Indian independence movement

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The Indian independence movement was a series of steps taken in the Indian subcontinent for independence from British colonial rule, beginning with the Rebellion of 1857. The term 'Indian independence movement' is fairly diffuse, since it involves several different movements with similar objectives. The mainstream movement was led by the Indian National Congress, which followed non-violent agitation and civil disobedience under Mahatma Gandhi, among others. Other leaders, notably Subhash Chandra Bose, also adopted a military approach to the movement. The movement culminated in the independence of the subcontinent from the British Empire and the formation of India and Pakistan in August 1947.

The independence movement also served as a major catalyst for similar movements in other parts of the world, leading to the dismantling of the British Empire and its replacement with the Commonwealth of Nations.


The beginnings of the British empire

Vasco da Gama on board a boat
Vasco da Gama on board a boat
Main articles: European colonies in India, British East India Company

European traders came to Indian shores with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 at the port of Calicut, Kerala in search of spice trade. The British East India Company was established in 1600. In 1615, Sir Thomas Roe was instructed by King James I to visit the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to arrange a commercial treaty which would give the Company exclusive rights to reside and build factories in Surat and other areas. This mission was highly successful and Jahangir sent a letter to the King through Sir Thomas. He wrote:

"Upon which assurance of your royal love I have given my general command to all the kingdoms and ports of my dominions to receive all the merchants of the English nation as the subjects of my friend; that in what place soever they choose to live, they may have free liberty without any restraint; and at what port soever they shall arrive, that neither Portugal nor any other shall dare to molest their quiet; and in what city soever they shall have residence, I have commanded all my governors and captains to give them freedom answerable to their own desires; to sell, buy, and to transport into their country at their pleasure.
For confirmation of our love and friendship, I desire your Majesty to command your merchants to bring in their ships of all sorts of rarities and rich goods fit for my palace; and that you be pleased to send me your royal letters by every opportunity, that I may rejoice in your health and prosperous affairs; that our friendship may be interchanged and eternal. (Full text and the source can be found here (

The Europeans fought on Indian soil to capture a major portion of the trade. Soon, they began maintaining regular armies to protect their warehouses, factories, and shipments. The sepoys (soldiers) of the British army were usually British-trained Indians. Eventually, local rulers used the services of the British army to settle scores with their enemies.

The establishment of the Company's rule

Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive
Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive
Main Articles: British East India Company, Company rule in India

The British East India Company established itself after the Battle of Plassey, fought in 1754 against the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah. The British army, under Robert Clive, defeated the army of the Nawab in a few hours. This battle is widely seen as the beginning of the British Raj in India.

In 1765, Clive defeated Mughal forces in the Battle of Buxar. After this, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam conferred to the company administrative rights over Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, a region of roughly 25 million people with an annual revenue of 40 million Rupees. Clive became the first British governor of Bengal.

The British parliament enacted a series of laws to handle the administration of the newly conquered provinces. The Regulating Act of 1773 curbed the company traders' unrestrained commercial activities, and gave the British government supervisory rights over the Bengal, Bombay, and Madras presidencies. The India Act of 1784 enhanced parliament's control by establishing the Board of Control, whose members were selected from the cabinet. The Charter Act of 1813 introduced laws that evolved into future social legislation. The Governor-General of Bengal was elevated to the position of Governor-General of India.

In 1835, William Cavendish Bentinck, the Governor-General from 1828 to 1835, introduced the English language as the medium of instruction. Western-educated Hindu elites sought to rid Hinduism of its much criticized social practices: the caste system, child marriage, and sati. Literary and debating societies were initiated in Bombay and Madras, becoming forums for open discourse. Educational attainments and skillful use of the press by these early reformers enhanced the possibility of effecting broad reforms without compromising societal values or religious practices.

Indian uprising of 1857

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Indian mutiny
Main article: Indian rebellion of 1857

The Indian Mutiny (also Sepoy Mutiny) as known to the British, or The First War Of Indian Independence as known to the Indians was a period of uprising in northern and central India against British rule in 1857-1858. It is considered to be the first united rebellion against colonial rule in India.


The rebellion was the outcome of decades of ethnic and cultural differences between Indian soldiers and their British superiors. The specific reason that triggered the rebellion was the use of cow and pig fat in .557 calibre Pattern 1853 Enfield (P/53) rifle cartridges. Since soldiers had to break the cartridges with their teeth before they could load them into their rifles, this was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who considered tasting beef and pork to be against their respective religious tenets. In February 1857, sepoys (Indian soldiers in the British army) refused to use their new cartridges. The British claimed to have replaced the cartridges with new ones and tried to make sepoys make their own grease from beeswax and vegetable oils, but the rumor persisted.

