The Myth That India’s Freedom Was Won Nonviolently Is Holding Back Progress

By Justin Podur, a Toronto-based writer and an Independent Media Institute writing fellow. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

If there is a single false claim to “nonviolent” struggle that has most powerfully captured the imagination of the world, it is the claim that India, under Gandhi’s leadership, defeated the mighty British Empire and won her independence through the nonviolent method.

India’s independence struggle was a process replete with violence. The nonviolent myth was imposed afterward. It is time to get back to reality. Using recent works on the role of violence in the Indian freedom struggle, it’s possible to compile a chronology of the independence movement in which armed struggle played a decisive role. Some of these sources: Palagummi Sainath’s The Last Heroes, Kama Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, Durba Ghosh’s Gentlemanly Terrorists, Pramod Kapoor’s 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny: Last War of Independence, Vijay Prashad’s edited book, The 1921 Uprising in Malabar, and Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin.

Nonviolence could never defeat a colonial power that had conquered the subcontinent through nearly unimaginable levels of violence. India was conquered step by step by the British East India Company in a series of wars. While the British East India Company had incorporated in 1599, the tide turned against India’s independence in 1757 at the battle of Plassey. A century of encroaching Company rule followed—covered in William Dalrymple’s book The Anarchy—with Company policy and enforced famines murdering tens of millions of people.

In 1857, Indian soldiers working for the Company rose up with some of the few remaining independent Indian rulers who had not yet been dispossessed—to try to oust the British. In response, the British murdered an estimated (by Amaresh Mishra, in the book War of Civilisations) 10 million people.

The British government took over from the Company and proceeded to rule India directly for another 90 years.

From 1757 to 1947, in addition to the ten million killed in the 1857 war alone, another 30-plus million were killed in enforced famines, per figures presented by Indian politician Shashi Tharoor in the 2016 book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

A 2022 study estimated another 100 million excess deaths in India due to British imperialism from 1880 to 1920 alone. Doctors like Mubin Syed believe that these famines were so great and over such a long period of time that they exerted selective pressure on the genes of South Asian populations, increasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that arise when abundant calories are available because South Asian bodies have become famine-adapted.

By the end, the independence struggle against the British included all of the methods characteristic of armed struggle: clandestine organization, punishment of collaborators, assassinations, sabotage, attacks on police stations, military mutinies, and even the development of autonomous zones and a parallel government apparatus.

A Chronology of India’s Violent Independence Struggle

In his 2006 article, “India, Armed Struggle in the Independence Movement,” scholar Kunal Chattopadhyay broke the struggle down into a series of phases:

1905-1911: Revolutionary Terrorism. A period of “revolutionary terrorism” started with the assassination of a British official of the Bombay presidency in 1897 by Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, who were both hanged. From 1905 to 1907, independence fighters (deemed “terrorists” by the British) attacked railway ticket offices, post offices, and banks, and threw bombs, all to fight the partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1908, Khudiram Bose was executed by the imperialists for “terrorism.”

These “terrorists” of Bengal were a source of great worry to the British. In 1911, the British repealed the partition of Bengal, removing the main grievance of the terrorists. They also passed the Criminal Tribes Act, combining their anxieties over their continued rule with their ever-present racial anxieties. The Home Secretary of the Government of India is quoted in Durba Ghosh’s book Gentlemanly Terrorists:

“There is a serious risk, unless the movement in Bengal is checked, that political dacoits and professional dacoits in other provinces may join hands and that the bad example set by these men in an unwarlike province like Bengal may, if it continues, lead to imitation in provinces inhabited by fighting races where the results would be even more disastrous.”

Ghosh outlines some more of these cases:

“In Bengal, the Alipore Conspiracy Case, Midnapore Conspiracy Case, the Howrah Gang Case, and other conspiracy trials enabled the government to detain those involved with secret and underground political groups. Relying on a century-old piece of security legislation that included the Regulation III of 1818, the government also passed the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908 and the Defence of India Act in 1915 to bring political violence against the state under control.”

But, as Ghosh argues, the imperialist response wasn’t solely to pass draconian laws. On the contrary, they made concessions—growing concessions—toward independence and other demands by the “terrorists,” and tried to disproportionately reward their “nonviolent” interlocutors from the Congress. Bengal was reunited; the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi to get away from the terrorist movement in that province.

Revolutionary Struggles 1914-1918: With the end of the Swadeshi movement of 1905 to 1907 began what was called, simply, the “Terrorist Movement” from 1907 to 1917. The terrorists opened with an attack on Bengal Lieutenant Governor Andrew Fraser in Midnapore in 1907. During WWI, the Ghadar movement tried to overthrow British rule multiple times—a (foiled) rebellion in February 1915 led by Rash Behari Bose and another (foiled) raid in Calcutta planned for Christmas Day 1915. Revolutionaries in Bengal raided arms depots, obtained military assistance from Germany, fought a pitched battle against the British in September of 1915 at Chasakhand, and even operated internationally in places like the U.S. and Japan. Revolutionary leaders Chittapriya Ray Chaudhuri and Jatindranath Mukherjee both died in this battle.

