Questioning politics of protest in Gandhian mass movements – A view on the Quit India Movement 1942

Gandhi and Gandhian politics have always held a deep fascination for scholars of South Asian history. Endless debates and discussions have gone on regarding the nature and efficacy of Gandhian mass-movements in the Indian ‘freedom-struggle’. However, apart from Faisal Devji, historians have hardly been interested in looking at the practical scope of violence within the larger rubric of Gandhi’s non-violence. The Quit India Movement, his last mass movement, was also his grandest, in terms of scale and expanse, however, it was also the most violent of all his mass-movements. In Bengal, the movement saw the establishment of the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar (National Government of Tamluk) in December 1942 in Midnapore.

Midnapore had had a long tradition of anti-British struggle right from the time of partition of Bengal in 1905. It was small wonder then that it would participate in full strength in the 1942 movement. The movement began with an anti-British thrust, as elsewhere in the country. All symbols of British authority – post and telegraph, thanas, even costumes, such as Pugrees (head gear) and police uniforms – were attacked. Uniforms of police constables were regularly taken away or burnt and in several cases, especially during the thana attacks on 29th September, weapons and official papers at police stations or at Khas mahal offices were looted. Given the fact that Midnapore was badly affected by the Denial scheme and the Scorched Earth policy of the War-time Colonial state, the strong anti-British feeling was quickly translated into political action by the rebels once Gandhi gave the Quit India call. Midnapore also had been subjected to militant anti-British propaganda by the ‘terrorist’ groups like the Jugantar and Bengal Volunteers groups, and owed a strong allegiance to Subhash Chandra Bose, especially among the students.

Gandhi’s own militant outlook in the early months of 1942, only mirrored the militant emotions that ran high in Midnapore that was directly affected by the policies of Colonial state in 1942. However, with the burning down of thanas the movement deviated from the typical Gandhian trajectory of a non-violent mass movement. While thana burning was not new (one gets instantly reminded of the Chauri-Chaura Incident during the non-cooperation movement in 1922), this time the scale of burning of thanas was unprecedented.

With the brutal repression that the State launched as soon as the revolution began, the movement deviated from its anti-state focus and became more inward looking. While the anti-British thrust was still there, the rebels concentrated more on weeding out Indian loyalists living among them. It was from here, that the movement deviated further from the Gandhian mould, with violent acts of kidnapping, terrorism and murder. As it became more and more difficult to commit acts of terror on the more visible symbols of British authority, like Thanas, the category of the ‘traitor’ became more important. Those villagers who did not participate in the movement, or were seen as furthering the British cause by supplying information against the rebels, bore the brunt of the rebels’ anger. The underground press of Midnapore bears testimony to numerous warnings issued to such ‘traitors’ of the ‘nationalist’ cause.

Thus the movement witnessed two different stages of violence – one, where violence was directed at symbols of British authority, and secondly, where the violence became more inward-looking. The interesting fact remains that unlike Chari-Chaura, this time Gandhi did not call off the movement, rather he let it go on for almost two years. He called off the movement only after his release from prison in 1945. This leads a historian to question two things – 1. What was the rationale behind the rebel’s acts of violence, all of which were committed in Gandhi’s name? 2. Why did Gandhi not call of the movement, once the terrible wave of violence hit not only Bengal, but also elsewhere in the country. This then links up the fundamental question about the relationship between elite leadership and popular perceptions and response.

Just another Kings Blog?

Welcome to my new blog – Politics of Protest in Colonial South Asia. Before you wonder if this is just another Kings Blog, or if this is just another academic broadcasting her work, let me assure you this is not. But before we go into what this blog is about, a brief introduction about who I am.

I am Dr. Anwesha Roy, and I am a Marie-Curie Fellow at the History Department, Kings College London. My doctoral thesis focussed on various modalities of communal mobilization in 1940s in Bengal, specifically delving into the inter-relations between hunger, caste and communal politics. I am deeply interested in ‘mass’ politics, ‘crowd’ behaviour and their linkages with elite leadership. For my current project as a Marie Curie Fellow, I focus on revolutionary praxis and practical scope of violence within the ambit of Gandhian mass-movements, specifically the Quit India Movement in Bengal in 1942.

That was me. But now let’s return to what this blog is going to be. First and foremost, this is going to be an interactive space, where scholars, including myself, will contribute on various issues about politics of protest in colonial South Asia. We shall discuss themes like nature of protest movements, relationship between elite leadership and mass perceptions in protest movements, and the relevance of studying these in the South Asian context today. Through these blog posts, we shall also develop an understanding of why studying history is relevant in today’s context, and what the public role of historians (and academics in general) could and should be.