An insight into the fight for Indian independence.

The Indian fight for independence from the British Empire, along with the Civil Rights Movement helmed by Martin Luther King, is the most well-known example of a ‘successful’ nonviolent protest.

It culminated in the granting of independence on 15 August 1947, ending the British Raj (period during which India was a British ruled colony). The Indian effort was not an entirely nonviolent one, but it is widely accepted that the nonviolent group, led by Mahatma Gandhi, was the determining factor in achieving independence. 

The following looks first at the history of India under British direct rule and motivations for the freedom struggle, Gandhi and the origins of his (nonviolent) freedom movement, and then at the effort itself and the response/conclusion. 


The History of India under British direct rule

Though the exact dates are disputed between British/Indian sources, most Indian children grow up learning that the British ruled India for 200 years. However, the British conquered parts of India gradually; the Sikh empire was only won over in 1849 – less than 100 years before independence.

Britannica [1] clarifies that direct rule, ‘Raj’, began in 1858, after the power collapse (result of the Indian Mutiny, see further reading) of the British East India Company left Indian subjugation (obedience) unstable. British exploitation of Indian peoples and resources began in the 1700s – at which point India was “just as developed as Britain”. [2] 

Under the Raj, over 300 million Indians were controlled by around 20,000 British men. Many who argue the ‘benefits of the empire’ cite this as proof that the majority of Indian accepted British control as righteous. This ignores the subtleties of class, caste and greed: many Indians were complicit in maintaining British control. Almost all of these Indians were rich, powerful, and like the British, gained from exploiting the masses. 

The imperial story was that the British were a service to India: they taught governmental policy, agricultural methods, healthcare, and they gave India railways. No current reputable historians support the view that Britain brought more to India than it took.

One of the most marked gifts the empire left India was conflict: after the collective rebellion of Hindu and Muslim soldiers in 1857 in favour of a Mughal (Indian Muslim dynasty/clan) leader, Elphinstone, the then governor of Bombay (now Mumbai) proposed:

 “Divide et impera [translation: divide and conquer] was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”. [3] 

Significant conflicts between Hindus and Muslims founded on a religious basis first occurred during the Raj. 


Economist Utsa Patnaik published a paper estimating that Britain leeched around $45 trillion (17 times the UK’s total Gross Domestic Product, GDP) from India between 1765 and 1938. [4] Comparatively, in the late 1800s average income for Indian natives halved, and life expectancy decreased by 20%, and just under four million soldiers fought in WWI and II on behalf of the British. [5] 

By 1940 life expectancy was 27, the literacy rate was 16%, and over 90% of Indians lived below the poverty line. [3] Up to 3 million Indians died during the Bengal famine of 1943, a situation now accepted as arising from British (willful) incompetence. During the Raj, there were only three recorded cases of Britons executed for the murder of Indians, despite thousands of recorded ‘accidental’ deaths of servants. In 1920, only 1 in 250 Indians could vote. Under British control, no Indians were employed in the railway service

A 2014 YouGov poll showed that 59% of the British public thought the British Empire ought to instil pride, not shame (19%). Though more were uncertain (36%) on whether former British colonies benefited from the Empire, the continued most popular sentiment was that the net result of British control was beneficial (49%). [6]


Motivations for the freedom struggle

Mahatma Gandhi, named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was the leader of the modern Indian nonviolent resistance, employing his method of satyagraha. The name ‘Mahatma’ derives from the words ‘maha’ and ‘atma’, meaning ‘great soul’. He was born in 1869, eleven years after the start of the British Raj, to a family in Gujarat, where his father acted as diwan (chief minister of state). 


Gandhi married at 13 (contemporarily a normal age) with 14 year old Kasturbai Mahkanji Kapadia, whilst at school. Before moving to England to study Law at UCL, Gandhi saw his first surviving son enter the world in 1988, and swore to his mother and wife that he would not participate in non-religious practices (e.g. eating meat, sex, alcohol etc., discouraged by Hinduism) whilst learning. He remained somewhat shy and non-remarkable, but proved determined and eloquent in his first stay in London.  

