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In Indonesia, nationalists formed Freedom Committees in many towns in Java and Sumatra, and offered to help the Japanese armed forces.38 The Imperial Navy occupying Indonesia and its outer Islands, with allies in the Imperial General Headquarters and in the 25th Army in Sumatra, were banking on a ‘permanent possession of part or all of Indonesia’.39 On the other hand, there were only 10,000 troops occupying the whole of Indonesia so Imperial army had little choice but to rely on locally recruited supporters, like Peta.
The Failure of the Co-Prosperity Sphere
At the point that Japan took over the co-prosperity sphere, its domestic economy was given over to war production, bringing a halt to its role as supplier of manufactured consumer goods to the region.40 Militarism used up industrial foundations of cooperation. In June 1943, Lieutenant General Inada Masazumi, Deputy Chief of the Southern Army toured South East Asia and concluded that the Japanese Army would be crippled by manpower shortages if locals were not recruited.41 Without resources to trade the Japanese leant more and more on violence to control the native populations and force them to toil. In the Philippines the ‘death march’ of prisoners from Bataan fed national hostility to the Japanese invader.
Some 14,000 allied prisoners of war died building the Burma railway as slaves of the Japanese. Ten or twenty times that number of Burmese, Indians, Chinese and Malays died.42 The ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’ was already waging war against the Chinese and subjugating the Koreans. Despite their ongoing war against each other, the Kuomintang and the more radical Communists under Mao were costing the Japanese dear. In Malaya and the Philippines People’s Armies were organising against the occupation, as they would shortly in Korea and Vietnam. Under the pressure of economic failure it began to clash with the selfsame national forces that they had used to take on the British Empire – most pointedly in Burma.
Chapter Nineteen Quit India On 3 September 1939 Governor General the Marquess of Linlithgow declared war on Germany for India, without asking any of the elected Indian representatives.
The younger Congress leaders, most importantly Jawaharlal Nehru had close ties to the British Labour Party, and believed in the war against Fascism. On 14 September 1939 they put out a call to the British Government to declare in unequivocal terms what their war aims are in regard to democracy and imperialism and the new order that is envisaged, in particular how these aims are going to apply to India … Do they include the elimination of imperialism and the treatment of India as a free nation …?
Nehru’s plea was ‘that India should play her full part and throw all her resources into the struggle for a new order’.1 The British declined, and Congress withdrew from elected government.
Gandhi cautioned Nehru that it was less important to fight in the war than he thought,
drawing on a story from the Mahabhatra:
The warring nations are destroying themselves with such fury and ferocity that the end will be mutual exhaustion … And out of this holocaust must arise a new order for which the exploited millions have so long thirsted.2 In February 1940, the Marquess of Zetland, Secretary for State for India said to the British Cabinet that they might think of making the colony self-governing after the war. Churchill was adamantly against, saying that they should aim to keep the colony quiet for the duration.
He did not agree with those who wanted ‘to promote unity among Hindu and Muslim communities’, whose ‘immediate result would be that the united communities would join in showing us the door’. He saw ‘the Hindu-Muslim feud as the bulwark of British rule in India’.3 The policy of divide and rule was well-established. In 1905 Viceroy Lord Curzon had tried to divide Bengal into two parts, one mostly Muslim, the other mostly Hindu, saying ‘one of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule’.
At Curzon’s invitation, the All-India Muslim League was founded as a sectarian rival to the all-Indian Congress Party in 1906.4 After the war, these divisions would lead to disaster.
In 1941 the Congress began a series of speeches against the Empire that led to the arrest of many of its leaders, including Nehru, sentenced to four years in November. Soon after, though, Viceroy Linlithgow released the Congress leaders.
Cripps crept into the crypt…
In March 1942 Richard Stafford Cripps, the independent Socialist MP was sent to negotiate terms with Congress, offering everything but self-government. Cripps mission was from the outset not serious, but a ploy by Churchill to avoid pressure from critics in his own cabinet and from President Roosevelt for a more liberal policy in India. Churchill told Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India that ‘it was just because Cripps was of the left that it would be much easier for him to carry through what is essentially a pro-Muslim and reasonably Conservative policy’. Having stayed at Cripps’ country house, Filkins, when he was in England in 1938, Nehru was optimistic about what the mission held out, but on that score he was naïve. Cripps included the fatal clause ‘the option that any province not wishing to accede to the new Constitution stand out’. That was a green light to the Muslim League to threaten to divide India and secede as the independent Muslim state of Pakistan (meaning nation of the pure). More, Cripps was told by the War Cabinet in a telegram on 6 April that the special powers of the Viceroy must be preserved. Gandhi understood that the opt-out clause meant the end of India – the Congress leaders were keen students of Britain’s colonial history and knew well how the partition of Ireland had wrecked the movement for freedom there. ‘I would advise you to take the next plane home’, Gandhi told Cripps. The offer was ‘a post-dated cheque’ he told journalists (one of whom made the quote stronger by adding ‘on a failing bank’). Cripps knew, said Gandhi, that the proposal contemplated the splitting up of India into three parts’ Churchill was thrilled that the mission had failed, as he had always planned, and danced a jig around the Cabinet room. Cripps had done the right thing, and better still for Churchill, he put the blame onto Gandhi for the failure of the mission.5
Bertolt Brecht following the story thought it would be a good play:
The red lord, India’s friend, arrives. Then the old clichés of Colonel Blimp issue from his mouth. And the Red Lord returns to London town, insulted because the ‘disunified’ Indians refuse to take anything from so friendly a hand.6 In parliament, the pacifist James Maxton broke through the wall of silence surrounding
If the Indian people as a mass have no intention of fighting in this war, they will not do it. Surely if you have learned anything in this war, you have learned that. …You could not get Malaya to fight. You could not get Burma to fight. … Do not delude yourselves that you can trick 400,000,000 people on to the battlefield.7 Quit India After the false promise of the Cripps Mission Congress girded itself for an all-out struggle against British rule. Gandhi told The Harijan of 26 April 1942 Whatever the consequences, therefore, to India, her real safety and of Britain’s too, lie in orderly and timely British withdrawal from India. All talk of treaties with princes and obligations towards minorities are a British creation designed for the preservation of the British rule and British interest.8 On 14 July Congress passed a resolution calling on Britain to withdraw from India, reaffirmed at a further Congress in Bombay on 8 August - ‘Quit India!’, as it was contracted in the protests that followed.
