Cripps and India's Partition-II

Print edition : August 03, 2002

ALLEN CLARKE records the secret parleys between Sir Stafford Cripps and Pethick Lawrence (and A.V. Alexander) with Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel. Colin Reid of The Daily Telegraph told Wavell on August 3: "He had recently had an interview with Jinnah, and had some interesting impressions. He is sure that J. wants a settlement and thinks that J. himself does not believe in Pakistan... From what Reid said, it was obvious that Jinnah knew all about Cripps' interviews with Gandhi and Patel and the way in which Congress acceptance of the May 16 statement was obtained. It was obvious also that the disatrous interview of June 26 had completely upset Jinnah who complained that he had been 'bullied.' Reid also mentioned an interview with Gandhi, at which Reid had said something to him about: 'Your relations with those other celebrities, the Mission and the Viceroy.' Reid said that Gandhi turned on him and said with great malevolence and venom: 'They are not celebrities'." (Penderel) Moon (Ed.); Wavell: The Viceroy's Journal; 1973; page 328).

The Congress "acceptance" of the May 16 Plan was secured in secret parleys on June 23 and 24 - and through a ruse. On June 23 Patel claimed that the Congress had accepted it. The author writes: "As Congress, having rejected places in the interim government, moved towards its formal acceptance, subject to qualifications, of the Statement of 16 May, Gandhi again broke loose. He seized on the nomination forms prepared by the authorities for elections to the Constituent Assembly, stipulating adherence to the long-disputed paragraph 19, requiring attendance at sectional meetings to consider groupings of provinces. Cripps, the draftsman, called this 'a completely new accusation by the Old Man arising out of a perfectly harmless paragraph in the Governors' instructions' and blamed the messenger, Amrit Kaur..."

How was it resolved? Clarke does not explain.

Gandhi was "overruled and Congress's ostensible acceptance secured in the end. But Cripps was right to wonder whether the scheme would not be rendered nugatory by Congress's insistence on holding to its own interpretation of the provisions on grouping. Both he and Pethick Lawrence had refrained from pressing the point in the final interview with Gandhi, so they subsequently explained to the Viceroy, because 'it might have kept the Congress from agreeing to the long-term plan.' In asking his colleagues to 'bear in mind that a lot of this trouble about the sections and grouping was due to Mr. Gandhi personally.' Cripps disclosed his own view: 'The Working Committee were not so keen about it but they could not throw Mr. Gandhi over completely.' That it was essentially a political decision is underlined by the fact that all three politicians, including Alexander, agreed to this fudge, leaving the Viceroy alone in wishing for immediate clarification."

Cripps was wrong. The Working Committee disagreed with Gandhi on the acceptance, not on his insistence on the "interpretation". When the trio returned to London "Cripps knew perfectly well that Congress's acceptance of his constitutional scheme (the Statement of May 16) had been hedged about with potentially disabling reservations, notably over grouping of provinces, Gandhi's susceptibilities had been appeased on this point. Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence - and Alexander too, it should not be forgotten - had refrained from exposing this ambiguity, treating it as a practical problem to be resolved by the increasing momentum of an actual transfer of power. Behind the shifting legalistic quibbles lay one stubborn political imperative. For if Congress were not prepared to make a reality of grouping, there was no reason for the League to accept the quid pro quo, an Indian Union. The political calculation was that this inescapable reality would evoke a Union." Impliedly, either the League would cave in or the Congress would relent. Neither happened. The League withdrew its acceptance of the Mission's Plan. The Congress preferred partition to it. The "calculation" is a specious apologia for Cripps who was too intelligent to nurse them. His motives were different and less worthy - as the diary reveals. A mediator does not help the parties to accept "reality" by sponsoring the illusion of accord through a secret deal with one of the parties. He does so by honestly declaring his failure to both.

Clarke defends Cripps' indefensible conduct when he avers that "the issue is how far political finesse - a face-saving formula here, an adroit form of words there - could be justified in brokering a messy compromise from which each side naturally hoped to gain different advantages". This is sheer special pleading. The "fudge" was arrived at by a conscious act at deceit whose gravity the author overlooks. The Congress' acceptance was procured by Cripps omitting from nomination papers a pledge by members of the Constituent Assembly to abide by Para 19 of the Cabinet Mission's Plan. This was done on June 24. The Congress "accepted" the Plan the next day. Against the background of the interpretation put forth consistenly by Gandhi and the Congress since May 17 and its public repudiation by the Mission on May 25, the message which dilution of the pledge conveyed to the Congress as well as to the League was obvious.

