Revolution and realism

Voice of idealism

Revolution and realism

Leader: Gandhiji was certain that a ‘do or die’ struggle against British imperialism was necessary.Of all the movements launched as part of our freedom struggle, the Quit India movement was easily the most complex, dramatic and multi-faceted. It was a movement planned and conceived by Mahatma Gandhi, but went completely against his principles of non-violence. It was marked not so much by open demonstrations, non-cooperation and jail-going, but by underground activities, violence, destruction of government buildings and looting of government property. In a way, it was the most unGandhian struggle that was nonetheless initiated by Gandhi. The most curious thing about this movement was that till around 1940 Gandhi himself was very reluctant and completely disinclined to launch this struggle. However, by 1942, he emerged as the most determined of all Indian leaders to launch the struggle. What happened in two years’ time to change his mind completely? More importantly, what is Quit India movement’s legacy to independent India?

Quit India was indeed unusual in many ways. It was the shortest of all the movements launched against the British. It started on August 8, 1942 and by the end of September had been brought under control by the British. But it was also the most decisive and heroic struggle against the British. Given the fact that the British quickly arrested all the major Congress leaders, it was also the most leaderless struggle. In the absence of national leaders, people evolved their own innovative ways in which to undermine the authority of the British. The Quit India story is indeed very curious and also instructive.

The roots of Quit India go back to 1939-40, if not earlier. By around 1940, the Indian National Movement had completed a full circle and desperately needed to break out of the circle. It had conclusively demonstrated, through a series of struggles, that most Indian people wanted British imperialism to go. It had become clear that large sections of the Indian population (except perhaps big landlords and princes) had rallied behind the national movement at some point or the other. Middle classes, students, women, workers and peasants had been particularly active in the struggles against British imperialism. However, the British had shown no inclination to oblige them by leaving India. They hoped to be able to stay on in India by retaining their support base among the tiny pockets of the Indian elite. 

The beginning of World War II in 1939 dramatically altered the political scenario. Indians had had a bitter experience during the First World War in which they had supported England in the hope of getting some concessions. But they had been bitterly disappointed to find that the British were in no mood to grant any concessions after the war. For all their help in the war, the Indians were ‘rewarded’ with the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in 1919 in which hundreds of Indians were killed in Amritsar in Punjab. Gandhi later said, referring to Indian support in the war: “We wanted bread, but got stones instead.”

But the character of World War II was somewhat different. It was seen as a war between the forces of fascism and those of democracy. England and USA were pitched in the war against Germany and Japan. The entire world was threatened by the very real possibility of a fascist take-over. Great Britain, USA and the USSR were seen as the only hope if the entire world was to be saved from the threat of fascism. The trouble however was that England was fighting for a freedom of the world, but denied the same freedom to the people of India. Immediately after the beginning of the war, England unilaterally declared India to be a party in the war. But it refused to entertain any thought of freedom to the Indian people. The famous Atlantic Charter of August 1941, signed by Churchill, upheld freedom and self-government for the people of the world, but not for Indian people. In September 1941, Churchill declared in a speech that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to the British colonial empire.

What could the Indian leadership do? This was a dilemma for them. Nehru had great sympathy with the people of China suffering Japanese aggression. Gandhi had aversion to all wars but he was uncompromisingly opposed to the forces of fascism. Gandhi’s natural sympathies lay with the ‘citadel of democracy’ in their war against fascism.
Therefore they were reluctant to launch a struggle against the British, particularly at a time when the British were involved in a war against fascism. Both Gandhi and Nehru did not want to embarrass the British war efforts by launching a movement against them.

During 1939-40, both Gandhi and Nehru saw British imperialism as a danger, but fascism as an even greater danger. 

However, within two years’ time, around May 1942, Gandhi was absolutely certain that a ‘do or die’ struggle against British imperialism was necessary and could not be avoided. What had brought about this change in Gandhi’s priorities? 

First big change was the immediacy of the Japanese invasion. Overrunning of Singapore, Malaya and Burma by Japan suddenly brought the war to Indian shores. The possibility of a Japanese invasion of India created a huge panic among the people. The Indian people living in Singapore and Malaya began to return to India as refugees. Many English people had also been trapped in these countries. The British government made great efforts to escort them to safety but did nothing for the Indians. Great resentment developed in India at the double standards practised by the British. No effort whatsoever was made by the British for the rehabilitation of the Indian refugees. Many Indian voluntary groups emerged at this point to help the Indian refugees. Congress organised the rehabilitation programme for the refugees. This helped to build up Congress as an alternative to the British. There was great disillusionment with the British and people felt betrayed by the government.

Arrival of foreign troops on the Indian soil added greatly to their discontent. India had already been declared as a party to the war by the British. After the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbour in 1941, USA also joined the war and India became a major site of war in Asia. Large number of American and British troops landed in India. Large areas were emptied out for the construction of temporary aerodromes. Many school buildings too were taken over to provide facilities for the troops. There were cases of foreign soldiers misbehaving with the local women. All this added greatly to the already existing indignation against the British.

