Do or Die: The Quit India Movement of 1942

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the Quit India movement of 1942.

By Nadya Hayasi

In August 1942, Gandhi famously proclaimed the words “We shall either free India or die in the attempt, we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.”[1] This started the Quit India movement, a mass attempt at civil disobedience which demanded an end to the British rule in India. Most of the leadership of the Indian National Congress were imprisoned without trial hours after Gandhi’s speech, but masses were still inspired to fight for their independence.[2] Many small-scale protests followed suit around the country, despite the lack of direction by prominent activist leaders. Violent crowds would attack any symbols of British authority and power, including police outposts, railway stations, and post offices.[3] 85 government buildings were damaged, and there were about 2,500 instance of telegraph wires being cut.[4] The Quit India movement was an ultimatum, the last call for freedom from the British.[5]

Going back to the cause for the Quit India Movement, Gandhi became emboldened due to the failure of the Cripps Mission. The mission was an attempt by the British government to secure full Indian cooperation and support during their World War II efforts, led by the namesake of this mission Sir Stafford Cripps. Failure to present any concrete proposals for eventual independence led feelings of upset and disappointment from the Indian National Congress, who started to plan a major revolt to demand immediate British withdrawal from India.[6]

“Ours is not a drive for power, but purely a non-violent fight for India’s independence. In a violent struggle, a successful general has been often known to effect a military coup and to set up a dictatorship. But under the Congress scheme of things, essentially non-violent as it is, there can be no room for dictatorship. A non-violent soldier of freedom will covet nothing for himself, he fights only for the freedom of his country.”[7]

The Quit India Movement is an example of how certain nonviolent protests may fail and still achieve their goals at the end of the day. The movement lacked a clear-cut program of action and strong coordination, and was suppressed quite quickly and violently by the British forces.[8] However, the sheer determination of the people of India to push for independence overwhelmed the British, who started to sense that India was ungovernable in the long run if there is a lack of cooperation by the people.[9]

The movement also emphasized the importance of numbers in political protest. A letter by Indian political leader and activist Ram Manohar Lohia to former governor-general of India Viceroy Linlithgow mentioned how no less than 20% of the country’s population took part in the movement, convincing the British government of their conviction to move towards self-rule.[10] Despite not having the political or military power to overcome the British, the Indians were unmoving in their stance and unshakeable in the face of their colonial power.

Ultimately, the Quit India movement is one of the key case studies in proving that nonviolence can certainly be a powerful political tool and create lasting social change in ways never imagined before.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Quit India Speech (Gowalia Tank Maidan Park, India, 8 August 1942).

[2] Anjali Cadambi, Indians campaign for full independence (Quit India Campaign), 1942-1943, Global Nonviolent Action Database (11 October 2010).

[3] Bidyut Chakrabarty, “Defiance and Confrontation: The 1942 Quit India Movement in Midnapur,” Social Scientist Vo. 20 No. 7/8 (July 1992): 75.

[4] John F. Riddick, The History of British India: A Chronology (Praeger, 2006): 115.

[5] Bidyut Chakrabarty, “Political Mobilization in the Localities: The 1942 Quit India Movement in Midnapur,” Modern Asian Studies Vol. 26 No. 4 (October 1992): 791.

[6] Jugal Kishore Gupta, “Myths and Realities of the Quit India Movement”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 46 (1985): 577.

[7] Quit India Speech, 1942.

[8]  India TV News Desk, “A Day in History: Quit India Movement Day,” India TV News, 9 August 2013.

[9] Briti Roy Barman, “Ahead of this Independence Day, recalling Quit India movement on its 78th anniversary,” One India, August 8 2020.

[10] Prem Singh, “The Spirit of the Quit India Movement – Lohia’s Perception”, The Citizen India, 9 August 2019.