“The mantra is: ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt.”
In the summer of 1942, many in India (and elsewhere, for that matter) believed that the Axis were going to win the war and that a Japanese Army invasion of India was both imminent and sure to succeed. Mohandas Gandhi, the preeminent Indian nationalist leader, decided that if ever there was a time to achieve his goal of throwing off the rule of the British Raj that time was now.
In early June he drafted a resolution calling for a nationwide non-violent protest designed to force the British government to leave India – immediately. In July he submitted his document to the working committee of the Indian National Congress Party. The resolution emerged largely intact and was formally submitted to the All-India Congress Committee meeting in Bombay (Mumbai) in early August 1942. Of the 250 delegates, only 13 voted against it on August 7. The next day Gandhi stepped up to the lectern and officially launched the Quit India movement, calling upon the British government to depart. If they did not, as historian Arthur Herman wrote in his book, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, “Britain and the Raj would be faced with the equivalent of mass albeit unarmed rebellion, at the war’s most crucial juncture.”
Gandhi, believing that a British government response would take at least two weeks, thus giving his Quit India movement time to build unstoppable momentum, went to bed that night full of hope that his dream would be realized.
But Gandhi had grievously miscalculated. At four o’clock in the morning of August 9, British police barged into Gandhi’s room and arrested him and fourteen other nationalist leaders. Their prison was a very gilded cage, the summer palace of the Aga Khan in Poona, lent to the British, but surrounded by a double row of barbed wire and soldiers armed with machine guns, it was still a prison. In a stroke, the Quit India movement was rendered leaderless before it had a chance to start.
Ironically for the apostle of non-violent protests, when news of Gandhi’s arrest was reported it caused an eruption of violence among his followers throughout India. But the waves of vandalism, sabotage, and arson were not directed against whites or the tens of thousands of British and American soldiers stationed there, but against government offices and the railways,. Before it ended, 208 police stations had been torched and almost 750 government offices and railroad stations destroyed.
When he received news of the riots, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a longtime foe of Gandhi’s, told Victor Hope Linlithgow, the viceroy of India, “My own conclusion is that if this situation is handled with the poise and strength which the Government of India is showing under your guidance it will soon demonstrate the very slender hold which the Congress have both upon the Indian masses and upon the dominant forces in Indian society.” Linlithgow and Gen. Archibald Wavell, commander in chief of the British Army in India, dispatched more than fifty battalions of troops to restore order. At least 2,500 people were killed and wounded by police and troops and at least 60,000 more were jailed. Within six weeks, the Quit India movement had been crushed.
In truth, Gandhi had not only misjudged the British, he had also misjudged his own people. Despite the landslide vote in favor of it, the Quit India movement was controversial within the Congress Party, and it never had widespread support in the general populace. Indian companies, reaping profits from contracts with the British and American governments, did not want to jeopardize that business. And finally, the Indian Army itself remained loyal to Great Britain.
In early October British author Bertrand Russell called for a four-man commission, consisting of representatives from the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China, to negotiate with Indian nationalist leaders. But the British public was appalled by the violence that had occurred and pressure on the British government to make concessions to Indian nationalists evaporated.
Churchill had won this battle. But the war between him and Gandhi was far from over. In February 1943, the two would go head to head in a final contest of wills, with the fate of India and the Second World War in that region at stake.