The Cabinet Mission

Introduction

In 1946, the Cabinet Mission arrived in India to find a mutually agreed solution of the Indian Problem. The Mission held talks with the leaders of all prominent political parties and then proposed its plan of establishing Federal Government in India. Initially the plan was criticized by all political parties, but later all gave their consent to it.

Cabinet Mission

  • On 19 February, British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee in the House of Commons announced the decision to dispatch the Cabinet mission.
  • The Cabinet Mission to India consisted of three British Cabinet members
  • The Cabinet Mission included Lord Pethick Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty.
  • The cabinet mission was headed by Lord Pethick Lawrence.
  • The mission was sent to India to negotiate with the political leaders for setting up of a national government and to set into motion a machinery for transfer of power.

Background

The British decision to transfer power was not merely a response to the immediate situation prevailing in the winter of 1945-46, but a result of their realization that their legitimacy to rule had been irrevocably eroded over the years.

  • By the end of war, the nationalist forces had gained an upper hand in their struggle against British. The whole country rallied behind national leaders in a highly politically charged atmosphere.
  • Bureaucracy was also leaning towards nationalistic cause due to paucity of British ICS recruits. Policy of Indianisation in civil services had eroded British hegemony in Bureaucracy.
  • The British strategy of conciliation and repression had its own constraints and limitations.
  • After the Cripp's Offer, there was little left to offer except full freedom.
  • Due to the brutal repression of Quit India Movement and non-violent resistance, Government stood exposed and people s anger was growing against the British Raj.
  • Demands of leniency for INA prisoners from within the army and revolt of the RIN ratings had made the British suspicious of the loyalty of the army itself.
  • The British civil services and armed forces did not have necessary numbers and strength. So British were weary of the congress launching another 1942 type mass movement.
  • The British had realised that in the interest of good Indo-British relations in future and to bury the ghost of mass movement, complete transfer of power was the only option available now.

Arrival of Cabinet Mission

The cabinet mission reached Delhi on March 24th, 1946. The Mission held talks with the leaders of all prominent political parties. The Congress and the Muslim League were, however, given main considerations. The discussions involved the issues of

  • Interim Government
  • Framework of Constitution of soon to be independent India.

As the congress and League remained divided on the issue of the unity or partition of India, the mission put forward its own plan for the solution of the constitutional problem in May 1946.

Cabinet Mission Plan Major Proposals

Rejection of demand for Pakistan

The Cabinet Mission was convinced that Pakistan was not viable and that the minorities autonomy must somehow be safeguarded within the framework of a united India. The major reasons behind the rejection of demand for Pakistan involved

  • The Pakistan so formed would include a large population of Non-Muslims 38 per cent in the North west and 48 per cent in the North east.
  • Pakistan so formed would include those districts of the Punjab, Bengal and Assam in which non-Muslim population was predominant.
  • There was another issue of disturbance in the regional ties, if Bengal and Punjab were partitioned.
  • Partition would also create economic, political and administrative problems, for instance the problem of communication between the western and eastern parts of Pakistan.
  • The division of the armed forces on communal lines would be dangerous.

Grouping of Provincial Assembly

The existing provincial assemblies were proposed to be grouped into three sections, which would meet separately to decide on group constitutions.

  • Sections A comprising Madras, Bombay, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, C.P. and Orissa (Hindu Majority Provinces)
  • Section B consisting of Punjab, NWFP and Sind (Muslim Majority Provinces)
  • Section C comprising Bengal and Assam (Muslim Majority Provinces)

After the first general elections a province could come out of a group. After ten years a province could call for a reconsideration of the group or union constitution.

Constituent Assembly

  • The constituent assembly was to be a 389 member body with provincial assemblies sending 292, chief commissioner provinces sending 4 and princely states sending 93 members.
  • The provinces were to be represented in the assembly in the approximate ratio of one to one million of their population.
  • The representatives of British Indian Provinces were to be elected by each Provincial Legislative Assembly community wise, through proportional representation by a single transferable vote.
  • Seats allotted to each Province were to be divided between the various communities in proportion to their population in the Province.
  • The cabinet mission recognised only three communities in India: general , Muslims and Sikhs
  • The Constituent Assembly was partly elected and partly represented by the Princely states.
  • In the constituent assemble, members from groups A, B and C were to sit separately to decide the constitution for provinces and if possible, for the groups also. Then the whole constituent assembly (all three sections A, B and C combined) would sit together to formulate the union constitution.

Federation

  • The cabinet mission plan envisaged a federal structure for India.
  • Three tier executive and legislature was proposed at provincial, section and union levels.
  • The mission proposed a common centre which would control defence, communication and external affairs.
  • Provinces were to have full autonomy and all residuary powers should vest in the Provinces.

Princely states

  • Princely states were no longer to be under paramountcy of the British crown.
  • They would be free to enter into an agreement with successor governments or the British government.

Commonwealth

  • The Commission expected India to embrace and retain membership of the Commonwealth of Nations.
  • However, joining commonwealth was optional for India. India was free to come out of commonwealth if and when it so desires.

Communal Question

  • Communal questions in the central legislature were to be decided by a simple majority of the community or communities concerned present and voting.

