A Great Upsurge of People Which Warned Colonial Powers that Their Rule Must End
It was on August 8 1942, 80 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi gave his great call to the people of India to ‘do or die’ for independence and thereby served notice to the colonial rulers. Even though all the leading Congress rulers were arrested almost immediately, several hundred thousand people responded almost immediately and the very next day witnessed some of the most courageous and spontaneous clashes of people with police, despite the clear instructions from Churchill and his henchmen to step up their repressive machinery as perhaps never before.
Even as the British rulers evoked the ideals of freedom and democracy in their wider struggle against the Axis powers in the Second World War, it appeared that they were determined more than ever before to deny this to India and other countries ruled by them. The restraining hand of their most important ally, the USA (then under the leadership of FDR, one of the best Presidents of the USA) was the only problem Churchill appeared to care for before unleashing one wave of repression after another. Even as he used over 2 million soldiers of India to fight some of his most difficult battles, the British Prime Minister was only too willing to send India’s most respected leaders to prison. He and his henchmen also prepared the background for two of the biggest, avoidable tragedies, the most cruel and harmful legacies of British colonial rule in its last decade.
First, the neglect of crucial food needs of India and more particularly its more vulnerable people at a difficult time and even diversion of food led to the great Bengal famine which claimed around three million lives. There had been several terrible mass famines as a result of the exploitative policies of colonial rulers earlier also but perhaps none as devastating and destructive as this, one important factor being the tendency to subvert all other considerations to what Churchill perceived to be war-time needs. Forgetting also the nearly two million Indian soldiers being used by him in this effort, Churchill was compulsively contemptuous towards the great aspirations of India for freedom and called Mahatma Gandhi a half-naked fakir who should be trampled under an elephant’s feet.
Secondly, as the most important leaders of the freedom movement were imprisoned and hence were not able to be in contact with their people, the colonial rulers also used this as an opportunity to strengthen Hindu as well as Muslim communal forces. As their prize for staying away from the Quit India Movement and even opposing it, the communal forces led on two sides by the Muslim League as well as the Hindu Mahasabha were provided ample opportunities by the colonial rulers to strengthen their base and operations. This greatly increased their power for mischief and worse (at a time when the freedom movement’s leaders with the biggest support base among people were imprisoned and hence were unable to challenge openly their collusion with the divide and rule policy of colonial rulers). Hence the ground for partition was prepared by a few highly narrow-minded selfish and sectarian leaders who did the bidding of colonial rulers while betraying their own people.
In the middle of all these adversities, however, the common people showed great courage in rising in revolt. They revolted at many places and even set up parallel governments for some time. They clashed repeatedly with the police and braving bullets and lathis insisted on unfurling their tiranga flag at public places, often succeeding, sometimes sacrificing their life in the process. The police forces not just struck them lathi blows, but also fired on people more frequently than perhaps ever before. They even flogged protesters and imposed collective fines (although even they did not go to the extent of demolishing their houses).
However even as this highly repressive machinery was being unleashed, more officials and even policemen had started to secretly help freedom fighters in various ways. Several of them apologized to freedom fighters for having taken any action against them, and offered to help them in some way secretly within their limits.
Even as people continued protests in non-violent as well as violent ways, Mahatma Gandhi refused to take back the movement, thereby making amends for taking back the non-cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura, something which had been opposed by even Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose at that time. Of course his own deep commitment to non-violence continued. His 21 day fast taken up in very difficult conditions helped to strengthen his resolve for independence and for taking this message to people. Tragically he lost forever his constant companion and support Kasturba Gandhi and close associate Mahadev Desai in the course of this imprisonment.
In the absence of the most famous leaders, new leaders like Arun Asaf Ali and Jayaprakash Narayan played an increasingly important role. Those who provided the leadership for various parallel governments also made an important contribution. The jail breaks of Yogendra Shukla, JP and others thrilled and inspired the youth. Those working outside India for India’s independence, including Subhash Chandra Bose and his colleagues but also others, were encouraged by the great upsurge of people in India.
As a result of the continuing repression the protests of course could not of course retain their strength for a very long time, and this has been mistakenly seen as a failure by some commentators. On the contrary the great upsurge of people played a very important role in strengthening the freedom movement in a very difficult phase and in fact in conveying a very strong message to the colonial rulers that their days were numbered. If such a great uprising had not taken place, the British hardliners led by Churchill would have been tempted to prolong colonial rule even after the end of the world war. However the strong message sent by this movement and its brave resistance was that the colonial rulers should start packing up.
Bharat Dogra has contributed several booklets and books on the freedom movement, the latest being When the Two Streams Met and Azadi ke Deewanon ke Dastavez.