Mangal Pande and the march to Delhi

In March 1857, Mangal Pande, a soldier of the 34th Native Infantry, attacked his British sergeant and wounded an adjutant. General Hearsay, who said Pande was in some kind of "religious frenzy," ordered a jemadar to arrest him but the jemadar refused. Mangal Pande was hanged on 7 April along with the jemadar. The whole regiment was dismissed as a collective punishment. Other sepoys felt this was too harsh.

On May 10th, when the 11th and 20th cavalry assembled, they broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. They then liberated the 3rd Regiment, and on 11 May, the sepoys reached Delhi. They were joined by other Indians from the local bazaar. They attacked and captured the Red Fort, which was the residence of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of the Mughal dynasty. The sepoys demanded that he reclaim his throne. He was reluctant at first, but eventually agreed to the demands and became the leader of the rebellion.

About the same time in Jhansi, the army rebelled and killed the British army officers. In 1858, when the British army marched towards Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen of Jhansi, assembled an army of 14,000 volunteers to fight the invaders. The war lasted 2 weeks but eventually the British won. The queen escaped on horseback to the fortress of Kalpi. Here she organized a few other kingdoms to rebel against the British. The rebel forces captured Gwalior from the British, who placed a prize of Rs. 20,000 on the capture of Rani Lakshmibai.

The British response

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Secundra Bagh after the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab regiment fought the rebels, Nov 1857

The British were slow to respond at first but eventually two columns left Meerut and Simla. At the same time, the British moved regiments from the Crimean War and diverted European regiments headed for China to India.

After a march lasting two months, the British fought the main army of the rebels near Delhi in Badl-ke-Serai and drove them back to Delhi before laying a siege on the city. The siege of Dehli lasted roughly from 1 July to 31 August. After a week of street fighting, the British retook the city. The last significant battle was fought in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. It is during this battle that Rani Lakshmi Bai lost her life. Sporadic fighting continued until 1859 but most of the rebels were subdued.


The war of 1857 was a major turning point in the history of modern India. The British abolished the British East India Company and replaced it with direct rule under the British crown. A Viceroy was appointed to represent the Crown. In proclaiming the new direct-rule policy to "the Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India," Queen Victoria promised equal treatment under British law, but Indian mistrust of British rule had become a legacy of the 1857 rebellion.

The British embarked on a program of reform, trying to integrate Indian higher castes and rulers into the government. They stopped land grabs, decreed religious tolerance and admitted Indians into civil service, albeit mainly as subordinates. They also increased the number of British soldiers in relation to native ones and allowed only British soldiers to handle artillery.

Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon, Burma where he died in 1862, finally bringing the Mughal dynasty to an end. In 1877, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.

Congress and the Muslim League

Main articles: Indian National Congress, Muslim League

The decades following the Sepoy Rebellion were a period of growing political awareness, manifestation of Indian public opinion, and emergence of Indian leadership at national and provincial levels. Inspired by a suggestion made by A.O. Hume, a retired British civil servant, seventy-three Indian delegates met in Bombay in 1885 and founded the Indian National Congress. They were mostly members of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated provincial elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching, and journalism. They had acquired political experience from regional competition in the professions and by securing nomination to various positions in legislative councils, universities, and special commissions.

At its inception, the Congress had no well-defined ideology and commanded few of the resources essential to a political organization. It functioned more as a debating society that met annually to express its loyalty to the British Raj and passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government, especially the civil service. These resolutions were submitted to the Viceroy's government and occasionally to the British Parliament, but the Congress's early gains were meager. Despite its claim to represent all India, the Congress voiced the interests of urban elites; the number of participants from other economic backgrounds remained negligible.

By 1900, although the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organization, its achievement was undermined by its singular failure to attract Muslims, who felt that their representation in government service was inadequate. Attacks by Hindu reformers against religious conversion, cow slaughter, and the preservation of Urdu in Arabic script deepened their concerns of minority status and denial of rights if the Congress alone were to represent the people of India. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan launched a movement for Muslim regeneration that culminated in the founding in 1875 of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh (renamed Aligarh Muslim University in 1921). Its objective was to educate wealthy students by emphasizing the compatibility of Islam with modern western knowledge. The diversity among India's Muslims, however, made it impossible to bring about uniform cultural and intellectual regeneration.

