Gandhi’s ‘Soul Force’ Turns Violent, 1942

Quit India began as another of Gandhi’s great non-violent displays of ‘soul force’. There were huge demonstrations and sit-ins (hartals) in major towns in the first two weeks of August [1942]. These were put down with police firings and baton charges. Labour unrest was quelled with particular vigour because the government was fearful of its consequence for war production. Within a few weeks this popular movement had taken on a rather different character. An organization began to appear at the grass roots rather than among the homespun-clad leadership, who were by now almost all in jail. By 15 August a new pattern had emerged of a systematic attempt to sabotage Britain’s war effort based on smaller population centres along major lines of communication or near important factory complexes. Telegraph lines were cut, railway lines were ripped up and bridges dynamited. In all 66,000 people were convicted or detained, of whom about a quarter, including most of the Congress leadership, were still in jail in 1944. About 2,500 people were shot dead.

This was undoubtedly a serious revolt, and one that directly threatened the war effort. Armed groups attacked several of the weakest points of the Indian railway network, derailing trains and bombing signal boxes at essential junctions. In one incident two Canadian military officers were pulled off a train and murdered…. Even sixty years on it is still difficult to say whether this month-long campaign was organized to a plan or whether the enraged local political leadership was reacting to British repression on the hoof. The savagery of the British response – police shootings, mass whipping, the burning of villages and sporadic torture of protestors – was testimony to the fact that the Raj was seriously rattled.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 247-248

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