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Cripps and India's Partition

Print edition : Jul 20, 2002 T+T-

ALLEN CLARKE'S work is in the fine tradition of English biographies. It fits into the classic mould; objective, thorough, elegant in style and civil to the adversaries of his subject. More than any other British leader, Stafford Cripps shaped his country's policy towards India in the crucial five years preceding its Independence. His was the dominant and domineering influence. But affection for the country was not matched by sound judgment. Impatience for success overcame prudence and even concern for justice. A man of integrity, he was, like such, self-righteous and given to self-deception. Worse, he was, in sheer zeal, also capable of practising deception on others. In June 1946 he did just that. It did not help the India he loved. He contributed to its Partition and harmed it grievously. In this, he received handsome assistance from India's leaders. They collaborated with him - the entire group of titans of the Congress, the likes of whom we shall never see again - Gandhi, first and foremost, Nehru, Patel and Azad. The material which the author has unearthed explains why Cripps behaved as he did.

Much of the story was told by Prof. R.J. Moore in his able works Churchill, Cripps, and India 1939-1945 (1979) and Escape from Empire: The Attlee Government and the Indian Problem (1983) which covers the period from 1945 to 1947. He had delved into the archives and consulted the diaries kept by Cripps and his associates. Peter Clarke's book "rests to a large extent on diaries". The footnotes - which prove that the tortures of end-notes are avoidable - and the bibliography testify to mastery of published literature. "It is now possible to provide a fully three-dimensional image through access to a richer range of archival sources than any previous author has been able to draw upon". Moore's work is fully acknowledged; but "there are sections of Cripps' own diaries - notably the important Indian diary of 1946 - that have never previously been available for citation" (emphasis added, throughout). The year 1946 was a decisive one. It made Partition inevitable which, earlier, was not.

Cripps came to India three times - in December 1939, as a private individual; in March-April 1942, as Lord Privy Seal and member of Churchill's War Cabinet on the Cripps Mission to secure India's cooperation in the War effort on the basis of a tripartite Anglo-Congress-Muslim League accord in the form of a "Declaration"; and in March-June 1946 as the sole India hand in a three-member Cabinet Mission, comprising himself, Secretary of State Pethick-Lawrence and First Lord of the Admiralty A.V. Alexander. This review concentrates exclusively on "the India connection", to the neglect, unfairly perhaps, of the rest of the book.

"As early as 1937 Cripps was publicly calling Nehru's friendship the greatest privilege of his life. The two men were not insensible to the genuine mutual affinity they discovered, and they seem to have developed real warmth when they met, first on Nehru's visit to Europe in (June) 1938, when he and his daughter Indira stayed at (Cripps' country home) Goodfellows one weekend, and again in India the following year." The closeness was sustained "until the face-to-face negotiations of the Cripps Mission put it under fatal stress."

Both were Marxists, of sorts, who believed, for a time, that there was no communal problem in India; only class conflict. Nehru was a voracious reader. "Cripps was not a bookish man." Both had privileged backgrounds and were arrogant and opinionated. Men of deep commitment, they were fated to clash. Cripps' was "a practical intelligence, highly geared and sharply focussed on clearly specified issues". Nehru was apt to wander into the Elysian fields and always avoided binding himself to specifics.

The other guests at Goodfellows along with Nehru were Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Harold Laski. They discussed how a Labour government would transfer power to India. All agreed on the mechanism of a Constituent Assembly. They were later to differ on safeguards for the minorities in a plural society.

"Cripps' plan was enshrined in a document that he was to take with him in the form of a draft statement. It proposed offering India Dominion status - with the right to secede from the Commonwealth if so desired - as testimony to the British government's aims 'in the present war for freedom and democracy'. Within a year of the termination of hostilities, a Constituent Assembly should be summoned, based on the present provincial electorates if no better system could be agreed. The Assembly's decision would be binding if carried by a three-fifths vote; their implementation over a fixed period of, say, fifteen years would be guaranteed by a treaty with Great Britain; and during the transitional period the treaty would also protect minority rights."

