The Sceptic’s War
Short notes on the Great War
The Germans’ brutality towards civilians during their advance through Belgium in August 1914 and thereafter was used by the Allied government to whip up hatred for the enemy. It was also an effective recruiting tool. But the fanciful exaggerations of the French and the British press on this point, as also their refusal (coerced by governments) to fully convey the horrors in the trenches was, in the eyes of thousands of soldiers, an atrocity in itself. If an ironic perspective was one of the lasting legacies of the War, the bitter scepticism directed at government propaganda and the press is surely a part of that. Thus, for the frontline soldier, the Daily Mirror was known as the Daily Prevaricator.
It is easy to see why the Great War of 1914-1918 is so often seen as the great turning point in India’s modern history and the moment at which freedom from British rule began to seem possible. Indeed, we can see at work three great transitions that occurred almost simultaneously: their cumulative effect was, or so it seemed, to weaken both the British will to rule and the sources of their power. The first was the British decision, under the stress of war, to make the crucial promise in August 1917 that India would be granted ‘responsible government’, the same form of parliamentary self-government as that enjoyed by the ‘white dominions’, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The old doctrine that India was too backward to be given a parliamentary system was abruptly abandoned in the process. The second was the dramatic transformation in the character of India’s nationalist politics, heralding a shift from the loyal, deferential and insistently ‘moderate’ Congress of the pre-war years to the Gandhian mass movement demanding “Swaraj in one year”. The third, whose impact soon began to be felt, was the epochal shift from a politics that was avowedly secular to one where the appeal to religious allegiance became more and more strident. Between 1914 and 1920, we might say, India crashed into the 20th century.
Before 1914, it would have taken a visionary to imagine the astonishing campaign of satyagraha that Gandhi was able to orchestrate between 1920 and 1922. The British had acknowledged the wisdom of drawing more of India’s Anglophone elite into their system of government by offering very limited representation on the provincial councils. They were careful not to permit the creation of large popular constituencies and happy to concede separate electorates to Muslims. The Congress deeply resented the refusal to grant parliamentary government at the centre (the key demand in their constitution) and the effective exclusion of Indians from the ranks of the ruling oligarchy, the Indian Civil Service. But its leaders (with the exception of Balgangadhar Tilak) rejected an appeal to the masses, and viewed with horror the recourse to civil disobedience, let alone violence. To later generations, this ultra-cautious approach suggested a lack of commitment to Indian freedom, a lack of nationalist ‘fire’. This verdict is wrong. What the pre-war leadership grasped was that India could only be united and free if the nation was built from the top down not the bottom up. That meant winning control of the legislature and then drawing the masses step by step into the ‘political nation’. Their model was obvious: it was Gladstonian liberalism which worked on exactly this principle. In the light of India’s later history, we might commend their wisdom but regret the impossibility of their plan ever working.
What the Congress leaders wanted was for the British to hand over control of the Indian legislature and the civil service without a struggle, because a struggle would damage the very institutions they valued so highly as the machinery for nation-building. But the British were never going to do so, partly because they denied the claim of the Congress to represent anyone but themselves, partly because they remained utterly confident in their power to repress any symptoms of political unrest. Before 1914, therefore, Indian politics was in a form of stalemate. The British had created a small public space in which representative politics could be practised. But it was carefully ring-fenced and the ‘exit’ closely guarded. However, almost as soon as the war broke out, the Congress leaders sensed a new opportunity. India’s loyal response, the dispatch of the Indian army to the Western Front and the Middle East, would create a political debt that the British would have to repay. They needed the vocal support of India’s public men to rally volunteers to the army and to soothe the resentment that India’s wartime mobilisation aroused—as prices rose, transport links became strained and taxes grew heavier. In 1916, to make sure that the British took notice, the Congress and the Muslim League put forward a common demand for a more representative system. It coincided with the grim realisation in London that the war was turning into one of attrition, especially with the arrival of a radical ‘new broom’ at the India Office after the turmoil of the shambolic invasion of Turkish Iraq. This was Edwin Montagu. After a fierce battle in cabinet (where his main opponent was Lord Curzon), Montagu secured his famous declaration that India would proceed in due time to full dominion-type self-government. That, however, was just the start.
There was an old tradition in Britain’s Indian policy that London would lay down the outlines of any new constitution for India but leave the details to the experts—the Indian Civil Service. Montagu decided to take this bull by the horns. He came to India in 1918 to discuss a new constitution with the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, but really to persuade the Civil Service ‘barons’. Their reaction was cool, their obstruction Machiavellian. The outcome, much revised and amended, was the notorious scheme for ‘dyarchy’ in which elected Indian politicians would gain some limited executive power in the provinces (but not over finance or security) but none at all at the centre. After all the promises, it seemed to the most moderate of Congressmen a bitter betrayal. To make matters worse, with the ‘Rowlatt Act’ the British announced the continuation of the stringent coercive powers they had employed during the war against those suspected of treason. To many in the Congress, it seemed the end of the political road.
