World History Interactive Text Chapter Eighteen: Decolonization

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World History Interactive Text

Chapter Eighteen: Decolonization

David D. Peck. Ph.D.

Brigham Young University-Idaho


The term decolonization refers to the adjustment of political and economic relations between colonies scattered across the globe, and the countries that controlled them. Most often, decolonization refers to the attainment of full independence by many countries in Africa and Asia following World War Two (1939-1945). The study of decolonization is valuable, perhaps even essential, because the consequences of how former colonies gained independence are, for better or for worse, with us today and form an unavoidable context for framing contemporary problems and potential solutions.

The process of decolonization, unfolding differently from one country to another, can be described generally in one of three ways. First, in some cases full independence was firmly opposed by ruling nations, resulting in marked and protracted violence between freedom fighters and colonial rulers (e.g., Algeria). Second, others achieved independence through negotiation and accommodation. Many countries in this category eventually joined in voluntary organizations with their former rulers. (e.g., Singapore). Third, a few countries elected to remain colonies (e.g., Gibraltar).

Decolonization, a complex subject, cannot be fully addressed in a textbook chapter. There are, nevertheless, several important things we can accomplish as an introduction to the subject. In this chapter we will:

  • review the economic and political events that made large-scale decolonization possible (such as World War One, the global depression of the 1930s, and World War II)

  • learn about post-World War II institutions that provided colonies and former colonies with a forum to collectively approach decolonization (such as the United Nations).

  • consider the impact of Cold War political pressures upon decolonization.

  • investigate two important models of how colonies, once independent, attempted to integrate themselves into larger regional or global communities (the Non-aligned Movement and the British Commonwealth of Nations).

Finally, any attempt at comprehending the problems now faced by a particular nation that once was a colony should include the following: how they became a colony, how long they were a colony, and the conditions under which they gained whatever measure of independence they now enjoy. Therefore, this chapter will demonstrate how this may be done through three detailed cases: India, Egypt, and the Congo.
Prelude to Decolonization

European colonial power, already dominant around the globe, reached its zenith in the interwar Period (1918-1939). The post-World War One Versailles Conference (1918-1919), and subsequent conferences such as the San Remo Conference (1920), served to expand and formalize colonization, conducted primarily by Britain, France, Italy, and Japan by means of the League of Nations. For example, the meeting at San Remo resulted in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which intended to divide lands of the defunct Ottoman Empire among Britain, France, and Greece, with a zone of Italian influence. In the early 1920s, the League of Nations awarded mandates, or thinly-veiled colonial arrangements, to Britain and France over Arab lands formerly under Ottoman control. For example, France was awarded the mandate for Syria (which then included Lebanon) in 1923. Britain was given mandates for both Mesopotamia (Iraq) in 1920, and Palestine (which later became Israel, the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the current Kingdom of Jordan), in 1922. Not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere around the globe colonial power was strengthened through international (i.e., primarily European) agreements, and often through formal territorial grants by the League of Nations.

Paradoxically, colonial power at its height was simultaneously eroded in two ways: the impact of changing global economic conditions, and the rise of indigenous nationalist/independence movements. Colonial power and the factors leading to its erosion converged during and following World War Two (1939-1945), facilitating increased decolonization over the next three decades.
Economic Pressures Affecting Colonial Powers. World War One resulted in nearly nine million casualties, an economic disaster in and of itself for European colonial powers. In light of this staggering and completely unexpected human cost, the monetary costs of the war are equally staggering. Britain spent nearly $35 billion (1918 dollars) on the war, or twenty-eight percent of the total Allied expenditures, followed by France at $24 billion, or nineteen percent. Britain and France, the major colonial players globally, together funded over fifty percent of the Allied war effort, often taking out loans from the United States. Thus following the war, they were saddled with millions of dollars in debt repayment in addition to their own direct expenses. Nevertheless, they persisted in colonial expansion. By way of contrast, Germany, a modest colonial power in comparison, spent $38 billion on the war, or sixty-two percent of the total expense for the Central Powers. For Germany, the costs of the war both in monetary and human terms, the expense of post-war reparations together with massive inflation and domestic unemployment in the 1920s, effectively ended its colonial career.

