With the end of the War in Europe in April 1945, India’s struggle for freedom entered a new phase. The Revolt of 1942 and the INA had revealed the heroism and determination of the Indian people.
With the release of the national leaders from jail, the people began to look forward to another, perhaps the final, struggle for freedom.
The new struggle took the form of a massive movement against the trial of the soldiers and officers of the INA. The government decided to put on trial in the Red Fort at Delhi Shah Nawaz Khan, Gurdial Singh Dhillon and Prem Sehgal, officers of the INA, who had earlier been officers in the British-Indian army.
They were accused of having broken the oath of loyalty to the British Crown and thus of having become ‘traitors’. On the other hand, the people welcomed them as national heroes. Huge popular demonstrations demanding their release were held all over the country.
The entire country now seethed with excitement and confidence that this time the struggle would be won. They would not let these heroes be punished. And the British government was this time in no position to ignore Indian opinion.
Even though the Court Martial held the INA prisoners guilty, the government felt it expedient to set them free. The changed attitude of the British government is explained by several factors.
First, the War had changed the balance of power in the world. Not Britain, but the United States of America and the Soviet Union emerged from the war as the big powers. Both supported India’s demand for freedom.
Second, even though Britain was on the winning side in the War, its economic and military power was shattered. It would take Britain years to rehabilitate it.
Moreover; there was a change of government in Britain. The Conservatives were replaced by the Labour Party, many of whose members supported the Congress demands.
The British soldiers were weary of war. Having fought and shed their blood for nearly six years, they had no desire to spend many more years away from home in India suppressing the Indian people’s struggle for freedom.
Third, the British-Indian government could not any longer rely on the Indian personnel of its civil administration and armed forces to suppress the national movement.
The INA had shown that patriotic ideas had entered the ranks of the professional Indian army, the chief instrument of British rule in India. Another straw in the wind was the famous revolt of the Indian naval ratings at Bombay in February 1946.
The ratings had fought a seven-hour battle with the army and navy and had surrendered only when asked to do so by the national leaders. Naval ratings in many other parts had gone on sympathetic strike.
Moreover, there were also widespread strikes in the Royal Indian Air Force. The Indian Signal Corps at Jabalpur also went on strike.
The other two major instruments of British rule, the police and the bureaucracy, were also showing signs of nationalist leanings.
They could no longer be safely used to suppress the national movement. For example, the police force in Bihar and Delhi went on strike.
Fourth, and above all, the confident and determined mood of the Indian people was by now obvious. They would no longer tolerate the humiliation of foreign rule.
They would no longer rest till freedom was won. There was the Naval Mutiny and the struggle for the release of INA prisoners.
In addition, there were during 1945-6 numerous agitations, strikes, hartals and demonstrations all over the country, even in many princely states such as Hyderabad, Travancore and Kashmir for example, in November 1945, lakhs of people demonstrated in the streets in Calcutta to demand the release of the INA prisoners.
For three days there was virtually no government authority left in the city. Again, on 12 February 1946, there was another mass demonstration in the city to demand the release of Abdur Rashid, one of the INA prisoners.
On 22 February, Bombay observed a complete hartal and general strike in factories and offices in sympathy with the naval ratings in revolt. The army was called in to suppress the popular upsurge. Over 250 people were shot dead on the streets in 48 hours.
There was also large-scale labour unrest all over the country. There was hardly an industry in which strikes did not occur. In July 1946, there was an all-strike by the postal and telegraph workers.
Railway workers in South India went on strike in August 1946. Peasant movements acquired a fresh thrust after 1945 as freedom approached.
The most militant of the post-war struggles was the Tebhaga struggle by the share-croppers of Bengal who declared that they would pay not one-half but one-third of the crop to the landlords. Struggles for land and against high rents also took place in Hyderabad, Malabar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra.
Students in schools and colleges took a leading part in organising strikes, hartals and demonstrations. Many of the princely states Hyderabad, Travancore, Kashmir and Patiala among others were enveloped by popular upsurges and revolts.
Elections to provincial assemblies, held in early 1946, provided another major political development. The Congress won an overwhelming majority of general seats, while the Muslim League did the same for seats reserved for Muslims.
The British government, therefore, sent in March 1946 a Cabinet Mission to India to negotiate with the Indian leaders the terms for the transfer of power to Indians.
