Special Content

Issue no 19, 07-13 August 2021


Quit India Movement: Character and Organization

The long drawn-out battle of India’s struggle for freedom is a saga of supreme sacrifices made by the Indian people. There were several landmarks in this struggle against the mighty British Empire. The first mile-stone was the great revolt of 1857 which was spearheaded by Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tatya Tope, Azimullah and Nana Saheb. The failure of the uprising made the Indian intelligentsia aware of the ineffectiveness of armed resistance.

Towards the end of the 19th century and thereafter, the political scene took a new turn. The frustration arising out of delayed and unsatisfactory British reforms, pursuit of the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy and high[1]handed repression fomented an extreme type of national movement in Bengal and Maharashtra. The leaders of this movement were Lokamanya Tilak, Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and others.

Gandhiji launched five movements of all-India character against the British rulers from 1919 to the attainment of Independence in 1947. These movements are known as the Non-Cooperation Movements of 1919 and 1921, the Civil Disobedience Movements of 1930 and 1932 and the ‘Quit India’ Movement of 1942.

The ‘Quit India’ Resolution of August 1942 marked the turning point in India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhiji explained it as “a complete and immediate withdrawal of the British from India at least in reality and properly from all non-European possessions”.

Gandhiji was arrested before he could unfold the strategy for the movement. He did not anticipate his arrest as pointed out by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his autobiography India Wins Freedom and believed that the “British would hesitate to take any drastic steps with the Japanese knocking at India’s doors”. He thought that this would give the Congress time and opportunity to organise an effective movement. In fact Gandhiji envisaged a period of negotiations before launching the struggle and his letter to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow (dated 14 August 1942) clearly brings out this fact. He referred to his speeches at the AICC in which he indicated an interval which could have been taken advantage of. The negotiations, according to D. S. Tendulkar (Mahatma — Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) were to cover at least a period of three weeks. Gandhiji was thus not able to finalise his programme due to his sudden arrest. According to Jawaharlal Nehru “even privately Gandhiji did not suggest any plans of the movement except saying that in the event of the failure of negotiations, he would appeal for some kind of non[1]cooperation and one-day cessation of all work in the country.” However, the official biographer of the ‘Mahatma’ quotes verbatim the draft of instructions prepared by Gandhiji and marked confidential which was placed before the Working Committee on 7 August for consideration.

This draft of instructions and speeches of Gandhiji and other leaders at the AICC helps to give an idea of the movement contemplated. This finds further corroboration in the programme chalked out by Dr Rajendra Prasad for the guidance of the people of Bihar which is referred to in his autobiography. There were to be some significant departures from the earlier satyagrahas. “The movement was not to be confined to Congressmen only”, Sardar Patel made it clear but it was intended to “take in all men who called themselves Indians”. It was to be a mass movement and every element of the society, the princes, the peasants, the soldiers, the civilians, the workers and the students were called upon to play their role in this “final struggle”. Unlike earlier movements people were not to court arrest voluntarily and if excesses were committed by the Government, resistance was to be offered. There was to be no submission to coercion or injustice. Soldiers were on the other hand, asked to refuse to shoot down their own brethren. Villagers and labourers were to refuse to vacate their farms and homes required for military purposes, unless suitable compensation was offered. “We do not want to hinder military activities but neither shall we submit to arbitrary highhandedness.” Those employed in Government offices, Government factories, railways, post offices, were not to go on strike in the initial stages of the struggle. But they were expected to inform the authorities that they were with the Congress and it was “their clear duty to resign if asked to perpetrate excesses.” Students were to boycott schools and colleges and those above 16 years of age were to participate in the struggle. Princes were warned to “read the sign of the times and part with the responsibilities of administration to their subjects; otherwise they would have no quarter in free India”. The movement was to start with hartals but no one was to be coerced to close his shop. Processions and meetings were to be arranged only in villages where there was no fear of violence or disturbances. In case of arrest of a leader, another was to take his place and in the last resort, everyone was to be his own leader. Salt was to be manufactured wherever possible and those who had “the courage and are prepared to risk their all should refuse to pay even the land tax to the Government we cease to recognize.” It was emphasised that if anybody had the spirit of communalism or harboured hatred or ill-will against Englishmen, he would best help the struggle by keeping aloof. The struggle was to be carried on ceaselessly and Gandhiji’s last message to the nation immediately before his arrest was ‘Do or Die’. “Every man is free to go to the fullest length under ahimsa by complete deadlock, strikes and all other non-violent means. Satyagrahis should go out to die and not to live. It is only when individuals go out to seek and face death that the nation will survive— Karenge Ya Marenge (we shall do or die)”

Gandhiji thus envisaged a movement which was to be more forceful and wider in scope than his earlier satyagrahas. But non-violence was to remain the sheet[1]anchor and secrecy was to be opposed.

