The Second World War broke out on September 3, 1939 between Britain and Germany. The Viceroy simultaneously proclaimed that India was also at war without bothering to consult the Indians—the Central Legislature or Provincial Assemblies—the Indian members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council or Provincial Ministers, leaders of the Indian National Congress or the Muslim League. The Viceroy attempted to make amends by inviting Gandhiji for a meeting. They met on September 5, 1939. Gandhiji admitted that his personal sympathies were with England and France and actually wept at the very idea of destruction of the British democracy. Three days later, Jawaharlal Nehru also declared clearly that India’s sympathies were on the side of democracy and freedom against fascism and aggression. He desired India to fully participate in the struggle for establishing a new order. It was only Subhas Chandra Bose who toed a different line and did not want to support England in the war.
The Congress Working Committee met on September 14, 1939 and passed a lengthy resolution drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru. The resolution condemned the German aggression on Poland. It asserted that a free, democratic India would gladly associate herself with other free nations for mutual defence against aggression, but asked the British Government to declare in unequivocal terms what were their war aims and how these aims were to be applied to India. The AICC endorsed the resolution of the Working Committee on October 10, 1939 and demanded that India must be declared an independent nation.
The Government gave no immediate response to the resolution of the Congress. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, interviewed about fifty political leaders of various parties, including Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah and issued a statement on October 17, 1939. He stated that the dominion status was the goal of British policy in India. He elaborated that the Government of India Act, 1935 would be open to modification at the end of the war in the light of Indian views. He also assured the minorities that full weight would be given to their views and interests. For the present, the Viceroy was prepared only to constitute a “consultative group” representing major political parties and Indian princes over which he himself would preside. Gandhiji declared the Viceregal declaration as “profoundly disappointing”. The Congress thought that it was “very unfortunate”, especially for its encouragement to the Muslim communalism. It asked its provincial ministries to tender their resignations between October 27 and November 15, 1939, which they gladly complied with. The Secretary of State attempted to pacify India by offering more berths to the Indians in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, but the Congress rejected it. The Government of India thought differently and was happy that, with the exit of the Congress Ministers, it could now obtain full support from the Provincial Governors without any obstruction.
The Congress met again at Ramgarh on March 19-20, 1940, under the Presidentship of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. It reiterated its demand that nothing short of complete independence could be accepted by the people of India, but the authorities were in no mood to consider the same. The war was taking an alarming turn every day for England. The situation worsened utmost when France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. This made the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea open to Hitler’s army. The position of Britain was not at all secure. She might have soon faced the fate of France. The English Parliament passed the India and Burma Act, 1940, transferring in panic the powers of the Secretary of State to the Governor-General in the event of a breakdown of the contacts between Great Britain and India. The Congress did not try to take advantage of the precarious condition of England. At its session held in July 1940, it expressed its readiness to throw its full weight in the organisation of defence efforts if its demand for an immediate and unequivocal declaration of the full independence of India was granted and a provincial national Government was set up at the Centre. The Government responded to it by what is known as the “August Offer”, made by the Viceroy in a statement on August 8, 1940. It agreed to set up at the end of the war a Constituent Assembly, representative of the Indian people, to frame their constitution. It offered to set up an advisory War Council and to expand the Viceroy’s Executive Council by inclusion of more Indian members. It assured the minorities that the authorities would not accept any new system of government which coerces them into submission and whose authority is denied by them.
It was thus manifest that the August Offer was more pro-Muslim League than anything else as it virtually accepted its Lahore resolution of March 1940 for the creation of Pakistan. For the Congress leaders, the offer was utterly disappointing. It was clear that the British Government was not ready to part with their power and was making the problem of minorities an insurmountable barrier on the path of India’s march to freedom. The Congress President, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, declined the Viceroy’s invitation to discuss the matter with him. Gandhiji castigated that the August Offer widened the gulf between India, as represented by the Congress, and England. “The whole conception of Dominion Status for India,” declared Jawaharlal Nehru, “was as dead as a door nail.” He warned that the self-imposed restraint of the Congress must not be taken to the limit of self-extinction. The Congress, thus, decided to reject the August Offer and start the civil disobedience movement under the leadership of Gandhiji.