With insufficient time to re-stabilize the economies of Britain and France, the global depression of the 1930s extended their economic problems. In 1932, Britain’s GDP fell to about eighty-six percent of 1929 levels, whereas France hit bottom at eighty-two percent. In terms of economic production, neither nation recovered until 1939. For an entire decade, economic output and attendant unemployment plagued both nations. Consequently, they were forced to consider reducing or liquidating colonial possessions. World War Two, however, interrupted these early considerations of decolonization, and both nations held tight to possessions abroad, now viewed as vital in light of the strategic threat posed by global war with the Axis powers.

Because World War Two was spread further across the globe than any prior conflict, existing colonial territory became a necessary strategic asset. French colonies in Ghana and Nigeria, for example, were used as staging grounds for major combat operations. In addition to territorial considerations, colonial troops were vital to the cause of victory. For example, India contributed nearly 2.5 million persons in uniform to the British armed forces. Indian troops fought in the Sudan, North Africa, Cypress, Fiji, Monte Cassino, and dozens of other far-flung locations, receiving numerous citations for valor. Because the government of France was divided during the war (principally between the Vichy regime and the Free French) its colonial contribution in personnel is more complex and less clear. In terms of expense, World War II cost Britain £20 billion, or about $80 billion in 1940 dollars. In 2009 dollars, this would arguably amount to over a trillion dollars. Add to that the 40 million or more lives lost by all sides to the war, and its cost is virtually incomprehensible. By 1945, it was clear that Britain could no longer afford most of its empire, nor could France.
The Rise of Nationalism and Opposition to Colonialism. The material, human, and ideological resources necessary for independence coalesced within many of the colonies beginning in the late 19th century. Increasing numbers of colonials were educated in western institutions abroad (in France, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere), or at foreign schools located in the colonies (such as the French Collège-des-Frères established in Cairo, Egypt, in 1888). These educational experiences, coupled with interaction with colonial administrations, exposed some colonials to western political ideals. Among these ideals were human, civil, and individual rights and liberties. They were also exposed to political and economic theories, such as republicanism, socialism, communism, capitalism, and so forth. It should not come as a surprise that a native intellectual and political elite emerged, a nationalist intelligentsia, that sought to realize such liberties and rights as well as political and economic opportunities for colonials, while at the same time limiting colonial power. Many colonial independence movements, some established as early as the nineteenth century, began with a membership drawn from the intelligentsia, and typically were led by them.

Existing nationalist and independence movements were strengthened in two ways during and following World War I. The first was the participation of colonial soldiers in World War One, and the second is found in the ideals expressed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in this famous Fourteen Points speech. Existing movements were not only strengthened, but new movements were founded.

As to the first factor, Colonial soldiers not only fought during World War One in their own colonies, but also fought abroad on the soil of their European overlords. For example, Senegalese sharpshooters, part of the French colonial force Noire, or Black Forces, fought in eastern France at the bloody and prolonged Battle of Verdun (1915-16). Moroccans saved the national cathedral of France at Rheims. Unsurprisingly such service, paid as it was in blood, gave some colonial nationalists hope that the mother country would recognize their sacrifice with a grant of post-war independence.

Not only did military service raise hopes of independence but colonial powers often promised “self-determination” as an incentive to continued support for the war effort. For example, British Undersecretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu argued, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, for the “gradual development of free institutions in India with a view to self-government. Johnson, in his book Modern Times, noted that some British administrators interpreted that to mean independence after 500 more years of British rule, but “to the excitable Indians it meant a single generation.” Also, The story of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) demonstrates that British assurances of self-determination were not limited to India, but included many parts of the Arab world as well.

After Germany and the Allied Powers signed an Armistice of November 11, 1918, numerous independence leaders from a variety of colonies headed to Versailles, including an Arab delegation headed by Prince Faysal of Arabia in which Lawrence participated. Inspired not only by their own battlefield sacrifices and the assurances of their colonial overlords, nationalists and other independence elites took additional hope from the statements of Woodrow Wilson.