The record of this episode exposes the falsity of Clarke's apologias, a lapse from objectivity. On May 23, a week after the Mission published its proposals, it held a meeting with the Viceroy. The minutes read: "The meeting considered the draft instructions to be issued by the Viceroy and the Delegation for the election of representatives to the Constituent Assembly." Cripps was not present owing to illness. V.P. Menon and B.N. Rau attended. (Nicholas Mansergh; The Transfer of Power 1942-7, The Cabinet Mission; Volume VII; 1977: page 672). The editors pointedly set out para 2 which read: "Any person is eligible for election provided (a).... (b) that a nomination is accompanied by a declaration (i) that the candidate is willing to serve as a representative of the Province for the purposes of paragraph 19 of the Statement and (ii) ... This was sent to the Governors on May 24 (ibid; page 1027).

This bound the candidate to abide by the Misson's proposals once he became a member of the Constituent Assembly elected under those proposals and for their implementation. Two days later, on May 25, the Mission issued a statement rejecting the Congress' interpretation on grouping. Sudhir Ghosh's claim that this "pledge" was issued by the Reforms Department of the government without the knowledge of the British Ministers is untrue (Sudhir Ghosh; Gandhi's Emissary, Rupa; 1967; page 174).

The Viceroy's Private Secretary, George Abell, sent a copy of the document to Azad, as Congress president, on June 21. The draft had been approved with some changes; but the pledge "to serve as a representative of the Province for the purposes of Paragraph 19 of the Statement" was retained (Pattabhi Sitaramayya; The History of the Indian National Congress, Vol. II (1938-1947); Padma Publications, page ccxvi.)

Interestingly, on June 23 Cripps himself prepared a Note on "the Legal Aspect of the Grouping Question". It held emphatically that the initial meeting of the Provinces in Sections "forms the substance of the Statement and an acceptance of the Statement must be taken to mean an acceptance of... paragraphs 19 (1) (iii) (iv) and (v)". The very next day he scuttled the proposals by diluting the pledge.

Gandhi was angry when his attention was drawn to it by Rajendra Prasad. He was prepared to enter the Assembly, if need be "it could be turned into a rebel body". But he now felt, "Even the Constituent Assembly plan now stinks. I am afraid, we cannot touch it." (Pyarelal; Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase; Navajivan Publishing House; Vol.I; page 234). That is why Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was sent, to Cripps' annoyance.

Clarke records that in Sudhir Ghosh's "typically clandestine way, a meeting was engineered on the morning of June 23 with Pethick Lawrence" at which Patel claimed that the Congress had accepted the Mission's proposal. Later the Rajkumari came conveying Gandhi's anger.

Sudhir Ghosh claims that Cripps and Alexander "joined us. This was the first time that the Cabinet Mission met Vallabhbhai alone" - and without Wavell. Ghosh wrote: "The half an hour's discussion that followed at 2 Willingdon Crescent, made history. Sir Stafford Cripps and Mr. A.V. Alexander joined us. The formula for a compromise that was worked out was as follows: Sir Stafford Cripps quickly drafted a sentence on a piece of paper and showed it to Sardar: Read 'for the purposes of the declaration of May 16' in place of 'for the purpose of para 19 of the declaration of May 16'." (Ghosh; page 170).

ACCORDING to the official record, the concession was made the next day, on June 24, when the Mission and the Viceroy met Gandhi and Patel at 8 p.m. Gandhi felt that "by signing the declaration... a member of the Constituent Assembly might be bound morally to accept the Delegation's interpretation". Cripps agreed to the deletion (Mansergh; The Transfer of Power; Vol. VII; page 1027). Wavell furiously protested the next day. He wrote: "I consider that there has either been a reversal of policy which has not been agreed, or that the assurance given to Mr. Gandhi is not entirely an honest one" (ibid.; page 1032). Prof. R.J. Moore holds that Wavell "justly described" it as "a dishonest assurance" (Escape from Empire; page 138).

The government announced "the elucidation" in a reply to a question by a representative of the Associated Press of India to the effect that the declaration would not include any reference to para 19 (Mahatma Gandhi: Correspondence with the government 1944-47; Navajivan; page 212).

In his diary Wavell noted that when he said that "the grouping was an essential part of the scheme", Pethick-Lawrence "asked me not to press the point" (Moon; Wavell; page 303). He told Wavell the next day (June 25) that "it would have been a great mistake to have exacerbated Mr. Gandhi on this subject... If we had pressed the matter it might have kept the Congress from agreeing to the long-term plan..." Better a fudged acceptance than an honest rejection.

Clarke is unfairly dismissive of Wavell's distrust of Cripps. "Vallabhbhai Patel himself once remarked to me (Wavell) that they never knew where they were with Cripps, he said different things to different people." (Moon; page 368).

The Congress entered the Interim government in August 1946 on the strength of its acceptance of the Mission's Plan, which the British knew was "a fudge". Not to be left behind, so did the League, in October. But when, at the Congress' insistence, Wavell asked Jinnah to rescind the League's resolution of July 29, 1946, withdrawing its acceptance of the Plan, he demanded that the Congress be first asked to accept it. The Constituent Assembly had already been elected on the basis of the amended pledge. The League boycotted its proceedings.

