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With its strategic location, vast territory and natural riches, India was the most prized colony of the British Empire. But in the 20th century, the struggle for independence became increasingly heated until it came to a head in the early 1940s, right in the middle of World War II.
With other attempts having been exhausted, the Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s main pro-independence force, launched the Quit India Movement at its All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1942. The launch point was a famous speech by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8. With this movement, Congress demanded an end to colonial rule in India and prepared to fight to the last consequences.
The British response was swift, immediately arresting the entire party leadership, including Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as nearly 100,000 activists. Simultaneously, the Indian people staged massive, though heavily repressed, protests, and attacks against the colonial authorities.
The Quit India Movement did not achieve the goal of independence, but it succeeded in exerting enough pressure to make the United Kingdom understand that the colonial regime would not be sustainable in the long run. Although historiography lends great weight to Gandhi, and especially to his nonviolent stance, it was the mass mobilization from below that shook British rule.
The arrest of all the top brass of the Congress Party in 1942 opened the door to new protagonists. Kanaklata Barua, just 17 years old, was among the first martyrs of the movement, killed by the police for leading a procession carrying the Indian flag.
Aruna Asaf Ali took over the leadership of the AICC party conference and raised the flag in downtown Mumbai. Forced into hiding, she led the struggle for years. After independence she joined the Communist Party of India and in 1958 was elected mayor of Delhi.