The response by the British to the terrorist movements in their colonial possessions was to pass wartime laws: the Defence of the Realm Act in Ireland, and the Defence of India Act. But also to make concessions.

Turning point in 1919: The Amritsar massacre of 1919 was a massacre of hundreds of protesters dissenting from Britain’s desire to extend wartime measures indefinitely through the 1919 Rowlatt Act. After the slaughter, the British engaged in an orgy of racial violence and ritual humiliation, making Indians crawl on their knees down streets, for example. After 1919, Gandhi also led a nonviolent campaign, the non-cooperation movement. What is less known, documented by Durba Ghosh, is that the terrorist movement was in constant contact with Gandhi and the Nehrus (both Motilal and Jawaharlal) throughout this period. The British passed the repressive 1919 Rowlatt Act, but also passed the first Government of India Act and the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms, promising self-government in some distant future.

Also, recall that in 1919 the British also fought an unsuccessful war with Afghanistan and unsuccessfully invaded the new Soviet Union. These violent, military conflicts set the context for the changes the imperialists were forced to make in India.

Interwar Revolutionary Struggle

In the history of the 1920s, the most visible face of the Indian struggle was Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. But there was an uprising in South India as well, in Malabar in 1921, which the British tried to steer in a communal direction and ended up crushing by force.

The 1920s and 1930s were a time of constant acts of armed struggle. In the 1920s, the Hindustan Republican Association engaged in “patriotic robberies” like one in Kakori, after which four of the leaders were hanged and three others sentenced to life in prison. In 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly.

In 1925 and 1930, the British passed two Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Acts. The 1930 amendment was put in force on March 25. On April 18, the Indian Republican Army with Surya Sen and 60 terrorists led a raid on the Chittagong Armory:

“The raid was an elaborately planned attack in which revolutionaries managed to occupy major colonial sites, including the European club, police armoury, and the telephone and telegraph office. The raiders cut off all communications with officials in other parts of India, gathered arms, and hoped to terrorize the British while they enjoyed a Friday evening at their club.”

Also in 1930, Odisha saw a tribal uprising against the British in which villagers battled police—Sainath talked to some of the veterans of this uprising in Last Heroes, chapter 2.

In 1931, the British hanged Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, and Sukhdev Thapar. They murdered Chandra Sekhar Azad in a park in Allahabad. They passed the Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages Act in 1932, but terrorism continued.

In 1935, the British made a major concession, another Government of India Act, which expanded the franchise and promised the Congress leaders that they would eventually become the rulers (on the British imperialist timeline). The quid pro quo was that these Indian leaders would suppress the terrorists. Among the British weapons was nonviolence, including the Civil Disobedience movement. The Congress leaders knew, however, that without some terrorism, their leverage with the British would be zero. So they played their own game, quietly supporting the terrorists at times, publicly denouncing them at others, while conducting civil disobedience within a framework of rules that involved jail time for nonviolent actors and British assassination and hanging for terrorists who wouldn’t play the civil disobedience game. Violent struggle was the price paid by the “terrorists” so that the nonviolent could sit at the table to negotiate with the imperialists.

In Chapter 4 of Lost Heroes, Sainath spoke to bomb-maker Shobharam Gaharwar, active in Rajasthan and elsewhere in the 1930s and 1940s, who confirmed the ubiquity of bomb-making activity during the independence struggle:

“We were in great demand at that time! I have been to Karnataka. To Mysore, Bengaluru, all sorts of places. See, Ajmer was a prominent centre for the Quit India movement, for the struggle. So was Benares [Varanasi]. There were other places like Baroda in Gujarat and Damoh in Madhya Pradesh. People looked up to Ajmer, saying the movement is strong in this town and that they would follow the footsteps of the freedom fighters here. Of course, there were many others, too.”

Quit India 1942 and Disillusionment: For Lost Heroes, Sainath spoke to veterans of the armed struggle in Punjab as well as in the south in the Telangana People’s Struggle, led by Sundarayya. Known as the Telangana Uprising of 1946, it was a multiyear struggle over an immense area, and in addition to battles with feudal landlords, police, and hired goondas, he reports:

“At its height, the Veera Telangana Porattam spread across almost 5,000 villages. It touched over three million lives across some 25,000 square kilometres. In the villages under their control, this people’s movement set up a parallel government. That included the creation of gram swaraj committees or village communes. Close to one million acres of land were redistributed amongst the poor. Most official histories date the Communist-led uprising as occurring from 1946-51. But great agitations and revolts were already underway there from late 1943.”

