Here is Part Two of the essay.
Mopla Rebellion: ‘Swaraj within a year’
Sankaran Nair (and several other early leaders) saw Gandhi as a force of reaction whose methods would go to undermine a century of progress. He also believed that many Congressmen were following him not out of any conviction but as an easy route to personal advancement only to be used by him in turn.
Nair observed: “Some politicians, who naturally desire to use him and the influence he has acquired for putting pressure on the Government to concede further reforms, also have joined him. But I am satisfied he is using them all to further his own ends, an attempt in which he is bound to fail. His success, i.e., the success of the reactionary forces in India to obtain what they call Dominion status, or Home Rule, but, which really means their rule, will only lead to bloodshed and anarchy and dismemberment of the Empire.”
Prophetic words, written in 1922, fully twenty-five years before the Partition. It is worth noting that Nair here makes two telling points. First, the agitation was not merely for gaining Home Rule, but to seize power for Gandhi’s wing of the Congress party as the sole ruler of the country, with their Raj replacing the British Raj. Next, the consolidation of reactionary forces under Gandhi would lead to bloodshed, anarchy and dismemberment. Nair was proved right on both counts.
Contemporary accounts like “Nair’s Gandhi and Anarchy” hold quite a few surprises, at least for those of us who have grown up with the conventional version of the history of the Freedom Struggle. The most startling fact to come to light is probably Gandhi’s promise of “Swaraj within a year” to the Ali brothers in return for their support for his non-cooperation movement. What actually did Gandhi’s promise of ‘Swaraj’ entail, beyond forcing the British to leave India? What was to take its place, especially since Gandhi had redefined Swaraj to mean the Khilafat for the benefit of the Ali brothers? (Gandhi had also diverted a substantial sum of money from the Tilak Swaraj Fund to the Khilafat movement.)
There is at least one other major surprise. Annie Beasant tells us that the Mopla uprising began exactly a year later. In her words: “The Khilafat Raj is established there [in Malabar]; on August 1, 1921, sharp to the date first announced by Mr. Gandhi for the beginning of Swaraj and the Vanishing of the British Rule, a police inspector was surrounded by the Moplas, revolting against that Rule.”
The outbreak began on August 1, and by August 20 it had spread to the surrounding areas and become a full-scale rebellion. Civil authority broke down, and the Army had to be called in. According to Annie Beasant “From that date [August 1] onwards thousands of the forbidden war-knives were secretly made and hidden away, and on August 20, the rebellion broke out; Khilafat flags were hoisted on police stations and Government offices. …” By then civil authority had all but disappeared and anarchy prevailed. (This is confirmed by others, see Appendix. Incidentally, August 1, 1921 was also the first death anniversary of Tilak.)
All this indicates careful planning by the Khilafatists for the uprising well before its actual outbreak which took place on the exact date of expiry of Gandhi’s promise. Somebody or some organization had to be financing it — most likely the Khilafat Committee with wealthy patrons like the Aga Khan behind it. It was by no means a spontaneous outburst rooted in frustration as some historians claim.
This also had the effect of catching the victims unprepared, for they had no way of knowing beforehand what the promise of ‘Swaraj’ — and its failure — held for them. Gandhi had promised them that it was to be a ‘Nonviolent Non-cooperation’ movement. They had no reason to expect such a violent outbreak, let alone planned mutiny. Had the Ali brothers given Gandhi an ultimatum? At the very least, Gandhi had been reckless in his promise of Swaraj in one year. And those who trusted him paid a terrible price.
Again what was this Swaraj to be — the one which Gandhi had promised to the Ali brothers? Who would be the new rulers? Was it to be a ‘Khilafat Raj’ — as Annie Beasant called it — headed by the Ali brothers? Gandhi’s infatuation with the Ali brothers is hard for us to comprehend today. What did Gandhi hope to get in return? Uncontested leadership of the Congress, which was up for grabs following Tilak’s death on August 1, 1920? All these are questions begging for answers.
It is worth noting that the goal of Swaraj as complete independence did not return to the Congress agenda until 1929, long after the failure of the Khilafat. All this has been swept under the rug by historians. This alone is sufficient to justify the need for a re-examination of the history. There are probably many more skeletons in the closet waiting to be exposed. And in this, Nair’s book, which includes a large Appendix consisting of contemporary records, can be a valuable source. There are of course many other works, but “Gandhi and Anarchy” is a useful place to begin.
Conclusion: need for historical revision
One of the main goals of this essay is to highlight the need for a re-examination of the version of the history of India leading to Indian independence in 1947. The official, or the Congress version, is a classic example of President Truman’s adage that history is always written by the winner. Fortunately this need not be the case in India. There exist ample records to produce a more balanced account, especially of the early period. Sankaran Nair’s “Gandhi and Anarchy” is a notable example. While we need not agree with all his conclusions — he is a product of his time carrying his own biases — his work, as a primary source, can serve as a useful starting point.
One of the problems connected with any re-evaluation is that Gandhi has now become a valuable political and even economic asset; his value as a political investment is diminishing, but his name still carries substantial economic value. The ‘Gandhians’ fear that any re-examination by studying sources that might be critical of Gandhi will jeopardize their capital. True greatness on the other hand need not fear criticism or even abuse. Abraham Lincoln was probably the most vilified president in American history, but that in no way diminished him.
The problem today is that Gandhi has fallen into the hands of men and women of straw who project their own vulnerabilities on to him. This has led them to suppress works even moderately critical of him. Even the court records of the Gandhi murder case were censored for decades, simply because they contain Godse’s statement. In this climate of fear and intolerance, it is inevitable that a work like Dalvi’s recent play on Gandhi’s murderer should gain recognition out of proportion to its merit. It is simply filling the vacuum created by absence of serious debate.
The antidote to this unhealthy state of affairs is a free exchange of ideas and an unfettered debate. When this comes about, the loser will not be Gandhi so much as those who have turned his name and his memory into a lucrative investment. As a new generation of historians begins to study India’s recent past, Gandhi’s ‘Bargain with the Devil’ — of compromising with reactionary and even anti-national elements — could serve as a useful starting point. Whether this proves to be the case or not, there cannot be much dispute over the need for such a re-examination. Only then can history escape from being a ‘fable agreed upon’.
It is an ominous sign of the time that Indian history is being viewed in official circles in the perspective of recent politics. The official history of the freedom movement starts with the premise that India lost independence only in the eighteenth century and had thus an experience of subjection to a foreign power for only two centuries. Real history, on the other hand, teaches us that the major part of India lost independence about five centuries before, and merely changed masters in the eighteenth century.” (Vol.I: pp xii-xiii)
On the other key point, concerning Hindu-Muslim unity, Majumdar has this to say:
“… Political exigencies gave rise to the slogan of Hindu-Muslim fraternity. An impression was sought to be created that the Hindus and the Muslims had shed so much of their individual characteristics, and there was such a complete transformation of both and a fusion of their cultures that there was no essential difference between the two. .. it was unfortunately, never a historical fact. Sir Syed Ahmad, M.A. Jinnah and other Muslim leaders who never believed in it entertained more realistic views in this respect than either Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. … The Hindu leaders deliberately ignored patent truth and facts of history … Even today  the Indian leaders would not face the historical truth, the failure to recognize which has cost them dear. They live in a fancied fraternity and are as sensitive to any expression that jars against the slogan of Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai as they were at the beginning of the century.” (Vol I: pp xix-xx)”
Majumdar was not the first to state these unpalatable truths; others like Veer Savrkar and Sri Aurobindo had also said similar things though not perhaps with the same clarity of detail. The difference was that while Savarkar was a political leader, out of favor with the ‘mainstream’ of historical (and political) viewpoint of post-independence India, Majumdar was a historian with an international reputation. Savarkar could be and was dismissed as a Hindu ideologue, but it was not so easy to brush Majumdar aside. Nonetheless, the Congress Government withdrew support to Majumdar, and sponsored Tarachand – a greatly inferior scholar in every way – to write a more palatable if less truthful version of the ‘history’ of the Freedom Movement. Majumdar became – in his own words – a persona non grata with the authorities.