By 22, Gandhi was established as a barrister and returned to India. His temperament meant he failed to succeed as a law practitioner in Bombay and so in need of money he left for South Africa (also under British rule) in 1893, serving a cousin.

In South Africa, Gandhi experienced a harsh level of discrimination due to his skin colour/nationality that he never had before: clearly intelligence and skill meant nothing if your skin was not white. He was thrown off of trains, buses, public pavements, out of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ establishments. It took him time to process and react to this. 

“[Gandhi viewed himself] as a Briton first, and an Indian second”’. [7]

This treatment is cited as the trigger to Gandhi’s questioning of the humanity of British rule, and the ‘equality’ of the people subject to it.

During his stay, Indians were stripped of their right to vote, and Gandhi witnessed the wilful oppression of all non-European counterparts. His 21 years in South Africa informed his interest in politics: before his experience of racially motivated abuse he had no investment in the political realm. It was during his time in Natal (a British colony in SE Africa) that Gandhi first led an oppositional force against British occupiers campaigning to renew Indians’ right to vote, and first demonstrated his resistance method: satyagraha.

It is easily argued that Gandhi’s interest was selfish (and racist): he rallied against the persecution of Indians but did nothing for his black African siblings. Constrastingly, there exist many records of Indian agitators affiliated with Gandhi, fighting for and with native Africans, as well as respectful writings by Gandhi himself on the native peoples. 


Satyagraha literally means ‘satya’ (truth) and ‘agraha’ (insistence), so indicates a philosophy which is constructed upon the principle of holding onto the truth or true vision. Gandhi conceived and enacted it as:

A determined but nonviolent resistance to evil.” [8]

As such, satyagraha falls broadly into a form of civil disobedience (citizens’ breaking of laws which they consider wrong, peacefully) which holds moral integrity at its heart. Satyagrahis (people following the movement) must be nonviolent, transparent about their actions (using secrecy/surprise against the opponent is a form of concealment/lying) and strive for cohesion. 

It was said that those fighting through true satyagraha fought neither for loss nor gain but for a complete harmony between parties. Gandhi returned to India in 1915, and the first enactment of this form of protest was in Champaran (India) in 1917, 30 years before Indian independence was granted. Tactics included hunger strikes, economic boycotts, labour strikes, and marches

‘There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no hope for the impotent (…) Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work.’ – Gandhi [8]

Ahimsa (non-violence) and satya are two of the five pillars of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion whose followers make up a significant population of Gujarat. Gandhi was heavily influenced by Jain ideals in his formation of satyagraha. He believed that an outer unity of people would eventually manifest in an inner, spiritual unity (a Jain and Hindu aspiration), and so felt that through satyagraha he was serving both a moral and religious purpose. 



The largest political party in India during the latter years (1900s) of the Raj was the Indian National Congress (INC), which Gandhi took leadership of in 1920.

The INC declared India independent on 26 January 1930: this was rejected by the British controllers but the pressure applied resulted in greater involvement of the INC in rural government. The first Indian government elections took place in 1937, with the INC winning a majority.  

Though involved in formal politics, Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement is his most renowned contribution to the independence effort.

His first large scale protest was a reaction to the Amritsar Massacre: in March 1919 the Rowlatt Act was passed, allowing those suspected of being revolutionaries to be imprisoned for up to two years without trial.


There was widespread discontent from the Indian public, leading the British to abolish gatherings of over four people on 13 April 1919.

As an act of nonviolent resistance, 15-20,000 Sikh and Hindu Indians collected in solidarity in Jallianwala Bagh gardens, Amritsar. [10]

Led by a General Dyer, 90 British serving soldiers jammed exits, and deliberately opened fire on the most crowded areas of the gardens, with zero warning. People were shot, crushed and drowned. The reported death count was 379, though current estimates put the figure at over 1000. India raged, whereas the British media praised the swift dealing with resistance. [11]

Gandhi’s immediate response was not to condemn the British, but his peers: he stressed his belief that only nonviolent protest could change their situation, and began fasting until the public heeded his words.

