World War II, the conflict that engulfed the entire world from 1939 to 1945, had profound implications on nations worldwide, reshaping political, social, and economic landscapes. India, under British colonial rule at the time, saw significant transformations in its struggle for Independence as a direct consequence of the war. The war not only exposed the vulnerabilities of the British Empire but also provided a platform for Indian leaders to escalate their efforts towards securing freedom.
The World War II experience worked as a catalyst for Indians to respond to the Indian National Congress’s call for ‘Purna Swaraj’, or complete Independence, in 1930.
So what was the influence of World War II on India’s fight for Independence that propelled the nation towards self-governance?
Indian Contribution To British War Effort
As Britain engaged in a massive war effort, it sought resources and manpower from its colonies, including India. Nearly 25 lakh Indian soldiers had to join the fight for the British in World War II. The exploitation of Indian resources and forced recruitment of Indian soldiers for the war effort led to widespread discontent. Indian leaders saw this as an opportunity to leverage the discontent to further their push for Independence. The contribution of manpower also severely impacted the Indian economy. India contributed nearly £1.5 billion to World War II. In the previous World War, the nation contributed nearly £8 billion.
Battered Indian Economy
India, then part of the British Empire, contributed resources to the war effort. The British government requisitioned goods and raw materials from India for the war, leading to shortages and price inflation. India was Britain’s largest cash cow that the colonists used to control — as Congress leader Shashi Tharoor once put it: “Indians paid for their own oppression”.
The war led to an increase in industrial production in India, as industries were redirected towards war-related production. Factories produced goods such as armaments, clothing, and food for the military. This had some positive impact on the industrial sector but also disrupted normal civilian production and consumption patterns.
The war disrupted agricultural production and transportation networks, contributing to food shortages in some regions. The Bengal Famine of 1943, exacerbated by British policies, resulted in a significant loss of life. The requisitioning of resources for the war, combined with increased government spending, led to inflation in India. The rising cost of living and scarcity of goods affected the overall standard of living.
The British government also borrowed heavily from India to finance the war. The strain on India’s finances led to a high level of public debt, which continued to affect the economy after the war.
Such experiences played a significant role in shaping India’s political landscape. The economic hardships and the fact that Indians were fighting and sacrificing for the British Empire while simultaneously seeking Independence led to increased nationalist sentiments and demands for self-rule.
Moreover, the war left Britain economically weakened, leading to the reevaluation of its colonial policies. The immense financial strain spurred discussions on granting India independence, as the British Empire found it increasingly difficult to maintain its dominion over a restive colony.
1942: Quit India Movement
The Quit India Movement, launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942, was influenced by World War II, as India’s contributions to the war effort and the British response to Indian demands for self-governance created an environment of heightened nationalism and activism.
In 1942, the British government dispatched a mission led by Sir Stafford Cripps to India to offer a constitutional proposal for post-war self-governance. It proposed a limited dominion status for India after the war. However, the Indian National Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha felt the proposals by the Cripps mission were only an extension of its divide-and-rule policy as it made way for provinces to secede from India. Moreover, the proposal didn’t specify India’s control over its defence nor did it specify a time frame for the transfer of power, thus defeating the purpose of ‘purna swaraj’.
The Muslim League, on the other hand, was against the idea of a single union of India and the proposal for provinces to get the power to decide on joining India.
All these reasons contributed to Gandhi’s call for the Quit India Movement, whixh marked a turning point in India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s call for non-violent civil disobedience aimed to secure the British withdrawal from India. However, the movement was met with harsh repression, with many leaders, including Gandhi, being arrested.
Rise of Subhas Chandra Bose
Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the most dynamic and charismatic leaders of India’s freedom struggle, saw the war as an opportunity to garner international support for India’s cause. Bose sought help from Axis powers, leading to the formation of the Indian National Army (INA) with the support of the Japanese. The INA’s efforts in the Burma campaign underscored the fervour of Indians to fight for their freedom.
Bose’s rise during World War II was marked by his shift to more radical approaches, his alliance with Axis powers, and his efforts to rally Indians for independence. Bose, who was elected as Congress president in 1938 and 1939, fell out with other party leaders due to their moderate approach and founded the Forward Bloc in 1939, advocating for more assertive action against British rule.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Bose was placed under house arrest by the British authorities. In 1941, he dramatically escaped and made his way to Germany, seeking support for India’s independence from Axis powers.
Bose’s interactions with Axis powers, including Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, aimed to garner military assistance for India’s liberation. He established the Indian National Army (INA) with captured Indian soldiers, intending to use it as a force to free India. Bose used radio broadcasts from Germany and later from Japanese-occupied territories to reach Indians and inspire them to fight for freedom. His Azad Hind Radio broadcasts gained significant popularity among Indians.
Bose even established the Azad Hind Government in Singapore in 1943, with himself as the Head of State. The government aimed to administer areas under Japanese occupation and promote the cause of Indian independence. His slogan “Jai Hind” became a rallying cry for Indian nationalists.
1946: Naval Ratings Mutiny
The Royal Indian Navy’s ratings (sailors) revolt of 1945-46 highlighted the discontent within the Indian armed forces after the war due to discrimination and poor treatment. While Indian soldiers never got fair treatment under the British, expectations of better work conditions and political rights were high as Indian soldiers had fought the war for the British.
However, Indian servicemen continued to face discriminatory practices, including unequal pay, harsh treatment, and limited opportunities for promotion compared to their British counterparts. These, combined with growing nationalism in the country, led to the mutiny of 1945 on the HMIS Talwar, a Royal Indian Navy ship anchored in Bombay, which quickly spread to other vessels.
This made the British realise that they would be crippled without Indian forces and eventually left India a year later.
1947: Mountbatten Plan And Independence
The conclusion of World War II prompted the British to expedite the process of granting independence to India. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, played a pivotal role in negotiations. The Mountbatten Plan led to the partition of India and the creation of two independent nations, India and Pakistan, on August 15, 1947.
Lord Mountbatten arrived in India in March 1947, with a mandate to expedite the transfer of power from British rule to Indian hands. His mission was to oversee the process of India’s independence. Mountbatten engaged in discussions with Indian political leaders, including members of the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and other stakeholders. These discussions aimed to find a solution that accommodated the diverse interests of India’s various communities.
Given the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the Muslim League under Muhammad Ali Jinnah demanded a separate nation for Muslims. In light of these demands and to prevent potential violence, Mountbatten proposed the partition of India into two independent dominions — India and Pakistan.
On June 3, 1947, Lord Mountbatten presented the partition plan to Indian leaders. The plan outlined the division of India and the creation of two separate dominions on August 15, 1947. The plan allowed provinces to vote on whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan, based on religious majorities.
The plan also established a boundary demarcation commission to determine the exact borders between India and Pakistan, which led to massive movement and displacement of population, with communal violence making matters worse.
On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan gained their independence from British rule, marking the end of over 200 years of colonial domination. Mountbatten continued to serve as the Governor-General of India until June 1948.
World War II served as a catalyst that significantly accelerated India’s journey towards independence. The war exposed the fragility of the British Empire, emboldening Indian leaders and citizens to intensify their demands for self-rule. The sacrifices made by Indians during the war, coupled with the emergence of powerful leaders like Gandhi, Bose, and others, highlighted the resilience and unity of the Indian people in their pursuit of freedom. The post-war international climate and Britain’s economic strain further facilitated India’s path to independence, culminating in the historic moment of August 15, 1947, when India finally broke the chains of colonial rule and emerged as a sovereign nation.