Freedom Struggle Of India: Nationalist Politics, 1935-1939
The Government of India Act, 1935
While the Congress was in the thick of battle, the Third Round Table Conference met in London in November 1932, once again without the leaders of the Congress. It discussions eventually led to the passing of the Government of India Act of 1935.
The Act could not satisfy the nationalist aspiration for both political and economic power continued to be concentrated in the hands of the British Government. Foreign rule was to continue as before, only a few popularly elected ministers were to be added to the structure of British administration in India. Congress condemned the Act as “totally disappointing”.
Though bitterly opposed to the Act, Congress decided to contest the elections under the new Act of 1935, but with the declared aim of showing how unpopular the Act was. The elections conclusively demonstrated that a large majority of Indian people supported the Congress which swept the polls in most of the provinces. Congress ministries were formed in July 1937 in seven out of eleven provinces and later coalition governments with other parties were formed in two others.
The Congress Ministers
Though the Congress ministers could not obviously change the imperialist character of British administration in India, they did try to improve the condition of the people within the narrow limits of the powers given to them under the Act of 1935. The Congress ministers reduced their own salaries drastically and travelled second or third class on the railways. They set up new standards of honesty and public service. They paid greater attention to education and public health. They helped the peasant bypassing anti-usury and tenancy legislation, promoted civil liberties, released political prisoners, enhanced the freedom of the press, gave more powers to Trade Unions. But the largest gain was psychological as people felt as if they were breathing the air of victory and self-government.
National Movement During The Second World War
The Second World War broke out in September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in pursuance of Hitler’s scheme for German expansion. Britain and France which had tried their best to placate Hitler were forced to go to Poland’s aid. The Government of India immediately joined the war without consulting Congress or the elected members of the Central Legislature.
The National Congress was in full sympathy with the victims of fascist aggression and was willing to help the forces of democracy in their struggle against Fascism. But, the Congress leaders said that is not possible for an enslaved nation to aid others in their fight for freedom. They, therefore, demanded that India must be declared free – or at least effective power put in Indian hands – before it could actively participate in the war. The British Government refused to accept this demand, and Congress ordered its ministries to resign. In October 1940, Gandhi gave the call for Individual Satyagraha by a few selected individuals. The satyagraha was kept limited so as not to embarrass Britain’s war effort by a mass upheaval in India.
Two major changes in world politics occurred during 1941. Having occupied Poland, Belgium, Holland, Norway and France in the west as well as most of Eastern Europe, Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. On 7 December, Japan launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour and joined the war on the side of Germany and Italy. It quickly overran the Philippines, Indo-china, Indonesia and Malaya. It occupied Rangoon in March 1942 and this brought the war to India’s doorstep.
The British Government now desperately wanted the active cooperation of Indians in the war effort. To secure this cooperation, it was sent to India in March 1942, a mission headed by Sir Stafford Cripps, who had earlier been a member of the Labour Party and a strong supporter of the Indian national movement. Even though Cripps declared that the aim of British policy in India was the earliest possible realisation of self-government in India”, detailed negotiations between him and the Congress leaders broke down. The British Government refused to accept the Congress demand for the immediate transfer of effective power to Indians and the Indian leaders were not satisfied by mere promises for the future. As Gandhiji said “Cripps’ proposals are like a post-dated cheque on a crashing bank.
The failure of the Cripps Mission embittered the people of India and they felt that the existing political situation in the country had become intolerable. The Congress now decided to take active steps to compel the British to accept the Indian demand for independence. The All India Congress Committee met at the Gowalia Tank in Bombay on 8th August 1942. It passed the famous ‘Quit India’ Resolution and proposed the starting of a non-violent mass struggle under Gandhi’s leadership to achieve this aim. But before Congress could start a movement, the Government struck hard. The very next day, Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested and the Congress, once again declared it illegal.
The news of these arrests left the country aghast, and a spontaneous movement of protest arose everywhere, giving expression to the pent up anger of the people. Left leaderless and without any organisation, the people reacted in any manner they could. All over the country, there were hartals and strikes and demonstrations were láthi-charged. and fired upon. Angered by repeated firings and repression, in many places people took to violent actions. They attacked the symbols of British authority – the police stations, post offices, railway stations, etc. They cut telegraph and telephone wires, railway lines and burnt government buildings. In many places, the rebels seized temporary control over many towns and villages. British authority disappeared in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, and Maharashtra. In some areas, the revolutionaries set up ‘parallel governments’. In general, the students, and the peasants provided the backbone of the ‘revolt’, while the upper classes and the bureaucracy remained largely loyal to the Government.
The Government went all out to crush the 1942 movement. Its repression knew no bounds. The press was completely muzzled. Demonstrating crowds were machine-gunned and even bombed from the air. The secret police reigned supreme and the military took over many towns and cities. Over 10,000 people died in police and military firings. Rebellious villages had to pay punitive fines and the villagers had to undergo mass floggings. India had not witnessed such intense repression since the Revolt of 1857.
In the end, the Government succeeded in crushing the movement. After the suppression of the Revolt of 1942, there was hardly any political activity inside the country till the war ended in 1945 as the main nationalist leaders were behind bars. In 1943, Bengal was plunged into the worst famine in recent history. Within a few months over three million people died of starvation. There was deep anger among the people as the Government diverted food for the war effort which accentuated the famine.
The national movement, however, found a new expression outside the country’s frontiers. Subhas Chandra Bose had escaped from India in March 1941 to go to the Soviet Union for help. But when the Soviet Union joined the allies in June 1941, he went to Germany. In February 1943, he left for Japan to organise an armed struggle against British rule with Japanese help. In Singapore, he formed the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or I.N.A, for short) to conduct a military campaign for the liberation of India. He was assisted by Rash Behari Bose, a veteran revolutionary. Before the arrival of Subhash Bose, steps towards the organisation of the I.N.A. had been taken by General Mohan Singh (at that time a Captain in the British Indian army). The I.N.A. was joined in large numbers by the Indian residents in Southeast Asia and by Indian soldiers and officers captured by the Japanese forces. Subhash Bose, who was now called Netaji by the soldiers of the I.N.A., gave his followers the battle cry of ‘Jai Hind’. The I.N.A. joined the Japanese army in its march on India from Burma. Inspired by the aim of freeing their homeland, the soldiers and officers of the I.N.A. hoped to enter India as its liberators with Subhash Bose at the head of the Provisional Government of Free India which was formed in October 1943. With the collapse of Japan in the War during 1944-45, the I.N.A. too met defeat, and Subhash Bose was killed in an air crash on his way to Tokyo. Even though his strategy of winning freedom in cooperation with the Fascist powers was criticised at that time by most Indian nationalists, by organising the I.N.A he set an inspiring example of patriotism before the Indian people. He was hailed as Netaji by the entire country.