This reaction both touched and angered the Indian public; regardless, witnessing the Amritsar Massacre and the way it was dealt with confirmed to Gandhi that Indians could not achieve equality under the Raj.

Swaraj (self-rule, independence) became his goal.

It was after this that he became leader of the INC, and cultivated the backing of the Indian Muslim community by supporting the Khilafat (political protest to restore the Ottoman caliph). With a relatively sure set of followers, Gandhi was able to enact several ‘non-cooperative’ actions under the umbrella of satyagraha.

Before Gandhi’s arrest in March 1922 and subsequent two year imprisonment (a six year sentence for sedition (inciting rebellion against the state), Indians practised satyagraha through swadeshi: boycotting internationally produced (particularly British made) products, and further abstaining from any British introduced systems such as courts of law and government/Raj serving jobs. The iconic image of Gandhi behind a spinning wheel reflected his policy that all Indians should wear khadi (hand-spun cotton cloth) as opposed to foreign clothing, and thus no longer be reliant on British imports. Through active non cooperation with the British Indian government, satyagrahis sought to cripple it ‘economically, politically and administratively’ without using force. [14] Gandhi was arrested on 9 April, after encouraging the boycotting of British imported goods

Top: Indian poster encouraging the buying of Indian manufactured goods. [12]
Bottom: A woman (Gangaben Majumdar) spinning cotton for khadi [13]


From 1924-28, Gandhi remained present in the fight for Swaraj, passing a resolution in December 1928 demanding that unless India be given dominion status (‘semi-independent’ Commonwealth territory), with full independence within one year as endgame, the Raj would face another wave of satyagraha resistance.

Though the INC adopted satyagraha as their preferred tactic for attaining swaraj, the majority of Hindu and Muslim leaders called for Indian sovereignty (self-rule) immediately

Gandhi’s support from the various factions of Indian society had grown significantly less stable: whilst in prison the Khilafat campaign failed, leading to growing tension between Hindus and Muslims, and the INC split due to disagreements on whether to back party presence (political parties acting as a medium between citizens and lawmakers). No party presence in legislation means that citizens would not be able to influence laws in government. Gandhi’s support of the supplication of the British armed forces (WWI) with Indian troops was unpopular

Gandhi himself also faced opposition from high profile personalities such as Subhas Chandra Bose (organised the December 1928 Calcutta Congress) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (first governor-general of Pakistan), and other activists such as Bhagat Singh (born to a Hindu/Sikh family, atheist), who believed his methods were ‘illusory’ and weren’t capable of achieving a change towards true social and economic equality. [15]

Bhagat Singh was a prominent freedom fighter and Marxist revolutionary who reconciled his socialism with nationalism, and campaigned for a free, socialist India.  His participation in the Indian Independence Movement (IIM) included violence: he participated in assassination attempts, improvised non-lethal bombings, as well as hunger strikes and civil disobedience.

Many others in the IIM, especially those on the political left, did not have confidence that Gandhi or satyagraha would achieve independence and social equality. Violent resistance will not be discussed here, but it should be acknowledged that it played a part in the IIM. 



A. DANDI SATYAGRAHA (1930 – 1931)

The Dandi Satyagraha or Salt March took place in March 1930, after the British government rejected the Congress’ independence demands.

It was the single most demonstrative upheaval of British control under the Raj.

Organised by Gandhi, it took inspiration from the spiritual ‘padyatra’ (meaning a long march by foot) and was a direct action against the British salt tax (which formed 8.2% of Raj tax revenue, and affected the poorest worst [16]) and 1882 Salt Act, which cemented in law the British monopoly on the collection and production of salt. As Satyagraha demanded transparency, Gandhi informed the British establishment of his intention to break salt laws by marching to Dandi (a coastal village in Gujarat) and collecting salt themselves. 

