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Quit India Speech | Study Guide

Mahatma Gandhi

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Quit India Speech | Summary & Analysis



India and the British Empire

By the time Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi delivered this speech in August 1942, India had been under some form of British control since the mid-18th century. What had begun as a trade relationship eventually led to India becoming an official British colony in 1858, a reality that had long spurred discontent and nationalist sentiment among some Indians. Gandhi, born in 1869, was a lawyer who had received some of his education in England. He had lived in South Africa from 1893 until 1915, becoming internationally known for the civil rights work he did on behalf of Indians living in that country. Upon his return to India, he quickly became a major figure in Indian politics, especially as it concerned improving life for Indians of all backgrounds. He became known to Indians as the Mahatma, or the Great Soul.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi moved back and forth between politics and grassroots efforts to strengthen the Indian people. By the early 1940s, Gandhi had reached the conclusion that the only way for his people to move forward was for the British to leave, or "quit," India. Although he himself did not coin the phrase "Quit India," it was soon attached to this speech.

Gandhi and Ahimsa: A Policy of Nonviolence

Gandhi begins his speech by reassuring his listeners—the members of the Indian National Congress (INC)—that he is still the same man, representing the same ideas, that he has always been. He refers back to 1920, five years after he returned to India from South Africa. At that time, Gandhi promoted the view that India would be more likely to gain its independence if Indian people improved their own situations. In 1919 he encouraged boycotts of British goods as part of a massive "noncooperation" campaign, or civil disobedience, designed to make Indians' feelings better heard by the British. He called for peaceful strikes everywhere from factories to schools. By 1920 Gandhi was a leader of the INC, which was originally formed in 1885 as India's first political party. The INC gradually became India's largest nationalist body (one that advocated for India to become an independent nation), receiving permission to oversee local matters in several provinces in 1931.

The noncooperation campaign was a massive undertaking, lasting two years and involving thousands of participants across India. By 1921, 20,000 people had been arrested, including Gandhi. When acts of civil disobedience on the part of both the British and Indians turned to violence, Gandhi called off the campaign. Despite his desire to stop the resistance, the campaign lived on as an example of a concept Gandhi mentions repeatedly in the beginning of his speech: ahimsa, or a policy of nonviolence that has roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, which are all important religions in India. Gandhi preached the importance of ahimsa throughout his entire adult life, which some other nationalists found limiting. Many of Gandhi's ahimsa undertakings included personal fasts. These acts of sacrifice often spurred groups in conflict to come to an agreement quickly, before fasting had fatal consequences for India's beloved leader.

Before his landmark 1942 "Quit India" speech, Gandhi had begun another noncooperation campaign in 1940. In that campaign, members of the INC had joined him in droves. But that campaign also failed to convince the British government, already embroiled in World War II, to promise eventual independence for India.

At the beginning of this speech, in which he now asks the INC to commence a full campaign for independence, Gandhi emphasizes that his call for action should not be equated with a call to violence. Ahimsa is still his only method of protest.

Japan as a Military Threat to India

Part of the sense of urgency that permeates the speech can be connected to the imminent danger many Indians, Gandhi included, felt as World War II progressed. Japan, an enemy of Great Britain in World War II, moved closer and closer to India. As it had also done in World War I, the British government gave Indians no choice about participating in the war effort. Lord Linlithgow, the British viceroy (the official who controlled a colony on behalf of the British monarch), never officially informed the INC that India would be expected to contribute. Leaders of the congress considered this lack of information highly insulting. They demanded that the British proffer a promise of independence in exchange for Indian soldiers and wartime resources. Their demand was rebuffed.

In response, Gandhi and his followers launched the noncooperation campaign of 1940. By 1942 the war-weary British offered a new arrangement: in return for its wartime efforts, India would be granted dominion status at the war's end. In other words, India would exercise legislative control over its own territory—but would still need to pledge allegiance to the British monarch. Furthermore, India would be reorganized into different provinces according to different faiths and histories.

Many Indians were furious—including many Muslim Indians, who, unlike the INC and its followers, more loyally supported Britain during the war, mainly in hopes of wresting more control from the INC. Gandhi himself told a British War Cabinet official, "If this is your entire proposal to India, I would advise you to take the next plane home." There was not consensus among Indians on this hard-line stance. Various factions within the independence movement held different perspectives. However, Britain's proposal clearly indicated a reluctance to withdraw from India. This reluctance was particularly cynical given that the British were fighting against the potential that their own nation would be conquered and occupied by a foreign power, as Nazi Germany sought to take over Europe.

The anger many Indians felt is the "attitude toward the British" that Gandhi speaks of in his speech. Gandhi feared that despite his policy of ahimsa, Indians might soon turn to violence. As it was, Indians were already anxious about how close the war was to their own border. Japan, an Axis power and therefore Britain's enemy, had already entered nearby Burma, another British colony. Japanese bombs had fallen on Indian ports. In order to deny possible Japanese invaders any resources, a scorched-earth policy was being put into action in some parts of India, with land, boats, and water supplies being destroyed. For some Indians, the Japanese appeared to be the lesser of two evils, an attitude Gandhi warns about in his speech: "It means that they will exchange one slavery for another."

