The failure of the Cripps Mission plunged the country into despondency and anger. The fuel that fed this fire was supplied not only by the hypocrisy of the British government, but also by a host of other factors. The War situation was worsening day by day. After the fall of Singapore on 15 February, Rangoon on 7 March and Andamans on 12 March, 1942, the seas around India were dominated by the Japanese. While Cripps was negotiating in Delhi, Japanese bombs fell on Trincomale, Kakinada and Vizagapatam. The government of Madras removed its offices into the interior and panic spread all along the Eastern coast from Trincomale to Calcutta. The news of Allied reverses and British withdrawal from South East Asia and Burma, and the trains bringing wounded soldiers from Assam-Burma border increased the fear of Japanese occupation of India. Moreover, there was widespread discontent due to rising prices and war time shortages. The popular willingness to give expression to this discontent was enhanced by the growing feeling of an imminent British collapse.
Japan’s entry into the War (December 1941), and its unprecedented successes in Singapore (February 1942) as also in Malaya and Burma, brought India within the range of actual hostilities. The myth of British invincibility- particularly on the sea-was shattered. To many optimists it seemed that the end of the British Empire was imminent.
In 1942 there was a remarkable change in Gandhi’s attitude and he seemed to be in an usually militant mood. As the possibility of Japanese invasion became real, Gandhi refused to accept that Japanese could be liberators and believed that India in the hands of Indians was the best guarantee against fascist aggression. Meanwhile, the war had its obvious impact on economic and social life of Indians, many of them had reached lie threshold of their tolerance and were ready for a final showdown with the British imperialism.
The failure of Cripps mission had created for Gandhi a moral crisis. For him, the World War was a moral conflict—a struggle between freedom and democracy versus bondage and dictatorship. He looked upon Britain as a freedom loving people but Cripps had shattered this appraisal and falsified his expectations, as a result of which the Indian people were filled with distrust and hostility towards the British. So the question was how to free Britain from the taint of hypocrasy and to restore the dignity, self-reliance and integrity of the Indian people, and to convert their illwill into goodwill. The solution he found was to confront the British and to make them concede independence immediately and without any strings attached. In an article in the Harijan on 26 April 1942, he wrote, ‘‘Leave India in God’s hands or in modern parlance to anarchy. Then all parties will fight with one another like dogs or will, when real responsibility faces them, come to a reasonable agreement…. Whatever the consequences to India, her real safety and that of Britain too lie in orderly and timely British withdrawal from India. ”
The failure of the Cripps Mission and the threat of Japanese invasion brought about an immediate and distinct change in Gandhi’s attitude. In April 1942 he wrote that if Britain made an ‘orderly and timely withdrawal’ from India, Japan would probably leave India alone. If, however, Japan entered India even after the ‘withdrawal’ of the British, it would be the duty of the Indian people to offer non-violent resistance to the invaders. In May 1942 he pleaded that the British and the Indians should be ‘reconciled to complete separation from each other’, for ‘the presence of the British in India is an invitation to Japan to invade India’ and their ‘withdrawal’ would ‘remove the bait’.
(A) Quit India Resolutions
On July 14, 1942, the Congress Working Committee, which met at Wardha, passed a long resolution referred to as the ‘Quit India’ resolution. It renewed the demand that “the British rule in India must end immediately and reiterated the view that freedom of India was” necessary not only in the interests of India but also for the safety of the world… ” “The solution to the communal tangle has been made impossible by the presence of the foreign Power whose long record has been to pursue relentlessly the policy of Divide and Rule. Only after the ending of foreign dominations and intervention”, there will be an agreement between different classes and communities. ”
Between 14 July and 7 August, many things happened. The response of the Government to the appeal was entirely negative. The Government looked upon the Congress demands as ill-timed and tantamount to an invitation to the enemy operations towards India. It had waited for two long years to crush the Congress and the long awaited opportunity had presented itself. The Government decided to take drastic action against the Congress. It was encouraged in its resolve by the attitudes of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha both of whom were hostile to the Congress policy and the appeal of the liberal leaders like Sapru to abandon the civil disobedience movement.
