“Nadir Shah looted the country only once. But the British loot us every day. Every year wealth to the tune of 4.5 million dollar is being drained out, sucking our very blood. Britain should immediately quit India.’‘ That’s what the Sindh Times wrote on May 20, 1884, a year before the Indian National Congress was born and 58 years before the ”Quit India” movement of 1942 was launched. Contrary to the view that nationalist sentiments were awoken by the Indian National Congress only when M.K. Gandhi took over it’s leadership, nationalist feelings in India had been present as early as 1857, and expressions of Indian nationalism manifested themselves in various forms all through the course of British rule.
The Boycott of Foreign Goods
An early form of economic nationalism was seen in Shikarpur (Sindh), when the Pritam Dharma Sabha, set up in 1888, initiated various social reforms, but also inspired the setting up of swadeshi sugar, soap, and cloth mills. The literature produced by the Sabha was considered so revolutionary that, in 1909, three of it’s members, Seth Chetumal, Virumal Begraj and Govind Sharma were all sentenced to five years’ rigorous imprisonment by the British administration.
The partition of Bengal along communal lines in 1905 by the British (”Vanga Bhanga”) triggered a nation-wide Swadeshi movement, giving a great fillip to the freedom movement throughout the country. A boycott of foreign goods was proclaimed on August 7, 1905. At this time, the Indian National Congress gave only conditional support to the plan, but a year later, under the influence of more radical leaders like Tilak from Maharashtra, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh from Bengal and Lajpat Rai from Punjab, the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1906 proclaimed for the first time, the concept of ‘swaraj’, i.e self-rule and called for support to the boycott movement. Although the demand for ‘swaraj’ was only a partial step towards full political and economic freedom for India since India was to remain a part of the British empire, it was an important step towards real independence, and it encouraged several local nationalist groups to participate in the movement to boycott imported goods, and set up local stores where only locally manufactured goods would be sold.
Early Calls for Complete Independence: The Emergence of the Ghadar Party
The first Indian political organization to call for complete independence from British rule was the Ghadar (or Gadar) Party, organized in 1913 by Indian immigrants in California. The Ghadar movement was remarkable for many reasons. Although Sikhs from Punjab made up the majority of it’s founding members, the movement was completely devoid of any trace of regional or religious chauvinism. It’s platform was uncompromisingly secular and called for a total rejection of any form of caste discrimination. And unlike the Congress, it’s membership was primarily drawn from the working class and poor peasantry. Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus of all castes (including Dalits) were welcomed in the movement without bias or discrimination.
The literature of the Ghadar Party was also the clearest in describing the depth of misery that the common people of India experienced under British rule. They were also amongst the first to anticipate the outbreak of the First World War. Correctly sensing that it was an opportunity for the Indian people to liberate themselves from the yolk of colonial rule, they called for a mass movement for total independence. In their widely distributed poster, “Jang Da Hoka” (Declaration of War) they warned of the danger of Indian soldiers being drawn into the British War effort in the First World War.
Unfortunately, the Congress failed to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity and leaders like Gandhi went as far as campaigning for the British War effort, calling upon Indians to enroll in the British Army. This treacherous and sycophantic policy of Gandhi not only drew biting criticism from Ghadar activists, but opposition from other quarters also emerged.
At a time when Gandhi was still addressing “War Recruitment Melas”, Dr. Tuljaram Khilnani of Nawabshah publicly campaigned against War Loan Bonds. Sindh was then part of Bombay Presidency and the Sindh Congress, part of Bombay Provincial Congress Committee. When Gandhi sought election to the AICC from Bombay PCC, the delegate from Sindh opposed his election in view of his support to the British war effort.
Nevertheless, by and large, the Congress was a relatively conservative organization at this time and drew stinging criticism from the Ghadarites. Rejecting the notion that freedom could be won by participating in the oppressive bureaucracy of the British or by pleading with the British for reforms or self-rule, the Ghadarites believed that only a militant mass movement that involved workers and peasants and all other sections of Indian society on a non-sectarian basis could succeed. They envisaged an India that would not only be free from exploitation by the British but would also be free from hunger, homelessness and disease. In their vision of India there would be no place for religious superstition or any socially sanctioned inequities.
