Go Back, Simon

On November 8, 1927, simultaneous announcements were made by Lord Irwin in the Imperial Legislative Assembly and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that the British government had decided to appoint the Indian Statutory Commission of seven members of the British  Parliament under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon, in fulfilment of its obligations  under the Government of India Act, 1919, to review the working of Montague-Chelmsford reforms to determine as to what further action should be taken to extend, restrict or modify the degree of responsible government introduced by them. The exclusion of Indians from the Commission created an uproar.  Feelings of Indians were clearly conveyed by Vithalbhai Patel, Chairman of the Legislative  Assembly, to Birkenhead, Secretary of State for India, when he met him in London. Patel even hinted that a purely English Commission on its visit to India might be boycotted by the people.

The Viceroy was, however, confident of winning the support and cooperation of both the Muslims and the princes, his best friends and allies. He also wanted to seek the support of the Indian National Congress, but was apprehensive of Gandhiji’s attitude in the matter. Gandhiji felt that England  and the English Parliament had no moral claim to be the judges of what Indians ought to do. The Congress accordingly decided at its Madras session to boycott the Commission. It also asked the Congressmen not to serve upon the Central and Provincial Select Committees nor give evidence before the Commission. It, however, resolved  to frame a Swaraj constitution for India with the help of other parties. The leaders of other parties like Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, All India Liberal Federation, etc., also declared in a joint statement to abstain from the proceedings of the Commission. The signatories were Tej Bahadur Sapru, Annie Besant, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Ali Imam, Abdul Rahim, Chimanlal Setelvad and Dinshaw Petit. Unfortunately, the British imperialists were quite cold to both the aspirations of the people and the dictates of reason.

The matter came up for consideration before the Central Assembly on February 26, 1928. Lala Lajpat Rai initiated the discussion by moving a resolution. “This Assembly recommends to the Governor-General-in-Council to convey to His Majesty’s Government the Assembly’s entire lack of confidence in the Parliamentary Commission which has been appointed to review the constitution of India.” He declared that he had no faith in the proposed Commission which was both to act as the jury and the judge, the principle being detrimental and violative of the concept and content of justice. Jayakar challenged the constitutional propriety of appointing an all-Englishman Commission to work as arbiters of India’s destiny. Jinnah pleaded that the Indians should have an equal right to make an enquiry and make recommendations in the matter so vital to them. Malaviya pleaded that the national honour was at stake. The resolution was approved by 68 votes to 62 recording disapproval of the Assembly to the appointment of the Commission. The Assembly also heard the echoes of Vande Mataram when the resolution was passed. Never did the public opinion respond with such unanimous vehemence to the constitutional problem of this nature.

In utter disregard of the public sentiments,  the Simon Commission started its work. Sir John Simon and other members visited India twice from February 3 to March 31, 1928 and from October 11, 1928 to April 13, 1929 amidst protests and demonstrations. During their first tour, they engaged themselves in the examination of the relevant data which the government was able to supply to them. On their second visit, they toured various parts of the country and held their sessions at Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Poona, Patna,  Calcutta, Shillong, Rangoon, Nagpur and Madras. Finally, they came to Delhi and deliberated for two weeks with the Government of India. On April 13, 1929, they went back to England.

In the meanwhile, the Congress Working Committee convened an all-party conference to draft the Swaraj constitution for the country on February 12, 1928 in accordance with the decision taken by the annual session of the party at Madras. The conference decided that the objective of the new framework of the constitution was the establishment of a full responsible government. It met again at Bombay on May 19, 1928. As there were differences between  various parties, the conference decided to appoint a sub-committee for determining the broad principles upon which the new constitution could be framed. Motilal Nehru was to be the Chairman of the sub-committee. Among other members were Tej Bahadur Sapru, Ali Imam, Subhas Chandra  Bose, M. S. Aney, N. M. Joshi, Mangal Singh, etc. They held various meetings and submitted their report to the all-party conference held at Lucknow in August 1928. The main recommendations were: the dominion status, the bicameral parliament consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, a federal structure, provincial autonomy, executive to be responsible to the legislature, elections on the basis of the joint electorates and reservation of seats in the assemblies for the minorities. The Congress accepted the report at its session held in November 1928 at Calcutta.

The all-party conference, which was subsequently held at Calcutta in December 1928, found sharp differences among various  leaders, especially those belonging to the communal bodies like the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. Jinnah proposed various amendments, all of which were rejected. This made him hostile. He brought forth his fourteen points claiming separate electorate, reservation of one-third seats for Muslims both in the Central Cabinet and Legislative Assembly, full religious liberty and adequate safeguards for minorities. The  Hindu Mahasabha denounced the report as pro-Muslim. The national unanimity on the constitutional problem was thus not achieved. As Maulana Azad subsequently commented, “The Muslims were fools to ask for safeguards and the Hindus were greater fools to refuse them.” In any case, the great patriots of the nation failed to resolve their minor differences based on mutual distrust and suspicion and to place a commonly accepted constitution before the British government. As has been stated earlier, the Simon Commission was greeted with protests and demonstrations. The day the Commission landed at Bombay on February 3, 1928, the nation observed a complete hartal  in all important towns. There were protest meetings and big demonstrations. They waved black flags and shouted slogans “Go back, Simon”. It was a complete boycott. At certain places, it became a big task for the police to ensure safe escort of the members of the Commission. The police  made use of force and charged the crowds with lathis. Two of such deplorable incidents took place at Lahore and Lucknow on October 30 and November 30, 1928, respectively. At Lahore, the police lathi-charged the peaceful demonstrators led
by Lala Lajpat Rai. A young white police officer aimed his lathi blow with full fury and strength at Lala Lajpat Rai’s chest.
 He died on November 17, 1928 as a result of the  injuries inflicted during the lathi charge. His death sent a wave of indignation and sorrow throughout the country. At Lucknow, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gobind Ballabh Pant were also beaten up savagely on November 30, 1928. The lathi  blow which Pant received disabled him for the rest of his life. All this was an insult to the forces of nationalism, the revolutionaries among whom attempted to avenge it with many otherwise reprehensible acts.

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