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     Volume 5 Issue 122 | December 1, 2006 |

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Last Chance for a United India
The Cabinet Mission Plan

Azizul Jalil

“We therefore now lay before you proposals which….we trust will enable you to attain independence. We appeal to all who have the future good of India at heart to extend their vision beyond their community or interest, to the interests of the whole four hundred millions of Indian people.”

British Cabinet Mission's statement, May 16, 1946

Lord Pethick-Lawrence and Gandhi

In the mid-forties, two opportunities arose for a political settlement to maintain the integrity of India. The first one was the prolonged discussions between Gandhi and Jinnah, which ended inconclusively in September 1944. The second and the last chance came during the visit of the British cabinet mission in 1946. Unfortunately, the political leadership in India failed on that occasion, as well.

Gandhi's proposals to Jinnah, which partly followed provisions of the Lahore Resolution, could have been a basis for further negotiation between the Congress and the Muslim League. But Jinnah hurriedly rejected it. It is true that Gandhi had not met Jinnah in any representative capacity and there was a serious possibility that the Congress, whose leading and effective figures were Nehru and Patel, might have rejected it. Even if a settlement was reached between Gandhi and Jinnah, there was a major third party involved - the British Government, which then ruled India. Clearly, the consent and cooperation of the British was essential to a viable political settlement in India.

Two years later, Jinnah's apprehensions about Congress' attitude were found to be right, when the British cabinet mission proposed groupings of virtually autonomous provinces in a federation, with a government at the centre with powers only over defence, foreign affairs and communications. The mission comprised of three wise men under the leadership of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the secretary of state for India; other members were Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander. After discussions with the Indian leaders, which did not provide any basis for an agreement on the Hindu-Muslim question, the mission devised a scheme on its own. It was a three-tier all-India federation, with three “Groups of Provinces”, which would be called 'Union of India.' The Muslim-majority provinces of Sind, Punjab, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier would constitute Group A; all the Hindu-majority provinces Group B; and Bengal and Assam - Group C. After 10 years, any group or any province could opt out, to reconsider its constitutional position. The mission believed that a loosely integrated federation would appeal to Jinnah and retention of a united government for India at the centre would win support of the Congress.

Jinnah agreed to the proposal, and the-then Congress President, Maulana Azad conveyed his agreement, after the Congress working committee had approved it. But Nehru, who subsequently took over as the president of the Congress in 1946, issued caveats, which negated it. He would not agree to the groupings, which in effect would be mini-Pakistan, at the two ends of India. He also propagated a strong federal government with increasing powers in the future. This possibility would have diminished powers of the Muslim-majority semi-autonomous groups in the North-East and North-West of India. Nehru said, “We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided for the moment to go to the Constituent Assembly.” According to Nehru, the Constituent Assembly would be a sovereign body, despite the policy statement that might be issued by the British Government. He said that actually there may not be any 'groupings' when Union of India was formed. In effect, Nehru was saying that once in power, Congress would use its strength at the centre to alter the cabinet mission plan as it thought fit.

Jinnah was furious at such volte-face and felt that Congress words could no longer be trusted. He believed that as soon as the British left, the Hindu-dominated Constituent Assembly would do away with half-way house to Pakistan built by the cabinet mission by way of the 'groupings' of the provinces. Maulana Azad was shocked and dismayed, too. He felt that to give up the mission's plan would ruin the country. In his autobiography (India Wins Freedom), Azad wrote: “I was extremely perturbed by this new development. I saw that the scheme for which I worked so hard was being destroyed through our own action. …….I must place on record that Jawaharlal's statement was wrong. It was not correct to say that Congress was free to modify the Plan as it pleased…”

Gandhi did not help matters either. He emphasised the role of the sovereign constituent assembly, in which the Congress would have a vast majority, in defining the future shape of India. Regarding the Group C composed of the provinces of Bengal and Assam, both Gandhi and Nehru were dead against it. They said that Assam, with its Hindu majority, would never agree to join that group as it would have an overall Muslim majority and may be overwhelmed by the Bengali-speaking people. According to Gandhi, Assam should not only have the right to secede from Group C after the initial period of 10 years, it should have the right not to join any group at all even at the beginning of the constitutional arrangements. Even though the British Government, after consulting its law officers, clarified that the groupings were given. Once the treaty based on the cabinet mission's scheme became effective and it could not be changed. However, Gandhi and Nehru remained adamant in their position. That was the last chance for a united India but even that chance was frittered away due to polemics and absence of a vision on the part of the Indian leaders of a progressive, tolerant and united India.

In this situation, Jinnah concluded that the Congress was not going to honour the terms of the Cabinet Mission Plan. In his mind, the Congress planned first to go into the Constituent Assembly and then with its majority, modify or even entirely nullify the cabinet mission's scheme. Hector Bolitho in his biography of Jinnah quotes him: “We have learnt a bitter lesson- the bitterest, I think, so far. Now there is no room left for compromise. Let us march on to our cherished goal of a sovereign Pakistan.” He and Liaquat Ali Khan, General Secretary of the All India Muslim League, then declared that they had lost faith in constitutional methods. Assertive and direct actions would thenceforth be their way of achieving the goal of self-determination for the Muslims of India. A Direct Action Day was called by the Muslim League on August 16, 1946. This led to terrible communal riots and a massacre of a vast number of innocent civilians on both sides of the communal divide in Bengal, Bihar and the United Provinces.

At that point, the two communities and their leaders had reached a point of no return. Unfortunately, Hindu-Muslim relations over many years, compounded by bungling of the politicians, had created mistrust and bad blood. From the middle of 1946, there was rapid rise of communalism. All the parties began using the communal card to gain political advantage. A civil war was looming in the horizon and perhaps a mutually satisfactory solution was no longer possible.

When Lord Mountbatten replaced Lord Wavell as the Viceroy of India in March 1947, he had the mandate from the British cabinet to transfer power no later than June 1948, preferably to one government in India. But if that were not possible, power would be transferred to two governments. In view of the Naval and other mutinies in 1946 and mounting pressure from the Indians to grant independence at the earliest, the British were in a hurry to leave India as they did not have the confidence any longer of maintaining effective authority. Hasty consultations with the leaders of the major parties did not give Mountbatten any hope of leaving behind a united India. This led inexorably to an accelerated partition plan prepared by Mountbatten in June 1947. Its acceptance by the Congress and the Muslim League led to the creation of two independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.


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