The abrupt termination of the Cripps’ negotiations and Sir Stafford’s sudden departure came as a surprise. Was it to make this feeble offer, which turned out to be, so far as the present was concerned, a mere repetition of what had been repeatedly said before—was it for this that a member of the British War Cabinet had journeyed to India? Or had all this been done merely as a propaganda stunt for the people of the U.S.A.? The reaction was strong and bitter. There was no hope of a settlement with Britain; no chance was given to the people of India even to defend their country against invasion as they wanted to.
Meanwhile the chances of that invasion were growing and hordes of starving Indian refugees were pouring across the eastern frontiers of India. In eastern Bengal, in a panicky state of mind in anticipation of an invasion, tens of thousands of river boats were destroyed. (It was subsequently stated that this had been done by a mistaken interpretation of an official order.) That vast area was full of waterways and the only transport possible was by these boats. Their destruction isolated large communities, destroyed their means of livelihood and transport, and was one of the contributory causes of the Bengal famine. Preparations were made for large-scale withdrawals from Bengal, and a repetition of what had happened in Rangoon and Lower Burma seemed probable. In the city of Madras a vague and unconfirmed (and, as it turned out, a false) rumour of the approach of a Japanese fleet led to the sudden departure of high Government officials and even to a partial destruction of harbour facilities. It seemed that the civilian administration of India was suffering from a nervous break-down. It was strong only in its suppression of Indian nationalism.
What were we to do? We could not tolerate any part of India submitting tamely to invasion. So far as armed resistance was concerned that was a matter for the army and air force, such as they were. American help was pouring in, especially in the shape of aircraft, and was slowly changing the military situation. The only way we could have helped was by changing the whole atmosphere of the home front, by creating enthusiasm in the people and a fierce desire to resist at all costs, by building up citizen forces for this purpose and home guards and the like. That had been made terribly difficult for us by British policy. Even on the eve of invasion no Indian outside the regular army could be trusted with a gun, and even our attempts to organize un-armed self-defence units in villages were disapproved and sometimes suppressed. Far from encouraging the organization of popular resistance the British authorities were afraid of this, for they had long been accustomed to look upon all popular self-defence organization as seditious and dangerous to British rule. They had to follow their old policy, for the only alternative was to accept a national government relying on the people and organizing them for defence. This alternative had been definitely rejected by them and there was no middle course or half-way house. Inevitably they were led to treat the people as chattels, who were to be allowed no initiative and were to be used and disposed of entirely according to their own wishes. The All-India Congress Committee, which met at the end of April, 1942, declared its deep resentment at this policy and treatment, and said that it could never accept a position which involved our functioning as slaves of foreign authority.
Nevertheless, we could not remain silent and inert spectators of the tragedy that seemed to be imminent. We had to advise the people, the vast masses of the civilian population, as to what they should do in case of invasion. We told them that in spite of their indignation against British policy they must not interfere in any way with the operations of the British or allied armed forces, as this would be giving indirect aid to the enemy aggressor. Further, that they must on no account submit to the invader, or obey his orders, or accept any favours from him. If the invading forces sought to take possession of the people’s homes and fields they must be resisted even unto death. This resistance was to be peaceful; it was to be the completest form of non-co-operation with the enemy.
Many people criticized with considerable sarcasm what seemed to them the absurd notion of resisting an invading army with these methods of non-violent non-co-operation. Yet far from being absurd, it was the only method, and a very brave method, left to the people. The advice was not offered to the armed forces, nor was peaceful resistance put forward as an alternative to armed resistance. That advice was meant only for the unarmed civilian population, which almost invariably submits to the invader when its armed forces are defeated or withdrawn. Apart from the regular armed forces, it is possible to organize guerrilla units to harass the enemy. But this was not possible for us, for it requires training, arms, and the full co-operation of the regular army. And even if some guerrilla units could have been trained the rest of the population remained. Normally the civilian population is expected to submit to enemy occupation. Indeed, it was known that directions had been issued by British authorities in certain threatened areas advising submission, even by some of the petty officials, to the enemy when the army and the higher officials withdrew.
We knew perfectly well that peaceful non-cooperation could not stop an advancing enemy force. We knew also that most of the civilian inhabitants would find it difficult to resist even if they wanted to do so. Nevertheless we hoped that some leading personalities in the towns and villages occupied by the enemy would refuse to submit or carry out the enemy’s orders or help in getting provisions or in any other way. That would have meant swift punishment for them, very probably death as well as reprisals. We expected this non-submission and resistance to death of even a limited number of persons to have a powerful effect on the general population, not only in the area concerned but in the rest of India. Thus we hoped that a national spirit of resistance might be built up.