The historic meeting of the All India Congress Committee was held on 8 August 1942 at Bombay. It took into consideration the July resolution and adopted a resolution which gave the justification for asking the British to quit India and explained its implications. The operative part of the resolution was ‘The Committee resolves to sanction, for the vindication of India’s inalienable right to freedom and independence, the starting of a mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale so that the country might utilize all non-violent strength it has gathered during the last twenty-two years of peaceful struggle. The Congress placed Gandhi in command of the movement but also warned that a time may come when Congress would be unable to issue instructions to the people for guidance, ‘When this happens every man and woman who is participating in this movement must function for himself or herself within the four corners of the general instructions issued. It also declared that the transfer of power which Congress was seeking, will belong to the whole of India. In his ‘Do or die’ speech, Gandhi laid stress on a number of things such as
- Forget the differences between Hindus and Muslims and think of yourself as Indian only,
- Our quarrel is not with the British people, we fight their imperialism,
- Feel from today that your are a free man or woman and not a dependent,
- Do or die, either free India or die in the attempt’. Gandhi declared that the passing of the resolution did not mean that the actual struggle was going to commence immediately.
- He proposed to meet the Viceroy to plead with him for the acceptance of the Congress demands. In the meantime, he gave advice to the journalists, the Princes, government servants, soldiers and students regarding their duty towards the movement.
- He exhorted all those Indians, whether in the Congress or not, who desired freedom for the whole of India and fully believed in the weapon of truth and non-violence to join the movement.
(B) British Reaction and Sudden Out-burst of the Movement
This time, the British strategy had also changed. They, too, were determined to take a hard line and prevent the movement from getting out of their hands and embarrassing the war efforts. Men who preached open rebellion, even if non-violent, could not be allowed to remain free. It did not wait for the movement to be formally launched. Not only did it strike at once, it struck as a heavy blow as lay within its power, unrestrained by any consideration of law, justice or morals. The Quit India resolution was passed on 8 August and on 9 August, Gandhi and all members of the Congress Working Committee were arrested. Simultaneously, arrests took place all over India and a large number of Congressmen were thrown into prison. They were to remain in prison until virtually the end of War. The Congress was declared illegal. The removal of top leadership left the organization without any leader of all-India, provincial, district, taluka or town level, even before the movement had started or a programme of action adopted. What followed was not a movement proper, but more an outburst of spontaneous anger—unorganized, unprepared and undirected of a harassed and distraced people.
Arrest of Congress leaders in the night of August 8-9, was followed by unprecedented mass fury that goes by name of “August Revolution” in nationalist legends. Unusual intensity of the movement surprised everyone. Viceroy Linlithgow described it as “by far the most serious rebellion since 1857. ” It was violent and totally uncontrolled from the very beginning, as the entire upper echelon of the Congress leadership was behind bars before it began. And therefore, it is also characterised as a “spontaneous revolution”, as “no pre- conceived plan could have produced instantaneous and uniform results. ”
(C) The Three Phases of the Movement
The history of the Quit India movement as revealed in recent studies shows that it was not just impulsive response of an unprepared populace, although the unprecedented scale of violence was by no means premeditated by the Congress leadership, as claimed by the government. Quit India movement has been classified into three phases:
- It initially started as an “urban revolt”, marked by strikes, boycott and picketting, which were quickly suppressed. This period which lasted for three to four days was marked with strikes, demonstrations, processions, meetings and clashes with police and military in most cities. Bombay was the main storm centre from 9 to 14 August, Calcutta witnessed hartals from 10 to 17 August and there were violent clashes with heavy casualties in Delhi. In Patna, control over the city was virtually lost for two days. A great enthusiasm was shown by the labourers in mills and factories. The textile mills, particularly those in Ahmedabad, had to be closed. The Tata Steel Plant was totally closed for 13 days and the sole labour slogan was that ‘they will not resume work until a national government has been formed. ’ Similarly workers of Aircraft Factory, Bangalore and Imperial. Tobacco Company joined their fellow strikers. On the whole urban middle class was extremely prominent in this phase. The government resorted to repressive measures in order to suppress the movement. The indiscriminate firings changed the character of the movement into a riot. Very soon the situation went completely out of control.