The phraseology used by Gandhiji in his various statements in the months preceding his arrest as, “the contemplated struggle was to be a conflagration....I would not hesitate to take any risk howsoever great; after all it is an open rebellion....My intention is to make it as short and swift as possible...Leave India to God. If that is too much then leave her to anarchy....” (Harijan, 24 May) and his last message before arrest ‘Do or Die’ had no doubt similarity with the war slogans at least to the western ear, accustomed only to battles in which both parties are armed, but anyone who had been a careful follower of Gandhiji’s speeches and writings, as pointed out by Horace Alexander of the Society of Friends, London, or one who had lived in the atmosphere of his mind as the millions in India had done, they must appear in quite another light. For Gandhiji any systematic breach of law, howsoever non-violent was open rebellion. It may be pointed out here that extracts from his writings had been torn from their context and a ‘sinister’ meaning put upon them by presenting them in a false setting.

A careful study of the available materials including Gandhiji’s correspondence with the Government and the proceedings of the Working Committee and the All India Congress Committee and the statements made by the leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad before and after their release, bring out clearly that “violence was never contemplated by Gandhiji at any stage.” The main emphasis of the Bombay Resolution was that the People “must remember that non-violence is the basis of this movement.” Even a revolutionary leader like Jaya Prakash Narayan made it clear in his open letter of instructions to all Fighters for Freedom that “Gandhiji is in no event prepared to depart from non-violence. With him it is a question of faith and life principle.” The arrest of Gandhiji and other leaders who knew the working of his mind, left the responsibility of chalking out a programme of action on the shoulders of those who had escaped arrest. Included in them, were Achyut Patwardhan, Sucheta Kriplani, Ram Manohar Lohia, Gopinath Bardaoli and Sadiq Ali who prepared a sort of instructions from the All India Congress Committee to all Provincial Congress Committees regarding the programme of the movement. Later on Aruna Asaf Ali joined the group. The movement gained momentum after the escape of Jaya Prakash Narayan and his colleagues from Hazaribagh Jail in October 1942, when efforts were made to coordinate the activities in all the States.

Programmes were framed with some reorientation and in a highly significant document entitled The Freedom Struggle Front, the Socialist leaders unfolded their strategy. Their plan envisaged “a combination, a joint enterprise, a common stand where every group, every party, every class, and section and every individual can find a place to fill without (losing) their separate identities”, to push on the upsurge of a whole people. Different social groupings were to be roped in the struggle and “discontent and frustration in each layer of society was to be nursed into a disruptive force” to help the onward march of revolution. “The training of workers, the issue of leaflets, news sheets, slogans, the organisation of contacts, the raising of funds, frequent reviews of progress and issue of directions to the fighting line” were to be urgent administrative problems of the Freedom Struggle Front”. The first circular issued under the signature of Jaya Prakash Narayan addressed to “All Fighters for Freedom” blamed the Congress for not placing any programme before the people when the first phase of the movement, i.e., uprooting of the British rule in many parts of the country had been over. He justified the use of arms to fight the British in terms of the Bombay resolution. His stress was on “intensive propaganda work among masses, peasants in villages, workers in factories, mines, railways and elsewhere”. Then there was work to be done in the “Indian army and services in native States and on the frontiers of India”, and Jaya Prakash’s other appeals were addressed to American officers and soldiers to deter from shooting Indians, to students, to the peasants, and others. Programme followed programme and repeated attempts at re-organising were made in the hope of imparting new life” to the cause but by February 1943 the movement was practically over. Symbolic demonstrations however, continued on certain days of national importance as the Independence Day, Tilak Anniversary, ninth day of every month, Gandhiji’s Birthday, etc., till Gandhiji’s release in May 1944. The chief weakness of the movement was lack of coordination.