Partition of Bengal

In 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899-1905), ordered the partition of the province of Bengal for improvements in administrative efficiency in that huge and populous region, where the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia exerted considerable influence on local and national politics. The partition created two provinces: Eastern Bengal & Assam, with its capital at Dhaka, and West Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta (which also served as the capital of British India). An ill-conceived and hastily implemented action, the partition outraged Bengalis. Not only had the government failed to consult Indian public opinion, but the action appeared to reflect the British resolve to "divide and rule." Widespread agitation ensued in the streets and in the press, and the Congress advocated boycotting British products under the banner of swadeshi.

The Congress-led boycott of British goods was so successful that it unleashed anti-British forces to an extent unknown since the Sepoy Rebellion. A cycle of violence and repression ensued in some parts of the country. The British tried to mitigate the situation by announcing a series of constitutional reforms in 1909 and by appointing a few moderates to the imperial and provincial councils. A Muslim deputation met with the Viceroy, Lord Minto (1905-10), seeking concessions from the impending constitutional reforms, including special considerations in government service and electorates. The All-India Muslim League was founded the same year to promote loyalty to the British and to advance Muslim political rights, which the British recognized by increasing the number of elective offices reserved for Muslims in the India Councils Act of 1909. The Muslim League insisted on its separateness from the Hindu-dominated Congress, as the voice of a "nation within a nation."

In what the British saw as an additional goodwill gesture, in 1911 King-Emperor George V visited India for a durbar (a traditional court held for subjects to express fealty to their ruler), during which he announced the reversal of the partition of Bengal and the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to a newly planned city to be built immediately south of Delhi, which became New Delhi.

World War I

World War I began with an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill towards Britain, contrary to initial British fears of an Indian revolt. India contributed generously to the British war effort, by providing men and resources. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers and laborers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while both the Indian government and the princes sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. But high casualty rates, soaring inflation compounded by heavy taxation, a widespread influenza epidemic, and the disruption of trade during the war escalated human suffering in India. The prewar nationalist movement revived, as moderate and extremist groups within the Congress submerged their differences in order to stand as a unified front. In 1916, the Congress succeeded in forging the Lucknow Pact, a temporary alliance with the Muslim League over the issues of devolution of political power and the future of Islam in the region.

The British themselves adopted a "carrot and stick" approach in recognition of India's support during the war and in response to renewed nationalist demands. In August 1917, Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, made the historic announcement in Parliament that the British policy for India was "increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire." The means of achieving the proposed measure were later enshrined in the Government of India Act of 1919, which introduced the principle of a dual mode of administration, or diarchy, in which both elected Indian legislators and appointed British officials shared power. The act also expanded the central and provincial legislatures and widened the franchise considerably. Diarchy set in motion certain real changes at the provincial level: a number of non-controversial or "transferred" portfolios, such as agriculture, local government, health, education, and public works, were handed over to Indians, while more sensitive matters such as finance, taxation, and maintaining law and order were retained by the provincial British administrators.

The Rowlatt Act and its aftermath

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The positive impact of reform was seriously undermined in 1919 by the Rowlatt Act, named after the recommendations made the previous year to the Imperial Legislative Council by the Rowlatt Commission, which had been appointed to investigate "seditious conspiracy." The Rowlatt Act, also known as the Black Act, vested the Viceroy's government with extraordinary powers to quell sedition by silencing the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting any suspected individuals without a warrant. In protest, a nationwide cessation of work (hartal) was called, marking the beginning of widespread, although not nationwide, popular discontent.

The agitation unleashed by the acts culminated on 13 April, 1919, in the Amritsar Massacre in Amritsar, Punjab. The British military commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, ordered his soldiers to fire at point-blank range into an unarmed and unsuspecting crowd of some 10,000 persons. They had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden, to celebrate Baisakhi, a Sikh festival, without prior knowledge of the imposition of martial law. A total of 1,650 rounds were fired, killing 379 persons and wounding 1,137 in the episode, which dispelled wartime hopes and goodwill in a frenzy of postwar reaction.

Gandhi's return to India

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Mohandas Gandhi
Main article: Mahatma Gandhi

India's option for an entirely original path to obtaining swaraj (self-rule, sometimes translated as Home Rule or Independence) was due largely to Mohandas Gandhi, commonly known as "Mahatma" (or Great Soul.) A native of Gujarat who had been educated in Britain, he was an obscure and unsuccessful provincial lawyer. Gandhi had accepted an invitation in 1893 to represent indentured Indian laborers in South Africa, where he stayed on for more than twenty years, lobbying against racial discrimination. He returned to India in 1915, virtually a stranger to public life but fired with a religious vision of a new India.

Gandhi's ideas and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience appeared impractical to many Indians. In Gandhi's own words, "civil disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments," but as he viewed it, it had to be carried out nonviolently by withdrawing cooperation with the corrupt state. Observers realized Gandhi's political potential when he used satyagraha during the anti-Rowlatt Act protests in Punjab. In 1920, under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, whose goal was swaraj (independence). Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee, and a hierarchy of committees was established and made responsible for discipline and control over a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement. The party was transformed from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal.

