A. G. Noorani*
*The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.
There are two crucial, but largely neglected, turning points in India’s history. In both, the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League came close to settling their differences only to part in acrimony. One was in 1937-38 when the two fought the first general election, held under the Government of India Act, 1935, on the same platform. Congress’ refusal to share power with the League in the provinces of British India led to a parting of ways and eventually to the League’s adoption of the Pakistan Resolution at Lahore on 23 March 1940…
(The second being when) both the major political parties accepted the Plan proposed by a Mission – comprising of three members of the British Cabinet – which came to India in 1946 to exercise a mediatory influence after the Second General Election in 1945-46. They were the Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, President of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty… Unlike his two colleagues, he (Cripps) was not only a man of superior intellectual gifts but had long experience. The poignancy of the tragedy lies in the fact that this very man had persuaded Jinnah to accept the Union – only to wreck the Union himself. Behind his achievement and its destruction, lies an instructive past. – Author)
For decades, before independence from British rule, Indians debated endlessly about Britain’s responsibility for sowing distrust between the two major communities, Hindus and Muslims. Their favourite cry was “Divide and Rule”, an imputation of British culpability. Maulana Mohammed Ali thought differently. There was, he said, a division of labour – we divided; the British ruled. There was truth in both the charges.
After independence and the partition of the sub-continent, the debate acquired a new dimension: Who was responsible for the partition of India? Once again the nuances are blurred. In both, India and Pakistan, most people blame each other; some blame the British; its last Crown Representative Lord Mountbatten especially. Court historians in both countries earned their bread and butter in this exercise.
There is little interest in the two countries for the type of history-writing which L.B. Namier made famous. That is a far cry from the biographies written by Stanley Wolpert, who called Jinnah a Managing Director of the Tatas and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a Sufi. India has acquired, of late, historians of similar hue and worth playing on both sides of the street with public applause as their main concern. One of them has become a popular columnist.
There are two crucial, but largely neglected, turning points in India’s history. In both the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League came close to settling their differences only to part in acrimony. One was in 1937-38 when the two fought the first general election, held under the Government of India Act, 1935, on the same platform. Congress’ refusal to share power with the League in the provinces of British India led to a parting of ways and eventually to the League’s adoption of the Pakistan Resolution at Lahore on 23 March 1940.
Nonetheless, the partition could have been averted because both the major political parties accepted the Plan proposed by a Mission – comprising of three members of the British Cabinet – which came to India in 1946 to exercise a mediatory influence after the Second General Election in 1945-46. They were the Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, President of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty.
After prolonged consultations they formulated a proposal which was published on 16 May 1946. It was a compromise between Pakistan and a “strong” Union which the Congress demanded. There would be a Union confined to three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications. As a sop to the League, there were to be three groups of provinces: Group B of Punjab, NWFP, Baluchistan and Sind; Group C of Bengal and Assam; and Group A of the rest. Provinces could secede from a Group, but not from the Union. There was no way in which Bengal could have fettered Assam’s choice. Group C had a total of 70 seats, 36 Muslims, 34 general. The League had won only 35 seats. It would have had to provide a chairperson to run the group, reducing its strength to 34. Moreover, in the entire Constituent Assembly, the Congress had 201 members against the League’s 78. The Congress contended that the Provinces had the right, at the outset, not to go into the section that was to frame the group’s constitution, though the plan gave them the right to opt out only after the first general election.
Para 15(6) gave the Provinces a right to demand “reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution of the Union and the Groups” after ten years. But Para 19(viii) enabled “any province to elect to come out of any Group in which it has been placed”, by a vote of its legislature “after the first general election under the new Constitution”. In contrast, no such liberty was allowed “to come out” of the union.
The League’s 35 members in the C Group of 70 could not have rigged the franchise to debar Assam from exercising its right to opt out. It would have been a breach of faith. The League’s 78 members faced in the Union Constituent Assembly a Congress monolith of 201.
