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Updated: February 15, 2011 12:55 IST

India's march to freedom

Suranjan Das
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This volume is another significant addition to the Towards Freedom series, an initiative for publishing documents on the freedom movement from an Indian perspective. In his perceptive introduction, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya underlines how 1941, although less eventful than the years preceding and succeeding it, saw the hardening of the nationalist and imperialist standpoints in Indian politics, which set the stage for the “tumultuous” 1942.

Amit Gupta and Arjun Dev have, diligently and adroitly, brought together a wide range of materials related to some constituents that gave 1941 an element of criticality in India's march to freedom.

The first chapter deals with the impasse in constitutional politics that arose from the Secretary of State's insistence on an “enlarged Executive Council” and the retention of the Governors' authority to assume the powers of provincial legislatures in response to the Congress' demand for a commitment to Indian independence. British Prime Minister Churchill's exclusion of India from the Atlantic Charter further antagonised the Indians. Meanwhile, as a part of its war effort, Britain ensured that India's economy catered to its war needs. Another fallout is the curtailment of civil liberties of Indians. The section on the “unsteady” functioning of the Raj-supported non-Congress provincial ministries is interesting.

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union and Moscow's entry into the camp of the Allies resulted in the Communist Party of India's acceptance of the War as “people's war” and pledging its “unconditional support, independent of imperialism.” But the Congress linked Soviet sympathy with opposition to the British war. Jawaharlal's warning that any aggression on the Soviet Union would “sound the death knell of the Nazi regime” proved prophetic. The Muslim League, however, promised sharing the “responsibility” of country's defence, especially after Japan brought the War to India's border. The year witnessed Netaji's heroic escape from India to fight the Raj with Axis support. The volume, however, reports of his meeting (on July 17) with a German official where he voices support for the “Soviet thesis on… German-Russian conflict.” Equally revealing is Bose's letter of August 15 to Ribbentrop, arguing that a German march towards the East without a categorical undertaking for Indian independence would amount (for India) to “the approach not of a friend, but of an enemy”. Meanwhile, the political break between Gandhiji and Bose was complete, as evidenced by the correspondence between the two.

On Satyagraha

The second chapter has provincial reports on the individual satyagraha which Gandhiji launched for free speech and against all wars, a movement the Mahatma wanted to be distinguished by self-discipline and control. He personally identified the Congressmen “eligible” to offer it and gave them detailed instructions on the dos and dont's. And, by the year-end, when he realised that many of the Congressmen were not fully convinced about the logic of non-violence to oppose the War, Gandhiji promptly sought relief from the party leadership.

For its part, the Muslim League condemned the satyagraha, saying it was a move to establish the Hindu raj, while the Communists viewed it as a ruse to avoid a “mass movement”. The Congress party saw its membership drop sharply during 1941. For Gandhiji, the numbers did not matter; he remained as committed as ever to the “purity of non-violence” and “constructive programme”.

The confidential government reports on the CPI, made available in this volume, speak of the party's finances, publications, organisational structure, mobilisation strategy, key functionaries, and foreign links, especially with the Communist Party of Great Britain. An interesting aspect that emerges is that as early as 1935 a Soviet official advised a Congress Socialist Party representative that, even if Britain and Russia were fighting on the same front, “Indian Socialists and Communists [should] … strike a mortal blow at British Imperialism”.

Letters of JP

The editors must be complimented for publishing the ‘Deoli Papers', especially Jayaprakash Narayan's letters to his wife that expose the inhuman conditions political prisoners had to put up with in jail and reveal the political differences the Congress Socialists developed with the Congress and the CPI. Perhaps, more space could have been devoted to the politics of the Forward Bloc and the Depressed Classes. Another striking development in 1941 was the strengthening of the ‘Indian constituency' within Britain, as revealed by intelligence reports on the activities of V.K. Krishna Menon and the India League. Also significant was the appeal by 33 well-known British women for the release of Indian political prisoners. Even the politically informed Americans evinced an interest in India's self-determination.

Students' movements

The third chapter presents official and non-official documents on students' and women's movements. Occasionally, strains surfaced between the communist and the non-communist student groups, although student restlessness on nationalist issues and education reform became widespread, inviting police reprisals. Women conclaves proclaimed their determination to work for strengthening nationalism and resolving gender issues. Jinnah, however, distanced Muslim students from the mainstream politics. The link between Indian women's organisations and like-minded British counterparts became stronger. The section on ‘culture' contains excerpts from interviews and writings of eminent persons of the period, including Rabindranath Tagore, and a review of the film Naya Sansar depicting the struggle of an idealist-journalist against reactionary forces.

The core message that the documents in this volume carry for the nationalists is best expressed in these words of Nehru: “no rest for us but to carry the burden of the day and hold fast to our anchor.” For a holistic understanding of 1941, however, we have to await Part-II, which is expected to document the other key political trends and developments such as communalism, the Praja Mandal movement, and the peasant and working class politics.

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