Another southern state, Tamil Nadu, was the site of an immense anti-feudal struggle at the same time as the Quit India movement of 1942. Sainath spoke to veteran R. Nallakannu:

“We’d fight them at night, throw stones—those were the weapons we had—and chase them away. Sometimes, there would be pitched battles. This happened several times during the protests that came in the 1940s. We were still boys, but we fought. Day and night, with our kind of weapons!”

In one village in Odisha in August 1942, activists took over and declared themselves magistrates, beginning to administer justice. They were quickly arrested, but once locked up they immediately began organizing the prisoners, as they told Sainath:

“They sent us to a prison for criminals. We made the most of it… In those days, the British were trying to recruit soldiers to die in their war against Germany. So they held out promises to those who were serving long sentences as criminals. They promised that anyone who signed up for the war would be given 100 rupees. Each of their families would get 500 rupees. And they would be free after the war.

We campaigned with the criminal prisoners. Is it worth dying for Rs 500 for these people and their wars? You will surely be amongst the first to die, we told them. You are not important for them. Why should you be their cannon fodder?

After a while, they began to listen to us. They used to call us Gandhi, or simply, Congress. Many of them dropped out of the scheme. They rebelled and refused to go.”

In West Bengal, Bhabani Mahato organized logistics for underground fighters in the Quit India struggle. Activist Partha Sarati Mahato told Sainath how it went:

“Only a few better-off families in the village were to prepare meals for however many activists in hiding there [in the forest] were on a given day. And the women doing this were asked to leave the cooked food in their kitchen.

They did not know who it was who came and picked up the food. Nor did they know who the individuals were that they were cooking for. The resistance never used people from the village to do the transportation. The British had spies and informants in the village. So did the feudal zamindars who were their collaborators. These informants would recognize locals carrying loads to the forest. That would endanger both the women and the underground. Nor could they have anyone identifying the people they sent in—probably by nightfall—to collect the food. The women never saw who it was lifting the meals.

That way, both were shielded from exposure. But the women knew what was going on. Most village women would gather each morning at the ponds and streams, tanks—and those involved exchanged notes and experiences. They knew why and what they were doing it for—but never specifically for whom.”

The Toofan Sena

In 1943, the Toofan Sena, the armed wing of the prati sarkar (or provisional government) of Satara, declared independence from British rule in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Sainath describes the reach of this autonomous zone:

“With its headquarters in Kundal, the prati sarkar—an amalgam of peasants and workers—actually functioned as a government in the nearly 600 villages under its control, where it effectively overthrew British rule. Hausabai’s father, the legendary Nana Patil, headed the prati sarkar. Both sarkar and sena had sprung up as disillusioned offshoots of the Quit India movement of 1942.

Nana Patil, as well as other leaders, including Captain Bhau, led a bold train robbery on June 7, 1943. “It is unfair to say we looted the train,” the captain told Sainath. “It was money stolen by the British rulers from the Indian people that we took back.” Captain Bhau also objected to the notion that the prati sarkar was an “underground movement.”

“‘What do you mean underground government?’ growls Captain Bhau, annoyed by my use of the term. ‘We were the government here. The Raj could not enter. Even the police were scared of the Toofan Sena.’… It organized the supply and distribution of [food grain], set up a coherent market structure, and ran a judicial system. It also penalized moneylenders, pawnbrokers, and landlord collaborators of the Raj.”

Another Toofan Sena member reported to Sainath how they went about punishing informers:

“When we discovered one of these police agents, we encircled his home at night. We would take the informer and an associate of his outside the village.

We would tie up the ankles of the informer after placing a wooden stick between them. He was then held upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet with sticks. We touched no other part of his body. Just the soles.’ No visible marks were there on the body from the feet up. But ‘he couldn’t walk normally for many days’. A powerful disincentive. And so came the name patri sarkar [note: in Marati, the word ‘patri’ means ‘wooden stick’]. ‘After that we would load him on the back of his associate who would carry him home.”

The Indian National Army

In 1938, the Indian National Congress saw Subhas Chandra Bose become president. He was immensely popular, with an independent power base. While respectful of Gandhi, he was not committed to nonviolence. He was ousted from the party in 1939. In 1941, during World War II, Bose formed the Indian National Army, backed by Imperial Japan, whose goal was to liberate India by force. The same year, Nehru was transferred to Lucknow Jail where he spent time with many imprisoned terrorists. When Gandhi’s Quit India movement was crushed in 1942 within months, Bose and the INA fought on, and Bose was killed in 1945.