Safeguards were essential. Cripps knew that India's plural society was riven with "a perpetual majority and a perpetual minority" on communal, not political, lines. The solution to the problem lay neither in Partition based on a false two-nation theory, nor the Congress' insistence on an unqualified "one man-one vote" system. It lay in a communal compact for a united India in which the minorities were assured of sharing of power. This the Congress rejected consistently. Compare the situation in Sri Lanka. On December 20, 1986 the spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Chennai said it was possible for "two nations to co-exist in one country" if a "viable alternative to Eelam" could be devised (Indian Express, December 21, 1986). There is, of course, but one nation in Sri Lanka. It however needs a pact on power-sharing.

"Cripps undoubtedly started with views that he had accepted rather uncritically from his close contacts with Congress"; especially with Nehru who was smug and glib. "The Congress as a whole is definitely left politically, including the old guard," he assured Cripps confidently. He said Jinnah objected to "democracy itself in India for democracy means the dominance of the majority". When Nehru found Cripps learning by himself, during the visit, he told Mahadev Desai that while Cripps was able and straight "his judgment is not always to be relied upon". In February 1940 he rejected Cripps' scheme. "I feel Stafford has completely failed to understand the elements of the Indian problem," Nehru wrote to V.K. Krishna Menon.

How poor his own understanding was is reflected in his opinion that "essentially the conflict between the Congress and the League is a conflict between the lower middle classes with a large mass following and the Muslim feudal and middle classes". Marxists did not have too high a respect for Nehru's grasp of, or commitment to, Marxism.

In an article in Tribune, the leftist journal, on May 3, 1940, Cripps held that "the religious differences are often stirred up and exaggerated to serve what are really class ends". Cripps knew even less of Marxism than Nehru did. Two years later Jinnah recalled the article to its contrite writer when he came on an official Mission.

The author's criticism of Cripps' stand is trenchant but fair. "Cripps... sought to reduce the complex manifestations of nationalism, imbricated with communal tensions, to the simple maxims of democracy, imperialism and class struggle. He not only abandoned his rather vacuous optimism about a possible settlement but suppressed the evidence of his own eyes and ears about the intractability of the communal issue. He was thus led to dismiss Jinnah's case as a 'dog-in-the-manger' attitude which does not deserve our support."

In May 1940, Cripps had, in fact, gone back on a sound formula he had crafted five months earlier which Prof. Moore quotes from Cripps' diary. On December 11, 1939, a "new thought" occurred to him after his talks in Delhi, as he took the overnight train for Lahore: "There emerges a picture of a rather loose federation of provinces with few reserved subjects and with the right of the provinces to withdraw if they wish and new boundaries to make provinces either predominantly Muslim or Hindu - as the sort of lines of a possible settlement, with a Constituent Assembly to work out the scheme. It might be necessary to agree to the basis of the outcome of the Constituent Assembly in advance" (Churchill, Cripps and India; page 12).

Implicit in this private venture were three propositions on which alone could a compromise have been devised - a federation of limited powers; liberty to the provinces to secede from it with revision of boundaries if they did so; a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution "on the basis of the outcome" agreed "in advance" in a Congress-League pact. Under the Cabinet Mission's Scheme of 1946, the League agreed to abandon the right to secede if only groups of sub-federations of the Pakistan provinces (NWFP, Baluchistan, Punjab and Sind in the west and Assam and Bengal in the east) were allowed within the all-India federation. The Congress rejected groups. The federal idea collapsed. Five provinces seceded and the boundaries of two of them were revised on their partition (Punjab and Bengal).

