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Documenting India’s freedom struggle

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SURANJAN DAS

A collection which throws a new light on the major political processes of 1945

TOWARDS FREEDOM — Documents on the Movement for Independence in India,1945: Edited by Bimal Prasad; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.

Rs. 3950.

The documents collated in this volume throw new light on major political processes of 1945. A picture of contending political possibilities towards India’s freedom from the Raj clearly emerges.

The collection justifiably provides considerable space for the Azad Hind Fauj’s exploits. Beginning with Netaji’s New Year day call from Singapore to “gird up … loins for the hard battle”, it unfolds hitherto unused documents, especially the communications within the INA, on turning points in the INA’s encounters with the British. Particularly interesting are Dhillon’s Battle Reports, recollections of the INA soldiers, and personal diaries of Sahgal and Shah Nawaz Khan. The memories of the 1857 Revolt constantly inspired the INA. Netaji’s far-sight was revealed by his prophesy that Stalin would hold Europe’s destiny.

The second chapter records the nationalist challenge to colonial affronts on democratic rights of Indians. Protests against the inhuman treatment of detenus, death sentence to Asthi-Chimur prisoners convicted during the 1942 Revolt, ban on ‘constructive workers’, and restrictions on press freedom have been well documented. British commentator Penderal Moon correctly judged that India was unstoppable.

Support

The volume cites evidence of growing support for India within the U.K. and the U.S. CPI leader Dange’s article in Daily Worker, Zafrullah Khan’s essays in The Spectator and The Manchester Guardian, appeals for “fuller responsibilities of governance to Indians” by eminent persons like Bertrand Russell, leading parliamentarians and Oxford dons indicated pro-Indian concerns within the enlightened British public.

Again, the enthusiastic response to speeches of Indian delegates at Pacific Relations Conference and India League of America, the celebration of Indian Independence Day in Washington and other cities, and the expectations of a new India from authors like Pearl Buck and politicians like John Coffee and Emanuel Cellar testified to the reservoir of American sympathy for India.

Conciliatory attempts

Chapters four and five focus on abortive conciliatory attempts in Delhi for a consensual government, and subsequent political activism. While mainstream nationalism demanded release of political prisoners and questioned the rationality of the Pakistan demand, Jinnah’s rejection of ‘any United India Constitution’ reflected the communalist counterpoint. There was, however, a nationalist Muslim conscience, demonstrated in the rejection of Pakistan proposal by the All India Majlis-i-Ahrar, Khudai Khidmatgars and Maulavi Nooruddin Bihari. Materials on the survival of the ‘Prati Sarkar’ at Satara, established in the wake of the 1942 uprising, are interesting.

On the formal Congress-CPI estrangement, as the General Editor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya admits, barring some of Gandhi-Joshi correspondence, the debate “rarely rose above pedestrian legalism”. The victim of this unfortunate fallout was protest politics. The eighth chapter highlights the strengthening of people’s struggles through the State People’s Movement and peasant and working class militancy. Membership of the All India Kisan Sabha and All India Trade Union Congress reportedly rose respectively to 3.3 lakhs and 5 lakhs. But neither the AIKS nor AITUC claimed to be a rival of either the Congress or the League. Both projected themselves as anti-colonial forces. The next three chapters are on the INA trial and the mass upsurge it prompted. They confirm the ‘symbolic significance’ of the assertions of sovereignty and independence of the Azad Hind government, despite the British refusal to recognise the Fauj as an ‘independent entity’. The INA generated tremendous popular support in areas it fought the British.

Perceptions

I found the last chapter on thoughts about the emerging India particularly revealing. Five different perceptions surfaced. Gandhiji’s dream of India where “the unit should be an ideal village or a social group which will be self-sufficient, but the members of which will be interdependent” was counterpoised by Jawaharlal Nehru’s dismissal of Hind Swaraj as ‘completely unreal’, and his plea for heavy industries and technological excellence. Gandhiji perhaps realised he was losing the battle when he wrote to Nehru: “If in the end we find that our paths are different, then so be it”. The business lobby’s ‘strident voice’ was mirrored in the Bombay Plan’s stress on the private sector even in a planned economy. The bureaucracy’s response emphasised the creation of a trained manpower. The other contrasting vision came from the communists, who envisaged a people’s state balancing economic growth with equity and justice. This thought, although it appeared then to be ‘marginal to the national discourse’, proved to be enduring, creating space for itself in future debates on nation-building. The compilation contains Gandhiji’s correspondence spelling out his preference for Hindusthani, and not Hindi, as the national language.

Bimal Prasad’s prudent selection of documents and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s penetrating preface have resulted in a documentation that will immensely benefit any reconstruction of that year, when Indians perceived freedom as not being far off. But mass upsurges like the protests against the INA trial, which made a British commentator describe 1945-46 as ‘The Edge of a Volcano’, often provoked adverse reactions from sections within mainstream nationalism. This deserved documentation. Besides, communalism’s growing assertions perhaps required greater attention. The volume is a must for scholars of India’s national movement.


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