Imprisoned for journalism, Bengaluru-based H.S. Doreswamy described his encounter with Indian National Army prisoners whose massacre he witnessed in 1943:

“Once, when we were in prison in Bengaluru (1942-43), it was midnight, and a group of captives was brought in. They came in shouting slogans, and we thought they were more of our people. But they weren’t. They were Indian military personnel. We were told they were officers but didn’t know for sure. We didn’t know their ranks.

There were fourteen of them—from different states. They had decided to leave the British Indian military and join Netaji Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). They tried to leave the country. And were on their way to Burma [now Myanmar] when they were arrested. All fourteen of them. They were brought to Bengaluru and court-martialled. And sentenced to death by hanging.

We interacted with them. They wrote down, with their blood, a letter to all of us. It said, ‘We are so happy that you are 500 here. This country, this Bharat Mata, requires the blood of so many people. We are also a part and parcel of that effort. We have also pledged to give our lives to this country’s cause.’ That is what they wrote… ‘We heard that all of them were lined up in a row and shot dead—all of them—at one time… They knew it. That they were going to their death. But they were very cheerful. That’s why they gave us that letter written in blood addressed to all of us.’”

When the British tried to execute INA officers for treason at the symbolic Red Fort in Delhi, they ended up with an uprising. In 1946, a Naval Mutiny centered in Mumbai was suppressed at huge cost to the British: Their Indian Empire had unraveled. In his book on the naval mutiny, Pramod Kapoor notes that while Quit India was called in 1942, Independence followed very quickly after the 1946 Naval Mutiny. A look at the chronology suggests that the mutiny was more decisive than the nonviolent campaign in bringing about Independence.

The British quickly partitioned the subcontinent, poisoned the chalice, and handed it over to their chosen Indian Congress interlocutors.

As H.S. Doreswamy put it: “When the Britishers left the country, they did so with three formulae. One, to form Pakistan and Hindustan. Two, to keep the people in both countries divided on communal lines. And three: those 562 princely states—they were free to join or stay out of this Indian Union.” The princely state plot was foiled by the post-independence government, but the communal plot and the partition plot both succeeded. So did the sponsorship of the myth that Indian independence sprung from a series of nonviolent campaigns, and not the same processes of armed national liberation struggle that occurred in India as everywhere else in the world that faced a similar situation.

The Harm Caused by the Nonviolence Myth

The nonviolence myth helped preserve feudalism. Like slavery and segregation in the U.S., colonialism in India was overthrown by violence. But also like the U.S., the myth of nonviolence has done real damage to India’s polity. Gandhi’s spiritual successor, Vinoba Bhave, traveled the country trying to convince landowners to conduct a voluntary land reform (contrast this with the violent land reforms enacted in neighboring China, described in Fanshen by William Hinton).

Vinoba Bhave’s was a nonviolent campaign of land reform which kept feudalism largely intact in India. Ironically, Vinoba Bhave was known to have threatened the landowners with violence—explicitly stating that by voluntarily giving up some land, the landowners could save themselves from future violent revolution. Again, we see nonviolent leaders putting the poor in the position of the supplicant, asking for crumbs from the rich based on some distant possibility of revolution instead of working to organize the poor for that revolution.

The nonviolence myth does not produce nonviolent societies. One of the central arguments for nonviolence dating at least back to Gandhi is that nonviolent means lead to better ends. Noam Chomsky put it this way in the 1967 debate with Hannah Arendt:

“It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they’re heavily colored by them, they’re shaped by them in many ways. And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved. Now, again, in part this is just a matter of faith. But I think there’s at least some evidence that better results follow from better means.”

Since Gandhi’s nonviolence argument was based on the notion that means and ends are inseparable and that the choice of violent means would lead to violent ends, it should follow that the central importance of nonviolence in the Indian freedom struggle led to India being a particularly nonviolent country after independence. Italian communist author Domenico Losurdo, in his book Nonviolence: A History Beyond the Myth, answers that one: “[F]ar from being the embodiment of the ideal of non-violence, India today is one of the most violent countries on earth. Armed clashes between the different religious and ethnic groups are widespread; in particular, massacres of Muslims and Christians are recurrent.”

The inseparability of means and ends is an argument against nonviolence. Nonviolence is a means that involves begging the powerful for concessions and inviting them to do violence without consequences for themselves: it leads to a society with an elite that feels complete impunity to do horrific violence while facing opponents that will try, at worst, to melt their hearts through an example of suffering. It turns oppressors into worse people, drunk on power and feeling no consequences.

Decolonization Is a Violent Process, and India Was No Exception

As Losurdo tells it in his book, nonviolence is an ideal that was developed in the UK and U.S. to ensure that resistance to slavery would be ineffective—for keeping resistance to one of the most vile institutions ever invented within controllable bounds. Christian pacifists and Quakers developed it because they did not want to participate in the violence of slavery. Very few of them were moved to fight slavery violently.