A Constituent Assembly elected by the Assemblies of the Provinces of British India would frame the Constitution for the country. It must be governed by two crucial provisions in Para 16 of the Mission’s Proposal. Para 15 sated the “basic form” in these words: “(1) There should be a Union of India, embracing both British India and the States which should deal with the following subjects: foreign affairs, defence, and communications, and should have the powers necessary to raise the finances required for the above subjects. (2) The Union should have an executive and a legislature constituted from British India and States representatives. Any question raising a major communal issue in the legislature should require for its decision a majority of the representatives present and voting of each of the two major communities as well as a majority of all the members present and voting. (3) All subjects other than the Union subjects and all residuary powers should vest in the provinces. (4) The States will retain all subjects and powers other than those ceded to the Union. (5) Provinces should be free to form Groups with executives and legislatures, and each Group could determine the provincial subjects to be taken in common. (6) The Constitutions of the Union and of the Groups should contain a provision whereby any Province could by a majority vote of its legislative assembly call for a reconsideration of the terms of the constitution after an initial period of ten years and at ten-yearly intervals thereafter.”
Para 19 laid down the procedure: “(iv) A preliminary meeting will be held at which the general order of business will be decided, a chairman and other officers elected and an Advisory Committee on rights of citizens, minorities and tribal and excluded areas set up. Thereafter the Provincial representatives will be divided up into three Sections shown under A, B and C in the Table of Representation in sub-paragraph (i) of this paragraph.
“(v) These Sections shall proceed to settle provincial constitutions for the provinces included in each Section and shall also decide whether any Group constitution shall be set up for those provinces and if so with what provincial subjects the group should deal. Provinces should have power to opt out of groups in accordance with the provisions of sub-clause (viii) below.
“(vi) The representatives of the Sections and the Indian States shall reassemble for the purpose of setting the Union constitution.
“(vii) In the Union Constituent Assembly resolution varying the provisions of paragraph 15 above or raising any major communal issue shall require a majority of the representatives present and voting of each of the two major communities. The Chairman of the Assembly shall decide which, if any, resolution raise major communal issues and shall, if so requested by majority of the representatives of either of the major communities, consult the Federal Court before giving his decision.
“(viii) As soon as the new constitutional arrangements have come into operation it shall be open to any Province to elect to come out of any Group in which it has been placed. Such a decision shall be taken by the legislature of the Province after the first general election under the new Constitution.”
The Muslim League President, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, made a major concession by accepting these proposals which provided for a federation. The Congress objected to the very concept of the Groups and scuttled the entire Plan. Cripps facilitated this. Therein lies the criminal folly of a man reputed for integrity and brilliance as a lawyer.
Unlike his two colleagues, he was not only a man of superior intellectual gifts but had long experience. The poignancy of the tragedy lies in the fact that this very man had persuaded Jinnah to accept the Union – only to wreck the Union himself. Behind his achievement and its destruction, lies an instructive past.
Cripps was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru met top Labour leaders in 1938 at Cripps’ country house. Cripps came to India on a private visit in December 1939 and discovered a lot as Prof. R.J. Moore’s work, Churchill, Cripps, and India, 1939-45, records (Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1979). Prof. Moore is perhaps the best historian of that phase in our history (1935-1949). Based on archival material, his analyses are balanced and incisive. Hence the neglect in South Asia. The writer of this brief article is indebted to his works.
In Delhi, on 11 December 1939, Cripps had his first glimpse of the realities of the new situation. “From interviews with G.D. Birla, the industrialist supporter of Congress at whose house the Working Committee was to meet during the 1942 mission, and Liaquat Ali Khan, Cripps began to glean the complexities of the communal problem. Birla admitted that Congress may have been seriously at fault in excluding non-Congress Muslims from provincial cabinets in 1937. In consequence, talented Muslims, such as Liaquat in Uttar Pradesh, felt themselves consigned to permanent opposition. Now they wanted not merely cultural safeguards but an equal voice in politics, with power to veto legislation inimical to them. Congress would not entertain such a dereliction of democratic responsible government. Birla saw only one solution: separate Hindu and Muslim nations, with the cession of districts and appropriate population movements, followed, perhaps, by a loose federation holding the minimum powers necessary.
“Liaquat corroborated Birla’s gloomy analysis. The time for safeguards was passed. The Muslims now wanted a settlement of the communal question on constitutional lines prior to the settlement of the imperial issue. The experience of Congress provincial government had convinced Muslims that western democracy was unsuitable to India. It was necessary to find a constitution that rendered government by the majority community impossible without a defined measure of minority support. Liaquat sketched three possible constitutional solutions: partition; free sovereign states, with Hindu and Muslim federations, and a confederation; and Dominion status for each province, with a federal government exercising such powers as they chose to cede, subject to their right to opt out. The implication of the Muslim position for Cripps’s scheme was that the League would not attend a constituent assembly free to devise a constitution by a three-fifths majority vote.
