Book excerpt: When the Quit India Movement took the country by storm

Book excerpt: When the Quit India Movement took the country by storm

An excerpt from ‘A Bend in the Ganges’, Manohar Malgonkar’s 1964 novel, in which Debi-dayal, an ardent revolutionary, finds himself sucked into the violence of Partition, after his return from the Andamans penal colony, when the Japanese take over the islands

A Bend in the Ganges by Manohar Malgonkar (1913-2010), an epic saga of a nation in transition, was described by EM Forster as one of the three best novels of 1964. The novel, which depicts the cataclysmic events leading up to Partition and the conflict that arises between ideologies of violence and non-violence, is now available in a new edition. This excerpt has been provided to The Federal by HarperCollins Publishers India.


Hundreds of Indians had lost their lives, but very few of their countrymen bothered about that; the sacrifice was insignificant compared with the results. Inwardly, most of them chortled with glee; the destruction was a blow to the ruling power. In the spring of 1944, the British had very few friends left in India. The Empire was ready to fall like a ripe mango into the hands of the waiting Japanese.

The face of India was covered with the slogan, crudely painted in clay, chalk, vegetable dye, charcoal or red ochre; across roads, on the trunks of trees, on walls, on motor buses and round telegraph poles:

‘Quit India!’

Debi-dayal realized that the slogan which, when he first came across it, he had dismissed with contempt as the humble submission of a milksop organization, had by now taken the whole country by storm and acquired new significance.

Somehow things were moving inexorably to a climax of violence; it was almost as though Shafi Usman’s prediction were coming true. ‘In the midst of non-violence, violence persists,’ Shafi had told them. Was this what he had meant?

Debi-dayal had been astounded and secretly frightened by the change. He had tried to analyse it, poring over the papers in the reading room of the Silent Hill library, discussing the situation with anyone who was prepared to talk to him.

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A reign of terror 

In their anguish and frustration, fired by their anger at the mass arrests of their leaders, goaded by the thought of the Japanese armies poised for an offensive, the people had chosen to discard their vows of non-violence. At least a part of the heat was generated by the authorities’ repressive measures; the callous prison sentences pronounced on Gandhi and Nehru, the methods used to break up demonstrations. It was almost as though the British had forsaken their proverbial restraint, and had suddenly decided to entrust the administration of the country to hundreds of General Dyers pressed into service to smash the national agitation. They had imposed a reign of terror upon the populace. Passive women blocking the streets of Bombay were dragged away by grinning British tommies; all meetings were invariably lathi-charged by the police.

At Ballila, in the United Provinces, someone had even brought Dyer’s technique up to date and had a crowd machine-gunned from the air; the Benares Hindu University was declared closed for alleged subversive activities and its premises taken over by the army; hundreds of Congress camps and offices were burned down under official supervision; crippling collective fines had been imposed on entire villages for sympathy with the movement.

The repression had clearly backfired. It had provoked the mobs into acts of violence. There were hundreds of instances of railway stations, post offices and police stations being burnt down, telephone and telegraph wires being cut and, in one place, of a policeman being burnt alive.

Meanwhile those who had the power to restrain the people, to persuade them to refrain from violence, were kept securely locked up in prison.

The authorities had swung into action with unprecedented virulence. The prisons of the country overflowed with its patriots. Sixty thousand people were arrested in the last four months of 1942. After that the arrests went on with warlike resolution, but the figures were not made available to the press. The Calcutta Statesman, mouthpiece of the ruling power, published a daily list of nationalists who had courted arrest. The paper headed the column ‘The Crank’s Corner’.

It was almost as though the British were striving to convert the non-violence of the leaders of India into the violence of the terrorists; to discredit the movement in the eyes of the world by forcing it to become violent.

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A dream come true 

For Debi-dayal, it was like a dream come true. The nationalist movement was hardening, being transformed into a revolutionary movement. The British themselves had brought it about. You could not keep the spirited men of a nation tied down for long to bullock-cart speed and to the vegetarian logic of the Indian National Congress.

The time was ripe. The British were fighting with their backs to the wall, suffering humiliating reverses everywhere, losing thousands of tons of shipping every day. Never had their rule been more abhorrent to the people of India; freedom was closer at hand than at any time since the revolt of 1857. The Japanese army, mightier than ever in victory, was at the very gates, gathering for a final blow. India was ready to receive them, to welcome them as the Burmese had welcomed them.

And now they had blown up the docks in Bombay. He was convinced that it was the terrorists’ work. He admired their planning, preparation, and patience. Hundreds of men working secretly, waiting for the moment, knowing that some of them would have to sacrifice their lives. They had gone to their deaths cheerfully. It was heartening to think of such men; so long as they were there, India still had a future.

The thought of his own lack of action tormented him. It was nearly two years since he had been sent back to India, charged with specific tasks and provided with ample funds. He had allowed himself to be swayed by the arrogance and the ruthlessness of the Japanese into a position of neutrality. How could he hold his head high in a Free India, knowing that he had spent the crucial years of the struggle in the placidity of an Assamese tea-garden?

It was almost as though he had turned to non-violence himself, he thought with a shudder, while the Indians whom he had pitied for being non-violent were shouldering the weight of the struggle and softening up the ground for the Japanese march to Delhi.


And almost inevitably, like a spectre, the image of a fat Indian in a crumpled uniform, sweating at every pore, marching at the head of the column, came to him, like a bad smell curdling his enthusiasm. What would the Japanese bring? What would they do in Delhi once they had marched up to the Red Fort? The same sort of freedom they had brought to Burma? To the Andamans? Would he ever be able to hold his head high if the Japanese became the rulers of India?

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When the wheels turned again 

He had wavered, racked by confusion. He had gone on working methodically and diligently in the tea-garden, comforting himself with the thought that he could never prefer Japanese rule to that of the British. At the end of 1944, when Patiram, the stockman under whom he worked, was made assistant manager, Debi-dayal was offered the post of stockman. He had been so used to the perquisites of unimportance and anonymity, that promotion came as a jolt. But he took on the new job, knowing that he would not hold it for long.

For once again, the wheel had turned. The Japanese, who, barely a year earlier, had seemed invincible, had been dealt a series of shattering blows by the British and the Americans. The opening of the second front in Europe which no one had thought probable then, had come to pass, and the Anglo-American and Russian armies were already deep inside Europe, bearing down upon Germany from all sides. It was only a question of time before the Germans would be vanquished. Then the Japanese would experience the full fury of Anglo-American might.

It made his mind reel, but it was true. And although it was not his, Debi-dayal’s war, the prospect of an Anglo-American victory was somehow less abhorrent than a Japanese victory. He had seen the Japanese from too close to wish that their rule should replace that of the British in India.

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