Netaji and the Mahatma-II


Indian liberation fighters protesting during colonial days

By Arunabha Bagchi

(First part appeared last Saturday (23)

After his release from prison, Netaji concentrated on raising the consciousness of workers, peasants and students. He soon became hugely popular, particularly among the youth of the country who became increasingly restless with hardly any progress on the political front. This new generation of freedom-fighters was not satisfied with the ‘Home Rule’ and demanded complete Independence from the British. This alarmed the party leaders, and before the Lahore Congress of the party, the Mahatma and Pandit Motilal Nehru met the Viceroy demanding immediate ‘Dominion Status’, a euphemism for ‘Home Rule’. Their demand was summarily rejected by the Viceroy and the Mahatma declared at the Lahore Congress that the goal of the party was, from then on, total Independence, or rather, Purna Swaraj.

Then in March 1930 the most dramatic movement for freedom was initiated by the Mahatma when he walked to Dandi from his Ashram and defied the British Salt Tax law by making salt from the water collected on the shore of the Arabian Sea. It set in motion a civil disobedience movement never seen anywhere in the world before, or since. The brutal attacks on non-violent protesters all over India got wide national and international publicity. The Government had to act and the Mahatma was arrested. Meanwhile, a bogus round table conference was taking place in London about a new Constitution for India, with ‘kings’ of Princely States under British suzerainty, representatives of communal parties and religious leaders, with the exclusion of the Indian National Congress, the only legitimate people’s party fighting for the country’s independence.

The Government negotiated with the Mahatma to restart the Round Table Conference, this time including the Congress, with a vague promise of ‘Dominion Status’. Mahatma accepted the offer, stopped the civil disobedience movement at the height of its success, and went to London in September 1930.

What surprised Netaji was Gandhiji’s decision to be the sole delegate for the Congress, without the support of any serious advisors, in the middle of hundred-odd delegates claiming to represent all and sundry of the Indian people. The conference was a total failure for our cause of Independence and the Mahatma returned thoroughly dejected in December of that year.

This is how Netaji analysed the root cause of failure of the Round Table Conference-"During his stay in England he (Gandhiji) had to play two roles in one person, the role of a political leader and that of a world teacher. Sometimes he conducted himself not as a political leader who came to negotiate with the enemy, but as a master who had come to preach a new faith-that of non-violence and world peace." Netaji knew well enough that the fringe Christian groups that surrounded the Mahatma in England had zero influence on the policy of the British Government. The civil disobedience movement was resumed in 1932, but this time the Government was well prepared and fatigue set in among the protesters. The campaign fizzled out after a while.

The story of Netaji being elected as the president of the Congress for the year 1938 and the opposition of the Mahatma to his re-election as the president in 1939 are well known. Netaji won his re-election by substantial majority despite this opposition. But there was an impasse with the selection of the Working Committee and finally he lost the no-confidence motion brought by the loyalists of the Mahatma. Netaji’s subsequent imprisonment (thirteenth in all), house arrest, his dramatic escape in the disguise of a ***kabuliwalah*** to Afghanistan in January 1941, then to Europe and finally to South-east Asia by a German submarine where he set up the Indian National Army (INA) are parts of the Netaji legend by now.

Netaji struggled for our Independence for twenty years as a loyal follower of the Mahatma. Gandhiji’s promise of Swaraj within one year did not come after eighteen years when the Great War broke out in Europe again. Netaji was not prepared to wait forever and decided to use the chaos of war to snatch India from the British yoke. An English patriot in these circumstances would do exactly the same. This explains the comment on Netaji by the Englishman I mentioned before.

As the Great War started, the British wanted an assurance from Indian leaders of their support in the war efforts just as it happened during the First World War. At first, the Congress was willing to cooperate. Then Gandhiji wanted an assurance of Independence after the War as the price for the support. No such assurance was forthcoming. Then there were some dramatic successes of the Japanese Army in South-east Asia. This forced the British Prime Minster to send a delegation led by Stafford Cripps to make a deal with the Mahatma. The delegation promised merely the ‘Dominion Status’ and threatened to partition the country along religious lines. The Congress Working Committee rejected the proposal, and in his original draft resolution the Mahatma said, "Britain is incapable of defending India .The Indian Army is a segregated body, unrepresentative of the India people, who can in no sense regard it as their own .Japan’s quarrel is not with India. She is warring against the British Empire. If India were freed, her first step would probably be to negotiate with Japan. The Congress is of the opinion that if the British withdrew from India, India would be able to defend herself in the event of the Japanese or any other aggressors attacking India." Then in May 1942 the Mahatma launched the "Quit India" movement. With virtually Marshall Law imposed on the country, that movement was also crushed.

Netaji unequivocally admitted that the Indian National Congress, under whose banner he fought for the Independence of his country most of his life, was the creation of the Mahatma. Gandhiji’s miraculous success in inspiring such vast number of ordinary people to fight for their country must be attributed to "his single-hearted devotion, his relentless will and his indefatigable labour." Still, his three major campaigns through non-violent means to gain our Independence failed, although they progressively diminished the resolve of some British people to hold on to India. Netaji attributed the failure of the campaigns to yield direct results to two reasons. The first was lack of independent thinking and forthrightness of most of Gandhiji’s close followers. He thought that this was due to our habit of unconditional surrender to avatars and ‘holy men’. The second was that "he (Gandhiji) has understood the character of his own people-he has not understood the character of his opponents." Netaji might very well have been wrong, but let his countrymen decide that.

All quotations in this article are from Netaji’s The Indian Struggle, Part I, a classic which, if completed, would rival Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.


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