While the Government withdrew its support to Majumdar, it could not silence him. Despite his advanced age, and without any sponsors, Majumdar completed the Herculean task of compiling his three-volume magnum opus. The results were rewarding. Critics in India and abroad hailed it as a major work. Several went to compare it with Tarachand’s officially sponsored work – greatly to the advantage of Majumdar. Majumdar lived long enough to see the second edition in print, in which he expressed his gratitude for the well-deserved accolades:
“I take this opportunity of offering my sincere thanks to the different journals and newspapers, both in India and outside, for their appreciative review of the first edition of the three volumes. My special thanks are due to the ‘American Historical Review’ (April 1962, January 1964) for a comparative estimate of my ‘History of the Freedom Movement’ and that by Dr. Tarachand published by the Government of India.”
Nonetheless, Majumdar’s work on the Freedom Movement has not attracted the attention that it merits. It will probably take another generation before both scholars and the public can face up to the reality of Gandhi’s failures both as a national leader and as a unifier of Hindus and Muslims. A prominent political dynasty and its courtiers and camp followers are living in opulence while claiming his legacy – in stark contrast to the life of simplicity and service that the Mahatma himself followed and advocated.
It is clearly beyond the scope of this essay to cover everything covered by Majumdar in his three volumes. But it is such a major work, and yet so little known to the public at large, that a summary of his main conclusions would serve to highlight the magnitude of the distortion of history carried out by his successors. This is all that is attempted here. For the most part, the present essay is a summary of Volume III.
The Freedom Movement: Bose’s Contribution Ignored
Historically speaking, the most important fact to emerge from a restudy of the Indian Freedom Movement is the following: it was Subhas Bose, rather than Gandhi or his associates, who contributed the most to India’s freedom in 1947. This represents a radical change of perspective but rests on unimpeachable authority. In the Introduction, I had noted that in the second edition of his Voume III, Majumdar produced startling new evidence that confirmed his earlier claim that Subhas Bose’s contribution to Indian independence in 1947 was probably greater than Gandhi’s.
We shall be looking at Bose’s leadership of the INA and its campaigns later in the article, but first a look at the evidence Mujumdar referred to. It comes from no less a person than Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister who took the decision to grant independence to India. Since this is of fundamental importance, it is worth placing it on record. The full details can be found in Majumdar, Volume III pages 609 -10.
When B.P. Chakravarti was acting as Governor of West Bengal, Lord Attlee visited India and stayed as his guest for three days at the Raj Bhavan. Chakravarti asked Attlee about the real grounds for granting independence to India. Specifically, his question was, when the Quit India movement lay in ruins years before 1947 where was the need for the British to leave in such a hurry. Attlee’s response is most illuminating and important for history. Here is the Governor’s account of what Attlee told him:
In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important were the activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose which weakened the very foundation of the attachment of the Indian land and naval forces to the British Government. Towards the end, I asked Lord Attlee about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Gandhi’s activities. On hearing this question Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, putting emphasis on each single letter – “mi-ni-mal.” (Emphasis added.)
Chakravarti later mentioned this conversation with Attlee in a speech broadcast on All India Radio, but left out all references to Gandhi. (He should not have.) Majumdar had reached the same conclusion years earlier, as far back as 1948. This writer (Rajaram) can support the conclusion on the basis of discussions with men and officers of the Indian armed forces of the period – including his own relatives. In any event, we have Attlee’s own authoritative words.
The crucial point to note is that thanks to Subhas Bose’s activities, the Indian Armed Forces began to see themselves as defenders of India rather than of the British Empire. This, more than anything else, was what led to India’s freedom. This is also the reason why the British Empire disappeared from the face of the earth within an astonishingly short space of twenty years. Indian soldiers, who were the main prop of the Empire, were no longer willing to fight to hold it together.
This also accounts for the outwardly puzzling fact that the Congress Party, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has tried to turn Subhas Bose into a persona non grata. He poses a serious threat to the political dominance of the dynasty, and could even jeopardize it, taking with it the power and privileges that have accrued to its beneficiaries. Thanks to the Congress domination of Indian institutions for over forty years, history books have been written to serve its interests. This is one of the significant conclusions to follow from a reexamination of recent Indian history.
Gandhi and the Freedom Movement
It is time now to take a look at the different phases of the Indian Freedom Movement and Gandhi’s role in each one of them. But first it is useful to have an idea of the different schools of thought that existed when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1916. Broadly speaking, there were two groups, called the Moderates and the Extremists.
The Moderates consisted of leaders of an earlier generation like Gopala Krishna Gokhale and his followers (which at one time included both Gandhi and Jinnah). These believed in constitutional methods, of appealing to the British Government to grant a greater part to Indians in running their country. The Extremists on the other hand believed in more radical methods, including violent rebellion against the British when necessary. Its most important leaders were Sri Aurobindo, and after his departure, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak was the unchallenged leader of the Congress.
The moderate leaders, that is to say leaders before the rise of the aggressive nationalism of Sri Aurobindo and Tilak, contended that their policy of cooperation, if consistently followed, would have led to ‘dominion status’ or a self governing colony along the lines of Canada and Australia, leading eventually to complete independence. This is highly questionable in the light of British behavior immediately following the First World War, when all promises made to get India’s cooperation in the War were unceremoniously broken. But it can seriously be argued that the path of ‘Responsive Cooperation’ initiated by Tilak and accepted by Gandhi almost up to 1920, would have met with greater success than the course followed by Gandhi after Tilak’s death in 1920. Majumdar describes it as follows:
Its essence was to accept and work the reforms that were offered, and carry on mass agitation for more and more until the goal [of freedom] was attained. In the circumstances created by the Second World War this procedure would have gained enormous strength and could scarcely have failed in the long run. … according to a school of thought, it is very likely that the transfer of power under this process would have been far more smooth and the partition of India, with all its attendant horrors, might, perhaps, have been avoided.
Whether the partition could have been avoided is debatable. As the Khilafat movement showed, the state of mind of the Muslim leadership, and even of the Muslim masses, following Turkey’s defeat in the War had reached such a pitch that a partition of the country had by then probably become unavoidable. It is not widely known today that immediately after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, the Muslim villagers in the Punjab rose up and swore loyalty to the Amir of Afghanistan. And Gandhi, as much as anyone fed this separatist sentiment with his support of the Khilafat as we saw in the last chapter.
In the face of this history, it is not easy to see how the Partition could have been avoided; but the holocaust that accompanied the tragic event might have been avoided with better leadership than what Gandhi and the Congress provided during those crucial days and weeks. They kept on assuring the people and deceiving themselves that the country would never be partitioned, while in reality they had effectively conceded it long ago. As K.M. Munshi put it: “We accepted the partition to avoid civil war, but we got both – the partition and the civil war.”
This issue will be taken up in a later section, but first we need to examine the role of Gandhi in the three major movements that he led: the Khilafat, the Civil Disobedience movement and the Quit India movement. To complete the picture, it is necessary also to take a look at Subhas Bose and his activities, and the major way in which they contributed to independence from British rule. The Khilafat was studied in the last chapter so one can begin with the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Civil Disobedience Movement: Triumph of Unreason
In the long and tortuous course of India’s struggle for freedom, it is difficult to find a better – or worse – example where confusion and unreason reigned and opportunities missed than the Civil Disobedience movement launched in 1930. And yet, if proper leadership and creative strategic vision had been forthcoming, India would probably have achieved freedom fully a decade before she actually did.
It is convenient to pick up the story with the Lahore session of the Congress held in December 1929. The Bengal Swadeshi movement of twenty years ago was only a memory, and the fire of the Mopla rebellion had burnt itself out. Tilak was no longer on the scene and Gandhi had gained more or less complete control of the Congress. There were new faces on the leadership scene – notably Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal. Some wags used to quip that the Congress had become the property of the ‘Father, Son and the Holy Ghost’.
