Quit India

ON 2 MARCH 1930 the viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, received an ultimatum in the form of a polite letter from Gandhi. The letter was delivered by Reg Reynolds, a young left wing British Quaker.1 In the letter Gandhi condemned British rule as “a curse” that “has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinously expensive military and civil administration… It has reduced us politically to serfdom.” The viceroy, Gandhi pointed out, received a salary that was considerably “over five thousand times India’s average income” and he urged him, in vain one suspects, “to ponder this phenomenon”. All this had to end. British violence, Gandhi promised, was going to be defeated by Indian non-violence. The Gandhian method was to be put to the test.2

Gandhi’s strategy was to launch a campaign of civil disobedience once Irwin had rejected the Congress demands. The issue he had decided to organise around was not the Congress demand for complete independence, however, but the repeal of the salt laws. This was something immediate and tangible, but, at the same time, also a “symbol of imperial exploitation to which all Indians could respond”.3 The result was a masterpiece of political mobilisation.

The British enforced a monopoly on the sale and production of salt, even though in the coastal areas it was freely available. On 12 March Gandhi, together with 78 volunteers, began a march through Gujerat to the sea at Dandi with the declared intention of breaking the salt laws. The march took 25 days to cover 240 miles with Gandhi speaking to often huge crowds along the way (20,000 at Nadiad, 10,000 at Anand, 15,000 at Broach and 30,000 at Surat). His progress inspired Congress supporters and by the time he broke the salt laws at Dandi on 6 April 5 million people, at rallies and demonstrations throughout the country, joined him in his defiance.

One particular episode best demonstrates the British response to the Congress campaign of civil disobedience. On 5 May Gandhi informed the authorities that he would be leading a protest at Dharasana salt works later in the month. That same day he was interned under a regulation dating from 1827. The protest went ahead without him on 21 May when some 2,000 Congress supporters confronted the police at the salt works. A horrified American journalist, Webb Miller, reported that in “18 years of my reporting in 20 countries, during which I witnessed innumerable civil disturbances, riots, street fights and rebellions, I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharasana”. He described how:

In complete silence the Gandhi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade. A picked column advanced from the crowd, waded the ditches and approached the barbed wire stockade…at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis [long bamboo sticks]. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off blows. They went down like ninepins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls… Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders.

And after the first column had been beaten down, another advanced and once again the police “rushed out and methodically and mechanically beat down the second column”. This went on for hours until some 300 or more protesters had been beaten, many seriously injured and two killed. At no time did they offer any resistance.4 Irwin wrote to the king, “Your Majesty can hardly fail to have read with amusement the accounts of the several battles for the Salt Depot at Dharasana”.5

While the spectacle of the police savagely beating unresisting demonstrators rallied support for Congress, the fact was that most of those who took to the streets were not prepared to stand by and be beaten. In many places, when the police attacked the people resisted. In Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province, armoured cars were driven through the streets to disperse crowds protesting against the arrest of one of Gandhi’s Muslim allies, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, on 23 April. People were run over and killed. In response the crowds turned on the British, setting fire to one of the armoured cars and forcing the troops to evacuate the city. According to the official report of the episode, 30 demonstrators had been killed, but unofficial estimates were that there were “two to three hundred killed and many more wounded”. During the fighting, a platoon of the Garwhal Rifles, a Hindu unit, refused to open fire on the Muslim crowds. It was subsequently disbanded and at the court martial of the mutineers, one man was transported for life, one received 15 years in prison and another 15 received between three and ten years. One of the prisoners told the court, “We will not shoot unarmed brethren… You may blow us from your guns, if you like.” The British did not reoccupy Peshawar until 4 May after a massive show of strength. There followed “a reign of terror” that saw sporadic clashes spreading throughout the province.6

Elsewhere, in the city of Sholapur, news of Gandhi’s arrest provoked a general strike on 7 May. In clashes the following day, the police killed 25 protesters. After days of street fighting the police withdrew, leaving the city “in the hands of revolutionary councils”. Order was not restored until 16 May when a brutal martial law regime was introduced, accompanied by “the merciless flogging of the workers”.7 A man was imprisoned for seven years for “carrying the Congress flag”.8 The leaders of the Sholapur uprising—Mallappa Dhansetti, Qurban Hussain, Shrikrishna Sarda, and Jagannath Shinde—were all put on trial for their lives. They were hanged on 12 July 1931.9 And there were bloody clashes in many other places as the police were let loose to beat the opposition into submission. There were, in the words of one historian, “horrifying acts of police brutality.”10

By the time Gandhi called off the first phase of the civil disobedience campaign in March 1931 there were, according to the authorities, over 60,000 protesters in prison, although Congress estimates put the figure at over 90,000. Among them was one of Gandhi’s lieutenants, Jawaharlal Nehru. At his trial on 24 October 1930, only days after his release for an earlier offence, he made the Congress position clear:

We have no quarrel with the English people, much less with the English worker. Like us he has himself been the victim of imperialism, and it is against this imperialism that we fight. With it there can be no compromise. To this imperialism or to England we owe no allegiance and the flag of England in India is an insult to every Indian. The British government today is an enemy government for us, a foreign usurping power holding on to India with the help of their army of occupation. My allegiance is to the Indian people only and to no king or foreign government.

