Gandhi found the answer, — Britain must quit India. It is not for them to think of what would happen if they left, when they left. India was there before they came. India would look after itself when they left. For heaven's sake, quit. Leave the country to God, or anarchy. But go. The country pricked its ears. Here was the voice of revolution, a non-violent revolution.
Some leaders of the
Congress were baffled. Even Jawaharlal and Azad were not sure of the wisdom
of the proposal. They thought that it might help the enemies of democracy.
Some Britishers condemned Gandhi as a fifth columnist, an agent of the Axis
powers and Japan. But Gandhi's erstwhile adversary against whom he had
fought for 20 long years in South Africa, General Smuts, said "It is sheer
nonsense to talk of Mahatma Gandhi as a "fifth" columnist. He is a great
man. He is one of the great men of the world."
Gandhi wrote and spoke
explaining the reasons behind his proposal. He explained it to the world
through the interviews he gave to outstanding columnists like Louis Fischer.
His message echoed throughout the length and breadth of the country. Faint
hearts picked up courage. The nonplussed saw that there was a way. In the
course of a few weeks the country was electrified. Students, young men and
women, workers, villagers, — every section of the people felt that the hour
had come. The country depended on them. The future depended on them. Gandhi
told them that the hour had come to "do or die". It was only when
individuals went forth to seek death that nations lived. In a few weeks,
Gandhi had set the country on fire.
The Working Committee of
the Congress met at Sevagram, and took the momentous decision on the 14th of
July. The resolution asking Britain to Quit India was adopted by the All
India Congress Committee at the Gowalia Tank grounds at Bombay, on the 8th
of August 1942. Gandhi had told the meeting that he would meet the Viceroy
and try to convince him. If he failed, he would tell the country what to do.
It would be an unprecedented mass upsurge, — revolution, but strictly
non-violent. Anything else will misfire and lead to a rout. He asked the
country to wait for his signal and the programme of Civil Disobedience and
Non-cooperation, if his talks with the Viceroy failed.
The country was waiting
for his signal when the Government struck. Soon after midnight on the
morning of the 9th of August, Gandhi was arrested. So were all the members
of the Congress Working Committee and all the known leaders of the Congress
at the Central, State and District levels. The papers were muzzled; so no
one knew what had become of Gandhi or the leaders. Rumours spread that
Gandhi had been taken to Africa. It was after a day or two that people came
to know that Gandhi had been taken to Poona, and lodged in the Aga Khan's
Palace which had been converted into a special prison. The leaders in the
Working Committee including Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Sardar
Vallabhbhai, and others were lodged in the Fort at Ahmednagar which was
protected by a moat that encircled it. All the leaders who could speak or
guide authentically were taken away and isolated from the people.
A tidal wave of fury
swept the country. It seemed as though all restraints gave way. It seemed as
though there was only one objective. Hit back and give the Government a
taste of the fury of the people. Since most of the older leaders had been
removed from the scene, the leaders of the younger generation took over. No
instructions had been formulated or left behind since Gandhi was waiting to
know what would transpire in his talks with the Viceroy.
Hundreds of thousands of
processions were taken out in all the States, almost all towns and villages,
in defiance of prohibitory orders. Attempts were made to hoist the National
Flag on the offices and buildings of the Government, and in public places.
The country echoed with the cry "Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai", "Britain, Quit
India". Attempts were made to disrupt communications. Fish plates and rails
were removed. Bridges were blown up. Government buildings were set on fire.
Telephone wires were cut off. Efforts were made to prevent rail traffic.
Students and young men and women were in the forefront of action. They
forced the closure of schools and colleges for months. Many young men and
women were shot down while hoisting the National Flag. There were
indiscriminate arrests, and detention without trial. Those who attempted to
lead processions or hold meetings were mercilessly lathi charged or shot at.
