The Quit India movement might have been crushed by the British within a week, but it unleashed the desire for complete independence
The “Quit India” Movement, also known as the August Movement was a Civil Disobedience Movement launched by Gandhi for Satyagraha (independence).
The movement was accompanied by a mass protest on non-violent lines, in which Gandhi called for “an orderly British withdrawal from India”. Through his passionate speeches, Gandhi moved people by proclaiming “every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it must be his own guide…”. “Let every Indian consider himself to be a free man”, Gandhi declared in his fiery “Do or Die” speech the day the Quit India Movement was declared.
The next day, Gandhi, Nehru and many other leaders of the Indian National Congress were arrested by the British Government, most of whom had to spend the next three years in jail, until World War II ended in 1945. Disorderly and non-violent demonstrations took place throughout the country in the following days.
By the middle of 1942, Japanese troops were approaching the borders of India. The pressure was mounting from China, the United States and Britain to solve the issue of the future status of India before the end of the war. In March 1942, the Prime Minister dispatched Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to India to discuss the British Government’s Draft Declaration. The draft granted India Dominion status after the war but otherwise conceded few changes to the British Government Act of 1935. It also offered establishment of a constituent assembly and the rights of provinces to make separate constitutions. All this would, however, be granted at end of the war.
The Congress was not happy with these future promises, with Gandhi likening it “It is a post dated cheque on a crashing bank”. Other factors which led to the Quit India Movement was the fear of Japan attacking India, terror in East Bengal and the fact that India had realised that the British could not defend the country anymore.
Gandhi seized upon the failure of the Cripps Mission, the advances of the Japanese in South-East Asia and the general frustration with the British in India. He called for a voluntary British withdrawal from India. From 29 April to 1 May 1942, the All India Congress Committee assembled in Allahabad to discuss the resolution of the Working Committee.
Although Gandhi was absent from the meeting, many of his points were admitted into the resolution: the most significant of them was the commitment to non-violence. On 14 July 1942, the Congress Working Committee met again at Wardha and resolved that it would authorise Gandhi to take charge of the non-violent mass movement. The Resolution, generally referred to as the ‘Quit India’ resolution, was to be approved by the All India Congress Committee meeting in Bombay in August.
But there was also a difference of opinion among the Indian leaders. While Gandhiji demanded that the British should immediately withdraw from India, Subhash Chandra Bose from Berlin urged for co-operation with Japan as with this means India would be liberated.
The difficulties of Britain would be the opportunities for India. Since the Congress was opposed both to British and Japanese imperialism, the call of Subhash did not appeal to them. Another eminent leader of the Congress, C. Rajagopalachari did not support the proposal of immediate withdrawal of the British.
He was, rather in favour of accepting the Cripps proposal. Being unable to agree with the proposals of Mahatma Gandhi, Rajagopalachari resigned from Congress.
Gandhi adopted a stern attitude to pressurise the British Government to quit India. But when this proposal did not receive any response from the government, the Congress Working Committee met at Wardha on 14th July 1942 and adopted the famous “Quit India Resolution”. With a little modification, this resolution was adopted by the All India Congress Committee at its Bombay session on 8th August 1942. The Committee asserted India’s right to freedom and decided to start a mass struggle on non-violent means on the widest possible scale.
Addressing the Conference, Gandhiji gave the call “Do or Die”, either to get India free or to die in this attempt. But before the movement could be launched Gandhiji and all other leaders of the Congress were imprisoned. Thus, the people were left leaderless. People took it as a challenge and resorted to hartals, mass meetings, processions etc. The Government banned them all and imposed section 144 at most of the places.
The police forcefully dispersed the public meetings, “lathi charged” and even fired at the public. The Congress was declared an unlawful association. In the absence of leaders, people voluntarily did whatever they could in protest of the British rule. Under this circumstance, it was impossible to continue the movement via non-violent means.
The people disrupted railway lines, burnt out police and railway stations, destroyed telephone and telegraph poles. The revolt was spearheaded by the students, peasants, workers and lower middle class people. People set up parallel government at some places. The government was able to crush the open movement with a heavy hand. But the underground movement continued for a long period. The Socialist Party under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narain, Ram Manohar Lohia, and Aruna Asaf Ali largely participated in organising the underground movement.