- In the second phase of the movement from the middle of August 1942, the focus shifted to the countryside with militant students fanning out from centres like Benares, Patna and Cuttak, destroying communications on a massive scale. Railway stations, police stations and post offices were attacked, buses and trams were destroyed. In several provinces, the infuriated mobs also attempted to capture court buildings. Eastern UP, Bihar, Midnapur in Bengal, parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Orissa were the major centres of activity where attempts were made to set up parallel governments, albeit short lived. The first one was proclaimed in Ballia under the leadership of Chittee Pande. Though it could not run for more than a week, it released all Congress leaders. Similarly, in Midnapur, the Jaitiyo Sarkar came into existence in December 1942 and lasted up to September 1944. It set up courts, distributed surplus paddy and did cyclone relief work. In Satara, a parallel government of Prati Sarkar was set up with Nana Patil as an important leader and this lasted till 1945.
- The third phase was characterised by revolutionary terrorist activities, which primarily involved sabotaging of war efforts by dislocating communication systems and propaganda activities by various means, including clandestine radio station run by hitherto unknown Usha Mehta “from somewhere in India”.
Because of the large scale repression, the movement from September 1942 onwards entered its longest and most formidable phase. This was characterized by terrorist activities by educated youths and was directed against communications and police/army installations, occasionally rising to the level of guerilla war. In Bombay, Poona, Satara, Baroda, parts of Kerala, Karnataka and UP, underground organizations became active. An all-India underground leadership emerged with prominent members such as Aruna Asaf Ali, Ram Manohar Lohia, Sucheta Kripalani, Biju Patnaik, R. P. Goenka and Jaiprakash Narain, which kept up popular morale by continuing to provide a line of command and a source of guidance to activists throughout the country. They also collected and distributed money and materials like bombs, arms and dynamite to the underground groups.
Regionwise, the four main centres of the Movement were Bihar-Eastern UP, Midnapur, Orissa and Maharashtra, Karnataka. In Punjab and North Western Province, the Movement remained quite low. Politics in Punjab was already taking a communal colour among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, while wartime army employment and rising grain prices kept the peasantry quite, which had developed a prosperous status. The movement was also weak in Madras Presidency except in Guntur, coastal Andhra, Coimbatore and Ramnad. Rajaji’s opposition may have been a significant factor in Madras and the Communist hostility kept the agitation low in Kerala. Even in the Princely States, the movement fell below the intensity attained in 1938-39.
(D) Attitude of the Political Parties towards the Movement
No other organized political party came forward to support the movement. The Hindu Mahasabha repudiated the Congress policy; its fire was concentrated upon the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, and its policy was ‘to continue to sit on the fence and watch the results (of the War)’. Jinnah’s condemnation of the movement was unequivocal. The Muslim League described it as an attempt ‘to force the Mussulmans to submit and surrender to Congress terms and dictation’. It called upon the Muslims ‘to abstain from any participation in the movement’, and their response to this directive was total. The Communist Party actively opposed the movement. The ‘rebels’ found active allies among the militant revolutionary groups such as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army in North India and the Anushilan Samiti, Jugantar party and Bengal Volunteers in Bengal. But these groups had different leaders and different policies, and their activities were not co-ordinated.
(E) Critical Appraisal of the Movement
There is no doubt that the Quit India movement was crushed, but it proved to be of epic proportion. The movement was conspicuous by a high level of popular participation and sympathy for the national cause. It removed the illusion that the British empire was morally justified and that the majority of the Indian masses were loyal and demanded continuation of British rule. It was realized by the British that they were no longer wanted in India. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Wavell pointed out that it would be impossible to hold India by force after the War, given the likely state of the world opinion or the British popular opinion or even the army attitudes. The decision to start negotiations after the war was not the gift of the Labour Government but was influenced by the observation of Wavell. The Quit India movement placed the demand for independence on the immediate agenda of the national movement. All talks of dominion status were consumed in the fire of revolt. India could have nothing short of independence. After the movement, there was no retreat.
The worst fall-out of the movement was that the Congress, on account of the arrest of its leaders, was isolated from grass-root realities and the constitutional politics. While the Congress leaders were languishing in jails, the League was consolidating its position and establishing itself as a major force. The reorganization Of the League reached fruition during this period. The League like Congress also introduced two anna membership and began to build up bases in villages. It promised not only an Islamic state but also an economic utopia where Muslims will be as prosperous, as Hindu moneylenders, landlords or zamindars. On the whole, this process made the demand tor Pakistan seem realistic.