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Indian National Movement During World War II

Indian National Movement

The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland under the expansionist regime of Adolf Hitler. This deadly war lasted till 1945, two years before India’s independence from the British colonial regime.

The two warring groups of countries were the Allies (France, Great Britain, United States, Soviet Union, and, to some extent, China) and the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) powers. World War II has been by far the deadliest war in world history with casualties in the range of 70 to 85 million, most of them being civilians. While the world was engaging in this war, India was at the peak of its struggle for independence.  However, India was not untouched by the war.

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Without consulting the elected members of the central legislature or the National Congress Party, the British imposed Indian government joined the war in support of Britain. Leaders of the Indian struggle for independence demanded that India must be declared free or the power be placed in the hands of the Indians before they participated in the war. The freedom struggle saw it as an opportune moment to mount pressure on Britain which was suffering from the war.

Mahatma Gandhi declared the Satyagraha movement in October 1940 to further mount pressure on the British Raj. Japan was causing problems for the Allies by overrunning the Philippines, Indo-China, Indonesia, Malaya, and Burma. With Japan’s occupation of Rangoon, the war had arrived in India’s footsteps. Great Britain was getting desperate for India’s support and participation in the war.

To garner this cooperation, the British government sent Sir Stafford Cripps in March 1942 to negotiate with the National Congress. Cripps reiterated Britain’s agenda for the earliest possible realisation of self-rule in India.

However, the talks broke down as Indian leaders were looking for an immediate and absolute transfer of power, which Britain was not agreeable to. As a result, the “Quit India” resolution was passed on August 8, 1942. A non-violent movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was envisaged with the objective of an immediate and complete transfer of power from the British. The movement caught mass appeal with the immediate arrest of Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian leaders. Quit India soon became a pan-India movement with processions, protests and strikes in schools, colleges, and factories all over India.

The British government did not leave any stone unturned to muzzle the movement. Instances of lathi charge and firing were reported from all across the country. The freedom of the press was completely suppressed and protestors were even machine-gunned and bombed. The British Government in India succeeded in muzzling this revolt of 1942 and it proved to be quite short-lived.

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The British managed to keep the Indian freedom movement quiet till the end of the war in 1945 with most leaders behind bars for most of this duration. India suffered through a terrible Bengal Famine during this period with more than 3 million deaths due to extreme starvation. The British were largely blamed for this heavy death toll. The anger amongst Indians was at its peak for the British Raj.

While things were relatively quiet within India, things were heating up outside the Indian frontiers. Subhash Chandra Bose was organising the Azad Hind Fauj to fight against the British. He escaped India in 1941 and travelled to Russia, Germany, and Japan for help. Bose organised an armed struggle against the British with Japanese help in 1943. The Azad Hind Fauj, or the Indian National Army (INA) was formulated in Singapore under the leadership of Subhash Chandra Bose. The objective of INA was to open an armed frontier for India’s fight for independence from British rule. The collapse of Japan during 1944-45 unfortunately quashed the hopes of INA to liberate India, followed by the death of Subhash Bose in an aeroplane crash.

The INA did manage to breathe energy into a stagnating Indian struggle for independence. The British captured and put on trial all the INA soldiers. On the contrary, the Indian diaspora treated these soldiers as heroes. Processions, rallies and protests were carried out across the country demanding the release of the INA soldiers. Finally, the British had to secede and set the soldiers free.

World War II brought about a significant shift in the attitude of the British Raj towards India. The United States of America and the Soviet Union emerged as supreme powers after the war, and both supported Indian independence. Britain was still recovering from the economic and military beating it took despite ending up on the victorious side of the war. The Indian struggle for independence was breathing with a new energy of resurgence and Britain was fast running out of energy and resources to continuously fight against the Indian independence movement. Large-scale labour protests and unrest had taken over the entire country. The global opinion was largely in support of Indian independence.

Succumbing to this pressure the British government sent a cabinet mission in 1946 to negotiate the transfer of power. A two-tiered federal system of government was proposed wherein there was to be a federation of provinces and states with the centre only controlling defence, foreign affairs, and communications. Both the key national parties, the National Congress and the Muslim League accepted this plan. An interim cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru was formulated in September 1946 with the Muslim League joining the government later in October after some hesitation. On February 20, 1947, British Prime Minister Atlee declared that the British would leave India in June 1948.

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Unfortunately, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in August 1946 which later led to the eventual partition of India. India went through a painstaking partition. Eventually, on 3 June 1947, the announcement was made that both India and Pakistan would be free. On August 15, 1947, India met its tryst with destiny and breathed its day of freedom. Jawaharlal Nehru assumed office as our first Prime Minister. The princely states were given the option to join either India or Pakistan. Most of the princely states acceded to India thanks to the masterful diplomacy of Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In all of this, and India achieving their independence after 200-plus years of struggle, the role of World War II cannot be underestimated.

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