The British Cabinet leapt on the chance to finally attack the Congress movement head on. The Congress leaders, Gandhi, Nehru and scores of others were thrown in jail in August 1942, and Gandhi would not be released until 6 May 1944. While Indian troops were still being taken out of the country, white British troops were being sent in – by May 1943 105 battalions were taken up with the crackdown. One of the British soldiers, Clive Branson, was convinced that the British had provoked the rebellion for the ‘long-sought opportunity to smash the nationalist movement’. Protests followed the jailing of the Gandhi and Nehru. Leo Amery accused the Congress leaders of sabotaging the war effort in a BBC broadcast – but then the War Cabinet had agreed back in 1940 that ‘if conflict with Congress should arise, it should appear as an outcome of war necessity, rather than as a political quarrel unrelated to the war’. The British response was barbaric. Protestors were gunned down in the street. A contemporary report put the numbers killed at 940 – but later estimates put the numbers killed over all at as many as ten times that. In Bihar hundreds were killed when planes strafed protestors. On 9 August 1942 the fighting cost the lives of scores of Indians and nine British officers. In retaliation there were hundreds of arrests and beatings, and nine prisoners were taken in Chimur and six at Ashti, and sentenced to death. In the first wave 60,222 protestors were arrested and 18,000 jailed under the Defence of India Rules. The total eventually jailed rose as high as 90,000. In an orgy of sadistic brutality the British forces got an Emergency Whipping Act passed into law.9 The British government had some excellent advice on how to deal with Congress.
In 1938 Adolf Hitler told Lord Halifax (himself a former Viceroy of India):
Shoot Gandhi, and if this doesn’t suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that doesn’t suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established.10 Gunning down the protestors was in the end what the British did, though having already jailed the Congress leaders, they were saved summary execution. Still, Britain’s jails were harsh. Gandhi’s wife Kasturba died in prison in Pune in his arms. Nehru’s brother in law Pandit Ranjit died in jail, as did Gandhi’s Secretary Mahadev Desai and scores of others.
In Parliament the Independent Labour MP for Camlachie Campbell Stephen spoke out What is the position in India to-day? Thousands of the most trusted and loved leaders of the Indian people are in gaol. They are under detention, in concentration camps, shut up, and along with the imprisonment of thousands of leaders, the people are under a reign of terror...there are the flogging and machine-gunning of people in case of rioting, and collective fines are being imposed. Where is this happening? … Exactly what you condemn in Norway under the Hitler régime is what the British Government are doing in India.11
The British Prime Minister made no secret of his feelings: ‘I hate Indians,’ he told Leo Amery: ‘They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ 12 Churchill’s hostility to natives was ingrained, but in the case of India it was well-honed on the resentment of a parasitic imperial power.
The historic relation between the occupying power Britain and the colony was skewed so that India’s trade was always disadvantaged, through onerous taxation and discriminatory trade controls. India was forced to trade low value basics for much higher value produced goods. Throughout the history of the Raj, income flowed from India to Britain, and the colony was forever in Britain’s debt. Churchill reckoned that one third of the British population were sustained by profits made in India. With the war, the Cabinet made sure that as much of the Indian economy could be given over to war production as possible.
Said Viceroy Linlithgow:
My whole conception is that of India humming from end to end with activity in munitions and supply production and at the same time with the bustle of men training for active service of one sort or another, the first operation largely paying for cost of the second.13 The British-Indian Army put nearly as many men into the field as the British, more than two million by the end of the war, with recruitment running at its high point at 50,000 a day.
Those troops were the backbone of the British war effort in Iran and Iraq, as well as playing a major part in North Africa and the re-conquest of the east. Under the agreement those men who were not directly defending India were paid for by the British government, with credits to be paid for after the war ended. All in all India was the greatest single contributor to the British war effort after Britain herself, giving up £2 billion in goods and services. Indian manufacturers made munitions and supplies for the troops, while her farmers gave up grain to feed the rest of the Empire.
Historians like Niall Ferguson have resisted the comparison between Britain’s occupation of India and Nazi rule in the east, but it was current at the time. Leo Amery referred to Churchill’s ‘Hitler-like’ policy for India. ‘The Russian space is our India’, said Hitler. ‘Like the English, we shall rule this Empire with a handful of men.’ His favourite film was the 1935 Hollywood production Lives of the Bengal Lancers.14 Over time the impact on the Indian economy was severe. Like the Japanese ‘CoProsperity Sphere’ the imperial power was demanding more in basic goods, just as it was redirecting its own production away from manufactured goods towards armaments. Rice, cotton and manufactures were leaving, but nothing was coming in. On top of that, the British authorities’ purchasing on credit was bidding up the prices of the dwindling stock of goods – a dangerous spiral of inflation. The Congress resolution of 8 August 1942 launching the Quit India campaign carried the complaint that Britain was ‘degrading and enfeebling India’. It was a warning of what was to come.