The Lahore session of the Congress declared complete independence to be its goal. In fact it went further. Gandhi was put in charge of a national Civil Disobedience movement to force the British to grant independence. The leaders of the Congress claimed that British rule had resulted in four basic disasters for the Indian people. The manifesto said: (1) “India has been ruined economically. … Village industries such as hand-spinning, have been destroyed. (2) Customs and currency have been so manipulated as to heap further burden on the peasantry. …Customs duties betray clear partiality for British manufactures, and revenue from them is used not to lessen the burden on the masses but for sustaining a highly extravagant administration. (3) Politically, India’s status has never been so reduced as under the British regime. …The tallest of us has to bend before foreign authority. [Is it any different today in the Congress – under the Sonia Gandhi regime?] (4) Culturally, the system of education has torn us from our moorings, and our training has made us hug the very chains that bind us. Spiritually, compulsory disarmament has made us unmanly, and the presence of an army of occupation, employed with deadly effect to crush in us the spirit of resistance …”
The Congress Working Committee, now a puppet in Gandhi’s hands, proclaimed (Volume III, pp 273-4): “We hold it to be a crime against man and God to submit any longer to a rule that has caused this fourfold disaster to our country … We will therefore prepare ourselves by withdrawing, so far as we can, all voluntary association from the British Government, and will prepare for civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes. … We therefore hereby solemnly resolve to carry out the Congress instructions issued from time to time for the purpose of establishing Purna Swaraj [complete independence].”
The proclamation of the manifesto with these stirring words was followed by the solemn observation of Independence Day (January 26, 1930) on the banks of the river Ravi. It evoked tremendous enthusiasm all over the country. Then something very strange happened. Before the ‘ink with which this manifesto was written’ had time to dry, Gandhi wrote something in his paper Young India that practically sabotaged the whole thing. Instead of demanding complete independence, he listed eleven administrative reforms and appealed to the Viceroy in the following words (Volume III, p 274):
This is by no means an exhaustive list of pressing needs, but let the Viceroy satisfy us with regard to these very simple but vital needs of India. He will then hear no talk of Civil Disobedience; and the Congress will heartily participate in any Conference where there is perfect freedom of expression and demand.
What happened to the pledge to achieve Purna Swaraj – complete independence? Was all this to be thrown away in exchange for some bureaucratic measures? He did not even consult the Congress Working committee before issuing the statement. But Gandhi always behaved like a dictator. As Majumdar observes (p 271): “Everything was nominally left to the All India Congress Committee but practically to Gandhi. … Undeterred by the past experience of hopeless muddles in which Gandhi placed himself and the great national organization on more than one occasion, he was chosen to be the Dictator, a position which he maintained, with rare exceptions, for the next thirteen years.”
Nonetheless the Civil Disobedience Movement demonstrated how a determined assault on the British Government could lead to freedom, something which Subhas Bose with much less fanfare achieved quarter of a century later. Civil Disobedience movement began with the famous Dandi Salt March. Gandhi’s heart may not have been in it at the beginning, but once he took charge he handled it with masterful effect and turned it into an international media event.
This is one aspect of Gandhi’s personality that has not received its due attention – his skill in handling the media. He and his companions began the campaign from Sabarmati (near Ahmedabad) on March 12. 1930, continuing in a slow march lasting 24 days that gradually built up to a climax. It reached the small coastal town Dandi on April 5 where Gandhi and his companions formally broke the Salt Monopoly Law by making salt. It is impossible not to admire the manner in which Gandhi turned this simple act into to a world event that dominated newspaper headlines everywhere.
This was followed by Civil Disobedience all over the country – from Peshawar to the southernmost part of India. The British used brutal methods to suppress the movement but failed. Indians by and large are not aware of the savagery of the British authorities in their attempt to suppress this uprising. Censorship laws ensured that the worst aspects of the Government’s methods did not get into the newspapers.
But Majumdar managed to unearth several important eyewitness accounts in some American archives and provides a detailed account. As just noted they failed to suppress it. Had Civil Disobedience been pursued to its logical conclusion, it is difficult to see how the British could have held on much longer. But once again, it was frittered away by Gandhi when he accepted the Gandhi-Irwin pact. It is enough to make one wonder if he really understood the meaning of Purna Swaraj.
After the magnificent promise of the Civil Disobedience, the Gandhi-Irwin pact was an anti-climax. The first clause of the pact stated that the “Civil Disobedience movement be discontinued, and that, with the approval of His Majesty’s Government, certain action be taken by the Government of India and the Local Governments.” The second clause specified a Federal structure with a division of responsibility between Indians and the British. With this, the dream of Purna Swaraj, so eloquently proclaimed in the manifesto, disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Was it for this that our people had behaved so gallantly for a year?” Jawaharlal Nehru asked in anguish. “Were all our brave words and deeds to end in this? The independence resolution of the Congress, of the pledge of January 26, so often repeated?”
Nehru and other leaders were of course fully justified in their disappointment. But characteristically, they acquiesced and beat an inglorious retreat from Independence or even Dominion status. India was to remain under British rule with a few sops thrown in. Nothing perhaps reveals the servile state of mind of the Congress more clearly than the ignoble conduct of its ‘leaders’ following Gandhi’s capitulation. Nehru’s remarks are illuminating: “So I decided, not without great mental and physical distress, to accept the agreement and work for it wholeheartedly.”
But this was to have serious consequences. The British Government correctly judged that the Congress leaders were toothless tigers who, for all their rhetoric, would back down in the face of firmness. They were justified in their assumption when Gandhi again backed down when he was handed a second chance to lead the nation following the failure of the Second Round Table Conference. This came about as follows.
The Gandhi-Irwin pact was followed by the Second Round Table Conference to decide the fate and shape of the reforms. It failed. This led to a resumption of the Civil Disobedience movement. The new Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, probably the most reactionary of the breed, let loose a reign of terror, but failed to crush it. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya said (Volume III, p392):
It is estimated that nearly 120,000 persons, including several thousand women and quite a number of children, have been arrested and imprisoned during the last fifteen months. It is an open secret that when the Government started repression, the official expectation was that they would crush the Congress [movement] in six weeks’ time. Fifteen months have not enabled the Government to achieve the object. Twice fifteen months will not enable it to do so.
But what the Government could not achieve in fifteen months of brutal repression, Gandhi, who was in prison along with other important Congress leaders, achieved in fifteen minutes. Here is how Majumdar describes it (Volume III, page 393):
While the heroic fight of Congressmen … were still fresh in public memory Gandhi threw a bombshell in the shape of an announcement on May 8, 1933, that he would begin a fast of 21 days for purification of himself and his associates for “greater vigilance and watchfulness in connection with the Harijan cause.” The Government released him from prison. Gandhi issued a statement to the President of the Congress to suspend the Civil Disobedience movement for a full month, or even six weeks.
This effectively sabotaged the movement. The reason he gave for this stunning volte face was singularly incongruous. “The whole purpose of the fast will be frustrated if I allowed my brain to be occupied by any extraneous matter, that is any matter outside the Harijan work.”
He then appealed to the Viceroy to withdraw the oppressive measures and release the Civil Disobedience prisoners. Willingdon haughtily turned down his request. A temporary suspension would not do, and the Government had no intention of negotiating with the Congress. The movement was suspended for six weeks, and then for another six weeks. The Viceroy refused even a request for interview by Gandhi. The Congress suspended the Mass Civil Disobedience movement in favor of what it called Individual Civil Disobedience. It was little more than a face saving exercise in semantics. An indignant leader asked: “Does it need an Indian National Congress to tell an individual to break laws on his own responsibility and take the consequences?”
Soon the Individual Disobedience Movement was ‘dead as a door nail’ – as one leader put it. It was an ignoble retreat from a cause for which so many had sacrificed so much. As Majumdar observes (Volume III, p 398):
“The sudden suspension of the Mass Civil Disobedience movement campaign on May 8, 1933, without any rhyme or reason undoubtedly came as a stunning blow to many. But Gandhi’s action did not evoke much open criticism at the time, because much of India was preoccupied with the question of his health. Only Vithalbhai Patel [the elder brother of Vallabhai] and Subhas Bose, … issued a manifesto condemning Gandhi’s decision to suspend the Civil Disobedience movement and stating that it virtually undid the work and the sacrifice of the last thirteen years. According to the manifesto, it signified the failure of the Civil Disobedience campaign, as also of Gandhi’s leadership.”