During his first nationwide satyagraha, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British educational institutions, law courts, and products; to resign from government employment; to refuse to pay taxes; and to forsake British titles and honors. Although this came too late to influence the framing of the new Government of India Act of 1919, the magnitude of disorder resulting from the movement was unparalleled and presented a new challenge to foreign rule. Gandhi was forced to call off the campaign in 1922 because of atrocities committed against police forces. He was imprisoned in 1922 for six years, but served only two. On his release from prison, he set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, on the banks of river Sabarmati, established the newspaper Young India, and inaugurated a series of reforms aimed at the socially disadvantaged within Hindu society - the rural poor, and the untouchables.

Emerging leaders within the Congress --Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, and others-- accepted Gandhi's leadership in articulating nationalist aspirations but disagreed on strategies for wresting more concessions from the British. The Indian political spectrum was further broadened in the mid-1920s by the emergence of both moderate and militant parties, such as the Swaraj Party. Regional political organizations also continued to represent the interests of non-Brahmans in Madras, Mahars in Maharashtra, and Sikhs in Punjab.

Bhagat Singh

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Bhagat Singh
Main article: Bhagat Singh

As voices inside and outside the Congress became more strident, the British appointed a commission in 1927, under Sir John Simon, to recommend further measures in the constitutional devolution of power. The British failure to appoint an Indian member to the commission outraged the Congress and others, and, as a result, they boycotted it throughout India, carrying placards inscribed "Simon, Go Back."

In Lahore, Lala Lajpatrai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malavia protested to the commission in open about their displeasure. Thousands joined in the silent demonstration. Police troops charged the demonstration, and Lala Lajpatrai was hit with a lathi (bamboo stick) on the head several times by an officer Scott. He succumbed to the injuries.

Bhagat Singh, a young marxist from Punjab, vowed to take revenge and with the help of Chandrashekhar Azad, Rajguru and Sukhadev, plotted to kill Scott. Unfortunately, he killed Mr. Sanders, a junior officer, in a case of mistaken identity.

The British, under the Defense of India Act, gave more power to the police to arrest persons to stop processions with suspicious movements and actions. The act brought in the council was defeated by one vote. Even then it was to be passed in the form of an ordinance in the "interest of the public." Bhagat Singh volunteered to throw a bomb in the central assembly where the act was to be passed. It was a carefully laid out plot, not to cause death or injury, but to draw the attention of the government. It was agreed that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt would court arrest after throwing the bomb.

On 8 April, 1929, at Delhi Central Assembly, Singh and Dutt threw handouts, exploded a bomb in the corridor, and courted arrest after shouting the slogan "Inquilab Zindabad!" (Long Live, Revolution!). Bhagat Singh thought the court would be an ideal place to get publicity for the cause of freedom, and did not disown the crime. He was "proven" guilty, and was hanged on 23 March, 1931.

Dandi March

Main article: Salt Satyagraha

Following the rejection of the recommendations of the Simon Commission by the Indians, an all-party conference was held at Bombay in May 1928. The conference appointed a drafting committee under Motilal Nehru to draw up a constitution for India. The Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress asked the British government to accord dominion status to India by December 1929, or a countrywide civil disobedience movement would be launched. The British government declared in May 1929 that India would get dominion status within the empire very soon. However, the Congress, at its historic Lahore session in December 1929, under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted a resolution to gain complete independence from the British. It authorised the Working Committee to launch a civil disobedience movement throughout the country. It was decided that 26 January 1930 should be observed all over India as the Purna Swaraj (complete independence) Day.

Gandhi emerged from his long seclusion by undertaking his most famous campaign, a march of about 400 kilometers from his commune in Ahmedabad to Dandi, on the coast of Gujarat between 12 March and 6 April, 1930. The march is usually known as the Dandi March or the Salt Satyagraha. At Dandi, in protest against British taxes on salt, he and thousands of followers broke the law by making their own salt from sea water. The act was largely symbolic, meant to show Indian defiance to British legislation.

Civil disobedience movement

In April 1930 there were violent police-crowd clashes in Calcutta. Approximately 90,000 people were imprisoned in the course of the Civil disobedience movement (1930-31). While Gandhi was in jail, the first Round Table Conference was held in London in November 1930, without representation from the Indian National Congress. The ban upon the Congress was removed because of economic hardships caused due to the satyagraha. Gandhi, along with other members of the Congress Working Committee, were released from prison in January 1931.