He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.11

India and the Labour Party

What will perhaps be surprising to most readers is that during the first phase of the civil disobedience movement from 1929 until 1931 there was a Labour government in power in Britain. The beatings at Dharasana, the shootings at Peshawar, the floggings and hangings at Sholapur, the mass arrests, and much else were all presided over by a Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald and his secretary of state, William Wedgwood Benn. The government, it is worth noting, was also complicit in a sustained attack on trade unionism in India, an attack that Sumit Sarkar has described as “a massive capitalist and government counter-offensive” against workers’ rights.12 This had involved the arrest on 20 March 1929, before Labour took office, of 31 trade union and socialist leaders and activists, including three British Communists. Their trial at Meerut lasted for nearly four years, and despite representations from the Labour left, most notably Fenner Brockway, Wedgwood Benn refused to intervene and have them released.13 This involvement in colonial repression has been largely written out of the Labour Party’s record. Indeed one is hard pressed to find any mention of it at all in most histories of the party. While MacDonald is often maligned, it is for his defection to the Conservatives in 1931, rather than for his government’s forgotten record in India.14 But while readers today might be surprised by the Labour government’s conduct in India, especially in view of the widely held belief that Labour “gave” India independence in 1947, the same was not true of Indian nationalists at the time.

Nehru, for example, had no illusions regarding the British Labour Party. In June 1929 he warned that while one knew where one was when the Conservatives were in power in London, “with Labour there is so much empty and pious talk that some minds are apt to be confused”. It was quite possible that the Labour government “may adopt an aggressive anti-Indian attitude”. What the movement had to remember, he insisted, was that “India’s prospect depends not on any government in power in England, but only on the organised strength of the Indian people”.15 In his Autobiography Nehru remembered being warned by the veteran Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai, only days before his death on 17 November 1928, that:

We should expect nothing from the British Labour Party. The warning was not necessary so far as I was concerned, for I was not an admirer of the official leadership of British Labour; the only thing that could surprise me in regard to it would have been to find it supporting the struggle for India’s freedom, or doing anything effectively anti-imperialistic or likely to lead to socialism.16

The circumstances of the death of Lajpat Rai are perhaps instructive in this regard. A one time admirer of the British Labour Party and a friend of Keir Hardie’s, he was becoming increasingly disillusioned and in December 1927 had published bitterly critical articles attacking the Labour Party’s political trajectory (“English Socialism a huge mockery” and “Labour Party under Imperialist MacDonald”).17 Lajpat Rai’s disillusion stemmed from MacDonald’s decision to support the Simon Commission that the Conservative government set up to report on Indian constitutional arrangements in 1927. This was to be an all-British body without any Indian members. As far as all shades of Indian opinion were concerned this was a racist insult and there was a general determination to boycott the commission. Despite this, MacDonald appointed two Labour MPs to serve as members, Clement Attlee and Vernon Hartshorn. When the commission eventually arrived in India on 3 February 1928, it was greeted by a general strike. Everywhere that Simon and his colleagues went, they were met by militant demonstrations demanding they “go home”. The commission demanded that the police take action against the protesters. On 30 October 1928 Lajpat Rai led a peaceful demonstration in Lahore that was attacked by the police. He was personally beaten by a British police officer and never recovered from his injuries, dying just over two weeks later. This episode was, as Nehru put it, “little short of monstrous”: “even the greatest of our leaders, the foremost and most popular man in the Punjab”, could be beaten and killed with impunity. It was a “national humiliation”.18 There is, of course, something richly symbolic about Clement Attlee deciding the fate of India with his Conservative parliamentary colleagues, while outside Lajpat Rai, a veteran 63 year old Congress leader, the first president of the All-Indian Trade Union Congress, a friend of Keir Hardie’s, was beaten to death by a British policeman.19 The Simon Commission, of course, expressed its regret.

The Labour government’s repression of the national movement in India in 1929-31 was not some sort of aberration. While there always were and still are anti-imperialists within the Labour Party, Labour governments invariably sought to defend the empire, and even when they promised reform, this was always advocated as a way of making the empire stronger. Their main difference with the mainstream of the Conservative Party was a rhetorical one, with the Labour leadership advocating what can perhaps best be described as an “ethical imperialism”. Indeed, as early as 1901, writing in the International Journal of Ethics no less, MacDonald had typically argued that:

So far as the underlying spirit of imperialism is a frank acceptance of national duty exercised beyond the nation’s political frontiers, so far as it is a claim that a righteous nation is by its nature restless to embark upon crusades of righteousness wherever the world appeals for help, the spirit of Imperialism cannot be condemned…the compulsion to expand and assume world responsibility is worthy at its origins.20

In his 1907 book, Labour and the Empire, MacDonald espoused a “socialist imperialism”. The empire, he argued, was a historical fact, and Labour no more wanted to get rid of it than they wanted to restore the Stuarts. Indeed, the Labour Party felt “the pride of race”, but nevertheless:

Its imperialism is…not of the aggressive or the bragging order; it does not believe in the subjection of other nationalities; it takes no pride in the government of other peoples. To its subject-races, it desires to occupy the position of friend.21