The Split Within
The Quit India Movement was not supported by the Muslim League and the Communists. When Russia joined the war on behalf of the Allies, the communists began to demand the withdrawal of the movement and pleaded all support to the government in its war effort. The Muslim League considered the movement as the attempt of the Congress to turn out the British forcefully as a result of which Muslims would be enslaved by the Hindus. Even the depressed class leader Dr B.R. Ambedkar described the movement as irresponsible and an act of madness.
The movement collapsed as it lacked leadership and organisation from the beginning. Jayaprakash Narain said that the movement failed due to lack of co-ordination among the Congress people agitating in different parts of the country. There was an absence of a clear cut programme of action. Another weakness of the movement was that it was confined only to students, peasants and lower middle class. But the upper middle class had lost their faith in the Gandhian methods of action.
The movement was not a dismal failure; rather the movement of 1942 gave the death blow to the British rule. India’s march towards freedom was hastened. This movement sparked off an aggressive national consciousness. Many people sacrificed their careers, property and even lives. During this time, most students were drawn towards Subhas Chandra Bose who was in exile and the only support Indian got from outside the country was from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who compelled the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to agree to the demands of the Indians. But the British refused to do so and said that this would only be possible when World War II ended.
Isolated incidents of violence broke out around the country, but the British acted quickly and arrested thousands of people and kept them in jail till 1945. Apart from filling up jails with rebellious leaders, the British also went ahead and abolished civil rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Though despite its flaws, the Quit India Movement remains significant because it was during this movement that the British realized that they would not be able to govern India successfully in the long run and began to think of ways they could exit the country in a peaceful and dignified manner.
1939 saw the outbreak of World War II, following which Britain went to war with Germany. Since India was an important part of the British Empire, India also became part of the war. On 10th October 1939 the Congress Working Committee declared their unhappiness regarding the hostile activities taking place in Germany and announced that India refused to be a part of the war because it was against fascism.
On 17th October 1939 the Viceroy released a statement in which he announced that the reason Britain was waging a war was to restore peace in the world. He also promised that once the war ended the government would amend the Act of 1935 which included a provision for the establishment of a “Federation of India” which would be made up of British India and some or all of the princely states. Simultaneously, important political changes were taking place in England. Churchill came to power as the Prime Minister and being a conservative, he was not moved by the demands of the Indians. Following the rejection of the demands made by the Congress and the large scale dissatisfaction that was prevailing across the country, Gandhi decided to launch the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Gandhi used his weapons of Satyagraha and non-violence against the British and chose his follower Vinoba Bhave to start the movement. Satyagrahi’s across the country made passionate speeches urging people not to support the war. This was immediately followed by the arrest of around 14,000 Satyagrahis.
One of the greatest achievements of the Quit India Movement was that it kept the Congress Party united all through these challenging times. The British dismayed by the Japanese Army advancing towards the Indian-Burma border arrested Gandhi and all members of the party’s working committee. The Congress Party was further banned by the British. Large protests took place all across the country following this. Despite Gandhi’s mantra of non-violence not all protests were peaceful and bombs were exploded and government offices were burned down.
The British responded to this by mass arrests and public flogging. Hundreds of innocent people died in this violence and the Congress leadership was cut off from the rest of the world till the war was over. Despite his failing health and the recent demise of his wife, Gandhi who was in prison, took on a 21 day fast and continued with his resolution. The British released Gandhi due to his ill health, but Gandhi continued his opposition and asked for the release of the Congress leaders who were in prison.
By 1944, even though the Congress leaders had not been released, peace was restored to India. Many nationalists were disappointed that the Quit India Movement had failed. The Congress Party, in turn, faced severe criticism from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All India Muslim League and the Communist Party on the failure of the movement.
The movement also created a World-wide opinion particularly in U.S.A. and China in favour of India’s independence. The ‘Quit India’ movement, more than anything, united the Indian people against British rule. Although most demonstrations had been suppressed by 1944, upon his release in 1944 Gandhi continued his resistance and went on a 21-day fast. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s place in the world had changed dramatically and the demand for independence could no longer be ignored.
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