For more than 200 years, Britain had asserted its iron will over India. From the East India Company levying taxes starting in the 18th century to Britain instituting direct rule over two-thirds of the country in the mid-19th century, India had been extorted for centuries—and with the start of World War II, India was declared to be at war with Germany without any Indian political leaders actually being consulted. The nation would go on to provide 2.3 million soldiers for an army as well as food and other goods to help the Allies defeat the Axis Powers. Much as the Indian National Congress (the largely Hindu public assembly that had some governmental functions) sympathized with defeating fascism, they balked at seeing their country further pillaged for resources.
So in 1939, members of the Congress informed Viceroy Lord Linlithgow—the highest-ranking British official in India—they would only support the war effort if Indian independence lay at the end of it. To which Linlithgow issued his own threat: if the Congress didn’t support Britain, Britain would simply turn to, and empower, the Muslim League (a political group that fought to protect the rights of Muslim Indians and later called for a separate nation for Muslims). As Winston Churchill later confessed, “the Hindu-Moslem feud [was] a bulwark of British rule in India.” The Congress could do nothing but acquiesce.
But they hadn’t abandoned the fight, especially one of their most notable members: Mohandas “Mahatma” Karamchand Gandhi. The spiritual and political leader first experienced racism decades earlier, as a London-educated lawyer working in colonial South Africa. There, he was thrown off a train for trying to sit in the first class car; the 1893 incident led him to his civil rights work, for which he was repeatedly imprisoned. “I discovered that as a man and as an Indian I had no rights,” Gandhi later said of that period in South Africa. “More correctly, I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.”
Agitating for change through nonviolence would become Gandhi’s lifelong pursuit. On the eve of World War II, he wrote Hitler twice in hopes of persuading the dictator to avoid total war (it’s impossible to know if Hitler read the letters, as no response was ever sent). And when India was forced to assist the United Kingdom in the fight, Gandhi began a small individual civil disobedience campaign, recruiting political and community leaders for the cause. Although his 1940 effort was disrupted by arrests of the participants, popular opinion in England was largely on Gandhi’s side—U.K. citizens favored Indian independence.
By 1942, Prime Minister Churchill felt enough pressure to send Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to discuss a change to India’s political status. But upon learning that Cripps wasn’t actually offering full independence and that current Indian politicians would still have no say in military strategy, the Congress and the Muslim League rejected his proposal—leaving Gandhi open to harness the wave of anti-British sentiment for a new round of protests.
The movement, Gandhi decided, would be called “Quit India” to reflect his main demand: that the United Kingdom leave India voluntarily. In a speech at a meeting of the Congress in Bombay at the beginning of August 1942, Gandhi instructed his fellow leaders that this was the moment to seize power:
“Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.”
The Congress agreed that Gandhi should lead a nonviolent mass movement and passed their decision as the “Quit India Resolution” on August 8. Gandhi was prepared to give a public address on the subject the very next day, when word came that British authorities were planning on arresting him and other members of the Congress.
“They dare not arrest me. I cannot think they will be so foolish. But if they do, it will mean that their days are numbered,” Gandhi said.
But late that night, Gandhi and many other members of the Congress were indeed arrested and imprisoned under the Defense of India Rules. The press was forbidden from publishing any part of Gandhi’s speech, supporting the Congress’s call to action, or reporting on measures the British government enacted to suppress the nascent movement.
“The resolution said, ‘On the declaration of India’s independence a provisional government will be formed and free India will become an ally of the United Nations.’ This meant unilaterally declaring India’s independence,” writes Pramod Kapoor, author of the forthcoming book Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography, by email. The thought of an unauthorized shift to independence is what so terrified the British. “The intelligence reports the government was getting were equally alarming. The British had at one point even mulled over the possibility of deporting Gandhi to Aden.”
On August 10, India’s Secretary of State Leo Amery, working with the War Cabinet and other British leaders, announced the reason for the arrests of Gandhi and the Congress to the press. Amery said the Indian leaders planned to incite “strikes, not only in industry and commerce, but in the administration and law courts, schools and colleges, the interruption of traffic and public utility services, the cutting of telegraph and telephone wires, the picketing of troops and recruiting stations… The success of the proposed campaign would paralyze not only the ordinary civil administration of India, but her whole war effort.” In short, the movement would have led to dire calamity if the British government had not detained its leaders.
But Amery’s speech, meant to paint the British government in a positive light and vilify the Congress, completely backfired. As historian Paul Greenough writes, “The chief irony of 1942 in India was that the awesome power of the press to inspire united action was unleashed by the British government; the radicalizing text was the composition of Leopold Amery, not Mahatma Gandhi… [the] self-consciously rebellious underground press was never able to duplicate the impact or achieve the degree of mass coordination which Amery’s speech had provoked.” In essence, Amery had provided the blueprints for how to rebel. Civilians attacked railway stations and post offices, fought against police officers and held riots. The police and the British Army in India led a violent crackdown on the rioters, arresting over 100,000 people. Viceroy Lord Linlithgow compared the uprising to the failed Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, when nearly one million Indians and thousands of Europeans were killed. The total civilian deaths after the Quit India protests, however, were closer to 1,000.
Still, the underground press did have success in one thing: getting Gandhi’s mantra out to the masses. “Do or die” became the unifying rallying cry for a civil disobedience campaign that spread across the subcontinent and lasted from August 1942 to September 1944. Protests erupted from Bombay to Delhi to Bengal; a steel plant closed for 13 days; a strike at a textile factory lasted 3.5 months. Even though Muslim participation in “Quit India” wasn’t as high as other groups, supporters of the Muslim League still offered shelter to activists. And, crucially, Indians employed by the British government as police officers and administrative officials turned on their employer.
“They gave shelter, provided information and helped monetarily. In fact, the erosion of loyalty to the British Government of its own officers was one of the most striking aspects of the Quit India struggle,” writes Bipan Chandra in India’s Struggle for Independence.
Although Gandhi deeply regretted that the movement had turned so violent after his arrest, he and his wife, Kasturba, were both incarcerated in Agha Khan Palace and could do nothing but struggle to survive, writes Kapoor. In February 1943, Gandhi staged a 21-day hunger strike that nearly killed him, but remained imprisoned. His wife developed bronchitis and suffered several heart attacks behind bars; she would ultimately die there just a month before Gandhi was released in May 1944. The day of Gandhi’s release marked his last ever in an Indian prison, where had spent a combined total of 2,089 days over the course of his life—nearly six years (and not factoring in the 249 days he was in South African prisons).
While the “Quit India” movement ended in late 1944, the momentum it provided in securing the country’s independence proved unstoppable. Three years later, India was independent. And through a successful lobbying effort by the Muslim League, the independent Islamic state of Pakistan was also established along the new sovereign nation’s northwestern border. Although some scholars have argued the rebellion was only a small part of Britain’s decision to relinquish the “Crown Jewel” of the colonies—citing the need to rebuild after World War II as a more pressing concern—others, including Kapoor, see the movement as a major turning point.
“It was an opportune time in the life of a long freedom struggle,” Kapoor says. “With or without the war, the time was ripe for some sort of intensive movement.” And that movement happened to be “Quit India.”