As for India, he argued in 1910 that, while the future belonged to nationalism, “if we are wise the day when it goes so far as to threaten us with expulsion is so remote that we need not hardly think of it at all”.22 Others were more crude. When MacDonald formed his first Labour government in January 1924, he appointed J H Thomas as colonial secretary. Thomas famously introduced himself to his officials with the remark that “I am here to see that there is no mucking about with the British Empire”.23 To be fair to Thomas, it has to be said that as both a trade union leader and Labour politician he had always done his best to see that there was no mucking about with British capitalism either. His enthusiasm for the empire knew no bounds, however: “We love our empire. We are proud of the greatness of our empire”.24

Towards “Quit India”

For the second time Gandhi called off a movement that was gathering in strength. In March 1931 he concluded the Gandhi-Irwin Pact with the viceroy, much to the dismay of his followers. The pact, as one of Irwin’s biographers puts it, “gave Irwin all he wanted at the cost of nothing more than he could afford”.25 In effect Gandhi called off the civil disobedience campaign in return for what could have been had before it was launched. Congress, as Sumit Sarker puts it, “had spiked its own guns…and had missed the psychological moment for an allout no-revenue and no-rent movement”.26 Why did Gandhi once again propose retreat? A major factor was that Congress’s capitalist backers were becoming increasingly alarmed by the direction the struggle was taking and were putting pressure on Gandhi to do a deal.27 Irwin, moreover, was well aware of this from intelligence reports. Even so, while the Conservative front bench was supportive of Irwin’s tactics (he was, after all, a staunch Tory), the fact that he had even met Gandhi provoked outrage from the Conservative right wing. Winston Churchill led the way: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace…to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor”.28 This combination of racism and ignorance (a fakir was a Muslim ascetic) was to characterise Churchill’s attitude to India and Indians. What he, in effect, proposed was the destruction of Congress by whatever repression was necessary. India should be held by the sword. Both the Labour and Conservative front benches, however, favoured a combination of repression and manoeuvre. And Irwin had certainly outmanoeuvred Gandhi.

The Labour government collapsed under the weight of the Great Depression in August 1931 with MacDonald, Thomas and a handful of others joining a Conservative-dominated National Government. MacDonald stayed on as prime minister. Irwin, meanwhile, had already been replaced as viceroy by Lord Willingdon.29 By the end of the year it had become apparent, even to Gandhi, that he had been outmanoeuvred, and he proposed a return to civil disobedience. The problem was that the state machine was geared up for repression and had in fact continued cracking heads and throwing people into prison throughout the so-called truce that Gandhi had negotiated, whereas the mass movement was demoralised by retreat. On 4 January 1932 Gandhi was once again arrested and a massive crackdown was launched. Between January 1932 and March 1933 some 120,000 people were arrested. As Willingdon cheerfully confessed, he was “becoming a sort of Mussolini in India”.30 Despite tremendous heroism the movement went down to defeat.

In the aftermath of defeat Congress moved to the right. This process was aided and abetted by the Government of India Act of 1935, which was very much part of the British policy of manoeuvre. This act proposed the establishment of an All-India Federation made up of the British-ruled provinces and the princely states (these covered 712,000 square miles and had a total population of 81 million). It was constructed so as to deny Congress any chance of ever securing a majority and to leave effective power in the hands of the viceroy.31 At a provincial level, however, elected ministries would exercise limited but real powers. What the British hoped was to foster provincialism as a way of weakening the Congress and bringing more “responsible” politicians to the fore. In the 1937 elections Congress won 716 out of 1,585 provincial seats, with a clear majority in five provinces. Nehru and the left opposed taking office, but they were swept aside. In the event, Congress administrations were formed in seven provinces. British strategy seemed to be working and, given time, there might have emerged out of Congress “responsible” leaders with whom the British could have worked. The Second World War was to effectively close off this prospect, as we shall see.

One indication that British strategy was realistic is the way in which Congress administrations came to clash with working class and peasant protest and showed a willingness to make use of the police against their own supporters. As one historian has observed, Congress administrations “showed few inhibitions about taking repressive action, and sometimes a suspiciously greater willingness to force strikers back to their machines under the muzzle of a gun…than the preceding colonial regimes”.32 In 1938 the Congress administration in Bombay passed a Trades Disputes Act intended to curb the unions by imposing compulsory arbitration, making illegal strikes punishable by six months imprisonment and encouraging company unions. The British governor, Lumley, described the measure as “admirable”.33 On 7 November there was a general strike in protest against the act and the police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding 11. The Bombay administration “was determined to curb labour unrest at any cost”.34

How did the left respond to these developments? Within the leadership of the Congress, the two spokesmen of the left were Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. To a considerable extent, their respective stances were to be determined by international developments. Nehru attempted to align Congress with the Spanish Republic, fighting against Franco, and the Chinese Republic, fighting the Japanese. He supported the Palestinian Revolt, but also urged that Jewish refugees be welcomed in India. Nehru made anti-fascist “Popular Frontism” his touchstone. Much less satisfactory was his domestic stance, where he continually compromised with the Congress right wing, even to the extent of endorsing the Bombay Trades Disputes Act. Bose took a radically different stance internationally, regarding the rise of fascism as something that Congress should take advantage of. Britain’s difficulty would be India’s opportunity, a stance that during the Second World War would lead him into an alliance, first with Nazi Germany, and later with Imperial Japan. His domestic stance was more combative than Nehru’s and Gandhi was to force his resignation as Congress president in April 1939. Nehru refused to support Bose in this conflict, because, as far as he was concerned, in the end, with whatever reservations, the movement had to follow Gandhi.