A few others, like F.K. Nariman, spoke in similar vein. But by and large the Congressmen overtly or covertly approved of Gandhi’s policy and continued to follow his lead. In other words, the people of India were willing to make sacrifices, but the Congress leaders had no stomach for a fight to the finish. Gandhi and the Congress had “sounded the death-knell of the fight for independence for which hundreds of thousands had undergone untold miseries and sufferings.” The ‘leaders’ had shown themselves unfit for leadership. It was both a blunder and a tragedy.
So, at a time when independence was within grasp, when the people of India were prepared to fight the oppressor to the bitter end, Gandhi and the Congress had once again let them down. After this, although the people of India repeatedly showed the will to fight, the Congress leadership proved unequal to the challenge. This was demonstrated again in their conduct during the Second World War, as we shall next see.
(This was also the case in 1962 when China attacked India. The country rose as one, prepared to fight the Chinese, but Nehru – an effete though voluble ‘leader’ with no tradition or even comprehension of the military – completely lost his nerve. When his emissary went to see Kennedy, begging for help, Kennedy asked the hapless man: “The British were able to stand up to the Germans for three years before we came to their help, and you couldn’t hold out for three days?” This undeserved humiliation was heaped on the country entirely because of Nehru’s failure of nerve.)
War years: Failure of the Quit India Movement
As part of the agreement negotiated between the political parties and the British Government, elections were held in 1937. This was under the new constitution introduced under the Government of India Act of 1935. After prolonged negotiations with the Government, the Congress was able to form ministries in several provinces where its members were in a majority in the legislatures. Nominally Gandhi had nothing to do with the elected Governments or even the party. Since 1934 he was not even a member of the Congress. But characteristically, he exercised power without accountability. As Majumdar puts it (Volume III, p 478):
It was well known that the Congress leaders took no decision in vital matters without consulting him and, in general, it may be said that his was in the last resort the will of the Congress. The author of the official history of the Congress expressed the bare truth when he said that Gandhi, “though not a member of the Congress, was still the power behind the throne.” Nehru conveyed the same idea when he described Gandhi as the “permanent super-President of the Congress,” and remarked that the “Congress at present meant Gandhiji.”
It was the ultimate in power without responsibility. So the present situation in the Congress in which a personality dominates the party with scant regard for democratic norms or any accountability is hallowed by tradition. Subhas Bose for one was to pay dearly for questioning Gandhi’s infallibility. All this would be interesting in itself, but soon, gathering war clouds in Europe brought India and the Congress face to face with world politics.
Also, the election of Subhas Bose as President in 1938 heralded the emergence of a new leadership that was by no means willing to be Gandhi’s rubber stamp. Subhas Bose foresaw war in Europe and felt that it offered an excellent opportunity for India to press home its demand for independence. This brought him into conflict with the Gandhi’s wing of the party. In his own words (Volume III, p 479):
As Congress President, the writer [Subhas Bose] did his best to stiffen the opposition of the Congress Party to any compromise with Britain and this caused annoyance in Gandhian circles who were then looking to an understanding with the British Government. … After the Munich Pact, in September 1938, the writer [Bose] began an open propaganda throughout India in order to prepare the Indian people for a national struggle, which should synchronize with the coming war in Europe. This move, though popular among the people in general, was resented by the Gandhiites who did not want to be disturbed in their ministerial and parliamentary work and who were at that time opposed to any organized struggle.
In other words, the Congress was happy with the crumbs of office while Bose wanted to launch a national struggle for freedom. This brought him into conflict with the Gandhi wing of the Congress, which sabotaged his efforts by launching what was virtually a non-cooperation movement against Bose as President. He could not function any more and resigned his office. He later went on to form his own party called the Forward Bloc and carried on the struggle according to his own beliefs. Later still, Bose took charge of the Indian National Army (INA) in Southeast Asia, which contributed in a major way to the attainment of freedom.
Bose’s apprehensions were fully justified when Britain declared war against Germany a year after the Munich Pact. As in 1914, India automatically became a belligerent but with a difference – there were in 1939 several popularly elected ministries in the provinces. The Congress made no official statement but there was considerable sympathy for Britain among the ranks of the senior Congress leaders including Gandhi and Nehru. Bose was opposed to supporting Britain. His stand had a great deal of influence in the Congress, but he was now without power in the party.
Things took a turn for the worse when the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, issued a tactless statement on 17 October 1939. “He reiterated that Dominion Status was the goal of British policy, but pointed out that for the present the Act of 1935 held the field. The only hope he held out was at the end of the war it would be open to modification in the light of Indian views, full weight being given to the opinions and interests of the minorities.” (Volume III, pp 494-5.)
In other words, it would be business as usual except that Indians were now expected to fight for Britain as loyal subjects in exchange for future promises. In the light of the experience of the First World War, when Britain broke all promises, Indian leaders – and not only of the Congress – were not willing to buy the Viceroy’s line. The Congress refused to support the British war effort. As a first step, the Working Committee asked all the Congress ministries to resign which they did in October-November of 1939.
But this was not followed by any constructive policy along the lines suggested by Bose. While Congress ministries resigned, the Muslim League strengthened its hold. Jinnah in particular was relieved by the resignations, for the Congress controlled eight out of the eleven provinces. For the crucial next six years, when the War was transforming the globe, the Congress and its leaders remained in the wilderness. Jinnah however consolidated his hold over the Muslims with many on the fence joining his organization. Then in March 1940, the Muslim League, in its Lahore Session, made a formal demand for a separate independent state – Pakistan.
While the Congress and its leaders dithered, Bose increasingly took the initiative. Disturbed by the lack of any concrete action on the part of Gandhi and his associates, Bose noted: “It was generally expected that after the Congress Ministries resigned office, the campaign of passive resistance would begin. But this expectation was not fulfilled. Many people are of the opinion that British intrigue was responsible for this.”
Bose’s views carried considerable weight in the Congress. Because of the systematic distortion of history carried out by the Congress Governments after independence, most Indians today are not aware that Bose was at the time probably the most influential leader in the country – having eclipsed older leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. And he “carried on a continuous propaganda against cooperation in the war and in favor of commencing a national struggle for independence.”
It is a measure of his growing influence that the rank and file of the Congress membership was moved by his appeals and activities. In the Ramgarh session in March 1940, the Working Committee adopted a resolution declaring “nothing short of complete independence can be accepted by India.” But characteristically, while holding out the threat of Civil Disobedience, no concrete policy or plan was enunciated.
Bose was not content to only issue statements. In April 1940, he and his followers (Forward Bloc) commenced all over the country, a campaign of disobedience. Many of them were arrested and thrown in jail. In early July, Bose was himself arrested and jailed along with hundreds of his followers. Only a few days before his arrest, Bose made a passionate appeal to Gandhi to “come forward and launch his campaign of passive resistance.” It fell on deaf years. It is worth noting that this was fully two years before Gandhi and his followers reluctantly launched the Quit India movement that ended in fiasco. It is again a measure of the distortion of history, that this movement undertaken by Bose and his followers rarely finds mention in history books.
There can be no question, however, about Gandhi’s sincere attachment to his creed of nonviolence. “The issue” according to Gandhi, “was one of pacifism, and not of India’s freedom.” This was not a view of a majority of Congressmen who felt: “The Indian National Congress was not a pacifist organization but one for achieving India’s freedom.” They also reserved the “right to take to the sword if they had no other alternative.”
The Working Committee of the Congress, which met in Wardha in June 1940, went further. Its members declared that they were “unable to go the full length with Gandhiji; but they recognize that he should be free to pursue his great ideal in his own way.” In other words, Gandhi and the Congress were to go their own separate ways. The Working Committee and the Congress also differed with Gandhi over his opposition to the restoration of the Congress ministries in the provinces and entry into the Central Council.
In other words Gandhi’s influence in the Congress was on the wane. First Subhas Bose and then the Congress Working Committee itself had defied him. Recognizing perhaps that his hold over the Congress – and the country – was slipping, Gandhi perceptibly changed his stand. In April 1942, he suggested that the interests of both India and Britain lay “in orderly and timely withdrawal of Britain from India.” In effect he was inching towards the policy advocated by Subhas Bose nearly four years earlier. This was to culminate in the Quit India movement that Gandhi himself was to launch three months later.
