The Quit India Movement was a civil disobedience movement launched in India in August 1942 in response to Mohandas Gandhi’s call for immediate independence. The All-India Congress Committee proclaimed a mass protest demanding what Gandhi called “an orderly British withdrawal” from India. The call for determined, but passive resistance appears in his call to Do or Die, issued on 8 August at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay.
The British were prepared to act. Almost the entire Indian National Congress leadership, and not just at the national level, was imprisoned without trial within hours after Gandhi’s speech at least 60,000. Most spent the rest of the war in prison and out of contact with the masses. The British had the support of the Viceroy’s Council (which had a majority of Indians), of the Muslims, the Communist Party, the princely states, the Imperial and state police, the Indian Army, and the Indian Civil Service. Many Indian businessmen were profiting from heavy wartime spending and did not support Quit India. Many militant students paid more attention to Subhas Chandra Bose, who was in exile and supporting the Axis. The only outside support came from the Americans, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressured Prime Minister Winston Churchill to give in to Indian demands. The Quit India campaign was effectively crushed. The British refused to grant immediate independence, saying it could happen only after the war ended. In 1939 Indian nationalists were angry that the British Governor-General of India, Lord Linlithgow, had without consultation with them brought India into the war.
At the outbreak of war, the Congress Party had passed a resolution during the Wardha meeting of the working-committee in September 1939, conditionally supporting the fight against fascism, but was rebuffed when they asked for independence in return. Gandhi had not supported this initiative, as he could not reconcile an endorsement for war (he was a committed believer in non-violent resistance to tyranny, used in the Indian Independence Movement and proposed even against Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo). However, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Gandhi had stated his support for the fight against racism and of the British war effort, stating he did not seek to raise a free India from the ashes of Britain. However, opinions remained divided.
After the onset of the war, only a group led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose took any decisive action. Bose organized the Indian National Army with the help of the Japanese, and, soliciting help from the Axis Powers conducted a guerrilla war against the British authorities. The purpose of the mission was to negotiate with the Indian National Congress a deal to obtain total co-operation during the war, in return of progressive devolution and distribution of power from the crown and the Viceroy to elected Indian legislature. The talks failed, having failed to address the key demand of a timetable of self-government and of definition of the powers to be relinquished, and essentially portraying an offer of limited dominion-status that was wholly unacceptable to the Indian movement.
The Congress Working Committee meeting at Wardha (14th July, 1942) passed a resolution demanding complete independence from the British government. The draft proposed massive civil disobedience if the British did not accede to the demands. However, it proved to be controversial within the party. A prominent Congress national leader Chakravarti Rajgopalachari quit the Congress over this decision, and so did some local and regional level organizers. Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were apprehensive and critical of the call, but backed it and stuck with Gandhi’s leadership till the end. On August 8, 1942 the Quit India Resolution was passed at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). In his Quit India speech that day at Gowalia Tank, Bombay, and Gandhi told Indians to follow non-violent civil disobedience. He told the masses to act as an independent nation. His call found support among a large amount of Indians.
The Congress had little success in rallying other political forces under a single flag and program. Smaller parties like the Hindu Mahasabha opposed the call. The Communist Party of India strongly opposed the Quit India movement and supported the war effort because of the need to assist the Soviet Union, despite support for Quit India by many industrial workers. In response the British lifted the ban on the party. The movement had less support in the princely states, as the princes were strongly opposed and funded the opposition.
Muslim leaders opposed Quit India. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s opposition to the call led to large numbers of Muslims cooperating with the British, and enlisting in the army. The Muslim League gained large numbers of new members. Congress members resigned from provincial legislatures, enabling the League to take control in Sind, Bengal and Northwest Frontier. Although at the national level the ability to galvanize rebellion was limited, the movement is notable for regional success especially at Satara, Talcher, and Midnapore. In Tamluk and Contai subdivisions of Midnapore, the local populace was successful in establishing parallel governments, which continued to function, until Gandhi personally requested the leaders to disband in 1944. A minor uprising took place in Ballia, now the easternmost district of Uttar Pradesh. People overthrew the district administration, broke open the jail, released the arrested Congress leaders and established their own independent rule. It took weeks before the British could reestablish their writ in the district. Of special importance in Saurashtra (in western Gujarat) was the role of the region’s ‘baharvatiya’ tradition (i.e. going outside the law) which abetted the sabotage activities of the movement there. In rural west Bengal, the Quit India Movement was fueled by peasants’ resentment against the new war taxes and the forced rice exports. There was open resistance to the point of rebellion in 1942 until the great famine of 1943 suspended the movement.
One of the achievements of the movement was to keep the Congress party united through all the trials and tribulations that followed. The British, already alarmed by the advance of the Japanese army to the India-Burma border, responded by imprisoning Gandhi. All the members of the Party’s Working Committee (national leadership) were imprisoned as well. Due to the arrest of major leaders, a young and till then relatively unknown Aruna Asaf Ali presided over the AICC session on August 9 and hoisted the flag; later the Congress party was banned. These actions only created sympathy for the cause among the population. Despite lack of direct leadership, large protests and demonstrations were held all over the country. Workers remained absent en masse and strikes were called. Not all demonstrations were peaceful, at some places bombs exploded, government buildings were set on fire, electricity was cut and transport and communication lines were severed.
The British swiftly responded with mass detentions. Over 100,000 arrests were made, mass fines were levied and demonstrators were subjected to public flogging. Hundreds of resisters and innocent people were killed in police and army shootings. Many national leaders went underground and continued their struggle by broadcasting messages over clandestine radio stations, distributing pamphlets and establishing parallel governments. The British sense of crisis was strong enough that a battleship was specifically set aside to take Gandhi and the Congress leaders out of India, possibly to South Africa or Yemen but ultimately did not take that step out of fear of intensifying the revolt
The ‘Quit India’ movement, more than anything, united the Indian people against British rule. Although most demonstrations had been suppressed by 1944, upon his release in 1944 Gandhi continued his resistance and went on a 21-day fast. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s place in the world had changed dramatically and the demand for independence could no longer be ignored.