The second factor to strengthen nationalist and independents movements after the war came about through the Fourteen-points speech delivered by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on January 8, 1918. In it he outlined a core of essential principles he felt would lead to lasting world peace. Wilson urged that the peoples of the defunct Ottoman Empire should be: “ absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Although the phrase “autonomous development” might not mean full independence to colonial powers, it was interpreted that way by leaders among Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and others. Furthermore, Wilson called for the creation of an international organization, named The League of Nations, that afforded “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” It seemed like the United States strongly supported decolonization.

Hopes for independence consequently ran high at the Versailles peace conference. But ultimately independence delegations were largely frustrated. The post-Versailles colonial world not only looked similar to the pre-World War One situation generally, but, over the next decade, more colonies would be created, several by the League of Nations itself. The United States declined to join the League of Nations, which was dominated by Britain and France, and arguably served as a collective body that ratified colonial possessions and oversaw the process of increased colonization. The League of Nations issued mandates, which were (on their face, at least) the assignment of a country or region in need of political management to one of the League’s larger member nations. Mandatory proposals were drafted as early as the San Remo conference in 1920.

In all, the League awarded fourteen mandates to six mandatory powers. The mandatory powers included the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The areas mandated included portions of the Middle East (e.g. Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon), portions of Africa (including South Africa) and several South Pacific islands. Although intended perhaps to encourage national development leading to independence, historians generally agree that several mandates functioned as a front for colonialism. Most of the mandates awarded lasted beyond World War Two, although at least one (British Mesopotamia) ended in 1932. Colonial nationalists were often disappointed, frustrated, and angry that what they considered the promised hope of independence had not only been abandoned, but that colonial power appeared to only grow stronger.

Thus, during the interwar period the foundations for post-World War Two decolonization were laid. Economically, World War One and the Great Depression undermined the ability to maintain the colonies. Nationalist independence movements, already in place in India and Egypt before World War One, gained legitimacy at home through the sacrifices made by colonial troops, the assurances of independence made by colonial administrators, and the ideals voiced by politicians such as Woodrow Wilson.

Failed expectations of post-war independence lead some nationalists to urge violence as the means of gaining independence, while others pressed for a diplomatic solution. Both of these approaches, variations along the spectrum between diplomacy and violence, will be investigated later in some detail in the cases of India, Egypt, and the Congo. Whether or not a colony engaged in diplomacy or in violence, or some combination of the two, is often connected to the type of independent state that emerged. The post-colonial experience must therefore be understood as an extension of the nation’s colonial and independence experiences.

World War Two and the Process of Decolonization

World War Two not only weakened several empires, it completely ended some. Prior to the war, Japan (as an example of an empires terminated by the war) had amassed significant colonial possessions, joining several European powers as a global colonizer. On the eve of the war, Japan had possessions in China, Korea, Indochina (Vietnam), Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere. All of these became independent by the end of the war. Italy, too, lost its much smaller empire, including possessions in Libya and elsewhere.

The industrialization and economic development of some colonies during the war accelerated the process of decolonization. Although colonies supplied their rulers with much needed military personnel (recall, for example, that India put nearly 2.5 million in uniform for Great Britain), they also supplied much needed raw material and manufactured goods. For example, India manufactured much of the munitions used by the Allies in the war’s south-Asian theatre of operation. By the end of the war, India was one of the most important industrial economies in the world, estimated by some as the forth largest. The war also reversed India’s financial relationship with Britain: before the war, India was Britain’s debtor, but after became a creditor. The economic strength thus gained allowed for increased independence of action in the political arena. In 1945, India was already functionally independent–a fact which was formally recognized through independence in 1947. The loss of India, called the British Raj, marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Although the British Empire still continues as of this writing, with possessions such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, the British Empire never recovered from the loss of India in 1947, followed closely by the loss of Egypt in 1954.

Creation of the United Nations

It is common to view the United Nations as an outgrowth of the League of Nations. That view is accurate and also inaccurate. It is accurate in that both organizations claimed to represent the world community of nations and to provide that community with a diplomatic forum. It is inaccurate, however, with respect to decolonization. The League, as mentioned earlier, assigned certain colonies to colonial powers through the mandate system, whereby the colonial power was to act as a big brother of sorts that would, ostensibly, gradually lead the colony to self-determination and independence. The UN, in contrast, took collective responsibility for the colonies promoting eventual independence, by means of its Trusteeship Council. There is one other important difference: the role of the United States. Whereas the US played an indispensable role in the creation and perpetuation of the UN, it refused to even join the League.

