On August 31, 1942, Lord Linlithgow wrote to Winston Churchill: “I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security.” It wasn’t until the beginning of the following year that the British were able to quell the uprising caused by the Congress’s call on August 9 to the British to quit India, but not before the colonial rulers had had to use 57 battalions against the rebels and the administration had broken down in large parts of Bihar and what is now eastern UP. The British blamed the Congress for the violence, but one probable reason for the attacks on railways stations and the cutting of telegraph wires was the incarceration of virtually the entire Congress leadership which left no one in the field to control and guide the mobs. Some historians have pointed out, however, that this wasn’t the first instance of the Congress’s absence from the battlefield which enabled its arch-opponent, the Muslim League, to gain ground.
Moreover, the timing of the Quit India movement, which aimed at extracting a promise from the British to leave India at the end of World War II, has been questioned since it took place when the Allies were involved in a life-and-death struggle with the Axis powers. As such, it was unrealistic to expect an immediate assurance from the British, especially when a diehard imperialist like Churchill was the prime minister. Had the Congress been the only player in the tussle with the colonial rulers, its tactics might have succeeded. But this wasn’t the case since the Muslim League had been able by then to successfully exploit the fears which the Congress ministries, which ruled between 1937 and 1939, had aroused among sections of the Muslims about the imposition of a Hindu raj via the singing of Vande Mataram, among other things. As a result, the Congress’s attempt to force the pace, as it were, in the advance towards independence only enabled the Muslim League to cozy up to the British with its offer of support for the war effort.
But the League might not have made any headway if the Congress had not made several mistakes, as the colonial era bureaucrat, Penderel Moon, said in his book, “Divide and Quit”. One of them was to decline “to form coalition governments with the League in those provinces in which they had a majority” in 1937. Then, when the war broke out, the Congress “could have retraced their steps and sought to join with the League in coalitions both in the provinces and at the centre”. At a time when, according to Moon, “moderate men were still in control of the Muslim masses both in Bengal and the Punjab, the forces of disruption could have been checked” by a “working partnership” between the Congress and the League. But fate decreed otherwise.
A relook at the events at the time of the Quit India movement suggests that partition might have been avoided if the Congress had not been driven by the belief that there were only two forces in India at the time — the British and the Congress — and that there were no third parties such as the Muslim League. Besides, Jawaharlal Nehru had dismissed communalism as a “side issue”. Yet, arguably, much of the country’s ills stem from the partition. Domestically, the Hindu-Muslim problem hasn’t been solved. And, externally, India has acquired an inveterate enemy in Pakistan, whose publicly declared aim is to bleed India with a thousand cuts.
India was fortunate in the 1930s and 1940s with having an array of leaders of stature like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Subhas Bose and Rajagopalachari on the side of the Congress, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League on the other side along with Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Unionist Party and Fazlur Huq, formerly of the Krishak Praja Party, who moved the so-called Pakistan resolution in Lahore in 1940 — although Pakistan was not named in it. Even then, the country moved inexorably towards partition with the “mistakes” in the 1937-42 period playing a key role. It is undeniable that ego clashes between Nehru and Jinnah came in the way of finding a meeting ground with the former delivering the death blow to the possibility of an agreement by virtually rejecting the British Cabinet Mission’s plan for avoiding partition even after the Muslim League had accepted it. What history tells us, therefore, is the need for treading with caution in dealing with India’s complexity. Any attempt to project a party as the only hope for the country, as the Congress did 75 years ago, is fraught with fateful consequences.
The Congress did succeed in getting rid of the British though at the cost of the country’s unity. But any attempt to evict the Congress from the country via a Congress-mukt Bharat agenda can make the party’s opponents fall prey to the malady of hubris.