Unifying Hindus and Muslims

Gandhi delivers the rest of his speech after the INC passes the resolution to resist further British colonization. At the beginning of this second part of the "Quit India" speech, Gandhi spends a good deal of time addressing the ongoing political differences between Hindus and Muslims living in India.

Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-Indian Muslim League (the main Muslim political body of India) had long-held differences on the idea of Indian independence. Jinnah (who was sometimes called Qaid-i-Azam, meaning "great leader"), formerly a member of the INC, eventually thought it wiser to cooperate with the British to best protect the interests of Indian Muslims, who were a minority group. By 1942 Jinnah had become convinced that a separate country for Muslims, to be called Pakistan, was the best solution. Gandhi, who worked closely on Muslim causes (including the Khilafat movement he mentions in his speech, which involved campaigns to protect Muslim lands), could not bring himself to agree with Jinnah's beliefs. Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru, the president of the INC from 1929 to 1964, also disavowed the Pakistan plan.

Do or Die! A New Mantra and a Slogan for Indian Independence

Gandhi wraps up his congratulations to the INC for passing the resolution and encourages them to put aside the continuing differences between Hindu and Muslim Indians. He reminds his listeners that a satyagraha, or a campaign of nonviolent resistance, takes time. Yet, he also acknowledges that after decades of attempting to work with the British, it is time for action. Calling on the media to support his cause, he offers his listeners a mantra: "Do or Die." In Hinduism and Buddhism, mantras are words or phrases that practitioners use to aid in concentration, prayer, or meditation. The mantra that Gandhi gives his audience soon became the battle cry of the Quit India protests that followed.

Role of India's Princely States

After addressing Hindu and Muslim concerns in India, Gandhi pays tribute to the many princely states of India. He encourages the princes, who govern (with British permission) two-fifths of India, to join in his and Nehru's plan for a united India. Gandhi recognizes that relinquishing power for the good of the nation as a whole may be difficult. He asks the princes to "renounce ownership" and instead become "trustees" of a free India—and to call on those living in their states to do the same.

Call for Loyalty to the Congress

Gandhi acknowledges that the princes are far from the only group he is calling to join with him in a quest for independence. He does not sugarcoat what is yet to come, hinting that protesters may have to "receive bullets on our chest, without taking to heels."

First, he encourages government officials to declare their allegiance to the INC. This will not require them to quit their jobs, he explains, but simply to ignore certain British orders that will work against independence. (Eight of the 12 individuals serving on the viceroy's executive council were Indian. These appointments had briefly given some Indians hope that the British were planning an exit strategy during World War II, though it slowly became clear that this was not the case.)

Second, Gandhi calls on soldiers, urging them to remain at their posts but to never fire on the Indians who will soon protest their employer (Britain). By the end of World War II, India provided 2.3 million soldiers to the Allies' cause, as well as war supplies produced from its own natural resources.

Third, Gandhi calls on students to declare their allegiance to the congress, or INC, while continuing their education. Gandhi reminds students that world history proves that young people can have an enormous impact on democratic movements. In the weeks after this speech, many Indian students left their universities (and lower schools) to join in Quit India demonstrations.

After these specific calls to nonviolent arms, Gandhi expresses that his "heart is heavy." Seventy-two years old at the time of this speech, Gandhi had decade upon decade of both successes and failures when it came to securing more power for India. He explains that he has always controlled, or thoughtfully limited, what he says and writes. This control, he says, is part of the control of self that is a practice in many Indian religions. Now, however, Gandhi says that he has used his speech to unburden his heart to his audience. Switching to English for the final part of his address, he says that he has been seen as a leader of Indians, but he wishes to define himself as their servant. Rather than claiming any type of authority, he says that his relationship to his followers is based on love.

Gandhi then acknowledges that by calling for the British to withdraw from India he has alienated former friends, including British officials with whom he has been close, as well as Jinnah. Indeed, Gandhi's reputation was also questioned by those Indians who supported India's current role in World War II. Many saw the war as a boost for industry, as well as an employment opportunity for millions of men.

Relationship with Lord Linlithgow

In a last-ditch effort to enlist the understanding of the raj, the representatives of British rule in India, Gandhi further justifies his call to resist the British by describing his relationship with Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy of India at the time. Linlithgow was also the British official who declared India's involvement in World War II without first consulting with or alerting the INC. It would also be Linlithgow—with whom Gandhi describes a "personal bond"—who ordered the arrests of Gandhi and other INC leaders only hours after the "Quit India" speech was delivered. When Gandhi fasted during his subsequent imprisonment, Linlithgow was suspicious of how true the fast was. He wrote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) that Gandhi was "the world's most successful humbug."

Charlie Andrews and Another Call to Resist Hate

Returning to his plea for his fellow Indians to resist the hate they might feel for the British, Gandhi mentions several British officials that he came to hold dear over the years, particularly a man named Charlie Andrews. An Anglican missionary born in England in 1871, Andrews had been involved with the civil rights movement for Indians in South Africa (via Gopal Krishna Gokhale, another nationalist social reformer). Through this work, Andrews met Gandhi. The two remained close friends over the decades that followed. Andrews was responsible for Gandhi's visit to the mill towns of Lancashire during his 1931 trip to England. There, Gandhi spoke with mill workers about their own hardships, as well as the hardships of those in India and his efforts to develop cottage industries there.