Gandhi’s Indian enemies have argued that it is these Christian, Anglo-American roots from which Gandhian nonviolence springs, and not from Hindu notions of ahimsa or satyagraha. In the end, Indian people did not behave like otherworldly sages. They did what all colonized people do: they fought an armed struggle for independence.

Shorn of the myth of nonviolence, what are the lessons of the real Indian independence struggle and how do they fit into our understanding of social change? It is clear that some struggles—for improved wages or working conditions, better municipal services, or other struggles for equality within a community—can be kept on the nonviolent plane. Colonialism, based on racial oppression and dehumanization, cannot be, and India is not an exception. Like colonialism itself, the absence of a nonviolent solution to colonialism is tragic, but the sooner the reality is recognized by advocates of social change, the better.

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  1. Patrick Donnelly

    Non-violence movements help to involve those who do not care for or cannot conduct violence. Actions against peaceful protest wins support internally and externally, when information is not suppressed completely. Violence will grow with every massacre by the ruler, when the information flows.

    External involvement in past decolonizations is also a factor.

    Controlled opposition has used effectively, with eg Eamon DeValera who came to Ireland with ‘Tommy guns’ and tried to wreck armed rebellion by a premature uprising at Easter, 1916. To this day many revere the man in Ireland!

    Sharing the spoils is the only way to continue colonization. Banking etc is now used to transfer wealth back to the colonizers. The colonized learn to depend upon the employment and other opportunities and division can mute effective decolonoization for some generations, if the colonizers are patient.

    1. Skk

      Well said. From my days of knowing more about the Black Panthers and Malcolm X than MLK, about the Provos rather than the Peace Movement, about the violent Indian Independence movement starting with the rebellion in 1857 to the sailors strike in 1946…. you can see where this is going.

      But it’s only in the last couple of decades that ive realized its both the violent AND nonviolent movements against the oppressor that convinces them to admit defeat.

      And there is quite an element of horses for courses here. Sadly, the activists, particularly on the violent side deprecated the nonviolent side when the fight is on. Perhaps seeing in situ as it were, how the events would unfold decades on , they could have if not cooperated with but at least stayed neutral about the nonviolent activists, things may have resolved faster.

      But with so many variables in each situation, general strategy can only be a guideline. But the violent rebels cookbook should at least have that strategic principle in it.

  2. Michaelmas

    A contributing event in the course of events in 1946-47 isn’t much noted, but should be in the context of all this.

    The newly-elected Attlee Labour government back in the UK expected to pay for the socialist policies it was enacting in Britain — the NHS, etcetera — through continued imperialism overseas. To that end, RAF forces were built up post-WWII in India to suppress Independence forces through air strikes.

    The rank and file refused to comply and the RAF mutiny followed, which the authorities called ‘the RAF strikes’ to defuse the situation because refusal to follow orders was so widespread —

    ‘A series of demonstrations and strikes occurred at several dozen Royal Air Force stations in the Indian subcontinent beginning on 22 January 1946. As these incidents involved refusals to obey orders, they technically constituted a form of mutiny. The protests arose in response to slow demobilization and return of British troops to Britain, and use of British shipping facilities for transporting G.I.s. The “mutiny” began at either Maripur or nearby Karachi (RAF Drigh Road) and later spread to involve nearly 50,000 men over 60 RAF stations in India, Ceylon, Burma and as far away as Singapore, Egypt, North Africa, and Gibraltar The peaceful protests lasted between three and eleven days.

    ‘…later declassified reports have shown that British troops were deliberately retained in India to control possible unrest from the independence movement, and the grievances of the RAF men may have also included significant political views and sympathy with the Communist Party of India.

    ‘The issues were ultimately resolved. Some of the airmen involved faced courts-martial. However, the precedent set by this event was important in instigating subsequent actions by the Royal Indian Air Force and later, the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946 in which 78 of a total of 88 ships mutinied. Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India, commented at the time, “I am afraid that [the] example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.”‘

    1. Froghole

      Excellent point. The RAF mutiny was also partly about a restlessness amongst servicemen wanting to be demobbed. The RIN mutiny in Bombay was very largely about the racism of certain senior officers, in what had been the Cinderella service (the former Royal Indian Marine) of the Indian armed forces, with poor conditions suffered by the lower deck. It should also be seen in the context of the trials of INA personnel held at the Red Fort from November 1945, which were perceived by even much moderate Congress opinion as being vindictive. Auchinleck, committing a fairly rare error of judgement, had insisted upon the trials. The scandal was so great that Nehru – who had not practised law for years – donned his barrister’s gown, and participated in the defence. The whole purpose of India’s large (though threadbare) military establishment had not been so much for the defence of India as the suppression of internal dissent, with the maintenance of an external threat as the ostensible raison d’etre.

