In 1939 Indian nationalists were angry that British Governor-General of India, Lord Linlithgow, had without consultation with them brought India into the war. The Muslim League supported the war, but Congress was divided.
At the outbreak of war, the Congress Party had passed a resolution during the Wardha meeting of the working-committee in September 1939, conditionally supporting the fight against fascism, but were rebuffed when they asked for independence in return. Gandhi had not supported this initiative, as he could not reconcile an endorsement for war (he was a committed believer in non-violent resistance, used in the Indian Independence Movement and proposed even against Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo). However, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Gandhi had stated his support for the fight against racism and of the British war effort, stating he did not seek to raise an independent India from the ashes of Britain. However, opinions remained divided.
After the onset of the war, only a group led by Subhas Chandra Bose took any decisive action. Bose organised the free India legion army in Germany and reorganised the Indian National Army with Japanese assistance, and, soliciting help from the Axis Powers, conducted a guerrilla war against the British authorities.
Stafford Cripps,On the March 1942, faced with an increasingly dissatisfied sub-continent only reluctantly participating in the war and deterioration in the war situation in Europe and with growing dissatisfaction among Indian troops—especially in Africa—and among the civilian population in the sub-continent, the British government sent a delegation to India under Stafford Cripps, the Leader of the House of Commons, in what came to be known as the Cripps mission. The purpose of the mission was to negotiate with the Indian National Congress a deal to obtain total co-operation during the war, in return for progressive devolution and distribution of power from the crown and the Viceroy to an elected Indian legislature. The talks failed, as they did not address the key demand of a timetable of self-government and of definition of the powers to be relinquished, essentially making an offer of limited dominion-status that was wholly unacceptable to the Indian movement.
In 1939, with the outbreak of war between Germany and Britain, India was announced to be a party to the war for being a constituent component of the British Empire. Following this declaration, the Congress Working Committee at its meeting on 10 October 1939, passed a resolution condemning the aggressive activities of the Germans. At the same time the resolution also stated that India could not associate herself with war unless it was consulted first. Responding to this declaration, the Viceroy issued a statement on 17 October wherein he claimed that Britain is waging a war driven by the motif to strengthen peace in the world. He also stated that after the war, the government would initiate modifications in the Act of 1935, in accordance to the desires of the Indians.
Gandhi's reaction to this statement was; "the old policy of divide and rule is to continue. The Congress has asked for bread and it has got stone." According to the instructions issued by High Command, the Congress ministers were directed to resign immediately. Congress ministers from eight provinces resigned following the instructions. The resignation of the ministers was an occasion of great joy and rejoicing for leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He called the day of 22 December 1939 'The Day of Deliverance'. Gandhi urged Jinnah against the celebration of this day, however, it was futile. At the Muslim League Lahore Session held in March 1940, Jinnah declared in his presidential address that the Muslims of the country wanted a separate homeland, Pakistan.
In the meanwhile, crucial political events took place in England. Chamberlain was succeeded by Churchill as the Prime Minister and the Conservatives, who assumed power in England, did not have a sympathetic stance towards the claims made by the Congress. In order to pacify the Indians in the circumstance of worsening war situation, the Conservatives were forced to concede some of the demands made by the Indians. On 8 August, the Viceroy issued a statement that has come to be referred as the "August Offer". However, the Congress rejected the offer followed by the Muslim League.
In the context of widespread dissatisfaction that prevailed over the rejection of the demands made by the Congress, Gandhi at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee in Wardha revealed his plan to launch Individual Civil Disobedience. Once again, the weapon of satyagraha found popular acceptance as the best means to wage a crusade against the British. It was widely used as a mark of protest against the unwavering stance assumed by the British. Vinoba Bhave, a follower of Gandhi, was selected by him to initiate the movement. Anti war speeches ricocheted in all corners of the country, with the satyagrahis earnestly appealing to the people of the nation not to support the Government in its war endeavors. The consequence of this satyagrahi campaign was the arrest of almost fourteen thousand satyagrahis. On 3 December 1941, the Viceroy ordered the acquittal of all the satyagrahis. In Europe the war situation became more critical with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Congress realised the necessity for appraising their program. Subsequently, the movement was withdrawn.
The Cripps' Mission and its failure also played an important role in Gandhi's call for The Quit India Movement. In order to end the deadlock, the British government on 22 March 1942, sent Sir Stafford Cripps to talk terms with the Indian political parties and secure their support in Britain's war efforts. A Draft Declaration of the British Government was presented, which included terms like establishment of Dominion, establishment of a Constituent Assembly and right of the Provinces to make separate constitutions. These would be, however, granted after the cessation of the Second World War. According to the Congress this Declaration only offered India a promise that was to be fulfilled in the future. Commenting on this Gandhi said; "It is a post dated cheque on a crashing bank." Other factors that contributed were the threat of Japanese invasion of India and realisation of the national leaders of the incapacity of the British to defend India.
