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India's Struggle for Independence
Freedom Movement

Dates

Profiles

Trials of freedom

Essays

Ganesh Festival

India in 1970s


The Story of India's Freedom Movement --- By Mayank Bhatt
From the middle of 18th century to the middle of the 20th century -- a period of two hundred years -- the Indian subcontinent was the so-called jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Even for a civilisation that had witnessed invasions from outside throughout its recorded history, this was an altogether different experience.


After a brief struggle amongst the European powers, the British established their supremacy by the middle of the 18th century, and steadily increased their control over the Indian subcontinent. It coincided with the declining power of the Mughal Empire, and the emergence of smaller regional powers across India. This made it easy for the British to steadily acquire a firm grip over India. The Indian resistance to this was misdirected and easy to overcome.


The increasing control of the British over Indian society began to mainfest itself in various ways, and at least initially, it offered substantial opportunities and benefits. Western education, English language and a progressive outlook helped Indians question their beliefs and ways of living, leading to a movement for social reforms. With English education, the educated elite also began to raise the issue of political reforms.


From Ram Mohun Roy onwards, this process began to gather momentum. The 19th century ferment in the Indian society led to the emergence of a completely different kind of atmosphere in the country. The Indian society was transformed radically. Major social and political developments began to occur in India after the aborted revolution of 1857.


Thereafter, the journey to freedom acquired a certain degree of direction, a sense of purpose and created social and political conditions where Indians began to increasingly question the British rule.


This web site looks at the 200 years of Indian history and tries to capture some of the most fascinating aspects of this massive struggle by India against its foreign rulers. This story of India's struggle for freedom has no parallels in world history. An amazing aspect of this story is the abundance of high calibre leaders that India produced during this period. But clearly, Mahatma Gandhi is the hero of this story, the tallest among a set of really eminent leaders.


The series is divided into four sections:


Dates in History: A chronicle of important events since the formation of the Congress party in 1885 to the attainment of Independence in 1947


Five Steps to Freedom: The five most important events that (in my view) ultimately led to the British Empire's sun setting in India.


Legal Battles: This section looks at some of the most interesting legal battles that were fought in the law courts.


Essays: Four essays explain the developments from 1757 to 1947. This is an interpretative account of the period, and should provide the reader a comprehensive understanding of not just the issues but even the personalities involved in the 200 years history.


Profiles: Short biographies of eight eminent Indians. and theirled to the But There are no parallels in several dimensionsa dimension that needs deep ; nothing and nobody was , and nothing transformed , where nothing was It and , and often toothless without Colonianlism was necessary for the 'nation of shop keepers' because the industrial revolution was changing the western world.


We begin the series from this page with Five Steps to Freedom.


The Indian struggle for independence is replete with innumerable events, which when taken together, clearly explain the build-up of resistance from the people of India to foreign rule. The British ruled over India for nearly two centuries, and resistance to its rule began almost as soon as the British began to consolidate. The first major effort by Indians was the mutiny of 1857. From then onwards, the British administration had to face continuous pressures from the Indian masses that culminated in the Naval Mutiny of 1946, eventually leading to the end of foreign rule. This section looks at five most important events that eventually led to the exit of the British Raj from the Indian sub-continent. While any selection of this nature is bound to be subjective, the ones that we enumerate here are universally acknowledged to be those that really caused the British to re-evaluate their existence in India.


The five steps to freedom are:


1. The revolt of 1857
2. The formation of the Congress in 1885
3. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919
4. The Dandi March of 1930, and
5. The Quit India Movement of 1942


1857 -- the Mutiny:


Barrackpore, Bengal: Mangal Pandey, the 24-year-old sepoy of the 34th Bengal Infantry, was in frenzy on the morning of Sunday, March 29, 1857. With a loaded musket, he was rampaging in the parade ground. When Lieutenant R. H. Baugh tried to snatch the musket away from Pandey, he fired, hitting Baugh's horse, bringing down both the animal and the officer. Baugh immediately got up, fired at the sepoy, but missed him. He threw the pistol at Pandey and rushed towards him. Sergeant-Major Hewson also backed him. But Pandey drew his sword and slashed Baugh across his shoulders and neck. Both the English officers would have been killed had it not been for Shaikh Paltu, who firmly gripped Pandey around his waist as the English officers ran away. It was finally left to Major General J. B. Hearsey to march to the parade ground and arrest Pandey, after the Indian guards had refused to do so when ordered by other English officers. Pandey tried to shot himself, but failed. He was arrested, tried and executed on April 8.