      These mutinies led petty directly to Wavell’s doomed ‘breakdown’ plan – largely the work of Jenkins, Menon and Rau (, and the formation of the all-party provisional government in September 1946 (a government which has received scant attention until lately:

      Another decisive element, often overlooked, which needs to be taken into account are the consequences of the fateful 1940 financial settlement between the governments of Britain and India (further to the Chatfield review of 1938-39 for the rehabilitation of the Indian Army), under which the UK undertook to cover the cost of Indian deployments outside the boundaries of India proper. What seemed to the British as a reasonable proposition in 1940 very much ceased to be so when Japan commenced upon the invasion of Burma in 1941. Had Burma remained a part of British India, the cost of fighting in India would have fallen to India, but under the terms of the Government of India Act 1935, Burma was separated from India in 1937. The UK soon realised the enormity of its blunder, and throughout the war Churchill, Cherwell and Keynes continually demanded that India agree to a revised settlement, continually resisted by Amery, Linlithgow, Wavell and Raisman acting for India. A broke Britain, even one blocking the sterling balances held by India, could simply no longer afford the Raj. The financial boot was very much on the Indian foot in 1946-47, and swaraj was, to some extent, a financial settlement masquerading as an independence deal, even if it was not necessarily intended as such (see, for example, Marcello de Pavia Abreu, ‘Britain as a Debtor: Indian Sterling Balances, 1939-53’, Economic History Review, v. 70, no. 2 (May 2017), at 586-604).

  3. Polar Socialist

    Fadi Lama, in his Why the West Can’t Win (Clarity Press, 2023) makes the case that India was “granted” independence by UK (regardless of how came to be), meaning that India’s constitution, system of government, system of finance and all the important parts were imposed by UK and very strongly tied to the international system dominated by The West – making sure India stayed in it’s place.

    A.k.a. neocolonialism, where the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank and the Bank for International Settlements take the role of the former colonial masters and keep the emerging countries under heavy burden preventing any real progress.

  4. Donald

    Good article and I agree that the myth of non-violence works in favor of oppressors, but I think he inadvertently contradicts himself at the end. If India’s independence came about through violence, it actually lends support to Chomsky’s argument. I think Chomsky is right— violence tends to lead to more violence. Unfortunately this article is also right— nonviolent struggles against colonial powers do not have the wonderful track record we are supposed to think they have had.

    And I have seen Westerners use this myth to put all the blame in Palestinians for Israeli oppression. It takes real gall for Americans to use this argument—there is nothing nonviolent about our foreign policy or about Israel.

    1. plurabelle

      “If India’s independence came about through violence, it actually lends support to Chomsky’s argument.”

      This is a failure in logic, reading comprehension and basic scientific thinking about causation vs correlation. Chomsky claimed that violent means *inevitably* lead to violent ends. Podur is not arguing the obverse (that violence always leads to justice and peace). He’s arguing that (1) India got its independence through violent and non-violent means, like many other colonised countries; the idea that the Indian liberation struggle was non-violent was a myth; (2) this myth is harmful because it is intended to preserve structures of oppression and extreme inequality. He says that the non-violence myth, which leads to such “resistance” tactics as requesting the powerful elites to voluntary give up their power through the goodness of their hearts, is partly responsible for India’s ultra-violent fascist condition today. It is a sloppy, ignorant, very Western way of thinking to say, “Aha, that means Chomsky was right! The Indian elites are violent today because the independence movement used violence! It’s a direct line between the two – there could be no other cause.” This smug, patronising Western lauding of “non-violent natives” and unshakable belief that any violence in ex-colonised countries today traces back to the violence of the terrorists is really no difference from the colonial mentality, that natives are innately violent and can’t govern themselves, implying biological rather than historical and structural reasons which conveniently absolve the colonialists of all responsibility. The quickness by which Western neo-colonialists judge the natives without understand even a bit of the context, is indicative of their mentality, that the ultra-violence of colonialism is really human nature, not a specifically racist ideology of plunder and exploitation that they invented and benefit from.

      “The million Europeans living in Algeria pose particular problems. The colonists in Algeria are afraid of the Algerian nation. Physical fear, moral fear. And this double fear translates into aggressivity and severely homicidal conduct. At the base of this behaviour we find 1. a very powerful guilt complex. ‘If the Algerians’ they say ‘should one day rule Algeria, they would certainly do what we colonists have done, and make us pay for our crimes’; 2. there is also a certain Manichaean conception of humanity which would always divide it into oppressors and oppressed.”

      1. Yves Smith

        You straw manned Donald and did an ad hom on top of that, calling him sloppy, smug and patronizing. Those are violations of our written site Policies.

        One more like this and you will be blacklisted. We don’t allow commenters to abuse other commenters on fabricated grounds.

