On my return from Kulu after a fortnight’s absence I realized that the internal situation was changing rapidly. The reaction from the failure of the last attempt at a settlement had grown and there was a feeling that no hope lay in that direction. British official statements in Parliament and elsewhere had confirmed that view and angered the people. Official policy in India was definitely aiming at the suppression of our normal political and public activities and there was an all-round tightening of pressure. Many of our workers had remained in prison throughout the Cripps negotiations; now some of the nearest and most important of my friends and colleagues had been arrested and imprisoned under the Defence of India Act. Rafi Ahmad Kidwai was arrested early in May. Shri Krishnadat Palliwal, president of the United Provinces Provincial Congress committee, followed soon after, and so did many others. It seemed that most of us would be picked off in this way and removed from the scene of action, and our national movement prevented from functioning and gradually disintegrated. Could we submit to all this passively? We had not been trained that way, and both our personal and national pride rose in revolt against this treatment.
But what could we do in view of the grave war crisis and possibility of invasion? Yet inaction was no service even to this cause, for it was leading to the growth of sentiments which we viewed with anxiety and apprehension. There were many trends in public opinion, as was natural in such a vast country and at such a time of crisis. Actual pro-Japanese sentiment was practically nil, for no one wanted to change masters, and pro-Chinese feelings were strong and widespread. But there was a small group which was indirectly pro-Japanese in the sense that it imagined that it could take advantage of a Japanese invasion for Indian freedom. They were influenced by the broadcasts being made by Subhas Chandra Bose who had secretly escaped from India the year before. Most people were, of course, just passive, dumbly awaiting developments. If unfortunately circumstances so fashioned themselves that a part of India was under the invader’s control, then there would undoubtedly be many collaborators, especially among the upper income groups, whose ruling passion was to save themselves and their property. That breed and mentality of collaborators had been cherished and encouraged by the British Government in India in the past for its own purposes, and they could adapt themselves to changing circumstances, always keeping their own personal interests in view. We had seen collaboration in full flood even in France and Belgium and Norway and many of the occupied countries of Europe, in spite of growing resistance movements. We had seen how the men of Vichy had (in Pertinax’s words) ‘racked their brains to palm off shame as honour, cowardice as courage, pusillanimity and ignorance as wisdom, humiliation as virtue, and wholehearted acceptance of the German victory as moral regeneration.’ If that had been so in France, that country of revolution and fiery patriotism, it was certainly not unlikely among similar classes in India, where the mentality of collaboration had flourished for so long under British patronage and brought so many rewards. Indeed it was highly likely that chief among those who might collaborate with the invader would be many of the persons who had been collaborating with British rule and who proclaimed their loyalty to that rule from the house tops. They had perfected the art of collaboration and would find no difficulty in holding on to that basis even though the superstructure changed. Arid if subsequently there was yet another change of that superstructure, well they would readapt themselves again as others of their kind were doing in Europe. When necessity arose they could take advantage of the anti-British feelings that had grown more powerful than ever after the failure of the Cripps negotiations. So would others also, not for personal and opportunist reasons but pushed on by different motives, losing all perspective and forgetting the larger issues. These developments filled us with dismay and we felt that the growth of enforced and sullen submission to British policy in India would lead to all manner of dangerous consequences and the complete degradation of the people.
There was a fairly widespread feeling that in case of attempted invasion and occupation of some eastern areas, there would be a breakdown of the civil administration over larger areas elsewhere, leading to chaotic conditions. What had happened in Malaya and Burma was before us. Hardly anyone expected any considerable part of the country to be occupied by the enemy even if the chances of war favoured him. India was vast, and we had seen in China that space counts. But space counts only when there is a determination to take advantage of it and resist, and not to collapse and submit. Apparently well-founded reports stated that the Allied armed forces would probably withdraw to inner lines of defence, leaving wide areas open to enemy occupation, though probably the enemy, as in China, might not actually occupy them all. So questions arose as to how we should meet this situation both in these areas as well as in other areas where the civil administration might cease to function. We tried, as far as we could, to prepare mentally and otherwise for such crises by encouraging local organizations which could function and keep order, and at the same time by insisting that the invader had to be resisted at any cost.