The mutiny had started.

The relations between the British officers and their Indian soldiers had continued to deteriorate since the beginning of the year when the Enfield rifles were introduced by the English army. The cartridges of the new rifle had to be chewed off before loading them into the rifle, and the grease on the cartridges was made of beef and pig fat. This was an anathema to both the Hindu and the Muslim soldiers. Innumerable small and not-so-small incidents occurred with regular frequency in large parts of northern India between the British officers and the Indian soldiers. Then, on May 10, 1857, again a Sunday, the Indian soldiers at Meerut revolted. They began to march to Delhi, the old seat of the Mughal Empire, where Bahadur Shah Zafar was still the titular head. On May 17 he was declared the independent Mughal emperor of India.

The revolt spread like wild fire, and within a month large parts of northern India were up in arms against the British. Kanpur, Jhansi, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jagdishpur, Allahabad and Benaras witnessed a mass uprising against the alien rulers. This was not just a mutiny by the Indian soldiers in the British army. This was a popular uprising against the British. And soon, the leaders joined in. Nana Saheb Peshwa in Kanpur, Rani Laxmibai in Jhansi, Tantia Tope, Bahadur Shah Zafar (reluctantly) in Delhi, Khan Bahadur Khan in Bareilly, Kunwar Singh in Jagdishpur, Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah of Faizabad, Begum Hazrat Mahal in Oudh. To many royal families, especially the Oudh and the Jhansi families, Lord Dalhousie's doctrine of lapse (where by the absence of a male progeny resulted in the kingdom falling under the British control) provided a good reason to join the revolt.

In general, the Indian anger at alien rule was coupled with the religious activism of the missionaries. The pro-active stance taken by successive Governor-Generals in changing the social and religious legislation had angered a sizeable section of the Indian population. Though it must be said here that these changes (for instance, the abolition of the practice of sati) were indeed necessary and had received wide support from the newly emergent educated class. The introduction of English language, the attempt to erase caste distinctions, especially in the army, were all issues on which there was substantial disquiet. The British did not try to assuage the feelings of the masses; instead they used unnecessary force to suppress any rebellion.

But the real reason behind the mass uprising was not merely religious, as the chewing of 'tainted' cartridges would seem to indicate. The main cause of the severe hardship faced by the agrarian class thanks to the punitive land revenue collection system enforced by the British. Both the landowners and the tillers were put under unbearable hardship. In addition, thanks to the British policy of discouraging the Indian handicrafts, skilled craftsmen were rendered penniless. The economic hardships faced by the Indians after the consolidation of the British rule over large parts of India was the real cause for the popular support that the Indian soldiers received from the masses.

However, the intelligentsia was not behind the soldiers. Calcutta, Bombay and Madras remained largely unaffected by the rebellion. In fact, the universities were established in these cities in 1857. For the first time piped gas was introduced for domestic cooking in Calcutta in the same year. Not all Indian soldiers in the British army revolted. In fact, 3,200 Indian soldiers made the recapture of Delhi possible. Many amongst the intelligentsia were of the view that the feudal princes of India were trying to re-establish their rule, and that the revolt was nothing more than an attempt to return to the old world. The British capitalised on this sentiment, and succeeded in isolating the revolutionaries. As the revolt had been a sporadic and an unplanned event, to crush it did not require any great power.

