The Swadeshi Movement: The First Step Toward Indian Independence

Beginning in the 1830s, the British East India Company provided Western education to a small number of Indian elites: it was cheaper and more effective than recruiting the entire work force of the empire back home in Britain. In addition to training clerks of all kinds, the East Indian Company created as a by-product what Thomas Babington Macaulay described as “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. A large proportion of this class came from Bengal province, home to Calcutta, then the capital of British India. Calcutta soon became the center of a thriving Indian intelligentsia.

Following the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, expanded opportunities for Western education and Queen Victoria’s proclamation of equal opportunity for all races seemed to open the door for advancement. A generation of young Indians saw Western education as the path to jobs in law, journalism, education, and, most importantly, the Indian Civil Service. They soon discovered that the door was less open than it initially appeared. Thwarted in their desire to play a larger role in India’s government, the most politically conscious among them founded India’s first nationalist organizations. At first, their model was not the United States but Canada: not independence, but self-rule within the Commonwealth.

In 1905, the Indian government divided Bengal into two provinces, leaving its powerful western-educated elite a minority in its own homeland. The official explanation for the division was bureaucratic efficiency. The western-educated Bengali elite saw it as an attempt to undercut their power base.

Bengalis signed petitions against the partition and marched in protest through the streets of Calcutta. They also boycotted British imports, especially British cloth. Protestors burned British-made saris and other cloth to the cry of swa-deshi (of our own country). Wearing clothing made from swadeshi cloth became an emblem of nationalist beliefs. A few leaders called for Indians to boycott not only British goods, but British institutions, knowing that the law courts and government services could not function without the support of Indian employees. The movement soon spilled over into other regions of India.

As swadeshi sales grew and India’s industrial base boomed, the Indian government cracked down. The movement’s leaders were arrested. Politically active students found their financial air threatened. The police attacked protest marchers with long, metal-tipped poles called lathis.

After several years of increasingly violent protests, the Indian government annulled the partition of Bengal and instituted a series of reforms designed to give Indians a voice in local government. At the time, nationalist leaders were hopeful that they had taken the first step toward self-rule. In fact, the partition of Bengal proved to be the first in a series of decisions made over the next thirty years that would drive Indians to demand their independence.

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