Attlee’s Statement—February 20, 1947

Background

  • League’s declaration of “Direct Action Day” on 16th August 1946 for its demand for Pakistan and the communal clashes that followed had created a crisis like situation in the country.
  • Even after Wavell ensured the League’s entry into the “Interim Government”, it continued its non-cooperative attitude both inside and outside the Government.
  • Further, the League refused to participate in the Constituent Assembly which met on 9th December 1946
  • The breaking point came when the League demanded that the Constituent Assembly be dissolved because it was unrepresentative.
  • On 5th February 1947 the Congress members of the Interim Government sent a letter to Wavell with the demand that the League members should be asked to resign.
  • A crisis was imminent.
  • This developing crisis was temporarily defused by the statement made by Attlee in Parliament on 20 February, 1947

Main Points of Attlee’s Statement—February 20, 1947

  • The date for British withdrawal from India was fixed as 30 June 1948 even if the Indian leaders had not agreed on the constitution by that time.
  • Atlee made it clear that if, by June 1948 the Constituent Assembly was not fully representative (i.e. if Muslim majority provinces did not join) power would be transferred to more than one central Government.
  • The British powers and obligations vis-à-vis the princely states would lapse with transfer of power, but these would not be transferred to any successor government in British India.
  • Lord Louis Mountbatten would take over from Lord Wavell in March 1947.

Why a date was fixed for early withdrawal?

  • British had hoped that the date would shock the parties into agreement on the main question
  • The British government was keen on averting the looming constitutional crisis.
  • British also hoped that Indians would be finally convinced that the British were sincere about conceding independence
  • The basic reason why the Attlee Government accepted the need for a final date was because they could not deny the truth of Wavell’s assessment that an irreversible decline of Government authority had taken place.

Reactions to the Statement

Congress’ Response

The anticipation of freedom from imperial rule lifted the gloom that had set in with continuous internal wrangling. The statement was enthusiastically received in Congress circles as a final proof of British sincerity to quit. Even the provision of transferring the power to more than one Central Government was acceptable to the Congress as it meant that the existing Assembly could go ahead and frame a constitution for the areas represented in it. It offered a way out of the existing deadlock, in which the League not only refused to join the Constituent Assembly but demanded that it be dissolved. The Congress responded with a gesture of cooperation to the League. Nehru appealed to Liaqat Ali Khan, “The British are fading out of the picture and the burden of this decision must rest on all of us here. It seems desirable that we should face this question squarely and not speak to each other from a distance.”

League’s Response

The hope for an agreement proved to be an illusory as Jinnah's reaction to Attlee's statement was entirely different. Jinnah was more convinced than ever that he only had to bide his time in order to reach his goal. After all, the declaration made it clear that power would be transferred to more than one authority if the Constituent Assembly did not become a fully representative body, i.e. if the Muslim majority provinces did not join it. The league was on a war path. It began a civil disobedience campaign in Punjab which brought about the collapse of the coalition ministry headed by Khizr Hayat Khan of the Unionist Party.

A brief analysis of Attlee’s Statement of 20 February, 1947

  • While the statement was no answer to the constitutional crisis that was at hand, it showed that the British decision about leaving India remained unchanged.
  • The Statement of February 20, 1947 in the context of Indian politics was an open license for Pakistan in some form or other.
  • This Attlee’s announcement had hints of partition.
  • By fixing the date of transfer of power, the British had done no more than intensifying the ‘war of succession’.
  • They had encouraged the Indians to take the decision into their own hands, but those hands now held knives.
  • During the last week of February 1947, the Punjab erupted with intensified violence in a half dozen major cities including Amritsar which ultimately brought down the Khizr Hayat Khan led coalition Government.

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