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The Quit India Movement 

The Quit India Movement (Bharat Chhodo Andolan) was the final call, the definitive organized movement of civil disobedience for the immediate independence of India from British rule issued by Mahatma Gandhi on August 9, 1942 and made famous by his slogans Do or Die (Karenge Ya Marenge in Hindi) and No Violence (Ahimsa). Unlike the previous two Gandhi-led revolts, Quit India was more controversial, and specifically designed to obtain the exit of the British from Indian shores.

World War II and Indian Involvement

In 1942, Indians were divided over World War II, as the British had unilaterally and without consultation entered India into the war. Some wanted to support the British during the Battle of Britain, hoping for eventual independence through this support. Others were enraged by the British disregard for Indian intelligence and civil rights, and were unsympathetic to the travails of the British people, which they saw as rightful revenge for the enslavement of Indians.

Apart from the Indian National Congress, only an extreme minority led by nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose took any decisive action. Bose organized the Indian National Army with the help of the Japanese, and openly sided with the Axis Powers. The INA fought hard in the forests of Assam, Bengal and Burma, but died by the thousands owing to poor arms and supplies from the Japanese, and lack of support and training. The Japanese were merely using the INA as a forward flank to exhaust British resources. Bose himself was supposedly killed in a plane crash near Taiwan in 1945.

Although Bose's support for Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan was not shared by most Indians, his audacious actions and radical initiative energized a new generation of Indians. The Quit India Movement tapped into this energy, channelling it into united, cohesive action.

The Congress Party had earlier taken the initiative upon the outbreak of war to support the British, but were rebuffed when they asked for independence in return. Gandhi had not supported this initiative, as he could not reconcile an endorsement for war (he was a committed believer in non-violent resistance to tyranny, used in the Indian Independence Movement and proposed even against Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese) and had a deep suspicion of the British attitude, mindset and leadership, realizing such support would not be rewarded, well ahead of other Congressmen.

Resolution for Immediate Independence

On July 14, 1942, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution demanding complete independence from Britain. The draft proposed that if the British did not accede to the demands, massive civil disobedience would be launched.

However, it was an extremely controversial decision. A prominent Congress national leader Chakravarti Rajgopalachari quit the Congress over this decision, and so did some local and regional level organizers. Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were apprehensive and critical of the call, but backed it and stuck with Gandhi's leadership till the end. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr. Rajendra Prasad were openly and enthusiastically in favor of this revolt, as were many veteran Gandhians and experienced freedom-fighters, socialists like Asoka Mehta and Jaya Prakash Narayan, and young, more radical Congressmen. Tens of thousands of college students were also enthusiastic about this revolt.

The Congress had lesser success in rallying other political forces under a single flag and mast. Smaller parties like the Communist Party of India and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed the call. Mohammed Ali Jinnah's opposition to the call led to large numbers of Muslims cooperating with the British, and the Muslim League obtaining power in the Imperial provincial governments.

On August 8, 1942 the Quit India resolution was passed at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). At Gowalia Tank, Bombay, Gandhi urged Indians to follow non-violent civil disobedience. He told the masses to act as an independent nation and not to follow the orders of the British. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country responded to the call. Many thousands of revolutionaries who employed violent means and were outside the Congress rallied to the call of their non-violent resister brothers and sisters.

Suppression of the Revolts

The British, already alarmed by the advance of the Japanese army to the India/Burma border, responded the next day by imprisoning Gandhi at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. All the members of the Congress Party's Working Committee (national leadership) were arrested and imprisoned at the Ahmednagar Fort. Due to the arrest of major leaders, a young and till then relatively unknown Aruna Asaf Ali presided over the AICC session on August 9 and hoisted the flag. Later, the Congress party was banned. These actions only created sympathy for the cause among the population. Despite lack of direct leadership, large scale protests and demonstrations were held all over the country. Workers remained absent en masse and strikes were called. However, not all the demonstrations were peaceful. Bombs exploded, government buildings were set on fire, electricity was cut, and transport and communication lines were severed.

The British swiftly responded by mass detentions. A total over 100,000 arrests were made nationwide, mass fines were levied, bombs were air-dropped and demonstrators were subjected to public flogging. Hundreds of resisters and innocent people were killed in police and army firings. Many national leaders went underground and continued their struggle by broadcasting messages over clandestine radio stations, distributing pamphlets, and establishing parallel governments. The British sense of crisis was strong enough that a battleship was specifically set aside to take Gandhi and the Congress leaders out of India, possibly to South Africa or Yemen, but such a step was ultimately not taken out of fear of intensifying the revolt.

The entire Congress leadership was cut-off from the rest of the world for over three years. Gandhi's wife Kasturba Gandhi died and personal secretary Mahadev Desai died in a short space of months, and Gandhi's own health was failing. Despite this, Gandhi went on protest 21-day fasts and maintained a superhuman resolve to continuous resistance. Although the British released Gandhi on account of his failing health in 1944, Gandhi kept up the resistance, demanding the complete release of the Congress leadership.

Though the revolt shook the foundations of British rule, its forceful and quick suppression did reduce the force of the revolt. By early 1944, India was mostly peaceful again, while the entire Congress leadership was incarcerated. A sense that the movement had failed depressed many nationalists, while Jinnah and the Muslim League, as well as Congress opponents like the Communists and Hindu extremists, sought to gain political mileage, criticizing Gandhi and the Congress Party.

Legacy: Road to Independence

The movement in fact, had succeeded. The war had sapped a lot of the economic, political and military life-blood of the Empire, but the powerful Indian resistance had shattered the spirit and will of the British Raj to continue ruling India, and had made it clear that after the war, even a greater, larger movement would be launched and would succeed, as no excuse or distraction from the issue would remain.

In addition, the British people and the British Army seemed unwilling to back a policy of repression in India and other parts of the Empire even as their own country lay shattered by the war's ravages. The writing was on the wall, and freedom only a matter of time.

By early 1946, all political prisoners had been released, and the British openly adopted a political dialogue with the Indian National Congress for the eventual independence of India. On August 15, 1947, India won its freedom.

A young, new generation of nationalists had heeded the Mahatma's call, suffered trials and tribulations in an extremely critical time, and come out victorious. Being Quit India graduates was a matter of great prestige, and the Congress Party had sown the seeds here of a new generation of nationalists who would become the first generation of independent Indians. Quit India graduates used the great discipline and spirit they imbibed to brave the tragedy and travails of the Partition of India, to draft a republican constitution, and to establish the strongest enduring tradition of democracy and freedom in post-colonial Africa and Asia, thus giving birth to the world's largest democracy.


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