We are going to examine the process that led to the establishment of the UN through two important World War Two-related documents: The Atlantic Charter and the Declaration of United Nations. Both of these pre-cursors to the UN contained direct references to decolonization as well statements respecting the rights of former colonies an their status as full members of the world community of nations.

The Atlantic Charter. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met aboard an American warship, the USS Augusta from August 12-14, 1941, where they prepared a joint statement called the Atlantic Charter. The statement presumed the defeat of Germany, and the end of imperialism following the victorious end of the war. Although not a signed formal treaty, the Charter publically declared the policies of two of the three great allied powers, the United States and Great Britain. The Charter provided that the United States and Great Britain, in consequence of victory:

  • Would not seek territorial aggrandizement (no increase in the size of their countries or of their empires).

  • Would not seek territorial changes that are contrary to the “freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.”

  • Would “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

In addition to these provisions, which addressed the end of colonialism and the right to national self-determination, the Charter committed the US and Britain to encourage global economic stability and opportunity for all peoples, as well as relief from the burdens of maintaining armaments, and a dedication to lasting peace.

Declaration of United Nations. In 1942, the Allied Powers produced a statement that included the provisions of the Atlantic Charter, thus applying them more broadly. This statement, called Declaration of United Nations, was signed by all the major Allied Powers: The United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union (collectively called the Big Four). Although the Declaration uses the term “United Nations,” it really means “those nations that are united as allies against the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan).” It does not refer to the international organization we know today, called The United Nations, which was established after the war ended. By 1945, an additional 43 nations signed including colonies such as India (Britain), The Philippine Commonwealth (USA), Ethiopia (Italy/Britain), Egypt (Britain), and Syria (France). Signing the Declaration by the colonies was an act of independent sovereignty normally exercised only by free nations, indicating that decolonization was becoming more and more a fact by the end of the war.

The United Nations. With the war ending in 1945, the stage was set for the formalization of the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration by United Nations through the establishment, by treaty, of The United Nations. Fifty nations, beginning in April, 1945, drafted the UN Charter. The UN was created when the five permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom (Britain), France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Republic of China) ratified the Charter on October 24, 1945.

The UN originally had six organizations (or organs), which were given the responsibility of carrying out many of the commitments in the UN Charter, some of which were first set out in the Atlantic Charter:

General Assembly (GA)–Includes all member nations of the UN, numbering more than 190 in 2009. All member nations have equal representation in the GA. The GA sets the UN budget, appoints non-permanent members of the Security Council, receives reports from UN organs and subsidiary organizations, and makes non-binding recommendations in the form of GA resolutions.
Security Council (SC)– The Security Council consists of 15 members, including five permanent members and ten non-permanent (rotating) members, charged with the maintenance of international peace and security, setting international sanctions, and enforcement through SC Resolutions and through military action when deemed necessary. Any single permanent member of the SC has the power to veto a Resolution.
Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)–Currently (2009) fifty-four members of the GA are elected to three-year terms on ECOSOC, charged with overseeing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank makes leveraged loans to poorer countries, whereas the IMF monitors the global financial system based upon the macroeconomic principles of UN member-nations.
Secretariat–Headed by a Secretary-General, the Secretariat acts as an executive body for the UN, implementing assignments from the SC and GA, as well as providing information, reports, and facilities required by the UN.
International Court of Justice­ (ICJ)–Located in the city of The Hague in the Netherlands, this is the only organ of the UN headquartered outside of New York City. The ICJ has fifteen judges appointed by the GA and SC to nine-year terms, and no two judges may be from the same country, The ICJ issues advisory opinions except in cases where two nations have submitted to binding proceedings. The United States withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986, and now participates on a case-by-case basis.
Trusteeship Council (TC)–Although colonial nations made use of the other organs of the UN to seek independence, the TC was one of the original organs charged specifically with overseeing decolonization. The TC supervised eleven territories, ten of which were League of Nations mandates, until the last, Palau, joined the UN in 1994, and the TC’s operations ceased. The TC was composed of the permanent members of the SC, representatives from nations that administered the territories (i.e., the colonial powers), and an equal number of disinterested GA members elected to renewable three-year terms. The TC was charged with overseeing the attainment of independence by balancing the interests of colonial inhabitants with international issues of security and peace. Several territories supervised by the TC had also been colonies of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the three principal Axis powers of World War Two.
Although the roles of the UN and the TC in decolonization were significant (as we shall see in the case of the Congo), dozens of other colonies attained independence or significantly restructured existing colonial relationships by other (i.e., non-TC or UN) means.
Cold War Context of Decolonization (1945-1989)

