Quit India Movement: The August ‘Revolution’
August 9, 2020 marks the 78th anniversary of the ‘Quit India’ movement
‘Leave India to God. If this is too much then leave her to anarchy,’ Gandhi had told Britain in May 1942.
In an interview he gave to the American journalist Louis Fischer (the author of Gandhi’s biography that was later adapted into Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’) in June 1942, Gandhi said: “I have become impatient… (If I am) not able to convince the Congress (to launch a struggle), I will go ahead and address the people directly…”
On August 8, Gandhiji gave the call for a mass movement demanding British withdrawal from India.
“Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give you. Imprint it on your hearts, so that in every breath you give expression to it. The mantra is: ‘Do or Die’. We shall either free India or die trying; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.”
He told government servants to openly declare allegiance to the Congress, soldiers to refuse to fire on their own people, and Princes to accept the sovereignty of their own people rather than that of a foreign power. He asked the subjects of the Princely States to declare that they were part of the Indian nation, and would accept their rulers if only they agreed to be on the side of the people of India.
Congress leaders struggled to coin a slogan for the movement. One suggestion was ‘Get Out’. But Gandhiji thought it was impolite. C Rajagopalachari, whom Gandhi called as his ‘conscience keeper’, suggested ‘Retreat’ or ‘Withdraw’.
Finally, Yusuf Meheraly -- the Socialist and trade unionist who was imprisoned 8 times during the freedom struggle - came up with ‘Quit India’.
The Quit India Movement was launched from Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank on the midnight of August 8-9 after a historic session of the Congress that lasted two-and-a-half days. Gowalia Tank was later renamed August Kranti Maidan.
The movement was launched following the failure of the Cripps Mission, which offered an autonomous dominion but not full Independence to India. It also indicated the Partition of India, which was not acceptable to the Congress at the time.
On August 9, Gandhiji and other members of the Congress were arrested by the British and all public meetings were prohibited, triggering protests across the country.
With no national leader available to guide the popular agitation, the movement spiralled out of control and resulted in violence and rioting. The British ruthlessly suppressed the movement; more than 100,000 people were imprisoned. Thousands were killed.
Most freedom fighters were kept in prison till 1945. Imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace in Poona along with his wife Kasturba, Gandhi was only released from prison in 1944. It is here that Kasturba ‘Ba’ Gandhi died in 1944.
The palace was donated to the Indian people by the Aga Khan as a mark of respect to Gandhiji and is now a museum.
News of Allied defeats in the War, and reports and rumours of trains bringing in large number of injured and dead British soldiers from the eastern front added to the feeling that the end of the British Raj was near. In many parts of Eastern UP, Bihar, and in the Madras Presidency, people were rushing to withdraw money from banks and postoffices, and starting to hoard coins and precious metals.
For about two weeks, the government disappeared in Bihar’s Tirhut division. In Patna, police fired at and killed seven students marching to the secretariat with the national flag. Patna was virtually liberated for two days.
Official estimates recorded 250 damaged or destroyed railway stations, attacks on 500 post offices and 150 police stations in the first week alone. In Karnataka, there were 1,600 incidents of telegraph lines being cut.
The crackdown was also unprecedented in its sweep and brutality. Police and soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed protesters. Crowds were machine-gunned by military aircraft swooping low over them. Protesters were picked up from the villages and held hostage by police.
Collective fines amounting to lakhs were imposed on entire communities, and the sum was realised immediately through plunder. There was mass whipping of suspects, and village after village was burnt to the ground in punishment for their residents’ actions.
In the five months up to December 1942, an estimated 60,000 people had been thrown into prison. Some 26,000 people were convicted for small and large offences, and 18,000 were detained under the harsh Defence of India Act.