“On 11 December Cripps took the overnight train for Lahore pondering a new thought: There emerges a picture of a rather loose federation of provinces with few reserved subjects and with the right of the provinces to withdraw if they wish and new boundaries to make provinces either predominantly Muslim or Hindu – as the sort of lines of a possible settlement, with a constituent assembly to work out the scheme. It might be necessary to agree the basis of the outcome of the constituent assembly in advance.” These ideas formed the core of the Cripps Offer (1942) and the Mission’s Plan (1946).
He believed that “Prior negotiations between the League and Congress were therefore vital. Yet Congress shrank from taking an initiative that seemed to recognise the authority of the League to negotiate for the Muslims. Britain must intervene to offer a constitutional prospect acceptable to both parties, as a prerequisite to their cooperation.” The Constituent Assembly could work only on the basis of a Congress-League Accord which implied the above sharing of power. The Congress rejected that in 1937, in 1939, 1942 and disastrously in 1946 and 1947.
The British Cabinet, especially Prime Minister Clement Attlee, relied heavily on Cripps. Prime Minister Winston Churchill regarded him as a personal friend and esteemed him highly; but with grave reservations on his Socialist views. Cripps had been expelled from the Labour Party for advocating a united front.
Cripps met Jinnah in Bombay on 15 February 1940 – a month before the Lahore Resolution. Jinnah’s terms were “coalition ministries in the provinces; the right of the Muslim members to veto any bill brought before a provincial legislature if two-thirds of them opposed it; the abandonment of the Congress anthem, Bande Mataram, and the practice of flying the Congress flag from public buildings.” (ibid., p.27). One suspects these were not all.
As a matter of fact the principle underlying the demand for Pakistan was conceded within five months after the Lahore Resolution of 23 March 1940. For, on 21 August 1940 the British Government declared, “It goes without saying that [His Majesty’s Government] could not contemplate the transfer of their present responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life.” The League had only to mobilise Muslim opinion to secure Pakistan; a fact lost on the Congress. Only one man perceived it sharply. He was C. Rajagopalachari.
Cripps came to India the second time in 1942; now as an envoy of the British Government. He was assisted by the formidable Professor Reginald Coupland who wrote an excellent pamphlet, ‘The Cripps Mission’ (Oxford University Press; 1942). Cripps arrived on 22 March 1942 and plunged into a flurry of consultations. At his fourth press conference on 29 March he made public “the Cripps Offer” to India’s leaders in the form of a draft Declaration.
Its crucial parts read; “The object is the creation of a new Indian Union which shall constitute a Dominion, associated with the United Kingdom and the other Dominions by a common allegiance to the Crown, but equal to them in every respect, in no way subordinate in any aspect of its domestic or external affairs. His Majesty’s Government therefore make the following declaration:
(a) Immediately upon the cessation of hostilities, steps shall be taken to set up in India, in the manner described hereafter, an elected body charged with the task of framing a new Constitution for India. (b) Provision shall be made, as set out below, for the participation of the Indian States in the constitution-making body. (c) His Majesty’s Government undertake to accept and implement forthwith the Constitution so framed subject only to: (i) the right of any Provinces of British India that is not prepared to accept the new Constitution to retain its present constitutional position, provision being made for its subsequent accession if it so decides. With such non-acceding Provinces, should they so desire, His Majesty’s Government will be prepared to agree upon a new Constitution, giving them the same full status as the Indian Union, and arrived at by a procedure analogous to that here laid down. (ii) the signing of a Treaty which shall be negotiated between His Majesty’s Government and the constitution-making body. This Treaty will cover all necessary matters arising out of the complete transfer of responsibility from British to India hands; it will make provision, in accordance with the undertakings given by His Majesty’s Government, for the protection of racial and religious minorities; but will not impose any restriction on the power of the Indian Union to decide in the future its relationship to the other Member States of the British Commonwealth.”
At the “end of hostilities,” elections would be held to the Provincial Assemblies which would, in turn, elect a Constituent Assembly. Para (e), which proved the stumbling block, read: “During the critical period which now faces India and until the new Constitution can be framed His Majesty’s Government must inevitably bear the responsibility for and retain control and direction of the defence of India as part of their world war effort, but the task of organising to the full the military, moral and material resources of India must be the responsibility of the Government of India with the co-operation of the peoples of India. His Majesty’s Government desire and invite the immediate and effective participation of the leaders of the principal sections of the Indian people in the counsels of their country, of the Commonwealth and of the United Nations. Thus they will be enabled to give their active and constructive help in the discharge of a task which is vital and essential for the future freedom of India.”