Interim Government

  • Pending the completion of the work of constitution-making, the Cabinet Mission proposed to set up an Interim Government of 14 members representing major political parties.
  • The British government was to extend full cooperation to the interim government in administrative matters and to ensure transfer of power as speedily and smoothly as possible.

Reactions to the Grouping Clause

  • The Congress and League interpreted the Mission Plan in their own way, both seeing it as a confirmation of their stand.
  • The Mission Plan was ambivalent on whether grouping was compulsory or optional.
  • To the Congress, the Mission s Plan was against Pakistan, that the League s veto was gone and that one Constituent Assembly was envisaged.
  • The league believed that the basis of Pakistan was implied in the Mission s plan by virtue of the compulsory grouping.
  • The mission later declared that grouping was optional but sections were compulsory.

Main objections

Congress objections

Congress had certain reservations about mission plan, which are described as below-

  • Congress wanted that a province need not wait till the first elections to leave a group, it should have the option not to join it in the first place.
  • It had Congress- ruled provinces of Assam and NWFP (which were in Sections C and B respectively) in mind when it raised this question.
  • The Congress was also critical of the absence of any provision for the elected members from the princely states in the proposed Constituent Assembly,
  • However, it appeared to be willing to swallow the limited and indirect nature of electing the Constituent Assembly - blatantly contrary to its past demand for such an election on adult franchise.

League's objections

  • The League wanted provinces to have the right to question the union constitution now, not wait for ten years.
  • The League wanted the grouping to be compulsory, with Sections B and C developing into strong entities with the right to secede from the Union in the future.

Acceptance and Rejection of the Plan

  • The League announced its acceptance of the Plan on 6 June in so far as the basis of Pakistan was implied in the Mission's plan by virtue of the compulsory grouping.
  • After much deliberation, the Congress Working Committee accepted the Plan on June 26, 1946.
  • Furthermore, in a provocative speech to the AICC, on 7 July 1946 Nehru was quoted as saying "We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly".
  • The implication was that the Assembly was sovereign and would decide rules of procedure.
  • This speech of Nehru effectively "torpedoed" any hope for a united India.
  • Jinnah seized the opportunity provided by Nehru s speech to withdraw the League's acceptance of the Mission Plan on 29th July, 1946.

Aftermath

  • In September 1946, the Congress formed the government at the Centre.
  • The League refused to be a part to it. Muslim League celebrated this day as a Direct Action Day on 16th August 1946 to attain Pakistan.
  • The conflict resulted in widespread communal riots in different parts of India.
  • Thousands were killed in the riots, lacks of people became homeless.
  • In the mean time, Lord Mountbatten was sent as the Viceroy to India. He put up his plan in June 1947 which included partition of India.
  • In spite of strong opposition by Gandhi, all the parties agreed to the partition and the Indian Independence Act, 1947 came into being.
  • It created two independent states in the Indian sub-continent, i.e. Indian Union and Pakistan.
  • India got its independence on 15th August, 1947.
  • At the stroke of midnight (14th -15th August, 1947), transfer of power took place.

Critical Evaluation of the Cabinet Mission Plan

Initially all the major parties accepted this plan. But the agreement was short-lived because it was based on mutually opposed interpretations of the plan. Though the plan failed, it was a genuine attempt by the British to solve the constitutional problem. In the words of Gandhiji, It is the best document the British Government could have produced in the circumstances.

Merits

  • One of the greatest merits of the plan lies in the recognition of the fact by the mission that Partition of India was not an apt or feasible solution to the problem of minorities.
  • To avoid the clashes, League's demands were also met in the form of Grouping formula. Groups B and C comprised predominantly Muslim majority provinces.
  • Also, autonomy of the Provinces to an extent envisaged by the plan was meant to appease the League.
  • The proposed Constituent Assembly was to be constituted on the democratic principles of population and proportional representation.
  • Also, unlike earlier schemes, all the representatives in the constituent assembly were to be Indians.
  • Interim government to be set up according to the plan was to have complete autonomy in running the administration, with governor-general only being the constitutional head.

Demerits

  • The constitution-making process laid down by the Cabinet Mission Plan was very cumbersome. The process could have caused inordinate delay and confusion in making the constitution.
  • Under the scheme a weak Centre was created by allocating to it only three subjects.
  • The scheme gave a great blow to India's national unity. The provinces were divided into groups on the basis of religion and each group was allowed to have its own constitution.
  • The scheme was bound to create a situation of uncertainty as the union constitution so formed was not a permanent document and subject to review and change after 10 years.
  • Its language on the Grouping Scheme was vague as it was not clear whether the grouping was optional or compulsory.
  • Constituent assembly to be constituted according to the plan was hardly democratic as universal adult franchise was not yet recognised. Also the representatives from princely states were to be nominated.

Conclusion

Despite its shortcomings, the cabinet mission plan was an honest attempt by the British to solve the constitutional issue in India. However, in their haste to leave India the British failed to take note of the most important details and created confusion among different factions leading to different interpretations of the plan. The failure of the mission was followed by declaration of Direct Action Day by the League and a countrywide communal holocaust which continues to haunt the citizens on both sides even today.

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