Machine guns were used. Unarmed crowds were fired upon from the air. A reign
of terror was launched. Collective fines were imposed. Villagers were forced
to patrol tracks at night, on penalty of arrest and collective fines. Women
were maltreated. At many places, police entered villages and indulged in
orgies of rape and shooting. Prisoners were treated with cruelty. Many were
tortured. Even leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan were subjected to torture.
There was unprecedented,
deliberate, barbarous repression. In some States like Bengal, Bihar and
Maharashtra, parallel governments were set up in villages and Tahsils, and
the supporters and henchmen of the Government were subjected to corporal
'punishment'. Gandhi came to know of all this only much later. In the
meanwhile, the Government launched an intense campaign to malign Gandhi and
the Congress leaders. They blamed Gandhi for the violent demonstrations and
'sabotage', and accused Gandhi of having sanctioned them or connived at
them, if he had not plotted them. They suggested that he had given up his
faith in nonviolence. Some implied that his non-violence was a ploy, and
that he was indulging in downright hypocrisy when he talked of non-violence.
They tried to spread these stories all over the world.
Gandhi was in prison. He
had no way of answering these allegations in public and countering the
calumny that was put out. He wrote to the Viceroy and the Government on
these allegations. He charged the Government with having precipitated the
struggle, isolating the leaders from the people with a midnight sweep;
provoking the people and unleashing a reign of "leonine violence" against
the people. If he had not been arrested and isolated, he would have appealed
to the people to stick strictly to the path of non-violence. It was most
likely that he would have succeeded. His faith in non-violence was the
breath of his life. It was no ploy. He had often declared that he did not
care for an independence that was won through violence, because it would not
signify the freedom of the common man. It seemed as though the Government
had lost all sense of propriety, fair play or justice. How else could they
level such grave allegations against him and yet not give him a chance to
answer the allegations? If they had a shred of evidence they should put him
on trial. If found guilty, he would bear the consequences. Time was of the
essence in meting out justice. His correspondence with the Government only
brought long and tortuous replies, but not acceptance of the challenge to
prove him guilty in a court of justice.
Even before Gandhi
settled down in the prison in the Aga Kkhan's Palace, he was shaken by a
tragic blow. Mahadev Desai, who had worked as his secretary, almost from the
beginning of his public work in India, died of a sudden heart attack on the
15th of August. Desai had served Gandhi and the cause dutifully, — recording
Gandhi's interviews and speeches, helping him answer his voluminous mail,
writing continuously in the Young India and Harijan, and helping Gandhi in
the work of editing these journals, keeping accounts, regulating
appointments, keeping in touch with Congress workers and the organisation
for constructive work that Gandhi set up, maintaining contacts with the high
officials of the British Government and so on. Mahadev Desasi's death was a
truly irreparable loss for Gandhi.
As on the previous
occasion when he was in prison Gandhi kept himself busy with daily prayers,
spinning, writing to the Government and detailed discussions with his prison
mates on matters of religion, political philosophy, economic programmes,
techniques of revolution, the ideal of a classless and stateless society,
and similar subjects. The Government had lodged some of his colleagues with
him, Kasturba was with him. Others who were with him at the Aga Khan's
palace included Sarojini Naidu, Mirabehn, Pyarelal Nayyar and Sushila Nayyar.