The Congress insisted on powers for the Defence Minister which the British could not possibly have granted during the war.
Students of Jinnah’s career will note that his grave countenance yielded the broad smile which he gave as was caught in a famous photograph as he held the document in both hands. He was surprised at the lengths to which it went towards Pakistan. For the first time ever the British conceded in an official document the option of secession to the Provinces.
Coupland summed up the result. “The reaction of Mr. Jinnah and the Moslem League to this part of the scheme was naturally favourable. They can scarcely have expected, indeed, that the British Government would go so far to meet their claim, since for months past they had made no secret of their anxiety lest the Congress demand for the ruling out of Pakistan from all discussion of the future should be conceded. There was one point, however, on which they were not satisfied. Owing to the ‘weightage’ given to the minorities in the electoral arrangements in the Punjab, the proportion of Moslems in the legislature does not exactly correspond with the proportion of the population. In the legislature it is 50.9 per cent, of the population 57.1 per cent. The position in Bengal is still less well balanced; the corresponding figures there are 49.2 per cent and 54.7 per cent. Since it seemed improper that so momentous a decision should depend on so narrow a margin of votes, Sir Stafford proposed that, if the majority in favour of accession was less than 60 per cent of the legislature, the minority should be entitled to demand a plebiscite of the adult male population. This proposal was not, of course, acceptable to the non-Moslems. The scales, they said, were being weighted still more heavily in favour of partition. But it apparently contended Mr. Jinnah. It was understood that he and his Working Committee were now prepared to accept the Draft Declaration and bring the League into the National Government for the whole-hearted prosecution of the war, provided that the Congress Working Committee did the same. When, in the event, Congress rejected the Draft Declaration, Mr. Jinnah, as had always been expected, followed suit.” (ibid. pp. 28 and 36).
However at Cripps’ press conference he made two points which were to emerge more sharply in 1946-47. A correspondent asked about “a particular area” (read in Punjab and Bengal) in which one portion “is inhabited by a particular community and the other is inhabited by a separate community which is in a minority. Both the areas are predominantly one minority or the other. Will the plebiscite be for the whole population? A: The answer to a case of that kind would be, if there is the smallest amount of commonsense amongst the Indians, there would be a rearrangement of boundaries as between the two Unions, and exchange of populations to get the larger majority in each.” The next question was as important.
“Q. Will it be obligatory upon a province to decide either to accede or not to accede before the province is permitted to send its representatives to the constituent assembly?
A. The process is completely different. All Provinces have got to send representatives to the Constituent Assembly. There will be discussions in that Constituent Assembly with everybody present and at the end of a period (say, during the course of a year) a Constitution will be framed. When it is finally, definitely framed all Provinces will be able to say ‘in spite of all our efforts to get what we wanted, fair treatment, in the Constituent Assembly we have failed. We do not, therefore, wish to accede.’ The legislature will then vote upon it. If there is a majority of less than 60 per cent the minority will demand that a plebiscite should decide.
“If for a year in the Constitution-making body the Indian communities meet together in order to forge a united Constitution for India they will probably succeed. If they do not, we can do nothing more to help them to succeed. If after having done that, some of them want to separate; nobody in the world can stop them.” (The Transfer of power; 1942-7; Volume 1; page 540).
The first question clearly referred to the communal composition of Punjab and Bengal; each with contiguous districts of Muslims and the Hindus. The Lahore Resolution envisaged “such territorial adjustments as may be necessary”. Prof. R.J. Moore found evidence which is baffling: “The Cripps Mission file (802) in the Quaid-i-Azam Papers contains correspondence between Jinnah and Cripps regarding the creation of a new Indian Union but it is ‘embargoed’.” That is significant. One hopes the embargo will be lifted now, seven decades later. What he proceeded to add, however, conflicts with the readiness to accept ‘a new Indian Union’. It suggests a readiness, instead, to accept a ‘truncated’ Pakistan as Jinnah put it: “On 17 January 1942 Jinnah had disclosed to Coupland his readiness for Punjab to cede Ambala Division to UP and for Bengal to cede its Hindu western districts to Bihar provided it acquired Assam” – which, as he knew, had a Hindu majority except for the Sylhet District.