In fact the Rowlatt Act was symptomatic of a crucial new factor in the political game. During the war, the British had been alarmed by the fear of a Sikh conspiracy. But their real cause for anxiety arose from the fact that they were fighting a war against the Muslim power in the Middle East (the Ottoman Empire) with an army that contained many Muslims. To some of the most vocal ‘Young Muslims’ in India, this war was an outrage. The British reaction was to lock them up. With the end of the war, this ill-feeling might have been expected to fade. In fact it grew worse, much worse. This was because the British were determined to break up the Ottoman empire for good, and to banish the sultan, who was also the Muslim Caliph or Khalifa, from his historic capital in Istanbul. The spectacle of the British invasion of the central Islamic lands and their contemptuous treatment of the greatest Muslim dignitary aroused a furious reaction (and helps to explain why the British passed the Rowlatt Act). It created a completely new political climate in India of electrifying possibilities. There was someone on hand who knew how to exploit them.
Gandhi had returned to India in 1915 to engage in ‘social uplift’. His manifesto, Hind Swaraj, which outlined a plan for the peaceful rejection of British authority by a moral revolt, had been promptly banned on publication, and its contents had little appeal to most active Congressmen. But during the war Gandhi had demonstrated an impressive capacity to mobilise but also control wider public participation in local campaigns while avoiding a confrontation with the British. Thus when he proposed a large-scale public protest against the indignity of the Rowlatt Act, many Congressmen sympathised. The terrible outcome at Amritsar in April 1919 might have confirmed the unwisdom of this experiment in mass politics. But Gandhi skilfully denounced the immorality of British rule and then found a new constituency. He appealed to Muslims to join the Congress, and with their support swung the Congress behind his great campaign of non-cooperation in 1920.
At a time when the British were facing upheaval all over their empire—in Ireland, Egypt and in West Asia— non-cooperation seemed the best way to break their nerve and force a real constitutional breakthrough. For the next 18 months, the British struggled to exert their authority but carefully avoided repeating the calamitous tactics that had led to Amritsar. Meanwhile, the viceroy and Montagu, desperate to implement their stalled constitution, tried to distance the Indian government from London’s Middle East policy and appease Indian opinion. Famously, however, it was Gandhi who called off non-cooperation after the murder of 22 Indian policemen at Chauri Chaura in the United Provinces, perhaps fearing that the popular movement was slipping out of his control. Grudgingly, in 1923 the Congress returned to the fold and agreed to take part in the new dyarchy system. The Muslim ‘Khilafat campaign’ gradually petered out. The British heaved a sigh of relief.
So what difference had the war really made? The British had been given a fright but the Raj was still there. To many Congressmen, Gandhi’s new politics had been a terrible failure. The British comforted themselves that the strange Gandhian moment had passed. Those masters of the constitutional small print, the Indian Civil Service, set to work to devise a new political system that would enlarge Indian politics but disarm Indian nationalism, or at least the Gandhian variety. Their solution was federation: devolving most power to the provinces whose political differences would make all-Indian nationalism a shadow of its Gandhian self, and leave the British at the centre in command of the army, the rupee and trade —the things that mattered. The Gandhians did not give in without a struggle: the second round of civil disobedience came in 1930-32. But they were hampered by exactly the force that Gandhi had mobilised in 1920, the sense of a Muslim identity. Once more the Congress was forced to bite the bullet and ‘work’ the constitution that the British imposed. The result was a stand-off, for the Congress proved far more successful at winning provincial votes than the British expected, and formed most of the new provincial governments in 1937. But it was far from clear that they would be able to force the British into new concessions.
On the eve of the Second World War, even Nehru was doubtful whether Indian independence could come in the foreseeable future. In the event, he had not long to wait. For all the horrors of the First World War, it had been a great strategic victory for the British. Their empire had been made safe. But then World War II inflicted three decisive defeats on British world power, one in Europe, one in Asia and one on the economic front. From these, there was to be no real recovery. As their world- system fell apart, they lost control of India. There was never to be the peaceful transition of which the pre-1914 Congress had dreamed. The subcontinent still lives with the consequences.
John Darwin teaches history at Oxford where he is a Fellow of Nuffield College. Recent books include After Tamerlane: the Global History of Empire since 1405