The British were reportedly unfazed, with the Viceroy (governor-general, with the title ‘Viceroy’ derived from the French for ‘king’) of India writing:

At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night.” [17]

The march lasted 24 days and began with 79 volunteers (who, though all men, spanned a wide range of ages, classes, castes and religions).

All participants wore white khadis, so the procession was also called the ‘White Flowing River’. As they passed through villages, the march gained momentum picking up more satyagrahis, such that by the time they reached Dandi Gandhi had spoken to crowds of thousands each night, and nearly 100,000 people crowded the beach.

It is estimated that 60,000 people – including a large number of women, who took to the streets in empowered droves – were arrested, and between 200 and 1000 were killed. [18] A witness wrote (trigger warning, violence):

“In complete silence the Gandhi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade (…) at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shot lathis [long bamboo sticks]. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off blows. They went down like ninepins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls (…) Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders.” [32]

Webb Miller, an American journalist

Gandhi and Nehru were among those arrested in April, and the Satyagraha continued without them. Nonviolent protests at Dharasana salt works proceeded in May, though Gandhi was not there to lead them. Nehru said of it: 

“it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released.” [19]

Satyagrahis pull lumps of muddy salt from the sea in Dandi, breaking British law. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Following the mass unrest and mass arrests, the three Round Table Conferences were held in London between 1930-32, the first of which held representatives from every Indian state/party barring the INC, the second to which Gandhi was invited, and the third which neither the INC nor the British Labour Party attended. 

Though the conferences arose as a result of the pressure put on the British by the events of 1930, demonstrating that both British officials and the international stage saw the IIM as a threat to British imperialism, their only result was the establishment of the Government of India Act (1935), which confirmed provincial autonomy (self-governing provinces) and a new federal parliamentary system (structure devolving some power from the national to local governments) that was never executed. [21]

Gandhi himself achieved more tangible change, enacting the Gandhi-Irwin pact (1931) after negotiations with Lord Irwin (representative of the British government, then Viceroy of India).

The agreement stated that all Indian political prisoners (which Gandhi was at the time) would be freed and the salt tax abolished, in exchange for the halting of the civil disobedience movement. [22]

It was due to this that Gandhi was able to attend the second Round Table Conference, as the only INC member, but the conferences proved futile in that the British representatives refused to entertain Indian independence.

Lord Willingdon (the next Viceroy) had a firmer attitude towards Swaraj, re-arresting and attempting to isolate Gandhi so as to neutralise him. [23]

In an example of the Raj’s continued reinforcement of division and class between Indian peoples, a law was passed deeming Dalits (‘untouchables’, people of the lowest caste) a separate electorate (i.e. Dalits could only vote for other Dalits, for specific seats) to the rest of Indian society. Gandhi undertook a fast to the death in resistance, and public outrage forced a revision of the law (the ‘Communal Award’ was replaced with the Poona Pact). [24] 


When war was declared on Germany in 1939 (with 2.5 million Indians drafted) without any Indian involvement in the decision, Gandhi and the INC entirely revoked their support for the British, and increased pressure for independence, agreeing to help with the war effort provided independence would be guaranteed after their victory. The British rejected the proposition, and jailed INC leaders including Nehru (first Prime Minister of India) and Gandhi. The Muslim League (another political group) worked with the British in the hopes of achieving a free Muslim state: Pakistan. Before Indian independence and the Partition of India in 1947, ‘Pakistan’ the country did not exist.

The last large scale rebellious movement led by the IIM was the Quit India movement, which took place in the heat of WWII, after Gandhi had vehemently opposed Indian involvement in the conflict. He believed that:

‘[India] could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom while that freedom was denied to India itself.’ [25]

 The INC and Muslim League (the two parties with the most influence on the Raj government by 1944) firmly disagreed in their approach of this movement. Gandhi began it in August 1942, giving a speech in Bombay calling for Britain to ‘quit India’, following which the All-India Congress Committee formed a mass protest. The speech was arguably their most direct attack on British occupation. The Muslim League co-opted the phrase to ‘Divide and Quit India’. [26]

The majority of the INC leadership was jailed without trial hours after the speech, with the British supported by the Viceroy’s Council (had an Indian majority), the All India Muslim League, the princely states (governed by local princes), the Indian Imperial Police, the British Indian Army and Indian Civil Service. Indians profiting from wartime spending also rejected the movement; only President Roosevelt encouraged Churchill to grant at least some of their demands. The primary demand being that the British leave, he did not. 

