Indian Independence: History, Timeline & Movement

Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

For nearly 200 years the British ruled over India. Learn how India won independence from one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, then test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Beginnings of British India

British colonization of India began back in 1757 when the English East India Company (EIC) acquired its first trading outpost at the port of Bengal. The EIC was not an empire but rather a very successful trading company with its own ships and soldiers. Over the course of several decades the EIC was able to acquire more and more territory throughout India. By the mid-1800s much of India was under the control of the English East India Company. How was one trading company able pull this off? How was this possible?

Britain was able to gain control of India through the EIC for two reasons. Firstly, the Mughal Empire that ruled over much of India was weakening during the late 1700s and early 1800s. As a result, much of India had become politically fragmented and incapable of mounting an organized resistance to the British. Secondly, Britain and the EIC commanded a powerful navy and army in South Asia. Having a strong military aided in the conquest of Mughal India and allowed the British to win a number of decisive military victories over their European competitors in South Asia, namely the French.

Britain's military power in India was not based upon British troops, however. Britain and the EIC relied upon the recruitment of local forces in India, called Sepoys. Sepoys made up the bulk of Britain's military in India throughout the colonial era.

1857 Rebellion

The first major Indian revolt against British rule violently erupted in 1857. By this time many of the Sepoys had grown to resent their new rulers. They complained that the English were racist, discriminatory, and disrespectful of their Hindu and Muslim beliefs. Social and cultural tensions reached a tipping point in 1857 when a rumor circulated that the rifle ammunition supplied to the Sepoys by the British was coated in pig and cow fat. Handling or ingesting pig and cow flesh was a religious taboo for Muslims and Hindus. Many in India were outraged and the Sepoys took up arms against their employers.

A depiction of a battle between Sepoys and British troops during the 1857 Rebellion.
1857 Rebellion

Rebellion broke out quickly and a number of commanding officers and company officials were killed. Amid the bloodshed, rebel Sepoys named the deposed Mughal Emperor as the rightful ruler of India.

The British acted swiftly to crush the 1857 rebellion before it could gain momentum. By the year's end, British forces had defeated the main rebel army.

The British Raj

The 1857 rebellion did not win India its independence. In a way, it actually served to strengthen the colonial government. In the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion the British government took control of India from the English East India Company. From 1858 India was ruled directly by the British government and Queen Victoria. This period of rule is often referred to as the British Raj (British Rule), and it lasted for nearly 100 years.

Map of British India showing religious divisions
Map of British India

The Modern Indian Independence Movement

Under the British Raj, India came to be regarded as the jewel in the British crown, the single greatest colonial territory in an empire that covered roughly ¼ of the globe. However, calls for independence never fully disappeared. In the early 20th century a number of factors combined to lend strength and momentum to a renewed independence movement.

The modern independence movement in India centered on two key concepts, satyagraha and swaraj. Satyagraha was a political and moral philosophy that stressed non-violent protest and peaceful civil disobedience. Satyagraha was deployed as a means to resist British rule throughout the early 1900s. Consider how different an approach this was compared to the violent uprisings of the 1850s! Swaraj, meaning self-rule, was the belief held by many Indians that their country could rule itself and operate effectively without the British. These two principles inspired the people of India to boycott British goods and services and to peacefully disregard British laws and colonial institutions.

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