were poorer in Europe, though by a much smaller margin than today. However, its handicraft trades also made it the world’s great industrial export centre. Far from being a barren territory needing to be developed, for the various European imperialists who attempted to conquer it — Dutch, Portuguese, French and eventually British — it was a great treasure-house waiting to be looted.

Enormous amounts of wealth were pumped out of India into Britain’s country houses, board rooms and government departments, and into the homes of retired army officers, shareholders and bondholders. According to more conservative estimates, this flow took out of the country more than a quarter of the resources otherwise available for industrial development.

Meanwhile, in order to secure its hold over India relatively cheaply, and thus with only a small Britain garrison (during its drive to put down the 1857 rebellion, the number of British troops numbered in the thousands, as against 160,000 US troops in the relatively tiny country of Iraq today) Britain built an alliance with sections of India’s wealthy classes, at the expense of the peasantry. This is how Karl Marx put it in 1853:

“In Bengal, we have a combination of the English landlordism, of the Irish middle-men system, of the Austrian system, transforming the landlord into the tax-gatherer, of the Asiatic system making the state the real landlord. In Madras and Bombay we have a French peasant proprietor who is at the same time a serf and a sharecropper of the state. The drawbacks of all these various systems accumulate upon him without his enjoying any of their redeeming features... Eleven twelfths of the whole Indian population have been wretchedly pauperised...”

Agriculture stagnated. According to economic historian Angus Maddison: “From the beginning of British conquest in 1757 to independence... per capita income... probably did not increase at all. In the UK itself there was a ten fold increase in per capita income over these two centuries. Average life expectancy was only 30 years in 1947.”

At the same time, India’s handicraft industries were destroyed by the transformation of the country into a captive market for British factory production. Between 1780 and 1850 total British exports to India rose from £386,000 to £8 million. In 1850, cotton manufacture employed one eighth of the British population and accounted for one twelvth of the national revenue; India provided a quarter of its market. For instance, between 1818 and 1836, the amount of cotton twist exported from the UK to India rose by a factor of more than 5,000. By 1870, 21% of all Britain's overseas capital stock was in India.

The result was the ruining of many important Indian cities and mass starvation. Marx again: “The English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The governor-general reported in 1834-5: ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India’.”

Socialists and Indian independence

What was Marx’s attitude to British rule in India? He was, as one would expect from the quotations above, unremittingly hostile to it. He chronicled the barbarity of British rule in India, describing it as a “bleeding process with a vengeance” and “hideous idol drinking from the skulls of the slain”.

At the same time Marx’s view was more complicated than that. He believed that, despite itself, Britain was laying the foundations for a “social revolution” in India by introducing capitalist development. As well as breaking down the structures of the old society, British rule introduced elements of a new one. The authorities built factories and, eventually, railways, a development which Marx saw as highly significant:

“The ruling classes of Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy wanted to plunder it, the millocracy wanted to undersell it. But now the tables are turned...You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing... industrial processes... The railway system will become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.”

Did Marx conclude from this that British rule would benefit the mass of people or should be supported? Quite the opposite. In fact, the progressive element of British rule existed mainly in the fact it prepared the way for its forcible overthrow by something better.

“All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both...The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

There have been some very stupid attempts over the years to depict Marx as a pro-imperialist. But this is simply nonsense. Marx’s attitude to the Indian people is demonstrated vividly by the fact that, when the International Working Men’s Association received a request in 1871 to establish a branch in Calcutta, the General Council insisted that the applicants be “instructed of the necessity of enrolling natives in the association”.

Marx’s attitude, combining support for economic and social development with opposition to imperial violence and political oppression, was absorbed by the best elements of the international socialist movement that developed during the course of the 19th century.

In Britain, for instance, the early Marxists, and chief among them Henry Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation, made support for Indian independence a central part of their politics. When the debates between right-wing supporters of colonialism and left-wing opponents of it took place in the Socialist International at the start of the 20th century, the left cited Marx’s support for Indian liberation, as well as the national struggles of Poland and Ireland, as exemplary.

There was also a cross-fertilisation between British and Indian radicalism. Many British radicals learnt to hate British imperialism and capitalism through their reading about or contact with India, and many Indian activists came to Britain and were radicalised through contact with movements here. Britain’s first non-white MP, for instance, was Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi campaigner for Indian independence who, though elected as a Liberal, steadily moved to the left until he joined the Socialist International.

Naoroji spoke at the International’s 1904 Congress, where he stated that “the fate of India rests in the hands of the working classes”. This tradition continued into the 20th century with figures like Shapurji Saklatvala, the Labour and then Communist MP for Battersea. Saklatvala was the first person to be arrested during the General Strike, after he called on soldiers not to fire on striking workers.

Later history

Marx’s warning was apt. In addition to the poverty and misery it brought for the majority of the population, India’s industrial development proceeded only very slowly under British rule. British capitalists saw no need to move their factories there; Indian capitalists had no government of their own to provide protection and aid for new enterprises. In fact, the British state positively discouraged Indian capitalists because it saw them as potential competitors to British business.

India had a spurt of industrial growth during World War One (during which many thousands of Indian soldiers died to help British imperialism in its conflict with German imperialism), stagnated after the war and had another spurt in World War One. By 1947, India had a bigger native bourgeoisie than any other “Third World” country. Nonetheless, it had been made “backward” and “underdeveloped”, for want of better terms, in a way it had not been in 1757.