While attention has generally focused on disputes within the Congress leadership, this has led to the neglect of important rank and file developments. As early as May 1934 some 100 delegates had come together to found the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), a loose organisation that worked within Congress. The CSP had politics that were similar in many ways to those of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP).35 Although the CSP was never in a position to mount any serious challenge to the dominant right wing in the Congress, it was to play an important part in the Quit India Revolt.36 Mention must also be made of the Communist Party of India (CPI), an organisation that included in its ranks many fine militants and activists, but that followed whatever line emanated from Moscow. When the Second World War eventually broke out, the CPI called for militant opposition to India’s participation because the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. By the time Congress launched the Quit India movement in August 1942, the CPI was calling for equally militant support for India’s participation in the war, because the Soviet Union was now allied with Britain.37

What was decisive in defeating the British strategy of co-opting at least elements of Congress was the outbreak of war in September 1939. The viceroy Lord Linlithgow’s decision to associate India with the British declaration of war without consulting Indian opinion provoked an immediate crisis. While Congress was opposed to fascism, and Nehru, in particular, had a considerably better record of anti-fascism than any member of the British government, the manner in which India was committed to the war showed that for the British this was an imperialist war, not an anti-fascist war. The All-India Congress Committee made its position clear:

If the war is to defend the status quo of imperialist possessions and colonies, of vested interest and privilege, then India can have nothing to do with it. If, however, the issue is democracy and world order based on democracy, then India is intensely interested in it… If Great Britain fights for the maintenance and extension of democracy, then she must necessarily end imperialism in her own possessions and establish full democracy in India, and the Indian people must have the right to self-determination… A free democratic India will gladly associate herself with other free nations for mutual defence against aggression and for economic co-operation.38

The Congress leadership called on all the Congress provincial administrations to resign in protest against the war. Much to the surprise of the British, they did. The British authorities began to prepare for a return to repression, while the Congress leadership began to prepare for a return to civil disobedience.

Quit India

By the summer of 1940 the viceroy and his administration had got ready to deal Congress what they hoped would be a crushing blow. A “Revolutionary Movement Ordinance” had been prepared, proscribing the organisation. The official in charge of security, Reginald Maxwell, was insisting that the intention was “not merely to reduce Congress to a condition in which they will be prepared to make terms but to crush Congress finally as an organisation”.39 The opportunity to strike did not present itself, however. The government in London, even once Churchill had become prime minister, was not prepared to move against Congress without sufficient cause. In the interim Linlithgow did his best to undermine Congress by encouraging communalist parties, in particular the Muslim League. For its part, the Congress leadership proceeded cautiously along the road to confrontation. In October 1940 Gandhi launched a campaign of individual “satyagraha” or civil disobedience whereby nominated individuals broke the law in symbolic demonstrations against the war. This campaign was continued until December 1941, by which time over 26,000 people had been imprisoned. The government had no difficulty in coping with this protest. The Communist Party was particularly scornful of such ineffective opposition to what they were denouncing as an imperialist war right up until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In January 1941 the Communist underground helped the dissident Congress leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, slip out of the country on his way to Berlin via Moscow.40 Here Bose was to recruit some 4,000 Indian prisoners of war into an Indian Legion before transferring his allegiance to Japan.41

The entry of Japan into the War on 7 December 1941 forced the pace of developments in India. First of all, the Japanese dealt a succession of massive, humiliating blows to the British Empire, blows from which it was to never really recover. And second, the British found themselves allied to the United States and under pressure to conciliate Indian nationalism. In March 1942 Churchill despatched Stafford Cripps, one of the leaders of the Labour left, to India as an emissary, charged with reaching an agreement with Congress. What Cripps offered was a Balkanised India, that while formally independent would still dominated by the British. Even so, the breaking point came over who was to control the Indian army. Cripps promised an Indian minister of defence, but was forced to renege on this by Churchill and Linlithgow. The talks broke down, leaving the Congress leadership feeling betrayed and embittered. Only mass action would move the British. As for Churchill, the talks had successfully pacified the Americans and consequently had served their purpose. They were never intended to be successful.42

What Gandhi now proposed was a new campaign of mass civil disobedience, similar to but more militant than that of the early 1930s, and to be carried through to success. Meeting in Bombay, the All-India Congress Committee passed the so-called “Quit India” resolution that served notice not just on the British in India but proclaimed that “Burma, Malaya, Indo-China, the Dutch Indies, Iran and Iraq must also attain their complete freedom”.43 Only 13 of the 250 committee members voted against. No preparations had yet been made for the campaign, but the rhetoric used by the leadership made it clear that this was to be, in Gandhi’s words, a “Do or Die” movement. In the event, its conduct was taken out of their hands. On 9 August the Congress leadership was arrested as over 500 people were picked up in the first police sweep. They were taken completely by surprise.44 The decision to strike was sanctioned, not by Churchill, who was out of the country, but by the deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee.45 Indeed, the attack on Congress was actually “supervised at a distance by Attlee”.46 The leadership of the Labour Party wholeheartedly supported the repression, although many party members and some MPs were appalled. What took the British completely by surprise was the popular response to the crackdown. The arrests provoked strikes, demonstrations and protests across India:

Bombay exploded first. On the very first day, crowds started throwing stones and soda water bottles at trains, buses and cars and at the police. Some buses were also burnt. Post offices were attacked and looted. The police opened fire on 16 occasions, killing eight persons and injuring 44. Similar incidents occurred in Poona, Ahmedbad and in some suburban areas of Bombay. All these places observed hartals [general strikes]. Mills and factories were closed. The following day the crowds became more determined. On that day police opened fire on 26 occasions, killing 16 and injuring 57… From 11 August disturbances spread to nearby areas like Kaira, Thana, Broach, Panch Mahals, Godhra, Surat, Ahmednagar, East Khandesh, Nasik, Satara, Belgaum, Dharwar, Ratnagiri, West Khandesh, Sholapur…47

The country was in the grip of a spontaneous movement of protest that the British responded to with shootings, beatings and mass arrests. One aspect of the repression did cause Labour cabinet members some disquiet: Amery complained to Linlithgow of their “sentimental feelings…against whipping” and advised that while this could continue “care should be taken to avoid publicity”.48

There were widespread strikes in support of Congress. At Jamshedpur 30,000 workers at the Tata iron and steel works walked out for 13 days, causing the government considerable concern. In Delhi textile workers were out for 29 days. There were strikes at the Imperial Tobacco factories in Calcutta, Bombay, Bangalore and Saharanpur. The Hindustan Aircraft workers walked out in Bangalore. In Ahmedabad some 100,000 textile workers struck for nearly four months. There were strikes, complete or partial, in many other workplaces. Nevertheless, it is clear that the strike movement was disjointed and patchy, and never looked like developing into an all-India general strike. Part of the responsibility for this lies with the Communist Party which did its best to persuade workers to stay at work.49

Although taken by surprise, Linlithgow, at least initially, thought that he had the outbreak contained. On 11 August he reported to Amery that the “situation was not too bad”, that Bombay was “the main storm centre” and that there was only “sporadic disorder elsewhere”. The following day he wrote that “we are doing very well” and, while he expected more trouble over the next few days, “I am not in the least degree worried by the prospect.” On the 15th alarm was beginning to set in and he informed Amery that “I have authorised machine-gunning from air of saboteurs”. Two days later he told Amery that he was having to put down “a revolutionary movement… Of its seriousness and its total disregard for non-violence there can be no question.” By now the movement had spread outside the cities and had a serious grip on much of the countryside, especially in Bihar and the eastern United Provinces. On 31 August Linlithgow wrote to Churchill that he was “engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security”. Much of the countryside was still in the grip of “rampant” violence and he feared that September might see “a formidable attempt to renew this widespread sabotage of our war effort”.50

While the disturbances in the cities had indeed been largely suppressed by the middle of August, the revolt had spread into the countryside where huge areas had been lost to government control and all communications severed. Large militant crowds marched to wreck or burn down police outposts, government buildings, post offices and railway stations. They blocked roads, tore up the railway tracks, demolished bridges and cut telegraph lines. The district officer in Darbhanga, R N Lines, described how in his area, the peasantry:

Cut all the roads and railways. The roads were cut where they were carried over embankments several feet high, trees felled across them, masonry bridges demolished, pontoons of the pontoon bridge on the main road sunk; railways lines torn up, 40 foot spans of the bridges removed and dropped into the rivers, the delicate and at that time irreplaceable electrical signalling apparatus at all stations destroyed; telephone and telegraph wires everywhere cut, rolled up and carried off home… Police stations and government offices in outlying places were occupied.51

In Jamshedpur the police themselves went on strike and 33 of them were arrested by British troops. On a number of occasions crowds stormed the jails, at Ara releasing 700 prisoners, and at Hajipur 1,000. At Bhagalpur Central jail prisoners rioted and police were called in to restore order: 28 prisoners were killed and over 80 injured. Protesters hijacked trains and, as an outraged Lines complained, indulged “in ticketless travel en masse”. Thousands of students were involved in the movement. At Benares Hindu University students took over the campus and proclaimed it liberated territory until British troops moved in on 19 August.52

At Madhuban the district magistrate, R H Niblett, was confronted by a crowd of 5,000 protesters accompanied by two elephants. They were only armed with spears, lathis and stones, however, and his policemen drove them off, killing 30 people according to the official estimate and unofficially perhaps as many as 300. The viceroy complimented him on his report of the episode, which read “like a tale of 1857”.53 Elsewhere the rebels were more successful. The government’s own figures show that in the course of the revolt 208 police outposts together with 957 government buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. There were 332 railway stations destroyed or severely damaged, the track was cut 411 times and there were 66 derailments. The rebels destroyed or damaged 945 post offices and there were over 12,000 incidents of damage to the telegraph system.54Moreover, in a number of areas revolutionary governments were established, most notably in Contai, Tamluk, Ballin and Satara.55