Systematically, the British began to recapture the lost ground. The first to fall -- in September -- was Delhi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the rebellion, was arrested, tried and found guilty. He was deported to Burma, where he died. Rani Laxmibai died fighting in a battle in June 1858. Nana Saheb escaped to Nepal. Tantia Tope was betrayed by a zamindar and killed by the British in May 1858. The revolt died down within 18 months, but during that period, the British got the taste of Indian resistance and realised the depths to which the East India Company rule had sunk. Important changes were announced. These included the transfer of power to the British crown from the East India Company.

The revolt was a tragedy for Indians, but it continued to remain an inspiration to millions of Indians through their struggle for independence.


1885-Formation of the Indian National Congress:


B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya is better known for his defeat at the hands of Subhash Chandra Bose for the Congress president's post in 1939. Bose's popularity was such that he could upset the Congress leadership's calculations and defeat Sitaramayya, who was the official candidate, supported by, among others, Gandhi. Gandhi reacted to this defeat by saying, "His (Pattabhi Sitaramayya's) defeat is more mine than his." This eventually led to Bose's exit from the Congress.

Other than this, Sitaramayya is also the first official biographer of the Indian National Congress, the party that gave India its political freedom. His book The History of the Congress, published in 1935, on the 50th anniversary of the party, is one of the most detailed account of the party's birth and the maturing.

Allan Octavian Hume, the retired Indian Civil Service officer is credited with fathering the Indian National Congress. Historical debate continues even in present times about the real intentions of Hume in launching the first all-India political organisation. Many historians are of the view that Hume, working in tandem with the then Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, was protecting English interests by providing a 'safety valve' of political dissent to the newly-emerging Indian political section. Others, of course, view the formation of the Congress as the natural culmination of the politicisation process of the Indian masses, especially the English-educated middle class.

Politically, the demands of the Indians were not too significant to merit the formation of an all-India umbrella organisation. But the time had clearly come for the Indian leaders to search for better political solutions. For the first time, Indians were thinking on a national level. Having worked with the British to initiate social reforms in the Indian society for the better part of the 19th century, the Indian leaders, thanks to their exposure to English education and English judicial system, were now increasingly drawn to western political and social thought processes. They immediately saw a dichotomy between what the British preached and practiced at home, and the way in which they treated their subjects.

In the three presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras several important political organisations and individuals were actively pursuing political agenda not convenient to the British rulers prior to the formation of the Indian National Congress. Among the more prominent ones were

The Indian Association in Bengal (formed by Surendranath Banerjea and Anand Mohan Bose in 1876)
The Madras Mahajan (formed by M. Viraraghavachariar, G. Subramaniya Iyer, P. Ananda Charlu and others in 1884)

The Bombay Presidency Association (formed by Pherozeshah Mehta and K.T. Telang in 1885).

A need was constantly felt by these associations of an all-India entity that would provide them with a better leverage to influence the British.

The first Congress was scheduled to be held at Poona between December 25 to 31, 1885. However, on account of a sudden outbreak of a cholera epidemic in Poona, the venue had to be hastily shifted to Bombay. The first meeting of the Indian National Congress began at 12 noon on December 28 at the Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College, seventy-two men from all across India in attendance. Wyomesh Chandra Banerjee was elected the first president of the Congress. He laid down four objectives of the Congress:

The promotion of personal intimacy and friendship amongst all the more earnest workers in our country's cause in the different parts of the Empire.

The eradication, by direct friendly personal intercourse, of all possible race, creed, or provincial prejudices amongst all lovers of our country, and the fuller development and consolidation of those sentiments of national unity that had their origin in their beloved Lord Ripon's ever memorable reign.

The authoritative record, after this had been carefully elicited, by the fullest discussion of the matured opinions of the educated classes in India on some of the more important and pressing of the social questions of the day.

The determination of the lines upon, and methods by which, during the next twelve months, it is desirable for native politicians to labour in the public interest.

