The Sunshine Of Independence

The Second World War came to an end in Europe in May 1945. In India, Lord Wavell had already succeeded Lord Linlithgow as the Viceroy of India in October 1943. He had earlier been the Commander-in-Chief here. His appointment gave rise to misgivings as to whether Britain would still keep India by dint of force. These forebodings, however, proved false. Wavell was a nice person, a soldier by profession, a poet by temperament and a statesman by compulsion. In his first address to the Central Legislature on February 17, 1944, he affirmed : “India shall have full control of her own destiny.” This sent a breeze of joy in the people that their country would soon become free. Wavell made it clear that from the point of view of defence as well as many internal and external economic problems, India was a natural unit. “You cannot alter geography,” he declared. These were also the words of cheer for the unity of the country. He called a conference of the Governors of all the Provinces and discussed with them the various steps that the Government should take to resolve the political problem.

Lord Wavell went to London for consultation with the Home Government in March 1945. The Labour Party withdrew from the coalition government after the end of the War due to differences with the Conservatives on the matters relating to social security and planning. Sir Winston Churchill continued as the caretaker Prime Minister till the gene­ral elections were held. The Viceroy returned to Delhi on June 4, 1945. He made a broadcast of his proposals on June 12, 1945 simultaneously with the statement of Mr. Amery, the Secretary of State for India in the House of Commons. He also announced his intention to convene a political conference on June 25, 1945 as well as the decision of the Government to release the members of the Congress Working Committee. His proposals laid down the complete indepen­dence of the Viceroy’s Executive Council except the portfolio of Defence on the basis of parity between the caste Hindus and the Muslims. Gandhiji objected to the term ‘caste Hindus’. Jinnah asserted that the Muslim League had the sole right to nominate all the Muslim members to be included in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. The Hindu Mahasabha objected to both the principle of parity between the Hindus and Mus­lims and its exclusion from the Simla Conference. The Congress put forward its claim to include in its share of representation the members of all the communities, including the Muslims, Christians and Harijans. In his inaugural speech, the Viceroy explained the aims and objectives of the conference. He cla­rified, “It is not a constitutional settlement, it is not a final solution to India’s complex pro­blems that is proposed.” But the atmosphere of the Conference seemed more favourable to its failure than to its success. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who started the discussion on behalf of the Congress, minced no words about the national character of the Congress and declared its unwillingness to enter into any ag­ree­ment or compromise which gave it the character of a communal party. Jinnah asser­ted that the Muslim League would not com­promise on its demand for Pakistan and thus participate in a common national government of undivided India. The talks, therefore, failed, with each side blaming the other.

After a fortnight or so of the failure of the Simla Conference, the Labour Party came to power in England as a result of an election held on July 25, 1945. It won a landslide victory with 393 seats against 215 obtained by the Conservatives. Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister on July 26, 1945 with Pethick Lawrence as the Secretary of State for India. The new Prime Minister was very sympathetic to the Indian problem. “Circumstances obliged me,” he once stated, “to take a very active part in the Indian problem.” He had been a member of the Simon Commission in 1929. The Congress was very happy with the Labour Party’s vic­tory. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, President of the Congress, sent his felici­tations to Attlee. The later events, however, proved that there was not a big line of divide between the Conservatives and the Labou­rites. The for­mer followed the maxim “divide-and-rule”, the latter “divide-and-quit”.

The Viceroy again went to London for a meeting with the leaders of the new government on August 24, 1945 and returned on September 16, 1945. He announced on September 19, 1945 the objectives of the Labour Government’s policy towards India. His Majesty’s Government was determined to do its utmost to promote the early realisation  of full self-government in India. Elections to the Central and provincial legislatures were to be held. The British Government also intended to convene a Constituent Assembly for India and to reconstitute the Viceroy’s Executive Council to be composed of representatives of main political parties after the results of the elections were declared. Both the Congress and the Muslim League did well in the general elections. Out of a total of 102 seats in the Central Assembly, the Congress got 57 with the League obtaining 30 and the rest going to Independents, Europeans and the Akalis. In the provincial legislatures, the Congress won power in Bombay, United Provinces, Madras, Central Provinces, Orissa and the League in Sindh and Bengal. The two parties formed their ministries in these provinces. In Punjab, the Congress won 51 seats, the Akalis 22 and the Unionists 26 against the Muslim League’s number at 75. The Unionist leader, Khizr Hyat Khan formed a coalition ministry. It was clear that the election results had not contributed towards the solution of the political problem; instead, it perpetuated the Congress-League conflict.

