India's Wildest Dream

The Great War raised hopes of Indian independence, but it would take another conflict to make it a reality.

Mihir Bose | Published in History Today

The war saw Indians provide huge support to the Allies, but they also expected something in return. India gave money and sent more than 1.1 million personnel, including 138,000 to Europe and more than 800,000 to the Middle East, where they played a crucial role in dismantling the Ottoman Empire. They helped conquer Iraq (for a time the rupee was the currency in that country), made a vital contribution to Allenby’s victory in Palestine and prevented East Africa from falling to the Germans. India also provided over 170,000 animals and 3.7 million tons of supplies and stores. Indians won 11 VCs and more than 60,000 troops died, in addition to many lascars and seamen.

Yet at the same time other Indians were demanding Home Rule, echoing the situation in Ireland. Like the Irish, there were a few, fairly small groups willing to take to the gun and the bomb, though no Indian equivalent of the 1916 Easter Uprising.

Such a division neatly reflected the divisive system the British operated in India. Unable to believe that all Indians were capable of being soldiers, the British had divided Indians into martial and non-martial races.

Recruitment was restricted to certain communities, generally from the north, such as Sikhs, while those from the east and the south were seen as fit only to be babus, the derisory term for clerks. 

This division was emphasised by the stipulation that no Indian be commissioned as an officer. As Lord Roberts, who had been Commander in Chief in India, put it:

Native officers can never take the place of British officers … Eastern races, however brave and accustomed to war, do not possess the qualities that go to make good leaders of men … I have known many natives whose gallantry and devotion could not be surpassed, but I have never known one who would not have looked to the youngest British officer for support in time of difficulty and danger.

It was only in August 1918 that Edwin Montague, Secretary of State for India, overcoming much opposition from the War Office, announced that nine Indians would get the King’s Commission and ten places a year would be reserved for Indians at Sandhurst. Even then, and for years afterwards, there was much anguish about having Indian officers. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who helped plan the Somme offensive, noted in his diary: ‘People are frightened, old officers say they won’t send their sons to serve under natives … It will take at least two, and probably three, generations to produce Indian officers of the right kind in sufficient numbers.’

Yet British politicians were aware that the war had changed attitudes. Lord Curzon, the former viceroy and then Lord President of the Council in Lloyd George’s coalition government, outlined this in a memorandum to the War Cabinet on May 22nd, 1917:

In the course of the war forces have been let loose, ideas have found vent, aspirations have been formulated, which were either dormant before or which in a short space of time have received an almost incredible development. We are really making concessions to India … because of the free talk about liberty, democracy, nationality and self-government, which have become the common shibboleths of the Allies, and because we are expected to translate into practice in our own domestic household the sentiments which we have so enthusiastically preached to others. The Russian revolution has lent an immense momentum to this tide …

In the summer of 1917 the War Cabinet spelt out its long-term plans. At this stage, despite the fact that the US had entered the conflict, the war was by no means won. Russia’s collapse meant Germany no longer had to fight on two fronts, there was mutiny in the French army, British manpower was stretched and German submarines were still a threat.

Before the war Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had become self-governing. And Montague, after discussions with British officials in India, drafted a document that talked of Indians ultimately having ‘self-government’. The very words generated fear in the Cabinet. Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative prime minister, now foreign secretary, in his memo to the War Cabinet dated August 7th, 1917 said:

The word ‘self- government’, as applied to any fraction of the British Empire, has a perfectly definite and familiar meaning. It means parliamentary government on a democratic basis. This is not only its recognised meaning among men of British race; it is the meaning which will be universally attributed to it in India. So that, if we promise to work towards self-government, we promise in fact to establish in India, some day or other, a government along the same lines which has been set up in Canada, Australasia and the Cape.

But, just as the British military could not believe Indians would ever make officers, so British politicians could not imagine Indians could ever manage their own affairs, let alone a parliamentary system. Balfour’s rejoinder to those who argued that western education might solve the problem was:

Nor would education provide a sufficient remedy: for education cannot fundamentally alter the material on which it works, and it is the essential character and variety of that material which is the bar to political advance along the rather narrow and specialised lines which have been found to yield good results in Europe and America.

Curzon was paranoid that self-government would mean government by the ‘educated classes’. These were Indians emerging from Raj institutions, though Curzon had total contempt for them, particularly the western-educated lawyers. Curzon favoured ‘responsible government’ and, while he did not precisely define it, he saw it as tinkering with the limited reforms the British had already introduced.

The crucial meeting of the War Cabinet was held on August 14th, 1917. Curzon argued that by using the phrase ‘self-government’ Indians would expect to be their own masters within a generation, when the Cabinet probably thought it would take 500 years. Lloyd George had little time for Curzon, but on India he was ready to take his word as an expert and his view prevailed.

Six days later, on August 20th, 1917, Montague’s announcement in the Commons did commit to the ‘gradual development of self-governing institutions’, but this was to achieve the goal of ‘a progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’. Nobody in the Cabinet thought that this meant India, like the white dominions, would one day become self-governing. Indeed Curzon in his memo of July 2nd had dismissed such ideas as ‘the wildest of dreams’, going on to warn that withdrawing the ‘protection’ of British power ‘would be the most reactionary, as well the most culpable of crimes’. However, the wartime talk of liberty, democracy and national self-government led many Indians to believe otherwise, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

It would take another war, and for the Japanese to destroy the myth of white supremacy in Asia, before India achieved its independence. The greatest irony is that India woke to freedom exactly 30 years to the date of the 1917 War Cabinet meeting, 465 years before the wartime British leaders who had gathered round that Cabinet table had thought it possible.

Mihir Bose is author of The Magic of Indian Cricket: Cricket and Society in India (Routledge, 2006).