Decolonization post-WWII is understood best within the context of the Cold War. The Cold War was a period of ongoing conflict and competition between one post-war superpower, the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the second superpower, the Soviet Union and its satellites/allies on the other hand. The core difference between the superpowers arose of out of two conflicting ideologies: capitalist democracy versus socialist communism. During the Cold War, each superpower sought to weaken the other, to the extent that much of the globe became a field of superpower competition intended to prove the inherent rightness of their ideology. The superpowers competed politically, economically, and either directly or through surrogates, militarily. The United States and its allies were referred to as the West, the Free World, or, the “First” World. The Soviet Union and its allies were variously known as the East, the Communist World, or the “Second” World. Although many countries were traditionally or formally allied with one of the superpowers during the Cold War, a number were not. A question arose as to the Cold War allegiance of those nations that gained independence soon after WWII, including the nations of India and Indonesia (soon to include Egypt): would they join the First World, or would they join the Second World? The inclusion of these nations, representing perhaps one-fifth of humanity, on one side or the other, could assure eventual global domination of the West or the East.

In 1952, French Journalist Alfred Sauvy named these emerging independent nations le tiers monde, or, “The Third World.” Although membership in the Third World is often viewed today largely in geographic terms (Africa, Latin America, Asia), it may be viewed through the lens of decolonization as well. Many Third World nations did not wish to join with either the USA or the USSR on Cold-War terms. Instead they sought a third way, by which they might interact with the First and Second worlds without compromising their independence, and thus advance their own interests, not necessarily those of one superpower over the other.
The Bandung Conference (April, 1955)

In order to advance their independence so recently gained, leaders from various Third World nations, including India, Indonesia, and Egypt, met at the Bandung Conference of 1955, in Bandung, Indonesia. The attending nations included: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Ceylon, People’s Republic of China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Vietnam (North), Vietnam (South), and Yemen. Among the leaders present were Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Kusno Sukarno (Indonesia), and Gamal Abdul Nasser (Egypt). Several of these nations would meet again in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1961, and formalize their relationship as the Non-aligned Movement, meaning that they aligned themselves neither with the West nor the East, and included Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Tito.

The Conference addressed several Cold War and decolonization issues. Participating nations predictably expressed concern regarding traditional (i.e., primarily European) colonial activities, such as French North Africa, and the growing conflict in Algeria in particular. However, attendees also criticized Soviet policies as well, particularly concerning East Europe. In addition to discussions about western and eastern imperialism, the conference produced a ten-point Declaration on world peace and cooperation that referenced elements of the UN Charter:

  1. Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations

  2. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations

  3. Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small

  4. Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country

  5. Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself, singly or collectively, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations

  6. (a) Abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defense to serve any particular interests of the big powers
(b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries

  7. Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country

  8. Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as other peaceful means of the parties own choice, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations

  9. Promotion of mutual interests and cooperation

  10. Respect for justice and international obligations.

Although the declaration, and the subsequent Non-aligned Movement showed a growing solidarity between the former colonies of the Third World, internal disagreements, political differences, personality conflicts, and other disrupting factors prevented the movement from achieving its potential as a genuine counterbalance to the West and the East. Thus, the term “Third World” as used today reflects a geographic and economic reality, but not a political one.

Volunteer Post-colonial Organizations

Although the Non-aligned movement ultimately failed to produce a global political, economic and cultural alternative for many recently independent colonies, other volunteer associations were established that offered post-colonial alternatives, albeit on a smaller scale than that envisioned at Bandung. These organizations, often named commonwealths or communities, provided economic, cultural, and in some cases political, support for members, largely along pre-existing colonial lines.