These objectives laid down the future course of the party as well as the national movement. The Congress remained truly secular, and pursued a secular goal that it never eschewed even in later years. The Congress was formed to provide a political platform across the country. Clearly, social reforms were not high on the agenda. Politicisation of the masses was a high priority, though the first set of leadership could not move beyond the stage of petitions and appeals. But they had sowed the seeds of politicisation of the Indian masses, and the results began to flow after two decades of the party's existence (when Bengal was divided in 1905). The Congress leaders actively promoted political democracy, and they rooted their arguments against the colonial rule on economics rather than emotions. The party always tried to be a movement and not remain a party, and it succeeded out of all proportions under the leadership of Gandhi.

In more ways than one, the Indian National Congress made India. A British journalist asked Swami Vivekananda on the formation of the Congress. "Have you given any attention to the Indian National Congress Movement?" Vivekananda replied, "I do not claim to have given much attention, my work is in another field. But I regard the movement as significant and heartily wish it success. A nation is being made out of India's different races." The Indian National Congress became the biggest anti-colonial mass movement in history. By the early 20th century, under the leadership of Gandhi, it had outgrown its polite and effete origins and was determining the limits of the British imperialism, eventually forcing the foreign rulers to pack up and leave.

From the time of its formation, it became an umbrella organisation of varied political ideologies. It had both radical leftists as well as conservative right wingers. It had hard-nailed extremists as well as moderates. This often led to unruly organisational behaviour resulting in splits. From the time of its formation till the Independence, though the Congress split only once officially (in 1905) several prominent leaders walked in and out of the party thanks to serious differences. But it remained completely focused on its goal: the freedom of India.

The history of the Congress is the history of the freedom movement of India.


1919--Jallianwala Bagh Massacre:


"I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab. There was no question of undue severity."

This is the statement of Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer gave before the Hunter Committee of Enquiry, appointed by the British government to inquiry into the worst massacre of Indians during the British rule. More than 1,200 people were injured and 379 people died on April 13, 1919. Ninety Indian Gurkha troops, 50 of them armed with rifles and 40 with knives entered the narrow lanes leading up to the Jallianwala Bagh. General Dyer, accompanied by Captain Briggs sat in a military car. At about 4.30 p.m., these men began to fire at the 25,000 people who had congregated at the place. They fired for 10 minutes. According to the report filed by General Dyer's superior, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, altogether 1,650 rounds were fired on the crowd estimated to be around 5,000 (actually there were at least 25,000 people). While Dyer died in 1927, Uddham Singh shot O'Dwyer dead in 1940 in London.

The build up to Jallianwala Bagh had been gradual. Most Indians greeted the announcement of the Rowlatt Bills by the British government with disbelief, shock and anger. After the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms (which were to remain in effect for a decade), the time was now ripe for the government to offer substantially more political freedom to the Indians. The Indian leaders were hoping that the government would build upon the goodwill gestures of Secretary of State, Lord Montagu, and give the Indians a substantial say in governing the country. But instead of self-rule, the British threw the Rowlatt legislation. The Rowlatt Bills aimed at restricting civil liberties of the Indian population in the name of curbing terrorist activities.

As Rupert Furneaux explains in his book Massacre at Amritsar, "The people of India, goaded by the ferment of the time, thought that a new dawn was breaking. The Imperial government had promised reforms. The people of India felt they had helped to win the war; now was the time for their reward. But, with the coming of victory, the evils from which India suffered, instead of vanishing, appeared to become aggravated...The Rowlatt Acts were a "pistol levelled at our breasts", claimed the Indian newspaper Vijanya, and Mr. Nehru says they were greeted with a 'wave of anger'." (All quotes are from Furneaux's book).

One of the Acts was passed on March 23, 1919. The Indian leadership thought this was wholly unwarranted, especially when World War I had just ended. By now Gandhi was assuming the leadership of the Congress, and he called for the launch of a Satyagraha. The form of protest was to be a nation-wide strike on April 6, accompanied by fasting and prayers. But the people did not follow this. The Satyagraha turned violent in many places. Delhi observed the general strike on March 30, and it turned violent. This happened virtually across the country.

