Glimpses into 1942

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Wardha, January 1942: C. Rajagopalachari and Jawaharlal Nehru with other Congress leaders at a meeting of the All India Congress Committee. Rajaji was not in favour of the Quit India Movement launched later that year. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

March 27, 1942: Sir Stafford Cripps with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A rich collection of documents that offer insights into the political currents that rocked the year 1942 in India.

THE year 1942 was of great consequence not only for India but for the world. It saw the turning of the tide in favour of the Allies in the Second World War. The editor rightly remarks that the year, and a few days before it, “deeply affected the course of events in India in 1942”.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, brought the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, the United States, into the war. Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 also strengthened the Allies. This significance was lost on Gandhi, who was “affected” by Japan’s advances, which were sure to reach a dead end. It destroyed the British ships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Thailand on December 10, 1941. On December 7, it invaded the Philippines. On January 15, 1942, came the surrender of the British naval base in Singapore. On January 20, 1942, Japan invaded Lower Burma. The Allied counter offensive was mounted only in early 1944.

“One-third of the population have left Madras [now Chennai]” by road and rail, an official report said. There was an exodus from Bombay [now Mumbai] as well. As in Bengal, there were fairly large-scale withdrawals from banks in Mumbai. Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel believed that Japan would win the war. Jawaharlal Nehru flatly disagreed.

The volume covers the efforts of Sir Stafford Cripps to secure a comprehensive settlement among all the three major parties—the British, the Congress and the Muslim League. Its basis was independence after the war, an interim set-up, and an elected Constituent Assembly with an option to the Provinces to secede by a vote of their legislatures and a plebiscite if its vote for the Union was less than 60 per cent.

The Congress rejected it and launched the Quit India Movement. It wreaked havoc and failed dismally and predictably. Gandhi had sent Madeleine Slade (Miraben) to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, before the Quit India resolution was passed. He was surprised and disoriented by his arrest. “The last throw of the gambler” had failed. Massive arrests of Congressmen left the field open to the Muslim League and the Communist Party of India (CPI) led by the brilliant P.C. Joshi.

One Congress leader stood out in bold defiance, the wise Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. He was for conceding Pakistan, thus throwing the ball in Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s court—what now? Apart from Rajendra Prasad, Rajaji had done his homework. Punjab and Bengal would have to be partitioned on religious lines if Pakistan was accepted. Rajaji’s plan envisaged a district-wise decision. In 1942, this would have led East Punjab’s Muslim landlords to leave the League. The volume has an intelligence report that said the Congress had plans for the partition of Punjab if it left the Union. Jinnah knew he could not get all of Punjab. An early concession would have prevented much bloodshed. Jinnah misled his followers. He also opposed the Quit India resolution. The volume has a whole chapter on him and on all the major themes, including student politics, the Congress Socialist Party and organisations of women and Dalits. The volume contains much hitherto unpublished material and is indispensable for any student of India’s history.

The Governor of Sind, Sir Hugh Dow, shrewdly predicted on March 22, 1942, that Jinnah would accept a Centre if he were given dominance in Punjab and Bengal. He accepted the Cabinet Mission’s Plan of May 16, 1946, which gave him that to some extent. The Hindu minority in each Province was economically more powerful and socially and educationally more advanced than the slender Muslim majority. An Intelligence Bureau report of March 3 said that Jinnah was prepared for a compromise.

This volume confirms what one discovered in the British documents on Transfer of Power in India. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) had thoroughly penetrated the Congress and the Muslim League and had full reports of what every member said at meetings of their Working Committees. Both parties had members who disagreed with the dictators who led them—Gandhi and Jinnah. Were it not for the Congress rejection, the Muslim League was ready to accept Cripps’ proposals of March 29. Rajaji wrote to Gandhi on July 2 after a meeting with Jinnah to say that he was “genuinely desirous of a Congress-League settlement and would welcome negotiations for that purpose”. Rajaji had held four interviews with Jinnah lasting over 14 hours. Sadly, we do not have their transcripts. He wrote to the Congress president, Maulana Azad, four days before the Quit India resolution of August 8, 1942: “We have no right at this juncture to plunge the country into disorder.”

Morally, Rajaji was superior to Gandhi; intellectually, to Nehru. He was as good an administrator as Patel but more far-sighted and liberal, and he was wiser than Azad. There is not a single definitive scholarly biography of the man. Vallabhbhai Patel publicly predicted on July 29 that the Quit India Movement “will be short and swift and will be finished within a week… no Indian would remain aloof from the coming struggle.”

The volume contains a good record of the CPI’s change of policy—how after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union an “imperialist war” became a “people’s war”. The British lifted the ban on the CPI after N.M. Joshi provided assurances on its behalf. Particularly useful are the excerpts from the famous Deoli Thesis hammered out in jail.

P.C. Joshi raised the CPI to heights it never reached after he was ousted as general secretary in 1948. The ones who followed bickered relentlessly in Marxist jargon.

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