Second World War and Indian Freedom Struggle
Second World War and Indian Freedom Struggle

Post Great First World-War [1914-1918], India was socially paralyzed, politically destabilized and economically collapsed but despite the strenuous Indian participation favouring Britishers in this global callousness, the imperialists had brought about no considerable modifications in the political climate of India but instead imposed the wartime emergency provisions permanently as “Defense of India Act 1915” and disenchanted masses with Government of India Act 1919. Therefore, the possibility of reformation was practically negligible after the climax of the Second World War from the political outlook of Indian nationalists and henceforth, they crucially stressed on the consolidation of “Poorna-Swaraj” during the war which was eventually achieved just two years after the war on 15 August 1947.

This article sensitively analyzes the constitutional freedom struggle for independence during the outbreak of the Second World War and examine the nationalists’ opinions and reactions towards this global war. Additionally, I intend to investigate the large-scale impacts of this disastrous war which if not deliberately than inadvertently was a blessing in disguise for the political liberation of Indians from the clutches of Britain.


From the excruciating “Italian incursion of Ethiopia” (1935), ” Japanese invasion of China” (1937), “Spanish Civil War” (1936-1939) and “Soviet-Japanese border conflicts“, the Great Second World War had made ominous indications in the world but on 1 September 1939, when the Germans attacked Poland on a false pretext, it heralded a new phase of the struggle for capitalist domination over the globe. In no time, the seismic waves of this global war trembled Indian leaders like Gandhi, Bose and Nehru etc. who were industriously functioning for attaining the ” Poorna-Swaraj” for India.  Two days after the onset of this global tension, the British colonial government of India unilaterally declared the Indian support to this war without considering the perspective of Indians.

Distressed Congressmen cited two demands to the colonizers for guaranteeing the enthusiastic Indian participation in the war: 

  1. Immediately, the British Imperial Government have to establish a responsible government at the centre.
  2. Soon after the war, the British Imperial Government have to recruit a Constituent Assembly who would clarify the political structure of independent India.

Like always, Viceroy Linlithgow repudiated these proposals and like always, the non-violent Congressmen passed a resolution for interrogating the colonial administration, on 14 September 1939, Congress equivocally challenged Britain for revealing their objectives for taking part in this global war and if they are functioning for authenticating democracy in nations, it should be rationalized by the implementation of full political freedom and democracy in their colonies and eradication of colonialism.

To this, Linlithgow smartly answered on 14 October 1939 that dominion status that had been the prime target of Indian nationalists would be showered upon them after the war by making amendments in Government of India Act 1935 on consultation with representatives of minorities, princely states and political parties and instantly, the government will establish a consultative advisory body but he diplomatically ignored the question of democracy and freedom in colonies. As a reaction of frustration caused by this Viceregal statement, Congress decided not to endorse war and collectively resigned from provincial legislatures on 22 December 1939 that was celebrated as “Day of Deliverance” by Muslim League under Jinnah. 

Gandhi-Ambedkar on Second World War
Gandhi-Ambedkar political outlook on Second World War

INDIAN OPINION TO SECOND WORLD WAR: From a magnified spectrum of research, it could be analyzed that the political opinions of nationals towards Second World War were bewildering and diverse- for Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, Indians should support Britain in the violent war against Nazism on the non-violent basis but for Subhash Chandra Bose, Indians shouldn’t plead for political emancipation anymore but immediately launch a mass-action during this war for accomplishing it. From the visions of Nehru and Ambedkar, the political support of Nazi-Germany and fascist Italians could be dangerous and therefore, the former abstained Indian participation in war and latter supported the war favouring Britain in exchange of concessions for Dalits and working class. 

Amidst such political friction, Indian National Congress approved the resolution in March 1940 asserting that India wouldn’t approve of anything less than “Poorna-Swaraj.” On 23 March 1940, Muslim League in Lahore Session proposed for the geographical description of Pakistan on Indian map as a sovereign state for Muslims where they are in majority and adequate political safeguards where they are in minority and thereby expounding two-nation theory.