The situation in Punjab was like a tinderbox. The state had seen severe repression during the World War I. The British administration had indulged in forcible recruiting of people into the armed forces to fight in the war. Gandhi tried to reach Punjab to reduce the aggravation of the Punjabi people, but the government deported him back to Bombay. There was violence even in Bombay and Ahmedabad. So, Punjab was left to fend for itself.

The news of Gandhi's deportation further flared the situation in Punjab, with mobs taking control of Amritsar. The rioting resulted in the burning down of the telegraph office, two police posts, the Courthouse and the post office. Europeans were also attacked. As a precautionary measure, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal were arrested by the local administration on April 10. This further aggravated the situation. When rioting continued with an uncontrolled frenzy, the army was called in to take control of Amritsar. General Dyer immediately took charge of the city and issued prohibitory orders.

The crowd that gathered at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13 did not congregate for any political rally, though there was a rally planned at the site. Most of the people were from neighbouring villages who had come to Amritsar to participate in the Baishakhi festivities.

Pratap Singh was one of the crowds at Jallianwala Bagh on that day. Five months later he told the Congress Subcommittee: "I heard no proclamation at all on April 13th declaring Martial Law or prohibiting public meetings. Nor did any such proclamation reach my bazaar on that day. I reached the Jallianwala Bagh at 4 p.m. with my son, Kripa Singh, nine years old. I went to hear Babu Kanhya Lal's lecture. I was about a dozen pace distance on the side of the platform where the entrance was. Hans Raj spoke. He had put up the picture of Dr. Kitchlew and said that his portrait would preside. He said that men were wrongfully shot on the 10th. He also said that a resolution should be passed asking for the repeal of the Rowlatt Act. Gopinath then read a poem about the faryad of the people not being heard. There was nothing at all in what I heard which was against the government." Then he saw soldiers rushing into the garden.

General Dyer told the Hunter Commission that upon reaching the site, "I thought about the matter and it did not take me more than 30 seconds to make up my mind." No warning was given to the people to disperse. The people were all running, trapped inside the bagh which had only one entrance now blocked by General Dyer's men. And then the firing began. At first the Gurkha soldiers began to fire high. On this the officer reprimanded the Gurkhas with a revolver pointed at them. He abused them. Captain Briggs, General Dyer's Bridage-Major states in his report, "The men did not hesitate to fire low and I saw no man firing high."

Gandhi, overwhelmed by the massacre, withdrew the Satyagraha on April 18. The entire nation was stunned. In England, too, this brutality divided the country into two distinct groups. Some thought that Dyer had taught a lesson to the Indians and saved India from a second Mutiny. Others felt that Dyer had committed an "unexampled act of brutality and perpetrated a deliberately calculated massacre...for them this was an act of terrorism which, far from saving India, ignited the spark of Indian nationalism.

Without doubt the Amritsar massacre was the turning point in the long struggle for India's independence. This incident showed, for the first time, that all the talk of liberal democratic values was just that and nothing more. And, when it came to ruling its subjects, the English did not believe in extending the democratic values to their subjects. The Indian response was passive resistance. After this, there was just no meeting ground between the rulers and the ruled.

Twenty-eight years later the British had to leave India.


1930--Dandi March:


The late 1920s witnessed a virtual split in the Congress over the issue of elections to the legislatures. The old guard of the Congress formed the Swaraj party and the younger members, led by Gandhi, remained away from the British government's overtures to join the dyarchical system. The 1927 the government announced the constitution of a Royal Commission -- led by Sir John Simon. The exclusion of Indians from this commission raised heckles among the Indian leaders, and the political barometer began to rise across India. Simon Commission.

In response, the Congress constituted the Motilal Nehru committee and the Nehru report clearly spoke of parliamentary system of governance under dominion status. Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose, among other younger leaders, did not agree with dominion status and wanted the Congress to clearly declare complete independence as the goal. Gandhi stepped in and arrived at a compromise. He advised that the British government should be given a year's time to consider the Indian government under dominion status as had been proposed by the Motilal Nehru report. At the end of that year, the Congress should declare complete independence as its only purpose and launch mass civil disobedience to achieve that goal.

