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Wheels of independence are set in motion

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The war in Europe was having an impact in India. The Congress Working Committee found itself unable to accept in its entirety Gandhi’s attitude to the war. In particular, they would not accept his view that the defence of India should not depend on the armed forces. Congress leaders met several times in Gandhi’s room at Sevagram and talked of their desire to start some action. Finally a proposal was put forward that all provincial governments should join with the British authorities in the defence of India, but the British rejected the offer …. Now read on.

In September 1940, a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee was held in Bombay.
There, as a protest against England’s utter indifference to India’s hopes, it was decided to launch individual civil disobedience against the authorities. It was also decided to hold meetings to protest against British imperialism. At that time such meetings were forbidden. Vinoba Bhave was the first to inaugurate individual satyagraha. He was arrested and so were hundreds of others who followed him. Nehru also was arrested. Within a few months over 30,000 Congressmen were put in jail.
Only Gandhi was not imprisoned. He devoted his time to spreading the gospel of truth and nonviolence. In December 1941 the government released all the satyagrahis.
Then, in 1942, as the Japanese swept across the Pacific and went through Malaya and Burma, the British began to think of a settlement with India. Japan, it was feared, might even invade India. Even Gandhi began to feel that his pacifism might stand in the way of India’s future. So he made the proposal of a provisional government so that all the resources of India could be added to the government’s side in the struggle against the aggressors. But this proposal was ignored.
In March 1942 Churchill announced that the war cabinet had agreed on a plan for India and that Sir Stafford Cripps had agreed to go to India to find out whether the Indian leaders would accept the plan, and whether they would devote all their thought and energy to the defence of India against Japan. Cripps arrived in Delhi on March 22. He met Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and other important leaders.
Cripps promised greater freedom than what had been offered before. He also offered complete freedom after the war, if India wanted it. The leaders would perhaps have accepted this offer if it had come a year earlier, but now it was rejected. The Congress leaders did not want any compromise based on promises. The British did not trust the people of India sufficiently to give them any real power, and so the Indian leaders felt that they could not trust the British to hand over power after the war. In August 1942 the All-India Congress Committee met in Bombay, and was presided over by Maulana Azad. Again the demand to set up a provisional government was made. “We can no longer hold back our people from exercising their will,” Gandhi said. “Nor can we go on eternally submitting to the imperialist policies. The time has come for the English to go. Civil servants, army officers, government officers all of them should quit India.”
The “Quit India” resolution was drawn up and passed by the meeting for presentation to the government.
Nehru moved the resolution and Sardar Patel seconded it. The resolution also announced the starting of a mass struggle on the widest possible scale. Winding up the meeting, Gandhi said, “I have pledged to the Congress, and the Congress has pledged herself that she will do or die.” The government did not wait for the mass movement to begin. Overnight Gandhi was arrested, as were many other leaders in various parts of India. Gandhi was interned in the Aga Khan’s palace in Poona.
Mahadev Desai, Kasturba, Sarojini Naidu and Mirabehn were also taken there. But with the leaders in jail, India did not remain idle. ‘Do or die’ was taken up by the people. There were mass movements everywhere. And there was a great outburst of violence throughout the country. People started destroying government buildings and whatever else they considered to be symbols of British imperialism. Shortly after his detention in the Aga Khan’s palace Gandhi suffered a grievous bereavement. Mahadev Desai, his faithful and able secretary, died of a heart attack. “Mahadev has lived up to the ‘do or die’ mantra,” Gandhi said. “This sacrifice will only hasten the day of India’s deliverance.” All over India there were strikes and disorder.
Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, blamed Gandhi for all the turmoil. Gandhi had invited violence, he claimed. In a long series of letters to Lord Linlithgow, Gandhi tried to persuade him to retract this charge against him. Failing in this, Gandhi decided to undertake a fast as “an appeal to the Highest Tribunal” against the unjust charges. Gandhi fasted for 21 days in February, 1943. It was a great ordeal, but he survived the fast. Kasturbai nursed him back to health, but her own health was failing. She suffered two heart attacks. Gandhi tried his best to save her, but Kasturbai grew worse. One day she died quietly in Gandhi’s arms.
A few weeks later Gandhi was taken seriously ill with malaria. The Indian people demanded his immediate release and the authorities, believing that he was nearing death, released him. Gandhi was slowly restored to health.
The demand for Indian independence had now acquired worldwide interest. Apart from India’s own attitude, America and other countries started pressing Britain to grant freedom to India.
But Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not yield to any of these approaches. India had always been the jewel in the British crown, crucial to the Britain’s prosperity. Churchill was the last man to think of giving up India. Two months after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Labour Party came into power in Britain and Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister.
After the defeat of Japan in August that year, the British government announced that they expected to grant self-rule to India as soon as her internal problems could be solved. This was indeed a victory for India and a victory for the principle of nonviolence. Britain agreed to a planned withdrawal from India in friendship and with no bitterness. All through his life Gandhi had worked for unity between Hindus and Muslims, without much success. There was a large section of nationalist Muslim in the Congress but leaders of the Muslim League were drifting further and further away. Gandhi was not the man to give up hope, however, and he pursued his efforts to bring about a settlement. On the other hand, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, was hostile to the idea of unity.
— To be continued


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