Birth Pangs Of Freedom

When India was made a party to the Second World War by the British, the ruling Congress Governments resigned in the provincial ministries on December 12, 1939. India got ready to wage the struggle for freedom to the finish. The slogan “Quit India” resounded throughout the country. People adopted all methods—violent and non-violent—to overthrow the imperial rule. The communalists played their mischief and  supported the government more than ever before. They joined together to pave the way for the partition of the country. Ultimately, India got freedom but with all the travails of a new birth. The orgy of communal riots and transfer of population left the scars on the body politic of the country. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a co-religionist for his campaign against communal madness.

The August Offer (August 8, 1940), the Cripps Mission (March-April, 1942), the Wavell Plan (June 1945) and the Cabinet Mission Plan (March-May 1946), followed by the Mountbatten Plan (June 3, 1947) are the main milestones in the history of Constitutional Development of the country. In 1940, the Muslim League passed the Pakistan Resolution at its Lahore session and in seven years, it got it. The nation was divided, and it unfolded a new story of hatred and animosities, arson, loot, and murder. Secularism and communalism as well as nationalism and imperialism fought against each other. Imperialism retreated, but left behind it the debris of a shattered economy and frayed emotions.

Resignation of

Congress Ministries

The Second World War started in September 1939. The Fascist-Nazi forces of Germany attacked Poland. Democracy was in danger. The political India had always been opposed to fascism and war. It could have thrown its weight in favour of democracies. But the British Government did not wait to consult India and made her a party to the war. It knew the political temper of the country. While India was ready to fight against fascism to protect democracy and freedom, it was demanding its own freedom for which imperialism was not ready. The Conservative Government in England was not willing to loosen its stranglehold on India and thus liquidate the Empire. In protest against the British double standards—denying freedom to people in India and waging war in the name of democracy—the Congress Ministries resigned from the provincial assemblies.

The conflict between the British Government and the nationalist movement became open and sharp in the very first few weeks of the war. India was proclaimed party to the war and the Governor-General was empowered to suspend provincial autonomy. The Defence of India Ordinance was passed on September 3, 1939. It put an end to all civil liberties. The Congress took a serious view of these developments. It advised its members in the Central Assembly not to attend the next session. It demanded the right of India to frame her own Constitution through its Constituent Assembly. It asked the government to declare its war aims as applicable to India. It demanded that India should be treated “as a free nation whose policy will be guided in accordance with the wishes of her people.”

In other words, India wanted (i) Complete Independence after the war, (ii) an interim National Government during the war, and (iii) a Constituent Assembly to frame its Constitution on the basis of Democracy and National Unity. The Viceroy promised to constitute a consultative committee of prominent Indians to advise the Governor-General on the prosecution of war and also held out an assurance that “Dominion Status” would be granted to India at an appropriate time. However, neither the distant goal of “Dominion Status” nor the immediate step to constitute a Consultative Committee could satisfy India. Negotiations followed, but nothing came out of it. The Congress Ministries resigned. The working class at Bombay, Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) and other places observed one-day political strike against war—“the imperialist conspiracy against humanity”. The socialists voiced radical sentiments and demanded action. The Communist Party, though illegal, too gave the call for “mass struggle against imperialist war”.

Individual Satyagraha : 19401942

After the failure of the negotiations between the government and Congress and the resignation of the  Congress Ministries, Gandhiji gave a call for individual satyagraha. He did not want to embarrass the government and yet wanted to show his indignation about the irresponsible attitude of the government. Individual satyagraha and not a mass Civil Disobedience Movement was found to be the right course. Even this limited step created considerable commotion. A few thousand satyagrahis were sent to jail. The satyagrahis gave notice of their intention to offer satyagraha, announcing the place and time to the police authorities and shouted anti-war and national slogans and got arrested. Vinoba Bhave inaugurated the movement as the first satyagrahi. Meanwhile, the government appointed five Indians to the Governor-General’s Council and constituted the Defence Council. In December 1940, it released the satyagrahis. In 1941, Russia was attacked by Germany and in December 1941, Japan made incursions in Asia. It conquered the Philippines, Indonesia, Indochina and Malaya by February 1942. Burma’s (now Myanmar) fall was imminent. The Congress suspended the movement.

