New The Great War Episode: Mahatma Gandhi And The Indian Anti-Colonial Resistance After WW1

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It’s January 1921, and in British India, Indians are now allowed on special councils to share in the administration of the colony. But these reforms might not be enough to satisfy rising Indian nationalism spurred on by a new political leader and a bloody massacre:

India had been the so-called “jewel in the crown” of the British empire since the 18th century, but the years following the Great War saw British rule shaken, and the Indian movement for independence gain new strength. In this episode, we’ll take a look at the dramatic events in India following the First World War, and the emergence of one of the most influential world leaders in modern history – and it all happened 100 years ago.


In the years leading up to the Great War, British rule was firmly established in its South Asian empire – which included today’s India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Power was exercised by the British Viceroy, in charge of the colonial Government of India. Lord Curzon, Viceroy from 1899 to 1905, summed up just how important India was to British prestige

“As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.”  (Judd 138)

The war, however, would place great strains on this relationship. The British drew heavily on Indian manpower and resources to fight the war: around 2 million Indians were mobilized, and India contributed about 50 billion pounds - in today’s money – to the war effort.

Initially, British politicians were pleased by the Indian reaction to the war. There were mass displays of loyalty in 1914 , and even the nationalists supported the cause.  But things had changed by 1917. The campaign in Mesopotamia had gone badly, the British were recruiting men using coercive methods,  and they’d introduced unpopular wartime restrictions, all of which increased pre-existing Indian opposition to British rule.  By August, new Secretary of State Edwin Montagu was promising reforms for Indian governance, but not full independence:

“The Policy of His Majesty’s Government [...] is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” (Tinker 90)

 So, with the war dragging on into 1918 and no end in sight, the British government was willing to make compromises for more Indian involvement in government – but Indian nationalists hoping for home rule would be disappointed.


Indian nationalist wanted the Montagu Reforms to be the first step on the road to self-governance. British policy-makers, though, interpreted things differently. For them, India was too important and had to remain under imperial control. Lionel Curtis, a British official who helped draft the reforms, reflected this view:

“[India’s affairs] are those of the whole commonwealth. She can never therefore control them apart… It would not be possible, so long as they remain part of the British Commonwealth, to place the Indian frontier under the control of a Government responsible only to the people of India.” (Darwin 252) 

Instead, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms passed in December 1919 offered responsibility, but little authority. The act introduced a system of dyarchy, in which Indian-staffed councils would be formed within some government ministries. However, this applied only to the ministries considered less important to British priorities, like agriculture, education, and public health.  The British-controlled government of India kept total control of foreign affairs, security, and finance. In the end, the reforms actually had the effect of reinforcing the colonial system. 


The British offer of limited power to Indians also created divisions amongst Indian intellectuals, and some have argued this was a case of divide and rule. Some Indians wanted to take the minor improvement that had been offered, while others, including Mohandas Gandhi, wanted to boycott the councils entirely.


Gandhi had been to law school in London, and first entered the political scene in British South Africa, where he campaigned for the rights of Indian workers living there . In 1915, he returned to his native India, bringing with him a new philosophy of resistance, and the honorific title of ‘Mahatma,’ which means one who has a great soul.

Like many educated Indians, Gandhi had originally supported the war effort and the idea of British justice . But he was disappointed by the reforms and began to campaign for change.  Central to his approach was a doctrine of nonviolent civil disobedience, which he called satyagraha, or ‘holding onto truth.’ By accepting punishment, even physical, Gandhi and his followers hoped to create moral and ethical superiority over the power of the state 

His approach differed from some other nationalist leaders, who were often westernised Indian intellectuals – the so-called ‘brown sahibs’. Gandhi openly rejected his westernised past, by adopting traditional dress and connecting political ideas to spiritual concepts that could appeal to both Muslims and Hindus.  His behaviour and appearance helped to win support both in the poor countryside and amongst students. Historian Denis Judd explained it this way:

“Owing mainly to the simplicity and quasi-religious qualities associated with satyagraha, Indian resistance to British rule could become for the first time a mass movement, not the preserve of a Western educated elite wearing suits, waistcoats, and ties and making speeches in English to audiences who could not always understand them.” (Judd 128/129)

Not all of Gandhi’s colleagues supported his approach. Some thought his rejection of western methods and education was too aggressive and hypocritical. Others, like independence activist Lala Lajpat Rai, questioned the logic of making spiritual or ethical arguments to the British. Rai felt reasoning with the British was akin to placing quote “pearls before swine.”