Diversion of food grains and other essential commodities for the army created a huge scarcity for these items in the countryside. There was virtually a famine-like situation. These accumulated scarcities did eventually culminate in a major famine in Bengal in 1943, claiming three million lives. The Bengal famine of 1943 was easily one of the biggest tragedies of 20th century India and was the theme of Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Ashani Sanket (Ominous Signals).

In short, Indian people and society bore a heavy brunt of the war. Huge calamities were inflicted on them during the war. And the strangest thing was that it was not their war. It evoked no patriotism among them, only aversion. Indian people disliked the Germans and the Japanese. But they disliked England even more for obvious reasons. The British rule had used them as cannon fodder in the war. They became extremely vulnerable victims in a war in which they otherwise had no direct stakes, nor any sympathies with any side.

It was for some of these reasons that tremendous resentment built up among the people against the British. Gandhi also became extremely restless. He was now convinced that a fresh round of struggle against the British had become unavoidable.
This was to be a round of struggle in which no special demands were to be made to the British. They were simply asked to leave. Gandhi could clearly see that India had become vulnerable to Japanese invasion precisely because of British presence on Indian soil. If the British left, or were forced to leave, Japan would have no reason to invade India and the Indians would be saved the suffering and indignity that befell the people of Singapore, Malaya and Burma. The British had proved completely incapable of defending the people of these countries and could not therefore be trusted to defend the Indian people. Indian people had to defend themselves in the eventuality of a Japanese invasion. A round of struggle at this stage was also a way of shaking people out of passivity and preparing them to defend themselves. Gandhi served an ultimatum to the British: “Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy.” Knowing fully well that he and other Congress leaders would be arrested very soon, he made a final appeal to the people: “Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is: “Do or Die.” We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to se the perpetuation of our slavery.”

In August things happened pretty much as anticipated by Gandhi. As soon as the Congress organisation gave a call for Quit India, all its top leaders were immediately arrested and the organisation was banned. The movement suddenly became completely leaderless. It was now that people took the struggle in their own hands. They remembered the instructions of Gandhi but implemented them in their own way. People understood that the open and non-violent defiance of the British rule was no longer possible. They therefore took the struggle underground and attacked the symbols of British authority. Immediately after the arrest of national leaders, spontaneous hartals and demonstrations erupted in most parts of the country in defiance of the law.

The government retaliated by gagging the press. The publication of National Herald and the Harijan stopped for the entire duration of the struggle. Many other papers stopped publication for a shorter duration. People responded by attacking government buildings and hoisting national flags on them. Small groups of people blew up bridges, removed railway tracks, and cut telephone and telegraph wires. Students went on strikes in schools and colleges all over the country. Workers also struck work and many mills were closed down in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. According to government estimates, in the first week of the struggle, 250 railway stations were damaged or destroyed, and over 500 post offices and 150 police stations were attacked. In Karnataka alone, there were 1,600 incidents of cutting of telegraph lines, and 26 railway stations and 32 post offices were attacked. All this was indicative of the extent of anger people felt for the British. In retaliation, the government went on complete offensive and tried to crush the struggle.

By the end of 1942, over 60,000 people had been arrested and around 10,000 people had been killed in firing by the police and the army. Significantly, there were very few civilian casualties, including Englishmen.

One innovative and dramatic feature of the struggle was the setting up of an underground Congress radio for the purposes of news dissemination. The Congress Radio was set up clandestinely from various places in Mumbai whose broadcast could be heard as far as Chennai. Yet another important aspect of the struggle was the tacit and covert support provided to the movement by the Indians serving in British police, army and the civil services. These acts of support, however disguised, demonstrated to the British that in similar situations of national protest in future, the Indians in British services could not be relied upon to put down the rebellion. The tide of nationalism had finally reached the Indians in British services.

Quit India proved to be the final agent in Indian freedom in 1947. Although the British were able to suppress the movement, in the process they lost all moral authority to rule India. When the World War was over and the clouds of uncertainty disappeared from the political horizon, the general mood in India had changed completely. The writing on the wall was clear. The repression used during the struggle had made the British very unpopular and totally unacceptable to the Indian people. The British knew that they had won the war but lost the most precious jewel in the British imperial crown. They had been able to rule India for the last two centuries because of support from sections of Indian population. This Indian support had acted like the pillars that sustained British rule in India. After Quit India these pillars began to collapse. Without the support of these pillars it was impossible for the British to remain in India. Indian freedom also became a catalyst in the whole process of decolonisation. Between 1945 and 1960 nearly 120 colonies in Asia and Africa got freedom from European domination. Quit India was no doubt a turning point in this mammoth process of the dismantling of formal imperialism in the post-war world.

What is the legacy of Quit India movement for independent India? The struggle exemplified the crucial message that under modern conditions, no state system, however powerful and strong, can be stable unless it has the support and the backing of people.

The Quit India movement sent a strong message to the British that they had lost all legitimacy to rule India. Significantly, what applied to the alien British state applies equally compellingly to the Indian national state also. Any state can legitimately rule the territory only if it can reach out to the minds and hearts of the people. No state, however powerful and popular, can rule through purely coercive methods. It can effectively rule only so long as it has the support of people. This is easily the greatest legacy of Quit India movement to the rulers of independent India.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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