Why had the Chinese fought so stoutly for many years? Why, above all others, had the Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union fought with such courage, tenacity, and whole-heartedness? Elsewhere people fought bravely also because they were moved by love of country, fear of aggression, and desire to preserve their ways of life. And yet there appeared to be a difference in the whole-heartedness of the war effort between Russia and other countries. Others had fought magnificently as at the time of Dunkirk and after, but there had been some moral slackening of effort when the immediate crisis was past; it seemed as if there were some doubts about the future, though the war had anyhow to be won. In the Soviet Union, so far as one could judge from the material available, there seemed to be no doubt or debate (though it was true that debate was not encouraged), and there was a supreme confidence in both the present and the future.
In India? There was a deep-seated dislike of the present and the future seemed equally dark. No patriotic urge to action moved the people, only a desire to defend themselves against invasion and a worse fate. A few were moved by international considerations. Mixed up with all these feelings was resentment at being ordered about, suppressed and exploited by an alien and imperialist power. There was a fundamental wrongness in a system under which everything depended on the wishes and whims of an autocrat. Freedom is dear to all, but most of all to those who have been deprived of it, or those who are in danger of losing it. Freedom in the modern world is conditioned and limited in many ways but those who do not possess it, do not realize these limitations, and idealize the conception till it becomes a passionate craving and an overwhelming and consuming desire. If anything does not fit in with this longing or seems to go counter to it, that thing must inevitably suffer. The desire for freedom, for which so many in India had laboured and suffered, had not only received a check but it seemed that the prospect of it had receded into some dim and distant future. Instead of tacking that passion on to the world struggle that was going on, and drawing upon the vast reservoir of energy in the cause of Indian and world freedom and for India’s defence, the war had been isolated from it, and no hope was centred in its issue. It is never wise to leave any people, even enemies, without hope.
There were some of course in India who looked upon the war as something far bigger and vaster than the petty ambitions of the statesmen of the various countries involved in it; some who felt its revolutionary significance in their bones and realized that its ultimate issue and the consequences that would flow from it would take the world far beyond military victories and the pacts and utterances of politicians. But the number of these people was inevitably limited and the great majority, as in other countries, took a narrower view, which they called realistic, and were governed by the considerations of the moment. Some, inclined to opportunism, adapted themselves to British policy and fitted themselves into it, as they would have collaborated with any other authority and policy. Some reacted strongly against this policy and felt that a submission to it was a betrayal not only of India’s cause, but the world’s cause. Most people became just passive, static, quiescent: the old failing of the Indian people against which we had struggled for so long.
While this struggle was going on in India’s mind and a feeling of desperation was growing, Gandhiji wrote a number of articles which suddenly gave a new direction to people’s thoughts, or, as often happens, gave shape to their vague ideas. Inaction at that critical stage and submission to all that was happening had become intolerable to him. The only way to meet that situation was for Indian freedom to be recognized and for a free India to meet aggression and invasion in co-operation with the allied nations. If this recognition was not forthcoming then some action must be taken to challenge the existing system and wake up the people from the lethargy that was paralysing them and making them easy prey to every kind of aggression.
There was nothing new in this demand, for it was a repetition of what we had been saying all along, but there was a new urgency and passion in his speech and writing. And there was the hint of action. There was no doubt that he represented at the moment the prevailing sentiment in India. In a conflict between the two, nationalism had triumphed over internationalism, and Gandhiji’s new writings created a stir all over India. And yet that nationalism was at no time opposed to internationalism and indeed was trying its utmost to find some opening to fit in with that larger aspect, if only it could be given an opportunity to do so honourably and effectively. There was no necessary conflict between the two for, unlike the aggressive nationalisms, of Europe, it did not seek to interfere with others but rather to co-operate with them to their common advantage. National freedom was seen as the essential basis of true internationalism and hence as the road to the latter, as well as the real foundation for co-operation in the common struggle against fascism and Nazism. Meanwhile that internationalism, which was being so much talked about, was beginning to look suspiciously like the old policy of the imperialist powers, in a new, and yet not so new, attire; indeed it was itself an aggressive nationalism which, in the name of empire or commonwealth or mandatory, sought to impose its will on others.
