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Nationalism and reform

Indian nationalism 1917-1921

By 1914 Indian nationalism, led by the largely Hindu Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, was already a potent force. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 temporarily united Congress and the League. The radical nationalist, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, assumed leadership of Congress and the outcome was an upsurge of nationalist activity, which caused the Viceroy of India to warn London of the need for urgent measures.

The British government began to make political concessions to the nationalists. India was permitted to attend imperial conferences on the same footing as the settler dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, issued a memorandum recommending that India, through the development of self-governing institutions, move towards responsible government within the Empire.

He toured India in 1918 and produced a report in which he recommended a system of 'dyarchy' by which Indians assume responsibility for some aspects of government in the provinces, while the British administration kept central control. The various recommendations were embodied in the Government of India Act of 1919.

Initially it seemed reform might fail to placate the nationalists, but the Amritsar massacre of civilians ordered by General Dyer in Punjab during 1919, and the popular defence of Dyer in Britain, antagonised all Indians. It provoked Mohandas (Mahatma) Karamchand Gandhi's first civil disobedience or Satyagraha campaign. Gandhi was arrested in 1922. The administration continued during the 1920s, although reforms fell far short of nationalist ideals.

Political reform in the 1930s

Further impetus to change can be traced to British policy. In 1927 the Simon Commission began an evaluation of the working of the 1919 Act. The Commission, however, had no Indian representation, antagonising the nationalists, who began a boycott.

Nationalists saw the succession of the Labour Party, which favoured Indian liberation, as an opportunity to press for further reform. Motilal Nehru drew up a draft constitution, pre-empting the findings of the Simon Commission. In 1930 Gandhi initiated mass civil disobedience, and was arrested with thousands of his supporters. At a 'round table' meeting, Ramsay MacDonald proposed Indian government throughout the provinces with a more gradual shift of power in central government. Gandhi was released from prison and civil disobedience ended.

The Conservative-dominated National Government of 1931 stopped further progress. Gandhi raised a new civil disobedience campaign, but this was rigorously suppressed and Gandhi was imprisoned again.