Pakistan Resolution : March 1940

After the Congress resigned from ministerial offices on November 1, 1939, the Muslim League celebrated the “Deliverance Day” from Congress rule on December 22, 1939. On March 24, 1940, the Muslim League, at its Lahore session, passed the Pakistan Resolution moved by Sir Fazlul Haq and rejected the Federal Scheme as envisaged in the Government of India Act, 1935. When Mohammad Ali Jinnah demanded Pakistan, V.D. Savarkar gave the rejoinder, “Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan”. According to him, India was the land of Hindus while Muslims were only “territorial Indians”. K.M. Munshi gave the slogan of “Akhand Hindustan”.

Cripps Mission : March-April 1942

In view of the Japanese threat to the very existence of India, the entry of the US in the war and the pressure exercised by Indian and world public opinion, the British Government sent Cripps Mission to pacify India. It promised “Dominion Status” with the right to secede, right of provinces not to join Indian Union and retain their existing relationship with the British Government and the extension of the Governor-General’s Council by appointment of all Indian members from amongst the political leaders while retaining the Defence portfolio with the Commander-in-Chief. The negotiations broke down on the question of interim arrangement. The Indian National Congress as well as the Muslim League rejected the Cripps Proposals.

Quit India Resolution :

August 1942

After the failure of the Cripps Mission, the Congress adopted a more militant course than “individual satyagraha”. In April 1942, the Congress Working Committee met at Allahabad and passed a resolution. It asked the people to non-cooperate with the invading forces. Jawaharlal Nehru advised “guerilla warfare” to resist the Japanese. C. Rajagopalachari proposed that Pakistan should be accepted. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) rejected his proposal. He, therefore, resigned from the Congress.

In July 1942, the Congress Working Committee adopted a resolution demanding the “withdrawal of the British rule” from India. By withdrawal, it did not mean physical withdrawal of the British. It did not “intend to jeopardise the defensive capacity of the allied powers.” It was agreeable to station the British forces in India to fight the Japanese aggression and even to help China. It was prepared to change the ill-will against the British and make India a willing partner in securing the freedom of the people of the world but it was possible only if India felt the glow of freedom. Failing this, the committee would resort to non-cooperation under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji was already popularisinghis slogan of “Quit India”. The finaldecision was to be taken by the AICCwhich was scheduled to meet in Bombay on August 7, 1942.

In the meanwhile, the government adopted a policy of repression. It issued a circular advising all the provincial governments to get ready for the struggle. Gandhiji, through the columns of Harijan, was asking the nation to “do or die”. “India must be free and free now.” He asked people to get ready even for an “open rebellion”.

The AICC met in Bombay and adopted the historic “Quit India” resolution on August 8, 1942. It resolved “to sanction for the vindication of India’s inalienable right to freedom and independence, the start of a mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale.” Gandhiji and other prominent leaders of the Congress were arrested in Bombay on August 9, 1942. Important Congress men were arrested all over India. All the Congress organisations were declared illegal.

Till the end of 1942, according to the government figures, 60,229 persons were arrested, 18,000 were detained under the Defence of India Rules, 940 were killed in police or military firing and 1,630 persons were injured in such firings. Military was called at 60 places. In reality, the casualty figures were much higher. The people were left without leaders and directions.  Processions, demonstrations, hartals and meetings were followed by violence. Railway stations, post offices, and other government buildings were set on fire. The railway system in Bihar and eastern UP was dislocated for weeks together.  Over 150 police stations were attacked. Parallel government was established in Ballia, Basti (Uttar Pradesh), Satara (Maharashtra) and Midnapore (Bengal). The government let loose a reign of terror. Besides police firings, the government used aeroplanes, machine gunning and bombings of unarmed people. Heavy collective fines were imposed.

During 1943-44, according to Woodhead Commission report, 15 lakh people died in the man-made famine in Bengal. The non-official figures ran up to 34 lakhs. The profiteers and bureaucracy had joined hands. About Rs. 150 crore went into the pockets of the rich at the cost of human life.

From August 1942 to February 1943, Gandhiji was in correspondence with the Viceroy. He had disclaimed all responsibility for the violent outburst. He held out an olive branch of peace, but the Viceroy said “No”. Mahatma Gandhi announced a 21-day fast. The Viceroy described it as “political blackmail”. Gandhiji retorted that it was “an appeal to the highest tribunal for justice which I have failed to secure from you.” His fast led to countrywide agitation for his release. A non-party conference attended, among others, by the prominent leaders, met in Delhi which demanded his release. Three Indian members of the Governor-General’s Executive Council resigned in protest. The government was not moved. It even refused permission to William Philips, the personal envoy of the US President Roosevelt, to see Gandhiji in jail. Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi, died in jail. Gandhiji fell seriously ill with malaria and was released on May 6, 1944. Meanwhile, the Axis Powers were now on retreat, the victory of Allied Powers was in sight.