By the turn of the war, however, Britain was coming to the conclusion that governing India had become unwieldy and began to consider how to exit. Most INC members had remained in prison, with Gandhi released for health reasons, but after the British confirmed Indian independence was a certainty, he ended the fight and all prisoners were freed. 

D: SECURING SWARAJ (1945 – 1947)

The Muslim League held the ear of the government in 1945, and Gandhi and Jinnah conducted several discussions through to 1947 on the topic of a unified India vs. the separating of the subcontinent into a Muslim and non-Muslim state.

Their disagreements escalated, and on 16 August 1946 Jinnah gathered supporters for a Direct Action Day, with the aim of publicly demonstrating support for his proposed partition. In Calcutta police were given a holiday; the demonstrations set off a mass murdering of Calcutta Hindus and destruction of their property, and there was no intervention to quell the violence, from the British government or the police. 

These events in turn spurred violent retaliation from Indian Hindus, known as the 1946 Bihar Riots, delivering casualties of somewhere between 5-20,000. [27] Both Jinnah and Gandhi were devastated, but where Gandhi saw the violence as a result of wrongful separation between the communities, Jinnah saw it as a justification for division. Archibald Waverly, Viceroy in 1947, sided with Jinnah, denouncing Gandhi’s intentions as an attempt to replace the British Raj with a new Hindu Raj. 


The partitioning of India into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, through which Bengal and Punjab were split district by district according to whether there was a Muslim or non-Muslim majority, was confirmed.

Jinnah and the Muslim League’s plans for Pakistan were consulted. The final terms upon which India gained independence were not approved of by Gandhi, nor most Indian pluralists. [28]

The agreement of these final terms marked the end of the British Raj, but Indian society remained fraught and unequal. Ultimately the IIM’s nonviolent protest, Satyagraha, did achieve the aims of its originator: Swaraj was won for India, even if it’s people and land were split.

15th August 1947 marks the day the Indians (now: Indians, Pakistanis) were free from direct British rule, but the marks of imperialism were, and continue to be prevalent.

Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. Jinnah died later on 11 September 1948 of tuberculosis.

Though they disagreed on the potency and validity of Satyagraha as an isolated form of protest, Bhagat Singh – hanged on 23 March 1931, aged 23, charged with conspiring against the government after refusing to apologise for or appeal his actions – had much in common with Gandhi, like most Indian freedom fighters under the Raj. 

It is easy to kill individuals, but you cannot kill the ideas.
Great empires crumbled, while the ideas survived”

Bhagat Singh, 
from ‘Red leaflet thrown in the Central Assembly Hall, New Delhi 1929’ [29]


The tactics employed in the Dandi Satyagraha are reflective of the IIM nonviolent tactics as a whole. For the purposes of brevity, they are simply listed below: (paraphrased from [20])


  • Formal statements: public speeches, letters of opposition (e.g. Gandhi’s correspondence with the Viceroys), mass petitions.
  • Communications with a wider audience: Slogans, symbols, newspaper and journal articles from Gandhi’s own journals, use of the international press, leaflets, pamphlets, lectures by INC activists on trains to a “captive audience.”
  • Group representations: delegations, picketing, school boycotts.
  • Symbolic public acts: displays of flags, prayer and worship meetings.
  • Drama and music: singing, dancing, and drums at public gatherings and among the crowds greeting the marchers.
  • Processions: the Salt March itself, for Gandhi explicitly a religious as well as political procession.
  • Honoring the dead: political mourning of unarmed demonstrators killed or wounded at Amritsar in 1919 Gandhi deliberately planned for the march to arrive at the seacoast on the anniversary of their death.