Some of us were disturbed and upset by this new development, for action was futile unless it was effective action, and any such effective action must necessarily come in the way of the war effort at a time when India herself stood in peril of invasion. Gandhiji’s general approach also seemed to ignore important international considerations and appeared to be based on a narrow view of nationalism. During the three years of war we had deliberately followed a policy of non-embarrassment, and such action as we had indulged in had been in the nature of symbolic protest. That symbolic protest had assumed huge dimensions when 30,000 of our leading men and women were sent to prison in 1940-41. And yet even the prison-going was a selected individual affair and avoided any mass upheaval or any direct interference with the governmental apparatus. We could not repeat that, and if we did something else it had to be of a different kind and on a more effective scale. Was this not bound to interfere with the war on India’s borders and encourage the enemy?
These were obvious difficulties and we discussed them at length with Gandhiji without converting each other. The difficulties were there and risks and perils seemed to follow any course of action or inaction. It became a question of balancing them and choosing the lesser evil. Our mutual discussion led to a clarification of much that had been vague and cloudy, and to Gandhiji’s appreciation of many international factors to which his attention was drawn. His subsequent writing underwent a change and he himself emphasized these international considerations and looked at India’s problem in a wider perspective. But his fundamental attitude remained: his objection to a passive submission to British autocratic and repressive policy in India and his intense desire to do something to challenge this. Submission, according to him, meant that India would be broken in spirit and, whatever shape the war might take, whatever its end might be, her people would act in a servile way and their freedom would not be achieved for a long time. It would mean also submission to an invader and not continuing resistance to him regardless even of temporary military defeat or withdrawal. It would mean the complete demoralization of our people and their losing all the strength that they had built up during a quarter of a century’s unceasing struggle for freedom. It would mean that the world would forget India’s demand for freedom and the post-war settlement would be governed by the old imperialist urges and ambitions. Passionately desirous of India’s freedom as he was, India was to him something more than his loved homeland; it was the symbol of all the colonial and exploited peoples of the world, the acid test whereby any world policy must be judged. If India remained unfree then also the other colonial countries and subject races would continue in their present enslaved condition and the war would have been fought in vain. It was essential to change the moral basis of the war. The armies and the navies and air forces would function in their respective spheres and they might win by superior methods of violence, but to what end was their victory? And even armed warfare requires the support of morale; had not Napoleon said that in war ‘the moral is to the physical as three to one?’ The moral factor of hundreds of millions of subject and exploited people all over the world realizing and believing that this war was really for their freedom was of immense importance even from the narrower viewpoint of the war, and much more so for the peace to come. The very fact that a crisis had risen in the fortunes of the war necessitated a change in outlook and policy and the conversion of these sullen and doubting millions into enthusiastic supporters. If this miracle could take place all the military might of the axis powers would be of little avail and their collapse was assured. Many of the peoples of the axis countries might themselves be affected by this powerful world sentiment.
In India it was better to convert the sullen passivity of the people into a spirit of non-submission and resistance. Though that non-submission would be, to begin with, to arbitrary orders of the British authorities, it could be turned into resistance to an invader. Submissiveness and servility to one would lead to the same attitude towards the other and thus to humiliation and degradation.
We were familiar with all these arguments; we believed them and had ourselves used them frequently. But the tragedy was that the policy of the British Government prevented that miracle from taking place; all our attempts to solve the Indian problem, even temporarily, during the course of the war had failed, and all our requests for a declaration of war aims had been turned down. It was certain that a further attempt of this kind would also fail. What then? If it was to be conflict, however much it might be justified on moral or other grounds, there could be no doubt that it would tend to interfere greatly with the war effort in India at a time when the danger of invasion was considerable. There was no getting away from that fact. And yet, oddly enough, it was that very danger that had brought this crisis in our minds, for we could not remain idle spectators of it and see our country mismanaged and ruined by people whom we considered incompetent and wholly incapable of shouldering the burden of a people’s resistance which the occasion demanded. All our pent-up passion and energy sought some outlet, some way of action.
