Dr. Sikandar Hayat discusses why the partition of India had become inevitable reality and the reasons/circumstances that led to the failure of Cabinet Mission Plan.
In this brief piece, we will discuss how the partition of India became ‘inevitable’, forcing the British Government to announce on June 3, 1947 (Partition Plan), “The Cabinet Mission Plan [of 1946]… offers the best basis for solving the Indian problem… But, as Indian leaders have finally failed to agree on a plan for a united India, [sic] partition becomes the inevitable alternative”… The British had indeed pinned their hopes on the successful implementation of its May-June 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan, their last politico-constitutional plan to keep India united. We will examine this plan to find out why it failed, the role of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and how it led to the inevitable partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. But let us begin with the context of the plan before we explore its contents, their implications and impact for the purposes of our discussion here.
It all started with the All-India Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940, demanding a separate homeland for the Muslims to help develop to the fullest their ‘spiritual, cultural, economic, social and political life in a way that we [the Muslims] think best and in consonance with our own ideal and according to the genius of our people’. This resolution, soon called Pakistan Resolution, both by friends and foes, instantly attracted the attention of Muslims all over India. Confronted by an indifferent, if not hostile, Hindu majority community, ignored by their representative political party, the Indian National Congress, especially during its provincial rule in 1937-39, and stuck at the margins of a system of government based on numbers and, thus, inherently biased in favour of the Hindus, the promise of their separate homeland of Pakistan not only provided the Muslims reassuring anchor, but also significantly showed them the only way freedom from colonial yoke in India would have any meaning or purpose. They would have power, security, and, above all, their future in their own hands. They would be their own masters. Indeed, the demand for Pakistan soon became the symbol of their nationalism, Muslim nationalism, and their ultimate pursuit, objective, and goal.
Both the British Government and the Congress did not accept the Pakistan demand. For the British, ‘the greatest thing we had done during the Raj... was to unify India’. L. S. Amery, Secretary of State for India even went on to claim, ‘I would say, indeed, that if some sort of Indian unity had not existed it would have to be invented.’ He charged that ‘Jinnah and his Pakistanis’ had ‘lost all sense of realities….’ As one keen observer put it: ‘…that their work should end in the division of the country into two separate nations was not something which sincere British officials in India could contemplate without abhorrence. Liking the Muslims or not, he could not swallow their desire for vivisection.’ M. K. Gandhi and other prominent Hindu leaders of the Congress readily agreed, claiming that the partition of India amounted to ‘vivisection,’ that is, ‘cutting the baby into two halves’. But since the British were paramount, defacto rulers of the country, they took it upon themselves to discredit and deny the demand for Pakistan. The Congress did help.
To begin with, the British tried to play smart, keeping Jinnah and the Muslim League on their side during the ongoing Second World War (with the Congress not cooperating) by offering them a bait through the so-called August Offer (August 8, 1940). The British Government stated that it ‘could not contemplate the transfer of their present responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of Government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life.’ This, of course, did not impress Jinnah for the British did not recognize the Muslims as ‘a nation by themselves’ and entitled to ‘exercise their right of self-determination…’ Thus, while he expressed some satisfaction with the tacit acceptance of the Muslim predicament in India, he did not hesitate to criticize and condemn the offer. The August Offer, nonetheless committed the British to some sort of understanding of Muslim apprehensions as to their future in India. The British could not dismiss the Pakistan demand offhand any more.
“So far as the Pakistan demand is not agreed to, we cannot agree to any present adjustment which will in any way militate against or prejudice the Pakistan demand.”
–Quaid-i-Azam on Cripps Proposal
The westwards advance of Japan and the precarious war situation forced the British in 1942 to revisit the Pakistan demand. Sir Stafford Cripps arrived in India in March 1942 to persuade the Indian leaders to support the British war effort. Though his visit was primarily meant to win over Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and indeed the Congress leadership, he could not help meeting Jinnah and keeping him on board. With the Congress non-cooperating and indeed defiant by now, the British were keen to conciliate all the non-Congress parties, especially the Muslim League, the second largest party in the country and, in fact, most representative organization of Muslims. The support of the League was important to the British militarily as well. The Muslims, in spite of being a minority community (never more than 15 percent of the population) contributed heavily to the army, 37.65 percent soldiers against 37.50 percent contributed by the Hindus.
Aptly dubbed as Cripps Proposals, Cripps offered an ‘immediate and effective participation’ of the Indian political leaders in the ‘counsels of their country,’ though in a limited sense. The ‘defense of India’ during the war and until the new constitution was framed, was to rest with the British Government. As for the Muslims’ demand for Pakistan, Cripps proposed the idea of provinces opting out of union through a non-accession clause. This clause was to take effect only when the Muslims and the Congress could not settle the constitution based on a United India among themselves. But, the right of option was not entrusted to the Muslims. In the case of the vote of the whole province, comprising both Muslims and non-Muslims, the British knew very well that the ‘situation proposed in Cripps offer practically amounted to rejecting the Pakistan claim since the League could not obtain necessary majorities in Bengal and Punjab’. Jinnah, of course, was disappointed. “So far as the Pakistan demand is not agreed to”, he declared, “we cannot agree to any present adjustment which will in any way militate against or prejudice the Pakistan demand”. He was not prepared to play the game with a loaded device.
Still there was no denying that the Cripps Proposals conceded some recognition of the principle of partition, though a remote possibility. Henceforth, partition and Pakistan went on to increasingly become the dominant issue of politics in India, till the arrival of the Cabinet Mission in 1946. In the meanwhile, the Muslim League went on to overwhelmingly win the 1945-46 elections, winning 444 out of 494 Muslim seats in the provincial assembly elections and indeed sweeping all thirty seats in the Central Assembly.
