The period from 1939 to 1945 witnessed the Second World War that had a devastating effect on humanity. Coming to India, it was a prelude to the declaration of Indian independence and partition of India into India and Pakistan on communal grounds.
This period brought to light primarily the fragile nature of the mosaic of Indian society and polity wherein the internal squabbles of the Congress organization surfaced openly defying the existing traditions in the form of conflict between Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi, and the sharpened teeth of extreme communalism hardened the Muslim League to opt for their desired sacred land of Pakistan.
Further, as an indirect effect of the Second World War, the condition of the common people became extremely worse due to the soaring of prices of necessities in addition to the devastating famines.
Unrest of labour and the peasants dominated the Indian scenario. Lord Linlithgow was the Governor General of India between 1936-1944 and he was followed by Lord Wavel, who was the Governor General till 1947. Thus when the Second World War started in 1939, Linlithgow was the Governor General and when the Second World War ended in 1945, Wavel was the Governor General. Before the war started, the Indian National Congress formed ministries with absolute majority in Madras, Bihar, Orissa, central provinces and united provinces and with a near majority in Bombay in 1937.
Sumit Sarkar aptly observes: “For millions of Indians, particularly in the Hindu majority general constituencies, the “Vote for Gandhi and the Yellow Box signified appreciation of patriotic self-sacrifice, plus some hopes of socio-economic change”. But as observed by Sumit Sarkar, we notice a steady shift to the right, occasionally veiled by ‘left’ rhetoric and increasingly characterized the functioning of the Congress ministries as well as of the party High Command between 1937 and 1939.
The relations between the Muslim League and the Congress were so strained that Jinnah denounced ‘congress fascism’ in the Patna session of the League in 1938. Thus, throughout the 27 months of the Congress rule in provinces, the League continued its intense vicious propaganda against the Congress and by March 1940, the League adopted the ‘Pakistan resolution’, in spite of a compromise made by Congress working committee in 1937 to drop the closing stanzas of the Vandemataram recognizing the validity of the criticism of the League and the Muslim community.
Hindu communalism championed by the Hindu Mahasabha also raised its voice against what it considered to be anti-Hindu sentiment and in 1938 V.D. Savarkar declared in the Nagpur session that we Hindus are a nation by ourselves, Hindu nationalists should not at all be apologetic to being called Hindu communalists. Thus, communal divide began to take deep roots in this period due to the, growth of militancy among the Hindus and the Muslims.
During this period, the Congress ministries tried to implement Gandhian socio-economic reforms, yet Ambedkar and Jinnah joined together and celebrated ‘the day of deliverance’ when the Congress ministries resigned in 1939.
Interestingly during this period only, there developed a honeymoon of durable alliance between the capitalists of India and the Congress as observed by Claude Markovitz and Sumit Sarkar. Besides communal militancy, the militancy of labour and Kisans become dominant between 1937-1939. During this period only, states Peoples’ Movement strengthened in many princely states. The Left wing ideology also became a dominant force and tried to persuade the Congress leadership to adopt a more sympathetic attitude towards trade unions and Kisan Sabhas and to give open support to states people’s movements.
In such a bewildered maze, the Tripuri crisis or open conflict between Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi followers openly erupted, signifying opposition to the Gandhian policy of non-violence. Bose’s action was not liked by Gandhi camp and Bose was debarred from holding any office. In such a situation, Linlithgow, the then Governor General, unilaterally associated India with the declaration of joining the Second World War against Germany on 3 September, 1939. Linlithgow never bothered to consult the leaders of the Congress ministries. Dissatisfied by the unilateral action of Linlithgow, the Congress ministries resigned on 29-30 October, 1939.
The six-year period of war has been divided into two phases. The first phase was from 1939 to 1942 and the second phase 1942 to 1945. In the beginning it was felt that the war would affect very little of India and Indians but the collapse of France and the isolation of Britain caused a general feeling of anxiety and the success of Britain won the admiration of the Indians. The delay of granting dominion status until after the war created sourness and suspicion in the minds of the Indians. Gandhi very generously declared in 1940, ‘we do not seek independence out of Britain’s ruins’. Sensing the mood of the Indians, the government announced the August offer of 1940.
