In 1937 the Congress party was in clover. In the elections held in 1937 (on limited franchise) on the basis of the Government of India Act 1935, the congress formed Ministries in eight provinces and the Muslim League was unable to win even in one province. Gandhi, however, was not very comfortable as he watched the Congressmen scrambling for power. There were several minor scandals but overall the Congress ministries were able to give a good administration.
But all changed when Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and within hours the Viceroy Linlithgow declared that Germany was a belligerent state without even consulting any person of consequence. The general mood in the Congress was to support Britain in the war but the party’s stand was (as Nehru clearly said) “Indians will not participate in the war as slaves.” Subhas Bose who had by then formed the Forward Bloc was also for complete freedom. The Muslim League was neutral and so was the Hindu Mahasabha.
The Congress in fact expected the British to announce that India would be granted independence after the end of the war, but the Viceroy was adamant. He made a declaration which in effect said that the Indian leaders would sit on some decorative committees. He personally wrote George VI, the king of England that “(The declaration) does not give Congress what they are asking for, which is an understanding by our government that India will be given political independence at the conclusion of the war.”
Because of this intransigence, the Congress had no other option except to call upon their ministries to resign which they did in October/November 1939. The Muslim League promptly announced that they would celebrate 22 December 1939 as a day of deliverance from the Congress rule.
Though the Congress was out of power in the provinces, they were reluctant to start a new civil disobedience movement when Britain was at war. In the Ramgarh Congress session the party declared that nothing short of independence would be accepted by the people of India but it was not very sure how to start a new movement against the British rule.
In 1940 there was a tussle in the Congress between Gandhi and the other members. Gandhi was all for pacifism. He even said in all naivete that Congress should declare that Independent India would not maintain armed forces to defend herself against external aggression or internal disorder. The working committee did not agree with him. Azad openly said that Congress was not a pacifist organization but one for achieving India’s freedom and the Indians had a right to take the sword if they had no other alternative.
In the meanwhile, the Muslim League passed the Pakistan Resolution in March 1940 which stated that “geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.”
From then on, Jinnah started playing his nefarious game. Whatever the Congress wanted he wanted the exact opposite. The language of the league was racist and very violent. Jinnah was being applauded from the side lines by leaders like Periyar. The Hindu Mahasabha, which without doubt stood for a united India, was also issuing dire threats that there would be violent consequences if the Muslims wanted to divide India.
In October 1940 Gandhi started his Individual Satyagraha with Vinoba Bhave as the first Satyagrahi. This practically achieved nothing except to assure the people that the Congress was still in a fight-for-freedom mood. Nehru was jailed in October 1940 and was released only in November 1941. Subhas Bose effected his escape from British India in January 1941. He would never return.
The war effort was fully on. The Congress was not able to convince the people, especially from the Punjab and other ‘Martial’ provinces, not to join the forces. People, especially Muslims from Punjab and NWFP and Baluchistan, joined the Indian Army in great number. The Hindu Mahasabha also exhorted the Hindus to join the army.
The Congress was caught in a trice. Gandhi was painfully aware that without any support from the Muslims any resistance against the Government could easily be portrayed as resistance against the Muslims. The British could always fob it off saying that the Government had to consult Jinnah to get the Muslim side of the story. Gandhi was desperately looking for an opportunity when he could appeal to the people directly and make them listen to him.
The opportunity came when the US joined the war and exhorted the British to show some sense. The Japanese were unstoppable. Rangoon fell in March 1942 and India’s eastern borders were totally exposed. The British Government had to have the people of India on their side and show that they were sincere about transfer of power after the war.
The result was the Cripps Mission.