Right from our childhood we’re taught that Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement against the British to force them to give us independence with a slogan ‘Do or Die’. Every year we commemorate this day when Mahatma Gandhi gave his clarion call from Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai. In August last year, we celebrated 75 years of the movement. Unfortunately, what we’re not told is the context in which the movement was launched. If we understand the context, we’ll realize how wrong the movement was. It could’ve led to disastrous consequences had it succeeded.
In 1942, the Second World War was underway in many corners of the world. As things stood, the Axis powers seemed to be doing well in the war. In Europe, Germany had overwhelmed France on its western sector and was at the gates of Stalingrad in Russia on its eastern front. In Northern Africa, fierce battles were going on between the antagonists with Germany and Italy having an upper hand. In Asia, Japan was on a roll. It had routed Korea, large parts of China, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma etc. After conquering these areas Japan had unleashed a reign of terror on the citizens of these countries. The atrocities committed by the Japanese in these countries, especially in Korea and China are reasons why the relations between these countries and Japan are strained even today.
We too did not remain unaffected. The Japanese launched attacks on our border states and comprehensively beat British Indian Army in 1942. Though the Allied powers had other fighting units in the area as well but the main force comprised of Indian troops. This is not to say that the Indian troops were not good enough against the Japanese forces. It was just that that our troops were absolutely ill-trained to fight the Japanese, or anyone else for that matter. The blame for the same rests entirely with the British.
According to the book India’s War by Srinath Raghavan, when the Second World War began in Sep 1939, the strength of British Indian Army was 194,373 troops. It took eight more months for the British to realize the dangers lying ahead and start recruiting troops aggressively. According to the same book, by August 1942, the strength of the army had reached 1.5 million, an increase of thirteen lakh troops in a matter of less than two and half years. Having served in the army for more than twenty years, I can vouch for a fact that it is nearly impossible to train such a large number of troops in this time period even today when we have extensive training facilities, forget about 1940s. A soldier needs at least ten months of basic training in weaponry, tactics and physical fitness to reach the minimum acceptable standards required to fight a war. Suffice to say that the Indian troops sent by the British to fight the war barely knew the front end of a rifle from its back. They were used as cannon fodder in front of the marauding Japanese army.
It must be noted that these were the same troops who, after being rigorously trained by General Viscount Slim managed to avenge their defeat and recapture Burma from the Japanese a couple of years later. But in 1942, they were woefully ill-trained.
Having seen the condition of our soldiers at that time, it is imperative that we talk about the Indian officer lot of the British Indian Army. In 1942, there were hundreds of Indians who were serving in the officer cadre. The senior most among them was then Lt Colonel KM Cariappa (later Field Marshal). He had been commissioned in 1919 and had just been given his promotion to Lt Colonel. The rest of the Indian officers were only Majors, Captains and Lieutenants. In other words, they were just youngsters. All the senior commanders of the army were British. While there is no doubt about capabilities of Field Marshal Cariappa and the other Indian officers, it is a no brainer that at that time they did not have the required experience to take on the Japanese might on their own, without the senior British officers to guide them. This is important because had Quit India Movement succeeded, the British would’ve left lock, stock and barrel. They would’ve taken their equipment, men and officers along with them. We would’ve been left behind to face the Japanese with our ill-trained men, junior officers with barely any weapons to fight them with.
It was this very issue which prompted Maulana Azad to oppose the launch of Quit India Movement. He too feared that we would not able to hold the Japs off, if the British left. It must be pointed out that in 1942, Maaulana Azad was the President of Congress. But Gandhiji did not listen to him. In fact, he was so incensed with Maulana Azad’s position that he sent him a letter asking him to resign from his post. It’s a different matter that Maulana Azad finally relented from his position and was thus ‘retained’ as President. This entire episode is narrated by Maulana Azad himself in his book, India Wins Freedom.
This brings us to the issue of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the India National Army(INA). It is widely believed that Netaji would not have allowed the Japs to do to Indians what they did to residents of other countries which they had conquered. As mentioned earlier, Japs had been ruthless to the Koreans, Chinese, Malaysians and many others, whom they had subjugated. It is debatable whether Netaji would’ve been able to prevent the same from happening to Indians or not. There are two pertinent issues to be considered here.
Firstly, Netaji was not even part of INA in 1942. The command of INA was passed on to him only on 6th Jul 1943. In 1942, INA was being commanded by Captain Mohan Singh. In August 1942, Gandhiji while launching the Quit India Movement couldn’t have known that Netaji would come to command the INA the next year. In any case, the strength of INA at that time was just 16,000 as compared to more than a hundred thousand Japs. Captain Mohan Singh, or even Netaji later, couldn’t have physically stopped the Japs from terrorizing Indians, had it come to that.
Secondly and more importantly, it must be pointed out that by the time Quit India Movement started, Andaman and Nicobar islands were already under the occupation of the Japanese. Though the administration of the islands was later transferred by the Japs to INA, but this was only on paper. The actual control of the islands remained with Japanese. And they were ruthless in their pursuit of control of the Indian territory. By the time the occupation of Japs ended in 1945, more than 2000 inhabitants had lost their lives and hundreds of others had been de-capacitated as a result of torture by Japs. Suffice to say that INA had little say in the goings-on. Netaji could not stop the Japs from torturing and subjugating the residents of Andaman and Nicobar islands, even after he assumed command of INA. You can now draw your own conclusions whether he could’ve prevented Japs from doing the same to rest of India.
By the time Second World War began, the British had been occupying India for nearly two hundred years. During this period they had looted us to their hearts’ content. Their belly was full. However, had the Japanese succeeded in conquering our country, they would’ve started looting us to quench their hunger for wealth and women, as they had done elsewhere. It would’ve been a new era of exploitation for us.
It is in this context that I believe that Quit India Movement was wrong in its timing. I’m no fan of the British but I do believe that at that time we needed their help to keep the Japs out. It was good for our nation that the movement failed.
There is yet another aspect which, in retrospect, assumes importance. Gandhiji was arrested by the British immediately after he made his speech from Gowalia Tank Maidan. He remained under arrest for two crucial years. During this period in the absence of most of the Congress leaders who were in jail, Indian Muslim League which had been a very minor player in national politics gained prominence and captured the headlines with their demand of Pakistan. Had the Quit India Movement not been launched, it is possible that Jinnah and his party would’ve remained a non-entity. However, to be fair, when Gandhiji undertook this movement, he couldn’t have possibly known that it could have such disastrous outcomes.
We see our historical figures in specific categories, either black or white. There is nothing in between. Unfortunately, this is not the correct approach. Very few people are only black or white. Most of us are in various shades of grey. The same is true for historical figures like Gandhiji as well. He had his shortcomings and he made some mistakes too. Quit India Movement was one of them.