Andrews died in April 1940. Gandhi was deeply affected by his death. In a tribute written two years before the "Quit India" speech, Gandhi connected his friendship with Andrews with a need to resist hatred of the British: "If we really love Andrews' memory, we may not have hate in us for Englishmen, of whom Andrews was among the best and the noblest."

Admonishment of Western Powers

Still speaking in English, Gandhi explains that his conscience tells him to continue with what he has to say. This includes a prediction that he will live to reach 120 years old, an age by which he will have seen not only independence for India, but independence the world over. (In fact, Gandhi would die about five and a half years after delivering this speech, at which point Great Britain would have indeed declared its intention to leave India.)

Gandhi also addresses the hypocrisy of Western nations. For all their talk of freedom, Western countries, especially the United States and England, still do not guarantee freedom for all. Gandhi reveals his disappointment about how nonwhite people are treated in those countries. He entreats Westerners to visit India, whose 22-year-old nationalist movement is, according to Gandhi, the true expression of freedom fighting. Gandhi's views resonated with many civil rights leaders in Europe and the United States. Ten years after Gandhi's speech, American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) would employ nonviolent protest actions based in large part on Gandhi's work. In 1959 King wrote, "I came to see ... that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

At the time of the "Quit India" speech, Gandhi and his colleagues still smarted from the signing of the Atlantic Charter by Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). Issued in August 1941, the joint declaration was inspired by the shifting ownership of Europe as World War II continued to rage. Both the United States and Great Britain agreed to restore all original governments at the war's end and to allow all peoples to choose their own form of government. This did not occur in India, and it became clear that Churchill only signed the charter in hopes of securing U.S. entry into the war.

Gandhi's disgust with the hypocrisy of Western powers becomes even clearer as he concludes his speech. He dares listeners to question India's decision to fight for what it deserves with nonviolence. Furthermore, Gandhi explicitly states that not supporting India's independence movement will be detrimental to the Allies' cause, particularly the fate of China and Russia. He admits that his belief in ahimsa does not preclude what may be necessary bloodshed to fight the fascism that prompted the world war. Gandhi also points out that India will be a much stronger ally if it finally has the "glow of freedom" for which it so yearns.

Impact of the "Quit India" Speech

In the final line of the "Quit India" speech, Gandhi repeats the call to "do or die." The INC's decision to act had immediate consequences. Only hours after the speech, in the middle of the night, British police arrested Gandhi; his wife, Kasturba; and many other INC leaders. This was a surprise to Gandhi, who expected to have at least three weeks to meet with the viceroy about reaction to his speech and the INC's resolution.

The British quickly forbade the press from releasing any of Gandhi's speech to the public, as well as news of the resolution or the subsequent arrests. Instead, officials claimed that Gandhi and other leaders had been arrested because they were preparing to incite major protests across Indian industries and sectors. The British cover-up backfired, and Indians across the country protested the arrests. Members of the underground press eventually communicated Gandhi's call to "do or die" to the public. Thousands of protesters were arrested. Some strikes and demonstrations became violent without Gandhi and other INC leaders available to remind protesters of the need for nonviolence. By the end of 1942, the INC claimed that more than 4,000 people had died during the Quit India protests. More than 300 railroad stations were destroyed, along with over 1,300 government buildings and scores of telephone and telegraph wires.

Ultimately, the Quit India movement did not lead to immediate independence for India. It did not truly garner the widespread support of Indians in the ways Gandhi had hoped. However, the protests did alert the British that India was becoming less of an investment and more of a thorn in its side. By the time World War II ended and new leaders were elected in 1945 to replace Winston Churchill's government, the British were ready to leave India. Britain announced in 1947 that it would indeed recognize India's independence.

More broadly, Gandhi's speech and views inspired efforts at decolonization and antidiscrimination around the world. In the years following World War II, dozens of Asian and African countries worked for and gained independence from their European colonizers. Civil rights leaders in the United States were encouraged by Gandhi's efforts and philosophy. Gandhi's work and words became part of a global intellectual and political effort to change the world power structure.

Indian Independence

On August 15, 1947, India began self-government. The country was divided into a Hindu-dominant India and the separate, Muslim-dominated country of Pakistan, which was broken into West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh). The princely states joined whichever new country they thought worked best for their people. This division of territory, known as partition, led to serious sectarian violence. Tensions between Indian and Pakistan continue to this day.

Gandhi, who had always wanted the people of India to put aside their differences and unite as one nation, was devastated. Jinnah and Nehru, seeing the violence that still erupted between their people, agreed to the plan. Gandhi again fasted, but this time in hopes of calming fighting between Muslims and Hindus emigrating between regions. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi died, shot by a Hindu extremist while Gandhi was on his way to a prayer meeting. Two million people attended the funeral for the "father of India."

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