Decolonization and Nationalism in Indonesia, Vietnam, India & Pakistan

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  • 0:02 Decolonization & Nationalism
  • 0:46 Nationalism of…
  • 2:52 India and Pakistan
  • 4:12 Indonesia
  • 6:37 Vietnam
  • 7:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the nature of nationalism in the colonial world and its various manifestations in South and Southeast Asia during the second half of the 20th century.

Decolonization and Nationalism

Most people these days are proud to fly their country's flag. At international sporting events, you'll often see all sorts of flags being flown by proud citizens of the participating countries. Perhaps you've even heard the term most people use to describe this form of pride: nationalism.

Well, you may be surprised to learn that, historically speaking, nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, nationalism had its greatest impact on international events in the 20th century, when the fervent nationalism of countries like Germany and Italy led to aggressive foreign policy and global warfare. At the same time, that same type of domestic nationalism led to independence movements in many of Western Europe's colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Nationalism and Anti-Colonialism

The growth of nationalism among native peoples in European colonies in Asia and Africa often played an enormous role in the process of decolonization. Indeed, without the growth of nationalist movements in colonies themselves, it was highly unlikely that colonial powers would unilaterally surrender their colonies. These nationalist movements necessarily varied from colony to colony.

Often they arose first from a group of educated intellectuals within the colony, often including individuals that had been educated in the colonizing country. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest hero of India's independence movement, was educated at University College in London while England held colonies in India. After growth in intellectual circles, nationalist movements generally spread outward to all sectors of colonial society, as members of the movement disseminated the message and informed their compatriots of the often imbalanced nature of colonial economics and the detrimental effect colonialism had on the society and culture of the colonized people. As movements grew, nationalists often rallied around symbols and ideas, which they could easily identify as their own, in essence asserting their cultural independence from the colonizers even before they could assert independence politically. Though characteristics of nationalist movements certainly varied across the spectrum of colonies in Asia and Africa, many movements exhibited at least some of these characteristics.

However, even with a strong nationalist movement, many of these nations lacked the resources to fight their powerful European overlords. While these movements could generally not look to the international community for military help, they did receive diplomatic help. Indeed, international organizations like the United Nations and countries like the United States increasingly became proponents of national self-determination in the post-WWII era. The theory behind national self-determination stated that the citizens of individual countries and colonies should largely be left to their own devices to decide which form of government was best for themselves. This often led to international pressure upon European states to peacefully sever control of their colonies when those colonies began clamoring for independence.

India and Pakistan

Decolonization in South Asia was a long process. Facets of Indian society had been peacefully fighting for Indian independence from Great Britain since the 19th century. For example, the foremost organization calling for Indian independence, the Indian National Congress, was created in 1885. As a result, the movement for independence was likely farther along in India by WWII than in any other country. Non-violent organizers, like Mahatma Gandhi, had mobilized large portions of society, and several violent suppressions of protests by British officials, such as the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, had turned popular sentiment against the colonizers.

Recognizing both domestic Indian cries for independence and worldwide anti-colonial sentiment, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee realized maintaining peaceful British control over India would be impossible, and he agreed to grant the expansive territory its independence. Before doing so, however, Attlee and the British government partitioned the colony into two states: India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. This resulted in the mass migration of millions of Hindus and Muslims, who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the border. The partition did not end the violence in the region either, as the two countries fought over the border region of Kashmir, which still remains a contentious territory today.


Whereas India managed to avoid a major military struggle, in Southeast Asia, the world's largest archipelago, Indonesia, required several years of war to free themselves from Dutch control. Ironically, the Dutch did not even have control of Indonesia at the end of World War II. Indeed, Japan had controlled most of the Dutch colonial archipelago during WWII, and two days after the Japanese surrendered, Indonesia declared its independence from Japan and from their erstwhile Dutch colonizers on April 17, 1945.

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