There was another factor that contributed to Gandhi’s change of stand leading to the Quit India agitation – the popular success of the revolutionaries. The role of revolutionaries has also been systematically underplayed by ‘official’ historians of the Congress Governments. A number of revolutionaries had joined the Non-Cooperation movement of Gandhi only to be disillusioned when he suspended it. They publicly repudiated the nonviolence of Gandhi. Bhagat Singh was one of them. The revolutionaries repeatedly stated that their main object in resorting to violent acts like throwing bombs at government targets was to rouse the nation from its lethargy in the struggle for freedom induced by Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence. Majumdar writes (Volume III, p 550):
It has been admitted by the author of the official history of the Congress, … that at the time of the Karachi Congress of 1931, it was doubtful whether Gandhi or Bhagat Singh occupied the chief attention of India. There were black flag demonstrations against Gandhi and he had to be taken away from the train before it reached the Railway Station where the demonstrators were waiting to receive him [with black flags]. … As a matter of fact, Gandhi fully realized the growing influence of revolutionary ideas over young men, and it is not without reason that the revolutionaries claimed that they practically, though indirectly, forced Gandhi to renew the struggle for freedom, in 1930 and again in 1942; for he feared that otherwise he would lose the leadership of the country and the initiative would pass into the hands of the revolutionary young men.
This according to the official historian of the Congress! In fact Gandhi himself admitted it. His fears were justified when shortly before his arrest in 1942, Jayaprakash Narayan, one of his beloved followers, repudiated the Gandhian idea of nonviolence. So a combination of factors, leading to his declining influence in the Congress and the country, persuaded Gandhi to launch the Quit India movement in August 1942. But typically the movement was botched, with no clear plan or leadership. The people who trusted and followed the leaders were left to fend for themselves. (Also, as we examine this history, it is remarkable how small a part was played by Nehru; he was neither a leader like Subhas nor an organizer like Patel.)
In any event, Gandhi launched – or was forced to launch – his mass movement, now known as the Quit India movement, in August 1942. Congress historians have turned it into an epic struggle of titanic proportions. The reality is quite otherwise. Although the people of India acquitted themselves nobly, making heroic sacrifices, the leaders gave a dismal account of themselves. The Government crushed it in three months. There were some isolated activities in the provinces, but the back of the movement had been broken by the end of the year.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that the failure was at the level of leadership for the people showed themselves willing to make sacrifices. In Majumdar’s words: “The great revolt of 1942 was really a soldiers’ battle. The General bungled, but all glory to the Soldiers who gave a good account of themselves …” This estimate is confirmed by no less an authority than Sardar Patel. “Never before had such widespread uprisings happened in India in the history of the British Raj, as the did during the last three years. We are proud of the spirit in which the people reacted …”
It also showed that heroism of the people is wasted in the absence of leadership. In giving their call to “Do or die” in a fight to a finish, the Congress leaders had failed to give even a general plan for the revolt, let alone a detailed plan of action. (Gandhi himself declared: “Do or die. We shall either free India or die in the attempt.”) Once the leaders were arrested, its rapid collapse was a foregone conclusion. As Majumdar put it (Volume III, p 557-8):
Nothing but an almost insane credulity would make one seriously believe that the British Government would allow the Congress leaders, after they have declared open rebellion and asked the British to quit India, to go on making preparations on an elaborate scale to give effect to the formal resolution passed to that effect, without making the most desperate effort to nip it in the bud and crush it with all the force that they could command, … The Congress leaders must, or should, have known all this before they staked everything on this final campaign, as they put it, with grim resolve to do or die. They neither did nor died, but cannot absolve themselves from responsibility for the death and sufferings to the rank and file of during the outbreak of 1942. (My emphasis.)
As noted the movement was crushed within two to three months. At the very outset the movement took on a violent character, which was only to be expected. Gandhi deplored it, followed by Nehru and also Maulana Azad. But some ‘Gandhians’ writing later would not leave truth well alone. R.R. Diwakar claimed that the 1942 struggle was predominantly nonviolent and “incomparable with anything in past history.” This would make Gandhi a liar – clearly an impossibility; Gandhi had absolved himself of all responsibility for the struggle of 1942. Again Majumdar puts it clearly in focus (Volume III, pp 555-6): “… unless one is prepared to accuse him [Gandhi] of deliberate falsehood, no credit – or discredit – for what actually happened in 1942 really belongs to him.
This point must be clearly understood in any assessment of the struggle of 1942 or of the part played by Gandhi in India’s battle for freedom. Gandhi had fired his last shot (of course figuratively) in 1932 and missed. For ten years he remained a non-combatant. On August 8, 1942, he again pulled his trigger but there was no shot because he forgot to put any cartridge in the chamber. Then he retired, finally, from direct active participation in India’s struggle for freedom.”
Majumdar also notes that “far from claiming any credit for [the 1942 movement] … both Gandhi and the Congress offered apology and explanation for the “madness’ which seized the people participating in it.” On December 11, 1942, the Congress Working Committee issued a statement deploring the violence and absolving Gandhi of the responsibility. Jayaprakash Narayan went further when he said: “To fasten the August  programme on Gandhiji is a piece of perjury of which only the British ruling class is capable of.”
So the Quit India movement was a monumental fiasco, not a glorious victory as made out by Congress propagandists. Not a trace of it remained in India by 1944. As it had totally collapsed in urban areas, the Congress leaders made a last ditch appeal to the people, to the farmers in particular, to not cooperate with the Government. Nothing came of it. As Majumdar notes: “The appeal fell flat on people … Valour, courage and heroic self-sacrifice could not make up for the leadership and necessary equipment.”
The failure of the 1942 revolt signaled the end of the Gandhian cult of nonviolence, and signaled also the end of Gandhi’s leadership of the national movement. (This nonviolence was resurrected in the next decade by Nehru as Pancha Sheela in his dealings with China shortly after the Chinese Rape of Tibet, but that is a different story.) It was time now for different methods and a different leadership. It was left to Subhas Bose to carry on the struggle for freedom. Recognizing the impotence of the Congress, hobbled by indecision and timidity, he was forced to evolve a radically different strategy. This led him to take command of the Indian National Army, which carried on a heroic armed struggle against the British occupiers. This is what eventually forced the British to leave India: this is also what the various Congress leaders – beginning with Nehru himself – have been trying to conceal and distort.
Road to freedom: Subhas Bose and the INA
Following his breach with Gandhi, Bose launched his own non-cooperation movement. At that time he was probably the most influential political leader in India, especially with the youth of the country. The rest of his short career reads like a thrilling romance. If his career and achievements outside India, leading eventually to the rise of the spirit of nationalism in the armed forces had been widely disseminated, he would undoubtedly have been celebrated as a great popular hero. Nehru, with his interminable pedantic speeches, would have suffered greatly in comparison. This no doubt is one of the reasons why successive Congress Governments went to such lengths to turn Subhas Bose into a persona non grata.
Several volumes have been written on the INA, so what follows is a very brief summary of Subhas Bose’s activities during the War. As noted earlier, Bose on his own initiative launched a campaign of disobedience for which he was arrested in July 1940. He was shortly released from prison due to ill health, but kept under house arrest. Bose somehow managed to escape from detention in the early hours of January 17, 1941.
Traveling incognito, he went by train to Peshawar near the Afghan border. Then under the nose of the British border patrol, he crossed the Indian border by foot at Jamru and reached Garhi in Afghanistan. Boarding a car waiting for him, he made his way to Kabul where plans had been made for him to travel to Moscow with an Italian passport. And on March 28, 1941, he flew to Berlin where he was received by the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. This shows that foreign governments regarded Bose as a leader of the highest importance.
Bose proposed that he would raise ‘Free India’ units from Indian prisoners of war in Germany, in exchange for a Declaration of Indian Independence by the Axis powers. Since Germany was at the time still allied with Russia, and India was thought to fall in the Russian sphere of influence, Germany was not prepared to declare India independent. (This is Mujumdar’s surmise which appears reasonable.) But Bose was allowed to speak to the prisoners and raise Free India units. His plan was to turn them from British Indian soldiers into Indian National soldiers. He felt that this would eventually turn a substantial part of the Indian army to the national cause. He was confident of German victory and felt that as his Free India units marched against the British, Indian soldiers of the British would join him. His plan received a fillip when Germany declared war against Russia. There were no longer any restraints on his activities.