Not surprisingly, the British administration did not do anything about the Motilal Nehru report. And, on December 31, 1929, the Congress declared on the banks of Ravi River in the Punjab that Purna Swaraj was its final goal. All the Congress members in the central and provincial legislatures were asked to resign. The civil disobedience movement was to be re-launched, and Gandhi, after months of deliberations decided that the movement would be both symbolic and unique. Gadi felt the country was ripe for a mass agitation. He decided that he would lead an agitation against the Salt Tax. The tax on salt hit the poorest of the Indians.

Gandhi wrote, "There is no article like salt outside water by taxing which the State can reach even the starving millions, the sick, the maimed and the utterly helpless. The tax constitutes therefore the most inhuman poll tax the ingenuity of man can devise." But everyone agreed that this was a worthy cause that the Congress should advocate, nobody was sure whether this was the most important issue on which the civil disobedience movement could be launched. Gandhi was convinced. He decided that he would personally lead a march of Satyagrahis to the seashore to break the tax laws.

Addressing the band of Satyagrahis on the evening of March 11, 1930, Gandhi said, "Our cause is strong, our means the purest, and God is with us. There is no defeat for Satyagrahis till they give up truth. I pray for the battle which begins tomorrow". The next morning at 6.30 a.m. began the historic march from Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad. Seventy-nine Satyagrahis accompanied Gandhi. The British government and the Congress leaders alike were completely bewildered by this march. As B. R. Nanda wryly observes, "the first impulse...was to ridicule 'the kindergarten stage of political revolution,' and to laugh away the idea that the King-Emperor could be unseated by boiling sea-water in a kettle."

Unexpectedly, however, the momentum picked up and the entire nation got caught up in the enthusiasm of Gandhi's feat. The British administration began to crack down on the leaders of the Congress. In early April, Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested. Gandhi reached Dandi on April 5, 1930. On April 6, by picking up a fistful of salt, Gandhi launched the civil disobedience movement. Gandhi sent a message that was simple and effective: "At present Indian self respect is symbolized in a handful of salt in the Satyagrahi's hand. Let the fist be broken but let there be no surrender." No less than 60,000 Indians were jailed. But Indian remained non-violent. Gandhi was arrested on May 5.

Before his arrest, he had planned to raid a salt depot at Dharsana. The raid occurred on May 21, despite Gandhi's arrest. The police crack down was brutal on the leaderless mass. Webb Miller, an American journalist reported in New Freeman, "In eighteen years of reporting in twenty-two countries I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharsana. Sometimes the scenes were so painful that I had to turn away momentarily. One surprising feature was the discipline of the volunteers. It seemed they were thoroughly imbibed with Gandhi's non-violent creed."

What did the Dandi March achieve? Its purpose was not achieved. The government did not remove the salt tax. Gandhi, who had vowed not to return to Sabarmati ashram if the tax was not removed, never actually did (except for five days in 1933). But in reawakening the nation, it was a masterstroke of political strategy. The country -- and for that matter, the world -- had not seen anything like the Dandi March before. What Gandhi achieved was to focus the world's attention on the mal-administration of the British.

Unlike his 1922 civil disobedience movement, which had turned violent and had to be called off, this one remained non-violent in the face of extreme brutality by the authorities. The civil disobedience movement launched in 1930 was, according to India's Struggle for Independence (Edited by Bipin Chandra), "a movement that was to remain unsurpassed in the history of the Indian national movement for the country-wide mass participation it unleashed."


1942--The Quit India Movement:


The Quit India Movement of 1942 is clearly one of revolution during the long struggle for freedom that had the participation of the entire country. More importantly, it was a revolution that was fought without any of the established leaders of the Congress leading the people. The people were on their own. It was also a revolution that did not remain non-violent.

On the evening of August 8, 1942, after deliberations with the Congress Working Committee, Mahatma Gandhi addressed a huge gathering at Gowalia Tank in Bombay. He declared: "Here is the mantra, a short one, that I give you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is "Do or Die". We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery." The message to the British was short and simple: Quit India.