This made sense given the fact that decades of colonial rule established common institutions and ties that endured formal separation or realignment immediately before and following World War Two. Examples include Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations (established in 1931), The French Union (1941), La Francophonie (1970), Organization of Ibero-American States (1991), Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR, 1991), United States Commonwealths (1934) and Freely Associated States (1982), De Nederlandse Taalunie (1980), and several members of the European Union (1975). Of these organizations, the British Commonwealth of Nations is perhaps the most enduring and significant of post-colonial cooperative organizations.
Commonwealth of Nations

The Commonwealth of Nations, or the Commonwealth as it is customarily called, has over fifty member nations, many of them former British colonies. The Commonwealth is not a state, nation, or political entity in its own right. Over fifteen member nations are subjects of Queen Elizabeth II of England, five are independent kingdoms in their own right (including the kingdoms of Malaysia, Swaziland, Tonga, Brunei, and Lesotho), and the remainder are mostly republics.

Although numerous former colonies joined the Commonwealth, there are notable exceptions, which include Egypt, Iraq, Somalia, Jordan (Transjordan), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, and others. The nations of the Commonwealth enjoy equal status within the organization, but several exercise independent political and economic clout, notably India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. Given the diversity of membership, the Commonwealth functions well, arguably because it is not a political entity, one of the many obstacles that prevented the Non-aligned movement from achieving full realization.

The current Head of the Commonwealth (a ceremonial post) is Elizabeth II. Most of the business of the organization is handled through the Secretariat, in the form of meetings including a biennial meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth Family. The Commonwealth Foundation advances the core mission of the organization. The Foundation defines itself as “an independent, non-profit research and educational institute that develops and advances public policies based on…principles of limited constitutional government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility for one’s actions.” The core values of the Foundation include:

  • Respecting and protecting the lives and property of others.

  • Recognizing the inseparability of personal and economic freedom.

  • Upholding personal responsibility and accountability for one’s actions.

  • Challenging the general perception that government intervention is the most appropriate and most efficient means of solving societal problems.

  • Demonstrating the power of private institutions—both for-profit and non-profit—to create a good and civil society.

  • Promoting the use of economic reasoning to understand a world of scarcity, trade-offs, and the unseen consequences of governmental solutions to societal problems.

The Commonwealth has a Learning council, a Business Council, and War Graves Commission. Perhaps its most visible activity is the Commonwealth Games, held every four years. The Games, styled much like the Olympic summer games, have a distinctly British flavor, and include rugby and cricket matches. Many Commonwealth nations have other distinctly British customs, such as driving on the left-hand side of roads and more serious subjects such as parliamentary democracy and the common law heritage.

The influence and heritage of the Commonwealth extends beyond the anglophile world, and inspired other subsequent volunteer post-colonial organizations such as La Francophonie and the Organization of Ibero-American States. In 1945, the Arab League was founded, and shares many similarities with the Commonwealth, but with Arabic as its official language. The Commonwealth, and similar organizations demonstrate that even when independence was won with difficulty and sometimes with violence, economic and cultural ties established during the colonial period often prove enduring and meaningful.

Case Study: India

The independence of India from Great Britain produced global repercussions that are still felt today. This should not be surprising given the fact that about one-sixth of the entire human population lives in India. The following points highlight the decolonization period and its heritage:

  • The non-violence movement championed by Mohandas K. Ghandi was not only successful in India, but served as a model for independence movements elsewhere, but also as a model of civil rights movements in the United States (Martin Luther King Jr.) and South Africa (Nelson Mandela).

  • The post-independence division of the British Raj into Pakistan and India produced protracted religious animosities and bloodshed that became more worrisome with the testing of nuclear weapons by India in 1974 and later in May 1998, and soon after by Pakistan in the same month.

  • India has, since independence, steadily assumed a position of Asian ascendency, rivaling China for economic domination of the continent.

Colonization of India. The first long-term European contact with India occurred in the late 15th century, with the voyages of Vasco da Gama, and the establishment of a Portuguese trade colony in Goa in the year 1510. In 1612, the British East India Company established their first territorial foothold in India. After 1757, the East India Company exercised governance over the province of Bengal in the northeast, and over large portions of the east coast, and along the Ganges River plain. The East India Company expanded governance to include nearly the eastern third of India. By 1857 Britain had the most important European presence in India.