The Congress Working Committee meeting at Wardha (14 July 1942) passed a resolution demanding complete independence from the British government. The draft proposed massive civil disobedience if the British did not accede to the demands.
However, it proved to be controversial within the party. A prominent Congress national leader Chakravarti Rajgopalachari quit the Congress over this decision, and so did some local and regional level organisers. Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were apprehensive and critical of the call, but backed it and stuck with Gandhi's leadership until the end. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Anugrah Narayan Sinha openly and enthusiastically supported such a disobedience movement, as did many veteran Gandhians and socialists like Asoka Mehta and Jayaprakash Narayan.
Allama Mashriqi (head of the Khaksar Tehrik) was called by Jawaharlal Nehru to join the Quit India Movement. Mashriqi was apprehensive of its outcome and did not agree with the Congress Working Committee's resolution. On 28 July 1942, Allama Mashriqi sent the following telegram to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Mahatma Gandhi, C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. He also sent a copy to Bulusu Sambamurti (former Speaker of the Madras Assembly). The telegram was published in the press, and it stated:
I am in receipt of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's letter of 8 July. My honest opinion is that Civil Disobedience Movement is a little pre-mature. The Congress should first concede openheartedly and with handshake to Muslim League the theoretical Pakistan, and thereafter all parties unitedly make demand of Quit India. If the British refuse, start total disobedience.
The resolution said:
The committee, therefore, resolves to sanction for the vindication of India's inalienable right to freedom and independence, the starting of a mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale, so that the country might utilise all the non-violent strength it has gathered during the last 22 years of peaceful struggle...they [the people] must remember that non-violence is the basis of the movement.
Several groups supporting Indian independence were opposed to the Quit India Movement. These included the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Communist Party of India and the princely states as below:
The Muslim League opposed the Quit India Movement as it was of the view that if the British left India in its current state, Muslims as a minority would be oppressed by the Hindu majority. Muhammad Ali Jinnah's opposition to Gandhi's call led to large numbers of Muslims cooperating with the British, and enlisting in the army. The Muslim League gained large numbers of new members. Congress members heeding Gandhi's call resigned from provincial legislatures, enabling the Muslim League, in alliance with the Hindu Mahasabha, to take control in Sindh, Bengal and Northwest Frontier.
Hindu nationalist parties like the Hindu Mahasabha openly opposed the call for the Quit India Movement and boycotted it officially. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha at that time, even went to the extent of writing a letter titled "Stick to your Posts", in which he instructed Hindu Sabhaites who happened to be "members of municipalities, local bodies, legislatures or those serving in the army...to stick to their posts" across the country, and not to join the Quit India Movement at any cost.
Following the Hindu Mahasabha's official decision to boycott the Quit India movement,Syama Prasad Mukherjee, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal, (which was a part of the ruling coalition in Bengal led by Krishak Praja Party of Fazlul Haq), wrote a letter to the British Government as to how they should respond, if the Congress gave a call to the British rulers to Quit India. In this letter, dated July 26, 1942 he wrote:
“Let me now refer to the situation that may be created in the province as a result of any widespread movement launched by the Congress. Anybody, who during the war, plans to stir up mass feeling, resulting internal disturbances or insecurity, must be resisted by any Government that may function for the time being”
Mookerjee in this letter reiterated that the Fazlul Haq led Bengal Government, along with its alliance partner Hindu Mahasabha would make every possible effort to defeat the Quit India Movement in the province of Bengal and made a concrete proposal as regards this:
“The question is how to combat this movement (Quit India) in Bengal? The administration of the province should be carried on in such a manner that in spite of the best efforts of the Congress, this movement will fail to take root in the province. It should be possible for us, especially responsible Ministers, to be able to tell the public that the freedom for which the Congress has started the movement, already belongs to the representatives of the people. In some spheres it might be limited during the emergency. Indian have to trust the British, not for the sake for Britain, not for any advantage that the British might gain, but for the maintenance of the defense and freedom of the province itself. You, as Governor, will function as the constitutional head of the province and will be guided entirely on the advice of your Minister.
Even the Indian historian R.C. Majumdar noted this fact and states:
"Shyam Prasad ended the letter with a discussion of the mass movement organised by the Congress. He expressed the apprehension that the movement would create internal disorder and will endanger internal security during the war by exciting popular feeling and he opined that any government in power has to suppress it, but that according to him could not be done only by persecution.... In that letter he mentioned item wise the steps to be taken for dealing with the situation .... "
The Communist Party of India was banned at that time by the British government. In order to get the ban lifted, as well as to assist the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany, it supported the British war effort, despite support for Quit India by many industrial workers. In response the British lifted the ban on the party.
The movement had less support in the princely states, as the princes were strongly opposed and funded the opposition.
