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Special Content

Volume-18, 4-10 August, 2018


Quit India Movement: An Important Milestone in Our Struggle for Freedom

With the passing of the 'Quit India' Resolution by the All-India Congress Committee session at Bombay on 8 August 1942, the   die was cast and to quote Pyarelal, Gandhiji's Private Secretary, "the Do or Die era commenced". Early next morning (9th August 1942), Gandhiji and the members of the Working  Committee were taken into custody under the Defence of India Rules. The detention of the Working    Committee members at Ahmednagar  Fort was kept a  secret  while it was made known that Gandhiji and his party were confined at Aga Khan Palace, Poona. All Congress Committees were declared unlawful organisations, Congress headquarters at Allahabad sealed up and AICC Funds confiscated. Wholesale arrests of Congressmen began in every province. Ordinances and new Defence of India Rules  were issued imposing official control over the publication of news and comments to such an extent that several newspapers preferred to close down as protest. National Herald of Lucknow and Harijan were closed down for the duration of the movement. The first reactions to the arrest of the leaders were, however, 'surprisingly mild'. There were spontaneous hartals throughout the country and meetings were held. Processions were also taken out at some places but the demonstrations were peaceful and non-violent. The ruthless measures  adopted by the Government, however, aggravated the situation. The closing of shops and restaurants were forbidden by the new Defence of India Rules. By another addition to the rules the Provincial Governments were empowered to "supersede the local authority in enforcing law and order and for the maintenance of supply of essential services". It was from the 11th August when the Police used force against the processionists, lathi-charged them, and even opened fire to disperse them that the movement took a violent turn. Horace Alexander, of the Friends Service Council, London and a well-known British Journalist, who toured India during the period, corroborates the view  that it was "the repression let   loose by  the police that goaded   to violent fury crowds that have intended to act quite peacefully". Gandhiji in his letters to Lord Linlithgow (dated 29 January 1943 and 7 February 1943) termed it  'leonine violence' which "goaded the people to actsof violence". From then onwards apart from the hartals, protest meetings and similar demonstrations that were to be   expected, concerted outbreaks of mob violence, arson, in murder and sabotage took place. The areas most affected  were  those where the Congress had the greatest hold among the masses   or where    the people had been hard hit by economic crisis aggravated by War. The whole of   north Bihar, eastern districts of UP, Madras, Midnapore in Bengal, coastal areas of Orissa, Satara, Khandesh and Broach in Bombay played an important  role in the struggle. There  was comparatively less trouble in Assam and Sind while the movement in the Panjab and North-Western Frontier Province remained symbolic. In Ballia District in UP, Midnapore in Bengal, Satara in Bombay and in large parts of Bihar people were able to paralyse British administration and set up their government which worked effectively for some time. By the end of August, firm action by the police and the military, to quote the official Report, "Congress Responsibility for the Distur-bances, 1942-43", "had largely succeeded in suppressing mass lawlessness except in Assam" where the troublehad started rather late. The first phase of the movement seemed to have been   over by the second week of  September when some sort of order was restored in most of the disturbed areas except the   eastern provinces. The movement went underground and concentrated attacks of a planned nature were made               on communications,     Government buildings and institutions. Soon the bombs made their appearance in Bombay, Central Provinces and UP. They were at first crude and ineffective but "technical improvement was rapid and by the 12th week of the movement, bombs and other explosive mechanism, some highly dangerous types, were in use on a fairly extensive scale  particularly in Bombay". The movement had spent its fury by the end of the year though sporadic incidents continued to take place till the release of Gandhiji in May 1944.
The  Government used the  most  stringent measures to suppress the movement. "The distur-bances" stated Winston Churchill, the then British Prime Minister, in the House of Commons (10th September 1942) "were crushed with all the weight of the Government ...large reinforcements have reached India and the number  of white soldiers now in that country although very small compared to its size and population are larger than at any time in the British connection". Hundreds of persons were arrested and imprisoned, a large  number were killed chiefly by the  firing of the military and the police. Insult, indignity, injury and even assault was              meted out in complete disregard of the position and status of the persons concerned. Whipping was inflicted on many and heavy collective fines or as K.C. Neogy, a member of the Central Assembly called it, 'communal'  fines were imposed in many areas. The total fines, according to official sources, amounted to over Rs. 90 lakhs, the bulk of which were promptly realized from Hindus. Linlithgow, the Viceroy, specifically asked the Governor of Bihar, T. Stewart "to desist altogether from realizing fines from Muslims". Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, President, All  India Liberal Federation, criticized this communal imposition of collective fines. "Collective fines are being  realized from Hindus, I do not know on what principles", said Sir Tej Bahadur. He asked an English friend, "if you distrust Hindus so much that you cannot discriminate between wreckers and friends, why not hand over all political power to Jinnah". Several members of the Central Assembly made a demand for the setting up of a commission having a majority of non-official members to inquire into the excesses committed by the military and police on the   people. K.C. Neogy listed the charges against the administration, as"general pillage and  arson and wanton damage to property by the police and the military, shooting at random in places not affected by any hooliganism just for the purpose of creating an impression, random shooting of innocent persons when hooligans had already left, assault or shooting of non-violent crowds or individuals, merciless assaults, particularly whipping and insults and indignities on all and sundry". There was even machine- gunning of the mobs from air at five places- Patna, Bhagalpur and Monghyr in Bihar, Nadia in Bengal and Talchar city. As early as 15 August 1942, the Viceroy informed the Secretary of State that he had authorised machine-gunningfrom air of saboteurs in Bihar and would have to resort to this weapon in other areas also, if need be. But these measures were to be kept out of statements to the Press. And Churchill boastfully said that "what was at one time feared would become the most serious rebellion in India since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 fizzled out in a few months with hardly  any loss of life". Evidently he meant loss  of British life. It is very difficult to  note with strict accuracy the exact number of persons condemned to these cruel punishments or to death as martyrs for the cause of freedom.  The official records are neither complete nor accurate. A few other sources also mention some figures which are also not reliable. The civilian casualties from August to December, according to official figures, were 1040 killed and many more injured. This is obviously an under-estimate considering the   number of firings by police and military, officially recorded as 669 besides machine-gunning of the mobs from air. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, the figures of the dead might vary between 4,000 and 10,000 which at best could only be a guess. Over 150,000 persons had been arrested upto the end of 1943. The cost of damage was officially estimated at about Rs. 30 lakhs.
As a protest against the Government's policy, many Indians renounced their titles. Included in them was Premier Allah Baksh of Sind who was promptly dismissed by the Governor for "his      recent ren- unciation of honours". A little later (17th February 1943) three members of the Viceroy's Executive Council, H.P. Modi,  N.R. Sarkar and M.S. Aney resigned from the Viceroy's Executive Council on "a fundamental issue" namely Gandhiji's fast. Some of the European officers also had to suffer for their sympathetic attitude towards the Congress. Sir Arthur Moore, Editor of the Statesman, who wrote several articles criticizing the policy of Lord Linlithgow and to a lesser extent of L.S. Amery, the then Secretary of State, had to resign under pressure. E. P. Moon, an ICS officer of the Panjab, had to sail home pensionless as he had made critical comments on the detention of a distinguished Indian lady in an inferior class, in  a private letter to the lady's brother which was intercepted   in internal censorship. Sir Thomas        Stewart, Governor of Bihar, had taken disciplinary action against certain officers who in his opinion, had exceeded their authority. He had to resign on alleged grounds of health, a few months later.
(Excerpts from Publications Division’s book Quit India Movement by Dr. P.N. Chopra)