For some months previously we had been organizing, often in the face of official opposition, food committees and self-defence units in towns and villages. The food problem was troubling us and we feared a crisis in view of the increasing difficulties of transport and Other developments of the war situation. Government was doing next to nothing in regard to this. We tried to organize self-sufficient units, especially in the rural areas, and to encourage primitive methods of transport by bullock-cart in case modern methods failed. There was also the possibility of large numbers of refugees and evacuees suddenly marching west, as they had done in China, in case of invasion from the east. We tried to prepare ourselves to receive them and provide for them. All this was exceedingly difficult, indeed hardly possible, without the co-operation of the Government, yet we made such attempts as we could. The purpose of the self-defence units was to help in these tasks and to prevent panic and keep order in their respective areas. Air raids and the news of invasion, even in a distant area, ‘might well cause panic in the civilian population, and it was important to stop this. The official measures taken in this behalf were totally insufficient and looked upon with distrust by the public. In the rural areas dacoities and robberies were on the increase.
We made these vast plans and in a small measure gave effect to them, but it was obvious that we were only scratching the surface of the tremendous problem which confronted us. A real solution could come only through complete co-operation between the governmental apparatus and the people, and that had been found to be impossible.
It was a heart-breaking situation, for while the crisis called to us and we were bubbling over with the desire to act, effective action was denied us. Catastrophe and disaster advanced with tremendous strides towards us while India lay helpless and inert, bitter and sullen, a battle ground for rival and foreign forces.
Much as I hated war, the prospect of a Japanese invasion of India had in no way frightened me. At the back of my mind I was in a sense attracted to this coming of war, horrible as it was, to India. For I wanted a tremendous shake-up, a personal experience for millions of people, which would drag them out of that peace of the grave that Britain had imposed upon us. Something that would force them to face the reality of today and to outgrow the past which clung to them so tenaciously, to get beyond the petty political squabbles and exaggerations of temporary problems which filled their minds. Not to break with the past, and yet not to live in it; realise the present and look to the future.. . .To change the rhythm of life and make it in tune with this present and future. The cost of war was heavy, and the consequences full of uncertainty. That war was not of our seeking, but since it had come, it could be made to harden the fibre of the nation and provide those vital experiences out of which a new life might blossom forth. Vast numbers would die, that was inevitable, but it is better to die in war than through famine; it is better to die than to live a miserable, hopeless life. Out of death, life is born afresh, and individuals and nations who do not know how to die, do not know also how to live. ‘Only where there are graves are there resurrections.’
But though the war had come to India, it had brought no exhilaration of the spirit to us, no pouring out of our energies in some glad endeavour, when pain and death were forgotten and self itself ignored and only the cause of freedom counted and the vision of the future that lay beyond. Only the suffering and sorrow were for us, and an awareness of impending disaster which sharpened our perceptions and quickened pain, and which we could not even help to avert. A brooding sense of inevitable and ineluctable tragedy grew upon us, a tragedy that was both personal and national.
This had nothing to do with victory or defeat in the war, with who won and who lost. We did not want the Axis powers to win, for that led to certain disaster; we did not want the Japanese to enter or occupy any part of India. That had to be resisted anyhow, and we repeatedly impressed the public with this fact, but all this was a negative approach. What positive aim was there in this war, what future would emerge out of it? Was it just a repetition of past follies and disasters, a play of nature’s blind forces which took no cognizance of man’s wishes and ideals? What was going to be the fate of India?
We thought of Rabindranath Tagore’s last testament, his death-bed message given the year before:
the demon of barbarity has given up all pretence and has emerged with unconcealed fangs ready to tear up humanity in an orgy of devastation. From one end of the world to the other the poisonous fumes of hatred darken the atmosphere. The spirit of violence which perhaps lay dormant in the psychology of the west has at last roused itself and desecrated the spirit of man.
The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind! I had one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether.
As I look round I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the east where the sun rises. A day will come when un-vanquished man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage.
Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.’
No, one may not lose faith in man. God we may deny, but what hope is there for us if we deny man and thus reduce everything to futility? Yet it was difficult to have faith in anything or to believe that the triumph of righteousness is inevitable.
Weary of body and troubled in mind I sought escape from my surroundings and journeyed to Kulu in the inner valleys of the Himalayas.