Gandhi, the apocalypse and the Quit India Movement

Gandhi’s responses to the Congress Responsibility pamphlet would baffle any reader. His refusal to admit any responsibility for the movement, claiming that his movement never really started, also reveals various complex undertones. In order to understand this response, and also his very reason behind his Quit India call, we need to delve further backwards into his writings in the Harijan and elsewhere. The context of the Second World War was of primary importance. His interpretation of the war had continued to develop in an apocalyptic direction and he attributed the fast-changing international involvement in the war to ‘general insanity’.[1] Like the final battle of Mahabharata, this war also appeared to him like a conflict from which none could emerge victorious.[2] Out of this apocalyptic ruin a new world order would emerge. He wrote in the Harijan in February –

The warring nations are destroying themselves with such fury and ferocity that the end will be mutual exhaustion. The victor will share the fate that awaited the surviving Pandavas. The mighty warrior Arjuna was looted in broad daylight by a petty robber. Out of this holocaust must arise a new order for which the exploited millions of toilers have so long thirsted.[3] (Emphasis mine)

The visitation of a divine wrath on imperialism was on the cards; the London Blitz and the devastation of other cities from air powerfully affected his thinking and he expected India’s cities to experience the same fate.[4] All that he had written in Hind Swaraj seemed to be coming alive right in front of his eyes. Again, in March 1942 he drew similarities between the present war and those of the Ramayana and Mahabharata

The whole world is on trial today. No one can escape from the war. Whilst the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are products of poets’ imagination, their authors were not mere rhymsters. They were seers. What they depicted is happening before our very eyes today. Ravanas are warring with each other. They are showing matchless strength. They throw their deadly weapons from the air.[5]

‘Modern’ civilization, with all its materialistic wonders was coming to an end; it were the villages which held the key to the future. In January 1942 he had proclaimed –

The renowned cities of the world are crumbling into dust. London is changed out of recognition, the edifices which the builders thought would stand the ravages of time are no more. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace have all been bombed with the result that what is called the capital of the world today looks, to use Narmadashankar’s word, “devastated”. And our cities like Rangoon will share the same fate. The age of cities is thus coming to an end. The slogan of ‘Back to the villages’ was never so true as today. Therefore all of you at any rate have to go to the villages. The mills will not be of any avail. They are producing cloth for the belligerents and may ere long cease even to do that work, and may have solely to engage in producing munition. We have therefore to produce all our cloth and to make our villages self-sufficient in all respects.[6]

By February 1942 he was advising people to migrate to villages ‘in an orderly manner’.[7] The village for him was the sanctum-sanctorium, a safe haven, where the evils of war could not penetrate. Hence he even advised women to proceed to villages in order to save themselves from harassment by soldiers. In March 1942 he advised – ‘My advice to women is that they should leave the cities and migrate to the villages where a wide field of service awaits them. There is comparatively little risk of their being assaulted in villages. They must however live simple lives and make themselves one with the poor.’[8] The village would then become the centre of service and sacrifice, a desire he had long held dear. He wanted these city dwellers to go to the villages and ‘live the village life as much as possible’. It was important that urban conditions were not recreated in villages; people would have to go to villages ‘in a spirit of service, study their economic and other conditions and ameliorate them not by giving alms but by giving the villagers work of a permanent nature. In other words, they should work the constructive programme among the villagers. Thus, they will identify themselves with the villagers and become a kind of cooperative society with an ordered programme of economic, social, hygienic and political reconstruction’.[9]

However, this dream of Gandhi was soon shattered and villages themselves became tainted with the horrors of the war. Hind Swaraj now seemed an impossibility. The villages of India, especially in the Eastern Frontier began to bear the brunt of Denial Policy and how the influx of foreign soldiers brought along with it its own problems.

All this must have driven home to Gandhi the futility of the call for village reconstruction at this critical time. But while he did get reports of heightened anti-British feelings, ‘the death-like calm, the falsity of Indian political atmosphere’, in which as he perceived it, people hated the British but were afraid to say so, irritated and depressed him. With Japanese aggression at the gates, what he hoped for was a joint struggle against it and to attain independence; instead, what he was confronted with, and was even scarier for him, was that the widespread lethargy in the political will of the people would even make them welcome the Japanese, as just a simple change of master – ‘their fatigue of the British yoke is so great that they would even welcome the Japanese yoke for a change’. Immediate freedom was the only solution out of this dangerous malaise.

This then was the brief background to Gandhi’s call for the immediate withdrawal of British from India, and the desire to start a civil-disobedience movement to attain this, in case the British refused.

[1] Kathryn Tidrick, Gandhi A Political and Spriritual Life (Verso, London and New York, 2013) p 295

[2] CWMG p 190, The Bombay Chronicle 25.04.1942

[3] CWMG, Volume 82, p 167, Harijan 12.4.1942

[1] Kathryn Tidrick, Gandhi A Political and Spriritual Life (Verso, London and New York, 2013) p 295

[2] Ibid.

[3] Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Hereafter CWMG), Vol. 82, p 7, Harijan 15.2.1942

[4] Kathryn Tidrick, Gandhi A Political and Spriritual Life (Verso, London and New York, 2013) p 295

[5] CWMG, Vol. 82, p 40, Harijan 1.3.1942

[6] CWMG, Volume 81, p, 414, Harijanbandhu 18.1.1942, Speech at Khadi Vidyalaya, Bardoli, 8th January 1942

[7] Ibid. Vol. 82, p 29, Harijan 22.2.1942

[8] Ibid. p 41, Harijan 1.3.1942

[9] Ibid. p 114, Harijan 15.3.1942

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.