A. G. Noorani*
*The author is an eminent Indian scholar an expert on constitutional issues.
Jinnah began as an ardent federalist. The Congress’ lust for absolute power drove him to demand partition. The Cabinet Mission’s Plan of 16 May 1946 for a loose federation provided a sound compromise. He accepted it. The Congress, rather its supreme leader M.K. Gandhi, did not. It preferred partition of India when offered a choice between the partition and the Mission’s plan… the Congress was blinded by the same ambition that drove it to spurn Jinnah’s offer of cooperation in 1937. It refused to share power with the Muslim League in 1946 even if it spelt the break-up of India’s unity. It could well have realized its plan for a centralized federation in Group A of the Missions Plan which comprised the India of today. Eventually it did just that; but after wrecking India’s unity. Author)
India’s freedom from British rule was a matter of time. It was inevitable. It was foreseen as far back as on 10 July 1832 by Macaulay in a speech at the House of Commons: “It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own. The scepter may pass away from us. Unforeseen accidents may derange our most profound schemes of policy. Victory may be inconstant to our arms. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverses. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarisms; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.” (A.B. Keith; Speeches and Documents on India’s Policy; 1776-1921; Oxford University Press; 1922; Vol. 1; p. 265).
However, while India’s freedom was inevitable, its unity was not. Lala Lajpat Rai propounded the two-nation theory in 1904 and wanted the partition of India in 1924. V.D. Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha propounded the two-nation theory in 1924 in his essay Hindutva.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s role as the leader of the Untouchables or Dalits, as they are now called, has tended to obscure his role as one of the finest thinkers on India’s political and constitutional problems. He described the stages through which British rule passed and the one crucial problem that faced its constitution-makers – satisfying the aspirations of the minorities: the Muslims, Dalits and others in a united India in order to avert a break-up.
He wrote: “There was a time when the British Government held the view which was a complete negation of India’s claim for freedom. It was proclaimed by Lawrence whose statue in Calcutta has the motto: “The British conquered India by the sword and they will hold it by the sword.” This attitude is dead and buried and it is no exaggeration to say that every Englishman today is ashamed of it. This stage was followed by another in which the argument of the British Government against India’s freedom was the alleged incapacity of Indians for Parliamentary institutions. It began with Lord Ripon’s regime which was followed by an attempt to give political training to Indians, first in the field of Local Self-Government, and then under the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in the field of provincial Government. We have now entered the third or the present stage. The British Government is now ashamed to say that they will hold India by the sword. It no longer says that Indians have no capacity to run Parliamentary institutions. The British Government admits India’s right to freedom, even to independence, if Indians so desire. The British Government admits the right of Indians to frame their own constitution. There can be no greater proof of this new angle of vision than the Cripps Proposals. The condition precedent laid down by the British Government for India’s freedom is that Indians must produce a constitution which has the concurrence of the important elements in the national life of the country. Such is the stage we have reached.”
This was the heart of the matter. Precisely on what terms and conditions can such an accord be arrived at among Indians to confront the British to grant India’s freedom? The Congress demanded independence ahead of and regardless of such an accord. It virtually denied the existence of diversity by minimizing it. It wanted majoritarian rule.
Ambedkar proceeded to say: “Habits of constitutional morality may be essential for the maintenance of a constitutional form of Government. But the maintenance of a constitutional form of Government is not the same thing as self-government by the people. Similarly, it may be granted that adult suffrage can produce government of the people in the logical sense of the phrase, i.e., in contrast to the government of a king. But it cannot by itself be said to bring about a democratic government, in the sense of the government by the people and for the people.” …
“In selecting the instrumentalities of the state considerations of class bias in the instrumentalities cannot be overlooked. It is in fact fundamental to good government. It is unfortunate that the importance of this fact is not generally recognized even by those who regard themselves as the champions of democracy. Karl Marx was the first to recognize it and take account of it in the administration of the Paris Commune.” (B.R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables; Thacher & Co., Bombay; 1946; pp. 177, 204, 2407).
One man, one vote or bare majority rule in a country of diversities spells the dictatorship of the majority. Permanent safeguards are required for the minorities. A country of continental dimension needs a loose federation.
The Congress’ refusal to share power after its electoral gains in the 1937 elections revealed its outlook and compelled Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah to point out that parliamentary democracy on the Western model is suitable in a homogenous society; but not in a religiously plural society where it would sell permanent rule for the majority community and not, as in the West, a temporary majority of a political party. Little Belgium is torn apart to this day between the Flemish and the Walloons. Britain faces Scottish secessionism. Sri Lanka faces the Tamil question.
