In his book The Discovery of India, written while he was in prison during the Quit India movement, Jawaharlal Nehru commented:
While we were doubting and debating, the mood of the country changed, and from a sullen passivity it rose to a pitch of excitement and expectation. Events were not waiting for a Congress decision or resolution; they had been pushed forward by Gandhiji’s utterances, and now they were moving onwards with their own momentum. It was clear that, whether Gandhiji was right or wrong, he had crystallized the prevailing mood of the people. There was a desperateness in it, an emotional urge which gave second place to logic and reason and a calm consideration of the consequences of action. (Nehru, 1961, p.504)
The Quit India movement was the mass upsurge which decisively tilted the balance of power in Indian politics in favour of the anti-colonial movement. Britain’s economic difficulties following the World War, the Soviet-led global anti-colonial thrust, and the Indian National Army inspired dissent among the Indian armed forces, hastened the advent of Indian freedom during 1945-47. Decolonisation, however, had become almost inevitable by then, thanks to the Quit India Movement.
Strangely, among all the militant movements that defined the anti-colonial struggle, the Quit India movement is the least researched, and least commemorated. Bizarre though it may sound, but the movement was perhaps too ubiquitous to leave neatly distinguishable marks. Historian Sumit Sarkar wrote that for a few months during 1942-43, the phrase “underground resistance” lost meaning for the colonial state, because almost the whole country seemed to be part of the underground movement (Sarkar, 1983). Of course, there were moments that got etched in our collective consciousness. Aruna Asaf Ali hoisting the national flag at Gowalia Tank Maidan, Jayaprakash Narayan breaching the prison walls of Hazaribagh, are fondly remembered. But, even these moments hardly defined the movement. It was a genuine mass upsurge that occurred in several phases between 1942 and 1944 and threw up a new anti-colonial leadership which went on to define the post-colonial politics.
The Congress leaders famously got arrested on August 9, 1942, soon after the Quit India declaration. Anticipating the arrests, they had drafted a twelve-point programme before August 9. This program outlined how the movement should be conducted. A charter of demands was not needed, since the demand was loud and clear: Quit India. The Congress programme not only included the usual Gandhian methods of satyagraha, but also a plan to promote industrial strikes, holding up of railways and telegraphs, non-payment of taxes and setting up of parallel governments. Several versions of this programme were in circulation among the Congress volunteers in different parts of the country.
On the question of non-violence, Gandhi this time was remarkably ambivalent. “I do not ask from you my own non-violence. You can decide what you can do in this struggle”, said Gandhi on August 11 . Three days later on the August 8, speaking on the Quit India resolution, he urged: “I trust the whole of India today to launch upon a non-violent struggle.” But even if people deviated from the path of non-violence, he assured: “I shall not swerve. I shall not flinch. (Sanyal, 1988, p.30)” People interpreted this in their own ways and these interpretations were to some extent influenced by the district and village level, often unknown, Congress leaders and students, who took over the leadership after the key leaders were all arrested between August 9 and 11.
Sumit Sarkar has identified three phases of the Quit India movement (Sarkar, 1983). It initially started as an urban revolt, marked by strikes, boycott and picketing, which were quickly suppressed. By the end of 1942, the focus shifted to the countryside, which witnessed a major peasant rebellion, marked by destruction of communication systems, such as railway tracks and stations, telegraph wires and poles, attacks on government buildings or any other visible symbol of colonial authority and finally, the formation of “national governments” in isolated pockets. This brought in severe government repression forcing the agitation to move underground.
The third phase was characterised by “terrorist activities”, which primarily involved sabotaging of war efforts by dislocating communication systems and propaganda activities by using various means, including a clandestine radio station run by hitherto unknown Usha Mehta from “somewhere in India”. Not only the educated youth participated in such activities, but also bands of ordinary peasants organised such subversive actions by night, which came to be known as the “Karnataka method”. What is important, these so-called “terrorists” enjoyed enormous popular support and patronage, and it seemed to the British that almost the whole country was part of the underground movement. The state could suddenly trust no one. As time passed, underground activities came to be channelled into three streams, with a radical group under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan organising guerrilla warfare at India-Nepal border, a centrist group led by Congress Socialists like Aruna Asaf Ali mobilising volunteers throughout India for sabotage activities, and a Gandhian group led by Sucheta Kripalani and others emphasising non-violent action and constructive programme. All this continued till 1944, at which time the movement declined, but left a huge imprint on mass psyche. This laid the ground for the post-war mass upsurge which did not stop till freedom was achieved. Gandhi, while re-affirming his non-violent principles after his release from prison, never condemned the violence of the movement, and even justified it as necessary in the face of the greater violence of the colonial state.
The war-time hardships, Britain’s use of Indian resources for fighting the European war, the de-prioritizing of India’s defence against the oppressive and racial Japanese army, and certain war-time policies of the British government certainly pushed people towards rebellion (Kamtekar, 2002). The “denial policy”, which was at work in Bengal, is a good example of repressive war-time policy. This was designed to impede the progress of Japanese soldiers by the removal of food from coastal areas susceptible to invasion, as well as the removal of means of transport which meant, in practice, thousands of country boats. This brought immense hardships to the coastal areas. And as news of it travelled inland, it angered the ordinary Indian, many of whom remembered Britain’s instrumental use of Indian soldiers in the First World War.