Although the Ghadar movement started in California, chapters were established all over the world and by 1916, a million copies of their weekly pamphlet were published and circulated. As the movement grew in strength, there were plans to set up cells of the Ghadar party all over India and thousands of young volunteers attempted to return home and initiate local chapters wherever they could. The British, realizing the dangers posed by this extremely radical movement moved quickly and closed in on the revolutionaries. Hundreds were charged for sedition in the five Lahore Conspiracy Cases. According to one estimate, a total of 145 Ghadarites were hanged, and 308 were given sentences longer than 14 years. Several were sentenced to hard labour in the notorious prison known as Kala Pani in the Andamans.
The Ghadarites were especially successful in winning over Indian soldiers in the British Army and enticing them to revolt. Soldiers in the Hongkong regiments were arrested and court-martialed for distributing Ghadar and sent back to India and imprisoned. Two Singapore regiments rebelled in Penang, but the rebellion was brutally crushed. In Rangoon in January 1915, the 130th Baluchi regiment revolted. 200 soldiers of this regiment were court-martialed. Four soldiers were hanged, 69 were given life imprisonment and 126 were given rigorous imprisonment for varying terms. Pandit Sohan Lal Pathak, one of the outstanding leaders of the Ghadar Party was hanged on February 10, 1916 in Mandalay jail for inciting rebellion against the British rule. The Party was also active amongst Indian soldiers in Iraq and Iran. As a result of their work, the 15th Lancers, stationed in Basra revolted and 64 soldiers were court-martialed. Similarly, the 24th Punjabi and 22nd Pahari regiments also revolted.
But in spite of the tremendous repression unleashed by the British against the Ghadarites, the British were unable to stop a mass wave of revolutionary unrest in 1919. The closing months of 1918 and the first months of 1919 saw the opening of a strike movement on a scale never seen before. The Bombay mill strike extended to 125,000 workers. In spite of the Rowlatt Act of 1919 that sought to extend the provisions of martial law, a wave of mass demonstrations, strikes, and civil unrest confronted the British authorities. The British rulers were taken by surprise by the courageous resistance of the workers and the official Government Report for the year noted with alarmed amazement how Hindus and Muslims had resisted their power unitedly. Unsurprisingly, the British responded with extraordinary measures of repression.
General Dyer’s Jallianawala Bagh masssacre followed the strike wave, when an unarmed crowd of 10,000 Baisakhi celebrators was mercilessly attacked with over 1600 rounds of ammunition. Yet, Gandhi continued to advocate cooperation with the British in December 1919, even as the resistance of ordinary Indians continued. The first six months of 1920 saw an even greater level of mass resistance, with no less than 200 strikes taking place involving 1.5 million workers. It was in response to this rising mass revolutionary tide that the leadership of the Congress was forced to confront it’s conservatism and give a somewhat more militant face to it’s program. The “non-violent non-cooperation” movement was thus launched under the stewardship of Congress leaders like Lajpat Rai, Motilal Nehru and Gandhi.
Other Radical Forces
But in contrast to the foot-dragging of the Congress, other far more radical forces were already coalescing. The Communist Party of India was formed in 1920, who while demanding complete independence, also stressed the need for giving a radical content to the slogan of swaraj through a definite programme for social and economic change by including such vital questions as abolition of landlordism, end to feudal domination and elimination of caste oppression.
While participating in the freedom struggle, they devoted their energies to the task of organising workers in trade unions, peasants in the Kisan Sabhas, and students in their unions. It was due to these efforts that the national organisations like the All India Kisan Sabha and the All India Students Federation were founded and the All India Trade Union Congress strengthened. The Communists also took the initiative in founding progressive, cultural and literary organisations like the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
But the British rulers were determined to stamp out communism in India. Just as they had repressed the Ghadarites, they unleashed brutal repression on the fledgling Communist groups and banned communist literature to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas. They conducted a series of conspiracy cases against the young leadership of the communist movement – Peshawar (1922); Kanpur (1924) and Meerut (1929). The Party was declared illegal soon after its formation in the 1920s and had to work in conditions of illegality for over two decades.
