August 8, 1942 – Gandhi Gives His “Do or Die” Speech

As reported on the UK History Learning Site, in World War I, 800,000 Indian troops fought enthusiastically for its colonial masters in Britain. Afterwards, 47,746 were listed as killed or missing with 65,000 wounded. India had been expected to be rewarded with a major move towards independence or at least self-government. But it soon became obvious that neither was going to happen.

When Britain entered World War II, it declared India to be at war with Germany.

As Smithsonian Magazine recounts:

Much as the Indian National Congress (the largely Hindu public assembly that had some governmental functions) sympathized with defeating fascism, they balked at seeing their country further pillaged for resources.”

In 1939, members of the Congress had informed Viceroy Lord Linlithgow — the highest-ranking British official in India — they would only support the war effort if Indian independence lay at the end of it. Linlithgow responded with his own threat: if the Congress didn’t support Britain, Britain would empower the Muslim League, political rivals of the Hindu ruling elite. The Congress felt pressured to acquiesce. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was cooperating with Britain. As Winston Churchill later confessed, “the Hindu-Moslem feud [was] a bulwark of British rule in India.”

But the Congress did not abandon the fight, especially because of the efforts of one of their most notable members: Mohandas “Mahatma” Karamchand Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi, center, confers with leaders of the All-India Congress Party, Aug. 1942 (Associated Press)

Gandhi opposed providing any help to the British war effort and he campaigned against any Indian participation in the World War II. He condemned Nazism and Fascism, but prioritized independence for India.

Smithsonian reports:

By 1942, Prime Minister Churchill felt enough pressure to send Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to discuss a change to India’s political status. But upon learning that Cripps wasn’t actually offering full independence and that current Indian politicians would still have no say in military strategy, the Congress and the Muslim League rejected his proposal.”

Gandhi, nearing age 73, led a new round of protests, calling for the British to “Quit India” on this date in a speech in Mumbai made to the National Congress Party.

Gandhi argued that this was the moment to seize power:

Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.”

He added, perhaps in anticipation that this movement would not go over well with the Raj (the name for direct British rule over the Indian subcontinent):

Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it. He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”

The Congress agreed that Gandhi should lead a nonviolent mass movement, passing the “Quit India Resolution.” The British government responded quickly, and within hours after Gandhi’s speech arrested Gandhi and all the members of the Congress Working Committee.

On August 9, Leopold Amery, the British Secretary of State for India, announced the reason for the arrests of Gandhi and other members of the Congress to the press.

Leopold Amery

Amery stated:

. . . India knows that there is not the slightest chance of an agreed provisional government coming into being on the disappearance of British rule. If they believe this, surely their obvious course would be to bring the members of such a government together now and let India know in advance to whom her fortunes are to be entrusted.

They know that for all their professions of zeal for the Allied cause they could not add a rifle or a recruit to the forces which India is putting in the field, but could only disorganize the whole of that splendid army of which India is so justly proud.

What we are really concerned with is not a demand which no one can take seriously [emphasis added], but the action which Congress had from the outset resolved upon. For that action, acts of preparation had for some time been in progress. It includes the fomenting of strikes, not only in industry and commerce, but in the administration and in law courts, schools and colleges; the interruption of traffic and public utility services, the cutting of telegraph and telephone lines, the picketing of troops and recruiting stations.

All this is to be done, so we are told, non-violently. But bitter experience has shown how easily the non-violent activity of excited crowds can lead to terrorism, riot and bloodshed.

The success of the proposed campaign would paralyze not only the ordinary civil administration of India, but her whole war effort. It would stop the output of munitions, the construction of aerodromes, and even of shelters against air attack. It would put an end to recruiting; it would immobilize the forces.

No worse stab in the back could be devised to all the gallant men, Indian or British, American or Chinese, now engaged on Indian soil in the task of defending India herself and of preparing, from India as their base, to strike at the enemy.”

Amery’s speech not only sparked outrage, but ironically provided an outline for just how the protests were to proceed, as civilians attacked railway stations, post offices, and police.

The police and the British Army in India instituted a violent crackdown on the rioters, arresting over 100,000 people, and resulting in close to 1,000 deaths.

“Do or die” became the unifying rallying cry for the ensuing civil disobedience campaign that spread across the subcontinent and lasted from August 1942 to September 1944. Crucially, the Smithsonian history observes, Indians employed by the British government as police officers and administrative officials turned on their employer.

Gandhi’s arrest lasted two years. During this period, his long time secretary died of a heart attack, his wife Kasturba died after 18 months’ imprisonment; and Gandhi himself suffered a severe malaria attack. He was released before the end of the war on May 6, 1944 because of his failing health and necessary surgery; the Raj did not want him to die in prison and enrage the nation.

Jinnah and Gandhi in Bombay, September 1944

At the end of the war, the British gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands. At this point Gandhi called off the struggle, and around 100,000 political prisoners were released, including the Congress’s leadership.

You can read the full text of Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech here.

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