He read many books and discussed them with his colleagues. It was during
these days that he first read Marx's Das Capital. There were, therefore,
incisive and extensive discussions on Marx and Marxism, the Soviet
experiment, and the superiority of techniques and goals based on
By February 1943, Gandhi
felt that he had waited long enough for a reply from the Government on his
demand for an opportunity to clear himself of the charges that the
Government had levelled against him. He should do something to vindicate
himself. He decided to go on a fast of 21 days. It began on the 10th of
February. The Viceroy dismissed it as political black mail. But as Gandhi
embarked on his fast there was deep agony in India. He was in poor health,
and in no condition to undergo the rigours of a 21-day fast. Soon he entered
the 'danger zone'. The doctors who attended on him said that he would suffer
an irretrievable breakdown, and would die if he did not take glucose. Every
moment seemed crucial. None of his Indian colleagues could dare suggest to
Gandhi that he should take glucose in the water he was drinking. Yet they
too knew that nothing else could save him. They were disconsolate. The
Surgeon-General who was an Englishman was so moved and so keen to try to
save Gandhi that he decided to try and persuade Gandhi. He broached the
subject. Gandhi managed a smile, and signalled that he was in the hands of
God. When Gandhi's colleagues entered the room, they found the
Surgeon-General wiping his tears on the verandah. The nation was on an
anxious vigil. The British Government, on its part, had made up its mind to
let Gandhi die. They assembled a pile of sandal-wood inside the precincts of
the Aga Khan's Palace for the funeral pyre. But the miracle occurred. Gandhi
came back from the brink of death, much to the surprise of the doctors, much
to the chagrin of the Government, and much to the joy of the Indian people.
There was a spurt in programmes of defiance all over the country. The
nation's agony was so intense that three Indian members of the Viceroy's
Executive Council disassociated themselves from the policy of the
Government, and resigned.
Kasturba Gandhi had been
in indifferent health from 1943. The illness did not respond to treatment.
In February 1944, she breathed her last with her head in Gandhi's lap. A few
days earlier, she had told Gandhi : 'Now, I am going.' As Gandhi said, 'They
were indeed a couple out of the ordinary.' She had been his partner for over
sixty years in a saga of ordeals, suffering, discovery of self, and sadhana
for truth and nonviolence. It was another irreparable loss that he
sustained while in the Aga Khan's Palace.
All these began to tell
on Gandhi's health. He was laid low with malaria. He had also contracted
amoebiasis. As reports of his health came to be known, and his condition
deteriorated, there were increasing and insistent demands for his release,
from India and outside. The fortunes of the war had turned in favour of the
Allies. The Government was no longer in a state of panic. They decided to
On his release streams
of visitors began to converge at Gandhi's residence. He found that he was
too weak even to talk. He had to conserve his energy by observing silence.
But he rallied soon, and began to pick up the threads of his preoccupations.
The members of the
Working Committee were still in prison. So were most others who had been
detained. A way had to be found to lead the country out of the deadlock. He
wrote to the Viceroy and the Prime Minister Churchill offering his services
"for the sake of your people and mine, and through them those of the world".
He met with a rebuff.
He saw that political
progress was being blocked by the persisting differences with Jinnah and the
Muslim League. He decided to try to reassure Jinnah and narrow down
differences. He sought a meeting with Jinnah. Gandhi and Jinnah parleyed at
Jinnah's residence at Mount Pleasant Road in Bombay for nearly two weeks.
But the ice could not be broken. Jinnah refused to relent or even specify
his demands. In 1940 the Muslim League had met at Lahore and passed a
resolution demanding the partition of the country and the creation of a new
State (to be called Pakistan) consisting of the areas in which Muslims were
in a majority.
Jinnah was not willing
to concede the right that he demanded for the Muslim minority in India to
the non-Muslim minority in the areas that he claimed as part of the
projected Pakistan. The talks broke down.
The phase of defiance
had quietened down. But the other part of the programme, the constructive
programme which, in Gandhi's eyes, was as essential as Civil Disobedience
could be carried out, had to be carried out. Many new ideas had occurred to
him while in prison. He, therefore, convened meetings of workers who were
engaged in the fields of Khadi and Village Industries, Nayi Talim or Basic
Education, Harijan Seva, Tribal Welfare, Hindustani Prachar, organizations
of women, students and labour and so on, and chalked out plans to deepen and
revolutionize these activities, with the objective of working for a new
human being and a new society. He had also revived the morale of the workers
of the Congress and organizations of constructive work. He travelled to the
different States of the country, meeting workers and people, rebuilding
morale, revitalizing programmes, trying to kindle new hope.