The Conservatism of the Congress
In many respects, the analysis of Indian conditions by the Ghadar Party and of the Indian Communists was very similiar, and in spite of the repression they faced, their message continued to draw followers. But the Ghadarites were far more critical of the Congress and were a good deal more skeptical of the Congress leadership than were the Communists who thought that the pressure of the mass movements would force the Congress to act more decisively against the British. But they had perhaps underestimated the depth of conservatism that held back the Congress leadership. In 1921, Republican Muslim leader Hasrat Mohani wanted to move a resolution defining Swaraj as complete independence, free from all foreign control. Much to the relief of the British, Gandhi led the opposition against the resolution and secured it’s rejection. In 1921, there was seething anger against the high taxes imposed by the British. Delegations from numerous districts approached Gandhi to lead a No-Tax campaign. In Guntur, the no-tax campaign began without the permission of the national leadership, but Gandhi responded by calling for all taxes to be paid by the due date. However, he agreed to lead a No-Tax campaign in the single district of Bardoli, but even that was withdrawn when he heard news of a peasant rebellion in Chauri Chaura village in UP.
Gandhi’s Bardoli decision created deep consternation in Congress circles. Subhas Chandra Bose wrote: “To sound the order of retreat just when public enthusiasm was reaching the boiling point was nothing short of a national calamity. The principal lieutenants of the Mahatma, Deshbandhu Das, Pandit Motilal Nehru and Lala Lajpat Rai, who were all in prison, shared the popular resentment. I was with the Deshbandu at the time, and I could see that he was beside himself with anger and sorrow.” (quoted from The Indian Struggle, p.90)
Motilal Nehru, Lajpat Rai and others sent from prison long and indignant letters to Gandhi protesting at his decision to which Gandhi replied that men in prison were “civilly dead” and had no claim to any say in policy. Following this deeply unpopular decision, the popularity of the Congress slipped dramatically, with Gandhi himself having to admit that in place of the proclaimed aim of the Congress reaching ten million members, it could barely count 200,000 in it’s favour.
It was thus inevitable that young revolutionaries would seek inspiration from other and more radical forces. Some like M.N. Roy were attracted by the idea of organizing a revolutionary armed struggle against the British and joined hands with Rash Behari Bose in trying to seek support for such a campaign abroad. For others, the message of the Ghadar Party struck a chord. The influence of the Gadharites was particularly notable in Punjab. The young and charismatic martyr, Shaheed Bhagat Singh was born into a family of Ghadar supporters and was deeply inspired by their message. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha (1925) was initiated by Shaheed Bhagat Singh who also coined the widely popular slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long Live The Revolution). Also in 1925, Ghadar supporters established a Workers and Peasant Party (Kirti Kisan Party) in the Punjab. The Kirti Party also worked amongst youth and enjoyed close relations with the the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, with Bhagat Singh working on the Kirti Urdu edition. Like the Ghadarites, the Kirti party also drew it’s membership from all ranks of society – cutting across religious barriers, with leaders drawn from all communities: Sikh, Hindu and Muslim.
With the Congress unable to initiate mass movements of any significance in the late 1920s, the opposition to British rule came largely from organizations such as the Workers and Peasants Party and militant unions like the Girni Kamgar Union or Red Flag Union of the Bombay textile workers. The Congress held on to it’s conservatism by once again rejecting a vote for complete independence at it’s 1928 session. (Gandhi prevailed over the more radical demands of Subhash Bose and Jawahar Lal Nehru). Nevertheless, 1929 was a year of significant peasant uprisings and strikes. It was also a year when small groups of underground revolutionaries organized attacks on police stations, British Army camps and other British controlled centres of repressions. Most were caught and either hanged or sentenced to hard labour in Kala Pani.