The declaration, which Cripps officially offered in 1942, explicitly permitted the provinces to decline to accede to the "new Indian Union" at the very outset. The exact procedure was defined in Cripps' letter to Jinnah dated April 2, 1940. A province "should reach the decision... by a vote in the Legislative Assembly on a resolution to stand in." If the majority for accession to the Union was less than 60 per cent, the minority had the right to demand a plebiscite of the entire adult population. This was the first time ever that the British had spoken of the partition of India. Jinnah must have found this incredible. The Lahore Resolution on Pakistan was adopted on March 26, 1940. However, the crux of the Declaration was an interim coalition to run the country and pursue the War effort. The Congress concentrated on this, quibbled and foiled the venture. It is not unlikely that the coalition would have coalesced the two parties and narrowed their differences as Rajagopalachari strove to persuade the Congress. He wrote to Cripps on May 19, 1948: "How I wish that you and I had been listened to six years ago instead of being distrusted."

Forty years later, Prof. R.J. Moore revealed the existence of a file in Jinnah's papers in Islamabad containing correspondence between him and Cripps "regarding the creation of a new Indian Union" (Escape from Empire, page 54). Significantly, it is embargoed. Prof. Reginald Coupland, Cripps' constitutional adviser, noted in his diary that Jinnah was mentally prepared for partition of Punjab and Bengal in January 1942. It is equally significant that he nonetheless parlayed for a new union three months later. This happened in 1946 also, as we shall see. Jinnah preferred a loose all-India federation to partition.

The Cripps offer was rejected by the Congress mainly on the issue of defence. It wanted transfer of power to the Governor-General's executive council as a Cabinet with the Governor-General as a constitutional head. Cripps was "tipped off that the Muslim League was ready to accept; he knew that the attitude of Congress was the crux". Jinnah rejected the offer once the Congress revealed its hand. "For Cripps, the political reality was that Congress would have had far more leverage once inside the Executive Council." Churchill and the Viceroy Linlithgow tied Cripps' hands. He was isolated. "Yet none of this was fatal. Had Congress accepted the terms on offer on 9 or 10 April (1942), it is difficult to see how Churchill's concurrence could have been withheld."

If the proposals were as bad as the Congress made them out to be, why did it take a fortnight to reject them? The truth is that the Congress was badly split on the Cripps offer as it was on the "Quit India" resolution. In each case Nehru followed Gandhi's line; to his regret, as his jail diary records (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, First Series; page 185; "With all his very great qualities he has proved a poor and weak leader" (July 10, 1943). Nehru contemplated "breaking with Gandhi. I have at present (August 5, 1944) no desire even to go to him on release... I suppose I shall see him anyhow..." page 454).

Cripps drew a wrong lesson from the episode. "From first to last the Cripps Mission did not impress Gandhi." Cripps regarded him as the architect of his defeat and seemed to reproach himself for neglecting Gandhi. In 1946 he banked heavily - too heavily - on Gandhi and lost, once again.

H.V. Hodson, who was Constitutional Adviser to the Viceroy (1941-43), noted: "Whereas Mountbatten never made the mistake of treating Mahatma Gandhi as a negotiator, Cripps to the end regarded him as the key to the whole problem. For Mountbatten he was a friendly if baffling personality to be cultivated, listened to, and kept sweet, but not one capable, even if willing, of clinching a bargain in the name of the Congress" (The Great Divide; 1985; page 212).

In 1946, Cripps strove desperately to remove the sourness that had crept into his relationship with Nehru on the collapse of his Mission. The choices before the Cabinet Mission, the Congress and the League were obvious and limited - a loose federation or Partition (and with it of Punjab and Bengal). It fell to Cripps, inevitably, to draft a alternative formulae. On April 10, 1946 he prepared Scheme A for a flexible form of Union and Scheme B for Partition.

It may be noted thus, Jinnah preferred a loose federation to Partition; the Pakistan of today. He told Cripps on April 25 "he was prepared, however, to consider Plan A if the Congress were prepared to consider it and if he could be assured of that he would put it to the Muslim League Working Committee. He had assured Sir Stafford that he would do this not with a recommendation for its rejection but as a proposal that they should consider...." On May 6 he offered to come into a Union if the Congress would accept grouping of provinces within a Union. His own proposals at the Simla Conference, on May 12, were not for Partition, but for a confederation. He was obviously prepared to settle for less - for a federation; and, he did.

Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission's proposals of May 16. They envisaged an Indian federation based on three groups of provinces. The provinces were free to secede from the groups, in which they were placed, by a vote in the first general elections after the scheme took effect. But they could not secede from the Union. India's unity was preserved. All they could ask for was "reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution" - a Sarkaria Commission - after 10 years and no more. It would have been open to provinces of Group A (the States which now form the Union of India) to confer on the Union voluntarily subjects beyond the minimum subjects of defence, foreign affairs and communications. Group B comprised Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the NWFP. Group C comprised Bengal and Assam. Far from establishing a "weak" Centre, it would have yielded a strong centre, the India of today, in Group A in federal union with Pakistan. India would have had a majority, though confined to defence, foreign affairs and communications.

How did it collapse? Azad fostered the myth, which became conventional wisdom, that it was Nehru's remarks on July 6, shortly after he took over the Congress presidency from Azad, that altered the course of history. Nehru had said that there would be no grouping and the Constituent Assembly would be a sovereign body free to decide as it pleased. However, Jinnah had complained of Congress' equivocation well before that, on June 27. Letters by Azad himself to the Mission, on May 20 and June 14, and the Congress Working Committee's resolutions, of May 24 and June 26, put a disingenuous interpretation on the Mission's Proposals.

Paragraph 15 contained elements of the "basic form" - the Union, its powers, and so on. Clause 5 said: "Provinces should be free to form Groups with executives and legislatures and each Group could determine the Provincial subjects to be taken in common." Paragraph 19 laid down procedure which the Constituent Assembly had to follow. It would meet first to settle the preliminaries and next "divide up into three sections". Clause V added: "These sections shall proceed to settle the Provincial Constitutions for the Provinces included in each section, and shall also decide whether any Group Constitution shall be set up for those Provinces and, if so, with what provincial subjects the Group should deal. Provinces shall have the power to opt out of Groups in accordance with the provisions of sub-clause (viii) below". This provided that "such a decision shall be taken by the new legislature of the Province after the first general election under the new Constitution" - not before.

The Congress argued that Provinces could refuse to join the section at the very outset; that Para 19 (v) affected the freedom to form groups (Para 15 (5)) and had to give way. Grouping was the only sop to Jinnah to get him into the union. Azad exclaimed: "All schemes of partition of India have been rejected once and for all."

Vallabhbhai Patel was as ecstatic in a letter to K.M. Munshi the very next day, on May 17: "Thank God, we have successfully avoided a catastrophe which threatened our country. Since many years, for the first time an authoritative pronouncement in clear terms has been made against the possibility of Pakistan in any shape or form." Clearly in this astute lawyer-politician's view the proposals barred Pakistan. Was the grouping too high a price to pay for the union?

That very day, however, a small nail was being dug into the proposed coffin of the Plan. Had it been removed in time, the others would not have followed. The Plan would have survived. This is by far the most neglected part of the entire episode - Gandhi's enunciation of a right to interpret the proposals unilaterally.

Harijan of May 17 carried his view that "the provinces were free to reject the very idea of grouping. No province could be forced against its will to belong to a group even if the idea of grouping was accepted." He wrote to the Mission on May 19 asserting that "the State Paper is a recommendation" which could be ignored by the Assembly. Gandhi's article in Harijan of May 20 was even more strident. He told the Mission on June 24 that they were "the law-givers and could not interpret their own law". His own interpretations had been "upheld by eminent lawyers. (In those days, courts ruled that they could not consult parliamentary debates while interpreting a statute. They do so now.)