Jinnah began as an ardent federalist. The Congress’ lust for absolute power drove him to demand partition. The Cabinet Mission’s Plan of 16 May 1946 for a loose federation provided a sound compromise. He accepted it. The Congress, rather its supreme leader M.K. Gandhi, did not. It preferred partition of India when offered a choice between the partition and the Mission’s plan. In 1946 as in 1937 the Congress was hell bent on monopoly of power in a highly centralized federation.
The Cripps Proposals of 30 March 1942 provided for an All-India federation with a right to the Provinces to secede from the Union. It was rejected by both the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim league. But the British had sounded a timely alarm bell. Sir Stafford Cripps was a Constitutional Adviser. Professor Reginald Coupland was a gifted scholar; objective, original and very erudite. His Report on The Constitutional Problem in India was a classic. In 1944 he produced an essay on The Future of India in which he proposed “An Agency Centre” with the Centre endowed with three powers “(1) foreign affairs and defence; (2) external trade or tariff policy; and (3) currency.” He added “REGIONALISM meets half the Moslem claim. It concedes the first demand of the ‘Pakistan Resolution’. It combines those ‘geographically contiguous’ areas in North-West and North-East India in which the Moslems are in a majority and consolidates them as single political units. It provides the Moslems with national homes which they can call their own. They would be autonomous States, not secondary or subordinate units of administration. The government of the Regions and of the Provinces of which they would be composed would cover almost the whole field of public affair, including those which most closely and directly affect the daily life of the people.…
But it would be a Centre of a new kind, different in the scope of its authority and different in the basis on which that authority would rest, from the Federal Centre as previously contemplated in Indian constitutional discussion. The inter-Regional Centre would possess only those minimum powers which it must possess if the unity of India is to be preserved at all, and it would exercise those powers not on the direct authority of an all-India electorate but as the joint instrument or agent of the Regions. It would provide the mechanism by which, within that minimal field, the peoples of the Regions could share the governance of their common motherland” – a phrase Jinnah had used in his article in the Time and Tide of London in January 1940 (R. Coupland; The Constitutional Problem in India; Parts 1, 2 and 3; Oxford University Press; 1944; Part III; p. 126).
Therefore when on 23 March 1946 a Mission of three members of the British Cabinet arrived in Karachi there existed on the table a sound basis for compromise. The Ministers were Lord Pethrick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty.
The Mission held extensive talks with leaders of the Congress, Muslim League and all significant parties. On 27 April 1946 the Mission invited the Presidents of the League and the Congress to send four representatives each and outlined as a “basis of negotiation” on the following principles: “The future constitutional structure of British India to be as follows: A Union Government dealing with the following subjects:- Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications. There will be two groups of Provinces, the one of the predominantly Hindu Provinces and the other of the predominantly Muslim provinces, dealing with all other subjects which the provinces in the respective groups desire to be dealt with in common. The Provincial Governments will deal with all other subjects and will have all the residuary Sovereign rights.”
The Congress President Maulana Azad’s reply was swift (28 April) and revealing. “As you are aware, we have envisaged a Federal Union of autonomous units. Such a Federal Union must of necessity deal with certain essential subjects of which defence and its allied subjects are the most important. It must be organic and must have both an executive and legislative machinery as well as the finance relating to these subjects and the power to raise revenues for these purposes in its own rights. Without these functions and powers it would be weak and disjointed and defence and progress in general would suffer. Thus among the common subjects in addition to Foreign Affairs, Defence Communications, there should be Currency, Customs, Tariffs and such other subjects as may be found on closer scrutiny to be intimately allied to them.”
Jinnah’s reply of 29 April cited the Lahore Resolution of 1940 and forwarded a copy of the Resolution by the Muslim League Legislators’ Convention on 9 April 1946. On 29 April the Mission forwarded the agenda for the proposed Conference in Simla on 2 May.
Azad’s letter of 6 May opposed the very principle of grouping. “In our discussions yesterday repeated references were made to “groups” of provinces functioning together, and it was even suggested that such a group would have an executive and legislative machinery. This method of grouping has not so far been discussed by us but still our talks seemed to presume all this. I should like to make it very clear that we are entirely opposed to any executive or legislative machinery for a group of provinces or units of the Federation. That will mean a sub- federation, if not something more, and we have already told you that we do not accept this. It would result in creating three layers of executive and legislative bodies, an arrangement which will be cumbrous, static and disjointed, leading to continuous friction. We are not aware of any such arrangement in any country.”
