First World War and Nationalist Response

In June 1914, the First World War broke out between Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Japan and the United States of America on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey on the other. British Government during the war time, appealed to the Indian leaders to join hands with them although the leaders agreed but they forwarded their own terms and conditions i.e. once the war was over, the British government would give Constitutional (administrative and legislative) powers to the Indian People. During the First World War, soaring inflation combined by heavy taxation, high casualty rates, disease and the disruption of trade further increased distress among the masses in India.

Impact of the first World War on India

  • The most immediate outcome of war was a phenomenal increase in defence expenditure, which instead of being cut back, kept on rising even after 1919. The result was a huge national debt, which rose by more than Rs. 3 million between 1914 and 1923. This meant heavy war loans and rising taxes and since land revenue had been settled and could not be immediately enhanced, there was more indirect taxation on trade and industry.
  • There were higher customs duties, an income tax, super tax on companies and undivided Hindu business families, excess profit tax and so on. Ultimately the burden of this new taxation fell on the common people, as it resulted in a phenomenal price rise.
  • According to official calculations, price index on an all-India level rose from 147 in 1914 to 281 in 1920 (1873 as the base year).
  • There was underproduction of food crops during the war period, caused by two extraordinary crop failures in 1918-19 and 1920-21, affecting large areas of United Provinces, Punjab, Bombay, Central Provinces, Bihar and Orissa. And when there was already serious shortage of food for home consumption, export of food to feed the army fighting abroad continued. This resulted in near famine conditions in many areas, where the miseries of the people were further compounded by the outbreak of an influenza epidemic.
  • According to the census of 1921, about 12 to 13 million people had lost their lives due to the famine and epidemic of 1918-19, leading to stagnation of natural population growth in the country.
  • Between the years of 1914 and 1923 forced recruitment for the army was going on without interruptions, leading to a steady accumulation of popular resentment in the countryside.
  • While prices of industrial and imported goods and food crops were rising, affecting poor peasantry, that of exported Indian agricultural raw materials did not increase at the same pace. The outcome was a decline in export, rising stockpiles and falling acreage for commercial crops, causing a crisis in the market in 1917-19.
  • World War One, as it undoubtedly created a congenial context for his emergence as an undisputed leader of Indian nationalism i.e. Gandhi Ji.

British Policies at the end of the war

  • After the end of the First World War, the British government also passed another Act known as the Rowlatt Act.
  • The Act authorized the British government to arrest and imprison any person without trial in a court of law. It also banned Indians from keeping any type of weapon. This also angered the Sikhs, who kept a kripan (a small sword) with them as part of their religion.

Nationalist Response

  • During the war years, political unrest was growing within India and Leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant launched the Home Rule League in 1916 and used India's war contributions to demand self-government within the empire.
  • Political moderates such as Surendranath Banerjee and Bhupendranath Basu, pledged their whole-hearted support to the Allies.
  • Different political parties and communities such as the All India Muslim League, Madras Provincial Congress, Hindus of Punjab and the Parsee community of Bombay supported the Allies and fund-raising was organised, meetings were held in cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Allahabad.
  • Mahatma Gandhi thought that England's need should not be turned into our opportunity, and he argued that we should send our men to France and Mesopotamia.
  • But in 1914, even Rabindranath Tagore decried the war in his lectures on Nationalism in Japan and the US.
  • Moderate and extremist groups within the Congress submerged their differences in order to stand as a unified front and argued their enormous services to the British Empire during the war, demanded a reward and demonstrated the Indian capacity for self-rule thus the pre-war nationalist movement had revived.
  • Lucknow Pact of 1916, was an alliance between Muslim League and Congress, which led to some sort of consensus over the issue of devolution of political power.

Response of Revolutionaries during World War

  • The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 gave a new lease of life to the nationalist movement since Britain's difficulty was seen as India's opportunity by the revolutionaries as well as other nationalists. This opportunity was seized, in different ways and with varying success, by the Ghadar revolutionaries based in North America and by Lokamanya Tilak, Annie Besant and their Home Rule Leagues in India.

Ghadar Party

  • The Ghadarites attempted a violent overthrow of British rule.
  • The Ghadar Party was established by Punjabi-Sikhs, primarily in the United States and Canada.
  • The aim was securing India's independence from British Rule and its key members included Sohan Singh Bhakna, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barakatullah, Rashbehari Bose, Gulab Kaur etc.
  • The headquarter of Ghadar Movement was known as Yugantar Ashramin San Francisco along with it a Working Committee was set up and the decision was taken to start a weekly paper, named The Ghadar, which was for free circulation.
  • After the outbreak of World War 1, Ghadar party members returned to Punjab and  in 1915, they conducted revolutionary activities in central Punjab and organised uprisings. This way the Ghadar party proved to be the stepping stone for future Indian revolutionary movements.
  • Though Ghadar Party was predominantly Sikh, but its members and leaders also belonged to various religions and sections of the society, which shows the secular and democratic nature of the Movement.

Steps taken by Nationalist after the end Of World War 1

  • The post-war years saw Gandhi's rise to power in nationalistic politics as in February 1919 Gandhi Ji launched his first nation-wide campaign of civil disobedience against the British authority which was non-violent in character.
  • It took another war (Second World War), and multiple resistances before nationalist efforts could result into the Indian Independence.
  • But the events of the First World War played very important role for the Indian independence.

Govt's response after the end of World War

  • India's contribution to the War was massive and this was also acknowledged by the British Govt through August declaration in 1917 which mentioned that the progressive realization of responsible self-government would be the aim of British rule in India.
  • But as the War ended, British Govt did not fulfil its promises. The Rowlatt Act of 1919 carried wartime ordinances into peacetime legislation which gave powers to the British to imprison Indians without trial and this infuriated people. Gandhi condemned the Rowlatt act and mentioned it as black act passed by a satanic government.
  • The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919 at Amritsar was a watershed moment.

The relations between Indian independence movement and the First World War, are complex and vital, and it is difficult to derive a direct connection between them.

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