Sepoy Mutiny and the First War for Independance. The East India Company organized its own military units, relying heavily on indigenous infantry soldiers called sepoys. Since 1757 the sepoys had been instrumental in the military expansion of East India Company territories, particularly inland along the Ganges River plain. By 1857 there were over 200,000 sepoys and less than 50,000 British officers in the armies of the East India Company, most of whom had proven themselves in battle. A seemingly insignificant change in military technology, however, sparked widespread mutiny, which turned the colonial soldiers against their British leaders, and which Indians call the First War of Indian Independence.

The catalyst for the mutiny was the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, which required soldiers to bite open pre-packaged paper cartridges before loading them into the rifle. Rumor among the sepoys was that the cartridges used for the new rifle were greased with either lard (fat rendered from swine) or tallow (beef fat). Islamic law prohibits eating pork, while Hindu traditions regarding the sacredness of cows made the consumption of beef fat offensive. Both Muslim and Hindu sepoys were offended at the thought of biting open the paper cartridges. This prompted mutiny.

But, it would be an oversimplification to view the sepoy mutiny as the mere manifestation of religious offense. There already existed enough discontent with East India Company rule to fuel a more widespread conflict. For example, the recruiting practices of the Company ignored traditional caste differences in certain provinces, and alienated special interests or notable families who used relations with the Company to maintain their local position.

When civilians joined the conflict, the mutiny became a war. Several civilian leaders of the rebellion, such as the Rani (Queen) of Jhansi province, were alienated by Company policies (such as the Doctrine of Lapse) that interfered with traditional rights of inheritance, and threatened traditional systems of local rule. The Rani’s role in the First War of Independence was significant in coalescing anti-British sentiment and in uniting Muslims and Hindus in a common cause against the Company, to the point where she became known as the “Joan of Arc of India.”

Although the rebellion was eventually put down, the war resulted in the demise of the East India Company and the establishment of the British Raj (direct rule of India by the British government, culminating in the coronation of Victoria as Empress of India in 1876). Equally important, the wars produced deep nationalist sentiment that eventually led to the establishment of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885.
Indian National Congress Before Gandhi. The INC’s first meeting was held in Mumbai (Bombay) on December 28, 1885. Its initial membership was drawn from a cross-section of Indian nationalists with the single, but notable, exception of Thomas Hume, a Scotsman who was instrumental in convincing the British viceroy to allow the meeting. Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925, founder of the Indian National Association) is an example of one of the earliest and most influential leaders of the INC. Educated in Kolkata (Calcutta), he traveled to England where he successfully completed the Indian Civil Service examinations. Returning to Bengal in India in 1875, he served briefly in the civil service, and eventually became a professor of English at the Free Church Institution, the Metropolitan Institution, and Ripon College. He used these teaching positions to address the subject of independence. He founded a newspaper called The Bengalee in 1883, and was arrested for publishing nationalist essays critical of British rule. After merging the Indian National Association with the INC, Banerjee advocated a moderate position with regard to independence, advocating accommodation with the British while strengthening Indian economic independence through the production of Indian goods to be purchased instead of British goods.

Eventually, his moderate and accommodationist views led to conflicts with other important INC leaders, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) who advocated a more hardline approach to independence. By the time Ghandi appeared on the Indian political scene, the INC was divided into the Jahal Matavadi (“Hot faction,” exemplified by Tilak and similar INC members) and the Maval Matavadi (“Soft Faction,” exemplified by Banerjee and similar INC members). The split within the INC before Gandhi restricted its effectiveness in securing independence.

Indian National Congress and Ghandi. The influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948, known as the “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul”) upon Indian independence cannot be underestimated, nor can his global influence. Gandhi was, for example, the ”runner-up” in Time’ Magazine’s Person of the [20th] Century, second only to Albert Einstein. His image is iconic, and his name invariably associated with non-violent protest throughout the world. In the minds of some, the terms “decolonization” and “Gandhi” are synonymous, often merging “Gandhi the Man”” with “Gandhi the Myth.”