Faced with the division of opinions the Mission sent on 8 May:
“SUGGESTED POINTS FOR AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE REPRESENTATIVES OF CONGRESS AND THE MUSLIM LEAGUE. 1. There shall be an All-India Union Government and legislature dealing with Foreign Affairs, Defence, Communications, fundamental rights and having the necessary powers to obtain for itself the finances it requires for these subjects. 2. All the remaining powers shall vest in the Provinces. 3. Groups of provinces may be formed and such groups may determine the Provincial subjects which they desire to take in common. 4. The groups may set-up their own Executive and Legislatures. 5. The Legislature of the Union shall be composed of equal propositions from the Muslim-majority Provinces and from the Hindu- majority provinces whether or not these or any of them have formed themselves into groups; together with representatives of the States.”
The Conference invited both sides to state their offers, which they did on 12 May. The Congress offer read: “1. The Constituent Assembly to be formed as follows:- (i) Representatives shall be elected by each provincial Assembly by proportional representation (single transferable vote). The number so elected should be one-fifth of the number of members of the Assembly and they may be members of the Assembly or others. (ii) Representatives from the States on the basis of their population in proportion to the representation from British India. How these representatives are to be chosen is to be considered later. 2. The Constituent Assembly shall draw up a constitution for the Federal Union. This shall consist of an All-India Federal Government and legislature dealing with Foreign Affairs, Defence, Communications, Fundamental Rights, Currency, Customs and planning as well as such other subjects as, on closer scrutiny may be found to be intimately allied to them. The Federal Union will have necessary powers to obtain for itself the finances it requires for these subjects and the power to raise revenues in its own right. The Union must also have power to take remedial action in cases of breakdown of the constitution and in grave public emergencies. 3. All the remaining powers shall vest in the Provinces or Units. 4. Groups of Provinces may be formed and such groups may determine the Provincial subjects which they desire to take in common. 5. After the Constituent Assembly has decided the constitution for the All-India Federal Union as laid down in paragraph 2 above, the representatives of the Provinces may form groups to decide the provincial constitutions for their groups and, if they wish, a group constitution.”
In all subsequent discourse to this day little notice has been taken of the Muslim Leagues offer by Jinnah. It was not for partition but for a confederation of India. If approached sincerely he would have agreed to a federation, as he eventually did. It read:
“1- The six Muslim Provinces (Punjab, N.W.F.P., Baluchistan, Sind, Bengal and Assam) shall be grouped together as one group and will deal with all other subjects and matters except Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications necessary for Defence, which may be dealt with by the Constitution-making bodies of the two groups of Provinces – Muslim Provinces (hereinafter named Pakistan Group) and Hindu Provinces – sitting together.
2- There shall be a separate Constitution-making body for the six Muslim Provinces named above, which will frame Constitutions for the Group and the Provinces in the Group and will determine the list of subjects that shall be Provincial and Central (of the Pakistan Federation) with residuary sovereign powers vesting in the Provinces.
3- The method of election of the representatives to the Constitution- making body will be such as would secure proper representation to the various communities in proportion to their population in each Province of the Pakistan Group.
4- After the Constitutions of the Pakistan Federal Government and the Provinces are finally framed by the Constitution-making body it will be open to any Province of the Group to decide to opt out of its Group, provided the wishes of the people of that Province are ascertained by a referendum to opt out or not.
5- It must be open to discussion in the joint Constitution-making body as to whether the Union will have a Legislature or not. The method of providing the Union with finance should also be left for decision of the joint meeting of the two Constitution- making bodies, but in no event shall it be by means of taxation.
6- There should be parity of representation between the two Groups of Provinces in the Union Executive and the Legislature, if any.
7- No major point in the Union Constitution which affects the communal issue shall be deemed to be passed in the joint Constitution-making body, unless the majority of the members of the Constitution-making body, of the Hindu provinces and the majority of the members of the Constitution-making body of the Pakistan Group, present and voting, are separately in its favour.
8- No decision, legislative, executive or administrative, shall be taken by the Union in regard to any matter of controversial nature, except by a majority of the three-fourths.
9- In Group and Provincial Constitution fundamental rights and safeguards concerning religion, culture and other matters affecting the different communities will be provided for.
10- The Constitution of the Union shall contain a provision whether any Province can, by a majority vote of its Legislative Assembly, call for reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution, and will have the liberty to secede from the Union at any time after an initial period of ten years.