In the meantime, Germany was succeeding the Second World War and Denmark, Holland, Belgium & France were almost crumbled. Under high temperature, Britain realized the importance of Indian coordination in war and therefore, Viceroy Linlithgow came with August Offer 0n 8 August 1940 that proposed for the immediate implementation of “DOMINION STATUS” in India and establishment of “CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY” majorly by Indians after the conclusion of the war, the expansion of Viceroy’s executive council for affirming Indian majority and a promise that no future constitution will be adopted without the consent of minorities in India. Despite this tremendous constitutional advancement, Congress renounced the offer of “Dominion Status” in pursuit of “Complete-Independence” but was left empty-handed.

For passively-resisting against the disapproval of national demands, Gandhi, on 17 October 1940, strategically instructed limited leaders for Individual Satyagraha where the satyagrahis would function for the retribution of freedom of speech and expression without creating disorder and chaos. Vinoba Bhave was the first, Nehru-the second and Brahma Dutt- the third satyagrahi involved in this movement.  Gandhi also initiated “Delhi Chalo Movement” during this time and the slogans of “Ekla Chalo” were raised. Since it wasn’t a mass movement, the probability of its success was even less than 50% and thus, the satyagrahis who protested were imprisoned for violating Defence of India Act and by December 1940, Gandhi suspended it which when later resumed, could only lead to the large-scale detention of Indians.


Gandhi meets Cripps for negotiation
Gandhi meets Cripps for negotiation

By 1942, the clouds of destruction were hovering over Britain since on the one hand, the eagle-like Japan was preparing for invading India at any suitable time after occupying entire South-East Asia and on the other, the war allies [USA, USSR, China etc.] were pressurizing Britain for involving India in this global war. Now, the Indian participation became mandatory for the colonial government to ensure their existence but Congress remained firm to its conviction of complete independence after the war. In this danger zone, Britain sent the member of British War Cabinet Stafford Cripps to India with constitutional proposal to ensure  Indian involvement in a war which is popularly called Cripps Mission.

The main proposals of this mission were a revised version of August Offer as enlisted below:

  • British Government approved to the demand of establishment of “CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY” aftermath the Second-World War that would be comprised of the representatives elected by Provincial Assemblies and the nominees nominated by the princely states. Unlike August Offer, Cripps provided the complete power to Indians for framing their constitution.
  •  It accepted to ascertain a concrete Indian Union with “DOMINION STATUS” that could independently define its relationship with the British Commonwealth and other international bodies. Unlike August Offer, Cripps now provided Indians with an opportunity to withdraw from the Commonwealth and therefore, both these provisions were undeniably advancing in nature.
  • However, two conditions were pre-decided under this mission for implementation of the new constitution:
  1. New Constitution couldn’t be forcibly imposed on the provinces who are reluctant to accept it and they could be free to function based on their separate constitution. 
  2. An alliance between the British Government and Constituent Assembly was pre-described for safeguarding the socio-religious interests of minorities.
  • During wartime, Britain would utilize the defence forces of India for saving themselves from the treachery of the Second World-War.

Doubtlessly, the Cripps Mission was the golden progressive step towards the development of Indian administration but for the long-time seekers of “Complete Independence”, the demand for dominion status is largely obsolete and objectionable.

For Congress, the dissatisfaction emanated from the  denial of Complete-Independence, the “Nomination” of Princely States and not “Election”, Optionality for provinces to form a union was considered as a move towards catalyzing Indian disintegration and absence of provisions for transfer of power from British Legislative Council to Indian hands while for Muslim League, the reason for its disapproval was the denial of the geopolitical foundation of “Pakistan.” Also, the right to secession was contentious to Hindu Mahasabha, Sikhs and depressed Classes for their reasons. Under such scathing criticism, Cripps Mission failed to satisfy any section of Indian society and proved to be a big flop.