Simultaneously, the distinct possibility of a complete collapse of British power due to the Second World War presented a new opportunity for winning freedom. Historian Indivar Kamtekar has perceptively written:
The tottering colonial state was a mirage, but it was a mirage that mattered. Now easily obscured by hindsight, perhaps it allowed the hostility to the state to find its dramatic expression. Men cannot rebel if there seems no prospect of success: in 1942 they may have rebelled because there seemed to be such a prospect. (Kamtekar, 2002, p.98).
However, nothing should take us away from the fact that above all, it was the political groundwork of the 1930s that made the mass upsurge possible. And various shades of the Left – both within the Congress and outside – played an instrumental role in preparing this ground, which produced a whole new generation that yearned for freedom. By the 1930s, the Communist Party of India (CPI) had stared to blossom. Within the Congress, Marxist ideas shaped the work of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) which included Jayaprakash Narayan, Achhut Patwardhan, Asoke Mehta, Yusuf Mehrali, Narendra Dev and Minoo Masani. It had the support of Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Let us now take a look at this crucial, but often overlooked phase of anti-colonial organizing.
The 1930s witnessed a marked shift in the democratic and anti-feudal movements in the princely states. The All-India States Peoples’ Conference, which had been formed in 1927 to coordinate the freedom struggle in the native states, had so far, received apathetic treatment from the Congress. However, in 1936, Nehru attended the fifth session of the States Peoples’ Conference and stressed the need for organizing mass movements. In October 1937, the Congress resolved to provide moral and material support to the peoples’ movements in the states. Consequently, the Quit India Movement was not limited to British India, but it spread to princely states as well.
Women’s organizations matured in the 1930s and a large number of women in both rural and urban areas became active with the Congress Socialists and the Communists. Back in the 1920s and 1930s many middle-class educated women had joined the communist movement, and had participated in mobilising the working classes, in organising industrial actions and in campaigning for the release of political prisoners. By 1941, the women’s wing of the All-India Students Federation (AISF) had about 50,000 members. This continuous process of organizing put women in a strong position to provide leadership during the Quit India Movement. Historian Geraldine Forbes has written:
In a contingency like this [referring to the arrest of the Congress leadership following the Quit India resolution] some prominent women leaders took upon themselves the responsibility of coordinating the movement in the face of unprecedented police repression. Sucheta Kripalani co-ordinated the non-violent resistance, while Aruna Asaf Ali gave leadership to the underground revolutionary activities and this she did by politely turning down Gandhi’s advice to surrender. However, the most important aspect of this movement was the participation of a large number of rural women taking their own initiative to liberate their country (Forbes, 1998, p.222).
The labour upsurge under communist leadership in the late 1930s did not die down despite heavy state repression. A second wave of general strikes in cotton mills, jute mills and the railways were organised in 1929-30. Subsequently, a number of CSP leaders and Communists – following the 1935 Comintern decision to follow a “united front” strategy – joined hands with left-leaning figures within the Congress to organize workers. There was increasing working class enthusiasm and militancy around 1937-38, manifested in another strike wave across the country. This consolidation of communist position among the working classes impacted the Congress. The Haripura and Tripuri sessions presented a distinct possibility of a decisive left-ward shift within the Congress. That did not quite happen but the success of the left forces within the united front left a powerful mark on the anti-colonial struggle. It made the working class question a key issue within the freedom struggle.
The Quit India movement was characterized by a widespread rural revolt. This was perhaps the most important reason behind the movement’s mass character. This too was made possible by the organizational work done in the 1930s (Bandyopadhyay, 2004). This decade witnessed the growth of radical peasant organizations. The Kisan Sabha movement had started in Bihar under the leadership of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati in 1929. Initially, its role, by Sahajanand’s own admission, was meant to promote class harmony, so that the escalating landlord-tenant friction did not jeopardise the nationalist broad front. But when the Sabha was revived again in 1933, it increasingly came under the influence of the socialists, so that by 1935 it adopted abolition of zamindari as one of its programmes.
The Kisan Sabha movement also gained in momentum in central Andhra districts under the leadership of the CSP leader N.G. Ranga. He organised a number of peasant marches in 1933-34, and under his stewardship at the Ellore Zamindari Ryots Conference in 1933, a demand was raised for the abolition of zamindari. In 1935, Ranga and the Communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad tried to spread the peasant movement to other linguistic regions of Madras Presidency, organised a South Indian Federation of Peasants and Agricultural Labour and initiated the discussion for an all-India peasant body. Similar initiatives came about in Odisha as well.
