The Second World War broke out on September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland. Before 1939, when the War clouds were hovering over the world, the I. N. C. had repeatedly declared that it would oppose any effort to use Indian men, money and resources in a war to serve British imperialism. In March 1939, India dissociated itself from the British policy and resolved upon resisting the imposition of war on India. It observed 23 August as ‘Anti-war Day’. It expressed its disapproval of the fascist rulers and protested against the exploitation of India for imperial ends.
On 3 September 1939, the Viceroy unilaterally associated India with Britain’s declaration of War on Germany, without bothering to consult the provincial ministries or any Indian leader. The Declaration reiterated the subordinate status of Indians and their lack of independence, despite the sizeable constitutional advances granted under the Government of India Act, 1935. The war put the national leaders in a dilemma. The question before them was—does the self-interest of Indian people, the struggle for freedom from alien rule to be considered of greater importance than the international battle to preserve liberal democratic values against Fascism and political oppression? This was one issue of the debate. The second issue added a further and complicated dimensions to the dialogue, that of non-violence i. e., is non-violence a mere technique of action most suited to the nationalist struggle or a complete philosophy which should be extended world wide?
The Muslim League viewed the war situation as one from which it could profit. Although its ultimate aim was independence and partition of India yet it did not demand as a pre-condition for its support, immediate fulfilment of these aims, except merely an assurance from the Government that it would not be bypassed or ignored in any post-war settlement between Congress and the British over India’s future.
For the Congress, the crisis of conscience was most acute. The Congress had full sympathy with the victims of Fascist aggression and Gandhi on his part was for full and unquestioning cooperation with Britain. But the question was how far was possible for an enslaved nation to aid others in their fight for freedom. There were sharp differences within the Congress.
Gandhi wrote in Harijan that his sympathies were with England and France from the purely humanitarian standpoint. Subhas Chandra Bose was opposed to cooperation with British government as he believed that only after the defeat and break up of the British empire could India hope to be free. To him, the British empire in peril offered a rare opportunity to India to achieve freedom. Nehru, on the other hand, felt that though Britain, France and Poland were victims of fascist aggression, they were themselves imperialist countries and war was the result of the inner contradictions of capitalism. He felt that Indians should neither support the war nor take advantage of Britain’s difficulties. The Congress Working Committee in its meeting on 10 October 1939, expressed sympathy with the free world and condemned the German aggression but at the same time declared that it could not associate herself with the war unless the British government publicly state that India would be granted political independence at the end of War. Nevertheless, the Committee deferred its final decision on the issue and invited the government to define and clarify its war aims. If the war was to be fought for the maintenance of the status quo, India would have nothing to do with it.
The British attitude was entirely negative. By brushing aside the pro-British sympathise and warnings of the consequences, the Viceroy on 17 October refused to define British war aims beyond stating that Britain was resisting aggression. He merely repeated the old offers of Dominion Status in an indefinite future, i. e., the British government ‘after the end of the war would be willing to enter into consultation with representatives of several communities and parties and interests in India and with the Indian princes, with a view to securing their aid and cooperation in the framing of such modifications as might seem desirable in the 1935 Act. ’ As an immediate measure, he offered to set up a consultative committee of India politicians and princely representatives with no real executive power whose advice might be sought by the government whenever it felt necessary. The Congress had asked for a bread and it has got a stone’. Nehru and Azad jointly declared that there was no common ground between the British and the Indian stand. The Congress decided not to support the war efforts and called upon the Congress ministries in the provinces to resign. By November 1939, the Congress ministries were out of office. In fact, the viceroy s attitude was not an aberration; it was a part of general British policy to take advantage of the war to regain for the white dominated central government and bureaucracy the ground lost to the Congress from 1937 onwards.
