Why did the British end their occupation of India after their victory in the Second World War?

There are many reasons for Britain leaving India. However, the economic and the military situation seem to have been the main reasons for withdrawal. American pressure also played a role.

The contention that India should be given back to the Indians did not set well with Churchill and the opposition, but they had little room for manoeuvre. The war had ended, and Britain was broke. The gap in the balance of payments at the end of the war had widened to 2.1 billion pounds (then $ 8 billion), roughly, the cost of administering the Empire for two years. Keynes had told [British Prime Minister] Attlee frankly that he was facing a ‘financial Dunkirk’ and the only option was to seek aid of around $ 5 billion from the United States. The funds available to repair wartime devastation would hardly benefit Britain; they were diverted to the nations which had hosted land battles, such as France, Holland and Belgium. The Treasury was all but empty, and the debts of Empire lay in the middle of it like an empty drain. An economic aspiration had started the British Empire. An economic reality would end it.

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On 8 May [1946], the Chancellor had announced that Britain would freeze further payments on all its war debts until the creditors agreed to reductions. The exchequer was more than 3 billion pounds in the red, thanks to the war; it owed Egypt 450 million pounds, Ireland 250 million pounds, Australia and New Zealand 200 million pounds each, and further enormous sums to Argentina, Norway and Brazil. But the largest creditor of all, with 1250 million pounds owed, was India.

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The British government was feeling the cold sweat of a financial crisis that threatened to overwhelm it. The next day, Sir Stafford Cripps met the American Under-Secretary of State in Paris, and tried to persuade him to relax the terms of its $ 3.75 billion loan, of which Britain had only $ 1 billion left. By this point, the government in London was having secret plans drawn up in case the United States did not let it off the hook. These included a below subsistence ration of 1700 calories per person per day, and the conscripting of school children into agriculture work.

Indian Summer The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann

Apart from financial difficulties there were rebellions in the Indian Navy and Air force. The situation in the 2,000,000 man Indian Army was also deteriorating due to the influence of Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army. The Viceroy Field Marshal Lord Archibald Wavell warned London that he would need at least 5 divisions of white troops from Britain to put down any possible revolt by the Indian Army. The spectre of the 1857–59 uprising began to haunt the British. The British wanted to get out of India as soon as possible and if that meant leaving India to anarchy so be it. In fact FM Wavell sent a plan to London where he told them bluntly that British troops would be withdrawn by stages to the coastal regions of India by middle of 1948 and then shipped back to England regardless of what was happening in India. He informed the London authorities that British Empire in India would collapse by mid 1948. London sent Mountbatten to make the inevitable end of the British Empire look like a graceful exit.

Neither Gandhi nor the Congress party agitations forced British hands. It was the post war financial situation and the possibility of full scale military revolt due to the influence of Subhas Bose which led to the British exit from India.

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4 Replies to “Why did the British end their occupation of India after their victory in the Second World War?”

  1. Analyzing past has never been easy. But it is generally agreed that it was mainly economic situation after WW II along with other pressures like freedom movement, revolt in Royal Indian Navy that seeded the handover of power.

    The most significant feature of short uprising in the Royal Indian Navy in 1946 was the massive outpouring of public support for the freedom fighters or mutineers for Britishers. At the height of revolt of Royal Indian Navy in 1946 it has been reported that 78 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 ratings were involved in the uprising.

    Britishers may not had come to India to conquer but to trade. However, ended up in creating the British Raj. This British Raj created cotton exports that it started during America civil wars. This cotton export fueled slavery in Africa, financed industrial revolution etc. The British Raj also created supporting railways infrastructure in India (when there were no roads) that it needed to have good hold on India.

    It was this very railway system that Indian National Congress (INC) used to connect to masses to spread freedom movement. It was INC that fought elections before independence & this helped in the transfer of power and also creating foundation of democracy in India. Everyone who took part in the freedom movement shaped the country immediately after independence and by others later on.

    Regards,
    Raju

    1. The issue is the timeline. The British used the Royal Indian Air Force to rain down incendiaries in Tamluk during the 1942 quit India movement. Yet three years later Wavell and Auchinleck lost faith in the loyalty of the Indian Army. The probable cause was the influence of Subhash Bose’s INA.

      Was the Naval mutiny important? It was spectacular but not as fear inspiring as any possible mutiny of the Army. After all those naval ships would not be able to attack the landbases of the British in India.

  2. We can safely say that Indian freedom fighters never agreed either on strategy or timing of their action against Britisher. We may try to find out which phase of Indian freedom struggle won freedom for India, however answer is never easy. I believe answer lies is timing of multiple factors that contributed towards it.

    I think for Great Britain to continue to rule or holding on to India needed at least following three things.
    1. Support of navy, air force and armed forces to keep grip on the country
    2. Support of majority of Indians that is essential for running the country
    3. Continued generation or revenue/profit for Great Britain

    There is no doubt that influence of Bose and INA had weakened British army. British attempt to put INA military leaders in 1945 on trial ended in a fiasco. It was during these trials mutiny broke out in 1946 in the Royal Indian Navy which had support of masses and also open ignoring of order of British superiors by Indian soldiers.

    In short it was after 1946 war-weary British rulers who were financially weak realized that they could neither count on support of Indian soldiers to maintain their grip nor had support of masses for whom they didn’t care and were influenced by freedom movement lead by MK Gandhi.

    On a side note: Indian freedom story as usual is complicated. Indian Navy revolt in 1946 also had support of Communist who believed in revolution (we all know Communist were taking orders from outsiders) and Indian Congress did not want to go down on that path. Congress lead by Patel along with others negotiated with Britishers and assured Indian Navy revolters that their grievances assured as Congress wanted civilian control three armed forces in post-independence. It is because of Indian National Congress independence was through transfer of power to democratic nation-state instead of winning independence from Great Britain like American revolutionary war.

    Best regards,
    Raju

  3. The INC had meanwhile been able to let the masses believe that it had been the main agent to force the empire to part with its prized jewel, namely India. The stories about the Navy rebellion and Bose’s phenomenal progress with a parallel army were also systematically removed from the public focus. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary was the Pakistan movement, which would have been an additional problem for the British to solve had not the INC been too keen to make Nehru the PM of India, partitioned or whole.
    The Congress had a reasonable role in the Freedom movement as did Gandhi. The Congress, interpreted as the Nehru-family dynasty reaped the reward (Instalments are still expected to continue).

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