The Popular Urges

The Popular Urges

This article deals with ‘The Popular Urges – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here


  • Symptomatic expressions of the popular urges between 1945 & 1947 were of two types
    1. Those which led to direct confrontation with colonial administration
    2. Those which indirectly undermined colonialism through their opposition to its indigenous upholders/collaborators – certain Capitalists, Princes, Landlords & Mahajans

1. Direct Confrontation

1. 1 Indian National Army (INA) Trials

  • Although Military campaign of INA was over but political impact on India was yet to unfold itself.
  • After their surrender, the twenty thousand INA soldiers were interrogated and transported back to India.
    •  Those who appeared to have been persuaded or misled by Japanese or INA propaganda-classified as “Whites” and “Greys”-were either released or rehabilitated in the army.
    • But a few of them at least-the most committed and categorised as “Blacks”-were to be court marshalled.

Not to try them would be to give indication of weakness; and to tolerate ‘treason, would be to put the loyalty of the Indian army at risk. So altogether ten trials took place, and in the first and most celebrated one at Red Fort in Delhi, three officers-P.K. Sahgal, G.S. Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan-were charged of treason, murder and abetment of murder.

  • The trial took place in public, as this was expected to reveal the horrors that these INA men had perpetrated and that, the government hoped, would swerve public opinion against them. But as the events subsequently unfolded, the government, it seemed, had completely miscalculated the political fallout of the INA trials.
  • As the press censorship was lifted after the war, the details of the INA campaign were revealed every day before the Indian public and these officers appeared as patriots of the highest order-not by any means traitors-and the demand for discontinuing the trials grew stronger by the day. The election was round the corner & INA trials could be an excellent issue. Subhas Bose might have been a renegade leader who had challenged the authority of the Congress leadership and their principles. But in death he was a martyred patriot whose memory could be an ideal tool for political mobilisation.
  • There were meetings and processions, angry outbursts and agitated speeches almost everywhere, calling for the immediate release of the INA prisoners. There were many factors that led to this mass up- surge
    1. The trial took place at Red Fort, which appeared to be the most authentic symbol of British imperial domination, as here took place in 1858 the trial of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor and the acclaimed leader of the 1857 revolt.
    2. Furthermore, as trial progressed, its reports appeared in the press, leading to more awareness and to some extent more emotionalisation of the sacrifices made by the INA soldiers.
    3. All political parties, like the Congress Socialists, Akali Dal, Unionist Party, Justice Party, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and even the Muslim League wanted the trials to be discontinued.
    4. And by a strange coincidence, the three accused belonged to three different religions: one Hindu, one Sikh and one Muslim. The demonstrations, therefore, showed signs of remarkable communal harmony.
  • Protests were most widespread in Calcutta (21 Nov 45) in which students marched at the call of Forward Bloc & were joined by Students Federation (Communist Student wing) & league’s  Student Organisation . They tied their flags together to show unity . Police fired at them killing one Hindu & Muslim student . In response, people of Calcutta raged city on fire , disrupted traffic, burned cars & lorries & set up barricades on roads. On 22 & 23 Nov , whole of city was out of their control
  • In the trial, the defense tried to argue that people fighting for freedom of their country could not be tried for treason. But despite that, they were found guilty as charged; but the commander-in-chief remitted their sentence and set them free on 3 January 1946. The three officers came out of the Red Fort to a hero’s welcome at public meetings in Delhi and Lahore, that celebrated a moral victory against the British.

Significance on Granting Independence

  • Since the middle of 1945 the British were expecting a mass upheaval in India any way. But what really perturbed them was the impact of the INA trials on the loyalty of the army, which in post- Quit India days was their only reliable apparatus of rule. Further alarming to them was INA trial and the growing sympathy for the INA soldiers who were almost universally regarded as patriots, rather than “traitors”. The members of the RIAF, as well as some other army personnel in various centres openly donated money to the INA relief fund and on some occasions attended protest rallies in full uniform.
  • Curiously enough, Indian publicmen, whether of nationalist or of communalist type, refused to see in the agitation what British had already seen, and they decided to brand mass actions as “frittering away” of energies in “trifling quarrels” with the police. As an antidote to the unified enthusiasm of the people, the Congress Working Committee chose  to remind everyone of the need for observing strict non-violence. Congress and the League’s leader  restraint over popular outbursts could only be explained by their pre-determination in favour of a negotiated settlement with the British, or by their opting for political bargaining rather than for fighting to the finish.
  • They were willing to take up the INA question, or any such issue, only so far as to derive advantages from it in the coming elections, and no further. For example the Congressmen made a promise during Punjab elections that all INA personnel will be absorbed in the army of free India
  • These agitations again struck in Feb 1946 & epicentre again was Calcutta . Reason was 7 year imprisonment passed on Rashid Ali of INA . This was called by League’s student organisation & joined by Communist Wing too amid communal solidarity . Massive rally & general strike was organised & resulted in clashes with police. Two days of encounters ended with 84 dead
  • Tensions continued even after that not only in Calcutta but all over India