The British government sought to resolve the deadlock by inviting Nehru, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Baldev Singh to London. It issued a statement on December 6, 1946. It provided ample warning of partition unless the Congress accepted the Plan. It said, "The Cabinet Mission have throughout maintained the view that divisions of the sections should, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, be taken by a simple majority vote of the representatives in the sections. This view has been accepted by the Muslim League, but the Congress have put forward a different view...

"His Majesty's Government have had legal advice, which confirms that the statement of May 16 means what the Cabinet Mission have always stated their intention. This part of the statement, as so interpreted, must, therefore, be considered an essential part of the Scheme of May 16 for enabling the Indian people to formulate a constitution which His Majesty's Government would be prepared to submit to Parliament. It should, therefore, be accepted by all parties in the Constituent Assembly...

"There has never been any prospect of success for the Constituent Assembly except upon the basis of the agreed procedure. Should the Constitution come to be framed by a Constituent Assembly in which a large section of the Indian population had not been represented, His Majesty's Government could not, of course, contemplate - as the Congress have stated they would not contemplate - forcing such a constitution upon any unwilling parts of the country."

The "high legal opinion" was an allusion to an extremely well considered written opinion given by none other than the head of the British judiciary, the Lord Chancellor Lord Jowitt, dated December 2, 1946. It exposed the utter untenability of the Congress' "interpretation" (The Transfer of Power, Vol.XI, page 238). The further mention of "unwilling parts of the country" was ominous.

Despite this clear warning, the Congress refused to relent. On April 12, 1947, the new Viceroy Mountbatten asked Patel if the Congress could accept the Plan "without any reservation", Patel replied on April 26 claiming it had. The claim was examined by George Abell, who was familiar with the record, and found to be false. On May 1, 1947, Mountbatten informed London: "Jinnah has some justification to fear that the Congress do not mean to stick to their acceptance." This was a mere month before the June 3, 1947, Partition Plan.

However, as late as on March 19, 1947 - less than three months before the Partition Plan - the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, wrote to the Secretary of State for India, Pethick-Lawrence, that, having met Jinnah recently, Colin Reid, correspondent of The Daily Telegraph "got the impression that he might accept the Cabinet Mission's plan if the Congress accepted it in unequivocal terms". Mountbatten tried to secure that and failed. The Congress preferred India's partition to sharing power with the League in a United India.

The pass had been sold by the authors of the Plan in June 1946, under Cripps' leadership. In December 1946 he tried to make Nehru see reason but the latter was certain that the League "would come in anyhow". Cripps told him belatedly that "the League's interpretation was in fact that intended by the Cabinet Delegation".

Within the Cabinet, Cripps began talking of partition in December 1946. Simultaneously, as Clarke's account reveals, he made desperate efforts to remain on the right side of Nehru. Cripps would have served his friend and India better by being more honest and firm in June 1946. Partition might still have come a year earlier; but without the rancour which "the fudge" produced. A United India would not have been as manipulable by the Big Powers as each of its parts has proved to be. Witness: the recent events.

H.M. Seervai wrote in his mini-classic Partition of India: Legend and Reality: "It is sad to think that Gandhi's rejection of the Cabinet Mission's proposal for an Interim Government, and of the Cabinet Mission's Plan, should have had the unfortunate consequence of destroying the unity of a free India for which he had fought so valiantly and so long."

The criticism is fair. But if it is unfair to blame Nehru alone, as Azad did, so it is to pin the blame on Gandhi exclusively. The Working Committee differed with him and "accepted" the May 16 Plan on June 25 - acting on his advice: "Why not say 'under the State Paper as a whole?'" (Pyarelal; page 236). The Working Committee used these very words "taking the proposals as a whole" in its resolution of June 26.

There was of course far more to it. A united India spelt sharing of power with the League. On June 10, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru told the Cabinet Mission categorically that "The Congress were going to work for a strong Centre and to break the Group System and they would succeed. They did not think that Mr. Jinnah had any real place in the country." The only way he could be expelled was - by partitioning India.

Jinnah was not blameless. Two myths have grown up. One to exculpate him by citing Gandhi's stance. But it was Jinnah who demanded Pakistan and advocated the poisonous two-nation theory. To him the demand was a bargaining counter (vide the writer's "The Partition of India"; Frontline, January 4, 2002). It was too late for him to retreat when the Congress accepted Partition. He was hoist with his own petard.

The other myth is the Mission's Plan would have set up a "weak" union. Its popularity to this day reflects a certain approach to sensitive issues - wilful refusal to see the obvious truth. Defence, foreign affairs and communications were but the minimum powers provinces had to yield to the Union. Group A, the India of today, could have enacted the present Constitution, dissolved this group itself and this Union would have controlled the defence, foreign affairs and communications of the Pakistan of today. Goethe's words are justly applicable to the leaders of the day: "The century has given birth to a great epoch; but the great moment finds a petty generation."

The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps by Peter Clarke; Allen Lane, The Penguin Press; pages 573, 25.

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