The radicals and leftists, both inside and outside the Congress, wanted that the civil disobedience movement to be started, should be a mass movement—a national revolt against British imperialism. But Gandhiji felt otherwise. He did not wish to lay the foundation of free India on the British ruins. He emphasised that the spirit of satyagraha forbade the Congress from doing anything with a view to embarrassing the British Government. He advocated an individual satyagraha instead of a mass movement. The objective of this individual satyagraha was also not to seek freedom for the country, but to put forward one’s right to freedom of speech. Gandhiji explained,
“I claim the liberty of going through the streets of Bombay and saying that I shall have nothing to do with this war because I do not believe in this war and in the fratricide that is going on in Europe.”
Gandhiji wanted it to be known that the British should not take India for granted and the principles of freedom and basic rights, for which Britain was fighting Nazi Germany and Fascism, should be equally applicable to the natives in India. He wanted to counter the British propaganda that India was wholeheartedly supporting the war out of her own free will. He met Lord Linlithgow on September 27, 1940. He explained to the Viceroy that he wanted the freedom to oppose the war. He also desired to ask his people to do so, because this war was not being fought for safeguarding the interests of India. The Viceroy declined to accept his request, which compelled the latter to launch his campaign.
The first person selected to offer an individual satyagraha was Vinoba Bhave. He started his campaign at Paunar, only five miles from Wardha on October 17, 1940. He asked the people, in a speech, to refrain from participating in the Government war effort for three reasons: (i) refusal by the Government to set up a Provisional National Government; (ii) for dragging India into the war without her consent or consultation; and (iii) denial of freedom to preach against the war. For three consecutive days, October 18 to 20, 1940, Vinobaji made anti-War speeches at Surgaon, Saloo and Deoli. He was arrested on October 21, 1940 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. He openly told the court, “I plead guilty to the charge. I have done it with full understanding and with a purpose.” To combat Congress propaganda, the Government issued orders on October 25, 1940 prohibiting all anti-War propaganda. Gandhiji took this as a challenge and selected Jawaharlal Nehru to be the second satyagrahi after Vinoba Bhave. Before Nehru could start his campaign, the Government arrested him at the Cheoki railway station near Allahabad on October 31, 1940 for violating the Defence of India Rules. He was sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for making seditious speeches earlier in the year. His speech at his trial in Gorakhpur became famous. He said, “I stand before you, Sir, as an individual being tried for certain offences against the state. You are the symbol of the state….I am a symbol of Indian nationalism.” Truly, he represented Indian nationalism. His arrest stunned the nation. There were protest meetings all over the country. Even the British Government at home was alarmed and Churchill sent an urgent cable that Nehru should be treated with special consideration and care.
The third person selected to offer an individual satyagraha was Brahma Dutt, an inmate of Gandhiji’s ashram. A satyagrahi was required to read or repeat only two sentences, “It is wrong to help the British war effort with men and money. The only worthy effort is to resist all wars with non-violent resistance.” This came to be shortened later in a slogan, “Not a pie, not a man for the war effort.” By mid-November 1940, members of the Central and Provincial Assemblies, members of All-India Congress Committee, Provincial Congress Committees and the Working Committees were permitted to court imprisonment by reciting the aforesaid brief declaration. Before Gandhiji suspended the individual civil disobedience campaign for Christmas break, 29 ex-Ministers, 11 members of the Working Committee, 176 members of All-India Congress Committee and 400 members of the Central and Provincial Assemblies had courted arrest. Prominent among them were Maulana Azad and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The campaign started again on January 5, 1941. It soon gained momentum and by the end of January, the number of voluntary arrests had crossed 2,250. The enthusiasm of the volunteers offering themselves for arrest was beyond imagination. More than 20,000 persons had been convicted within few months. The satyagrahis, when released from jail, offered themselves for re-arrest. Thousands were thus always in jail, sacrificing all their comforts. In early December 1941, the Government released all the satyagrahis. Hardly had this been done than Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. The Japanese forces made rapid strides in Malaya and Burma. It looked as if the Japanese forces would soon cross the borders of India. The Congress, therefore, suspended the civil disobedience movement and directed its workers to allay the fears of the people and render them every possible help.