With tribute to:

Martin Spirit

James Paul

Co-written by:

David Carter

Britain's Small Wars

The preservation of British Military History

India 1945-1948

"Sunset on the Raj"

The 1946 Cabinet Mission

When the Cabinet mission arrived in Delhi in March, it had three members, Cripps, A.V. Alexander and Pethick-Lawrence. They would work in close conjunction with the Viceroy who was assured that it was not intended that he should be treated as a lay figure.

The Mission's task was to try to bring the leaders of the principle Indian political parties to agreement on two matters:

  1. The method of framing a constitution for a self-governing, independent India
  2. The setting up of a new Executive Council or interim government that would hold office while the constitution was being hammered out.

The main problem was, as it always had been, the Hindu-Muslim partition. Congress wanted a unified India and the Muslim League wanted a separate, independent Pakistan. The Mission set to work at once, spending two weeks in lengthy discussions with representatives of all the principal political parties, the Indian States, the Sikhs, Scheduled Castes and other communities, and with Gandhi and several other prominent individuals. But at the end of these discussions there was still no prospect of an agreement between the parties and the mission decided to put forward the two possible solutions for consideration.

  1. A truncated Pakistan, which Wavell had wanted to tell Jinnah was all he would get if he kept insisting on a sovereign Pakistan.
  2. A loose federation with a three-tier constitution - provinces, group of provinces and an all-India union embracing both British India and the Indian States, which Cripps had devised with the help of two Indian officials, V.P. Menon and Sir B.N. Rau. The Union would be limited to three subjects, foreign affairs, defence and communications, with powers to raise funds for all three; all other subjects would vest in the provinces, but the provinces would be free to form groups, with their own executives and legislatures, that would deal with such subjects as the provinces within the group might assign them. In this way the Provinces that Jinnah claimed for Pakistan could form Groups or sub-federations and enjoy a large measure of autonomy thus approximating to Pakistan.

After some demur, Jinnah agreed to the federation plan, Congress also reluctantly agreeing and both parties were invited to send representatives to discuss it with the Mission at Simla. A week of discussions led to no agreement and the Mission decided to refurbish the plan to meet the views of the parties as far as possible that had been expressed at Simla. The final statement of the plan was published on May 16th.

The statement rejected decisively a wholly sovereign Pakistan of the larger or the smaller truncated variety. It went on to commend the plan for an all-India Union, with a three-tier constitution and went on to indicate the method how it should be brought about. A Constituent Assembly was to be elected by members of the Provincial Legislatures and after a preliminary full meeting, at which an advisory committee would be set up on fundamental rights, minorities and tribal areas, would divide into three Sections - Section A consisting of the representatives of the six Hindu-majority provinces; Section B of the representatives of the Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province and Sind; and Section C of the representatives of Bengal and Assam. These sections would draw up constitutions for the provinces included in them and would also decide whether a group should be formed and, if so, with what subjects; but a province would have the option to opt out of a group by a vote of its legislature after the new constitutional arrangements had come into operation. Finally the Constituent Assembly was to meet again as a whole, this time along with representatives of the Indian States in appropriate numbers to settle the Union Constitution.

Picture of Ghandi

The Statement was well received and was widely accepted as clear evidence of the British Government's genuine desire to bring British rule in India to a peaceful end. Gandhi pronounced it 'the best document the British Government could have produced in the circumstances.' Jinnah was less enthusiastic, but both sides gave it consideration. Congress wanted to interpret the statement as meaning that provinces could choose whether or not to belong to the section in which they had been placed, but the Mission countered this with a further Statement on 25th May, in that the provinces in each section were an essential feature of the scheme.

Wavell and the mission wrote to the Indian states rulers, warning them that when Britain quit India it would cease to exercise the powers or shoulder the obligations of paramountcy. They would not in any circumstances transfer paramountcy to an Indian Government, but the ending of the relationship would leave a void, and it was suggested, would be best filled by entering into a federal relationship with the new Government of India as units in the proposed Union. They would retain their internal sovereignty and all their powers save those ceded to the Union in connection with the three subjects of foreign affairs, defence and communications. The Princes were reasonably content with this.

While the League and Congress were giving thought to the Statement of May 16th, the Mission went about the formation of a new executive council or interim government, but they also prepared and sent home a breakdown plan. The plan followed the premise that one of the main parties would reject the proposals. If the Muslim League rejected the proposals, Congress would go ahead on the premise that parts of the country not willing would be left out of the union. If Congress dismissed the proposals, it might be followed by a threat to seize power in another 'Quit India' movement. Wavell proposed that the British should then withdraw from the six Hindu-majority provinces and allow them to become entirely independent but retain control of the other provinces until fresh arrangements acceptable to their population could be made.

However, discussion regarding the formation of an interim government which the Mission decided should be initiated by Wavell, was opened by him with the party leaders while they and the mission were still in Simla. The members of the interim government, except the Viceroy, would all be Indian and it would be, as far as possible, like a dominion government, but the Viceroy, in light of the existing constitution, would still retain overriding powers. Congress accepted these stipulations with a bad grace, but pleased Jinnah and the League who were happy to accept any check to Congress dominance of the interim government.

Discussions were still in progress when, on 6th June, the Muslim League voted to accept the constitutional proposals. The acceptance was said to be 'in the hope that it would ultimately result in the establishment of a complete sovereign Pakistan'. The Congress working committee delayed giving their verdict, and further discussions about the interim government failed to bring about agreement as the League wanted parity with Congress and the exclusive right to nominate all Muslim members, both of which had been rejected by Congress.

The Mission, who were impatient to end their work and head home, decided to put forward compromise proposals. On June 16th, the Viceroy announced that discussion with the parties would not be further prolonged and that he was issuing invitations to fourteen named persons to serve as members of an interim government, Six were Hindu members of Congress including one member of the Scheduled castes, five were members of the Muslim League, and the remaining three a Sikh, a Parsee and an Indian Christian. The message also included a statement that stated:

'In the event of the two major parties or either of them proving unwilling to join in setting up a coalition government on the above lines, it is the intention of the Viceroy to proceed with the formation of an interim government which will be as representative as possible of those willing to accept the Statement of May 16th.'

Picture of Cripps

With the Muslim League ready to accept, Congress appeared to be on the verge of accepting until Gandhi intervened. Gandhi took his stand on principle, regardless of practical consequences. He said that acquiescence by Congress in the non-inclusion of a Congress Muslim in the interim government would be, he argued, the sacrifice of a vital principle to which Congress, as a national party with a Muslim president, could never agree at any time or place or in any circumstances. They rejected the interim government proposals. The Mission took the statement of June 16th to mean that Congress had agreed with the May 16th Statement that it was no longer possible to proceed with the formation of an interim government. Jinnah was infuriated by this interpretation, and now felt outwitted by Congress and tricked by Cripps. He declared the Mission's interpretation had been dishonestly 'concocted by the legalistic talents of the Cabinet Mission and charged the Mission and the Viceroy with breach of faith. He also stated that the Congress acceptance of the May 16th Statement had not been genuine.

Wavell agreed with this view, but the mission wanted to try and salvage something and in a valedictory statement they expressed they gladness that 'Constitution-making can now proceed with the two major parties and their regret at the failure to form an interim coalition government, but said that after the elections to the Constituent Assembly had finished, the Viceroy would make fresh efforts to bring one into being. Meanwhile, a temporary caretaker government would be set up. The mission left bearing a note from Wavell that the government should be prepared for a crisis in India and must therefore have a breakdown policy in readiness.