These are the principles of our offer for a peaceful and amicable settlement and this offer stands in its entirety and all matters mentioned herein are inter-dependent.”
Clearly there was considerable play at the joints, as the phrase goes. The document was a first offer by Jinnah, a tough negotiator. Small wonder that he accepted the Mission’s Plan published on 16 May 1946.
Jinnah issued a long statement on 22 May analyzing the Plan in detail, and left it, without any commitment on his part to the League’s Working Committee and Council to take a final decision.
The Congress Working Committee rejected any compromise on 24 May, criticized the idea of grouping and significantly linked the Plan to any proposals for power sharing in the interim. It said: “There is a marked discrepancy in these two separate provisions, and it would appear that a measure of compulsion is introduced which clearly infringes the basic principle of provincial autonomy. In order to retain the recommendatory character of the Statement, and in order to make the clauses consistent with each other, the Committee read paragraph 15 to mean that, in the first instance, the respective provinces will make their choice whether or not to belong to the section in which they are placed. Thus the Constituent Assembly must be considered as a sovereign body with final authority for the purpose of drawing up a constitution and giving effect to it. …
“A Provisional National Government must have a new basis and must be a precursor of the full independence that will emerge from the Constituent Assembly. It must function in recognition of that fact, though changes in law need not be made at this stage. The Governor- General may continue as the head of that Government during the interim period, but the Government should function as a cabinet responsible to the Central Legislature. The status, powers and composition of the Provisional Government should be fully defined in order to enable the Committee to come to a decision. Major communal issues shall be decided in the manner referred to above in order to remove any possible fear or suspicion from the minds of a minority.
“The Working Committee consider that the connected problems involved in the establishment of a Provisional Government and a Constituent Assembly should be viewed together so that they may appear as parts of the same picture, and there may be co-ordination between the two, as well as an acceptance of the independence that is now recognized as India’s right and due. It is only with the conviction that they are engaged in building up a free, great and independent India, that the Working Committee can approach this task and invite the co- operation of all the people of India. In the absence of a full picture, the Committee are unable to give a final opinion at this stage.”
The Mission Plan was thus linked to any proposal for an interim government. On 6 June the League’s Council decided “That notwithstanding the affront offered to Muslim sentiments by the choice of injudicious words in the preamble to the statement of the Cabinet Mission, the Muslim League, having regard to the grave issues involved, and prompted by its earnest desire for a peaceful solution, if possible, of the Indian constitutional problem, and inasmuch as the basis and the foundation of Pakistan are inherent in the mission’s plan by virtue of the compulsory grouping of the six Muslim provinces in Section B and C, is willing to co-operate with the constitution-making machinery proposed in the scheme outlined by the Mission, in the hope that it would ultimately result in the establishment of complete sovereign Pakistan, and in the consummation of the goal of independence for major nations, Muslims and Hindus, and all the other people inhabiting the vast subcontinent.
“It is for these reasons that the Muslim League is accepting the scheme, and will join the constitution-making body, and it will keep in view the opportunity and right of secession of Provinces or groups from the Union, which have been provided in the Mission’s plan by implication. The ultimate attitude of the Muslim League will depend on the final outcome of the labours of the constitution-making body, and on the final shape of the constitution which may emerge from the deliberations for that body jointly and separately in its three sections. The Muslim League also reserves the right to modify and revise the policy and attitude set forth in this resolution at any time during the progress of the deliberations of the Constitution-making body, or the Constituent assembly, or hereafter if the course of events so require, bearing in mind the fundamental principles and ideals here before adumbrated, to which the Muslim League is irrevocably committed.
“That with regard to the arrangement for the proposed Interim Government at the Centre, this Council authorizes its President to negotiate with the Viceroy and to take such decisions and actions as he deems fit and proper.”
As a matter of fact, Jinnah had accepted such a plan in preference to a partition of India along with the partition of Punjab and Bengal.
Partition of Punjab and Bengal was always on the cards if India was to be partitioned. Jinnah was prepared to avoid it. 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 that 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. 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, ina 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.
This was the magnitude of the concession Jinnah had made. In a letter to K.M. Munshi on 17 May 1946 Vallabhbhai Patel wrote: “Thank God, we have successfully avoided a catastrophe which threatened our country. Since many years for the first time an authoritative pronouncement in clear terms and conditions has been made against the possibility of Pakistan in any shape or form. The continuous threat of obstruction to progress and the power of veto from obstructionist elements have been once for all removed. The withdrawal of the British Power of Attorney in India is no more in doubt and we are now free to shape our own destiny without hindrance of interference from outside. We are now on the eve of accomplishing our life’s work, and, if we can finish it quickly, nothing would stop us from achieving our final objective.”
