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"

Wavell and Congress

After the war, the new Labour Government in Britain declared its aim to be the early resolution of self-government for India. The new Secretary of State for India was Pethick-Lawrence, a well-meaning old gentleman of moderate views, who was destined to play second-fiddle to Sir Stafford Cripps, now president of the Board of Trade, who was regarded as the great expert on India.

The Government reverted to the long-term proposals of the Cripps offer, as soon as fresh elections had been held, to proceed to form a Constituent Assembly that would draft a Constitution for India. Cripps was assured that the Congress leaders would accept the offer, but knew that the Muslim league would not, Pakistan being conceded to them in principle, but denied in practice.

The Pakistan question, which Cripps did not attach much importance to, was a major stumbling block and it took a visit to London by Wavell to persuade them to drop the Cripps proposals and Wavell was authorised to announce that it was intended to convene a constitution-making body as early as possible.

Picture of Wavell

The end of the War brought trouble to India, the cold winter of 1945-1946 and shortages of food and cloth, falling employment opportunities and left-wing extremists in Congress, fomented discontent and unrest, and the more responsible members even made wild speeches to encourage wild action and threaten those officials who had been active in suppressing the rebellion of 1942. Trials of INA prisoners led to more unrest, and widespread demonstrations in Calcutta led to rioting in which over 30 people were killed and several hundred injured. Wavell warned the British government to be prepared for an attempt by the Indian Congress to take power from the British by force rather than wait for them to tamely surrender it, but it was in the end exaggerated, with only extremists willing to pursue this path, and their financial backers were not in a mood to supply Congress with funds for another violent struggle.

Picture of Ghandi

A Cabinet mission arrived in January 1945 to consult with the Congress leaders and press upon them Britain's' intention to withdraw once a stable government had been setup. A few days after they left, a naval mutiny broke out on 19th February at the signal school, HMIS Talwar where ratings went on a hunger strike in protest of the alleged misbehavior of their commander and other grievances. Other vessels in harbour refused to obey orders and sympathetic strikes and demonstrations were arranged in Bombay City that resulted in three days of serious rioting in which over 200 people were killed. The ratings surrendered on the 23rd, after ample military forces arrived to crush the rebellion. Local Congress and League leaders were active in trying to prevent strikes and allay the disturbances which they saw as only prolonging British rule, while left-wing extremists and Communists fomented the rioters. Gandhi issued a general warning to his countrymen:

Now it seems we are coming into our own, indiscipline and hooliganism ought to go and calmness, rigid discipline and good will must take their place ...The rulers have declared their intention to 'quit'. Let not the action be delayed by a moment because of the exhibition of this distressful unrest.

In the elections the Muslim League won all the Muslim seats in the Central Assembly, and 446 out of 495 Muslim seats in the provincial assemblies which virtually eliminated all Muslim parties other than the League. Only in the North-West Frontier Province did it meet with failure, as only a small majority of Muslim seats went to Congress, but this was more than made up for by the spectacular success in Punjab.

Wavell now proposed a programme of action. His plan was to make a fresh attempt to form an Executive Council representative of the main political parties and then to hold a preliminary conference to decide on how a constitution-making body should be formed. It also held a counter against the Pakistan issue and Jinnah, who might cause a deadlock by demanding Pakistan. If this happened, His Majesty's Government would have to make its own decision, and any large non-Muslim populations could not be included in Pakistan against their will. This, it was hoped, would force him to be cooperative or he would have to accept the truncated Pakistan that Gandhi had already offered him. But the plan was abandoned, as the Cabinet took responsibility for the Indian question on its own shoulders. On 19th February a Cabinet mission was announced.