Freedom in peril: A million mutinies being stoked again

On the 79th anniversary of the Quit India Movement, the situation in the country looks disconcertingly similar to the situation in 1942 when Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for ‘Do or Die’

Mahatma Gandhi addressing the Bombay Session of AICC on August 8, 1942.
Mahatma Gandhi addressing the Bombay Session of AICC on August 8, 1942.
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Mrinal Pande

On August 10, 1942 India’s Secretary of State in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet Leo Amery justified the mass arrest of Congress leaders the previous day.

He told the Press, “Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders had planned to incite “strikes, not only in industry and commerce, but in the administration and law courts, schools and colleges, the interruption of traffic and public utility services, the cutting of telegraph and telephone wires, the picketing of troops and recruiting stations… The success of the proposed campaign would paralyze not only the ordinary civil administration of India, but her whole war effort.” In short, the movement would have led to dire calamity if the British government had not detained its leaders.

Historians have noted with both amusement and irony that it was Amery, not Gandhi, who actually provided the blueprint for how to rebel. Civilians attacked railway stations and post offices, fought against police officers and government property ablaze. The police and the British Army in India led a violent crackdown on rioters, arresting over 100,000 people. Viceroy Lord Linlithgow compared the Quit India Movement with 1857, when a million Indians were killed besides several thousand Europeans. Civilian deaths in the Quit India Movement, however, were close to one thousand.

“Do or die”, the mantra invoked by Mahatma Gandhi for the Quit India Movement became the unifying and rallying cry for a civil disobedience campaign that lasted from August 1942 to September 1944.

Protests erupted from Bombay to Delhi to Bengal; a steel plant shut down for 13 days while textile factories remained closed far longer, one of them for over three and a half months. Crucially, many Indians employed by the British government as police officers and administrative officials turned on their employer.

Public protest during Quit India Movement
Public protest during Quit India Movement

“They gave shelter, provided information and helped monetarily. In fact, the erosion of loyalty to the British Government of its own officers was one of the most striking aspects of the Quit India struggle,” wrote Bipan Chandra in India’s Struggle for Independence.

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Some 79 years later in 2021, India has unravelled as a Constitutional Democracy. It is now described as an ‘ethnic’ democracy or an ‘elected autocracy’. As in 1942, India is going through convulsions ‘sweeping Gandhi’s life-time’s work and dreams aside’.

In 1942, the British war effort was draining India’s men and material and crippling the economy. Taxes were crippling. Bengal was going through a famine but not because of shortage of foodgrains; but because they were being diverted for the war effort. Police were brutal and the courts and the administration far from being fair. Hindu-Muslim unity was getting frayed even as the British Rule continued with their divisive strategies. The RSS and the princely states, along with many other ‘loyal’ subjects, went out of their way to support Britain’s war effort. The situation was toxic.

On May 28th 1942, addressing members of the National Youth Association Gandhi said, “I always thought that I will have to wait till the country was ready for a non-violent struggle. But my attitude has undergone a change. I feel that if I continue to wait, I might have to wait till dooms day…” He told American journalist Louis Fischer, that the rule had turned, “unnatural” for it, “choked Indian life;” that if the rulers did not depart, he had no choice but to intensify public struggle, and call upon people to “do or die.”

Police tear gassed the crowd at Bombay's Gowalia Tank Maidan
Police tear gassed the crowd at Bombay's Gowalia Tank Maidan

On 9th August the British arrested Gandhi ji, Ba, Mahadev Bhai Desai, Meera Ben and thousands of other Congressmen and women. Gandhi ji, Ba, Mahadev Bhai and Meera Ben were held in Agha Khan House. Mahadev Bhai and Ba, were both frail and in poor health, but the government was unrelenting. Both died soon after, leaving an ageing Gandhi more alone than ever before.

But this made the writing on the wall clear. The rulers must leave. “The law of Satyagraha”, Gandhi wrote to Lord Linlithgo, “knows no defeat.”

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Fast forward to 2021. Rulers in India appear as ruthless and as oppressive, if not more, than the colonial masters in 1942. In popular perception the police remain largely an instrument of oppression. Justice for ordinary Indians as elusive as ever and poverty, hunger and ill-health as endemic. The ‘elected’ government has been avoiding public debates on vital national issues. It has also brazenly ignored its constitutional obligation to inform the nation about the Chinese aggression on our borders, denied information to Parliament and muzzled the media and the opposition, leaving many Indians to wonder if these democratic rulers in independent India are any better than the British rulers in 1942.

Gandhiji and Pt Nehru at Bombay Session of AICC
Gandhiji and Pt Nehru at Bombay Session of AICC

The old, colonial law of sedition continues to be used ever more frequently. Street protests are seen as not just unlawful but anti-national. As the British did, the present-day rulers too are busy stifling dissent and putting activists and dissenters in jail. The coercive powers of the state are unleashed against the media as in pre-independence days.

Money and muscle continue to dictate outcomes of elections. Laws are being pushed through Parliament without scrutiny or debate and the Government has imperiously refused to listen to civil society, farmers, students, workers or even retired civil servants—describing them all as anti-national.

Disastrous policies and Covid have dealt a severe blow to the economy. Unemployment and hunger are at an all time high. Crime is surging. Production has stalled or slided down but corporate profits have soared. The stock exchange is on a bull run while millions have slid back below the poverty line.

Household savings have been hit. Depositors are fearful of the security of their deposits in banks. Schools remain shut while inequality and the digital divide continue to widen. Women have disproportionately suffered and dropped out of employment in the organised sector. Even vaccination of the poor against Covid has stalled.

The North East is simmering again with police of two states firing at each other. Chinese troops have consolidated their position in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere across the LAC. Beyond the Khyber Pass Afghanistan is again in turmoil and despite its inner contradictions and internal conflict, Pakistan appears strategically in a stronger position vis-à-vis India.

Federalism has taken a beating with weakened states not only having lost their financial autonomy to a great extent but they are no longer being consulted by an over-centralised Union Government. The Governments at the Centre and in the states are increasingly talking down to citizens and talking through advertisements, paid news and state-run media. The vast network of private media outlets have been effectively silenced in various ways.

Even more disconcertingly the historical fault lines, Muslims versus Hindus, Savarnas vs non- Savarnas, Non-tribals vs the tribals, Ram vs Durga have resurfaced.

Does India need another mass movement as in 1942? What would Mahatma Gandhi have done in 2021?

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