Emergence of the armed revolutionaries
Virtually all the armed revolutionaries had participated enthusiastically in the non-violent non-cooperation movement earlier. But when the non-cooperation movement was suddenly suspended by Gandhi, the more radically minded of the young leaders looked to other leaders for inspiration. In 1904, V.D. Savarkar had organized Abhinav Bharat as a secret society of revolutionaries. Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar were two other such societies. Ideas of armed resistance to British rule were propogated and international centres were established with Madame Cama and Ajit Singh representing the struggle in Europe, and Shyamji Krishnaverma and others organizing chapters in London.
Frustrated and disillusioned by the inaction of the Congress, the revolutionaries in northern India were the first to reorganize under the leadership of the older veterans, Ramprasad Bismil, Jogesh Chatterjea and Sachindranath Sanyal whose Bandi Jiwan served as a textbook for the revolutionary movement. They met in Kanpur in October 1924 and founded the Hindustan Republican Association (or Army) to organize armed revolution to overthrow colonial rule.
The advance of the armed struggle required bold and risky actions. Volunteers had to be recruited and trained and arms had to be procured, requiring money – hence raids on the British treasury. On 9 August 1925, ten men held up the 8-Down train at Kakori (a village near Lucknow), to get access to its railway cash. British reaction was quick and hard. Ashfaqulla Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri were hanged, four others were sent to the Andamans for life and seventeen others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The Kakori case was a major setback to the revolutionaries of northern India; but it was not a fatal blow. Younger men such as Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Varma and Jaidev Kapur in U.P., Bhagat Singh, Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Sukhdev in Punjab set out to reorganize the HRA under the overall leadership of Chandrashekhar Azad. At this time, they were also strongly influenced by socialist ideas. At a Delhi meeting in September 1928, a new collective leadership adopted socialism as their official goal and changed their party’s name to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (Army).
On 8 April 1929, HSRA embarked on a plan to throw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly against the passage of two new repressive bills – the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. The aim was not to cause any loss of life, but to use the daring action to awaken and energize the Indian masses. It was intended to ‘make the deaf hear’. The objective was to get arrested and to use the trial court as a vehicle to disseminate their dreams and ideas for a new and liberated India.
Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt were tried in the Assembly Bomb Case. Later Sukhdev, Rajguru and tens of other revolutionaries were also tried in a series of famous conspiracy cases. Their fearless and unswerving attitudes in court became legendary. Every day they entered the court-room chanting slogans ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ ‘Down, Down with Imperialism,’ singing songs like Sarfaroshi ki tamanna hai (our heart is filled with the desire of martyrdom) and Mere rang de basanti chola (dye my clothes in saffron, the color of courage and sacrifice).
In March 1931, Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Bhagat Singh were hanged by the British in spite of tremendous popular opposition to their hanging. Bhagat Singh became a household hero, and his hanging led to an outpouring of grief and sorrow all over the nation. Although the Congress could have utilized the mood of popular anger to accelerate the mass struggle, it’s response to the Bhagat Singh trial was tepid. In his private negotiations with the British, it appears that Gandhi did not press the issue of Bhagat Singh’s impending death sentence. Supporters of Bhagat Singh became particularly bitter when Gandhi failed to fight hard on their behalf.
In Bengal too, armed revolutionary groups started reorganizing and developing underground activities even as some of the leaders maintained their links with the Congress. One of their planned actions was to assassinate Charles Tegart – the much hated Police Commissioner of Calcutta. The attempt failed and Gopinath Saha was arrested and hanged for the attempt despite massive popular protest. Despite the setback, attempts at armed revolt were not abandoned. Among the new ‘Revolt Groups,’ the most active and famous was the Chittagong group led by Surya Sen.
