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On This Day: Gandhi’s Arrest Sparks “Quit India” Movement

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Aug. 9, 1942, British officials imprisoned Mohandas Gandhi, hoping to suppress a civil disobedience program intended to free India from colonial rule.

Gandhi, Indian Leaders Arrested

From 1858 to 1947, the Indian subcontinent was under control of the British Crown, ruled by a government known as the “Raj.” In September 1939, at the outset of World War II, Victor Hope, the British viceroy of India, declared war against Germany without consulting Indian leaders, increasing resentment toward the Raj.

Gandhi campaigned against the war and, as leader of the Indian National Congress, increasingly called for Indian independence. In March 1942, the British Parliament sent Sir Stafford Cripps, a Labour Party politician, to negotiate a constitution that would secure Indian support of the war.

Cripps’ draft declaration promised India dominion status—but not complete independence—in return for its cooperation. The leaders of Congress and the Muslim league flatly rejected the proposal.

The All India Congress Committee met on Aug. 7-8 and voted to pass the Quit India Resolution, which declared “the immediate ending of the British rule in India is an urgent necessity both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of United Nations.”

Gandhi told his supporters, “There is a mantra, short one, that I give you. You imprint it on your heart and let every breath of yours give an expression to it. The mantra is ‘do or die.’”

The following morning, at around dawn, British forces arrested Gandhi at his home. Within 24 hours almost all of Gandhi’s fellow leaders were incarcerated.

“In a crisis caused by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s threat of open revolt, the British struck first,” wrote Time. “The slamming of jail doors on the leaders of the Indian National Congress party was their answer to Gandhi’s demand for immediate Indian independence.”

Reaction: Rioting and Arrests

The arrests sparked riots in India. “With the arrest of all the national leaders, there was nobody to guide the popular agitation,” according to the Gandhi Museum & Reference Library.

The Raj government unleashed fierce retaliation, imprisoning thousands of protestors, bombing sections of India, and outlawing Congress. Over the next several months, prisons continued to swell with the arrests of over 60,000 Indian protestors.

“Many Indians were killed and wounded, but wartime resistance continued as more young Indians, women as well as men, were recruited into the Congress’s underground,” says Encyclopedia Britannica.

Partition and Independence

Sources in this Story

  • The BBC: From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India 1858-1947
  • Indian National Congress: Congress & The Freedom Movement
  • The Hindu: Frontline: Cripps and India’s Partition (Part 2)
  • Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya–Mahatma Gandhi Museum & Reference Library: Quit India Resolution
  • Time: India: Frogs in a Well
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: India: Prelude to independence, 1920–47
  • Library of Congress: Country Studies: Toward Partition
  • The BBC: Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
  • Time: Gandhi & Nehru

British officers released Gandhi in 1944 due to his deteriorating health, but the rest of his followers remained incarcerated.

Following the failure of the Cabinet Mission in March of 1946—another attempt by the British to negotiate a transfer of power—Muslim leader Jinnah called for demonstrations. Violent communal rioting broke out.

In June 1947, Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of India, announced that the country would be partitioned into the dominions of India and Pakistan.

Britain realized it did not have enough resources to fight the mass of Indians that continued to demand sovereignty. On Aug. 15, 1947, it ceded power and India earned its independence.

Biography: Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was India’s pre-eminent nationalist leader. Born in Gujarat in 1869, he studied law in London and fought for the civil and human rights of Indian peoples both in South Africa.

He developed non-violent political strategies influenced “primarily by Hinduism, but also by elements of Jainism and Christianity, as well as writers including Tolstoy and Thoreau,” according to the BBC. Upon his return to India, Gandhi applied these tactics, called “satyagraha” or “devotion to truth,” to the colonial independence movement.

British colonial authorities in India arrested him in March 1922 for sedition, after he led a number of nonviolent campaigns involving civil disobedience. He would continue working for Indian independence over the next 25 years. He was assassinated in 1948 by an man upset about his opposition to the British partition plan.

His legacy lives on and he remains an inspiration for those who practice nonviolent campaigns to achieve social progress today. “Gandhi was idealistic, quirky, quixotic and determined, a cross between a saint and a ward politician … he managed to distill the qualities of both and yet transcend their contradictions,” writes Shashi Tharoor, UN under secretary-general, in Time.

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