Jinnah met an M.P., Woodrow Wyatt on 8 January 1947 who reported “He did not envisage predominantly non-Muslim areas like the Ambala Division remaining in Pakistan,” but insisted that Pakistan must be “a living state economically”.
Less than a month later, in two long talks with Wyatt, spread over 2, 3 and 4 February, Jinnah conceded much more, provided the “principle of Pakistan” was first accepted. The Viceroy’s Private Secretary, George Abell, recorded it in a note on 5 February. But (a) he agreed without hesitation that the Burdwan Division of Bengal could not be included in Pakistan; (Ambala Division had previously been written off to Coupland); (b) he said that once the “principle of Pakistan” was admitted he would gladly cooperate in an interim executive council; (c) he said he envisaged a sort of centre – there would be a British Crown Representative who would ‘coordinate’ the policies of the two federations in such matters as Defence and Foreign Affairs. This item (c) related to the final (not the interim) set-up. It was not clear that there would be any central legislature – presumably not.
Jinnah was prepared to concede a lot. He did however tell Wyatt that he must at all costs have Calcutta. He also said that if HMG refused to admit the Muslims’ claim to a separate state, the Muslims would make serious trouble and were quite as capable of causing bloodshed as the Congress. A copy was sent to V.P. Menon, the Reforms Commissioner. (Z. H. Zaidi [ed.]; Jinnah Papers; First Series, Vol.1, Part II, 1993, p. 561).
Partition of Punjab and Bengal was always on the cards if India was to be partitioned. Jinnah was prepared to avoid it and the one man who persuaded him to accept a federation, albeit a loose one, was Cripps. On 16 April 1946 the Cabinet Mission offered Jinnah two alternatives. One was Pakistan “consisting of, say, Sind, North-West Frontier province, Baluchistan, the Muslim majority districts of the Punjab, except perhaps Gurdaspur, Eastern Bengal and the Sylhet District of Assam”. The other was the federation that was proposed finally in the Missions’ Plan.
Jinnah voiced a fear which came true – “If he made a concession, he would have lost it before the negotiations began. It was the Congress who should make a proposal” (Vide A.G. Noorani; Jinnah and Tilak; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2010; p. 179).
The Mission could not persuade Jinnah to make a commitment – Cripps did. On 25 April Jinnah rejected the partition proposal. He was prepared “to consider” the federation proposal “if the Congress were prepared to accept it and if he could be assured of that, he would put it to the Muslim League Working Committee”. Nehru rejected it. What has been overlooked by Indians as well as Pakistanis is the fact that the Muslim League’s offer of 12 May 1946, in a Memorandum embodying “Principles to be agreed to as our offer”, did not propose the partition of India but a confederation based, not on a treaty but a binding Constitution. On 6 June 1946 the Muslim League Council accepted the Mission’s Plan.
The Plan’s status in law and in fact was that of a political proposal by the British Government to both sides. If accepted, the British would implement it. It had, however to be accepted in toto. Led by Gandhi, the Congress resorted to a dishonest course – acceptance “as a whole” with rejection of a crucial part, the grouping of provinces.
Volumes 84, 85, and 86 of the ‘Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’, provide a full record of his statements on the Mission’s Plan. On 17 May 1946, the very day after it was published, Gandhi pointedly said, “it was not an award”. The Mission had “recommended to the country what in their opinion was worthy of acceptance by the Constituent Assembly”. The Assembly was set up as part of the plan with all its provisions regarding the groups. Gandhi delinked it from the plan so the Assembly could freely enforce the wishes of the Congress majority untrammelled by the plan. “The provinces were free to reject the very idea of grouping”. He proceeded to laud the plan, but “subject to the above interpretation,” which he held was right. This set the policy for the Congress to follow. It was this policy which wrecked the plan. Nehru’s famous outburst came nearly two months later, on 10 July 1946.
Gandhi wrote a detailed ‘Analysis’ in Harijan on 20 May. It was published five days later after an advance copy was sent to Cripps. Gandhi made no secret of the fact that the sole attraction of the plan was the Constituent Assembly. The Mission’s Plan, which created it, could be ignored. Gandhi wrote, “It is the best document the British government could have produced in the circumstances”, but only to add: “It is an appeal and an advice. It has no compulsion in it. Thus the Provincial Assemblies may or may not elect the delegates. The delegates, having been elected, may or may not join the Constituent Assembly. The Assembly having met, may lay down a procedure different from the one laid down in the Statement. … Are the Sikhs, for whom the Punjab is the only home in India, to consider themselves against their will, as part of the section which takes in Sindh, Baluchistan and the Frontier province? Or is the Frontier Province also against its will to belong to the Punjab, called ‘B’ in the Statement, or Assam to ‘C’ although it is a predominantly non-Muslim province? In my opinion, the voluntary character of the Statement demands that the liberty of the individual unit should be unimpaired. Any member of the sections is free to join it. The freedom to opt out is an additional safeguard.”