Surya Sen had actively participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement and had become a teacher in a national school in Chittagong. He had also been closely associated with Congress work in Chittagong. Along with other colleagues in the local Congress committees, and several young recruits, Surya Sen and his compatriots decided to organize a rebellion, on however small a scale, to demonstrate that it was possible to challenge the armed might of the British empire in India. Their action plan was to include occupation of the two main armories in Chittagong and the seizing of their arms with which four large band of revolutionaries could be formed into an armed detachment. In a fierce fight, (April, 1930) eighty British troops and twelve revolutionaries died, but Chittagong could not be held by the revolutionaries. When the armed revolutionaries dispersed into the Chittagong countryside, most of the Muslim villagers gave food and shelter to the revolutionaries in hiding, enabling them to survive for three years. The Chittagong Armoury Raid had a tremendous impact on the people of Bengal and inspired numerous other acts of armed resistance. But Surya Sen was eventually caught and hanged in 1934. Many of his co-fighters were also caught and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Just as it seemed that the national movement was completely slipping away from the influence of the Congress, Gandhi returned to the mode of non-violent struggle and launched the salt satyagraha (1930-31). Campaigns to boycott imported goods were also launched. With the masses energized once again, a series of anti-British action took place, of which most notable were the raid on the Chittagong Armory and a mutiny by Garhwali soldiers in Peshawar. For ten days, British authority in Peshawar collapsed. But the brave soldiers of Peshawar who had resisted British orders to shoot at their civilian brethren during a mass demonstration received little sympathy from Gandhi.
Trade Union Resistance
In addition, a wave of strikes confronted the British authorities once again. Although the communists were officially outlawed, communist and socialist sympathizers remained active in the trade union movement. The industrial workers of Bombay offered the most heroic resistance, refusing to be daunted by lathi charges, beatings and indiscriminate firings. In response to such growing opposition, the British resorted to massive armed retaliation even calling in bombers from it’s Royal Air Force to bomb striking or protesting workers.
These actions by Bombay’s militant workers also had an impact on British businessmen in Bombay, who joined with Indian businessmen and the Bombay Chamber of Commerce in demanding immediate self-government for Indian on a dominion basis. Working class resistance continued throughout the 30s, but overall (barring minor and cosmetic concessions obtained from the British) the national movement made insufficient progress, hamstrung as it was by the conservatism of Gandhi and his followers in the Congress on one hand, and pushed back by the brutal repression of the British colonial overlords on the other.
Building up to the Quit India movement
Subhas Chandra Bose attempted to lead a radical revival of the Congress and tried to steer it in a more radical and socialist direction. In 1939, he defeated Gandhi’s nominee Pattabhi Sitaramayya to be re-elected Congress president. But he was ill-prepared to deal with a campaign of non-cooperation launched against him by Gandhi, and resigned a few months later to launch an alternative and more radical platform that eventually became the Forward Block in independent India.
The outbreak of the Second World War opened up a new and more determined phase of the struggle against British rule. In 1939 and 1940, strikes and peasant uprisings reached a fever pitch. In 1941, the Indian National Army (INA) was launched by General Mohan Singh in Malaya with the help of the Japanese. He belonged to Sialkot (Punjab) and had been greatly influenced by the killings of Jallianwala Bagh and hangings of the Ghadar Party members during his younger years. In 1943, Netaji Subhash Chander Bose (who had always been close to the armed revolutionaries of Bengal) took over the Indian National Army and it was renamed as the Azad Hind Fauj. More than two million Indian civilians living in South-east Asia responded to his call for “total mobilization”. In his army of liberation Punjabi, Muslim, Sikh and Pathan professional soldiers fought side by side with Tamil and Malayalee rubber plantation workers. In his Azad Hind Movement Netaji was able to demonstrate by example how to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity and amity and enable women to get their rightful role in public affairs.
By 1942, the Congress too was compelled to act boldly, and issued the Quit India call in August. The Quit India Movement of 1942 swept across the length and breadth of the country like a mighty tidal wave bringing in its fold people from all walks of life, arousing in them tremendous patriotic fervour and an irresistible urge to act. Volunteers from groups like the Hindu Mahasabha who had all this while remained aloof from the mass struggle joined in as well. Individual industrialists were emboldened too and encouraged strike actions against the British.