When he went to speak to the Indian prisoners, at first he met with considerable hostility, and his speech was interrupted. Apparently the British indoctrination was too strong and too thorough to be so easily overcome. Bose then changed his tactics. He met with the men individually and in small groups and gradually won them over. Recruits began to pour in for his Indian Legion, and by January 1942, he had formed two infantry units. Bose founded Free India Centers in Rome and Paris also, and the Indian Legion soon reached its planned strength of 3000. But then Japan’s entry into the War and their phenomenal success against the British in Southeast Asia made Bose change his plans.
Japanese successes against the British in Southeast Asia have few parallels in the annals of war. Singapore fell on February 15, 1942 and Rangoon on March 7. While the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, and the Indian victory in the Bangladesh War are comparable in speed of success, they were achieved in smaller theatres. Bose immediately saw that Southeast Asia, because of its proximity to India and its substantial Indian population, offered a much better base for his operations than Europe. In addition, the sensational collapse of British power in Asia had made a great impact on the Indians living in the region, raising their nationalistic feelings. They saw that freedom was within grasp.
The leader of what may be called the Indian National Movement in Southeast Asia was Rash Bihari Bose. With a Japanese wife, he had settled in Japan as a citizen of that country. Through largely his efforts, several Free India Centers were established throughout Southeast Asia to further the cause of Indian independence. Thanks to his initiative, a conference was held in Tokyo on 28-30 March 1942. At this conference, a resolution was passed to form an Indian National Army (INA) under the direct command of Indian officers to conduct a campaign for the liberation of India. This was followed by a conference at Bangkok in June, attended by more than a hundred delegates from Burma, Malaya, the Andamans and Nicobar and other countries of the region. Rash Bihari Bose was elected Chairman.
Rash Bihari Bose raised the tricolor flag of independent India, and the Indian Independent League with the attainment of independence as its goal, was formally inaugurated. It was decided also to invite Subhas Bose to takeover the leadership.
The formation of the Indian National Army was the work of Captain Mohan Singh of the 14th Punjab Regiment, a prisoner of war. He was one of the 40,000 Indian prisoners handed over to the Japanese by the British Colonel Hunt after the fall of Singapore. (Only the Indian units at Singapore had offered any resistance, the British were busy leaving.) Mohan Singh managed to escape from prison, but then approached the Japanese with an offer to raise units for an Indian National Army (INA) that would join the Japanese in the fight against the British. The goal was to drive the British out of India. Many Indian prisoners of war joined the INA, but many others – especially the officers – did not. By the end of August 1942, forty thousand prisoners of war had signed a pledge to join the INA. This should give an idea of the magnitude of the British defeat in Southeast Asia.
Much anti-propaganda has been directed against the INA, implying that its recruits were mercenary cowards who joined it only to escape from prison. But their fighting record does not support this view. The following resolution passed during the formation of the INA shows them to be true patriots (Volume III, p 583): “… an Indian National Army be formed comprising the Indian troops and civilians in East Asia. Captain Mohan Singh would be the Commander-in-Chief of this Army of Liberation of India. The Indian Independence League [with Rash Bihari Bose as President] would make arrangements for the supply of men, material and money required by the Indian National Army, and would request the Japanese Government to supply the necessary arms and equipment, ships and aeroplanes required by the Indian National Army which would be commanded entirely by Indian Officers and would fight only for the liberation of India.”
This shows that Indian civilians from the region also joined the INA and otherwise supported it. Many businessmen and traders made generous donations to the cause. In addition, it is hardly credible that a person of Subhas Bose’s proven patriotism and record of sacrifice would have been associated with a mere mercenary outfit. It should be noted however, that the INA had much less success in recruiting officers than soldiers. This shows that the Indian officers, because of their closer association with their British counterparts, had become more ‘Anglicized’, and chose not to have anything to do with the fellow Asians of the region.
As noted, Subhas Bose was invited to join and take over the leadership of the campaign. This presented formidable difficulties. It took eight months before the Germans were prepared to let Bose go because of the dangers of a long sea voyage in hostile waters. Finally, after a long and hazardous submarine voyage, first in a German U-boat, and then a Japanese submarine, Bose and his companion Abid Hassan landed in Sumatra (in Indonesia) on 28 April 1943. He was met by a Japanese delegation and arrived at Tokyo on 13 June 1943. The very next day he was received by the Japanese premier Tojo and later also by the Emperor.
Tojo told Subhas Bose that British defeat in the war was certain, but Japan had no demands to make on India beyond the necessities of war, and was prepared to see India independent. He also encouraged Subhas Bose in his plan to form a Provisional Government, which would take control of the territory from which the British were evicted.
Subhas Bose arrived in Singapore on 2 July 1943, and took over the leadership of the Indian Independence League from Rash Bihari Bose on July 4. He made public his decision to form a Provisional Government of Free India and to lead the Indian National Army towards India. The next day, the formation of the INA was announced to the world, and on August 25, Subhas Bose assumed formal command of the INA. His call was chalo Delhi – March to Delhi. At last, the INA and the Indian Independence League had found a leader of stature to match their lofty goals.
The Provisional Government of Free India was announced at an emotional public meeting held at Singapore on 21 October 1943. The proclamation declared (Volume III, p 588): “It will be the task of the Provisional Government to launch and to conduct the struggle that will bring about the expulsion of the British and their allies from the soil of India. It will then be the task of the Provisional Government to bring about the establishment of a permanent National Government of Azad Hind [Free India] constituted in accordance with the will of the Indian people and enjoying their confidence.”
It should be noted that at all times Subhas Bose was conscious of the fact that the INA must preserve its identity as a national army, and not become a tool of the Japanese. This in fact was the basis of his appeal to Indian prisoners of war. When Field Marshal Terauchi, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese forces in Southeast Asia, suggested to Bose that the Japanese would do all the fighting necessary to liberate India while he should only assist in enlisting the support and goodwill of the Indian people, Bose was shocked. Bose told him, “Any liberation of India secured through Japanese sacrifices would be worse than slavery.” Indians must make the maximum sacrifice in blood and effort to free their homeland. The INA units therefore must be the vanguard of any campaign to liberate India.
Terauchi conceded Bose’s point, but as a military man, he wanted a demonstration of competence in the field by the INA soldiers. It was a common belief among the Japanese that Indian troops were only British mercenaries. In view of the dismal performance of the British under the Japanese assault, they had no great opinion of Indian soldiers. Terauchi’s demand was probably no more than what any military officer in his place would have asked. But Bose would not yield, and Terauchi suggested a compromise. He proposed that an INA regiment be deployed as a test case, and if this regiment “came up to the Japanese standard” he said, “the rest of the army would be sent into action.”
Terauchi had no reason to regret his decision. The INA came through with flying colors. Moved by the brilliant performance of the INA soldiers in the field, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief in Burma went to Subhas Bose, and bowing before him said: “Your Excellency, we were wrong. We misjudged the soldiers of the INA. We know that they are no mercenaries, but real patriots.” (Volume III, p 597)
Much nonsense has been written about the INA as a fighting force and about Subhas Bose as a commander. Judged by any standards, Bose’s success in building up from scratch an army that could fight on equal terms and at times even best the highly trained and superbly equipped British Indian Army, was a fantastic achievement. And this eventually led to India becoming free. It demonstrated leadership qualities and organizational abilities of the highest order. Compared to Bose’s (and INA’s) contribution to history and record of leadership, the various sporadic movements organized by Gandhi and his followers seem puerile. And yet there is no shortage of Congressmen – including Nehru of Pancha Sheela fame – who accuse him of being an impractical dreamer! In modern Indian history, only Sardar Patel’s integration of the Indian states is an achievement that stands on the same level.
