Updated: December 8, 2009 17:14 IST

Freedom movement, a holistic feat

Suranjan Das
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This volume is another significant addition to the ICHR’s project of documenting India’s freedom movement as a holistic struggle for both political independence and "social justice, economic empowerment against exploitation, and cultural autonomy."

Professor Panikkar competently collates a range of hitherto little used official and non-official sources, mostly in English, for four crucial ingredients of nationalist politics of 1940 — the Second World War’s impact on Indian politics; constitutional deliberations; individual satyagraha; and the rising tide of communalism.


The first chapter highlights the diverse political responses to the World War. While the Raj wanted the subcontinent as “a war base,” the Congress, unequivocally opposing fascism, refused to rescue, what Jawaharlal called, “a tottering imperialism.” The Congress condemned Britain’s declaration of India as a “belligerent country” without its consent, and resented London’s refusal to promise India’s independence after the war. The Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha, however, supported the British war effort, seeking furtherance of their sectarian interests. The League sought colonial trust in its Muslim leadership; the Mahasabha saw the war as an opportunity for “Hindu militarisation” and the country’s industrialisation. M.N. Roy’s League of Radical Congressmen supported the British, but stressed that fascism’s defeat was indispensable to international anti-colonial struggle. For the Communist Party of India, the war was a manifestation of the contradictions within international capitalism. Panikkar speaks about the support for Indian nationalism from such British academics as Lasky, Needham, and Robinson, who exposed Britain’s double standard of fighting fascism in the name of democracy, but denying independence to India.

The second chapter highlights the complexities of constitutional negotiations. Viceroy Linlithgow’s proposal for ‘Dominion Status’ of the Westminster variety fell far short of the Congress’ demand for a Constituent Assembly and “independence pure and simple.” The Muslim League saw in the Viceroy’s proposal the threat of a Hindu majority rule, and launched the Pakistan movement. Only the Hindu Mahasabha welcomed the Viceroy’s offer. Increasing nationalist frustration at the British refusal to constitute a national government and withdraw restrictions on civil liberties made Gandhiji launch individual satyagraha and call for people’s non-involvement in war efforts and participation in khadi, village uplift, and communal amity. The Communists, despite reservations about satyagraha’s effectiveness, supported the movement to transform it into a “No Rent, No Tax and General Strike.” The individual satyagraha, initiated by Vinobha Bhave, strengthened the “anti-colonial consciousness,” although the liberals and the Muslim League thought its timing was “inopportune.”

The fourth chapter ably documents this satyagraha, particularly highlighting the information culled from official fortnightly reports on the Press and the movement itself. Subhas Bose-led Holwell Satyagraha in Calcutta and the shooting down of the former Punjab Governor, O’Dwyer in London also feature in the collection. Nehru justly wrote: “If the British are still imperialistic…no one can save them.”

The concluding part unfolds the growing communal divide. Both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha viewed Hindus and Muslims as exclusive categories. While the former used this hypothesis to claim a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, the latter advocated the Hindu right to rule India because “scientific and natural nationalism is the nationalism of the dominant religious community.” B.R. Ambedkar hoped that Pakistan’s creation would make the Muslims concerned more about their improvement than about the “salvation of Islam.”

M.N. Roy considered the Pakistan question “a scarecrow” and a “distant issue.” The present exercise, however, convincingly demonstrates that not all Indian Muslims accepted Jinnah’s two-nation theory. The Kerala Provincial Political Conference, the All-India Azad Muslim Conference, and the South Indian Nationalist Muslim Association viewed the Pakistan proposal “un-Islamic” where religion was being used to mislead the Muslims and help British paramountcy. The All-India Muslim Independent Conference pleaded not for a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh Raj, but for a Panchayati Raj. The Momins opposed the Pakistan scheme because it would leave Muslims in a minority province unprotected, and the Islamic holy places, key industries and natural reserves in “Hindu states.”


There is an interesting excerpt from Tarikh Shia, calling for the demolition of those mosques and temples that promote communalism. The Sikh and Christian leaders, too, disputed the League’s claim to represent all minorities. But, as Panikkar notes, resistance to communal mobilisation was inadequate to counter the growing Hindu-Muslim tensions, amply documented in the volume.

Underpinning this collection are the multiple layers of nationalist consciousness that imparted nationalist politics dynamism as well as complexity. The meticulous arrangement of the documents and an excellent explication, in the Introduction, of themes testify to the editor’s mastery of the historian’s craft. As with other volumes, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s Editorial Preface adds to the value of this collection.

Multiple layers of nationalist consciousness add to dynamism and complexity.

TOWARDS FREEDOM — Documents on the Movement for Independence in India 1940 (Part-I): Edited by K.N. Panikkar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 3450.

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