The August Kranti had commenced.

The British government had anticipated this move, and had prepared for such an eventuality ever since World War II had begun. For two years after the War started, the Indian leadership did not challenge the British rulers in any significant manner. But after the failure of the Cripps Mission (led by Sir Stafford Cripps, who was sent to India by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on advice of President Roosevelt of the United States of America), the Congress decided that it was now time for the final assault on the British Raj.

The British administration had armed itself with the Revolutionary Movements' Ordinance, 1940, for such an eventuality, and within hours of the Quit India call, the entire leadership of the Congress was imprisoned. The British administration's plan was to nip the movement in the bud by taking quick action. It was seen as the only way to avert disaster. But this measure recoiled on the administration as the leaderless masses had been warned of this possibility. The Congress resolution had clearly told the people that "a time may come when it may not be possible to issue instructions or for instructions to reach our people, and when no Congress committee can function. When this happens, every man and woman who is participating in this movement must function for himself or herself...every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it must be his/her own guide."

The Quit India movement went on to become true peoples' revolution, encompassing every sphere of the Indian society. The absence of leadership gave it an unconventional dimension and this ensured its prolonged continuation. The brutal repression that the British administration unleashed upon it to repress it gave the movement a distinctly violent character. But this time around, the Congress leadership, too, wasn't averse to the idea of some restrained dose of violence. Gandhi had declared he could tolerate anarchy in India but not the British rule. He said, "Hitherto, the rulers have said, 'We would gladly retire if we knew to whom we should hand over the reins.' My answer now is, 'Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy. My proposal is one-sided -- for the British government to act upon irrespective of what Indians would do or would not do. I have even assured temporary chaos on their withdrawal."

The demand caught on with the agitators during the initial phase of the Quit India movement. Not only did the people want the British to leave, they were bent on paralysing the administrative machinery to the greatest possible extent, virtually bringing about anarchy even while the British were present. The Quit India movement also brought out one major fact: the Congress was the unquestioned representative of the masses in India. The non-Congress parties could not ignore the movement; they saw the movement as a challenge to their ability to maintain a separate identity in the face of such a popular crusade.

The movement also threw up a new band of young leaders from the Congress, who later went on to play an important role in independent India. Ram Manohar Lohia, Jaya Prakash Narayan were the tallest leaders to emerge from this movement. There were others like Asaf Ali, Usha Mehta, Achyut Patwardhan, to name just a few. These leaders operated from the underground. Usha Mehta started an underground radio. Usha Mehta, in an interview to The Daily in 1992 (during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Quit India movement), had explained: "During the earlier struggles, we had published bulletins and newsletters. This time, we wanted to innovate. I thought of setting up a radio transmitter, to have our own radio. We contacted a technician and within four days of the starting of the Quit India movement, we were on air."

When the spontaneous fury generated by the movement turned into calculated sabotage, Gandhi decided to intervene. He launched a hunger fast in February 1943. The purpose of the fast was to leash the movement that was now running wild, as well as to caution the British to see reason and call an end to its repressive measures. Gandhi's fast produced a startling effect on the government, on the world opinion, on the non-Congress Indian opinion, and reminded the underground activists of the extent to which they had departed from Gandhi's path of non-violence.

Viceroy Linlithgow was shaken by Gandhi's fast, and suggested to Prime Minister Churchill to release Gandhi from the prison. Churchill was angry. He told the Viceroy, "...this our hour of triumph everywhere in the world was not the time to crawl before a miserable little old man who had always been our enemy." The movement petered out after Gandhi's release in 1944. "The great significance of this movement," writes historian Bipin Chandra in India's Struggle for Independence, "was that it placed the demand for independence on the immediate agenda of the national movement. After Quit India, there could be no retreat. Any future negotiations with the British government could only be on the manner of the transfer of power. Independence was no longer a matter of bargain."

As Usha Mehta explained, "The British realised during the Quit India movement that the Indian masses would fight British rule even if there were no leaders to guide them. The message was clear: Quit India."


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