As a fighting force, the INA was a remarkable machine considering the enormous handicaps of experience, equipment and training under which it had to work. When it began, it had no officer who had commanded even a battalion, and yet within two years it was called upon to fight the British Army of corps strength or more. Whenever it had to face local engagements, the INA units were often more than a match for the British units. This was recognized by the Japanese commanders when they proceeded to place Japanese troops under the direct command of Captain Suraj Mal of the INA. It was probably the first time in the history of the Japanese Army that its men had been placed under the command of a foreign officer. To call the men and officers of the INA ‘traitors’ would be like calling George Washington and other American freedom fighters traitors, simply because they too had fought on the British side during the French and Indian Wars, and yet took French help in their fight for freedom.
In the field, men and officers of the INA displayed uncommon gallantry under incredibly harsh conditions. The following account of the capture of the height known as Mythun Khunou gives an idea (Volume III, p 600): “A whole British brigade, 3000 strong, supported by heavy artillery and aeroplanes led an attack against 600 INA men. The situation became extremely grave as all the commanding heights and strategic points were in the hands of the British. The commander of the INA brigade issued orders to capture the heights at any cost. Lt. Mansukh Lall, commanding a platoon of 30 men, showed unparalleled heroism in capturing one of these heights. “While leading his small and semi-starved force up the ridge, he was wounded 13 times; through exhaustion and loss of blood, he staggered and fell to the ground.” His men wavered, but “making a last supreme effort, with 13 bullet wounds in his body, he rose to his feet and personally led the final assault on the height …” The British forces retreated leaving the height in possession of the INA.”
This episode was by no means exceptional. When it entered India, what stopped the INA at the tactical level was the torrential Indian monsoon rather than the British Army; at the strategic level, what forced its retreat was the general collapse of the Japanese position in the East. Shahnawaz Khan of the INA, who saw a great deal of action as commander of the Subhas Brigade (named after Subhas Bose in spite of his vigorous protests), wrote (Volume III, p 603):
Thus ended the main INA and Japanese offensive which had been started in March, 1944. During this period, the INA, with much inferior equipment and extremely poor supply system, was able to advance as much as 150 miles into Indian territory. While the INA was on the offensive, there was not a single occasion on which our forces were defeated on the battlefield, and there was never an occasion when the enemy, despite their overwhelming superiority in men and material, was able to capture any post held by the INA. On the other hand, there were very few cases where the INA attacked British posts and failed to capture them. In these operations the INA lost nearly 4000 men as killed alone.
The war in the East, including the performance of the INA, shattered the carefully nurtured myth that Indian soldiers fought well only when led by British officers. The ignominious defeat of the British at Singapore and elsewhere in the East was a blow from which British prestige never recovered. They could no longer pretend that only they could lead troops or that Asiatics could not fight without European officers. This was not an easy thing for the British to stomach. In the face of this it is hardly surprising that British writers should have tried to make light of the INA as a fighting force and of Subhas Bose as a leader.
It is unnecessary to go into details of the INA campaigns, for its significance was less military than national. At last India had a national army commanded by a leader of the first rank that posed a serious threat to the British hold over India. This was something that the other Congress leaders, steeped in pacifism and bereft of a national vision, had failed to provide in twenty-five years. All they had to offer were a series of sporadic movements that crumbled as soon as they met resistance, or due to the whimsical decisions of a leader trying to be a holy man.
Subhas Bose did not live to see the country free. He died in an air crash under somewhat mystifying conditions. He left Saigon in a Japanese bomber and arrived at Taihoku in Farmosa (Taiwan) on August 18, 1945. He left in another plane for an unknown destination, after which there is a complete blank. The official Japanese version is that his plane crashed almost immediately after takeoff, but there are many gaps in the account.
Japan surrendered on September 15, 1945, formally ending the war. After the war, the British Indian Government put on trial three men of the INA – a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh – for desertion and treason. This historic trial, held at the historic Red Fort at Delhi was a national sensation. The country, including many in the armed forces, regarded these men as patriots rather than traitors.
The British saw the writing on the wall: Indians would no longer fight for the British. The British Indian Army was now for all practical purposes the Indian National Army. This was Subhas Bose’s great achievement. The British saw that the sooner they left the better for themselves, for, at the end of the war, India had some three million men under arms.
This is what forced the British out of India – a fact admitted by no less a person than Prime Minister Attlee. Subhas Bose’s campaign to free India had finally borne fruit, though he was no longer on the scene to witness it.
It is an irony of history that the British prevailed in the war against Japan because of the Indian Army; we have this on the word of Field Marshall Slim, Commander-in-Chief in the East. India too gained independence only because of the Indian soldiers. So both British victory in the East – Pyrrhic though it proved to be – and Indian independence were due to the Indian Army. But the latter needed a leader of indomitable courage and will to lead it in the national cause. It was fortunate for India that such a man appeared on the scene in the person of Subhas Bose. Nehru, Gandhi and others were part of a side show.
Gandhi, Congress and the Partition
As with everything connected with the Freedom Movement, the role of Gandhi and the Congress in the Partition has been widely misrepresented. It was not a last ditch compromise forced by Mountbatten in 1947 as history books report. The fact is that Gandhi had all but conceded the partition of India as far back as 1940, but in typically Gandhian fashion kept insisting that the country would be partitioned ‘over his dead body’.
To their credit, the Muslim leaders never made any secret of where their loyalties lay, only Gandhi and the Congress preferred to hold on to a fantasy to facing the truth that was there for all to see. Majumdar has this to say (Volume III, pp 450-1): “… the Hindu-Muslim fraternity, artificially created by Gandhi at the behest of Muhammad Ali and other Pan-Islamists, tumbled down like a house of cards as soon as the Khilafat movement came to an ignoble end, and a bitter feud between the two communities, signalized by communal riots, marked the period. Most of the so-called Muslim nationalist leaders – who were only Pan-Islamists masquerading under this disguise – now appeared in their true colour.”
Muhammad Ali, who was the principal lieutenant of Gandhi in his Satyagraha campaign in 1920-21, refused to join him in the second campaign in 1930. … He made no secret of the fact that Muslims, as a whole, were guided by Pan-Islamism. … In his address as Congress President in 1923 he reminded the audience that “extra-territorial sympathies are part of the quintessence of Islam.”
So it was there for all to see, only Gandhi and the Congress chose to remain blind to reality. On this point it is worth noting that Sri Aurobindo had seen through the whole thing as well as its disastrous consequences as far back as 1923. He told a disciple in 1939: “I told C.R. Das [in 1923] that the Hindu-Muslim question must be solved before the Britishers go, otherwise there is going to be civil war. He also agreed and wanted to solve it.” He also pointed out that the Congress was committing a serious mistake in its dealings with Jinnah.
Instead of doing what was necessary, the Congress is trying to flirt with Jinnah, and Jinnah simply thinks that he has to obstinately stick to his terms to get them. The more they try, the more Jinnah becomes intransigent.
In other words, the Congress was on its course of appeasement, the only consistent policy it had followed. On May 28, 1940 he was even more specific when he told a disciple:
Have you read what Gandhi has said in answer to a correspondent? He says if eight crores of Muslims demand a separate State, what else are the twenty-five crores of Hindus to do but surrender? Otherwise there will be civil war.
The shocked disciple said: “I hope that is not the type of conciliation he is thinking of.” But Sri Aurobindo had no such illusions. He replied: “Not thinking of you say? He has actually said that and almost yielded. If you yield to the opposite party beforehand, naturally they will stick strongly to their claims. It means that the minority will rule and the majority must submit. … This shows a peculiar mind. I think these kind of people are a little cracked.”
And yet this charade – that Gandhi and the Congress would not allow the country to be divided – was maintained for seven long years!
The fact of the matter is that after the failure of the Quit India movement of 1942, the Congress – and Gandhi – was a spent force. It is unnecessary to go into the sorry story of greed, betrayal and cowardice that led to the holocaust. A brief account will suffice. Gandhi’s standing was by then so low that when he wrote to the new Viceroy Lord Wavell with a proposal for India after the War, the Government in Britain responded that Gandhi’s proposal “obviously did not even form the starting point for a profitable discussion.”
