Learning the ropes of mass mobilisation: The lessons of 1942

Implicit in Rahul’s embrace of the Gandhian method is the conviction that the adversary can only be defeated by weakening its hold on the minds of people

Learning the ropes of mass mobilisation: The lessons of 1942

G.N. Devy

1942 was a most turbulent year. In India, the Muslim League had already demanded a separate nation for Muslims, and the air was charged with communalism. The war in Europe had spread to other continents and the British wanted India to support their war effort. The Cripps Mission was sent to India in March 1942. Its demand that India participate in the war caused tremendous resentment in the country, especially because there was no prior consultation with Indian leaders.

Outside India, the Indian National Army (INA) was created under Rash Behari Bose and its command handed over to Subhas Chandra Bose later that year. Hitler’s forces were deep inside Russia. Erwin Rommel, a decorated general nicknamed ‘Desert Fox’, had trounced the Allies in the African war theatre. In June 1942, Rommel took tens of thousands of troops prisoners in Tobruk. Also in June 1942, Hitler ordered the massacre in Czechoslovakia’s Lidice village, which was reduced to ashes on his orders.

On 4 July 1942, German bombers attacked an Arctic convoy of the Allies, codenamed PQ17, sending it into such disarray that for weeks together 100,000 tonnes of cargo, including 210 planes and 3,350 vehicles, went missing. Within the Congress itself, there were heated debates on the path ahead, and socialist factions found it necessary to form breakaway organisations and dals. The scene was very different a decade ago.

In 1931, the frail saint of Sabarmati Ashram had taken out a march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, in an act of quiet defiance that made the world take notice of the Congress as a force to reckon with. For several years after, the Congress went from strength to strength, attracting the youth from across India to its idea of demanding swaraj through a non-violent struggle. These were precisely the years when fascism was in ascendancy in Europe. Hitler had come to power in 1933. For the youth in India, Germany’s enmity with Britain could have turned them towards fascism. But that didn’t happen, thanks to Gandhi’s inspirational leadership.

Nobody in India at the time, barring the RSS, was drawn to Hitler’s fascism as a possible option. Not even when differences arose, say between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Nor even for Subhas Chandra Bose, who had very different ideas from Gandhi about ways of securing independence, but there was no racial prejudice in his world view—Muslims, Hindus, Christians stood shoulder to shoulder in his Azad Hind Fauj, as indeed did men and women. Their differences notwithstanding, there was an unspoken consensus among India’s great leaders that a better future for the Indian people could only lie on the path of democracy.

In 1921, nearly a decade before the Dandi march, the Congress was just emerging from a bitter factional fight between its moderates and extremists. A generation of leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal had faded out. In 1920, Gandhi had been on a whirlwind tour of India, to get to know people, to connect with them and to bring them into the Congress fold. In 1921, he was given control of the party. To see the 1942 Quit India/Bharat Chhodo movement in its historical context, it is important to study the trajectory of the Congress from 1920 to 1942 through 1931.

That context has a close resemblance with the context in which the Bharat Jodo movement has sprung up. In 2002, the Congress looked far away from being able to counter the ‘India Shining’ rhetoric of the NDA government. A decade later, in 2012, a Congress-led UPA government managed to usher in landmark pieces of legislation on the Right to Education and the Right to Information besides creating an excellent livelihood support programme through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act better known as MGNREGA.

But again, over the past eight years, India has undergone a complete transformation. We have a government that cosies up to a few super-rich business families and has systematically emasculated all counterbalancing democratic institutions meant to restrain a runaway Executive. Mainstream media has been turned into a government lapdog and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression exists as if only to remind us of its reallife absence. Central investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate have been weaponised with laws that give them unbridled powers to search, seize, arrest and spread fear. The sharp rise in hate speech and hate crimes directed against minorities since 2014 has no parallel in India’s history since 1947.

Outside India, war clouds are thickening and the community of nations seems ill-equipped to effectively check aggressive intent and wars. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the popular uprising in Sri Lanka, the escalation of tension between India and its neighbours and the sharp rise in unemployment and poverty are all factors that bring back memories of Hitler’s rise to power. The BJP’s unceasing propaganda war and its ritual invocation of a fake militant nationalism also remind us of those times. The divisions in the opposition camp and the factionalism within opposition parties also make 2022 uncannily similar to conditions in 1942.

The similarities may not be obvious, though; they will become clearer when we review 2022 from a vantage point in future, when history reassesses the long march of 2022—the Bharat Jodo Yatra. In 1942, almost immediately after Gandhi raised his ‘do or die’ slogan, he was arrested and taken to prison with Kasturba and Mahadev Desai, both of whom died in prison. The Indian National Congress and three of its regional committees were banned; a hundred thousand went to jail and nearly as many went underground to continue the agitation. Five years later, India had gained independence. In the same time interval, the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany also crumbled. By 1947, Mussolini and Hitler, who commanded the world’s most powerful armed forces in 1942, had become names uttered only in contempt. In 1942, colonialism was at the zenith of its exploitative might; by 1947, European colonialism had begun to look like a relic of the medieval dark ages.

Not everyone was convinced of Gandhi’s method of resistance even in 1942, even after he had demonstrated what was possible over the previous decades. How can you fight the military might of the colonial power and fascists with non-violence and non-cooperation, his critics would ask. Similar doubts are being expressed today about the Bharat Jodo Yatra. How will this long march combat the strong-arm politics of the adversary? How will it stop the intimidation of citizens through constant surveillance? How will it uproot fear, falsehood, propaganda?

I’d written earlier in these pages that the similarities between Gandhi’s Bharat Chhodo agitation and the current Bharat Jodo Yatra go far beyond their surface-level attributes. Perhaps the most important feature they share is the realisation that the push for freedom must come from the people, which, in turn, must necessarily involve their awakening.

Implicit in Rahul’s embrace of the Gandhian method is the conviction that his battle against the prevailing economic disparities, the communal divide, the collapse of democratic institutions is their battle. It is a method designed to make people fearless and weaken the hold of the State over the minds of people. It is the method that taught people the strength of self-regulation or swaraj. It worked then, and beyond all expectations. Why won’t it work now?

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Published: 02 Oct 2022, 11:00 AM