All these radical developments on the peasant front culminated in the formation of the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at the Lucknow session of the Congress in April 1936, with Sahajanand Saraswati elected as its first president. The Kisan Manifesto, which was adopted in August, contained radical demands, such as the abolition of zamindari, graduated income tax on agricultural income, granting of occupancy rights to all tenants and scaling down of interest rates and debts. The formation of Congress ministries raised great expectations and brought in greater militancy among the peasantry, but it also brought disillusionment since the ministries hardly met the demands outlined in the Kisan Manifesto. This disillusionment once again found expression during the Quit India Movement.
To take an example, in the province of Bihar, where the Kisan Sabha had begun to organise a powerful peasant movement around the issue of bakasht land where permanent tenancies had been converted into short-term tenancies in recent years, the conservative Congress ministry renegotiated their alignment with the landlords and entered into formal agreements with them. When the proposed tenancy legislations of the Congress were significantly watered down because of landlord pressure, the peasants were not impressed, and they staged in 1938-39 a militant movement under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha for the restoration of the bakasht lands. This militancy later spilled over into the revolts of 1942 and 1943 (Damodaran, 1992). This is an important example, since it shows how discontentment against the Congress did not hold people back from taking the initiative in what was a Congress-initiated movement. To some extent it is testament to Gandhi’s legitimacy, but more than that, it shows the maturation of radical peasant anti-colonialism.
Not everyone in the country was rebelling though. There were important social groups who consciously stayed away from the movement. Many Muslims – though not all – stood aloof from the campaign. The Muslim League, which did not approve of the movement, gradually began to claim that it represented the majority of the Indian Muslims. But it is worth noting that Muslims did not oppose the Quit India actively and there was no major incident of communal conflict throughout the whole period (Bandyopadhyay, 2004). Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, by then a major Dalit leader, also did not support it. But once again, although many of his supporters did not join, we have evidence of Dalit participation in the Quit India movement in various regions and cross-caste unity was also not uncommon (Bandyopadhyay, 2004).
It is also important to remember that the Hindu Mahasabha condemned the Quit India movement as “sterile, unmanly and injurious to the Hindu cause” and stalwart Hindu leaders like V.D. Savarkar. B.S. Moonje and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee wholeheartedly supported British war efforts that were allegedly being wrecked by the Congress campaign (Chakrabarty, 1997). But despite this official line, a strong group of Mahasabha members led by N.C. Chatterjee seemed eager to participate in it and under their pressure the Mahasabha Working Committee had to adopt a face saving, but vague resolution stating that defence of India could not be supported unless freedom of India was recognised with immediate effect. The Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) remained aloof as well.
The Communist Party of India, following the involvement of Soviet Russia in the war in December 1941, became another important political group which did not support the Quit India movement. The British government, then anxious to find any group that could embarrass the Congress and support war efforts, promptly withdrew the ban on the Communist Party of India. However, despite this official line, there is ample evidence to show that many individual communists were swayed by the patriotic emotions of the day and actively participated in the Quit India movement (Pandey, 1988).
The movement left a legacy like none other. First and foremost, it is a great example of a united, militant, and autonomous mass movement against imperialism. Every Gandhian mass movement had autonomous tendencies, embodied especially in peasant and workers’ struggles in the 1920s which did not fully conform to Gandhian principles. The Quit India movement was however the only one where pressures from below led Gandhi and his associates to move away from their avowed non-violent principles. This adjustment was done not in response to the events of the movement, but in anticipation of them. Other political parties and leaders too had to deal with dissenters within their ranks. From the Hindu Mahasabha to the Muslim League, none could fully dictate the actions of their members. The movement was also extremely broad-based, involving almost all strata of society not only in the capacity of participants, but also as leaders.
The Quit India movement presents a unique moment in global anti-colonial politics due to the radical binary that was at its core. It was the colonized against their colonizers with a one-point demand for freedom. The circumstances, interests of pressure groups in India and abroad, the government’s willingness to offer concessions – nothing mattered anymore. This radical mood represented the maturation of Indian anti-colonialism.
The expansive groundwork of the 1930s also integrated demands and aspirations of various social groups into the freedom struggle like never before. This in turn gave meaning, substance and depth to Indian nationalism and formed the bedrock of aspirations that shaped the Indian constitution and post-colonial politics. This process also gave us a new generation of leaders, many of whom have been mentioned above, who played key roles in post-colonial India. The memoirs and experiences of the movement, in fact later, fed into the anti-Emergency movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and other stalwarts of the freedom struggle.
As we navigate a historical moment in which the achievements of progressive, democratic anti-colonialism are being swept aside by the rising tide of Hindu supremacism, the Quit India movement becomes an important milestone to recall. The movement, especially its student, women, Muslim, peasant, worker, and Dalit leaders, needs to be actively commemorated and remembered. Their hard work and sacrifices laid the foundations for a plural, democratic India – foundations which now stand shaken, but are far from being destroyed. These foundations need proactive care and repair. This task now falls to us: today’s democratic, anti-fascist forces.
1. These have been extensively covered in the Subaltern Studies volumes. But the focus there is mostly on the popular, subaltern pressures on the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movements.