The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

18

India

JUDITH M. BROWN

The years from the outbreak of the First World War to independence from Britain in August 1947 were among the most turbulent in India's history. They witnessed the start of some of the most profound changes that were to affect life on the subcontinent. In retrospect this period has a significant unity and dynamic, and historians can readily see how significant it was for the subcontinent's own history. Change, unprecedented both in spread and depth, began to occur in the economy, society, and politics. The political changes culminated in independence. Thereafter they shaped the structure of the successor states and the nature of independent governments, and contributed to a political culture powerfully marked by the experience of political protest, and of organizing to work a series of increasingly democratic constitutional reforms. Yet the nationalist movement that claimed to speak for India's people and demanded legitimacy in place of the Imperial Raj was challenged by a variety of social, political, and religious movements, the most powerful of which contested the identity of the new nation as constructed by the Indian National Congress, and split the subcontinent in 1947, creating Pakistan in the name of Indian Muslims. Linked to the emergence of new political awareness and activity were socio-economic upheavals resulting from the impact of two world wars, major inflation, and then depression, which began to shift the economy away from its rural roots, and to undermine existing socio-economic relationships. Together these resulted in increased social movement and turbulence, and rising expectations of the new nation state from a broad social spectrum.

Yet India's own experience of the final years of Empire was not isolated. It had implications for Britain, for Imperial power in many parts of the world, and for the shape of the world order emerging after the Second World War. The subcontinent was the first non-white area to become independent of British control, a development hardly conceived of by Indians, let alone Imperial rulers, before the First World War. India had been a cornerstone of the British system of worldwide economic, military, and political power. (Indeed the preservation of routes to India had been vital in Imperial thinking about Africa. ) Once India was independent, the logistics of the Empire were radically changed. So were the credentials of

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