The Role of women
One of the important facets of India’s freedom movement was the growing participation of women. Women played an especially crucial role in the economic boycott campaigns and often participated in the non-cooperation movement with as much or even greater enthusiasm than their husbands or male relatives. In rallies organized by the Congress, women attended in large numbers often with little children in tow. Particularly notable was the participation of women in the armed struggle of Bengal. In the group led by Surya Sen, they provided shelter, acted as messengers and custodians of arms, and fought, guns in hand. Pritilata Waddedar died while conducting a raid, while Kalpana Dutt (now Joshi) was arrested and tried along with Surya Sen and given a life sentence. In December 1931, two school girls of Comilla, Santi Ghosh and Suniti Chowdhury, shot dead the District Magistrate. In February 1932, Bina Das fired point blank at the Governor while receiving her degree at the Convocation. When the entire Congress leadership was put in jail in 1942, women leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali and Sucheta Kripalani emerged with Achyut Patwardhan and Ram Manohar Lohia and others to lead the underground resistance. Usha Mehta ran the Congress radio. Congress socialists, Forward Bloc members, and other armed resistance factions were active in this period, working through underground cells in Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Baroda, and other parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, UP, Bihar and Delhi.
The Revolutionary Peasantry, Adivasis and Dalits
The final phase of the Indian freedom struggle also saw peasant struggles rising to new heights of militancy. Throughout the country, Kisan Sabhas had been active in the 1930s. After the Quit-India call, peasants of all classes joined in the freedom struggle in Eastern UP, Bihar, Midnapur in Bengal, Satara in Mahrashtra, and also in Andhra, Gujarat and Kerala. Even some of the Zamindars (landlords) joined in. The Raja of Darbhanga was one of the most supportive of the resisting peasants. Adivasis and landless peasants were particularly heroic in their struggles. Crushed by the inhumane demands of the Zamindari system, they had to fight a dual war – one against the British and the other against the Indian landlords who collaborated with British rule. Amongst the most significant of these struggles were those of Tebhaga, Punnapra Vayalar, the Worli adivasis and above all the historic Telangana peasants armed struggle which was directed against the Nizam of Hyderabad who had collaborated with the British.
During the course of the freedom struggle, the issue of equality for Adivasis and Dalits came up again and again. Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar emerged as amongst the most prominent of the Dalit leaders. The Ghadar movement, the HSRA and later the INA led the way in breaking down caste and communal barriers. The Congress, while open to some reforms, often did not go far enough – leading to well-deserved criticism from the more radical of the Dalit and Adivasi leaders. Nevertheless, virtually all the advanced sections of the freedom struggle came to the conclusion that for India to succeed as a modern nation, the issue of equality for Dalits and Adivasis could not be dismissed.
Final push towards freedom
After the Second World War, the momentum created by the Quit India movement led to growing militant actions that weakened British authority in an irreparable way. The World War had compelled the British into setting up Indian Navy units that recruited officers from various parts of India. The Indian naval men were mistreated and discriminated against, leading to a strike call in Februrary 1946. It quickly drew support from the Indian crews of all the 20 vessels anchored in Bombay port. 20,000 naval ratings went on strike. ‘Victory to India’, ‘Long live the Revolution’, and ‘Hindus and Muslims Unite’ were some of their slogans. The struggle soon spread to barracks in Thane and Delhi, and also to ships anchored in Karachi, Calcutta and Vishakapatnam. 200,000 workers in Bombay’s factories downed their tools in solidarity. But leaders of the Congress including Gandhi and Maulana Azad were critical of the strike as was Jinnah of the Muslim League. Patel attempted to assuage the strikers by promising that they would not be victimized. But the assurances of Patel did not prevent mass arrests or police actions that led to a death toll of 1700.
Nevertheless, the strike in the Indian Navy played an important role in energizing and emboldening the Indian masses. Militant acts of resistance accelerated. The British realized that they could no longer hold on to India and instead turned their attentions on partitioning India. The Muslim League was more than willing to play an active role in these dangerous and divisive maneuvers. In a bizarre interpretation of the ‘right to self-determination’, the then legal Communist Party of India (who in their many years of being underground played a vital role in energizing the trade unions and Kisan Sabhas) endorsed the idea that India’s Muslims constituted a separate nation, thus providing ideological cover for the Muslim League’s incendiary propaganda. This led to a split with the Ghadarites and other communist organizations who fought vehemently against the ideology of the two-nation theory. Hindu and Muslim unity had been almost exemplary in the trade union and radical peasant movements. Yet, in a blunder of monumental proportions, the leaders of the Communist Party appeared to endorse the divisive message of the Muslim League.