Munshi remarked; “It was evident that Sardar was prepared to pay a price for averting the partition of the country, and was willing to share power with the Muslim League” (K. M. Munshi, Pilgrimage to Freedom, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan; 1967; Vol.1, p. 103).
But by then another force was already at work, the Congress’ supreme leader, Gandhi. It was not Nehru’s “outburst” in July that torpedoed the Mission’s Plan. It was Gandhi’s instant rejection. The Volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi tell the whole story. They contain the full texts of his articles in his paper Harijan on 20 and 26 May 1946. In his view “there was nothing in it binding in law”. In his view “it is an appeal and an advice”. This, of course, was untrue. The Missions’ Plan was an offer of compromise which all the sides had to accept. This, the Congress refused to do. Patel’s views changed to be in line with Gandhi’s. His plan was two-fold – Enter the Constituent Assembly and discard the Plan. Enter the Interim Government and demand transfer of power from the British. As early as on 17 May 1946 Gandhi said “The Provinces were free to reject the very idea of grouping”. (CWMG; Vol. 86; p.162).
On 23 May, a week after the Cabinet Mission published its Plan, the Congress 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.” (Nicholas Mansergh; The Transfer of Power 1942-7, The Cabinet Mission, Volume VII; 1977; page 672). The editors 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.
Gandhi was angry when his attention was drawn to the instructions. 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).
In a “clandestine way, a meeting was engineered on the morning of 23 June with Pethick-Lawrence” at 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 Viceroy Wavell. The formula for a compromise that was worked out was as follows: Cripps quickly drafted a sentence on a piece of paper and showed it to Patel. It 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…”
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 first asked and 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 Jowett, 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. It meant partition of India.
On 12 April 1947, the new Viceroy Lord Mountbatten asked Patel if the Congress could accept the Plan “without any reservation.” Patel replied on 26 April by claiming it had. The claim was examined by George Abell, who was familiar with the record, and found 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.”
As late as On 19 March 1947 – less than three months before the Partition Plan – the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, 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. In December 1946 they tried to make Nehru see reason but the latter was certain that the League “would come in anyhow”. He was told belatedly that “the League’s interpretation was in fact that intended by the Cabinet Delegation”.
A united India spelt sharing of power with the 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, led by Gandhi who led from the front at the outset.
H.M. Seervai’s censure is fair. “It is sad to think that Gandhi’s rejection of the Cabinet Mission’s proposal for an Interim Government, and of the Cabinet Mission Plan, should have had the unfortunate consequence of destroying the unity of a free India for which he had fought so valiantly and so long.” (H.M. Seervai; Partition of India: Legend and Reality; Oxford University Press; Karachi, 2005; p. 182).
It is hard to disagree with Jinnah’s censure at the conclusion of the Muslim League Council Session at Bombay on 29 July 1946 which withdrew its acceptance of the Missions’ Plan. “The Congress had accepted their proposals conditionally, and the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy had committed a flagrant breach of faith. Any honest or self- respecting man could see clearly that the only party which came out honourably from the negotiations was the Muslim League. When the League accepted their proposals they did it deliberately and with full responsibility, and they accepted the statement of 16 May, the statement of 25 May and the original formula for the Interim Government.
“I think that if there is any man who has got any self-respect or honesty or any sense of fairness and justice to himself, he would say that the Muslim League was moved by higher and greater considerations than any other party in India.
“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.” (Jamiluddin Ahmad, Speeches and writings of Mr. Jinnah Sh. Muhammad Ashraf; 1947, Vol. 2; p. 315)
In 1947 the Congress was blinded by the same ambition that drove it to spurn Jinnah’s offer of cooperation in 1937. It refused to share power with the Muslim League in 1946 even if it spelt the break-up of India’s unity. It could well have realized its plan for a centralized federation in Group A of the Missions Plan which comprised the India of today. Eventually it did just that; but after wrecking India’s unity. As Sir Chimanlal Setalwad wrote: “It is futile to attempt to hide the naked truth by saying that force of circumstances has compelled the Congress to accept the partition of India and they had to submit to the inevitable. The circumstances were of their own creation, and what had once been warded off was made inevitable by their own deeds. The cherished boon of a united India had fallen into the lap, but they by their own want of political wisdom threw it out and made it beyond their reach. (The Times of India; 15 June 1947).