There was left no central agency after the arrests of the leaders to give directions or coordinate the activities in various provinces. The lack of organisation, according to Jaya Prakash Narayan, “was so considerable that even important Congressmen were not aware of the progress of the revolt and till late the course of rising remained a matter of debate in accordance with the Congress programme.” Organisation meant secrecy which had no place in Gandhiji’s conception of non-violent Satyagraha. No less important was the lack of a clear cut programme of action. When the first phase of the rising was over, there was no further programme placed before the people. Jaya Prakash cited the instance of Ballia and some other places where the people had seized power but did not know what to do next. A few days later a contingent of soldiers was able to restore British power without much resistance. The people, according to the Socialist leader, should have set up in these areas their own units of revolutionary Government and created their own police and militia. Lack of funds was another drawback and in this connection Jaya Prakash deplored the role of the wealthy who “have proved to be not only extremely selfish but also exceedingly small men.” The movement was mostly confined to students, peasants and the lower middle classes. Clive Branson, a British soldier, who was in India during the period, was misinformed when he wrote that the proletariat and peasantry are almost completely quiet. Though the labour unions under Communist influence had decided against participation in the movement, workers did not lag behind and there were large scale strikes in mills in Kanpur, Jamshedpur and Ahmedabad. Muslims excepting the small group of nationalists followed the advice of the Muslim League leader M.A. Jinnah and kept aloof from the struggle. The Muslim League, in a resolution passed at its Bombay session on 16 August 1942, condemned the Congress in launching the movement for the liberation of the country and called on the Muslim masses to abstain from any participation in the movement initiated by the Congress and to continue to pursue their own normal peaceful life.

However, there were no communal clashes anywhere except on a very minor scale in isolated areas. In the earlier stages of the struggle, the Communists supported the Congress and preached violent overthrow of the British rule in India. However, in May 1943 when Russia joined hands with the Allies against the Axis, the Communist Party of India advocated the building of a “national united front of the entire freedom loving people of India for the defence of this country from Fascist oppression and for its liberation from Imperialist enslavement.” Indian Communists henceforward openly opposed the movement which, to quote the General Secretary of the Communist Party, P.C. Joshi, “cuts the nation away from freedom’s battle and divides progressive forces in Britain and India.” According to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Communists “openly joined the war propaganda and did everything to help the British war effort. M.N. Roy accepted funds from Government openly and carried on propaganda in favour of war.” It must, however, be added that in spite of the Party’s directive there were a number of Communists, mostly ex-terrorists and revolutionaries who refused to follow the Party’s no-war policy.

The ‘Quit India’ Movement is a landmark in India’s struggle for freedom. It was the last and, undoubtedly, the bitterest fight for freedom ever waged against the British in India. It surpassed all the earlier movements including the Great Revolt of 1857 in dimensions and intensity. It was spread over almost all the provinces from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. The violent upsurge of the masses and their readiness to sacrifice everything for the emancipation of the motherland showed their grim determination to throw off the foreign yoke. It warned the British that they were not wanted in India and that “their belief that any section of Indian people—the Muslims, the depressed classes or the States’ people—favoured continuance of their rule was a delusion.”

The complete breakdown of law and order in many parts of the country and the setting up of parallel independent governments by the people made them realise that they could not hold their sway over India for long. Sardar Patel echoed the new mood of the people when he said “never before had such widespread upsurge happened in India in the history of the British raj, as they did during the last three years. We are proud of the spirit in which the people reacted... the leaders were all of a sudden kidnapped from the midst of the people and people acted on the spur of the moment. Non-violence had taken no doubt deep root but one had to face the reality that violence was the order of the day in the whole world. It would be like the Devil quoting the scriptures, if the world outside criticised India if she switched over from non-violent attempt to regain independence”. The enthusiastic response of the people from one end of the country to the other, many instances of individual and collective heroism and bravery in the face of heavy odds and their untold sufferings and sacrifices hastened the British decision to quit India. Gandhiji had, after all, succeeded in convincing the British that they were not morally justified in keeping India under bondage and they had to quit.


(Excerpts from Publications Division’s book Quit India Movement by Dr. P.N. Chopra.)