Mass Upheavals And Their Suppression


In the early morning of August 9th, 1942, numerous arrests were made all over India. What happened then? Only scraps of news trickled through to us after many weeks, and even now we can form only an incomplete picture of what took place. All the prominent leaders had been suddenly removed and no one seemed to know what should be done. Protests, of course, there had to be, and there were spontaneous demonstrations. These were broken up and fired upon, and tear-gas bombs were used; all the usual channels of giving expression to public feeling were stopped. And then all these suppressed emotions broke out and crowds gathered in cities and rural areas and came in conflict with the police and the military. They attacked especially what seemed to them the symbols of British authority and power, the police stations, post offices, and railway stations; they cut the telegraph and telephone wires. These unarmed and leaderless mobs faced police and military firing, according to official statements, on 538 occasions, and they were also machine-gunned from low-flying aircraft. For a month or two or more these disturbances continued in various parts of the country and then they dwindled away and gave place to sporadic occurrences. ‘The disturbances,’ said Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons, ‘were crushed with all the weight of the Government,’ and he praised ‘the loyalty and steadfastness of the brave Indian police as well as the Indian official class generally whose behaviour has been deserving of the highest praise.’ He added that ‘larger reinforcements have reached India and the number of white troops in that country is larger than at any time in the British connection.’ These foreign troops and the Indian police had won many a battle against the un-armed peasantry of India and crushed their rebellion; and that other main prop of the British Raj in India, the official class, had helped, actively or passively, in the process.

This reaction in the country was extraordinarily widespread, both in towns and villages. In almost all the provinces and in a large number of the Indian states there were innumerable demonstrations, in spite of official prohibition. There were hartals, closure of shops and markets and a stoppage of business everywhere, varying in duration from a number of days to some weeks and, in a few cases, to over a month. So also labour strikes. More organized and used to disciplined group action, industrial workers in many important centres spontaneously declared strikes in protest against Government action in arresting national leaders. A notable instance of this was at the vital steel city of Jamshedpur where the skilled workers, drawn from all over India, kept away from work for a fortnight and only agreed to return on the management promising that they would try their best to get the Congress leaders released and a national government formed. In the great textile centre of Ahmedabad also there was a sudden and complete stoppage of work in all the numerous factories without any special call from the trade union.* This general strike in Ahmedabad continued peacefully for over three months in spite of all attempts to break it. It was a purely political and spontaneous reaction of the workers, and they suffered greatly, for it was a time of relatively high wages. They received no financial help whatever from outside during this long period. At other centres the strikes were of briefer duration, lasting sometimes only for a few days. Cawnpore, another big textile centre, had, so far as I know, no major strike, chiefly because the communist leadership there succeeded in averting it. In the railways also, which are Government-owned, there was no marked or general stoppage of work, except such as was caused by the disturbances, and this latter was considerable.

Among the provinces, the Punjab was probably the least affected, but there were many hartals and strikes even there. The North-West Frontier Province, almost exclusively Muslim in population, occupied a peculiar position. To begin with, there were no mass arrests or other provocative action there on the part of the Government, as in the other provinces. This may have been partly due to the fact that the frontier people were considered inflammable material, but also partly to the policy of Government to show that Muslims were keeping apart from the nationalist upheaval. But when news of happenings in the rest of India reached the Frontier Province there were numerous demonstrations and even aggressive challenges to British authority. There was firing on the demonstrators and the usual methods of suppressing popular activities were adopted. Several thousands of people were arrested, and even the great Pathan leader Bad-shah Khan (as Abdul Ghaffar Khan is popularly known) was seriously injured by police blows. This was extreme provocation and yet, surprisingly enough, the excellent discipline, which Abdul Ghaffar Khan had established among his people, held, and there were no violent disturbances there of the kind that occurred in many parts of the country.

The sudden, unorganized demonstrations and outbreaks on the part of the people, culminating in violent conflicts and destruction, and continued against overwhelming and powerful armed forces, were a measure of the intensity of their feelings. Those feelings had been there even before the arrest of their leaders, but the arrests, and the frequent firings that followed them, roused the people to anger and to the only course that an enraged mob can follow. For a time there seems to have been a sense of uncertainty as to what should be done. There was no direction, no programme. There was no well-known person to lead them or tell them what to do, and yet they were too excited and angry to remain quiescent. As often happens in these circumstances, local leaders sprang up and were followed for the moment. But even the guidance they gave was little; it was essentially a spontaneous mass upheaval. All over India, the younger generation, especially university students, played an important part in both the violent and peaceful activities of 1942. Many universities were closed. Some of the local leaders attempted even then to pursue peaceful methods of action and civil disobedience, but this was difficult in the prevailing atmosphere. The people forgot the lesson of non-violence which had been dinned into their ears for more than twenty years, and yet they were wholly unprepared, mentally or otherwise, for any effective violence. That very teaching of non-violent methods produced doubt and hesitation and came in the way of violent action. If the Congress, forgetful of its creed, had previously given even a hint of violent action, there is no doubt that the violence that actually took place would have increased a hundred-fold.