1.2 Royal Indian Navy (RIN) Revolt

  • In Feb 1946 ( second Calcutta confrontation at same time too)
  • Ratings of RIN having served abroad became familiar with the world outside & were resentful  of the racist behavior of their English superiors. Besides being segregation they were well aware of the unrest building in country especially over INA Trials
  • Immediate reason for revolt was poor food quality given to them
  • 18 Feb 1946 : Ratings of HMS Talwar in Bombay Harbour went to hunger strike to protest against bad food & racial arrogance . 22 ships on same harbour followed the suit on same day
  • They elected Naval Central Committee headed by MS Khan & their demands were as  much national as their own ones
    1. Release of INA prisoners
    2. Freedom of all political prisoners
    3. Withdrawal of Indian troops in Indo-China & Java
    4. Better Food
    5. More Civilized Treatment
    6. Equal Pay for European & Indian sailors alike
  • 20 Feb : Ratings barracks were surrounded by Armed guards & fighting started as they preferred gun battle to surrender
  • These confrontations reached Karachi too  spearheaded there by rebels in HMS Hindusthan & by 22 Feb revolt reached all naval bases with 78 ships involved & 20,000 ratings
  • Mutineers invoked unprecedented popular response
Karachi Hindu & Muslim students & workers demonstrated in their support
Engaged with army & police with violent clashes
Bombay Witnessed emotional expressions of the public sympathy – people hailing the ratings , rushing in food for them & shopkeepers insisting on their taking whatever articles they like
– Communists with support of Congress Socialists gave call for general strike on 22 Feb .
– Congress & Muslim League gave counter directives but even after that 3 Lakh demonstrators came out on road that day . Same scenes as Calcutta . In Clashes , several hundreds died in two days
  • Importance : The RIN mutiny was short lived, but it had dramatic psychological repercussions. Although it did not immediately lead to an open revolt in the Indian army, such a possibility could never be ruled out. The sympathetic strikes in the air force and army indicated very clearly that the Indian Army was no longer the same “sharp sword of repression” which the British could use as before, if a popular outburst of the 1942 proportions took place again. An official inquiry commission later revealed that “majority of ratings [were] politically conscious”

But movement ended because

  • Overwhelming military might of Raj put in place
  • Vallabhbai Patel & Jinnah jointly persuaded rating to surrender on 23 Feb & an undertaking was given by Congress & ML that they would prevent any victimisation of ratings  (but soon assurance was forgotten)

Note – R.I.N. ratings of February 1946, in sharp contrast to the men of the Azad Hind Fauj, have never been given the status of national heroes—although their action involved much greater risk in some ways than joining the I.N.A. as alternative to an arduous life in Japanese POW camps. The last message of the Naval Central Strike Committee deserves to be remembered far better than it is: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation. For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause. We in the Services will never forget this. We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget. Long live our great people! Jai Hind!’

2. Indirect Confrontation

2.1 Worlis

  • Worlis are Tribal or Adivasi peasants in Thana district
  • They were poverty stricken & took loans from moneylenders at exorbitant rates upto rate of interest of 200% .
  • Generally failed  to pay back & eventually reduced to status of tenant at will on their own lands or became landless agriculture labourers or wage earners cutting grass on their fallow lands or workers for contractors of forest lands
  • In times of difficulty they also took grain loans from moneylenders & landlords & on failure to pay back they were forced to give veth Bigar or labour without payment turning them into serfs for life
  • In 1945 , Worlis were organised by Maharashtra Kisan Sabha & led by Outside leader Godavari Purulekar . They refused to give Veth Begar & demanded higher wage for cutting grass & higher wage for work in forest
  • There were numerous confrontations between them & Zamindars with support of police & lathihars killing many .  By autumn of 1946 both demands met after series of repression
  • This success enraged the Government & it hit revengefully by arresting large number of activists & constituting criminal charges against them . Movement disappeared gradually but many agitators who fled to jungles tried many a times to regroup themselves

2.2 Bakshat Peasants Agitation

  • In Bihar
  • More extensive & more desparate & was building from decades
  • Zamindars in Bihar had three types of lands
Zirati Which they kept for themselves & cultivated by Agricultural labourers
Rayati Settled with occupancy tenants
Bakshat Rented to Tenants at will at varying rates
  • Bakshat Tenants had no occupancy rights and they were subjected to continuous ejections because
    • It was profitable for Zamindar
    • Under Tenancy Act,1885 if Bakshat land was  with same tenant for 12 years then he got some rights
  • Peasants resisted this and fought furiously against this under banner of Kisan Sabha from 1937-1939 against Zamindari agents, government officials & police
  • Hostility was temporary halted with onset of WW2 with some unreliable arbitrations & unstable agreements
  • This issue again came into forefront when Congress run for elections in Bihar by promising to abolish Zamindari . Zamindar in order to safeguard their lands starting evicting Tenants at will & started to convert Bakshat land to Zirati land . Agitations started against it & spread to Gaya , Shahabad, Dharbhanga , Muzaffarpur etc
  • Zamindars were repressing them with help of armed  lathials & Police but leadership of Kisan Sabha refused to give up . Women & children joined movement too
  • Half hearted Bihar Bakshat Disputes Settlement Act 1947 was passed but  farmers werent satisfied & ended with passage of Bihar Zamindari Abolition Act,1948

