The Quit India Movement launched by Congress in India and the Indian National Army (INA), or Azad Hind Fauj, founded by Subhas Chandra Bose in Singapore proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the ‘Great British Empire’ in India.
Second World War, the creation of armies outside India, underground armed revolutionary movements, and mass agitations frustrated the British government like never before. A tyrant becomes insanely ruthless when he starts losing grip on power. The British were no different. They used unprecedented violence against the unarmed civilians. If that was not enough, they censored the press was censored to report these atrocities against the Indian population.
As the War came to an end in 1945, the Congress leadership was released from prison. These leaders observed a ‘Liberty Week’ from August 9 onwards. The United Provinces Congress declared to celebrate August 9 as Martyrs Day, August 10 as Political Prisoners Day, August 11 as Civil Liberties Day, August 12 as Students' Demand Day, August 13 as Charkha Demonstration Day, August 14 as National Unity Day and August 15 as Anti-Untouchability Day.
At a time when the Congress leadership was bargaining with the British government for freedom, INA trials had stirred the patriotic emotions of youth, and Indian soldiers of the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Police were openly supporting Azad Hind Fauj, The Hindustan Times (HT) saw an opportunity to bring the heinous and inhuman face of the British Raj in front of the world.
On 9 August 1945, HT made a revelation that the British used the Air Force against unarmed civilian protests during the Quit India Movement. The report said that there were ‘air bombings’ on protestors in 1942 and 43.
The British authorities were quick to take notice. Viceroy reacted the same day and wrote to Sir Francis Mudie (a senior official of the Government and governor of Bihar during the Quit India Movement), “H.E. (Viceroy) would like to know whether you think that anything should be done about these articles. In particular, if there was no air bombing which he thinks is a fact, he feels that the Editor should be made to withdraw publicly the statement that the disturbances were suppressed by airbombing.”
Sir Richard Tottenham, Secretary to the Government of India, replied the next day to the Viceroy Lord Wavell telling him that immediate action against HT was not possible. The letter said, “I do not think it would be possible to prosecute the Hindustan Times successfully for these articles. We might ask the C.C. (Commander in Chief) to put the case before the Advisory Committee, and possibly, consider placing the Hindustan Times under a pre-censorship order in respect to all publicity relating to Liberty Weak. I do not think we should get anything helpful out of the Advisory Committee, but that is not a valid argument for failing to take this course.
A pre-censorship order would only give the press as a whole a further grievance and would generally upset the political atmosphere. On the whole, I would recommend issuing a letter to the Editor of the Hindustan Times in the terms of the draft below. If his response is unsatisfactory, we might then put the whole case before the Advisory Committee. If that does no good, we might consider putting out a press communique, which would include some of the statistics I have quoted above.”
The Viceroy’s letter brought more embarrassment to the British Government. The government objected to HT’s reporting. In a letter to the Editor of HT, dated 11 August 1945, Tottenham wrote, “In particular they (government) take the strongest objection to the statement which appeared both in the article contributed by your Lucknow correspondent and in your leading article of August 9th that the disturbances were suppressed by air bombing. You must be well aware of official statements made in the Legislature that there was no air bombing. I am therefore directed to request you to withdraw this statement immediately and to give at least equal publicity to the withdrawal as to the original allegation.”
Interestingly the British government argued that the report was wrong because the aircraft did not drop bombs but used machine guns fitted in the fighter planes to kill civilians. Sir Alan Hartley had already told the Council of State on 25 September 1943 that the aircraft had been used to machinegun unarmed protestors at least at five places in August 1942. He said, “(1) On the railway near Cirick in Patna district, about 12 miles south of Bihar Sharif. (2) On the railway Line Bhagalpur to Sahibganj, in Bhagalpur district, about 15 miles south of Kursela. (3) Near Ranaghat some 16 miles south of Krishnagar in Nadia district. (4) At a railway halt between Pasraha and Mahesh Khurt in Munghyr district, on the line from Hajipur to Katihar. (5) Two or three miles south of Talcher city in Talcher State.”
Joint Editor of HT, K. Santhanam, who later served as Railway Minister of independent India, replied to Tottenham on 15 August 1945, “The word "bombing" was used in a loose sense to include machine-gunning from the air which has been officially acknowledged to have taken place on a few occasions… we would have failed in our duty to the public if we did not take note of the prohibitory orders in the U.P. and protest against them.”
HT carried a clarification the same day which was more of an explanation of its previous reporting which infuriated the British government. The clarification published read, “Our attention has also been drawn to official statements that there was no air bombing and that there were only a few cases of aircraft opening fire. The following is a relevant extract from the statement of Sir Reginald Maxwell, then Home Member, in the Central Assembly on September 15, 1942:
The Air Force was used and proved invaluable for reconnaissance and patrol (in Bihar). On one or two occasions, after warnings had had no effect, aircraft opened fire on mobs actually engaged in destroying the railway line; but there was no bombing whatsoever. We regret the error but it does not invalidate our argument.”
HT also pointed out in its reporting that the British government had admitted police firing at 565 places to ‘control’ Indians during Quit India Movement protests. The brave journalists exposed the real barbaric face of the colonial government to the whole world.