So the Great War had given strength to different groups of Indian nationalists, and governance reforms hadn’t satisfied them. Part of the reason for this was a mutual suspicion between the British and the local population that owed much to the bloody events of spring 1919.


In 1919, satyagraha was only one of several ideologies the British were worried about. There was the rise of Bolshevism in Russia , Kemalism in the former Ottoman Empire,  and the republican insurgency in Ireland.  The British were afraid that these political ideas might threaten their hold on India, and there were some signs that this might be happening. Indian communist leader M.N. Roy looked to Bolshevik Russia for support,  and the restoration of the Caliphate in Constantinople was perceived as a test of the loyalty of Indian Muslims.

So in March 1919, British authorities in India introduced the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, usually called the Rowlatt Act. The act gave the state new powers to deal with alleged seditious activity, including detention without trial, suspension of the right to gather or protest, and control of the media. To many Indians, this was an unwarranted – and it essentially made the activities of the nationalist leaders illegal. Activist Srinivas Sastri protested to the Imperial Legislative Council:

“When Government undertakes a repressive policy, the innocent are not safe. Men like me would not be considered innocent. The innocent then is he who forswears politics, who takes no part in the public movements of the times, who retires into his house, mumbles his prayers, pays his taxes, and salaams all the government officials all round.” (Rajan 17) 

Gandhi agreed, and called the Rowlatt Act a quote “piece of devilish legislation” and he encouraged Indians to resist it. One peaceful protest occurred on April 6 in the northern city of Amritsar, in Punjab region. The British authorities arrested and deported the local protest leaders, which inflamed tensions. On April 10th, protesters clashed with police. The crowd threw stones, and the police opened fire – killing 12 and wounding 30. Protesters reacted by looting shops and beating five Europeans to death.

Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was sent to deal with the stiatuon. But by the time he arrived, the protests had taken on the form of peaceful disobedience against the restrictions on gatherings.

On April 13th, around 10,000 locals, mostly Sikhs, gathered together in a walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh, to listen to speeches and celebrate a religious festival. Around 5pm, Dyer arrived with Gurkha and Sikh troops and several armoured cars.  The vehicles were too large to get into the compound, so Dyer advanced with about 90 men.  Within 30 seconds of arriving. Dyer ordered the troops to open fire on the crowd without warning. In ten minutes, 1,650 rounds were fired, killing at least 379 and wounding 1,200 – though some estimates of the dead are much higher.


The Amritsar Massacre was a turning point for the Indian independence movement. For many Indians, including Gandhi, the attack and ensuing debate removed any doubt in their minds about the true nature of Britain’s rule.


General Dyer felt his actions were a necessary and justifiable use of force. He called the illegal political gathering a “declaration of war” and explained that the shooting was meant to send a wider message to all of Punjab:

“The responsibility was very great. If I fired I must fire with good effect, a small amount of firing would be a criminal act of folly. I had the choice of carrying out a very distasteful and horrible duty or of neglecting to do my duty, of suppressing disorder or of becoming responsible for all future bloodshed ... I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action.” (Sayer 144/145)


He also said that he acted to save face: “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.” (Wagner 218)




(Wagner 218)

The massacre caused heated debate in Britain. Liberal party politicians, including Winston Churchill, considered it an excessive use of force and described Dyer as having gone rogue. On the other hand, many conservative politicians, newspapers, military figures, and Anglo-Indians supported him, saying he acted in self-defence or out of imperial duty. One newspaper even raised 23,000 pounds for Dyer from private donations.

The official British response did little to ease tension. The October 1919 Hunter Report concluded Dyer had exercised a quote “mistaken conception of his duty”. Dyer, not the Indian government, was at fault and there was no Bolshevik plot behind the Punjab protests. The report recommended Dyer be retired, and called for new policies to reduce the use of force. The House of Commons approved the report’s findings, but the more conservative House of Lords rejected it. Dyer eventually retired early, but faced no other punishment.