This was a massive popular uprising, centred in Bihar and the eastern United Provinces, but with outbreaks in many other places as well. The British deployed over 30,000 troops to crush it. One district magistrate, N B Bonarjee, wrote of districts having “to be reconquered” and of what were “almost pitched battles taking place”.56 The confrontations were terribly one-sided, however, with rebel crowds without firearms battling against heavily armed troops supported where necessary by air attack. Resistance was broken by shootings, beatings, mass arrest, house burnings and collective fines. The Contai district, for example, was subjected to a reign of terror with 12,000 arrests, 956 houses burned down and hundreds of incidents of rape by police and troops. Niblett, the “hero” of Madhuban, was subsequently removed as a magistrate for objecting to the conduct of troops and police in his area. “To my dismay,” he noted, “reprisals were the order of the day.” He complained of police in another district carrying out “a pogrom”—“they set fire to villages for several miles” and then crossed into his district to burn more villages. On another occasion 19 men were arrested when they were found “near the railway” by a military patrol. Without any other evidence than suspicion, to his horror, they were sentenced to 30 stripes with the whip and seven years imprisonment. The whipping was immediately carried out in the market place. Officials “were given instructions to set fire to houses of all with Congress leanings”. He was transferred after describing government policy as “official arson”.57

By the time the revolt was finally crushed over 90,000 people had been arrested, many of them to be held until after the war. Arthur Greenwood, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, told the House of Commons that “Quit India” prisoners could hardly be said to be in prison at all because of the “luxurious conditions” they were held in. After the war one of the leaders of the CSP, Rammanohar Lohia, told Harold Laski that on his capture, he had been “ill-treated in one way or another for over four months; I was kept awake day after day, night after night, the largest single stretch running into ten days… If beating and bastinadoing [beating the soles of the feet] to death or near about it and forcing the human mouth to the uses of a sewer were alone to be considered atrocities, these and worse took place.” There were prisoners “who died through beating and ill treatment”.58 The official figure for the number of rebels killed by troops and police during the suppression of the revolt was 1,060, but this figure is part of the attempt to minimise the outbreak. Nehru gave a figure of 10,000 killed but other estimates go as high as 25,000.59 The real figure will never be known.

By the end of September 1942 the popular uprising in the countryside had been crushed. Those militants and activists, often CSP members, still at large established an underground resistance that continued organising against the British and tried to initiate a guerrilla war. In Bombay, CSP militants, led by Lohia, operated a secret radio station broadcasting revolutionary propaganda that survived for 88 days before capture by the police.60 The underground produced revolutionary newspapers and bulletins (Quit IndiaWar of IndependenceRevolt and others) that kept up a propaganda barrage.61 In early September a Central Directorate was established to organise and coordinate the movement. The cause was given a tremendous boost in October when the CSP leader, Jayaprakesh Narayan, escaped from prison. He became the most forceful advocate of armed resistance. Bands of resistance fighters, the Azad Dastas, were operating in many areas, harassing the British authorities and the police, and Narayan hoped to pull them together into an underground army. They saw themselves as the equivalent of the guerrillas in “occupied Europe…continuously harassing the Hitler regime”. Their objective in “occupied India” was “the complete paralysis and demoralisation of British rule”.62

Narayan issued a series of revolutionary letters making clear the political stance of the resistance. On 1 September 1943 his second letter was issued from “Somewhere in India”. He wrote:

The war can be truly ended by the common people of the world. But their voice is stifled. Russia, which could have become the champion of the common man, has herself suppressed him at home and disowned him abroad by truckling to the imperialists and supercapitalists of Anglo-America… Neither allied nor axis victory is our aim, nor do we pin our hopes on either. We work for the defeat both of imperialism and fascism by the common people of the world and by our struggle we show the way to the ending of wars and the liberation of the black, white and yellow.63

The revolutionary underground never developed beyond small bands engaged in sporadic activity. It was never a serious threat to British rule. Narayan himself was recaptured by the British on 18 September 1943. He was not released until April 1946.

The Quit India revolt, for obvious reasons, hardly figures in British histories of the Second World War. The repression of the movement is a stark contradiction of the principles for which Britain was supposedly fighting. Although it went down to defeat, nevertheless the revolt seriously shook the empire. There were serious doubts as to whether British rule would survive another such challenge.

“The final judgement on British Rule in India”

India still had to face the greatest disaster to befall the country in the 20th century: the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. This was the product of food shortages brought about by the war. Imports of food grains from Burma were cut off by the Japanese occupation and the system of distribution for domestic supplies broke down. For the peasantry, a large number of whom lived at or below subsistence level at the best of times, the consequences were catastrophic. In Bengal the price of rice rose from 7.5 rupees (Rs) a maund in November 1942 to Rs 29.7 in May 1943 and by October that year to as much as Rs 80 in some places. The poor could not afford to feed themselves and began to starve. Tens of thousands trekked to Calcutta, only to die on the city streets. The British administration in the words of one historian responded with “a callous disregard of its duties in handling the famine”.64 Not only were no steps taken to provide against famine, but India continued exporting food grains to Iran at the rate of 3,000 tons a month throughout 1942. The result was a terrible death toll from starvation and disease in 1943-44 that totalled more than 3.5 million men, women and children. This was, as Nehru put it, “the final judgement on British rule in India”.65