The Constituent Assembly itself was not set up by a law or legislation. It was set up under an agreed proposal to act within the limits that the accord laid down.
On 14 June the Cabinet Mission issued a Statement embodying its proposal for an Interim Government. The Congress asked the two proposals to be linked – it would accept power in the Interim Government if the Mission relented on the Congress’ reservations on Grouping. At the Congress Working Committee meeting on 23 June, which rejected the 16 June statement, Gandhi affirmed that Congress should “go into the Constituent Assembly as it was purely an elective body whose representative character was admitted even by the British Government. The Viceroy could not interfere with its working. … If the worst came to the worst, it could be turned into a rebel body.” (Pyarelal; Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase; Vol 1; p.223). In short, use the Congress’ majority to capture the Constituent Assembly and force the Muslim League to yield; the British supporting the Congress in this game.
The issue was simple. The Provinces had to go into one of the three Sections of the Provinces initially under Paragraph 19 of the Cabinet Mission’s Plan. A Province was free to secede from a Group in which it had been placed by the Constitution framed by the Section. But that was after the first general election under the new Constitution that was framed. It could only ask for “a reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution” but after ten years.
We must now turn to a book that reveals a lot that was not known earlier. In 2002, ‘The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps’ by the historian Professor Peter Clarke (Allen Lane; The Penguin Press) was published. It is based on Cripps’ papers.
Clarke concluded: “Cripps knew perfectly well that Congress’ acceptance of his constitutional scheme (the Statement of 16 May) had been hedged about with potentially disabling reservations, notably over grouping of provinces. Gandhi’s susceptibilities had been appeased on this point. Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence – and Alexander too, it would not be forgotten – had refrained from exposing this ambiguity, treating it as a practical problem to be resolved by the increasing momentum of an actual transfer of power. Behind the shifting legalistic quibbles lay one stubborn political imperative. For if Congress were not prepared to make a reality of grouping, there was no reason for the League to accept the quid pro quo, an Indian Union.”
Cripps sinned against the light and repeatedly so. On 23 May a week after the Cabinet Mission published its Plan, it held a meeting with the Viceroy. The minutes read: “The meeting considered the draft instructions to be issued by the Viceroy and the Delegation for the election of representatives to the Constituent Assembly.” Cripps was not present owing to illness. (Nicholas Mansergh; The Transfer of Power 1942-7, The Cabinet Mission, Volume VII; 1977; page 672). The editors pointedly set out para 2 which read: “Any person is eligible for election provided (a)…..(b) that a nomination is accompanied by a declaration (i) that the candidate is willing to serve as a representative of the province for the purposes of paragraph 19 of the Statement and (ii) … This was sent to the Governors on May 24 (ibid; page 1027).”
This bound the candidate to abide by the Mission’s proposals once he became a member of the Constituent Assembly elected under those proposals and for their implementation. Two days later, on 25 May, the Mission issued a statement rejecting the Congress’ interpretation on grouping.
Interestingly, on 23 June Cripps himself prepared a Note on “the Legal Aspect of the Grouping Question”. It held emphatically that the initial meeting of the provinces in Sections “forms the substance of the Statement and an acceptance of the Statement must be taken to mean an acceptance of … paragraph 19 (1) (iii) (iv) and (v)”. The very next day he scuttled the proposals by diluting the pledge.
Gandhi was angry when his attention was drawn to the instructions by Rajendra Prasad. He was prepared to enter the Assembly; if need be, “it could be turned into a rebel body”. But he now felt, “Even the Constituent Assembly plan now stinks. I am afraid, we cannot touch it.” (Pyarelal: Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase; Navajivan Publishing House; Vol. I; page 234).
Clarke records that in a “clandestine way, a meeting was engineered on the morning of 23 June with Pethick-Lawrence” in which Patel claimed that the Congress had accepted the Mission’s proposal.