Gandhi was disappointed with the report, but not because Dyer had been let off easy. Gandhi felt that the role of the Anglo-Indian government had been ignored:

“We do not want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.” (Sayer 133)


Recently, some historians have argued that the massacre was not just an extreme reaction to the tense post-war situation, but a continuation of longstanding colonial policy in India. The British had long used collective punishments and often communal guilt was assigned to the Indian population when conflicts arose. Indians were often framed as ‘naughty schoolboys’ that needed to be punished for their own good – and Dyer even suggested they should be “thankful” to him for the lesson in respect he had taught them.

There are historians who have defended Dyer, repeating many arguments of the time that he acted in self-defence and used no more force than was absolutely necessary. In the historical debate, he is often portrayed as either an arrogant butcher, or a military man in a tense situation with a terrible duty to carry out. 100 years later, the debate in Britain is still ongoing.

 The Amritsar Massacre stirred passions at the time as it still does today. Its impact in 1921 was no less dramatic. When the Indian Councils started their work in January of that year, they found little support from the people or the government.


The councils effectiveness was limited by the effects of the massacre, Gandhi’s opposition to them, and British resistance to meaningful reform. Without public support, the councils could not exert pressure on the government, and in any case the British still controlled the all-important finances. Furthermore, Montagu had now fallen from grace, and former colleagues were looking to cut ties. Montagu himself realised that his reforms were failing, as he admitted in a letter to the Viceroy in July 1921:

“[The Prime Minister] has, as you know, little or no faith in me.” (Darwin 250)

Meanwhile, support for Gandhi was on the rise. Students boycotted schools, lawyers boycotted the courts, and villagers burned foreign cloth. Potential British civil servants began to stay away from India, and fresh university graduates from England no longer saw the Indian civil service as an easy life with a lucrative career.

In late December 1920, the Indian National Congress held a series of meetings in Nagpur to outline the future of their movement. They officially adopted Gandhi’s noncooperation strategy as part of a campaign called ‘Swaraj in One Year,’ swaraj meaning self-rule. Gandhi hoped to achieve self-rule in 1921 by rejecting monolithic central state structures, promoting a stateless society based on community and individuals, and uniting the Hindus and Muslims.

But the non-violent self-rule project seemed to be weakening as the year progressed. Violence between Muslim Khilafat members and Hindu landlords broke out in August, which caused tensions within the independence movement. In November, the Prince of Wales arrived in India for an official visit, and despite Gandhi’s call for peaceful noncooperation, there were outbreaks of violence.

Within the British administration, there were growing calls for Gandhi’s arrest throughout 1921. Privately, he began to worry that his own movement might end up provoking more violence than it prevented, the very opposite of what he intended. What was certainly clear by the fall of 1921 was that Indians who were hoping for self-rule would have to wait.



Chandra, Bipan; Mukherjee, Mridula; Mukherjee, Aditya; Mahajan, Sucheta; Panikkar, K. N:” India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947”, (Delhi : Penguin Books, 2003)

Darwin, John. “Britain, Egypt and the Middle East: Imperial policy in the aftermath of war 1918-1922” (London : Macmillan Press Ltd, 1981)

Judd, Denis. “The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947” (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010)

Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. “‘Gandhi’s Swaraj’ Economic and Political Weekly” Vol. 44, No. 50 (Dec, 2009)

Rajan, Vithal. “‘The Natives Continue to be Restless’ Economic and Political Weekly”, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jan, 2009)

Sayer, Derek. “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919-1920” Past & Present, No. 131 (May, 1991)

Tharoor, Shashi. “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India” (London : Penguin Books, 2017)

Tinker, Hugh. “‘India in the First World War and after’ Journal of Contemporary History”, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1918-19: From War to Peace” (Oct., 1968)

Wagner, Kim A. “‘Calculated to Strike Terror’: The Amritsar Massacre and the Spectacle of Colonial Violence”, Past & Present, Volume 233, Issue 1, November 2016





1921 The Great War

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