The British Government sent a Cabinet Mission to India in March 1946 with a view to helping India attain freedom as speedily and as fully as possible. It consisted of Lord Pethick Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and A. V. Alexander, First Lord of Admiralty. The Mission arrived on March 23, 1946. It spent nearly five weeks in India holding marathon discussions with political leaders, provincial governors, representatives of minorities and special interests, the ruling princes and prominent individuals. Among the prominent political leaders who met the Mission were Gandhiji, Maulana Azad, Jinnah, Sapru, Jayakar, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Jagjivan Ram, Ambedkar, Baldev Singh and Master Tara Singh. The policy of the British Government was very clear from the statement of Prime Minister Attlee made in the House of Commons on March 15, 1946, “We are very mindful of the rights of minorities and minorities should be able to live free from fear. On the other hand, we cannot allow a minority to place its veto on the advance of the majority.” Within that framework, the Mission failed to reach an agreement with the Indian leaders. As the Congress and the Muslim League could not reach an agreement, the Mission accepted its failure and announced its own plan on May 16, 1946. The Congress wanted immediate independence. It had the federal structure in view for the future constitution of the country. The Muslim League harped upon the two-nation theory on the strength of the separate electorates for the Muslims granted by the British Government.

The Cabinet Mission plan rejected the demand for Pakistan and suggested a federal structure of the government. The Union was to embrace both the British provinces and the princely states. Its authority was limited to three subjects—Defence, Foreign Affairs and Commu-nications—with the power to raise the necessary finances for them. All the residuary subjects were to be included in the provincial list. The British provinces were categorised into three groups : A, B and C, i.e.,  subfederations, Group A—Madras, Bombay, United Provinces, Central Provinces, Bihar and Orissa, Group B—Punjab, N.W.F.P. and Sindh, and Group C—Bengal and Assam. The princely states were free to join any of these three groups. There was to be a Constituent Assembly consisting of 296 members from the British India and 93 members from the princely states. For the British India, the composition was to be 210 general seats, 78 Muslim seats and four Sikh seats. The Assembly had to frame a constitution which the provinces were free to accept or reject as they liked. The Con­stituent Assembly was also to sign a treaty with England on the mode of the future relationship between the two countries. For the interim period, the Viceroy’s Executive Council was to be reconstituted and all the portfolios, including that of Defence, were to be entrusted to the Indian leaders. Both the provinces and the princely states were free to join the Union or secede from it after the constitution for the entire country was framed by the Constituent Assembly.

Gandhiji gave his blessings to the plan with his interpretation that the Constituent Assembly would be a sovereign body for drafting the constitution of independent India and would, thus, be free to improve upon the plan of the Mission by rejecting the concept of the subfederation. The Congress Working Committee was critical about the status and powers of the interim government and maintenance of the British troops in India. The Muslim League accepted the plan as it strengthened its demand for the creation of Pakistan by placing the Muslim-majority provinces in the separate groups other than the general group. It, therefore, announced its willingness to participate in the Constituent Assembly. The Muslim League also wanted that the Viceroy should invite them to join the Government as it had accepted the plan but the British Government did not agree because it wanted participation of both the League and the Congress in the government and did not reconcile to the situation where the League was in and the Congress out of Government. The elections to the Constituent Assembly took place in July 1946 in which the Congress obtained more than two-thirds majority. It won 202 seats out of 292. The Muslim League got only 73 seats.

It was, indeed, strange that both the Congress and the League could neither reject the May 16 plan outright, nor accept it wholly. Both took different stands on different occasions. The Congress could not yield on the point of its national character nor reconcile itself to the two-nation theory propounded by Jinnah. The All-India Congress Committee elected Jawaharlal Nehru as the Congress President at its Bombay Session held on July 6 and 7, 1946. He declared that the Congress had decided to join the Constituent Assembly and would remain in it as long as it thought it was for the good of the country and would come out when it thought it was injuring its cause. He elaborated the position at a Press Conference in Bombay on July 10, 1946 that the Congress had not entered into any permanent commitment with regard to both the short-term and long-term plans of the Cabinet Mission and was absolutely free to take an independent stand in the Assembly. His statement made the Muslim League ner­vous. Jinnah characterised it as a complete repu­diation of the basic form upon which the long-term scheme rested as well as the fundamental nature of the rights and ob­ligations of the parties accepting the scheme. The Muslim League, therefore, decided to withdraw its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission plan in Bombay on July 29, 1946 and observe the “Direct Action Day” on August 16, 1946. Unfortunately, it proved to be the horrible day on which riots and killings took place in Calcutta on a massive scale. Mob violence continued for four days and the government was unable to control the situation. The number of those killed was put at 5,000 and those of injured at 15,000.  Property worth crores of rupees was destroyed.

Meanwhile, the Viceroy continued his efforts to form an interim government. He proposed to constitute an Executive Council of 14 members—six to be nominated by the Congress, including one belonging to the Scheduled Castes, five by the Muslim League and three belonging to the minorities by the government. The Congress accepted this offer, but stressed the need for giving full independence of action to the new government. The Viceroy, accordingly, invited Jawaharlal Nehru on August 6, 1946 to make proposals for the formation of an interim government which the latter accepted after its approval by the Congress Working Committee. Nehru now sought the cooperation of the Muslim League and offered five seats out of 14 to the nominees of Jinnah in his government. He also met him on August 15, 1946 in Bombay but without success. He was now left with no option but to proceed alone in forming the provisional government. On August 24, 1946, the official communique announced the names of new members of the interim government. These were : Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Asaf Ali, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarat Chandra Bose, John Mathai, Baldev Singh, Shafaat Ahmed Khan, Jagjivan Ram, Ali Zaheer and C. H. Bhabha. The new government assumed office on September 2, 1946. The Muslim League observed this day as the day of mourning. Gandhiji declared, “We are not yet in the midst of civil war but we are nearing it.” The Muslim League later decided to join the provisional government and its five nominees—Liaquat Ali Khan, I.I. Chundrigar, Abdur Rab Nishtar, Ghazanafar Ali Khan and Jogendra Nath Mandal—were sworn in on October 25, 1946. Before that, however, the country was ablaze in the communal flames and the Hindu-Muslim riots took place in various towns and villages.