In fact, the proposals were a political not a legal document crafted to serve as a solemn compact binding all the three sides. The Congress adopted Gandhi's line. He stuck to it till the very end. So did the Congress. On December 15, 1946 he told Congressmen from Assam: "As soon as the time comes for the Constituent Assembly to go into sections, you will say 'Gentlemen, Assam retires...' Else, I will say that Assam had only manikins, and no men."

The plan broke down because the Congress refused to accept the grouping formula. It had 207 members in the entire Constituent Assembly against 73 of the League. In the crucial Group C, comprising Bengal and Assam, it had 32 members against 36 of the League, in a House of 70, with two Independents. Since the League would have had to provide a chairman to work Group C, it would have been left with 35 members against 32 of the Congress. How could the League possibly have prevented Assam's secession? If it did, it would have faced Congress' retaliation in the entire assembly as the Mission reminded the Congress. Yet, it was this bogey which destroyed the last best chance for preserving India's unity.

The Cabinet Mission formally issued a statement on May 25 rejecting the Congress' interpretation. "The interpretation put by the Congress Resolution on paragraph 15 of the Statement to the effect that the provinces can in the first instance make the choice whether or not to belong to the Section in which they are placed does not accord with the Delegation's intentions. The reasons for the grouping of the Provinces are well-known and this is an essential feature of the scheme and can only be modified by agreement between the parties. The right to opt out of the Groups after the constitution-making has been completed will be exercised by the people themselves, since at the first election under the new provincial constitution this question of opting out will obviously be a major issue and all those entitled to vote under the new franchise will be able to take their share in a truly democratic decision."

But faced with the Congress' stand, the Mission began to equivocate on its own proposals while formally rejecting Congress' interpretation. Cripps was mainly responsible for this. He wanted to discuss the Mission's proposals in advance with Gandhi alone. Colleagues vetoed this. His diary entry of May 14 explains why he behaved as he did. "I think that more than ever he (Gandhi) holds the key to the situation. It is very doubtful whether Congress will ever acquiesce in our statement and its suggestions. Gandhi alone can persuade them to do it and I believe we could have got his support if we had trusted him and consulted him first. I see the dangers but I would have taken the risk... The really critical situation has been reached because if Congress turns it down and refuses to come into an interim Government, it will be impossible for us to carry on in the existing state of tension without wholesale suppression which will in effect mean war. My own view is that we must at all costs come to an accommodation with Congress. We can get through I believe without the League if we have Congress with us but not without Congress even if we have the League." The rest followed inexorably from this - to the wrecking of the country's unity.

If the Mission had played fair and flatly told the Congress that its acceptance was no acceptance at all, conditional as it was on its "interpretation", it would have confronted both sides with the reality - a union could be set up only by accord; the alternative was Partition of India and of Punjab and Bengal as well. Jinnah's supporters there dreaded that. Had this been declared publicly in 1946 - and not sprung upon the people abruptly in 1947- maybe saner counsels would have prevailed. At least the rancour generated by charges of bad faith over the year would have been avoided. The Congress professed to "accept" the May 16 long-term Plan but rejected the Mission's June 16 proposal for an interim government. The Mission considered that fair game, to Jinnah's resentment. The Viceroy Lord Wavell resented Cripps' tactics. He had insisted on May 20 that "in future we must all see him (Gandhi) together or none at all." Cripps and Pethick Lawrence flouted this - secretly. As in 1942 the Congress Working Committee split. Cripps was exasperated. He wrote on June 18: "Nehru who had opposed Gandhi yesterday gave in to him to-day and went round to his side - most disappointingly through, I fear, weakness." He added with memories of 1942 resurfacing, "It really is rather maddening that after these three months the whole scheme, long and short term, look like being broken down by a completely new stunt idea introduced by Gandhi and apparently the Working Committee haven't the guts to disagree with him! He is an unaccountable person and when he gets those ideas in his head is as stubborn as an ox because he is convinced that he is right and no arguments will move him."

The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps by Peter Clarke; Allen Lane, The Penguin Press; pages 573, &pound25.