1. The impact of the First World War on India

This section looks at how India was affected by the First World War -  how the events of this four year conflict affected the attitudes of Indians towards British rule and how the British responded to the post-war challenges.

Home Rule flag

Guiding Questions:

What was India like in 1914?

In what ways was India involved in the First World War?

What were the economic and political effects of the First World War?

What were the aims of the Home Rule Leagues?

What was the response of the British to growing demands for home rule?


Watch this video from 10 minutes 45 seconds where Jeremy Paxman looks at British rule in India in the last half of the 19th Century.

What, according to Paxman were the key reasons as to why British rule was successful in holding on to power in India?

1. What was India like in 1914?

The British Empire, 1857 to 1914


Following the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the Government India Act established Queen Victoria as Queen of India as well as of the United Kingdom, and India's Governor-General became her Viceroy as well as the government's chief executive in India. Treaties were made with Indian princes to bring them under indirect control.

By 1900, India was the 'Jewel in the Crown' for the British Empire due to the importance of  the economic and strategic benefits it brought to Britain. However, Indian society was complex and there was much distrust and suspicion between the British and the Indians.

Task One

ATL: Research and Communication skills

Divide the class into groups.

Each group should research one aspect of life in India in the years leading up to 1914. Topics that could be covered are:

  • The Indian economy: agriculture and industry
  • Life of the British in India
  • The caste system
  • Attitudes that existed by the British towards the Indians and the Indians towards the British
  • The role of the Princely States
  • The Raj: role of the Viceroy and the role of the Indian Civil Service (ICS)
  • The establishment of the first National Congress in 1885 and its development before 1914
  • The Morley-Minto reforms

A key feature of Indian society and politics by the start of the 20th Century, were the divisions that existed between Hindu and Muslim. Although for hundreds of years Hindus and Muslims had coexisted in India, at the end of the 19th century, with the movements for independence growing, tension between the two communities increased. The situation was made worse by the scale of the Hindu majority; the Muslim minority began to believe that it had to fight to have its political voice heard. Centuries of uneasy tolerance between the communities began to break down.

Task Two

ATL: Research and communication skills

Get into groups of four.  Two students will research Hinduism and two students will research Islam. 

Create a presentation that outlines the key beliefs and practices of each religion

The British Raj adopted a policy of neutrality in the conflicts that developed between the two religions.  They fostered the belief that Hindus and Muslims, as well as Christians and Sikhs had equal rights to pursue their religious practices.    

The key issue for the Muslim community was that in every state they were a minority which meant it was very difficult to gain a political voice.  This situation was tenable when the Raj ruled for the people and made all political decisions.  Once the Raj began to move towards independence the situation changed radically. The Hindu majority would mean that an independent India would be a Hindu dominated state.

Some compromise was reached in the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909. These agreed that Muslim ‘rights and interests as a community’ would be protected.  The Indian Councils Act 1909 gave Muslims a separate electorate to protect voice and interests.

2. In what ways was India involved in the First World War?

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

The following video is a good introduction to the impact of the First World War on India. Watch the video and make notes on:

  • reasons why so many Indians fought in the war
  • the economic impact of the war on Indians
  • the impact of the war on nationalism
  • key individuals who made an impact in protest against the British in these years
  • the impact of loss of the Indian lives
  • the areas in the war/battles where Indian soldiers were involved in combat

Task Two

ATL: Research and communication skills

Research further the role of Indians fighting in the First World War. You may want to divide the class into groups to look at different campaigns that Indians were involved in. For each campaign, consider the role of Indians, the difficulties that they faced, attitudes of the Western powers towards them and the overall impact of the fighting on Indian attitudes.

The Western Front



These resources will help you in your research:

BBC: Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten

National Archives: How did Indian soldiers respond to the First World War?

3. What were the economic and political effects of the First World War?


In 1915, the following speech was made by Congress President, Surendranath Banerjea:

The idea of re-adjustment is in the air, not only here in India but all the world over. The heart of the Empire is set upon it. What is this war for? Why are these enormous sufferings endured? Because it is a war of readjustment, a war that will set right the claims of minor nationalities...They are talking about what will happen after the war in Canada, in Australia; they are talking about it from the floor of the House of Commons and in the gatherings of public men and ministers of the state. May we not also talk about it a little from our standpoint?'

What does Banerjea's speech indicate about political changes that the war has brought?

As you have seen from the video above, the Indian population for the most part supported Britain in the war; thousands volunteered for military service and politicians pledged their loyalty to the cause. However, the war highlighted the fact that Britain was no longer an invincible global empire and it also undermined the moral high ground claimed by the Europeans in colonialisation in terms of the incompetence and the barbarity witnessed by the Indians. Further, the presence of so many Indian soldiers fighting alongside British and white colonial battalions both increased the self-esteem of Indians and strengthened the arguments of Indian politicians that Indians should be given a greater say in Indian affairs. Much of the rationale for the fighting given by the Allies focused on concepts of democracy and self-determination which of course Indians were able to apply to their own situation.