This was the first time that the Cabinet Mission met Vallabhbhai alone – and without Wavell. The formula for a compromise that was worked out was as follows: Sir Stafford Cripps quickly drafted a sentence on a piece of paper and showed it to Sardar: Read ‘for the purposes of the declaration of May 16’ in place of “for the purpose of para 19 of the declaration of May 16’.
According to the official record, the concession was made the next day, on 24 June, when the Mission and the Viceroy met Gandhi and Patel at 8 p.m. Gandhi felt that “by signing the declaration … a member of the Constituent Assembly might be bound morally to accept the Delegation’s interpretation”. Cripps agreed to the deletion (Mansergh; The Transfer of Power, Vol. VII; page 1027). Wavell furiously protested the next day. He wrote: “I consider that there has either been a reversal of policy which has not been agreed, or that the assurance given to Mr. Gandhi is not entirely an honest one” (ibid.; page 1032). Prof. R.J. Moore holds that Wavell “justly described” it as “a dishonest assurance” (Escape from Empire, page 138).
The government announced “the elucidation” in a reply to a question by a representative of the Associated Press of India to the effect that the declaration would not include any reference to para 19 (Mahatma Gandhi: Correspondence with the Government 1944-47; Navajivan; page 212).
In his diary Wavell noted that when he said that “the grouping was an essential part of the scheme”, Pethick-Lawrence “asked me not to press the point” (Moon; Wavell’s Journal; page 303). He told Wavell the next day (25 June) that “it would have been a great mistake to have exacerbated Mr. Gandhi on this subject. … if we had pressed the matter it might have kept the Congress from agreeing to the long-term plan…” Better a fudged acceptance than an honest rejection.
The Congress entered the Interim government in August 1946 on the strength of its acceptance of the Mission’s Plan, which the British knew was “a fudge”. Not to be left behind, so did the League, in October. But when, at the Congress’ insistence, Wavell asked Jinnah to rescind the League’s resolution of 29 July 1946, withdrawing its acceptance of the Plan, he demanded that the Congress be asked first to accept it.
The British government sought to resolve the deadlock by inviting Nehru, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Baldev Singh to London. It issued a statement on 6 December 1946. It provided ample warning of partition unless the Congress accepted the Plan. It said, “The Cabinet Mission have throughout maintained the view that divisions of the sections should, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, be taken by a simple majority vote of the representatives in the sections. This view has been accepted by the Muslim League, but the Congress have put forward a different view…
“His Majesty’s Government have had legal advice, which confirms that the statement of 16 May means what the Cabinet Mission have always stated their intention. This part of the statement, as so interpreted must, therefore, be considered an essential part of the Scheme of 16 May for enabling the Indian people to formulate a Constitution which His Majesty’s Government would be prepared to submit to Parliament. It should, therefore, be accepted by all parties in the Constituent Assembly…
“There has never been any prospect of success for the Constituent Assembly except upon the basis of the agreed procedure. Should the constitution come to be framed by a Constituent Assembly in which a large section of the Indian population had not been represented. His Majesty’s Government could not, of course, contemplate – as the Congress have stated they would not contemplate – forcing such a Constitution upon any unwilling parts of the country.”
The “high legal opinion” was an allusion to an extremely well considered written opinion given by none other than the head of the British judiciary, the Lord Chancellor Lord Jowitt, dated 2 December 1946. It exposed the utter untenability of the Congress’ “interpretation” (The Transfer of Power, Vol. XI, page 238). The further mention of “unwilling parts of the country” was ominous.
On 12 April 1947, the new Viceroy Mountbatten asked Patel if the Congress could accept the Plan “without any reservation”, Patel replied on 26 April claiming it had. The claim was examined by George Abell, who was familiar with the record, and found it to be false. On 1 May 1947, Mountbatten informed London: “Jinnah has some justification to fear that the Congress do not mean to stick to their acceptance.” This was a mere month before the 3 June 1947, Partition Plan.
However, as late as 19 March 1947 – less than three months before the Partition Plan – the Viceroy wrote to the Secretary of State for India, Pethick-Lawrence, that having met Jinnah recently, Colin Reid, correspondent of The Daily Telegraph “got the impression that he might accept the Cabinet Mission’s plan if the Congress accepted it in unequivocal terms”. Mountbatten tried to secure that and failed. The Congress preferred India’s partition to sharing power with the League in a United India.
The pass had been sold by the authors of the Plan in June 1946, under Cripps’ leadership. In December 1946 he tried to make Nehru see reason but the latter was certain that the League “would come in anyhow”. Cripps told him belatedly that “the League’s interpretation was in fact that intended by the Cabinet Delegation”.