When Lord Wavell succeeded Linlithgow as viceroy, he was appalled at how little had been done to provide famine relief. Part of the problem was Churchill, “who seemed to regard famine relief as ‘appeasement’ of the Congress”.66 On one occasion when presented with details of the crisis in Bengal, Churchill commented “on Indians breeding like rabbits”. As far as he was concerned “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks”, a sentiment with which Amery concurred.67 Wavell himself informed London that the famine “was one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. It was, he warned, doing “incalculable” damage “to our reputation”. The government was unmoved. Later, when he was attending a cabinet meeting in London (April 1945), Wavell had brought home to him “the very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when the starvation is in Europe” rather than India. When Holland needs food, “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”.68 The previous September, Lord Mountbatten, the British commander in chief in South East Asia, had made available 10 percent of his shipping allocation to carry food to India. Churchill had responded by cutting his allocation by 10 percent.69

Churchill’s attitude was quite explicitly racist. He told Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” On another occasion, he insisted that they were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans”. Amery was bemused by his “curious hatred of India” and concluded that he was “really not quite normal on the subject”. Indeed, Amery was not sure “whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane”. Provoked beyond endurance by Churchill’s bigotry, Amery, on one occasion, said, “I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s”.70 Amery, it is worth reminding the reader, was not a liberal or progressive, but a hardnosed right wing imperialist. And it was not just to Amery that Churchill made his feelings clear. In February 1945 he told his private secretary, John Colville, that “the Hindus were a foul race…and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them”.71 Somewhat predictably, Churchill’s part in the failure of famine relief in Bengal, one of the great crimes of the war, is not something that his innumerable biographers have been concerned to explore. This is really quite disgraceful.72 Let us leave the last word on Churchill with N B Bonarjee, the district magistrate who had loyally helped suppress the Quit India revolt. In his memoirs he writes bitterly of how in the Victory broadcast of 13 May 1945 Churchill had thanked Australia, Canada and New Zealand for their contribution to the war effort, but could not bring himself to mention India “although she provided more in men and material than the rest put together”.73

The end of British rule

According to Clement Attlee, India’s independence was “the fulfilment of Britain’s mission in India”. It was the final step in a long journey whereby the British had led India towards freedom. Indeed, Attlee cast himself in the role of India’s “liberator”. One recent discussion has actually described independence as “Labour’s parting gift to India”. This is so much nonsense. The Labour government successfully constructed what one historian has called an “invented tradition” to disguise the fact that independence had to be given o n terms that would have been considered totally unacceptable up until 1947. And, of course, it has been used ever since to endow the 1945-51 Labour government with a completely unjustified reputation for being, at least, progressive as regards imperial policy, if not actually anti-imperialist.74 As Anita Inder Singh has pointed out, the Labour government’s anti-imperialist reputation is, in fact, rather “puzzling”, not least because after 1947 “Britain still possessed the rest of her empire and had every intention of holding on to it”.75 This was, after all, the government that was, in 1949, to remove Seretse Khama from his chieftainship in Bechuanaland “for marrying a white woman”. Fenner Brockway considered it “beyond belief that a Labour government could act in such a way”.76 Unfortunately not. One of its most senior ministers, Herbert Morrison, the man thought most likely to succeed Attlee as party leader, considered the British Empire to be “the jolly old empire” and described talk of self-government for many colonies as “ignorant dangerous nonsense…it would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun”.77 And of course when Hugh Dalton, another senior figure in the Labour Party, a former chancellor of the exchequer, was offered the Colonial Office in 1950, he confessed to “a horrid vision of pullulating, poverty stricken, diseased nigger communities…querulous and ungrateful”.78 There were, of course, some Labour MPs and many rank and file party members who were anti-imperialist, but this was never the motivation of the 1945-1951 Labour government.

What was the Indian policy of the Labour government that took power at the end of July 1945? They intended to concede self-government, but were nevertheless determined to keep India within Britain’s informal empire. Independence would be given to a fragmented India, where Congress influence would be minimised by the Muslim League and the princely states, and over which Britain would still be able to exert considerable influence. It was inconceivable that Britain would not retain military bases in an independent India and that India’s own considerable military strength would not continue to be at the disposal of the empire. On 17 January 1946 the Labour cabinet decided that it had a “moral responsibility” not to hand India over “without being satisfied that the succession governments were fully aware of the military and economic problems which a self-governing India would have to face”. Moreover, if British concerns were not met, “logically we should continue governing India even if it involved rebellion which would have to be suppressed by British troops”. As Inder Singh puts it, “Labour’s commitment to the maintenance of British power was understandably greater than its so-called commitment to Indian independence.” In the Labour scheme of things, a self-governing India would still be required to contribute to “the effort to preserve Pax Britannica”.79 Martin Wainwright makes a similar point, insisting that though “Labour leaders promised to grant India independence…this desire in no way contradicted their intention that Britain should use the military resources of the subcontinent in order to maintain its influence east of Suez”. Moreover, India’s airfields “were now essential positions from which…the Western allies could launch atomic and, possibly, bacteriological air raids on the Soviet Union”.80 This was not to be.