The British had hoped that all plans for nationalist progress would be set aside during the course of the war. However, the points highlighted in the previous paragraph, alongside the economic impact of the war in India made this unlikely.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs consider the points below on the economic impact of the war on India. How would this situation encourage a political response?

As early as 1915, Congress was speaking openly about self-government and the changes in attitude that the war was encouraging (see quote at the top of this section by President Surendranath Banerjea). The political position of Congress was also strengthened as the Muslim League and Congress had come to  an agreement. This was partly because the Muslims had become alarmed at the the British annulment of the partition of Bengal of 1905 (which had created a Muslim dominated province in Eastern Bengal). They believed that this meat that the British would no longer treat them as a separate community with separate electoral treatment. They thus tried to find some accommodation with the Hindus. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 agreed that Muslims would have a fixed proportion of seats in an Indian parliament and extra seats in areas where they were in a minority.

In 1916, one of the first resolutions passed in 1916 by the newly united Congress was to urge the British to 'issue a proclamation stating it is the aim and intention of British policy to confer self-government on India at an early date'

4. What were the aims of the Home Rule Leagues?


In 1916, two new political organisations were launched; both had the aim of campaigning for home rule for India. One was led by a Hindu extremist, Bal Tilak and operated mainly in western India; the other was set up by a British woman, Annie Besant and spread throughout the country. The aim of these Home Rule Leagues was to stimulate public opinion and organise public pressure for Home Rule for India. They hoped to get the support of the masses who had hitherto been uninterested in the work of Congress, the Muslim League or the Imperial Council. They were successful; after one year, over 60,000 Indians had joined the Home Rule Leagues.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

The following video gives more detail of the role of Annie Besant in Home Rule. Start from 4.45 for more detail on her impact on Home Rule (though we recommend watching the whole lecture)

According to Dr. Khan, what is the significance of Annie Besant's actions in India?

The home rule leagues were based closely on the campaigns for home rule in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Thus, as one nationalist, N. C Kelkar put it, the term 'home rule' was 'familiar with the English ear and saved them from all the imaginary terrors which the word swaraj (self-rule or independence) was likely to conjure up in their minds'. Home rule would involve only management so financial Indian affairs; defence and foreign policy would remain matters of the British government. Besant explained that it meant 'freedom without separation' and Tilak emphasised that it sought 'reform of the system of administration and not the overthrow of government'.

Congress was reluctant to join something as radical as home rule, and Muslims and lower-caste Hindu groups were also resistant as they believed that self-government would entrench Brahmin Hindu dominance. They believed that the British were more protective of their interests.

5. What was the response of the British to growing demands for home rule?

The British were very concerned by the home rule leagues and orders were given for the arrest of campaigners. Tilak was arrested on charges of sedition and Besant was interned. However these measures only increased support for the Leagues; indeed, Congress now gave them its support.

The result was The Montagu Declaration by Edwin Montagu who was Secretary of State at the India Office.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

What is significant about the Montagu Declaration below?

What would be the expectations of Indians of such a statement?

Who might oppose this statement?

The policy of His Majesty's Government, with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as part of the British Empire.

Montagu then set off on a tour of India to consult politicians and public opinion. His findings would form the basis of the 1919 India Act (see below). However, before that Act was published, other developments took place which were to have a profound impact on the Indian nationalist movement.

In 1915,  the British had passed the Defence of India Act which had allowed them to close down newspapers suspected of anti-British attitudes for the duration of the war. It was expected by Indians that this would be repealed at the end of the war. However, these powers were renewed in 1919 with the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act - more commonly known as the Rowlatt Act after its creator, the judge Sir Sidney Rowlatt. The Act enabled the powers of the Defence of India Act to be invoked if it was judged that a dangerous or 'anarchic' situation was developing. A wide range of activities were considered to be anarchic and the act allowed for unlimited detention without trial, trial without jury and the use of evidence illegal in peacetime.

The Act was strongly opposed. Gandhi declared it a betrayal of wartime support by Indians and declared a national hartel (strike) on 6 April 1919 which was supported by both Hindu and Muslim campaginers. Violence broke out, including in the cities of the Punjab, leading to the Amritsar Massacre.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the following explanation of the Rowlatt Act.

What according to the historian Dhurba Gosh, was the aim of the Rowlatt Act and what was the rationale for passing it?

This peculiar timing and logic – producing the language and rationale for a permanent executive order to suspend the rule of law in order to replace an existing temporary executive order – was fueled by the anxiety of what might happen to the colonial government if it lost its executive privileges to detain suspects on suspicion of sedition as it did in a time of emergency. By sustaining executive power, or what Walter Benjamin characterized as the “law-preserving” and “law-making” characteristics of the state, the colonial government was able to forestall the kind of political violence it feared from revolutionaries, terrorists, and other political insurgents. The Rowlatt Act was thus framed as a preventive measure that would defend the process of constitutional reforms from those who might threaten it; there was no immediate threat of emergency except by the circular reasoning that the lack of repressive measures might potentially cause the government to face a political emergency.

