World War II and Indian Nationalism



  • During the Second World War (1939–1945), India was a part of the British Empire, and they officially declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939
    • Viceroy Linlithgow declared that India was at war with Germany, without consultations with Indian politicians
  • As a result, the British Raj, as a possession of Great Britain, formed part of the Allied Nations and sent over two million volunteer soldiers to fight under British command against the Axis powers.
    • Additionally, several Indian Princely States provided large donations to support the Allied campaign during the War.


Attitude of Indians towards War

  • The attitude of Indians towards WW2 can be categorised as follows:
    1. Since Britain was in trouble, India should seize opportunity to gain freedom. The prime concern of the proponents was to achieve India’s freedom and they were not concerned about the International situation

This was done by:

      • Opposing the British efforts to mobilise India’s resources for the war
      • Launching a strong movement against the British
    1. India should not seek advantage of Britain’s problems.
      • Rather, It should cooperate with the British in their war efforts unconditionally
      • Those who supported this view hoped that after the war, the British would adopt a lenient view towards India, in the light of her services, and suitably reward her
      • Political parties such as the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha supported the British war effort
    2. The third kind, considered Fascism as greater threat to mankind and wanted to help Britain in the War
      • But this help was conditional
      • The conditions were India’s Independence in the future and an interim government of Indians for the moment.
    3. There were also certain section whose attitude changed according to the changing war situation. There were also sections who maintained a neutral position


What did the Congress do in such a situation?

  • The Congress did not like the unilateral action of the British of drawing India into the war without consulting the Indians, it decided to support the war effort conditionally.
  • The Indian offer to cooperate in the war effort had two basic conditions:
    1. After the war, a constituent assembly should be convened to determine political structure of a free India.
    2. Immediately, some form of a genuinely responsible government should be established at the Centre.


  • Further, Different opinions were voiced on the question of Indian support to British war efforts, as follows:
    • Though Gandhiji supported the Congress Working Committee Resolution of conditional support, he himself was not for it, and he stated:
      • If the British are fighting for the freedom of all, then their representatives have to state in the clearest possible terms that the freedom of India is necessarily included in the war aim. The content of such freedom can only be decided by Indians and them alone.
    • Subhas Bose and other socialists, had no sympathy for either side in the war
      • In their opinion, the war was being fought by imperialists on both sides; each side wanted to protect its colonial possessions and gain more territories to colonise, so neither side should be supported by the nationalists
    • In fact, they thought it was the ideal time to launch a civil disobedience movement, to thus take advantage of the situation and snatch freedom from Britain
    • Jawaharlal Nehru was not ready to accept the opinion of either Gandhi or of the socialists.
      • He was clear in his mind about the difference between democratic values and fascism
      • He, therefore, advocated no Indian participation till India itself was free.
      • However, at the same time, no advantage was to be taken of Britain’s difficulty by starting an immediate civil disobedience movement.
    • Further, The CWC resolution condemned Fascist aggression. It said that:
      • India could not be party to a war being fought, on the face of it, for democratic freedom, while that freedom was being denied to India
      • If Britain was fighting for democracy and freedom, it should be proved by ending imperialism in its colonies and establishing full democracy in India
      • The government should declare its war aims soon and, also, as to how the principles of democracy were to be applied to India after the war


How did the Government react?

  • The British were not prepared either to make any concessions immediately or make promises about the future – except a vague talk of dominion status.
  • The government
    • refused to define British war aims beyond stating that Britain was resisting aggression;
    • said it would, as part of future arrangement, consult “representatives of several communities, parties and interests in India, and the Indian princes” as to how the Act of 1935 might be modified;
    • said it would immediately set up a “consultative committee” whose advice could be sought whenever required.
  • Consequently, Defence of India Rules were promulgated in order to check defiance of British authority and exploit Indian resources for the War effort.


Was the British Government’s actions justified?

  • The reaction of the Government were a part of popular general British policy, i.e “to take advantage of the war to regain the lost ground from the Congress” by provoking the Congress into a confrontation with the government and then using the extraordinary situation to acquire draconian powers.
  • Even before the declaration of the War, emergency powers had been acquired for the Centre in respect of provincial subjects by amending the 1935 Act.
    • Defence of India ordinance had been enforced the day the War was declared, thus restricting civil liberties
  • In 1940, a top secret Draft Revolutionary Movement Ordinance had been prepared, aimed at launching crippling pre-emptive strikes on the Congress.
  • Further, the Government could also win an unusual amount of liberal and leftist sympathy all over the world by painting an aggressive Congress as being pro-Japan and pro-Germany
  • It became clear that the British government had no intention of loosening its hold, during or after the war, and was willing to treat the Congress as an enemy.