Within the Cabinet, Cripps began talking of partition in December 1946. Simultaneously, as Clarke’s account reveals, he made desperate efforts to remain on the right side of Nehru. Cripps would have served his friend and India better by being more honest and firm in June 1946.
Partition might still have come a year earlier; but without the rancour which “the fudge” produced.
There was of course far more to it. A united India spelt sharing of power with League. On 10 June 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru told the Cabinet Mission categorically that “The Congress were going to work for a strong Centre and to break the Group System and they would succeed. They did not think that Mr. Jinnah had any real place in the country.” The only way he could be expelled was – by partitioning India. While Jinnah was prepared to accept a united India, the Congress rejected it, aided by Cripps’ sabotage.
On 29 July 1946 the Muslim Leagues Council withdrew its acceptance of the Mission’s Plan. Jinnah’s speeches reveal his pain at being cheated. They reveal also that his acceptance of the Mission’s Plan was sincere; it was not a tactical move but genuine statesmanship. He said: “The Congress really never accepted the long-term plan. Its conditional acceptance was communicated to the Cabinet Mission by the Congress President on 25 June and was subsequently ratified by the A.I.C.C. at its meeting in Bombay on 7 July. The Cabinet Mission like a drowning man ready to catch hold of a straw treated this conditional acceptance of the Congress as genuine acceptance. Not only did they try to propagate this view in this country, but during the debate in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords both Lord Pethick-Lawrence and Sir Stafford Cripps the impression that the Congress had accepted the long-term proposal.”
Jinnah referred to the Secretary of State’s speech in the Lord’s debate when he declared that the Indian parties could not go outside the terms of what had been agreed to as that would not be fair to other parties and said: “Beyond this pious expression there is no effective check or remedy provided in the event of the Congress, which happens to have a brute majority in the Constituent Assembly, taking any decision which is ‘ultra vires’ and incompetent of that Assembly.”
Jinnah revealed that on the night of 24 June the Congress Working Committee had rejected both the long-term and short-term proposals.
Early in the morning of 25 June, the indefatigable Stafford Cripps went and worked up Gandhi in the Bhangi Colony. “It seems he did not cut much ice. He came back and Lord Pethick-Lawrence was put on the scent of Vallabhbhai Patel, the strong man of the Congress. He waylaid Patel on the road and took him to his house and there they concocted a device. The Congress was persuaded to accept the long-term proposal even with their own interpretations and reservations and the Mission assured the Congress that it would abandon the Interim Government Scheme of 16 June. It is again like a drowning man catching at a straw. They wanted, somehow or the other, to say that their mission was not a complete failure. All these prove clearly, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the only solution of India’s problem is Pakistan.
“I am sorry to say that Cripps debased his legal talents and put his dishonest interpretation on this clause. He overpowered the venerable and idealistic Secretary of State. A fantastic and dishonest construction was put on clause by that ingenuous juggler of words, Cripps to evade the formation of the Interim Government. It was only Alexander who intervened in the interview and said that the Mission had not arrived at any decision and that they wanted to know my view.”
At the conclusion of the meeting of Muslim League Council at Bombay, 29 July 1946, Jinnah said: “What we have done today is the most historic act in our history. Never have, we in the whole history of the League done anything, except by Constitutional methods and by constitutionalism. But now we are obliged and forced into this position. This day we bid good-bye to constitutional methods.
“The League, throughout the negotiations, was moved by a sense of fairplay and sacrificed the full sovereign state of Pakistan at the altar of the Congress for securing the independence of the whole of India. They voluntarily delegated three subjects to the Union, and by doing so did not commit a mistake. It was the highest order of statesmanship that the League displayed by making concession.
“I do not think that any responsible man will disagree with me that we were moved by a desire not to allow the situation to develop into bloodshed and civil war. This situation should be avoided if possible. In our anxiety to try to come to a peaceful settlement with the other major party, we made this sacrifice of giving three subjects to the Centre and accepted a limited Pakistan. We offered this unequivocal sacrifice at the altar of the Congress. …
“We have learnt a bitter lesson – the bitterest I think so far. Now there is no room left for compromise. Let us march on.” The League President raised his voice and concluded his speech by quoting Firdousi, the Persian poet, “If you seek peace, we do not want war, but if you want war, we will accept it unhesitatingly.”