In March 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed, and the government agreed to set all political prisoners free. In return, Gandhi agreed to discontinue the civil disobedience movement and participate as the sole representative of the Congress in the second Round Table Conference, which was held in London in September 1931. However, the conference ended in failure in December 1931. Gandhi came back to India and decided to resume the civil disobedience movement in January 1932.

For the next few years, the Congress and the government were locked in conflict and negotiations until what became the Government of India Act of 1935 could be hammered out. By then, the rift between the Congress and the Muslim League had become unbridgeable as each pointed the finger at the other acrimoniously. The Muslim League disputed the claim of the Congress to represent all people of India, while the Congress disputed the Muslim League's claim to voice the aspirations of all Muslims.

Elections and the Pakistan resolution

The 1935 act, the voluminous and final constitutional effort at governing British India, articulated three major goals: establishing a loose federal structure, achieving provincial autonomy, and safeguarding minority interests through separate electorates. The federal provisions, intended to unite princely states and British India at the center, were not implemented because of ambiguities in safeguarding the existing privileges of princes. In February 1937, however, provincial autonomy became a reality when elections were held; the Congress emerged as the dominant party with a clear majority in five provinces and held an upper hand in two, while the Muslim League performed poorly.

In 1939, the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared India's entrance into World War II without consulting provincial governments. In protest, the Congress asked all of its elected representatives to resign from the government. Jinnah, the president of the Muslim League, persuaded participants at the annual Muslim League session at Lahore in 1940 to adopt what later came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, demanding the division of India into two separate sovereign states, one Muslim, the other Hindu; sometimes refered as Two Nation Theory. Although the idea of Pakistan had been introduced as early as 1930, very few had responded to it. However, the volatile political climate and personal hostilities between the leaders transformed the idea of Pakistan into a stronger demand.

World War II

Subhash Chandra Bose

Subhash Chandra Bose
Subhash Chandra Bose
Main articles: Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian National Army

Though the Congress was initially reluctant to participate in World War II, it later decided to do so, with the Indian armed forces becoming the largest all-volunteer forces fighting alongside the allied powers. This was strongly opposed by Subhash Chandra Bose, who had been elected president of the Congress twice, in 1937 and 1939. After lobbying against participation in the war, he resigned from Congress in 1939 and started a new party, the All India Forward Bloc. He was placed under house arrest, but escaped in 1941. He surfaced in Germany, and enlisted German and Japanese help to fight the British in India.

In 1943, he travelled to Japan from Germany on board German and Japanese submarines. In Japan, he helped organize the Indian National Army (INA) and set up a government-in-exile. During the war, the Andaman and Nicobar islands came under INA control, and Bose renamed them Shahid (Martyr) and Swaraj (Independence). The INA engaged British troops in northeastern India, hoping to liberate Indian territories under colonial rule. Its attempts ended with the surrender of Japan in 1945. It is argeed by manny that Subhash Chandra Bose was killed in an air crash in August 1945. But his death is still controversial.

Quit India

In an effort to bring the British to the negotiating table, Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in August 1942. He issued the call "to do or die" from a large meeting ground in Bombay (since re-named August Kranti.) However, almost the entire Congress leadership was arrested within a span of 24 hours after Gandhi's speech. Large scale violence resulted in the aftermath of the Quit India movement.


World War II not only changed the map of the world and reduced Britain to a second rate power, it also helped mature British public opinion on India. The Labour Party's victory in 1945 helped reassess the merits of the traditional policies. While the British prepared to transfer power to India, the Muslim League renewed its demand for the formation of Pakistan. When it appeared that the Congress had no desire to share power with the Muslim League at the center, Jinnah declared 16 August, 1946 as Direct Action Day, which brought communal rioting in many places in the north. Partition seemed preferable to civil war. On 3 June, 1947, Viscount Louis Mountbatten, the Viceroy (1947) and Governor-General (1947-48), announced plans for partition of the British Indian Empire into secular but Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan, which itself was divided into east and west wings on either side of India.

At midnight, on August 15, 1947, amidst ecstatic shouting of "Jai Hind" (Long Live India), India became an independent nation, with its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivering his famous speech on India's "tryst with destiny." Gandhigi did not support the idea of partition of India, so he did not participate the celebration of Indian Indipendence. Concurrently, the Muslim northwest and northeast of British India were separated into the nation of Pakistan. Violent clashes between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs followed this partition. The area of Kashmir in the far north of the subcontinent quickly became a source of controversy that erupted into the First Indo-Pakistani War which lasted from 1947 to 1949.


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Incorporates text from the Library of Congress Country Studies (Public Domain).


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