The Congress although reluctant to accept partition put up a feeble fight. Decades of conservatism prevented it from moving the Indian masses into a struggle against the terror tactics of the Muslim League. The Indian Navy strike had shown that Hindus and Muslims were more than willing to unite against the British. In the Indian National Army of Subhash Chandra Bose, they were willing to take up arms together. But the Congress leadership remained wedded to non-violence even as the Muslim League was arming it’s separatist volunteers.
Independence was won but at a heavy price that continues to torment the people of the sub-continent through the creation of Pakistan, a state based on the thoroughly reactionary foundation of religious separatism and intolerance.
As we look to the future, it is important to recall that the fight against religious bigotry and fundamentalism played a key role in the European renaissance. It is exceedingly doubtful if the people of the Indian sub-continent will be able to fully utilize the benefits of freedom without completely dismantling all traces of religious superstition, bigotry and fundamentalist terror.
Although inspired minds were unable to prevail over the odium of religion-based divisiveness in 1947, it is imperative that the tragedy of partition not be repeated. India’s history provides several inspiring examples of how religious conservatism and social rigidity were challenged and defeated by rational and secular forces. But today’s secular movement in India is confused and disoriented. Today, Kashmir is the primary battleground for this fight and “secular” Indians who remain passive or indifferent to the struggle for saving Kashmir from the infiltration of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists cannot hope to win any plaudits or gain mass influence. Neither can those who wish to defeat the cancer of Islamic separatism with Hindu chauvinism or obscurantism.
The struggle for secular society must also not be divorced from the numerous economic problems that hinder our progress and should go hand in hand with the struggle of the Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs for genuine equality. We must all endeavour to create an environment where the message of the greatest heroes of the Indian freedom struggle is more widely disseminated than ever before and the scourge of hunger, homelessness, illiteracy and disease is eliminated. Independence will not be complete until we build a nation where standards of living are raised across the board, and the benefits of modern science enable the construction of a truly humane and equitable social milieu offering genuinely equal opportunities for all.
Jaspal Singh: History of the Ghadar Movement; Rajni Palme-Dutt: India Today; Bipin Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, K.N. Panikkar & Sucheta Mahajan: India’s Struggle for Independence; South Asian Affairs: RIN strike of 1946
On the right to self-determination: The right to self-determination is normally advocated only for oppressed people. And because the right to self-determination is primarily invoked to expand democratic rights (not shrink them), the right to self-determination can be legitimately invoked only by those entities that intend to further democracy. Secularism is a fundamental pillar of democracy. Since India’s Muslims were represented by many different political entities, the right to represent India’s Muslims should have gone to those political entities that were secular rather than to the Muslim League, who was clearly incapable of building a secular society.
In the Indian context, the issue of self-determination of Muslims as a separate class would arise only if it could be established that Muslims had been collectively oppressed by Hindus. But prior to British rule, the imperial rulers of India were Muslims, and it was Hindus who faced discrimination as a class. That would suggest that if a separate right to self-determination had to be granted to a religious class – it would have had to be granted to Hindus, not Muslims.
In any case, the primary oppressors of both Hindus and Muslims at that time were the British, and since the Muslim League was founded with the express purpose of collaborating with British rule, it could hardly have been viewed as the legitimate agent for Muslim self-determination. Moreover, since virtually all the main entities fighting for independence in India were secular and had Muslims represented in their leadership, there was no basis for the Muslim League’s claim that Muslims would be politically excluded by the Hindus in a secular and democratic India.
Hence, the arguments that justified partition on the basis of Muslim self-determination were disingenuous, and rather than advance the democratic rights of the people of the Indian sub-continent, they (wittingly or unwittingly) sought to curtail them. It is notable that Ghaffar Ali (b. 1910), a leading member of the Communist Party of India during the freedom movement strenuously opposed the notion that Muslim self-determination required the partition of India, and took strong exception to the views espoused by the party’s leadership.
For an elaboration of this view, see the essay on the 2-nation theory and partition.