Gandhiji was getting on in years, he was in the seventies, and a long life of ceaseless activity, of hard toil, both physical and mental, had enfeebled his body; but he was still vigorous enough, and he felt that all his life work would be in vain if he submitted to circumstances then and took no action to vindicate what he prized most. His love of freedom for India and all other exploited nations and peoples overcame even his strong adherence to non-violence. He had previously given a grudging and rather reluctant consent to the Congress not adhering to this policy in regard to defence and the state’s functions in an emergency, but he had kept himself aloof from this. He realized that his half-hearted attitude in this matter might well come in the way of a settlement with Britain and the United Nations. So he went further and himself sponsored a Congress resolution which declared that the primary function of the provisional government of free India would be to throw all her great resources in the struggle for freedom and against aggression, and to co-operate fully with the United Nations in the defence of India with all the armed as well as other forces at her command. It was no easy matter for him to commit himself in this way, but he swallowed the bitter pill, so overpowering was his desire that some settlement should be arrived at to enable India to resist the aggressor as a free nation.
Many of the theoretical and other differences that had often separated some of us from Gandhiji disappeared, but still that major difficulty remained—any action on our part must interfere with the war effort. Gandhiji, to our surprise, still clung to the belief that a settlement with the British Government was possible, and he said he would try his utmost to achieve it. And so, though he talked a great deal about action, he did not define it or indicate what he intended to do.
While we were doubting and debating, the mood of the country changed, and from a sullen passivity it rose to a pitch of excitement and expectation. Events were not waiting for a Congress decision or resolution; they had been pushed forward by Gandhiji’s utterances, and now they were moving onwards with their own momentum. It was clear that, whether Gandhiji was right or wrong, he had crystallized the prevailing mood of the people. There was a desperateness in it, an emotional urge which gave second place to logic and reason and a calm consideration of the consequences of action. Those consequences were not ignored, and it was realized that whether anything was achieved or not the price paid in human suffering would be heavy. But the price that was being paid from day-to-day in torture of the mind was also heavy and there was no prospect of escape from it. It was better to jump into the uncharted seas of action and do something, rather than be the tame objects of a malign fate. It was not a politician’s approach but that of a people grown desperate and reckless of consequences; yet there was always an appeal to reason, an attempt to rationalize conflicting emotions, to find some consistency in the fundamental inconsistencies of human character. The war was going to be a long one, to last many more years; there had been many disasters and there were likely to be more, but the’ war would continue in spite of them till it had tamed and exhausted the passions which gave rise to it and which it had itself encouraged. This time there would be no half-success which are often more painful than failures. It had taken a wrong turn not only in the field of military action but even more so in regard to the more fundamental objectives for which it was supposed to be fought. Perhaps such action as we might indulge in might draw forcible attention to this latter failure and help to give a new and more promising turn. And even if present success was lacking it might serve that saving purpose in the longer run, and thus help also in giving powerful support in the future to military action.
If the temper of the people rose, so also did the temper of the Government. No emotional or other urge was required for this, for it was its natural temper and its normal way of functioning —the way of an alien authority in occupation of a subject country. It seemed to welcome this opportunity of crushing once for all, as it thought, all the elements in the country which dared to oppose its will; and for this it prepared accordingly.
Events marched ahead, and yet, curiously, Gandhiji, who had said so much about action to protect the honour of India and affirm her right to freedom, and as a free nation to co-operate fully in the fight against aggression, said nothing at all about the nature of this action. Peaceful, of course, it had necessarily to be, but what more ? He began to lay greater stress on the possibilities of an agreement with the British Government, of his intention to approach it again and try his utmost to find a way out. His final speech at the All-India Congress Committee expressed his earnest desire for a settlement and his determination to approach the Viceroy for this. Neither in public nor in private at the meetings of the Congress Working Committee did he hint at the nature of the action he had in mind, except in one particular. He had suggested privately that in the event of failure of all negotiations he would appeal for some kind of non-co-operation and a one-day protest hartal, or cessation of all work in the country, something in the nature of a one-day general strike, symbolic of a nation’s protest. Even this was a vague suggestion which he did not particularize, for he did not want to make any further plans till he had made his attempt at a settlement. So neither he nor the Congress Working Committee issued any kind of directions, public or private, except that people should be prepared for all developments, and should in any event adhere to the policy of peaceful and non-violent action.