But no such hint had been given, and, indeed, the last message of the Congress had again emphasized the importance of non-violence in action. Yet perhaps one fact had some effect on the public mind. If, as we had said, armed defence was legitimate and desirable against an enemy aggressor, why should that not apply to other forms of existing aggression? The prohibition of violent methods of attack and defence once removed had unintended results, and it was not easy for most people to draw fine distinctions. All over the world extreme forms of violence were prevailing and incessant propaganda encouraged them. It became then a question of expediency and of intensity of feeling. Then there were also people, outside or in the Congress, who never had any belief in non-violence and who were troubled with no scruples in regard to violent action.

But in the excitement of the moment few people think; they act in accordance with their long-suppressed urges which drive them forward. And so, for the first time since the great revolt of 1857, vast numbers of people again rose to challenge by force (but a force without arms!) the fabric of British rule in India. It was a foolish and inopportune challenge, for all the organized and armed force was on the other side, and in greater measure indeed than at any previous time in history. However great the numbers of the crowd, it cannot prevail in a contest of force against armed forces. It had to fail unless those armed forces themselves changed their allegiance. But those crowds had not prepared for the contest or chosen the time for it. It came upon them unawares and in their immediate reaction to it, however unthinking and misdirected it was, they showed their love of India’s freedom and their hatred of foreign domination.

Though the policy of non-violence went under, for the time being at least, the long training that the people had received under it had one important and desirable result. In spite of the passions aroused there was very little, if any, racial feeling, and, on the whole, there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the people to avoid causing bodily injury to their opponents. There was a great deal of destruction of communications and governmental property, but even in the midst of this destruction care was taken to avoid loss of life. This was not always possible or always attempted, especially in actual conflicts with the police or other armed forces. According to official reports, so far as I have been able to find them, about 100 persons were killed by mobs in the course of the disturbances all over India. This figure is very small considering the extent and area of the disturbances and the conflicts with the police. One particularly brutal and distressing case was the murder of two Canadian airmen by a mob somewhere in Bihar. But, generally speaking, the absence of racial feeling was very remarkable.**

Official estimates of the number of people killed and wounded by police or military firing in the 1942 disturbances are: 1,028 killed and 3,200 wounded. These figures are certainly gross underestimates for it has been officially stated that such firing took place on at least 538 occasions, and besides this people were frequently shot at by the police or the military from moving lorries. It is very difficult to arrive at even an approximately correct figure. Popular estimates place the number of deaths at 25,000, but probably this is an exaggeration. Perhaps 10,000 may be nearer the mark.

It was extraordinary how British authority ceased to function over many areas, both rural and urban, and it took many days, and sometimes weeks, for a ‘reconquest’, as it was often termed. This happened particularly in Bihar, in the Midnapur district of Bengal and in the south-eastern districts of the United Provinces. It is noteworthy that in the district of Ballia in the United Provinces (which had to be ‘reconquered’) there have been no serious allegations of physical violence and injury to human beings caused by the crowds, so far as one can judge from the numerous subsequent trials by special tribunals. The ordinary police proved incapable of meeting the situation. Early in 1942, however, a new force called the Special Armed Constabulary (S.A.C.) had been created and this had been especially trained to deal with popular demonstrations and disturbances. This played an important part in curbing and suppressing the people and often functioned after the manner of the ‘Black and Tarts’ in Ireland. The Indian army was not often used in this connection, except for certain groups and classes in it. British soldiers were more often employed, and also the Gurkhas. Sometimes Indian soldiers as well as the special police were sent to distant parts of the country where they functioned more or less as strangers, being unacquainted with the language.

If the reaction of the crowd was natural, so also, in the circumstances, was the reaction of the government. It had to crush both the impromptu frenzy of the mob and the peaceful demonstrations of other people and, in the interests of its own self-preservation, attempt to destroy those whom it considered its enemies. If it had had the capacity or desire to understand and appreciate what moved the people so powerfully, the crisis would not have risen at all and India’s problem would have been nearer solution. The government had prepared carefully to crush once for all, as it thought, any challenge to its authority; it had taken the initiative and chosen the time for its first blow; it had removed to its prisons thousands of men and women who had played a prominent part in the nationalist, the labour, and the peasant movements. Yet it was surprised and taken aback by the upheaval that suddenly convulsed the country and, momentarily, its widespread apparatus of repression was disjoined. But it had enormous resources at its command and it utilized them to crush both the violent and non-violent manifestations of the rebellion. Many of the upper and richer classes, timidly nationalist, and sometimes even critical of government, were frightened by this exhibition of mass action on an All-India scale, which cared little for vested interests and smelt not only of political revolution but also of social change. As the success of the government in crushing the rebellion became apparent, the waverers and the opportunists lined up with it and began to curse all those who had dared to challenge authority.

