India’s fight against British rule is often seen as a long drawn battle, developing in intensity since the early 20th century, especially under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi. At various phases, the movement saw itself gaining higher momentum, for instance the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement of 1920-22 and 1930-32. However, the one call that pushed India towards its ultimate freedom call was the rebel cry of the Congress between early August 1942 and September 1944. The Quit India resolution taken by Gandhi at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay was by far the strongest and most vociferous appeal made by the Congress, asking the British to leave India once and for all. While on one hand the slogan “Quit India” was a message loud and clear, on the other Gandhi’s call of “do or die” infused the masses with a life of its own.
The Quit India resolution was a direct consequence of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War and its efforts in procuring absolute support from Indians in it. The Congress demanded complete autonomy in return for its support. The half-hearted response from Indians towards the war effort resulted in the British government sending a delegation under House of Commons leader Stanford Cripps to India in March 1942. The motive of the Cripps Mission was to negotiate with leaders of the INC terms for total cooperation in the war, in return for partial devolution of powers of the Viceroy, handing them over to an elected Indian legislature. The terms of the Cripps Mission was, however, not seen as satisfactory by the Congress who demanded a time-table for self government. In Gandhi’s words, the offer made by the Cripps Mission is “a post dated cheque on a crashing bank”.
On July 14, 1942 the Congress working committee meeting at Wardha demanded complete independence, failing which the people would go into massive civil disobedience. “The committee, therefore, resolves to sanction for the vindication of India’s inalienable right to freedom and independence, the starting of a mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale, so that the country might utilise all the non-violent strength it has gathered during the last 22 years of peaceful struggle,” said the resolution. Not all in India were in support of the Congress call though, with severe opposition being met from the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). On August 8, Gandhi delivered the Quit India speech and the following day he was arrested along with practically the entire Congress leadership.
The arrest of the leaders had left a powerful vacuum in communication between the leadership and the masses. What resulted was a movement driven by mass force, with people indulging in some of the most daring acts of defiance seen in the history of the national movement. Railways and telegraphs posts were destroyed and police stations burned down. An important aspect of the movement is the fact that in the absence of adult male leadership, the Quit India movement for the first time saw the active engagement of women and students.
The British leadership responded with mass arrests and public flogging. Hundreds were killed during the protests by the police. By the end of 1944, majority of the Congress leaders were released, but a sense of failure was the general feeling among the people. While the Quit India Movement did not result in immediate attainment of freedom, it did indeed give the final push that resulted in a unified Congress leadership bidding farewell to the British just three years later.