India In Transition

Narendra Modi wants the nation to revive the Quit India spirit. But will his own party pay heed?

In a recent Mann Ki Baat speech, the prime minister urged his countrymen to fight communalism, casteism and poverty, just as they once fought colonialism.

With the passage of time, it is natural for major events of the past to start losing their significance. Incidents that once seemed epoch-making look less important from today’s standpoint. Happenings that once had a huge mass appeal now seem to interest mostly historians and scholars.

India is an ancient nation. As such, we have too much history. We are also a nation that is changing and modernising very fast. As a nation modernises, it starts shedding its old features and also losing memory of them.

At the same time, no nation can afford to forget landmark developments in its history. To forget one’s history is to forget one’s identity, lose the link with the past and become careless about the future.

Modern India is currently experiencing this strong tension between forgetting and trying to remember. One way of remembering what is truly worth remembering is to discover contemporary meanings in important events of the past. When we fail to pay attention to the relevant lessons of past events, we tend to observe their anniversaries mostly in a ritualistic manner.

Is something similar happening to the Quit India Movement, whose 75th anniversary India will be commemorating on August 9 (Wednesday) this year?

Milestone movement

Launched at Mahatma Gandhi’s call in Bombay on August 8, 1942, the movement that demanded an end to British rule was the final big push for India’s freedom struggle. Hundreds of thousands of patriots courted arrest all over the country in the days to come. Gandhi himself was imprisoned in Pune’s Aga Khan Palace on August 9 that year, where he would be for the next two years. His call of “do or die” (which was easily translatable in all Indian languages) electrified the nation and quickened its resolve to wrest freedom from the foreign power at all costs. Within five years, the British were forced to quit India’s shores and Indian people’s dream of becoming a free nation came true on August 15, 1947.

The significance of the Quit India Movement to India’s freedom struggle is enormous. If the War of Independence in 1857 was the nationwide start of the freedom struggle, 1942 was its last and triumphant battle cry.

Sadly, beyond ritualistic remembrance, the Indian government and society are unlikely to make the 75th anniversary of the Quit India Movement a befitting occasion for nationwide discourse and commemoration. This is particularly lamentable since this year also marks the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence.

Protests during the Quit India Movement. [Credit: Dore Chakravarty/via Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 2.5]
Protests during the Quit India Movement. [Credit: Dore Chakravarty/via Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 2.5]

Hindutva stalwarts opposed ‘Quit India’

There are a few political reasons why the 75th anniversary of the Quit India Movement has failed to get the attention it deserves. First, even though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party does not say so openly, it looks at the movement as a legacy of the Congress. After all, the Quit India resolution was passed at a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, held on August 8, 1942, at Bombay’s Gowalia Tank Maidan (subsequently known as August Kranti Maidan).

Moreover, almost all the leaders and workers who were arrested by the British were members of the Congress. None of them was a prominent figure from the Rashtiya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political arm of the RSS, was yet to be formed (it was founded in 1951) and the formation of the BJP took place much later in 1980. Therefore, the Sangh Parivar does not have any direct emotional connect with the Quit India Movement.

Second, the hero of the Quit India Movement – indeed, the hero of India’s Freedom Struggle after the demise or Lokamanya Tilak in 1920 – was Gandhi. But for the Parivar, Gandhi is not a hero. Indeed, in the eyes of many of its members, he is a villain. In an absolutely baseless accusation, they hold him responsible for the purported appeasement of Muslims and for India’s Partition.

The Sangh Parivar’s heroes are Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (an ideological and political opponent of Gandhiji, who did not believe in the latter’s philosophy of non-violence), Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (his early association with the Congress was peripheral and he played no significant role in the freedom struggle after he formed the RSS in 1925) and MS Golwalkar, who stayed away from the freedom struggle, as also the Quit India Movement, after taking over the leadership of the RSS in 1940.

It is worth mentioning here that Savarkar’s party, the Hindu Mahasabha, actively opposed the Quit India Movement. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal, who later founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, assured the British that the coalition government of Bengal, of which he was a part, “would make every possible effort to defeat the Quit India Movement in the province of Bengal.”

Even Deendayal Upadhyaya, the BJP’s chief ideological guru whose birth centenary year is currently being celebrated with nationwide visibility – he was born in September 1916 – is not known to have been a major participant in India’s Independence movement.

What about the three other significant sections of India’s socio-political and intellectual establishment – the Congress, communists and Ambedkarites?

The Congress party today is so dispirited that it has neither the energy nor the inclination to commemorate the anniversary of the Quit India Movement. For communists, even to recall the Quit India Movement is embarrassing, since they had strongly opposed it at the time. After Hitler’s Germany attacked the communist-ruled Soviet Union in June 1941, Indian communists termed the Second World War (along with the Soviets) as the “Great Patriotic War” and advocated support to Britain (an ally of the Soviet Union during the war) in its war effort.

As far as Ambedkarites are concerned, they lose no opportunity to rubbish Gandhiji’s philosophy and practice. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who too had opposed the Quit India Movement, even chose to collaborate with the colonial power during World War II.

BJP’s disconnect with Gandhi 

In this context, it is truly welcome that Prime Minister Narendra Modi often invokes the name of Mahatma Gandhi. For instance, he has made Gandhi the icon of his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan for a Clean India. In his latest Mann Ki Baat broadcast to the nation on July 30, Modi once again paid tribute to the Father of the Nation by appealing to the people to revive the spirit of the Quit India Movement, urging them to quit communalism, casteism, corruption, poverty, dirt and terrorism by 2022. “Just like the five years from 1942 to 1947 became the decisive period, I can see another five-year period from 2017 to 2022 to make a resolve, in the spirit of Quit India, to end the problems of our nation and create a New India,” he said.

On the face of it, the prime minister’s appeal deserves to be supported by all. Modi has done done well to infuse contemporary meaning and significance into the Quit India Movement. But there is a problem: neither his own party organisation nor the larger Sangh Parivar seem to be in sync with his appeal to revive the Quit India spirit.

The BJP (and the Sangh Parivar) today attach the least importance to communal unity, solidarity and cooperation. They rarely extol Gandhi’s passionate advocacy of Hindu-Muslim unity, which he emphasised even in his clarion call to the British to Quit India.

If anything, the focus of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar today is on consolidating the Hindu votebank and winning a bigger majority in the 2019 Parliamentary elections. Its fight against corruption is, if anything, selective.

There is one more important point of divergence between Gandhi’s approach and that of the Sangh Parivar. Even though Gandhi was nominally with the Congress, he consciously and consistently strove to reach out to all non-Congress forces – from the communists to the RSS, from Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League to Babasaheb Ambedkar. He never hesitated to recognise the good points of those who opposed him and to forge links of cooperation with them.

This can be clearly seen in his brand of politics (indeed, he was hardly a typical politician) before, during and after the Quit India Movement. In his eyes, the nation belonged to all, not just to the Congress. Sadly, this enlightened Gandhian approach of cooperative politics and all-inclusive nation-building is hardly what the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are following today.

Therefore, if Prime Minister Modi truly believes that Indian people should revive the Quit India spirit for a major push to create a New India by 2022, he has to first make his own party and parivar accept it.

Sudheendra Kulkarni is the chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai and was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the prime minister’s office. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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