In this offer, Linlithgow assured the Muslims that complete protection would be provided to them in case of any settlement taking place between Britain and India. The August offer held out the promise of dominion status for India with the assurance that after the end of the war a representative body would be set up to devise a framework of the new constitution. This offer of August 1940 was rejected by the Congress as well as the Muslim League.
After rejecting the August offer, the Congress launched individual civil disobedience movement in which nearly 25,000 Satyagrahis courted arrest. In the midst of this civil disobedience movement, the Viceroy expanded the council and constituted a National Defence Council with 50 members belonging to provinces and princely states. In 1941 Japan and America entered the war. Percival Spear observes: “A new chapter began with the entry of Japan and America into the war in December 1941. On the one hand India was now intimately concerned with events and on the other the British government was now subject to American suggestions and pressures which were not being applied”.
In 1942 on March 11, the British government announced the dispatch of Sir Stafford Cripps with proposals to India. This offer caused great excitement in India and everyone looked with great expectation for the arrival of the Cripps Mission.
The appointment of the Mission was the result of the intervention of the American President Roosevelt with Churchill and also because of request of Sapru and Jayakar. Even Chang Kai Shek during his visit to India expressed sympathy for India’s aspiration for freedom. Cripps persuaded the war cabinet to agree to his draft proposals. In this draft proposal he promised post-war dominion status with right of secession, a constitution making body elected by provincial legislatures, with individual provinces being given the right not to join it, and with states being invited to appoint representatives. Finally, Cripps proposals were rejected by the Congress and other sections.
Gandhi launched Quit India movement which was opposed by the League. Even before the Quit India movement was formally launched, in the early hours of 9, August, the British government arrested all the worthwhile leaders of the movement. Strangely, Rajaji and the communists viewed that there should be an understanding with the League by agreeing to the right of the majority of Muslim provinces to secede through plebiscite after India becomes independent. Keeping aside these views, Nehru moved the resolution of Quit India movement which the communists opposed.
Britain tried to win the world opinion by painting India as a ‘fifth columnist conspirator’ forgetting it– earlier anti-fascist stance. Shifting fortunes of the war also decided the course to be followed by the Congress. By the end of 1942, by brutal suppression the movement was brought under control. Gandhi was kept in jail and was released in 1944. In the meanwhile, the Muslim League made rapid strides and by 1943, it formed ministries in Assam, Sind, Bengal and North Western Frontier provinces. The slogan of Pakistan gained momentum.
Subhas Chandra Bose, who left India during this period continued his efforts of achieving independence to India by starting Indian Legion in Berlin in 1941. But he left Germany in 1943 by giving his famous call ‘Delhi Chalo’ and formed Azad Hind Government and the Indian National Army on 21 October 1943. Subhas Chandra Bose sought the blessings of Mahatma for all his efforts.
On July 6, 1944, Subhas Chandra Bose in a broadcast on Azad Hind Radio addressed Gandhi as follows: “India’s last war of independence has begun Father of our nation! In this holy war of India’s liberation we ask for your blessing and good wishes”. Between March and June 1944, the INA was in action on Indian soil which ultimately ended in total failure.
INA men surrendered to Britain in mid-1945 and became prisoners again. Till even today, we are not certainly sure of what happened to Bose. Some believed that Bose died in an air crash and some really believe that he is still alive. When the British government tried to try the INA men as prisoners of war, there was spontaneous outburst of anger against British in November 1945.
Sumit Sarkar observes: “Even more significant was the probable link between the INA experience and the way of disaffection in the British Indian army during the winter of 1945-46, which culminated in the great Bombay naval strike of February 1946 and was quite possibly the single most decisive reason behind the British decision to make a quick withdrawal”. The Second World War came to an end in 1945 and it was followed by Simla conference in June 1945. Unfortunately, the conference failed to arrive at any consensus due to determined policy of the Muslims and the Hindus.
As explained above, India passed through a most disturbing phase of agony and crisis due to the rigid stand of contending social and economic groups and the adamancy of the British in satisfying the nationalist aspirations of the Indians. By 1945, the realization of the dream of the Indians to attain independence was only a foot away with a certainty of the unhappy division of India on communal lines.