The external evidences of rebellion having been crushed, it’s very roots had to be pulled out, and so the whole apparatus of government was turned in this direction in order to enforce complete submission to British domination. Laws could be produced over-night by the Viceroy’s decree or ordinance, but even the formalities of these laws were reduced to a minimum. The decisions of the Federal Court and the High Courts, which were creations and emblems of British authority, were flouted and ignored by the executive, or a new ordinance was issued to override those decisions. Special tribunals (which were subsequently held by the courts to be illegal) were established, functioning without the trammels of the ordinary rules of procedure and evidence, and these sentenced thousands to long terms of imprisonment and many even to death. The police (and especially the Special Armed Constabulary) and the secret service were all-powerful and became the chief organs of the state, and could indulge in any illegalities or brutalities without criticism or hindrance. Corruption grew to giant proportions. Vast numbers of students in schools and colleges were punished in various ways and thousands of young men were flogged. Public activity of all kinds was prohibited unless it was in favour of the government.

But the greatest sufferers were the simple-hearted, poverty-stricken villagers of the rural areas. Suffering, for many generations, had been the badge of their tribe; they had ventured to look up and hope, to dream of better times; they had even roused themselves to action; whether they had been foolish or mistaken or not, they had proved their loyalty to the cause of Indian freedom. Their effort had failed, and the burden had fallen on their bent shoulders and broken bodies. Cases were reported of whole villages being sentenced from flogging to death. It was stated on behalf of the Bengal Government that ‘Government forces burnt 193 Congress camps and houses in the sub-divisions of Tamluk and Contai before and after the cyclone of 1942.’ The cyclone had worked havoc in that area and created a wilderness but that made no difference to the official policy.

Huge sums were imposed on villages as a whole as punitive fines. According to Mr. Amery’s statement in the House of Commons, the total collective fines amounted to rupees ninety lakhs (9,000,000), and out of this Rs. 7,850,000 were realized. How these vast sums were realized from starving wretches is another matter, and nothing that took place in 1942 or after, not the shooting and the burning by the police, caused such an intensity of suffering as this forcible realization. Not merely were the fines imposed realized, but often much more, the excess vanishing in the process of realization.

All the conventions and subterfuges that usually veil the activities of governments were torn aside and only naked force remained as the symbol of power and authority. There was no further need for subterfuge for the British power had succeeded, at least for the time being, in crushing both the non-violent and violent attempts made to replace it by a national authority and stood supreme in India. India had failed in that final test when strength and power only count and all else is mere quibbling and irrelevance. She had failed not only because of British armed might and the confusion produced by the war situation in people’s minds, but also because many of her own people were not prepared for that last sacrifice which freedom requires. So the British felt they had firmly re-established their rule in India and they saw no reason to loosen their hold again.

It has been stated by high Government officials, and frequently repeated by others, that these strikes, especially in Jamshedpur and Ahmedabad, were encouraged by the employers and mill-owners. This is hardly credible for the strikes involved the employers in very heavy losses, and I have yet to know big industrialists who work against their own interests in this manner. It is true that many industrialists sympathise with and desire India’s independence, but their conception of India’s freedom is necessarily one in which they have a secure place. They dislike revolutionary action and any vital change in the social structure. It is possible, how-ever, that influenced by the depth and widespread character of public feeling in August and September, 1942, they refrained from adopting that aggressive and punitive attitude, in co-operation with the police, which they usually indulge in when strikes take place.

Another frequent assertion, almost taken for granted in British circles and the British press, is that the Indian Congress is heavily financed by the big industrialists. This is wholly untrue, and I ought to know something about it as I have been general secretary and president of the Congress for many years. A few industrialists have financially helped from time to time in the social reform activities of Gandhiji and the Congress, such as, village industries, abolition of untouchability and raising of depressed classes, basic education, etc. But they have kept scrupulously aloof from the political work of the Congress, even in normal times, and much more so during periods of conflict with government. Whatever their occasional sympathies, they believe, like most sober and well-established individuals, in safety first. Congress work has been carried on almost entirely on the petty subscriptions and donations of its large membership. Most of the work has been voluntary and unpaid. Occasionally, in the cities, the merchants have helped a little. The only exception to this was probably during the general elections of 1937 when some big industrialists contributed to the central election fund. Even this fund, considering the scope of our activity, was inconsiderable. It is astonishing, and it will be incredible to westerners, with what little money we have carried on our work in the Congress during the last quarter of a century —a period when India has been convulsed repeatedly by political activity and direct action movements. In the United Provinces, one of our most active and well-organized provinces, and one with which I am best acquainted, almost our entire work was based on the four anna subscriptions of our members.

** A revealing incident is reported in ‘British Soldier Looks at India,’ being letters of Clive Branson. Branson was an artist and a communist. He served in the International Brigade in Spain, and in 1941 joined the Royal Armoured Corps, in which he was a sergeant. He was sent to India with his regiment in 1942. In February, 1944, he was killed in action in Arakan in Burma. He was in Bombay in August, 1942, after the arrest of the Congress leaders, and at a time when the people of Bombay were seething with anger and passion and were being shot down. Branson is reported to have said: ‘What a clean healthy nationalism you have! I asked people the way to the Communist Party’s office. I was in uniform. Men like me were shooting unarmed Indians, and naturally I was a little worried. I wondered how I would be treated. But everyone whom I asked was anxious to help—not one tried to insult or mislead me.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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