From Gentlemanly Terrorists, political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947 by Dhurba Gosh, 2017

The fear of a 'political emergency' highlighted by Gosh in the source above was real. The British government 1919 to 1920 had faced a series of threats. At home there had been mutinies among soldiers who were anxious for their discharge, an upsurge in Trade Union militancy and the start of a war against the British in Ireland. Abroad, there were anti-British riots in Egypt and an Arab rebellion against the Anglo-Indian administration of Iraq. The British army in Constantinople was also facing attack a show-down with the Turkish national movement led by Ataturk. For some in Britain this was a sign of a conspiracy against the empire which was being masterminded in Russia. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a real fear that anarchy was just around the corner, and Communism was now seen in all expressions of anti-British sentiment. In India itself, there was unrest as the war situation saw a recession and unemployment as the demand for war materials collapsed. The Spanish flu epidemic also affected India and the situation was worsened by the failure of the monsoons to deliver and the consequent crop failure and regional famine.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

1. From what you have read above, what factors heightened tensions in India in 1919?

2. Read the article from History Today which describes the events of the Amritsar or Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Also watch the section from the movie Gandhi

In the days that followed the massacre, Dyer imposed martial law and humiliating punishments including the 'Crawling Order' which involved Indians being forced to crawl along the ground where an Englishwoman had been attacked. The massacre and Dyer's treatment of Indians before and after the massacre caused worldwide condemnation. Eventually, the British government set up the Hunter Inquiry. The Inquiry Committee ended up holding Dyer responsible but it only censured him for his actions.

Task Four

ATL: Thinking skills

This Hansard record of the debate in the British Parliament on the Hunter Inquiry gives an interesting illustration of the different opinions that were held about Dyer's actions.

What arguments does Montagu make regarding Dyer's actions?

What is the belief of other members of Parliament regarding Dyer's actions and why he should be excused for those actions?

After heated debates in the House of Commons, the government's motion to censure Dyer was passed. However, in the House of Lords a motion condemning the treatment of Dyer as 'unjust..and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of law and order in the face of rebellion' was carried by a majority of 43 votes.

Task Five

ATL: Thinking skills

What, according to the eminent Indian, Rabindranath Tagore, was the impact of the debates in the British Parliament?

The result of the Dyer debates in both Houses of Parliament makes painfully evident the attitude of mind of the ruling classes of the country towards India, It shows that no outrage, however monstrous, committed against us by the agents of their government, can arouse feelings of indignation in the hearts of those from whom our governors are chosen. The unashamed condoning of brutality expressed in their speeches and echoed in their newspapers is ugly in its frightfulness. The late events have conclusively proved that our true salvation lies in our own hands.

(Rabindranath Tagore returned the knighthood that had been conferred on him after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913)

What was the significance of the Government of India Act 1919?

As mentioned above, Secretary of State Montague had traveled extensively in India following his Declaration in 1917. The proposals that he and Viceroy Chelmsford decided upon were published in July 1918 and became law as the Government of India Act in December 1919. The system established by the Act was called 'dyarchy' because it divided power (rather unevenly) between the Indians and the British.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs, discuss the provisions of the India Act which are summarised here.

Also see the diagram below which highlights some of the key features of this Act.

What do you think would be the reaction of each of these groups to this Act:

  • Many British politicians - particularly those on the right-wing of politics.
  • Those in India and Britain who supported Home Rule
  • The ICS
  • The Indian National Congress

While many Indians welcomed the Act, those seeking Home Rule were bitterly disappointed. The Indian National Congress rejected the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms and boycotted the first elections held under the 1919 Act. The nationalist movement was now to be transformed from one consisting of a small political elite to a genuinely mass movement. Meanwhile, the provisions of the Act were complex and confusing and an inquiry would be launched in 1924 to 25 to review the breakdown of the political system it had created. There was also concern at the idea of 'reserved seats' with specific electorates as these were seen as divisive and undemocratic.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Using the information in this section, create a mind map or other infographic to show the impact of the First World War on British rule in India. Include the following headings:

  • Changing attitudes of Indians towards British rule
  • Home Rule movements
  • Economic factors
  • Fears of the British in post-war situation
  • Rowlatt Act
  • Amritsar Massacre
  • India Act of 1919

Task Six

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Make a timeline from 1900 to 1964. Use A3 or even larger paper to make it a clear timeline (to scale).

Along the top of the timeline mark on key dates from this page which were events initiated/carried out by Indians during the period 1900 to 1919.

Along the bottom of the timeline mark on key dates from this page which were events initiated or carried out by the British.

You can add to this timeline after you have done the next section.

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