After this rebuff Gandhi realized that he and the Congress were in no position to negotiate with the Government, and his only hope lay perhaps in reaching an agreement with the Muslim League in the hope of presenting a united front. Actually, Gandhi had been negotiating with Jinnah through Rajagolachari (Rajaji) well before this; only, things were now critical. His situation now bordered on the pathetic. On July 17, 1944 he wrote Jinnah: “I have always been a servant and friend to you. Do not disappoint me.” Jinnah refused Rajaji’s plan but agreed to discuss the partition with Gandhi.
This led to a furious reaction throughout the country. Savarkar only echoed the indignation of the people when he asserted that the “Indian provinces were not the private properties of Gandhiji and Rajaji so that they could make a gift of them to anyone they liked.” But the meetings went on. As Majumdar puts it (Volume III, pp 573-4):
“The Gandhi-Jinnah talks commenced on 9 September 1944, and continued till the 27th, but the two failed to arrive at an agreement. The concrete offer made by Gandhi was a partition of India into Hindusthan and Pakistan on a basis, which did not materially differ from the plan finally accepted in 1947.”
This gives the lie to the Congress story that Gandhi and the Congress were opposed to partition till the very end. The main point of difference was Gandhi’s refusal to accept Jinnah’s two-nation theory, and the right of the Muslims to self-determination on that basis. The nation should be grateful to Gandhi on this point, but it is not true that he was opposed to the creation of Pakistan to the very end. Considering how weak his position was this was probably the best Gandhi could do. But one unfortunate effect of all this was that it had the effect of greatly enhancing the prestige of Jinnah in the eyes of the Muslims.
This twenty-five year record of bungling brings up a fundamental character of the Congress as an organization and also of its members and ‘leaders’. At crucial times, when faced with issues of moment, their nerve failed and they became clueless. Instead of facing the issue squarely, they surrendered their judgement and placed the fate of the country in the hands of someone with ‘charisma’ – like Gandhi or Nehru. Repeated failures did not make them reexamine their beliefs and conduct. Gandhi committed blunder after blunder, but maintained an iron grip over his followers. It was the same with Nehru. After he had thoroughly botched the accession of Kashmir, he presided over the fiasco of the Pancha Sheela, leading to a humiliating defeat at the hands of China. And yet only death removed him from his high office.
His daughter also missed a great opportunity after victory in the Bangladesh War when all outstanding problems with Pakistan could have been solved, but she gave away what the armed forces had gained for a scrap of paper called the ‘Simla Agreement’. It was truly a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. (Her son Rajiv is too insignificant a figure to find a place in history, though he too made a mess in Sri Lanka.)
The story is no different today. When the Congress is facing an existential crisis, the leaders of this once great organization can think of nothing better than begging a foreign woman of no education or experience to save them! It is difficult to believe that this is the stuff of the people who fought the mighty British Empire and brought freedom to the country. We now know they did not. They only reaped its benefits. Majumdar’s history has exposed and exploded their pretensions.
There is one person who shines amidst this gloomy and depressing scene – Sardar Vallabhai Patel. As Sri Aurobindo observed, he was the only strong man among them. At this point it is perhaps worth dispelling another myth propagated by some modern (Leftist) historians – that the British unified India. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cultural unity of India is of untold antiquity. British India was not a politically cohesive unit. It consisted of several large provinces directly under British rule and nearly six hundred hereditary principalities or ‘Princely States’ who had treaty relationships with the British. The Viceroy was the Governor General of the provinces directly administered by the British Government, as well as the Crown representative to the rulers of the princely states. That is why he was called the Viceroy.
The man who unified this hodgepodge assemblage was Sardar Vallabhai Patel. British conquered large parts of it but did not unify them. Napoleon also conquered large parts of the feudal states that are now part of Germany, but he did not unify them. That was the work of Bismarck. To claim that the British unified India would be like giving credit to Napoleon for unifying Germany. For this reason, people who understand history call Patel the Bismarck of India. Only the challenge faced by Patel was incomparably greater.
But this unification would be impossible had a cultural bond of untold antiquity not already existed among the people of India. Indian nationalism consisted in reawakening in the people awareness of this ancient truth. (Anti-nationalists on the other hand, want to deny this unity and divide India into culturally disparate units.) This cultural awakening was the work of leaders like Swami Vivekanada and Sri Aurobindo. Gandhi and Nehru on the other hand pursued only mirages like Hindu-Muslim unity and secularism. Indian nationalism is spiritual and cultural – not merely political.
One shudders to think of what might have happened had Sardar Patel not been on the scene to effect this political union. Nehru, with his head in the clouds, bungled over Kashmir and all but botched Hyderabad also. With Nehru instead of Patel in charge, India might have been saddled with six hundred Kashmirs, with the British – Churchill in particular – watching the scene with glee.
We may now sum up. It was the combination of threats and acts of violence by Jinnah that resulted in the birth of Pakistan. It was the potential threat of a violent uprising by the Indian armed forces that led to India’s independence. It is sheer fantasy to think that the ‘spiritual force rooted in nonviolence’ can yield major political ends. Rama and Krishna were not lacking in spiritual wisdom, but had to resort to force to suppress evil. Even Parashu-Rama, a Brahmana, was forced to bear arms to destroy evil rulers. Spiritual force has played little role even in supposedly religious institutions like the Vatican. India without Gandhi is conceivable, while a Pakistan without Jinnah is not. It demonstrates the success of Jinnah and his violence and the failure of Gandhi and his nonviolence. Those who believe in the power of ‘spiritual force’ to attain political aims are living in the Land of Lotus Eaters.
Gandhi the Saint
This brings us back to Gandhi the Saint, and Gandhi the Politician. A point to note, however, is that even when being most saintly, Mahatma Gandhi was loathe to give up politics, or even political power. Unlike Sri Aurobindo, who retired from politics in pursuit of spiritual goals, Gandhi remained a politician to the last. When he had ceased being even an ordinary member of the Congress, he continued to exercise his authority. The Subhas Bose episode is a striking example of it.
He has been called the ‘most saintly of politicians’. Gandhi himself claimed that he was only a ‘politician trying to be a saint’, which is a more accurate description since it highlights the fact that he was a politician, and remained one to the last. Unfortunately, his followers invariably suspended their reason when faced with political actions presented by Gandhi. Even when they had serious doubts over a course of action being followed, they refrained from checking him. Politically unwise decisions were supinely accepted simply because they came from Gandhi.
As Majumdar notes: “This kind of absolute devotion and self-surrender has been highly extolled by certain religious sects …. But when it forms the basis of political action and is cited as justification for doing things not approved on rational principles, it becomes difficult for a historian to appreciate the laudable sentiments of his disciples. The inevitable effect of such sentiments was that the great political leaders of the Congress came to look upon Gandhi as a superman, who was infallible and acted by instinct, not logic or reason, and therefore should not be judged by ordinary standards which we apply to other leaders.”
Even strong men, who should have known better, allowed themselves to be dominated by him and sought refuge in his supposed infallibility. Jawaharlal Nehru, who prided in his rationalism, admitted “Gandhi was a unique personality and it was impossible to judge him by the usual standards, or even apply the ordinary canons of logic to him.” The reality is that few had the strength of character to stand up to his bullying tactics.
Nehru’s rationalization amounts to what Americans call a copout. As a result of such blind faith on the part of his followers, Gandhi was not held to account for the consequences of his inspired if ill-advised actions. His sponsorship of the Khilafat and the resulting Mopla Rebellion is a prime example. His supposed saintliness, and his followers’ blind trust in him, allowed him to come out of this disaster unscathed. It is difficult to see how any other politician could have survived such a disaster. Blunder after blunder, Gandhi the Saint rescued Gandhi the Politician.
Majumdar’s observation on this point is highly relevant: “I yield to none in my profound respect for Gandhi, the saint and humanitarian. But as the author of this volume [Volume III], I am concerned only with the part he played in the struggle for freedom from the British yoke. I have necessarily to view his life and activities, thoughts, and feelings primarily from a narrow angle, namely as a politician and statesman leading a great political organization which was not intended to be a humanitarian association or the World Peace Society, but had been formed for a definite political object, namely, to achieve India’s freedom from political bondage.”