Though Gandhiji was still hopeful of finding some way out of the impasse, very few persons shared his hope. The course of events and all the development that had taken place pointed inevitably to a conflict, and when that stage is reached middle positions cease to have importance and each individual has to choose on which side he will range himself. For Congressmen, as for others who felt that way, there was no question of choice; it was inconceivable that the whole might of a powerful government should try to crush our people and that any of us should stand by and be passive spectators of a struggle in which India’s freedom was involved. Many people of course do stand by in spite of their sympathies, but any such attempt to save himself from the consequences of his own previous acts would have been shameful and dishonourable for prominent Congressmen. But even apart from this there was no choice left far them. The whole of India’s past history pursued them, as well as the agony of the present and the hope of the future, and all these drove them forward and conditioned their actions. ‘The piling up of the past upon the past goes on without relaxation,’ says Bergson in his ‘Creative Evolution.’
In reality the past is preserved by itself, automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant…. Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past, but it is with our entire past, including the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will and act.
On August 7th and 8th, in Bombay the All-India Congress Committee considered and debated in public the resolution, which has since come to be known as the ‘Quit India Resolution.’ That resolution was a long and comprehensive one, a reasoned argument for the immediate recognition of Indian freedom and the ending of British rule in India ‘both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of the United Nations. The continuation of that rule is degrading and enfeebling India and making her progressively less capable of defending herself and of contributing to the cause of world freedom.’ ‘The possession of empire, instead of adding to the strength of the ruling power, has become a burden and a curse. India, the classic land of modern imperialism, has become the crux of the question, for by the freedom of India will Britain and the United Nations be judged, and the peoples of Asia and Africa be filled with hope and enthusiasm.’ The resolution went on to suggest the formation of a provisional government, which would be composite and would represent all important sections of the people and whose ‘primary function must be to defend India and resist aggression with all the armed as well as the non-violent forces at its command, together with its allied powers.’ This government would evolve a scheme for a constituent assembly which would prepare a constitution for India acceptable to all sections of the people. The constitution would be a federal one, with the largest measure of autonomy for the federating units and with the residuary powers vesting in those units. ‘Freedom will enable India to resist aggression effectively with the people’s united will and strength behind it.’
This freedom of India must be the symbol of the prelude to the freedom of all other Asiatic nations. Further, a world federation of free nations was proposed, of which a beginning should be made with United Nations.
The Committee stated that it was ‘anxious not to embarrass in any way the defence of China and Russia, whose freedom is precious and must be preserved, or to jeopardize the defensive capacity of the United Nations.’ (At that time the dangers to China and Russia were the greatest.)
But the peril grows both to India and these nations, and inaction and submission to a foreign administration at this stage is not only degrading India and reducing her capacity to defend herself and resist aggression but is no answer to that growing peril and is no service to the peoples of the United Nations.
The Committee again appealed to Britain and the United Nations ‘in the interest of world freedom.’ But—and there came the sting of the resolution—’the Committee is no longer justified in holding the nation back from endeavouring to assert its will against an imperialist and authoritarian Government which dominates over it and prevents it from functioning in its own interest and in the interest of humanity. The Committee resolves therefore to sanction, for the vindication of India’s inalienable right to freedom and independence, the starting of a mass struggle on non-violent lines under the inevitable leadership of Gandhiji.’ That sanction was to take effect only when Gandhiji so decided. Finally, it was stated that the Committee had ‘no intention of gaining power for the Congress. The power, when it comes, will belong to the whole people of India.’
In their concluding speeches Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Congress president, and Gandhiji made it clear that their next steps would be to approach the Viceroy, as representing the British Government, and to appeal to the heads of the principal United Nations for an honourable settlement, which, while recognizing the freedom of India, would also advance the cause of the United Nations in the struggle against the aggressor Axis powers.
The resolution was finally passed late in the evening of August 8th, 1942. A few hours later, in the early morning of August 9th, a large number of arrests were made in Bombay and all over the country. And so to Ahmadnagar Fort.