  5. Marshall

    People who want to legitimize their own impulses to violence are the first to argue that nonviolence doesn’t work. And yet it does quite often work, as many who have committed themselves to nonviolence can testify. There are still quite a few alive here in the U.S. who saw its power in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. There are some still alive who knew people who participated in the Gandhian efforts in India (and in the U.K.), and heard from them about its effectiveness there.

    I will leave it at that, since I have found in fifty years of nonviolent activism that arguing the matter seldom achieves anything. One has to see it for oneself. Best wishes to all.

    1. CA

      “There are still quite a few alive here in the U.S. who saw its power in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s…”

      I agree with the sentiment, always favoring nonviolence. Please though remember there was a terrible war fought over slavery, there were decades of violence against free Blacks before the 1950s and 1960s.

    2. plurabelle

      Your ad hominem attack on the author (dismissing him for trying to justify his latent nasty impulses towards violence); your claim that your own anecdotal, subjective experience trumps the study of history (which is clear that it was the violent Naval “Mutiny” that led to the British quitting India two years later rather than the non-violent Quit India movement which was suppressed soon after it began); your implicit dismissal of the voices of anyone who doesn’t follow your ideal of ‘non-violence’ by locating truth merely in the anecdotal experiences of “Gandhian” activists; and your pre-emptive refusal to debate or argue (shutting down any dissent by “arguing the matter seldom achieves anything”) suggests that you are the one blinded by ideology here.

      The fragile, egotistical Western responses in the comments lend credence to the claims in the article!

      “nonviolence is an ideal that was developed in the UK and U.S. to ensure that resistance to slavery would be ineffective—for keeping resistance to one of the most vile institutions ever invented within controllable bounds”

      As regards to your fifty years of activism, Jesus said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”!

      Best wishes from Kerala, India

      1. Yves Smith

        Oh, I see a second, nasty straw man of what the commenter said and your bogus rewrite as a basis for vitriol. I have never seen such a severe case of projection, and then with gratuitous jerkface amplification.

        That is not on here. Get your own fucking blog.

  6. Froghole

    It has long been the argument of those historians associated with the ‘subaltern studies’ movement that disorder and violence at the local and working class levels was much more decisive in forcing an end to colonialism that has long been thought. There was very much more going on than can be discerned by following the histories of the INC or the League, even if those parties were – at least to some extent – sometimes clearing houses for a melange of local movements, or mediators between local movements on the one hand and elite Indian opinion or British opinion on the other hand. Sumit Sarkar’s celebrated 1989 volume provides an excellent summary for some of the most material of these movements: (see also

    However, a word on Shashi Tharoor. It should be noted that his polemic attracted a certain amount of sceptical comment, including from some Indian economic historians. See, for example, Tirthankar Roy (arguably the doyen of the economic history of colonial India, with the latest edition of his standard history here:'s%20transition%2C%20starting,Economics%20and%20South%20Asian%20History). Of course, that does not necessarily invalidate all of Tharoor’s critique (which is, to some extent, an echo of the venerable drain theories propounded by Naoroji in 1902 or Dutt in 1902-04), but it does mean that it needs to be treated with a degree of circumspection.

  7. ciroc

    Non-violent protest is nothing but a political picnic. Politicians will simply ignore it or easily eliminate it.

  8. ventzu

    Post-colonial India is still a poor, unequal, corrupt society, run for the benefit of the Indian oligarchs. The fact that India did not undergo a violent revolution that led to freedom, meant that it allowed the Indian PMC’s and elites to retain their power and privilege.

    China and Russia, whatever maybe said about their implementation of communism, set the educational and health foundations that raised the masses of people, and put their countries in the position that they are in now. India never had that clear-out of the ‘dross’, and never established those foundations for the masses. It was and is run by the previous colonial-era satraps that simply became the elite ruling class; and their children continued to be sent to the West for education, western aspirations and values, etc. And these folk are more than happy to use colonial ‘divide and rule’ communal strife, in order to retain power. They have learned well from their colonial masters.

    1. King

      It’s not any different from anywhere else in the world then.
      It was made worse due to 1st 60 years of government by Congress and its dynastic prime ministers who unleashed license raj over the country where they could pick and choose who was granted a license to run which industry or company based on how much they paid the congress and similar parties in bribe.
      for the 1st time, a sincere prime minister has made such a big difference that it is visible, with the amount of bank accounts opened for poor people and direct money paid into their accounts without middlemen and the amount of development done in villages. Hence the new prime minister wins votes from all irrespective of religion, especially the women who have benefitted the most from their policies. Hence his popularity and hence the wins in every election

      1. King

        Job creation is always done by businessmen everywhere in the world, the job of the govt is to create infrastructure and create honest environments for businesses which the current govt is doing. Govt which tries to run a business will always turn corrupt due to power and money as in every socialist country. Creating rules so no business exploits the common man is the other job of govt.
        The current govt in India is doing this compared to the previous dynast govt which was no better than oligarchs themselves and kings as the PMship was inherited in Congress and other regional parties instead of based on competence.