The Communists and the


M.N. Roy and his radical Democratic Party supported the government from the very beginning of the war. Roy did so because it was war against Fascism. If Fascism had succeeded and emerged victorious, neither democracy nor freedom of India could have been safe.

The Communists described it as an “imperialist war” in 1939. They opposed the British Government and supported the Congress in its demand for independence and interim national government. The individual satyagraha movement had run its course. In mid-1941, the erstwhile USSR was attacked by German dictator Adolf Hitler. The communists described the war now as “People’s War”. They said, “To fight to win this war is to defend our country and realise our liberation.” They supported war efforts because they contended that it did not “lead to servile cooperation or submission to imperialist government but to a struggle against it for winning democratic rights and establishing a national government.”

Subhash Chandra Bose and

Indian National Army

In September 1942, on the initiative of Rash Behari Bose, the Indian National Army was raised from amongst the Indian captured soldiers and officers in Malaya. These officers and men were dissatisfied with the discriminatory treatment they got from the Japanese in food and other amenities as compared to the American and British soldiers. Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from India in 1941 and reached Germany via Afghanistan. He joined the Indian National Army (INA) in July 1943. The aims of the INA were set by Subhash Chandra Bose: “This army carried India’s national flag and its slogans were India’s national slogans.” He emphasised that he would like to achieve India’s independence without anybody’s help but said that there was no single instance in the history of the world where an enslaved nation had achieved its liberation without foreign help. He said, “For enslaved India it is much more honourable to join hands with enemies of the British empire than to curry favour with leaders of British political parties. Is it not ridiculous for some of our leaders to talk of fighting Fascism abroad, while shaking hands with imperialists at home ?” The INA fought many campaigns for India’s liberation in Burma and elsewhere during
1942-45. After the defeat of Japan and Axis Powers, the men and officers of the INA were taken prisoners. They were tried for treason. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Bhulabhai Desai and Jawaharlal Nehru defended them in the historic trial at the Red Fort in Delhi. The Congress and the nation stood as one in their defence. The trial had a miraculous effect on the minds of the people of India. It became a political issue  and the British government had to retreat.

The Simla Conference :

June-July 1945

After the Allied victory in the European theatres of war, fresh activity started in India to solve the political deadlock. A conference was held in Simla in June-July 1945 on the basis of the Wavell Plan. The Congress leaders were released just before the conference. The government placed a bait for the Congress and the Muslim League. It advocated “parity” between the Hindus and the Muslims in the national government to be constituted immediately. The Simla conference ended with a greater communal divide. Soon the Labour Government came to power in England.

Soon after the failure of the Simla conference, elections were held to the provincial assemblies under the Government of India Act, 1935. While the Congress monopolised the Hindu seats, it did not get more than eight Muslim seats. The Muslim League monopolised most of the Muslim seats. The gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims had been widened. The Muslim League’s claims hardened. There was no chance of any compromise. The Muslim League and the Congress formed ministries in the provinces. The Muslim League used its powers for fomenting communal riots and pushing forward its demand for partition.

Cabinet Mission : March-May 1946

The Labour government sent the Cabinet Mission to negotiate with Indian leaders for transfer of power. The Mission promised complete independence, a Three-tier System of Government and a Constituent Assembly. The Mission failed on the question of the Three-tier System. However, the Constituent Assembly came into being and the national government was formed in 1946, with Jawaharlal Nehru as its Vice-President. The Muslim League boycotted both. Later on, with the persuasion of Lord Wavell, it joined the national government but not the assembly. It carried on the struggle for its demand for Pakistan from inside this national government.


Lord Wavell was replaced by Lord Mountbatten by the new Labour Government in Britain. The Labour Government announced its decision to transfer power to Indian hands and fixed mid-1948 as the last date. India was divided under the Mountbatten Plan. Two States were created on August 15, 1947. It was a day of glory and joy and yet a day of pain and sorrow.

The British Empire in India ceased to exist on August 15, 1947 even as jubilation over the dawn of a new life was tempered by bitterness and enmity between two principal communities. Freedom meant new responsibilities
and resettlement of refugees who left both the countries for what they considered their real home, compelled by considerations of religion and safety.    

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