Like many other countries that have fought for their independence from foreign forces, India too has been a victim too. Once you visit our nation’s historical monuments, you’ll know why it was colonised in the first place. After suffering under the clutches of oppression for almost 200 years, we finally gained independence. On the occasion of 15 August, India’s Independence Day, here’s a quick history of India’s colonial past and how it’s celebrated today with as much vigour as it was in 1947.

Before the British

Let’s start with a throwback to India before the arrival of the British. India was one of the most thriving countries in the East. If you search the web, you’ll find accounts of sailors and traders who have documented the splendour that India had. By the time the British East India Company arrived here, the Mughal rule had taken over in North India. It is said that when the first British correspondent arrived in the palace of the then Indian emperor, he was so shocked by the amount of wealth, grandeur and respect he had that he fell in front of the throne. This was also captured by an Indian painter then.

The never ending varieties of Indian spices
The never ending varieties of Indian spices. Photo by Bernard Oh

Because of India’s diversity regarding topography, it had thousands of varieties of crops. In fact, we had thousands of varieties just in legumes. Then, the British only had salted meat as their source of protein. They even tasted sugar for the first time here. Besides this, India was famed in the West as the “land of spices”. Traders from far and wide used to come here to buy these exotic spices that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Hampi’s markets and Chandni Chowk in Delhi were e famous for this. The amount of gold and gems that various Indian kings possessed is still unimaginable. India was a country that believed in its culture and its originality. Believed until the British East India Company came and forced us to think that India was “underdeveloped” and “uncivilised”.

Colonization by the British East India Company

Painting of a grand procession of Emperor Akbar with his subjects and British men during a festival
Painting of a grand procession of Emperor Akbar with his subjects and British men during a festival. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The British first came to India in the disguise of trade. Their intention must have been trading at the beginning but that soon changed. Starting with Bengal in 1765, the British amassed territories in the name of business. While trading they also began to build armies around India and tell the rulers at the time to stop maintaing their own and just pay them for protection. Soon they had the large armies around India, and therefore control.

Then the British began making changes. They began importing destroying the handicraft industry by importing cheap British goods, famines and poverty increased because of an exploitive tax regime not previously seen in India, and there was an overall attempt to Westernise Indians to sell more British goods. Changes were made regarding agriculture too. Throughout their reigning period, uncountable hectares of land were deforested for planting certain kind of trees or plantations that would bring in the most income for the British. This not only led to huge amount of environmental damage but the Indian lifestyle was forced towards a drastic and unwanted change.

This contrast could be due to the ideals of the East and the West. The British saw development in terms of wealth, infrastructure and technology. India believed in a different philosophy altogether. All of India’s culture was deeply interconnected with nature. But Indians also loved science. In fact, many of the world famous mathematicians and scholars were from India, and highly advanced technologies are mentioned in the Vedas.

Freedom Fighters and Rebellions

Jallianwala Bagh massacre
Jallianwala Bagh massacre

Indian history speaks of the thousands of rallies, fights and plans made against the British. Some were successful. Some were not. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 in Punjab is only one horrific account of the kind of oppression Indians lived in. A thousand people were peacefully protesting in Amritsar when the British came, blocked the exit with a tank, and slaughtered everyone there. This was one event that spread and began to unite Indians.

The central leader of the freedom struggle was Mahatma Gandhi. Surprisingly, he achieved from non-violence what India was trying all the years previously to achieve. He led some famous rebellions like the Dandi March to oppose the taxation of salt made by Indians. Gandhi walked from Sabarmati to Dandi in Gujarat and made salt from the sea, thereby breaking the law. He wanted Indian citizens to be united, so they could stand together as a unit and disrupt the British’s rule, and after all the years of struggle and lost lives.

Why did the British leave? It’s threefold:

  1. Pressure came from other countries after WW2 had ended which sparked a phase of decolonisation.
  2. The Labour party, who were more sensitive to such things, had come into power in Britain.
  3. Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement was putting considerable pressure on the British and revolts from Indian soldiers within the British Navy and Airforce was causing the British to lose their power in India.

And so on the 15th of August, 1945 the British Viceroy declared India free.

Sadly, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated soon after independence on the 30 January 1948.

How Independence Day is Celebrated in India Today

On this day, the Prime Minister of India hoists the Indian flag at Red Fort, and there are various performances and displays of power by the armed forces. Old Delhi is very crowded on 15 August as people flock to see the flag being hoisted.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day 2014
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day 2014. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

You’ll see small flags everywhere on this day. On all roads, buildings and houses. People even tattoo it on their body or wear clothes resembling the flag. Another way of celebrating independence is by flying kites. It might seem like a strange practice, and it is only done in states of North India, especially Delhi. So if you’re in Delhi on this day, get on the roof and start cutting others kite stringings with the glass infused strings used.

Another aspect of the celebration is the massive and insane amount of sweets prepared on this day. If you’re in Chandni Chowk and have a sweet tooth, it’s going to be nothing short of paradise. The smell of different kinds of sweets prepared freshly and packed into boxes is something to relish (and eat!). But don’t worry if you cannot stand the crowd. Sweets will be made in plenty by almost every other shop in India that day.

Just like Independence Day is valued by other countries around the world, India also celebrates it with happiness and pomp. Come and be a part of this joy. You’re always welcome.

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