The Constituent Assembly met on December 9, 1946 at New Delhi. Two hundred and five members attended the meeting. The seventy-three Muslim League members boycotted the proceedings. There were also no representatives of the princely states. Jawaharlal Nehru moved the “Objectives Resolution”. It envisaged the Indian Union to be an independent sovereign republic. The Constituent Assembly again met on January 20, 1947 when it approved the Objectives Resolution. The Muslim League had not so far withdrawn the boycott of the Constituent Assembly. Nor was there any harmony in the functioning of the provisional government. The conflicts between the ministers belonging to two parties—the Congress and the Muslim League—were growing faster every day and every hour. It seemed that the unity of the country was impossible and partition inevitable. The declaration by the Labour Government to quit India by the end of June 1948 under all circumstances made it a cruel reality. Prime Minister Attlee made his historic announcement on February 20, 1947, “The present state of uncertainty is fraught with danger and cannot be indefinitely prolonged. His Majesty’s Government wish to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take necessary steps to effect the transference of power to responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June 1948.” The events moved faster than aeroplanes or rockets.

Lord Wavell left India on March 23, 1947. His successor, Lord Mountbatten assumed office next day, i.e.,  March 24, 1947, with all royal grandeur. “I am under no illusion about the difficulty of my task,” he said and added, “I shall need the greatest goodwill of the greatest possible number and I am asking India today for that goodwill.” His immediate task was to restore peace among the Congress and the League members in the Executive Council and among the Hindus and the Muslims in the country at large. He attempted to fulfil this great task not gradually but quickly. He was in the prime of his life, full of energy and vitality, swift in taking decisions, and capable of implementing them. He could persuade others by his affable manner as well as imposed his will upon them by his mandate. He knew that the creation of Pakistan was an ill-conceived idea. He also knew that this was no solution to the communal problem and that it was bound to harm the interests of both the communities in the larger context. He still prepared his partition plan because he was too much in a hurry and did not bother about the future. Gandhiji opposed his plan vehemently and suggested that the Viceroy should entrust the governance of the country to Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But that was not acceptable to the Congress Party. Jawaharlal Nehru said, “We saw no other way of getting our freedom—in the near future, we mean.” Gandhiji had once remarked, “Hindus and Muslims are not two nations. Those whom God has made one, man will never be able to divide.” It was, thus, unfortunate that the nation won her freedom through partition of the country. India and Pakistan became two independent nations on August 15, 1947. Lord Mount­batten became the first Governor General of free India and M. A. Jinnah that of the newly created Pakistan.

Exactly at the midnight of August 14/15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke in the Constituent Assembly, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom.” The Assembly resolved that the members would take the following pledge:

“At this solemn moment, when the people of India through suffering and sacrifice have secured freedom, I, a member of the Constituent Assembly, do dedicate myself, in all humility, to the ser­vice  of  India  and  her  people  to  the end that this ancient land attain her rightful place in the world and make her full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind.”

The first action of the sovereign Constituent Assembly was to proclaim the Independence of India and approve the appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the first Governor-General of free India. The new day brought to the people a bright sunshine of independence. It was Friday, August 15, 1947. Although the day of independence brought to the people bright sunshine in their lives, the day by itself was not all that bright. The subcontinent was rocked by the worst bloodbath in its history resulting from the partition. On the day of independence, Gandhiji was not in Delhi. As the nation was celebrating her independence, he was attempting to restore peace in Bengal. He could not reconcile himself to the two-nation theory of Jinnah nor to the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation. He planned to visit Pakistan to spread his message of peace to the Muslims there. He felt passionately that if he could not ensure the political unity of the country, he would strive hard to retain its spiritual unity. This remained only a dream. The day of his visit to Pakistan never came as a fanatic Hindu, Nathu Ram Godse, shot him dead on the evening of January 30, 1948. The last words on his lips were ‘Hey Ram, Hey Ram !’ He gave up his life for the unity and independence of the country. That was too high a price which the imperial bureauc­rats extracted from us for their diplomacy to retain the Indians in the new Commonwealth. Pakistan ceased to be its member for a number of years, but was readmitted into the Commonwealth fold in 1989. Pakistan was again suspended from the Commonwealth in October 1999 because of military takeover in that country. However, it was readmitted to the group in May 2004. But its conflicts with India and the evil effects of the division of the country are permanent.       

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