The resignation of the Congress ministries proved unfortunate in many respects. Withdrawal by the Congress led to autocratic rule in many provinces. Also it gave an opportunity to the government to rely more and more on the support of the Muslim League and adopt an indifferent attitude towards the Congress. In fact Jinnah got a sort of veto on further constitutional progress and fully exploited the situation. Laying down office by the Congress also strengthened the hands of the League which soon after began to air its demand for Pakistan. The Day the last Congress Ministry resigned (December 22, 1939), Muslim League celebrated the day as the Deliverance Day (of the Indian Muslims) and three months later the League at its Lahore Session, on March 23, 1939, passed the infamous Pakistan Resolution.
The Second World War affected India in many ways. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Indian Communists changed their anti-war and anti-British stand and came to support the British war efforts. Secondly, Japan’s entry into the war and its speedy victories in South-east Asia, including the capture of Rangoon and Andamans, caused a near panic in India, leading to the launching of the Quit India movement. On the other hand Subhas Bose took the Command the Indian National Army with the Japanese support.
The Congress gave the government an opportunity. Gandhi declared that he did not want to win freedom for India at the cost of the ruin of Britain. Similarly Nehru said that India is completely opposed to the idea of triumph of Nazism. The Congress Working Committee also resolved that non-violence was not suitable for resisting an external enemy and indicated that it could participate in the prosecution of war provided a national government is installed in India and an announcement regarding the goal of independence is made for India. The government’s reply to the Congress offer of cooperation came in the form of a statement by the Viceroy on 8 August 1940, known as ‘August Offer. ’
AUGUST OFFER (August 8, 1940)
The British government rejected the Congress demand for setting up a national government on the ground that it could not contemplate transfer of their responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life. Nor could they be party to the coercion of such elements into submission to such a government. The offer made three proposals: (i) an immediate expansion of the Viceroy’s Executive Council by enlarging Indian representation, (ii) establishing a war advisory council consisting of representatives of British India and Indian states to meet at regular intervals, and
(iii) promotion of practical steps to arrive at an agreement among Indians ‘on the form which the post-war representatives body should take and the methods by which it should arrive at its conclusions, and secondly, on the principles and outlines of the constitution itself. ’ The Viceroy clearly stated that the moment when the commonwealth is engaged in a struggle for existence is not one in which fundamental constitutional issues can be decisively resolved.
The announcement did not satisfy the nationalist opinion because Congress had demanded immediate democratic responsible government. Moreover, the Congress did not approve of the British proposal that no change in the existing set up would be made without the consent of the Muslim League because this assurance to the League breathed the foulness of usual British game of divide and rule. As Nehru wrote, ‘It is the old language of imperialism and the content has changed in no way’. Muslim League also rejected the ‘August Offer’ on the ground that “it would not be satisfied with anything short of Pakistan. ”
INDIVIDUAL DISOBEDIENCE MOVEMENT (October 17, 1940-41)
After the August Offer, the entire Left within the Congress wanted militant anti-war and anti-government action. It characterised the war as an imperialist war and asserted that the war crisis provided an opportunity to achieve freedom through an all-out struggle against British imperialism. Nehru was ambivalent. Inspite of the imperialist character of war, he did not want to do anything that would imperil anti-Nazi struggle.
Gandhi, however, ruled out mass civil disobedience and opted for civil disobedience of a very limited kind. The sole issue was freedom of speech – individual Congressmen chosen by Gandhi would make anti-war pronouncements and get themselves court arrested. Starting from Vinoba Bhave and Jawaharlal Nehru, about 20, 000 had gone to jail by June 1941, but the movement petered out and most of the prisoners were released. This was the weakest and the least effective campaign ever started by Gandhi. The aim was not to embarrass the government but only to register the protest and hostility to a war waged without the consent of Indian people. On the other hand, the Viceroy enlarged the Executive Council from 7 to 12 and the number of Indian members was increased from 3 to 8, all of them to be chosen from outside the Congress and the League fold. The Indians formed a majority in the Viceroy’s Executive Council though vital departments like defence, home and finance remained under the control of British members. A National Defence Council was also set up with purely advisory functions.