  • Social non cooperation & ostracism: social boycotts of persons not engaging in noncooperation 
  • Economic non cooperation: Limited strikes, hartals, and economic shutdowns
  • Consumer action: national boycott of British cloth and shops selling it, as well as liquor stores; rent withholding.
  • Political non cooperation: rejection of authority, withholding allegiance, refusal of public office by Indians, resignations of government employees, withdrawal from government educational institutions


  • Physical intervention: nonviolent invasions e.g. Dharasana Salt Works, nonviolent occupation of the seashore to make salt.
  • Social intervention: new social patterns, overloading of facilities (especially jails), alternative markets (salt, cloth) and institutions e.g. such as ashrams and communities that cut across caste, class, and religious-communal lines.
  • Economic interventions: alternative economic institutions such as salt manufacturing and the khadi (homespun) cloth industries.
  • Political intervention: civil disobedience of “neutral” laws, dual sovereignty, making the Indian National Congress a de facto ruling entity in an attempt to sideline the colonial government.



Why did the Indian Mutiny happen? (article) 

Excerpts from ‘The Law of Love’ by M. K. Gandhi (book excerpts)

Women, Salt and Satyagraha: A Look at the Historic Protest at Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach in 1930 (article)

The forgotten violence that helped India break free from colonial rule (article) 


All consulted sources listed, the numerated are the directly referenced. 






James Chiriyankandath (1992) ‘Democracy’ under the Raj: Elections and separate representation in British India, The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 30:1, 39-63, DOI: 10.1080/14662049208447624


[7] Herman, Arthur (2008). Gandhi and Churchill: the epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age. Random House Digital, Inc. ISBN 978-0-553-80463-8.

[8] Gandhi on Non-Violence, Mohandas Gandhi (2007); preface by Mark Kurlansky


Du Toit, Brian M. “The Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 34, no. 4, 1996, pp. 643–660. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Sept. 2020.


[11] Stanley Wolpert (2002). Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford University Press. pp. 99–103. ISBN 978-0-19-515634-8



[14] Shashi, S. S. (1996). Encyclopaedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Anmol Publications. ISBN 978-81-7041-859-7.


[16] Gandhi, Mahatma; Dalton, Dennis (1996). Selected Political Writings. Hackett Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87220-330-3

[17] Ackerman, Peter; DuVall, Jack (2000). A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-312-24050-9,granted%20its%20independence%20in%201947.






[23] Herman, Arthur (2008). Gandhi and Churchill: the epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age. Random House Digital, Inc. ISBN 978-0-553-80463-8.

[24]  Rachel Fell McDermott; et al. (2014). Sources of Indian Traditions: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Columbia University Press. pp. 369–370. ISBN 978-0-231-51092-9.

[25] Bipan Chandra (2000). India’s Struggle for Independence. Penguin Books. p. 543. ISBN 978-81-8475-183-3.

[26] Penderel Moon (1962). Divide and Quit. University of California Press. pp. 11–28.


[28]  Markovits, Claude (2004). A History of Modern India, 1480–1950. Anthem Press. pp. 367–86. ISBN 978-1-84331-004-4.





Solomon, Rakesh H. “Culture, Imperialism, and Nationalist Resistance: Performance in Colonial India.” Theatre Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, 1994, pp. 323–347. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

Holcombe, Randall G., and James D. Gwartney. “Political Parties and the Legislative Principal-Agent Relationship.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE) / Zeitschrift Für Die Gesamte Staatswissenschaft, vol. 145, no. 4, 1989, pp. 669–675. JSTOR, Accessed 23 Sept. 2020.  DOI: 10.15355/ESPJ.9.1.76

NAIR, N. (2009). Bhagat Singh as ‘Satyagrahi’: The Limits to Non-violence in Late Colonial India. Modern Asian Studies, 43(3), 649-681. doi:10.1017/S0026749X08003491

Naidu, M.V. “THE GANDHIAN REVOLUTION: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS.” Peace Research, vol. 32, no. 4, 2000, pp. 1–30. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.,is%20a%20neat%20190%20years



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