The Cabinet Mission proposed a two-tiered federal plan which was expected to maintain national unity while conceding the largest measure of regional autonomy. There was to be a federation of the provinces and the states, with the federal centre controlling only defense, foreign affairs and communications.
At the same time, individual provinces could form regional unions to which they could surrender by mutual agreement some of their powers. Both the National Congress and the Muslim League accepted this plan.
But the two could not agree on the plan for an interim government which would convene a constituent assembly to frame a constitution for the free, federal India. The two also put differing interpretations on the Cabinet Mission scheme to which they had agreed earlier.
In the end, in September 1946, an Interim Cabinet, headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, was formed by the Congress. The Muslim League joined the Cabinet in October after some hesitation; but it decided to boycott the constituent assembly. On 20 February 1947, Clement Attlee, British Premier, declared that the British would quit India by June 1948.
But the elation of coming independence was marred by the large- scale communal riots during and after August 1946. The Hindu and Muslim communalists blamed each other for starting the heinous killings and competed with each other in cruelty.
Mahatma Gandhi, engulfed in gloom at this total disregard of elementary humanity and seeing truth and non-violence cast to the winds, toured East Bengal and Bihar on foot to check the riots.
Many other Hindus and Muslims laid down their lives in the effort to extinguish the fire of communalism. But the seeds had been sown too deep by the communal elements, aided and abetted by the alien government. Gandhi and other nationalists fought vainly against communal prejudices and passions.
Finally, Lord Mountbatten, who had come to India as Viceroy in March 1947, worked out a compromise after long discussions with the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League: the country was to be free but not united. India was to be partitioned and a new state of Pakistan was to be created along with a free India.
The nationalist leaders agreed to the partition of India in order to avoid the large- scale blood-bath and communal riots threatened by the separatists.
But they did not accept the two-nation theory. They did not agree to hand over one-third of the country to the Muslim League as the latter wanted and as the proportion of Muslims in the Indian population would have indicated. They agreed to the separation of only those areas where the influence of the Muslim League was predominant.
Thus, Punjab, Bengal and Assam were to be partitioned. The Muslim League was to get ‘a moth-eaten’ Pakistan. In the North-West Frontier Province, and the Sylhet district of Assam where the influence of the League was doubtful, a plebiscite was to be held. In other words the country was to be partitioned but not on the basis of Hinduism and Islam.
The Indian nationalists accepted partition not because there were two nations in India a Hindu nation and a Muslim nation but because the historical development of communalism, both Hindu and Muslim, over the past 70 years or so had created a situation where the alternative to partition was mass killing of lakhs of innocent people in senseless and barbaric communal riots.
If these riots had been confined to one section of the country, the Congress leaders could have tried to curb them and taken a strong stand against partition. But unfortunately the fratricidal riots were taking place everywhere and actively involved both Hindus and Muslims.
On top of it all, the country was still ruled by foreigners who did little to check the riots. On the other hand, the foreign government rather encouraged these riots by their divisive policies, perhaps hoping to play the two newly independent states against each other. Referring to communalism Jawaharlal Nehru had written in 1948 in his The Discovery of India.
It is our fault, of course, and we must suffer for our failings. But I cannot excuse or forgive the British authorities for the deliberate part they have played in creating disruption in India. All other injuries will pass, but this will continue to plague us for a much longer period.
Even Jinnah was in the end forced to revise his two-nation theory lying at the heart of communalism. When asked by Muslims who were staying on in India what they should do, he asked them to become loyal citizens of India.
And he told the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” He was, in vain, trying to put back in the bottle the genie he had released to practice communal politics.
The announcement that India and Pakistan would be free was made on 3 June 1947. The princely states were given the choice of joining either of the new states.
Under the pressure of the popular States People’s movements and guided by the masterful diplomacy of Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, most of them acceded to India. The Nawab of Junagadh, the Nizam ofHyderabad and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir held back for some time.
The Nawab of Junagadh, a small state on the coast of Kathiawar, announced accession to Pakistan even though the people of the state desired to join India. In the end, Indian troops occupied the state and a plebiscite was held which went in favour of joining India.
The Nizam of Hyderabad made an attempt to claim an independent status but was forced to accede in 1948 after an internal revolt had broken out in its Telengana area and after Indian troops had marched into Hyderabad.
