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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


August 8, 2020

The Quit India Movement is Launched

On 8 August, 1942, at a park in Mumbai, the Indian independence activist and leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi gave a speech calling for the withdrawal of the British colonial government from India. The speech, which would later come to be called the ‘Quit India speech’, gave rise to a protest movement across the country, the Quit India Movement. The consequences of the speech would have grave implications for India’s eventual independence, and expose deep divisions in Indian society that persist to the present day.

To many observers, it seemed that over the early 1900s India had made significant leaps towards self-rule. The Indian Councils Act 1909, allowed for greater, though still limited, Indian representation in provincial councils. The Government of India Act, 1919, potentially gave Indians power over some ministries (though not finance or public order) in the provinces. The Simon Commission, a group of British members of Parliament, visited India in 1928 to study the prospect of reform; though their presence was opposed by both of the major Indian political groups, the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League, their recommendations supported establishing representative government in the Indian provinces and led to a series of Round Table Conferences in the early 1930s at which British and Indian political figures discussed the issue. The result of these drawn-out negotiations was the Government of India Act, 1935, which increased the franchise in India to some 35 million people and gave the provinces a significant measure of autonomy. Indians were now allowed to form majorities and take control of provincial governments, though they remained excluded from power at the national level.

The Act was by no means universally popular. In India, it was seen by many in the Congress as a weak measure that still denied Indians control over their own foreign relations, defence, fiscal policy, currency, and other important powers of the state. In Britain, it angered political conservatives (Winston Churchill prominent among them) who fiercely opposed any moves to increase Indian autonomy. Nevertheless, there was huge Indian participation in the first elections to be held under the Act in 1936-7, at which the Congress won majorities in most provinces where elections were held. While Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other Congress leaders weren’t satisfied with the reforms, they saw it as a necessary step in the right direction and a door to further independence.

Unfortunately, matters abroad upset the delicate balance of power. In 1939, war broke out between Britain and Germany; the Second World War, lasting 6 years, would become the most devastating conflict in human history. What concerned the Congress was the fact that Britain had not just declared war on Germany, but also done so on behalf of its colonies. The British Viceroy in India, Lord Linlithgow, declared war on Germany without consulting the provincial governments, or really any Indians at all. The Congress was furious, but extended the possibility of cooperation if a national government with Indian participation were formed, and if Britain committed to Indian independence after the war. The compromise was refused; every Congress provincial government immediately resigned. The experiment in Indian self-rule had lasted barely two years.

Over the next three years, fruitless negotiations continued between the British government, the Congress, the Muslim League, and other political actors such as the Punjab-based Unionist Party. Winston Churchill, immovably opposed to the Indian government, was now Britain’s Prime Minister. Meanwhile, huge amounts of money, resources and manpower from India were appropriated for the increasingly desperate British war effort. The Congress refused to cooperate, and in 1942, the British government sent Sir Stafford Cripps, a left-leaning Labour politician sympathetic to India and friendly with Nehru, to India to negotiate Congress cooperation in the war effort. The Cripps Mission, in hindsight, was doomed to failure; Cripps’ power to offer concessions was unclear, and he seems to have been deliberately undermined by elements in both the British government and the Indian colonial administration. As a consequence, the Congress was highly skeptical of Cripps’ offer of Dominion status and independence for India after the war, and he returned to Britain empty handed.

The events of those years made the Congress and its allies realize that without true independence, any Indian self-rule would remain a tenuous institution that could be arbitrarily withdrawn by the British at any time. By mid-1942, the Congress had changed their demands from a gradual path to self-rule to immediate independence. In July 1942, the All-India Congress Committee passed a resolution demanding independence from Britain and promising a massive campaign of civil disobedience. On 8 August, at a large meeting in a park in Mumbai, Gandhi gave a speech calling for the British to leave, and inaugurating ‘the biggest struggle of my life’. The Quit India Movement had begun.

The Congress’ strategy was to coordinate a countrywide campaign of protest, resistance, and civil disobedience. The British had seen the vast grassroots Congress machine at work during the 1937 campaign, and were resolved not to let them have free reign. Within days of Gandhi’s speech, the entirety of the Congress leadership were in jail. Over the next two years, countless protests sprang up; police stations were attacked and set aflame, jails were broken into, government orders were resisted, peaceful protests and marches took over cities. Yet the extent of the movement fell far short of Gandhi’s hopes without the coordination of its leaders. By 1944, when Gandhi and others were released, the country had returned to an uneasy peace.

Why did the movement sputter out so quickly? Historians have been quick to note that the Muslim League under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in the midst of buidling support for the idea of an independent Muslim nation of Pakistan, refused to take part in the movement. What is perhaps less well-known is that the major Hindu organizations, Vinayak Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha and M.S. Golwalkar’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, refused Gandhi’s call. So too did the Unionist Party in Punjab. Major industrialists supported the British war effort, profiting from wartime contracts. Even the ordinary people of India, in those first few years, benefited from increasing military recruitment and the steady jobs that came with it. The princely states, hundreds of semi-independent polities that occupied large portions of India’s territory, supported the British government, on whose patronage they often depended. The Congress itself was split, with some of its leadership favoring cooperation and dialogue with the British; Chakravarti Rajagopalachari resigned from the Congress and took no part in the movement. The Quit India Movement, meant to unite India in opposition to the British, had instead made clear the deep divisions present at every level of Indian society.

In 1947, India achieved independence. The Quit India Movement has been cited as a factor that made the British realize the impossibility of governing India for much longer. Others credit the move to the rising left-leaning and anticolonial sentiment in Britain itself. Still others reference the anticolonial stances of America’s president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the decolonization rhetoric written into the Atlantic Charter agreements between America and Britain. The divisions revealed and intensified by the Quit India Movement, however, did not disappear even if the freedom struggle itself had been won. For decades - and even now - relations between Congress governments and the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh remained hostile. The Muslim League’s refusal to cooperate with the Congress in 1942 deepened the rift between those two organizations, and quite possibly pushed many Congress leaders into supporting the devastating Partition of India as a means by which to expel the Muslim League from the country. To a lesser extent, Punjab’s political parties and the industrialists and business interests that backed the British would be out of favor with the Congress for some time. The princely states either acceded to India or Pakistan or, in some cases, were forcibly integrated into one of the two new nations; their privileges and sovereign rights remained a political problem in India for decades after independence.

In many ways, the Quit India Movement’s failure was a lesson in the politics of the new nation of India. In particular, it highlighted the somewhat neglected fact that, at independence, India wasn’t a unified country under the Congress banner. It was a patchwork of petty princedoms, religious tension, political conflicts, and deep ideological divides. Some of these problems have been resolved since independence - many have not. The Quit India Movement was an important contribution to India’s freedom struggle, but it was equally important as an oracle of independent India’s future.

Sahaj Sankaran

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