        1. JTMcPhee

          Military “jobs” created by businessmen? Oh, you mean the MICIMAC. Trillions in subsidies there. More trillions, speaking mostly of the US, to businessmen like Ross Perot and banksters like Dimon and the venture cap people, inter Alia, who use fraud and tax provisions and non-enforcement of regulatory controls and the money-power to write and re-write the laws, to make their jobs out of thin air. To name just a few of the pathogenic businessmen (and women, give the hers credit) who make space for the PMC to germinate and “prosper.”

          Libertarian notions. Especially the bit singling out “socialist countries” as uniquely producing vast corruption and maleficence.

          Closer to the thread line, got to give special marks to the people of color other than pasty white, pale peach and shades of tan in “rising to the top” of the corruption pile in those former top-predator/carrion-eater relicts like Albion and la belle France. Good job (not created by businessones.)

  9. barefoot charley

    This is a fascinating and enlightening discussion, even of Gandhi’s antecedents in our letters from a Concord jail. I knew that abolitionists were loathed by everyone else, but hadn’t recognized Thoreau’s pacifism as excellently ineffective by rulers’ lights. And our standard understanding of Indian independence overlooks so many continuing uprisings and ‘incidents,’ to say nothing of Congress’s continuous footsie with violent parties and interests. Excellent comments round out a most informative post.

  10. Skk

    I’ve been returning to India, Maharashtra mostly, visiting megapolises and small towns every 3 years or so since 1970, most recently last Nov. The change in prosperity since the end of the license Raj is remarkable. But the mood of self confidence and reflected in the Keynsian “animal spirits ” of economic activity since Modi came to power is amazing. When I compare THAT with the sleepy slow pace of Southern California exurbia I’m reminded of Tocquevilles comparison of bustling Ohio on one bank of the river versus the slave owning Kentucky on the other bank where ‘society has gone to sleep’

    1. plurabelle

      “But the mood of self confidence and reflected in the Keynsian “animal spirits ” of economic activity since Modi came to power is amazing.”

      You are easily impressed by the fascist self-glorifying billboards erected in front of the facts, one farmer dying by suicide every 30 minutes, and violence even more savage than what’s going on Gaza (look up what Modi did to Bilkis Bano and her children). Please stay out of my country, and the Third World in general.

  11. Lefty Godot

    Didn’t US labor struggles proceed in much the same way–a “good cop” side that could win support among the bourgeoisie and a “bad cop” side that could strike terror in the hearts of the owners? Nothing like the struggle in India in terms of numbers of people involved and affected by the battles along the way, but a similar cadre of activists who could claim the moral high ground and another group that could wield shotguns and sticks of dynamite?

  12. Synoia

    Is this applicable to the current US?

    Between the Plutocrats atcs and the poor who cannot even afford shelter?

  13. Debasish Ray Chawdhuri

    A non-violent fight against the oppressor is like trying to ask a criminal to stop committing a crime. It can only work if there is a threat of violence. The reason Gandhi could do what he did is basically that Nehru, Patel etc. simple told the British – “You better talk to us because you don’t want to deal with the other guys whom we have asked to wait a bit.”

  14. MFB

    By the way, South Africa’s history is treated almost exactly like this by our media. Even though we have a history of anti-colonial struggles stretching back to the sixteenth century, even though the apartheid military was occupying the townships and promoting wars across southern Africa which killed millions, even though the apartheid police was helping death-squads massacre people all over Kwa-Zulu/Natal and Gauteng, even though the resistance forces all had their own armies and militias, we still get told about the great peaceful struggle of Nelson Mandela (who actually founded the ANC’s army uMkhontoweSizwe) and solemnly informed that violence never leads to anything positive.

    What they mean, of course, is that violence might threaten the stranglehold which their paymasters have over our nation.

  15. Jan Wiklund

    Also, the myth that Gandhi was some kind of a pacifist will hold back progress. Because he wasn’t. He wanted to keep violence down because most Indians wouldn’t stand much violence at the time, and he understood that just a few self-sacrificing heroes couldn’t liberate India. What was needed was a mass movement – but when the mass movement was there, he had nothing against the violent Quit India campaign. See for example Francis Hutchins: India’s revolution – Gandhi and the Quit India Movement, Harvard 1973.

    What is lethal, I think, is the myth that violence is necessary under all circumstances. Because that will make liberation into an elite business, i.e. no liberation at all.

  16. plurabelle

    Pacifism/non-violence is a particularly privileged ideology, espoused by those who have never had to defend against imminent/ongoing threats to their lives and of their families. They never demand it of the oppressor, only of the oppressed.

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