The Indian nationalists had very little international support. They knew that the United States strongly supported Indian independence, in principle, and believed the U.S. was an ally. However, after Churchill threatened to resign if pushed too hard, the U.S. quietly supported him while bombarding Indians with propaganda designed to strengthen public support of the war effort. The poorly run American operation annoyed both the British and the Indians.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) kept aloof from the Congress-led anti-British Indian independence movement since its founding by K.B. Hedgewar in 1925. In 1942, the RSS, under M.S. Golwalkar refused to join in the Quit India Movement. The Bombay government (British) appreciated the RSS position by noting that,
"the Sangh has scrupulously kept itself within the law, and in particular, has refrained from taking part in the disturbances that broke out in August 1942".".
The British Government stated that the RSS was not in support of civil disobedience, and as such their other political activities (even if objectionable) can be overlooked. The British Government also asserted that at Sangh meetings organized during the times of anti-British movements started and fought by the Indian National Congress,
"speakers urged the Sangh members to keep aloof from the congress movement and these instructions were generally observed".
The RSS head (sarsanghchalak) during that time, M.S. Golwalkar later stated that the RSS did not support the Quit India Movement. Such a non-committal attitude during the Indian freedom movement also led to the Sangh being viewed with distrust and anger, both by the general Indian public, as well as certain members of the organization itself. In Golwalkar’s own words,
“In 1942 also, there was a strong sentiment in the hearts of many. At that time too, the routine work of the Sangh continued. Sangh decided not to do anything directly. ‘Sangh is the organization of inactive people, their talks have no substance’ was the opinion uttered not only by outsiders but also our own swayamsevaks””
According to John F. Riddick, from 9 August 1942 to 21 September 1942, the Quit India movement:
attacked 550 post offices, 250 railway stations, damaged many rail lines, destroyed 70 police stations, and burned or damaged 85 other government buildings. There were about 2,500 instances of telegraph wires being cut. The greatest level of violence occurred in Bihar. The Government of India deployed 57 battalions of British troops to restore order.
At the national level the lack of leadership meant the ability to galvanise rebellion was limited. The movement had a local impact in some areas. especially at Satara in Maharashtra, Talcher in Odisha, and Midnapore. In Tamluk and Contai subdivisions of Midnapore, the local populace were successful in establishing parallel governments, which continued to function, until Gandhi personally requested the leaders to disband in 1944. A minor uprising took place in Ballia, now the easternmost district of Uttar Pradesh. People overthrew the district administration, broke open the jail, released the arrested Congress leaders and established their own independent rule. It took weeks before the British could reestablish their writ in the district. Of special importance in Saurashtra (in western Gujarat) was the role of the region's 'baharvatiya' tradition (i.e. going outside the law) which abetted the sabotage activities of the movement there. In rural west Bengal, the Quit India Movement was fueled by peasants' resentment against the new war taxes and the forced rice exports. There was open resistance to the point of rebellion in 1942 until the great famine of 1943 suspended the movement.
One of the important achievements of the movement was to keep the Congress party united through all the trials and tribulations that followed. The British, already alarmed by the advance of the Japanese army to the India-Burma border, responded by imprisoning Gandhi. All the members of the Party's Working Committee (national leadership) were imprisoned as well. Due to the arrest of major leaders, a young and till then relatively unknown Aruna Asaf Ali presided over the AICC session on 9 August and hoisted the flag; later the Congress party was banned. These actions only created sympathy for the cause among the population. Despite lack of direct leadership, large protests and demonstrations were held all over the country. Workers remained absent en masse and strikes were called. Not all demonstrations were peaceful, at some places bombs exploded, government buildings were set on fire, electricity was cut and transport and communication lines were severed.
The British swiftly responded with mass detentions. Over 100,000 arrests were made, mass fines were levied and demonstrators were subjected to public flogging. Hundreds of civilians were killed in violence many shot by the police army. Many national leaders went underground and continued their struggle by broadcasting messages over clandestine radio stations, distributing pamphlets and establishing parallel governments. The British sense of crisis was strong enough that a battleship was specifically set aside to take Gandhi and the Congress leaders out of India, possibly to South Africa or Yemen but ultimately did not take that step out of fear of intensifying the revolt.
The Congress leadership was cut off from the rest of the world for over three years. Gandhi's wife Kasturbai Gandhi and his personal secretary Mahadev Desai died in months and Gandhi's health was failing, despite this Gandhi went on a 21-day fast and maintained his resolve to continuous resistance. Although the British released Gandhi on account of his health in 1944, Gandhi kept up the resistance, demanding the release of the Congress leadership.
By early 1944, India was mostly peaceful again, while the Congress leadership was still incarcerated. A sense that the movement had failed depressed many nationalists, while Jinnah and the Muslim League, as well as Congress opponents like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha sought to gain political mileage, criticizing Gandhi and the Congress Party.