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Relevance of Quit India~II

Subrata Mukherjee |

The August Rebellion had erupted with the slogan of “Do or Die”. It had certain specific features ~ (a) targeting of government outfits was pre-meditated with the objective of destroying the symbols of the British Raj; (b) it was also emphasised that privateproperty ought not to be damaged or destroyed; (c) there was a well-planned move both by Indian industrialists and workers to subvert the economy; (d) the Muslims did not participate in the rebellion reaffirming the cleavage between the two communities.

This underscored the fact that the Muslims never believed that the Congress represented their interest. They consolidated themselves as a separate force; (e) the British never expected such a massive rebellion and at the beginning the effort was to underplay its impact. However, the Viceroy subsequently admitted that the Quit India movement was “by far the most serious rebellion since 1857”.

The massive use of extralegal methods and strict censorship had crippled the rebellion by mid-September 1942. This enabled the Raj to recover almost all the areas which had been liberated by the rebels.

But a well-organised underground resistance continued. It demonstrated that Indians were capable not only of bravery and sacrifice, but also possessed a remarkable capacity to function as a secret military force with excellent coordination, radio stations and use of trained fighters and firearms. The leadership was provided by the socialists, preeminently Jayprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan, and Aruna Asaf Ali. This underground activity continued till early 1944.

Though the August rebellion could not win India’s freedom, yet in advancing the cause of Independence, it had enormous significance. It demonstrated the people’s will to attain independence and that the people were ready for any sacrifice to achieve it.

The British also realised that it would not be possible to rule India for long even with the use of the repressive forces that it commanded. It preceded the revolt of the Indian ratings just before Independence and the tremendous popular support for the INA trials.

The British perception, expressed by Seeley at the end of the nineteenth century, that Indians lacked a sense of nationalism and the empire can be maintained at nominal cost was shattered. The most serious outcome was the total removal of the Congress and Gandhi from the political scene and the refusal of the British administration to enter into any discussion with the party.

The Congess denied the charge that it was responsible for the violence. Yet it refused to withdraw the Quit India resolution. The absence of the Congress enabled the Muslim League to spread its wings all over India. It consolidated its hold over the Muslims and this paved the way for Pakistan. It also set up a Muslim National Guard.

The increasing prominence and domination of Jinnah became apparent when the Gandhi-Jinnah talks were held in September 1944, to evolve a settlement ~ an effort that failed. In Nepal, given the repressive rule of the Ranas, political dissidence shifted to India and the two future Prime Ministers, BP Koirala, and MP Koirala, joined the civil disobedience and Quit India movement.

Prof Jayanta Kumar Ray has observed that the absence of the Congress from the political scene created a windfall for Jinnah and he “successfully promoted the idea of Partition”. He adds that “Gandhi and his followers could be accused of lack of foresight and vision”. Particularly puzzling was the fact that Gandhi’s present action was a total reversal of his earlier stand. Indians were unprepared for any kind of passive resistance against the empire.

In June 1942, Ambedkar was nominated to the Viceroy’s Executive Council and at the same time, the Quit India movement was conceived and his opposition to the Congress grew. The Communists opposed it because after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the imperialist war became a people’s war. C Rajagopalachari, one of the most respected Congress leaders, opposed the Quit India movement with an alternative plank to find ways and means of finding common ground with the British.

His estrangement from the Congress became total when he pleaded for a rapproachment with Jinnah. His warning that the Quit India movement would further alienate the Congress from the Muslims and the British was prophetic. In retrospect, what was the net gain for us from the Quit India movement?

The government did not initiate any discussion and even the possibility of Gandhi’s death did not alter its stand. Undoubtedly, the Muslim League and Jinnah increased their strength by consolidating their posistion in Punjab and Bengal. As Ramachandra Guha has remarked: “Jinnah demanded and obtained a further parity, of himself with Gandhi”.

The Communists, even after opposing the Quit India movement, increased their strength and contact with people specially in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The Hindu Mahasabha also enhanced its influence and support base, MN Roy and his followers also opposed the Quit India movement but their influence and impact continued to be marginal.

However, the Mahatma’s blunder was not to call for the Quit India Movement but to accept Jinnah as the sole leader of the Muslim League in 1944. As Maulana Azad wrote in his India wins Freedom, the supremacy that Jinnah enjoyed was a gift of Gandhi. “Large sections of the Indian Muslims were doubtful about Mr Jinnah and his policy but when they found that Gandhiji was continually running after him and entreating him, many of them developed a new respect for Jinnah”.

Clement Atlee, the Labour Prime Minister, when asked in 1959, about the impact of the Quit India movement on the British decision to leave India, replied that it was minimal. This was a gross understatement as a letter of Anthony Eden to Winston Chruchill revealed his confession that the “biggest challenge” for Britain was to keep India within the Commonwealth for the next ten years.

Eden added: “Next to wining the war, keeping India in the Empire, should be the supreme goal of British policy”.

The historical importance of such epochal events cannot be gauged by some of its immediate and unexpected outcomes. The explosive situation created by the failure of the Cripps Mission and the Quit India movement fuelled the anger and frustration of the entire nation.

The subsequent floods and the Bengal famine also dissilusioned the people, for which Gandhi cannot be blamed. Though the British did suppress the rebellion by force, in the long run the suppression was counter-productive.

The subsequent victory of the Congress in all the elections was enough to prove that the immense sacrifice of so many ordinary Indians was not in vain.


(The writer is former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)