2.3 Travancore Agitation

  • Scene of happening was Alleppy – Shertalai Region
  • Mainly by Communists supported by poor peasants, coir factory workers, tody tappers , fishermen &  depressed agri ranks
  • Communists-launched a massive campaign against the “American model” constitution which C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the Dewan, wanted to impose upon the state people. Through this device the Dewan and the Maharaja were in fact preparing clandestinely for the establishment of an independent Travancore state at the time of the foreseeable British departure from India. It was to provide for an irresponsible government in Travancore, with a Legislature elected on universal suffrage, but without having any effective control over the Executive, under a Dewan to be appointed by the Maharaja.
  • Communist furore against the plan so enraged the State Authorities that they unleashed the forces of terror on their opponents in the Alleppy region. Police camps were set up, and indiscriminate arrests, detentions and tortures began. Persecutions eventually forced the workers to take shelter in places protected by their own volunteer force . Martial Law was declared & they killed 800 people
  • This massacre swayed the public opinion against state’s independence move & thereby in favour of its integration with the nationalist India 

2.4 Tebhaga Agitation 

  • Most extensive of all & drew 6 million peasants into it . It was against exploitative pattern of sharecropping system that prevailed in parts of Bengal
  • In Bengal countryside, especially in those areas where large hilly, marshy and forest tracts were brought under cultivation, a relatively new class of rural exploiters emerged between the landlords (Zamindars) and the tenants (Ryots), known as the Jotedars.
  • Jotedars (owners of jotes or considerable chunks of land) accumulated big estates for which they paid rent in cash, and which they-in their turn-rented out to landless peasants on the basis of sharing the crops in equal halves, or 50 per cent produce rent. In actual practice, the tillers’ share of crops used to be much less than one-half as he had initially to take advance from the Jotedar for procuring implements, seeds and cattle, and then pay it back at the time of sharing the crops. Apart from that have to give Nazarana , Salami & perform begar on lands of jotedar
  • Sharecropping arrangement being renewable orally every year, the Jotedar could, and invariably did throw out one sharecropper for another on consideration for higher Nazarana and Salami.
  • Bengal was facing Great famine in 1943 &  inflatory trends of WW 2 . Hence, Sharecroppers started viewing the customary division of crop to be wholly disadvantageous to their well-being. They, therefore, had no hesitation in responding to the call of the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha in September 1946, demanding 2/3 of the produce for the tillers instead 1/2
  • Sharecroppers started taking harvested crops to their own yards (while custom was to take it to yards of Jotedar) & offered 1/3 to Jotedar & 2/3 for themselves . Where ever Jotedar was able to take crop to his godown they broke godown & demanded their 2/3 share
  • Women joined the movement too
  • Zamindars backed by Government officers, police & their musclemen repressed them . But after numerous casualties this ended because of govt ruthless repression, hostility of entire Bengali middle-class & above all worsened communal situation

2.5 Telangana Movement

  • Area : Telangana
  • Hyderabad was a  princely state and here the agriculture relations were feudal with -small population of jagirdars, pattadars (landowners), deshmukhs , deshpandes (revenue collectors) and moneylenders were exploiting the peasants and agricultural labourers . In 1940s, the falling prices continuing from the depression years also impacted the peasants . 
  • Along with that, the communists were  mobilising the peasantry since mid-1930s through certain front organisations, such as the Andhra Conference in Telengana and the Andhra Mahasabha in the delta region.

Movement can be seen in two phases

Phase 1

  • Movement started in Nalgonda district in July 1946 with an attack on a notorious landlord and within a month it spread to a wide region in Nalgonda, Warangal and Khammam districts
  • Demands were many
    • Wage increase
    • Abolition of vethi, illegal exactions, eviction and the recently imposed grain levy
  • However, movement was less organised and more ‘spasmodic’ in nature .

Phase 2

  • In June 1947,  Nizam announced that after the withdrawal of the British, Hyderabad would maintain its independence and would not join the Indian union.
  • In reaction, local Congress decided to launch a satyagraha, and the communists, despite their reservations, joined in and hoisted national flags in various parts of the state.
  • But the alliance soon broke down, as the movement was not going anywhere, while the Majlis lttehad-ul-Musalmin, an outfit of the minority Muslim aristocracy, now recruited its own armed bands, called the Razakars, and with the endorsement of the Nizam unleashed a reign of terror in the Telengana countryside.
  • To resist repression, the peasants under communist leadership now began to form volunteer guerrilla squads called dalams, began to seize wastelands and surplus land from big landlords and redistribute them, and formed village republics or ‘soviets’ in areas considered to be liberated zones.

Phase 3

  • On 13 September 1948 the Indian army entered Hyderabad and Nizam’s army, police and the Razakar bands surrendered immediately. But this did not mark the end of the Telengana insurrection
  • Communist Party, despite some opposition from within, decided to continue the struggle
  • Indian army also launched its “Police Action” against the communist guerrillas and the uneven battle continued until October 1951, when the movement was formally withdrawn

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