To remain cheap, British rule in India had to educate and train a layer, small in relation to the population but big in absolute numbers, of Indian officials. The growth of bourgeois-educated and bourgeois-wealthy Indians helped to produce a nationalist movement, Congress, founded in 1885 — at first studiedly non-militant and smiled on by the British authorities, later more militant and in conflict with them.

After World War One Congress was led by Mohandas Gandhi. His campaign is still cited by many liberals as a model of how to win political change by non-violent methods of passive non-cooperation.

In fact the movement for independence — from the mass demonstration at Amritsar in 1919, which turned into a massacre when British troops opened fire, to the naval mutinies, general strikes and peasant rebellions of the two years preceding independence — was driven forward by the militant action of workers and peasants: many of them influenced by revolutionary-democratic, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas. The achievement of Gandhi and those like him was not to create this movement, but to damp it down and channel it towards bourgeois and petty bourgeois politics, as well as into top-down-controlled forms of protest.

Gandhi was clear about the class meaning of this: “In India we want no political strikes... We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists but to regulate the relations between capital and labour. We want to harness capital. It would be folly to encourage sympathetic strikes.”

Or again: “I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey... If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power... when I am in power I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials and those same soldiers”.

Though Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu communalist fanatic in 1948, the Congress governments which ruled India after 1947 did indeed use those same soldiers and officials against the Indian working-class and other popular movements whenever necessary.


Britain had, quite unashamedly, used divide-and-rule tactics in India. After the 1857 rebellion, groups which had been on the whole less rebellious, for instance the Sikhs, were carefully favoured and selectively recruited into the army. (The Sikhs tended to side with the British because they were angry about Muslim soldiers from Bengal helping to conquer Punjab!) Britain fostered Muslim support by posing as a protector against the forces of Hindu obscurantism, by sponsoring institutions such as the Muslim university at Aligarh and by setting up separate Muslim electoral rolls with a wider franchise than the Hindu ones.

The climax of this approach came with the events of partition as India gained its independence. In 1947, the British government, knowing it was defeated and hoping to minimise its losses, cut and run, partitioning India to give the Muslim League movement, which it had built up as a rival to Congress, its own Muslim state, Pakistan. Communal violence killed a million people, made ten million refugees and left a vicious legacy: three wars between India and Pakistan, conflict and oppression in the disputed territory of Kashmir, communal strife in India, and Islamism in Pakistan.

The artificial nature of the Pakistani entity also laid the basis for the national oppression, and eventually in 1971 the national liberation struggle, of what is now Bangladesh. In the 1971 war at least a million people were killed by the Pakistani regime.

The leaders of the big bourgeois parties professed horror at the violence, but through their communalist politics they had helped to prepare it. Even some of the leaders of the more secular Congress had always linked India’s national cause with Hindu symbols and concepts. The relatively strong Communist Party of India, and the movements it dominated, were prevented from playing a significant role by their popular front politics, dictated from Moscow. Not only did the CP puts its faith in the Muslim League and Congress leaders to solve the communal conflict, it demobilised mass mobilisations against capitalists and landlords, for instance halting in its land agitation in Bengal, for fear of alienating the “national bourgeoisie”.

Thus popular movements reaching across the communal divide to stop the violence never achieved their full potential. The anti-revolutionary politics of India’s various “communist” parties have been a powerful factor in shaping the country’s politics to this day.


In India today, four hundred million people live on the equivalent of less than dollar a day. Something like a third of all the people in the world who live at that extreme level of poverty are in India. 35% of Indian people, and 46% of Indian women, are illiterate (2001 figures). One child in eight dies before the age of five.

The big cities have millions living on the streets, begging, scratching a life from odd jobs. Most poor people live in the countryside; India has had more land reform laws than any other country in the world, but they have not been effective. Hundreds of millions of people still live in conditions not far from Europe's Middle Ages.

At the same time, India’s secular political culture has partially broken down, with the rise of large-scale communal violence, most commonly carried out by the Hindu nationalist far right against Muslims.

Would it therefore be right to conclude that independence, and the fight for it, were all a waste of time? For socialists, the answer must be: of course not.

When India won its independence, a country of many hundreds of millions threw off foreign rule. It was evidence that tyranny does not last forever, and that oppressed people can rise up and seek to control their own destiny. The Indian people defeated and began the break up of the most powerful empire in the world, laying the ground for the independence struggles of many other nations.

And while India is still marked by the signs of imperial torture and underdevelopment, things have changed since independence. Decisions about the Indian economy are now made, in so far as they can be under the world capitalist market, in India, not in European capitals. India is not a colony, or a semi-colony, of anyone. One result is that the Indian economy has grown staggeringly. This in turn has meant real changes for millions of people - life expectancy is no longer 30, as it was when the British left, but 65.

The fact that the benefit to the Indian people has not been more extensive is not because independence was worthless, but because of the nature of the capitalist system, which cannot fulfil the needs of the majority. To quote Marx again: “All the bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, which depends not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people.”

Capitalist development in India has created a hundreds-of-millions-strong, and often very militant, working class, and many powerful movements for secularism, democracy and liberation. As everywhere in the world, these movements are under attack, and need international support. Independence was, in the first instance, a victory for the Indian bourgeoisie, but it is the Indian working class which is real inheritor of the independence struggle.

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