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Quit India Movement: The Gandhian gesture symbolizing ‘Do or Die’

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What many believe as just a sort of retaliation to the Cripps Mission or as a subsidiary movement involving the interests of only a few individuals, the Quit India Movement or the ‘Bharat Chhodo Andolan’ was in reality an umbrella movement and also a kind of ultimatum to the British that it is high time they leave India and give Indians their complete independence.

As the nation is celebrated the 78th Anniversary of the Quit India Movement in August 2020, it is worth noting that this movement not only united people from different sections of the society into a whole but also shaped Mahatma Gandhi into an extraordinary leader we know today.

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Quit India Movement is often considered to be a turning point in India’s struggles for freedom from the British Raj. The movement saw people across India come together under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi to uproot the Britishers. It was the direct result of Britain’s mounting difficulties in the World War II and the failure of the Cripp’s Mission to convince Indian leadership at the time to agree for a partial self-rule.

In December 1941, Japan had attacked Britain’s colonies in Asia, and advanced rapidly through Myanmar, the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, Singapore and parts of Papua New Guinea causing heavy losses and taking huge numbers of prisoners of war. With the Japanese virtually on India’s doorstep in the Northeast and with Hitler’s armies still holding the upper hand in the European and African theatres of the War, Prime Minister of UK Winston Churchill was pressurized to reach out to Indian leaders for help in the war effort.

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So, in March 1942, a mission led by Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India to meet with leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League. The offer that Cripps placed on the table was of Dominion Status- an autonomous community within the British Empire instead of full independence. This was not acceptable to Gandhi and Nehru and more importantly, the Congress was opposed to a provision that allowed for the Partition of India. Thus, by the beginning of the summer of 1942, Gandhi was convinced that a struggle against the British for the rights of Indians would have to be waged.

On 8 August, 1942 at the Bombay session of All India Congress Committee, Mahatma Gandhi introduced the resolution to start a Quit India Movement. The historic resolution was passed at the meeting. Subsequently, Gandhi gave a fiery speech at Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank Maidan also known as August Kranti Maidan, marking the beginning of the Quit India Movement.

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Gandhi said, “There is a mantra, a short one that I give you. You imprint it in your heart and let every breath of yours give an expression to it. The mantra is do or die. We shall either be free or die in the attempt.”

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.

On the night of 9 August, and all senior leaders of the Congress including Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Mahatma Gandhi were arrested on charges of sedition. The British not only arrested the entire INC leadership, they remained incarcerated till the end of the Second World War in 1945 without trial. The Indian National Congress was declared an unlawful association and its offices were raided across the country, while all its funds were frozen.

In Bombay, Poona, and Ahmedabad, lakhs of people clashed violently with police on August 9. On August 10, protests erupted in Delhi, and across UP and Bihar. There were hartals, demonstrations and people’s marches in defiance of prohibitory orders in Kanpur, Patna, Varanasi, and Allahabad. The government hit back with brute force, swinging lathis recklessly, and gagging the press.

With the entire leadership of Congress incarcerated, the British managed to suppress most citizen-led initiatives and demonstrations by 1944. What did not disappear was the idea of non-negotiable, complete freedom invoked in the Mahatma’s speech at the August Kranti grounds.

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.

In such a huge movement, what emerged as victorious and unambiguous was Gandhian idea of Indian nationalism. It was neither inspired by the nationalism of Europe where Nazism and Fascism were at peak nor was it taken from the nationalism of the Soviet Union or China where Socialism and Communism were running through the veins of every single individual. It is what Gandhi believed defined the fundamental idea of India and how is it going to be.

The Communist Party of India, the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, Dr. Ambedkar and the social groups he led, a bunch of other socialists and the Muslim League, all refused to take part in the Quit India Movement. For them, the movement could bring no significant change and most of them either sided with the British, even helped them or wanted direct confrontations. What was admiring was that Gandhi never termed any of these political groups as ‘Anti Nationals’ for allying with the British and not listening to him. He never claimed that only the Indian National Congress led by him was trying to fight for the freedom struggle. He had his differences but he respected all opinions.

Such was Gandhi, so simple yet effective. There is so much to learn from the saint-taking all opinions and individuals together is just one of the art of this humble artist.

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