The mass insurrection that swept across South Asia in 1942-44 saw tens of thousands of ordinary people violently rebel against British colonialism, and proved to be the beginning of the end of the British Raj.
British Plans for India–Not At All Settled
The question of Indian independence in the 1930s was quite the question mark. While leftists and liberals in British parliament at the time were theoretically interested in eventual independence, it was still assumed that India’s “freedom” would be on British terms, in a way that would protect their interests and maintain a continued role for British elites in influencing Indian politics. The mentality of British officials in India was especially reactionary; Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943, was utterly unconvinced of India’s ability for self-rule, and was determined to consolidate British control over the region.
Linlithgow and his allies in the government were eager to reverse the gains made by Indian nationalists (such as the Government of India Act of 1935, which increased the power of provincial governments in India, and decreased the power of the central government). This opportunity came in the form of the outbreak of World War 2:
The war emergency was recognized as perhaps the last opportunity the government would have to make bold provision for the future course of Indian politics. The British Indian government was eager to seize this last chance to affect India’s future development by decisively arresting the drift of events which appeared to make the Congress the inevitable beneficiary of British withdrawal. (Hutchins 1973: 141).
The motivation of British Indian hardliners was also assisted by Winston Churchill’s rise to power. Churchill was a stalwart imperialist, who was convinced of “the practical necessity of keeping India to ward off the fate of England’s becoming of a minor power”. This, combined with the start of the war, empowered the British Raj to attempt to undermine the more radical nationalists (that is, the Indian National Congress) and ensure that “renewed experiments with democratization following the war” would be minimally influenced by groups like the Congress. Measures taken by the government included a moratorium on additional hires for the Indian Civil Service, in order to prevent “over-Indianisation” of government posts, and the passage of draconian “public safety” bills that criminalized “revolutionary acts”–which were defined vaguely enough such that anything the Viceroy decreed as “revolutionary” fell under the act. In addition, proposals were made to ensure that any future moves for an independent India would have “a continuing core of British administrators”, and the continued existence of a British Viceroy (Hutchins 1973: 142-43, 152-54).
Indian Plans for India–Increasingly Rebellious
These moves by the British were watched closely by Indian nationalists; and when the Britain cheerfully announced India’s entry into World War 2–with no input from Indians themselves–their determination to push for independence as soon as possible was solidified. Congress officials nationwide resigned from their posts in protest, and Mahatma Gandhi began laying the groundwork for a mass anti-war, pro-independence movement. Specifically, efforts were made to ensure that the movement would continue even if the leadership was eliminated–an incredibly wise move, as it turned out.
In addition, in a critical break with his past, Gandhi shifted away from his long-standing condemnation of violence. In 1942, a few months before the Quit India resolution was announced, “Gandhi argued that under certain conditions the use of violence would not injure the national cause, however much he might prefer a different form of service”. Gandhi had always argued that violence was acceptable to use in immediate self-defense such as against murderers and rapists, and by 1942, he had decided that violent resistance to British rule could also fit underneath this category, as a form of immediate and instinctual resistance against criminal acts (Hutchins 1973: 199-204). So while Gandhi still preferred and urged all those partaking in the struggle to use tactics of non-violence, he would not condemn those who took up arms. And indeed, he arguably expected violence to break out, while almost sarcastically pushing the idea that mass struggle against exploiters would remain non-violent, as seen in this excerpt from an interview in 1942:
Gandhi: In the villages…the peasants will stop paying taxes…their next step will be to seize the land.
Fischer: With violence?
Gandhi: There may be violence, but then again the landlords may cooperate.
Fischer: You are an optimist.
Gandhi: They might cooperate by fleeing.
(Fischer 1942: 90-91)
Popular Insurgency and the Collapse of British Authority
On August 9th, 1942, the Congress issued the Quit India Resolution, calling for all of India to rise up in rebellion against the British. Anticipating immediate and widespread police repression, the resolution contained orders for autonomous, decentralized decision-making:
A time may come when it may not be possible to issue instructions to reach our people, and when no Congress committees can function. When this happens every man and woman who is participating in this movement must function for himself or herself within the four corners of the general instructions issued. Every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it must be his own guide. (Greenough 1983: 356)
Within hours of the call to arms, most of the Congress leadership, including Gandhi, were arrested, leaving the average nationalist rebel to “function for himself or herself” far sooner than anticipated. Some were worried that the immediacy of the arrests would quell the movement before it could even begin–which was precisely what the British hoped they had accomplished.
What happened next shocked even the most militant Congress leaders, and shook the British Empire at its core. Within days of the arrests, India was engulfed in a civil rebellion that saw the complete collapse of British rule in large parts of the country. Mobs numbering in the thousands tore up railway tracks, toppled telegraph towers, torched police stations, and looted police stations. Policemen and government officials were dragged from their homes and offices and through the streets, beaten, and killed; labor strikes paralyzed British supply chains. Bomb blasts in major cities like Bombay became a daily occurrence, and banks and government treasuries were robbed with impunity (Hutchins 1973: 225-235).
