Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The Quit India movement

6-1. The BLPI’s anticipation of a political upheaval in India proved correct. Within months of its formation, the tumultuous Quit India movement erupted in August 1942. Congress had formally opposed the war and its ministers had resigned their posts in the autumn of 1939, but its opposition had been limited to token individual civil disobedience. Following the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Gandhi and the Congress leaders calculated that the imminent danger of a Japanese invasion of India gave them greater leverage with the British. Under conditions of mounting socio-economic dislocation caused by India’s subordination to the British war effort, Congress sought to pre-empt the emergence of mass unrest. On August 7, the Congress Working Committee deliberated before huge crowds at the Gowalia Tank Maidan, a large open area in central Bombay, on a resolution that called for mass non-violent struggle for “orderly British withdrawal.” In what became a major political blow to the CPI, the Stalinist members of the Working Committee publicly opposed the resolution.

6-2. The BLPI circulated its leaflets at the Bombay meeting, supporting any anti-imperialist struggle that Congress launched and calling for “a mass general political strike against British imperialism”, backed by rural no-tax and no-rent campaigns leading up to the seizure of land by peasant committees. In doing so, the BLPI was following the advice contained in Trotsky’s letter to Indian workers: “In the event that the Indian bourgeoisie finds itself compelled to take even the tiniest step on the road of struggle against the arbitrary rule of Great Britain, the proletariat will naturally support such a step. But they will support it with their own methods: mass meetings, bold slogans, strikes, demonstrations, and more decisive combat actions, depending on the relationship of forces and the circumstances. Precisely to do this must the proletariat have its hands free. Complete independence from the bourgeoisie is indispensable to the proletariat, above all in order to exert influence on the peasantry, the predominant mass of India’s population.”[1]

6-3. Despite his rousing “Do or Die!” speech on August 8, Gandhi’s expectation was that the resolution would force the viceroy to open talks. However, the British responded by detaining the entire Congress leadership—a move that unleashed a wave of angry protests and strikes in many parts of the country. The Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha joined the CPI in supporting the suppression of the protests. With top Congress leaders including Gandhi in jail, the Congress Socialists assumed the leadership of the movement, but had no perspective for taking power. They made no orientation to the working class and instead indulged in futile acts of sabotage and peasant guerrillaism. The BLPI threw itself into the protests, turning to sections of workers and students, and participating in or organising demonstrations in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and other cities. It paid a heavy price. Assisted by the Stalinists, who branded the BLPI as “criminals and gangsters who help the Fascists”, the police arrested many BLPI members and senior leaders. The Quit India movement involved millions of people and continued for months in the face of brutal police repression. According to official figures, more than 1,000 were killed and 60,000 were imprisoned during the period from August 1942 to March 1943. After the movement ebbed and the British turned back the Japanese army, Congress effectively shelved its Quit India demand for the remainder of the war.

6-4. The BLPI’s tenacious struggle enhanced the stature of Trotskyism throughout the region. Under difficult conditions of illegality, police persecution and wartime isolation from the Fourth International, it had oriented to the Quit India movement, above all to the working class, without making the slightest political concession to Congress or the Congress Socialists. However, as the revolutionary wave ebbed, sharp political differences emerged inside the BLPI. The genesis of these differences lay in the transformation of the LSSP into the BLPI—a transformation that had involved a fundamental shift on to a new proletarian-internationalist axis and inevitably generated internal tensions. The initial disputes revolved around Philip Gunawardena’s hostility to Doric de Souza’s efforts to refashion the BLPI in Sri Lanka as a Leninist party. From Bombay, Gunawardena denounced the “petty bourgeois intellectuals” in Colombo who had turned the party into “a narrow conspiratorial sect entirely cut off from the masses.” In 1942, he and N.M. Perera formed a Workers Opposition faction that gathered a layer of trade unionists. De Souza, who led the BLPI’s underground work in Sri Lanka during the war, responded by forming a Bolshevik Leninist faction.

6-5. While these factional differences were at first unclear, the end of the Quit India movement brought more fundamental disagreements to light. Impatient with the size and development of the BLPI, Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera issued a document from jail in 1943 entitled “The Indian Struggle—The Next Phase” that argued for an unprincipled fusion with various petty bourgeois formations, including the Congress Socialist Party, in a vaguely defined “United Revolutionary Front.” The scheme was a marked retreat towards the Samasamajist tradition with which the BLPI had broken. At its 1944 congress in Madras, the BLPI emphatically rejected the Gunawardena-Perera document. The adopted resolution declared: “This proposal, we believe, if carried out, can only result in the dissolution of the only party (however small it may be) existing in India today with a clear-cut revolutionary program, and the creation in its place at the best of a broad centrist party.”[2] The dispute, however, remained unresolved and was a harbinger of the political issues that were to emerge with great force following the end of the war.

6-6. The main resolution at the BLPI congress made a detailed analysis of the reasons for the defeat of the Quit India movement. “The basic reason for the August movement not outstripping in any significant manner the bounds of the bourgeois perspectives was the failure of the working class to move into militant class action on a decisive scale,” it stated. While workers had been sympathetic to the protests and had engaged in sporadic strikes, the working class had been held back by the CPI, through its control of the trade union apparatus, and the Congress Socialists, whose orientation was to the peasantry. The resolution laid the basis for deepening the party’s intervention into the working class, particularly after the end of the war.


Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939–40), pp. 31–32.


Quoted in Tomorrow is Ours, p. 171.