Ghandi was born in the western province of Porbandar, India, and was raised in the Jain religious tradition by his father, a Prime Minister of the province. Jains teach compassion toward all sentient beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and interfaith tolerance. At age 13 he was married to Kasturbai Makhanji, who was then 14 years old, in a traditional arranged marriage. They had five children, the first of which died shortly after birth. Near his 19th birthday, he moved to London and studied law at University College London. There he was introduced to the Theosophical Society, and, although raised in a religious environment where he was exposed to Hindu classic texts, now took an even deeper interest in religion (both Hindu and Christian). After passing the bar, he returned briefly to India, eventually relocating in Natal, in South Africa. There he experienced intense racial segregation directed at Indians, and subsequently formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. Gandhi’s early conceptualizations of passive resistance were put into practice in South Africa, including the burning of registration cards, for which he, along with many others, was flogged. Nevertheless, his tactics produced some results, mitigating the harshness of racial segregation for Indians. Thus, before his return to India in 1915, Gandhi had already established a successful track record of using non-violent methods and passive resistance to facilitate political change in British colonial rule.

After Gandhi arrived in India in 1915, he played a significant role in redefining the INC. He democratized the organization, expanding its membership by attacking caste-based distinctions in the INC, reducing membership fees, establishing regional offices, and basing leadership upon participation in INC work and service (instead of wealth or social status). The INC’s activities were also expanded beyond the pursuit of independence, toward social improvement through eliminating caste distinctions, criticizing purdah (the public seclusion of women practiced by some Muslims and Hindus), eliminating alcoholism, encouraging self-sufficiency through cottage industries, teaching hygiene, and reversing illiteracy.

Early successes at tax resistance in Kheda (1918-1919) gave the increasing number of Ghandists within the INC encouragement that non-violent change was possible in India. Increased violence by some British officers, such as General Dyer, commander of the British forces at the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, also indicated that perils of passive resistance. Ninety British soldiers opened fire upon an unarmed crowd of protestors, killing over 350, producing more than 1500 casualties. Gandhi traveled to the site of the massacre (now a national garden and memorial) and urged Indians to remain calm.

During the intervening years leading to independence in 1947, Gandhi developed and implemented non-violent methods in a series of fasts, marches, and other protests that embarrassed and weakened British resolve to hold onto India. Although the centerpiece of Gandhi’s political philosophy. satygraha, took initial shape during his time in South Africa, it reached maturity following the Kheda success. Consider his definition of the term satyagraha: “Satyagraha has three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth.” In practice, satyagraha meant that unjust means could never lead to just ends, and that a person had to be trained in non-violence (ahimsa) in order to ensure that passive resistance did not descend into violence when faced with threat, intimidation, or with violence from others. A highly idealistic philosophy, Gandhi proposed rules to train satyagrahis, which included:

  • Harbor no anger

  • Suffer the anger of the opponent

  • Never retaliate to assaults or punishment

  • Voluntarily submit to arrest

  • Do not curse or swear

  • If anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent

  • Behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect)

  • Do not wound the religious sensibilities of any community

This case’s focus on Gandhi may give the impression that independence from Britain was his to control, or that the INC was functionally his organization. Although Gandhi’s influence was highly significant, others, including Jawaharlal Nehru (who later became India’s first Prime Minister following independence) and Mohamed Ali Jinnah exercised a deep influence on the progress of independence and upon its outcomes.

Jinnah was a member of both the INC and the Muslim League (a political organization created in 1906, and dedicated to the protection of the interests of India’s Muslim population). In 1916, Jinnah participated in the creation of the Lucknow Pact, and agreement between the Muslim League and the INC to create a joint Muslim-Hindu independence effort. As early as 1933, mounting Hindu-Muslim tensions convinced some members of the Muslim League to formulate the Lahore resolution, which proposed that territories of the Raj be divided into two nations upon achieving independence. Jinnah initially resisted the two-nation approach until sectarian violence in Calcutta in 1946 and a failure within the INC to reach a power-sharing arrangement convinced him that a two-nation separation was the best option.

The British Raj was partitioned initially into two independent states, India and Pakistan, largely along sectarian lines. However, the division cut into existing provinces, dividing the Punjab in the west into Pakistani and Indian territories, and similarly dividing the province of Bengal in the east.

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