The Maharaja of Kashmir also delayed accession to India or Pakistan even though the popular forces led by the National Conference wanted accession to India. However, he acceded to India in October 1947 after Pathans and irregular armed forces of Pakistan invaded Kashmir.
On 15 August 1947, India celebrated with joy its first day of freedom. The sacrifices of generations of patriots and the blood of countless martyrs had borne fruit.
Their dream was now a reality. In a memorable address to the Constituent Assembly on the night of 14 August, Jawaharlal Nehru, giving expression to the feeling of the people, said:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.
We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.
But the sense of joy, which should have been overwhelming and unlimited, was mixed with pain and sadness. The dream of Indian unity had been shattered and brother had been torn from brother; what was worse, even at the very moment of freedom a communal orgy, accompanied by indescribable brutalities, was consuming thousands of lives in both India and Pakistan. Lakhs of refugees, forced to leave the lands of their forefathers, were pouring into the two new states.
Writing of those months, Nehru wrote later: Fear and hatred blinded our minds and all the restraints which civilisation imposes were swept away. Horror piled on horror, and sudden emptiness seized us at the brute savagery of human beings.
The lights seemed all to go out; not all, for a few still flickered in the raging tempest. We sorrowed for the dead and the dying, and for those whose suffering was greater than that of death. We sorrowed even more for India, our common mother, for whose freedom we had laboured these long years.
The symbol of this tragedy at the moment of national triumph was the forlorn figure of Gandhiji-the man who had given the message of non-violence, truth, and love and courage and manliness to the Indian people, the man who symbolised all that was best in Indian culture.
He had been touring the hate-torn parts of the country, trying to bring comfort to people who were even then paying through senseless communal slaughter the price of freedom. He had come to Calcutta from the Punjab and proposed going to Noakhali.
He stayed in Calcutta in a locality which had been one of the worst affected by the communal riots. He spent the Independence Day by fasting and spinning.
The celebrations had hardly died down when on 30 January 1948 an assassin a hate-filled Hindu fanatic extinguished the light that had shown so bright in our land for over 70 years. Thus Gandhi “died a martyr to the cause of unity to which he had always been devoted.”
Earlier, in reply to a journalist on the occasion of his birthday in 1947, Gandhi had said that he no longer wished to live long and that he would “invoke the aid of the Almighty to take me away from this ‘vale of tears’ rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage, whether he dares to call himself a Muslim or Hindu or what not”.
In a way, with the achievement of freedom, the country had taken only the first step: the overthrow of foreign rule had only removed the chief obstacle in the path of national regeneration.
Centuries of backwardness, prejudice, inequality and ignorance still weighed on the land and the long haul had just begun. For as Rabindranath Tagore had remarked three months before his death in 1941:
The wheels of fate will someday compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth will they leave behind them?
The freedom struggle had, however, not only overthrown colonial rule, it had also evolved a vision of what free India would be like.
This vision was that of a democratic, civil libertarian and secular India built on the foundations of an independent self-reliant economy, social and economic equality, and a politically awakened and politically active people-an India which would live in peace with its neighbours and the rest of the world, basing itself on an independent foreign policy.
The first effort to give expression to this vision was the framing of the Constitution of Free India by the Constituent Assembly under the guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar.
The Constitution, introduced on 26 January 1950, laid down certain basic principles and values. India was to be a secular and democratic republic with a parliamentary system based on adult franchise, that is, on the right of all adult men and women to vote.
It was also to be a federation with demarcation of spheres of action between the Union government and the governments of the states forming the union.
It guaranteed all Indian citizens certain fundamental rights: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble peaceably and to form associations, freedom to acquire and hold property.
The Constitution guaranteed all citizens equality before the law and equality of opportunity in government employment. The state was not to discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. ‘Untouchability’ was abolished and its practice in any form forbidden.
All Indians were given the right to freely profess, practice and propagate any religion. At the same time, it forbade imparting of any religious instruction in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds.
The Constitution also laid down certain ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ which were not enforceable in a court of law but which were to guide the state in the making of laws.
These included the promotion of a social order based on social, economic and political justice in all areas of national life, prevention of concentration of wealth and means of production, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, organisation of village panchayats, right to work and education, public assistance in case of unemployment, old age and sickness, a uniform civil code throughout the country, and promotion of the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
With confidence in their capacity and their will to succeed, the people of India now set out to change the face of their country and to build a just and good society and a secular, democratic and egalitarian India.