The Labour government’s intentions were to be overthrown by a combination of its own weakness, both military and economic, and by the extent of popular unrest in India that threatened revolution and/or civil war. The harsh reality confronting the government was that while ministers could quite cheerfully talk of an Indian rebellion being “suppressed by British troops” there were not the forces available for the task. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Indian armed forces could no longer be relied upon. At the same time, India itself was in the grip of increasing revolutionary unrest combined with increasing communal violence. Attlee found that the situation had escaped beyond his government’s control and decided on a policy of “scuttle”. This was to be successfully disguised as Labour “bestowing the gift of independence on India”, a travesty in which all sections of the party, left, right and centre, were complicit.

After his brief involvement with the Nazis, Subhas Chandra Bose had transferred his allegiance to Japan. He had now successfully raised a 20,000-strong force, the Indian National Army (INA), from among Indian prisoners of war. The intention was that the INA would participate in a Japanese invasion of India. Instead Japan surrendered and Bose died in a plane crash. Now the British proposed to put a number of INA men on trial. This precipitated what has been described as “the almost revolution”. On 21 November there were student demonstrations protesting against the trials in Calcutta. Police opened fire, killing two protesters, provoking a general strike in the city the following day. A British intelligence report described the situation on the 22nd:

Conditions are worst the city has experienced during the past 20 years…the police had to open fire on six occasions. Barricades have been erected in many of the streets and are still in position. The burning of military vehicles continues. All the corporation employees are on strike. Employees of a number of jute mills have come out on strike and the coolies are reported to be sitting on the East India Railway line. Students are playing a prominent part in the demonstrations, which are being supported by large sections of labour.81

By the time order was restored on the 23rd, police and troops had killed 33 protesters.

The following year, on 10 February 1946, the trial of Captain Abdul Rashid of the INA ended with him receiving seven years imprisonment. A student strike was called in protest in Calcutta on the 14th and demonstrators were once again attacked by the police. The following day the Calcutta trade unions, with the Communist Party playing a leading role, staged a general strike and some 500,000 people marched through the streets chanting “Down with British imperialism” and “Hindus-Muslims unite”. That evening British troops were brought into the city to restore order. Street fighting continued until the 14th with the troops making free use of their fire-arms. By the time the British were back in control, the official figure for the number of protesters killed was 84, but unofficial estimates were “over 200”.82

Decisive, however, was the outbreak of mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy on 18 February, “one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten episodes in our freedom struggle”, as Sumit Sarkar describes it. The mutiny started on the Talwar in protest against bad food and racist officers, but the following day it spread to on-shore establishments and embraced 22 ships in Bombay harbour. The mutineers elected a Naval Central Strike Command and drew up a list of demands, including better food, equal pay with British seamen, the release of INA prisoners and the withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia where they were being used to restore Dutch rule. Sarkar writes of:

Remarkable scenes of fraternisation, with crowds bringing food for ratings…and shopkeepers inviting them to take whatever they needed. The pattern of events in fact unconsciously echoed the course of the mutiny on the Black Sea Fleet during the first Russian Revolution of 1905… By 22 February the strike had spread to naval bases all over the country as well as to some ships at sea, involving at its height 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 ratings.

On 22 February there was a Communist Party instigated general strike in Bombay in support of the mutineers. Some 300,000 workers walked out and barricades were erected in working class districts. There followed two days of street fighting that left over 200 protesters and three policemen dead. The mutineers were persuaded to surrender by the Congress and Muslim League leaderships on 23 February. They were as alarmed by the outbreak as the British.83

In April 1946 Wavell’s security adviser told him that in view of the unreliability of the Indian armed forces “I doubt whether a Congress rebellion could be suppressed”.84 This realisation marks the turning point, the decisive moment when it dawned on the British that the game was up. Congress had the whip hand. Wavell later recorded in his journal how he had explained the realities of the situation to Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, and A V Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Bevin “seemed to accept the picture”, although Wavell went on, “both he and Alexander are in reality imperialists and dislike any idea of leaving India.”85 Even as late as 1 January 1947, however, Bevin was still trying to persuade Attlee that Britain should stay in India and, if necessary, put down any Congress rebellion. Attlee insisted that there was no “practical alternative” to getting out. Any attempt to impose British terms on the Indian people was thought likely to involve another 15 years occupation of the country. This was just not possible. There were neither the troops nor the money.86 The decision to withdraw, suitably dressed up as a magnanimous act of statesmanship, was taken by the cabinet on 18 February 1947, with June 1948 as the deadline for the handover. Lord Mountbatten was sent out as viceroy to implement the decision. He presented Nehru with the government’s rather obviously named “Plan Balkan” in May 1947, but this was completely unacceptable. The British backed down.

Although Congress was using the threat of revolution to intimidate the British, in fact the leadership were themselves seriously concerned about popular unrest and the growing influence of the Communist Party of India. They wanted a handover as soon as possible in order to head off further explosions of rage such as had occurred in Calcutta and Bombay. They were also confronted with increasing communal violence generated by the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. While the British had certainly exploited communal tensions and had given the Muslim League considerable support, communal violence was taking on a life of its own.87 In the circumstances, partition was reluctantly accepted as necessary, and 17 August 1947 was settled on as the date for independence when the British Raj finally came to an end. The British had, in reality, been thrown out. The best assessment of the Labour government’s policy was provided by General Hastings Ismay: “India in March 1947 was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in the hold. By then it was a question of putting out the fire before it actually reached the ammunition. There was in fact no option before us but to do what we did”.88

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