After the Cripps Mission failed in 1942, the British made one more effort in 1946 to transfer power as smoothly as possible to a united successor state. Accordingly, the Cabinet Mission arrived in India in 1946 under a directive from the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to try and achieve the impossible. Surprisingly, it almost did. India was to be divided into three categories of states with the right to secede enshrined in the new Constitution, according to its proposal. Both the Congress and the Muslim League accepted the offer in principle.
The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in July 1946 under the Cabinet Mission Plan. However, after the elections were over, the Muslim League refused to cooperate with the Congress in the Constituent Assembly. As a result thereof, the political situation in the country deteriorated and there commenced countrywide communal riots. The Muslim League demanded a separate Constituent Assembly for Muslim India. On June 3, 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Governor-General of India, announced his plan for scrapping the Cabinet Mission Plan and partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan. The Mountbatten Plan was finally accepted by the two leading parties in India and also the British Government.
Accordingly, the Indian Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament on July 18, 1947, providing for the setting up of a Dominion of India and a Dominion of Pakistan on August 15, 1947 and made them independent and free. Thus, power was transferred to the Indian hands on August 15, 1947. Sovereignty of the British Parliament over these territories was transferred to the people of these territories and the paramountcy of the British over the Indian States lapsed. As a result, the British Empire in India ceased to exist. Ever since then, August 15 is celebrated as India’s Independence Day.
The main provisions of the Indian Independence Act, 1947 were as follows :
1. New Dominions : The Act set up two Dominions—India and Pakistan—from August 1947. Article 2 of the Act determined the territories of the two Dominions. The Pakistan Dominion was to consist of Baluchistan, Sindh, West Punjab, N.W.F.P. and East Bengal, including Sylhet District of Assam. The remaining parts of British India were to constitute the Indian Dominion.
The fate of N.W.F.P. was to be decided by a referendum before August 15, 1947 whether it was to join Pakistan or not. Similarly, a referendum was to be held in the Sylhet district of Assam and if the majority of votes cast went in favour of its joining Pakistan, it would form a part of East Bengal. The exact boundaries of these provinces—West Punjab and East Bengal, including Sylhet—were to be determined by a Boundary Commission to be appointed by the Governor-General. Till then, these were to consist of the Muslim majority districts in Punjab and Bengal provinces, respectively.
2. Governor-General : The Act provided that for each Dominion, “there shall be a Governor-General to be appointed by His Majesty for the purpose of the governance of the Dominion.” The same person, unless the Legislature of each of these Dominions passed a law otherwise, could be a Governor-General of both the Dominions.
3. Legislatures : Until a new constitution was framed for each Dominion, the Act made the existing Constituent Assemblies the Dominion legislatures for the time being. The Dominion legislatures were given full powers to make laws for their Dominions. They could pass laws having extraterritorial operation. They could repeal or amend any Act of the British Parliament if the same was not in the interests of the Dominion concerned. No Act of the British Parliament in future should extend to a Dominion unless it was extended by the law of the Legislature of the Dominion concerned.
4. Temporary Provisions as to the Government of each Dominion : The Constituent Assembly of each Dominion was to act as Legislature of that Dominion. It was also to exercise powers for framing the constitution of the Dominion. Except in so far as the Constituent Assembly enacted laws, each Dominion was to be governed so far as possible in accordance with the Government of India Act, 1935. However, discretionary and individual judgement powers of the Governor-General and Governors under that Act were to lapse. Similarly, no bills of the Provincial Assemblies could be reserved for the assent of His Majesty’s pleasure. Nor could His Majesty disallow a Provincial Law any more.
5. Indian States : The sovereignty of the British Crown over the Indian States lapsed with effect from August 15, 1947. Along with this, the treaties and agreements between His Majesty and the Indian States also lapsed. All authority, powers, rights or jurisdiction exercisable by His Majesty in relation to these States and all obligations and functions of His Majesty in relation thereto, also lapsed. The States, thus, became sovereign entities. The States were given the freedom, if they so wished, to join India or Pakistan, or to remain as independent entities.
However, such agreements as related to customs, transit, communications, posts and telegraph or other like matters were to continue to be effective till repudiated or replaced by fresh agreements.
6. Tribal Areas : As in the case of Indian States, the treaties and agreements between His Majesty and any person having authority in the tribal areas lapsed; and so did the obligations, rights and functions of His Majesty under such agreements and treaties.
7. Abolition of the Office of Secretary of State for India : The Office of the Secretary of State for India and his advisory board were abolished and instead, the Secretary of Commonwealth Relations was to handle matters between the Dominions and Great Britain.
8. British Monarch was no longer Emperor of India : The title ‘Emperor of India’ was deleted from the Royal style of the British Monarch.
9. Miscellaneous : The other provisions of the Act dealt with the Civil Services, the Armed Forces, the British Forces in India, etc. The rights and privileges of the Civil Services were protected. Provision was made for the division of Armed Forces and retention of the authority and jurisdiction of His Majesty over the British Forces stationed on the territories of India and Pakistan.