Gandhian Quit India Movement
Gandhian Quit India Movement ( Image Credit: Bawree Fashion House) 


Economically, Britain had excruciatingly exploited the indigenous resources and national exchequer of India during Second World War to such an extent that by 1942, there was a drastic shortage of essential food items like salt, rice etc. and the wartime inflation was another point of disaffection for all. With the failure of Cripps Mission, the prolonged anger intensified so much so that Gandhi launched Quit India Movement on 8 August 1942 for opposing imperialism and fascism but the colonial government had taken the backbone out of this movement in early hours by arresting the active leaders and expected its decline.

The government severely repressed the masses and illegalized CWC and Provincial Congress under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908 and for peacefully counteracting this, Gandhi started his fast in February 1943. 

Azad Hind Fauz by Subhash Bose
Azad Hind Fauz by Subhash Bose

Meanwhile, at the international level, Netaji Subhash Bose along with Japanese power formed an Indian National Army in Singapore in July 1943 that was also called Azad Hind Fauz. With the involvement of Bose in this Army, the Indian participation rapidly grew in it and its prime aim of this fauz was to politically liberate India from the colonial rule. As a consequence, it took part in operation U-Go, the 1944 Japanese campaign towards British India. Although the INA primarily succeeded during the initial stages of the operation, they were compelled to withdraw during the Battle of Imphal and Battle of Kohima (Fought on April 4th, 1944) which saw the tragic defeat for the Japanese Army by Britishers. 


According to historians, there was a two-fold Indian reaction to British Imperialism during the Second World War- firstly, the origination and magnification of non-violent Quit India Movement under Gandhi within India due to wartime inflation, food shortage and colonial insensitivity and secondly, the revolutionary agitational political developments outside India where the radicals were allying with international superiorities like Germany to completely eradicate Britain from India. But which method of the freedom struggle for complete independence hastened decolonization In India and guaranteed political emancipation to Indians is still questionable.

Some hold the opinion that it was Gandhian Quit India Movement that was so unprecedented and irresistible that it intimidated the colonizers to such a degree that clenching governance anymore after the global confrontation was almost inconceivable to them while others assert that Second World War had economically devastated Britain to such a magnitude that self-reconstruction had become a priority to them and therefore, they extricated the colonies from their restraint.

The latter even credit Adolf Hitler for accidentally contributing to the Indian freedom struggle who was though a dictator in Germany but has performed exceptional politics in a Second World War that resulted in the fall of superpowers like USA and Britain and heralded “Democracy” in other nations like India. (Refer to Dr Sushmit Kumar’s “Hitler, NOT Gandhi, Should Be Given Credit for the Independence of India in 1947″)

In Ramesh Chandra Majumdar’s “A History of Bengal”, the interpersonal conversation between Lord Atlee, Prime Minister of Britain who granted Indian Independence and Chief Justice P.B. Chakroborty has been highlighted for substantiating this outlook: 

My direct question to him was that since Gandhi’s Quit India Movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947, no such compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave then? In his reply, Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end, I asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi’s influence upon the British decision to quit India. Atlee’s lips became twisted in a sarcastic tone as he slowly chewed the word- ” m-i-n-i-m-a-l.”

However, this statement is in sharp contrast to the archival documents that Gandhi-supporters produce when they indicate the government fear of Gandhi’s Quit India Movement during 1942 as Lord Linlithgow telegraphed to Winston Churchill in 1942: 

I am engaged here in the meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security … If we bungle this business we shall damage India irretrievably as a base for future allied operations … [Taken from Shameful Flight: The Last Years of British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert, Page 46]

Although Quit India Movement constructed a sensation of outrage amongst administrators temporarily but it proved powerful until late 1942 and thereafter according to statistics, lakhs of protestors involving leaders who were a part of it were arrested and it inconclusively ended before the end of the Second World War. In that understanding, it could be said that the financial collapse of Britain was the reason for the political liberation of colonies like Jordan in 1946, Palestine and India in 1947, Sri-Lanka and Myanmar in 1948, etc.

According to Ian Talbot’s “Second World War and Local Indian Politics“, more than 40 colonies with a quarter of the world population of Asia and Africa were given independence in fifteen years that followed this global war. Therefore, the Second World War can be recognized as a blessing in disguise for the political emancipation of around 1/4th of the world population including India.


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