Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest national and civil rights leaders of the 20th century. He served as a lawyer, politician, and activist in the struggle for social justice and for India’s independence from British rule which saw millions of Indians live under suppression. Gandhi is internationally esteemed for his doctrine of non-violent protest to achieve political and social progress. Many future civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King drew upon Gandhi’s teachings to reform society to make it fairer and democratic for all. To what extent was Gandhi responsible for Indian independence? 

Many people see Gandhi as the ‘Father of India’, the man responsible for mobilising millions of Indians to achieve independence from the British. Yet, it could be argued that Gandhi was not the main reason for Indian independence. For example, Gandhi was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain independence, as shown by the outcome of the Round Table Conference in London in 1931 to discuss Indian independence; he was largely dismissed by the British and came back empty handed. In addition, Gandhi’s mass movement mobilised millions but were often called off before they naturally concluded due to laws and punishment. World War Two is one of the most significant factors to be considered in this discussion of independence. In the period 1945–1965, decolonisation led to more than three dozen countries getting freedom from their colonial powers. We will explore these points in detail below. 

So how important was Gandhi in the struggle for Independence? 

Some people may argue that Gandhi was the main reason for Indian independence because he crippled British India with mass civil disobedience which brought British rule to its knees. In the Mahatma's own words, "civil disobedience is civil breach of immoral statutory enactments." It had to be carried out non-violently by withdrawing co-operation with the corrupt state. Gandhi mobilised millions of Indians to defy Britain. He did this by unifying the different political factions into one common cause. He further unified the masses and helped bridge gaps between different communities and ideologies, providing a common ground for the diverse Indian population to rally against colonial rule. Once he achieved the impossible task of unifying Indians, he had set the groundwork for mass civil disobedience. Gandhi started strikes and shops stayed shut, thereby destroying law and order, and crippling the authority of the British. The Salt March of March 1930, where 60,000 protesters made salt from the sea and refused to pay the British Salt Tax, publicly undermined British rule. The British were unable to respond as 100,000 Englishmen could not control 300,000,000 Indians. The Indians outnumbered the British in sheer numbers and could not be controlled if the Indians refused to cooperate. In short, by unifying Indians to a common cause and organising mass civil disobedience, Gandhi crippled British rule in India.  

Another plausible argument that supports the case that Gandhi was the main reason for Indian independence was the loss of colonial moral authority directly as a result of British reactions from Gandhi’s civil disobedience movements. The first of this related to the Rowlatt Acts which gave the British government extraordinary powers to quell sedition by silencing the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting any individuals suspected of sedition or treason without a warrant. It was increasingly reviled within India due to widespread and indiscriminate use. The agitation unleashed by the acts led to demonstrations and British repressions, culminating on 13 April 1919, in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar Massacre) in Amritsar, Punjab where Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer blocked the main, and only entrance, and ordered troops under his command to fire into an unarmed and unsuspecting crowd of some 15,000 men, women, and children. After Amritsar, Britain’s moral authority in India was severely and irreparably damaged.  Gandhi also gained support from the working classes while in England, including the local mill workers who had lost jobs due to Gandhi’s boycott of British textiles. The government could not ignore the calls of working-class English people for Indian independence; this highlighted to the British government that even ordinary Britons, who at the time would have been hostile to an Indian had seen the injustices that Indians faced and wanted them corrected. Gandhi’s cause of non-violence was both cunning and genius, appealing the high principles of morality and justice in India and Britain. Once Gandhi damaged Britain’s moral authority in India, he set the path for Home Rule.  

Another reason why Gandhi may have been the main reason for Indian independence was because he successfully built national and international support for an independent India. He taught his followers to adhere to ahimsa (non-violence) as means of achieving Indian independence and encouraged inclusivity from all walks of Indian life; the independence movement was given a broad-based appeal because common people were involved in the movement, not just politicians. Gandhi himself said that “an eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind”; Gandhi went to extreme lengths to stop any violence including fasting until death and pausing campaigns during critical times. Therefore, he taught people to look for truth and reject lies - one should love other people to be deeply respected by them and they would not resort to violence if you were kind to them. In this doctrine the aim of any non-violent conflict was to convert the opponent; to win over his mind and his heart and persuade him to your point of view. Gandhi himself quoted that “the truth is far more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.’ As a result, Gandhi's philosophy and methods gained international attention and support. This international pressure added to the challenges faced by the British in maintaining control over India.  This showed how effective Gandhi was in raising awareness with his non-violence tactics to gain international sympathy to attract support for an independent India. 

The question remains then, to what extent was Gandhi the main reason for Indian independence? 

Let us look at the context of Indian independence coming just after World War Two. Britain had taken a huge economic and military blow from World War 2; many British cities had been destroyed during the Blitz by Nazi Germany between the 7th of September and the 11th of May 1941 and 40,000 civilians had perished during this period of relentless bombing. Accompanied by the deaths of 384,000 British soldiers in combat during the entirety of World War 2, there were consequently labour and food shortages, which needed urgent replacing. Giving India independence would free 84,000 officers on duty in India so they could come and work back in England and fill the gaps that had appeared in the labour market. Britain had also built up “sterling credits” which meant that they had substantial amounts of debts that they owed to other countries in foreign currencies (in total it amounted to several billion pounds); the government was unable to pay for imports or food. This problem led to rationing that was not fully ended until 1954, a full 9 years after the war had ended. With the independence of India, key resources could be focused on development back home, and improving a post-war Britain, which was now facing more social issues than before. Compounding this was Britain’s loss of military power during World War Two. This led to a consensus that Britain was no longer one of the superior military powers in Europe and as a result, less money should be spent on the Empire. Therefore, in the aftermath of World War Two, the British government at the time realised that it was futile to try and keep hold of an overstretched and gradually weakening empire.  

It can further be argued that the power sharing agreement from 1917 which was introduced by the British in India, prior to Gandhi, in recognition of India's support during World War One and in response to renewed nationalist demands was key to Indian independence. In August 1917, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of state for India, made an historic announcement in Parliament that the British policy was for: "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." This introduced the principle of a dual mode of administration which started the path to self- government. In particular, it cultivated the belief among Indians that Indians were capable of ruling themselves. 

In conclusion, I contend that Gandhi was not the sole factor for Indian independence but one of the main factors that contributed to Indian independence. Although Gandhi gained support among most of the Indian population for his advocation of non-violent methods and was very much prominent in the minds of British leaders at the time, much of his efforts were crippled by riots, imprisonment, Hindu-Muslim tension, and long periods of fasting and prayer. He may have achieved independence eventually but World War Two was a key factor in accelerating Indian independence. It is worth noting that the US help to Britain in World War Two was offered contingent on Britain decolonising post-war, and that agreement was codified in the Atlantic Charter. The war also forced the British to come to an agreement with Indian leaders to grant them independence if they helped with war efforts since India had one of the largest armies. These factors coupled with the crippling social and economic issues in post-war Britain meant that Britain had no choice but to ‘Quit India.’  Therefore, Gandhi would not have achieved independence in 1948 without World War Two, but his contribution remains indisputable as one of the main factors.