How (not) to commemorate the Quit India movement

No one remembers the golden jubilee celebrations of the Quit India Movement in 1992. The India Gate is still known as India Gate; no one calls it August Kranti Park. There is no statute of Gandhi. And even the one rupee coin that was issued by the then government in honor of the freedom fighters of 1942 is not in use

Written by Hilal Ahmed | Updated: August 9, 2017 7:38 am
Quit India movement, Quit India movement anniversary, August 15, 71st independence day, independence day celebrations, indian express news Narendra Modi is not the first political leader, who attempts to interpret the memories of Quit India movement in his own political context.

The Prime Minister makes an interesting observation in his Mann ki Baat program this month. Evoking the 75 th anniversary of the Quit India movement, he calls upon the Indian citizens to imbibe the message of this great political event. He says:

“….We should celebrate 15th August 2017 as the Sankalp Parva or the Day of Resolve….The need for today is not ‘Do or Die’, instead it is to resolve, to come together, persevere, and work relentlessly with our utmost strength towards the making of a new India. Let us live by and strive for this resolve. Come let’s launch a mega campaign, ‘Sankalp se Siddhi,’ Attainment through Resolve, from the 9th of this August.”

This is a very creative interpretation of the Quit India movement—the movement that transformed the nature of political negotiations with British Empire in mid-1940s. Narendra Modi, in this sense, is absolutely correct in describing the Quit India movement as a marker of “sankalp”, or resolve. His suggestion that 1942-1947 period could also be seen as Sankalp se Siddhi (Resolve to Attainment) underlines the historical trajectories that paved the way for India’s Independence.

Modi is not the first political leader, who attempts to interpret the memories of Quit India movement in his own political context. His appeal to reenact the spirit of 1942-1947 in 2017-2022 reminds us an interesting debate that took place in 1992 when the government decided to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Quit India movement by renaming the India Gate lawns as August Kranti Park.

The Story of the Golden Jubilee

The story began in 1991. After winning the election in 1991, the Congress government decided to celebrate August 9, 1992 as the most significant day to mark the final phase of India’s independence. An official committee was constituted for this purpose.

Although it was planned as a typical official government function, the initiative taken up by the All India Freedom Fighter Association (AIFFA) changed the course of events.

In a letter to the National Committee of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations, the AIFFA demanded that the main event be organised at the Red Fort in Delhi, the site which emerged as a symbol of anti-British sentiments. Besides, AIFFA wanted the India Gate Hexagon be named as ‘August Kranti Park’. The government accepted these suggestions and in July 1992, announced that on August 9, the India Gate Hexagon would be given its new name.

Everyone wasn’t happy with this proposal. INTACH and Delhi Conservation Society expressed reservations about this renaming project, arguing that the name Swaraj Chowk would be much better than August Kranti Park for two reasons. First, it is a combination of Hindi and English words and second, Kranti (or revolution) might be misunderstood by the younger generation in this age of political violence.

AIFFA responded to these reservations, particularly the use of the word Kranti. In a letter to INTACH, it says:

The resounding call given by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 — Do Or Die — remains…the most revolutionary (‘krantikari’) slogan to this day. ….’SWARAJ’ came only after, and as a result of this ‘krantikari’ clarion call which roused the nation for final assault in our long drawn freedom struggle. ….French Revolution is called so even today…..It was one of the bloodiest revolutions that history has known but today it invokes not an image of violence and bloodshed but of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.

This explanation persuaded the INTACH to rethink its position on the notion of revolution. In another letter to the Prime Minister, it suggested:

This stirring story [of events since the 1857] could be described as the story of a revolution, but not of an ‘August Revolution’ merely. The Hexagon could be called ‘Kranti Chowk’ (Revolution Square), resonant with the music of such names as Vijaya Chowk and Chandni Chowk. However, the mural representation of this freedom struggle within the Hexagon area, disposed around a statue of Mahatma Gandhi as proposed by INTACH ought to be called ‘Swaraj Darshan’

The description of Gandhi’s statue is not coincidental in this letter. There has been a long debate on the placing of Gandhi’s status in the central vista of New Delhi opposite India Gate since 1958. The INTACH actually took this opportunity to remind the government for a comprehensive reconstruction package of the India Gate.

Celebration in Congress Style

The official celebration of the golden jubilee of the Quit India movement was a predictably sarkari affair! Speeches delivered on the significance of freedom and freedom movement, promises were made and citizens were called upon to make the nation strong. On August 9, the ‘August Kranti Park’ at the India Gate was inaugurated by unveiling a granite-based plaque. And finally, the park was dedicated to the nation.

The opposition, particularly the socialist leaders alleged that the Congress used the celebration of Quit India for its own political benefits. In a Lok Sabha debate senior Janata Dal leader Chandrasekhar argued:

“….At India Gate…Hon’ble Minister addressed the prime minister as “The President of All India Congress Committee…I thought of leaving that place. If it was not the question of dignity of the martyrs of 1942 I would not have continued to sit over there. I would like to request you that no attempts should be made to change the History on such a big occasion.”

No one remembers the history of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Quit India Movement. The India Gate is still known as India Gate; no one calls it August Kranti Park. There is no statute of Gandhi. And even the one rupee coin that was issued by the then government in honor of the freedom fighters of 1942 is not in use!

The task for the BJP government is much more challenging. The legacy of 1942 is not simply about the “Do or Die” slogan. The Quit India is also a symbol of political betrayal. Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS) and even the undivided Communist party opposed Gandhi as well as his call for complete civil disobedience. Despite this overt political apathy of leading political forces of that time, Quit India was a successful people’s movement.

If the BJP led government really wants to commemorate the spirit of this movement, it should not follow the Congress style of commemoration. Instead, it must focus on people’s imagination of freedom struggle and national dignity.

Hilal Ahmed is an Associate Professor with the Centre of the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal

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