The British responded by deploying 57 battalions of troops and the Royal Air Force across the country; but even when the British regained some modicum of control over major strategic areas, the insurrection continued in the countryside, with mobs of peasants and villagers carrying out guerrilla attacks with crude weapons on government outposts up until the middle of 1945.
Statistics documented in the National Archives of India give perspective the magnitude of the insurrection during its high point, from August 1942 to December 1943. Through this period, 63 British and 763 Indians were killed, and 2012 British and 1941 Indians injured. 208 police stations, 945 post offices, and 749 government buildings were destroyed; there were 664 bomb attacks; 332 railway stations were destroyed, and sabotage to train tracks caused 66 derailments.
Rebel activity during the Quit India Movement was not restricted to attacks against colonial infrastructure; efforts were made in a number of locations (particularly Orissa, Maharashtra, and Bengal) to establish autonomous governments. Although these governments did not last long in most cases, they became further proof to Indians of their ability to competently govern themselves.
For example, village-level political structures called the Prati Sarkar (Parallel Government) were established in Maharashtra. The Prati Sarkar had three divisions: a judicial branch made up of people’s courts whose decisions were made via popular consensus, a committee branch composed of various village committees that organized constructive projects such as cooperative societies, libraries, and health centers, and a youth militia whose primary purpose was to protect peasants from exploitation and violence by the local bourgeoisie (Chakrabarty 1992: 801-2).
In addition to concrete political structures, there was a widespread development of informal social, political, and economic networks that formed the material basis of most of the insurgency. Those who were not directly engaged in acts of protest, sabotage, and violence still participated in critical roles as members of a mass base, by securing supplies, acting as lookouts or distractions, giving shelter to fugitives, and so forth. “The effectiveness of underground workers…depended on the support of thousands of ordinary people continuing in ordinary occupations”, as is the case in all situations of protracted insurgency and civil revolt (Hutchins 1973: 243).
The End of the British Raj
Despite the fact that the movement was eventually suppressed, the magnitude and duration of the rebellion broke the spirit of the British Empire–much in the same way that the Tet Offensive, despite the United States’ military victory in the battle, broke the political will to continue military engagements in Vietnam. Prior to the Quit India Movement, British control over India had never seemed stronger; moves were being made by British officials in India to consolidate their power and secure key roles for British administrations in what was supposed to be a gradual and indefinite process of “democratization” and “Indianization” of the Indian government. British officials were convinced that the Congress did not have mass support, and could be crushed as soon as they attempted anything even closely resembling a revolt. Instead, it was the illusion of British legitimacy that was crushed, and the popular appeal of Indian nationalism that was upheld. This drastic shift is seen in how Linlithgow–who was so keen on reversing the gains made by Indian nationalists in the previous few decades–perceived the situation:
Before the Quit India movement, his concern had been whether Parliament would back him up. Now, the viceroy’s chief concern was that the cabinet and the British public opinion in general would not fully grasp the seriousness of his situation and the difficulty he would face in merely holding on to power, let alone undertaking new initiatives. (Hutchins 1973: 285).
Indeed, events after the Quit India movement would clearly demonstrate the superficial nature of post-1942 British authority. When the British attempted to charge Indian soldiers who fought against the British with the Indian National Army for treason, violent street protests broke out and the situation threatened to escalate into open rebellion once more, forcing the British government to abandon the court proceedings and free the soldiers. Even those who were convicted never faced any actual punishment (Chaudhuri 1953: 349-50). This resurgence of an insurrectionary attitude in response to British attempts to act on their own authority in India made it clear that “…the British not only could not influence the future course of Indian politics, but could not even ensure law and order…” (Hutchins 1973: 286).
The dynamics of the Quit India Movement (and indeed, most of the political dynamics of India in the 1940s) and its significance for the South Asian freedom struggles runs completely counter to popular narratives about a “peaceful” and “non-violent” Indian Independence Movement. The reality is that independence was won not by convincing the British via moralistic symbolic action, but through a popular insurrection that saw the Indian masses violently seize their freedom and forcefully shatter the illusion of British colonial legitimacy and the stability of the British Empire. While Gandhian non-violence was arguably necessary to turn the Indian Independence Movement into a mass movement in the first place, it was the Gandhi-sanctioned mass rebellion that finally toppled the British Raj.
- Chakrabarty, Bidyut. “Political Mobilization in the Localities: The Quit India Movement in Midnapur”. Modern Asia Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4. October 1992. pp. 791-814.
- Chaudhuri, Nirad C. “Subhas Chandra Bose: His Legacy and Legend”. Pacific Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 4. December 1953. pp. 349-357.
- Greenough, Paul R. “Political Mobilization and the Underground Literature of the Quit India Movement, 1942-44”. Modern Asia Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3. 1983. pp. 353-386.
- Hutchins, Francis G. India’s Revolution: Gandhi and the Quit India Movement. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1973.