It was this context, this historical backdrop that brought the Cabinet Mission, comprising three eminent members of the British Cabinet, Pethick-Lawrence, Stafford Cripps, and A.V. Alexander to India on March 24, 1946 to help solve the Indian problem, particularly the Pakistan demand, voted upon and validated by the bulk of the Muslim community in 1945-46 elections.
Among other prominent leaders, such as Gandhi and Nehru, the Cabinet Mission met Jinnah more than once. But right at the outset, they told Jinnah to choose between his sovereign Pakistan essentially restricted to the Muslim-majority areas and a larger Pakistan which would come into [sic] a federal nexus…. Cripps even warned him, “We could not press [the] Congress to accept anything more than what we might call a smaller Pakistan.” Pakistan could only mean Baluchistan (now Balochistan), Sind (now Sindh), the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), and West Punjab in the northwest, and East Bengal and Sylhet in the east. There was no way he could get larger areas within Pakistan including all the Punjab and Bengal. Cripps, indeed the entire Mission, was convinced that the idea of a smaller, though sovereign Pakistan, would not appeal to him. Jinnah would accept a larger Pakistan, federated with India, the country would remain united.
Eventually, unwilling to accept the division of the Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal, Jinnah agreed to the idea of an Indian Union. However, he insisted that all the six Muslim-majority provinces of India, that is, the Punjab (undivided), NWFP, Baluchistan, Sind, Bengal and Assam must constitute a Pakistan Group, and there must be a separate constitution-making body to frame constitution for this group and each one of the provinces in this group. Only after these constitutions were ‘finally framed by the constitution-making body, it will be open to any province of the group to opt out of its group, provided the wishes of the people of that province were ascertained by a referendum to opt out or not’. But since these demands were not acceptable to the Congress leaders who, above all, sought one all-India Constituent Assembly to hold Indian union together and tight, there was a complete stalemate. The mission could not proceed further. Indeed it was left with no options but to offer its own plan. The two statements of May 16 and June 16, 1946 together constituted the now better-known Cabinet Mission Plan.
The Muslim League went on to overwhelmingly win the 1945-46 elections, winning 444 out of 494 Muslim seats in the provincial assembly elections and indeed sweeping all thirty seats in the Central Assembly.
The gist of the plan was to offer India a three-tiered constitutional set-up in which all the provinces of India were grouped into three sections: A, B and C. Section A comprised Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), Bihar, Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh), and Orissa (now Odisha). Section B included Punjab, North-West Frontier Province and Sind (with the addition of a representative of British Baluchistan). Section C consisted of Bengal and Assam. The three sections of the Constituent Assembly had to come together, along with the representatives of princely states, to settle the Union Constitution after the provincial constitutions had been formed. Once the Union Constitution had come into force, the provinces could opt out of their assigned groups. This was the long-term proposal. The May 16 statement also suggested a short-term proposal, calling upon the formation of an interim Government. June 16 statement reiterated the idea further insisting that the two proposals–short and long-term proposals–were intertwined and integral to their plan. They had to be accepted or rejected together as a whole. However, the plan made a provision for a reconsideration of the terms of the constitution after an initial period of 10 years, and at 10 yearly intervals thereafter.
Clearly, the Cabinet Mission Plan ruled out Pakistan as pursued by Jinnah and the Muslim League. They even opposed ‘a small sovereign Pakistan confined to the Muslim-majority areas alone’. They insisted that ‘neither a larger nor a smaller sovereign state of Pakistan would provide an acceptable solution for the communal problem’. The plan, as one eminent historian of Pakistan, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, observed, passed a ‘sentence of death on Mr. Jinnah’s Pakistan’.
Jinnah, of course, was most upset. He was convinced that this was being done simply to appease and placate the Congress. But then, all said and done, he had to deal with it. This was all the more difficult given the overwhelming support for the Pakistan demand as reflected in the 1945-46 elections. He was challenged like never before. As he told M. A. H. Ispahani, one of his close confidants, “I have slept very little during the last week. My brain worked incessantly. I have tossed in bed from one side to the other, thinking and worrying what we should do… because the decision I was called upon to make would mar or make the destiny of our nation”. In the end, of course, Jinnah accepted the Plan, and for a number of good reasons. It will suffice to mention only three of them here.
One, as Jinnah acknowledged the foundation and the basis of Pakistan was in their own scheme. Sections B and C, comprising essentially the Muslim-majority areas helped ‘reach our goal and establish Pakistan’. In fact, Jinnah thought this is the first step towards Pakistan. Two, as a lawyer-constitutionalist, Jinnah felt that the plan was too cumbersome, unwieldly, and indeed unworkable. In fact, today, decades after, the general consensus ordains the scheme to be unworkable. It was cryptic with several lacunas. Three, and finally, Jinnah was convinced that the Congress would not accept the grouping clause in the plan and indeed would not hesitate to sabotage it.
Jinnah could not be more right. The Congress Working Committee, in its meeting of May 20, 1946, passed a resolution putting its own interpretation on the grouping of provinces. On July 10, Jawaharlal Nehru who had replaced Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the president of the Congress, dealt an ultimate blow to the plan by announcing that ‘there will be no grouping…. I can say, with every assurance and conviction there is going to be no grouping … this grouping business approached from any point of view does not get on at all’. The British Government obviously could not agree to this interpretation for they knew fully well (being the architects of the plan) ‘that the provinces have a right to decide both as to the grouping and as to their constitutions’, and thus, for all practical purposes, the plan was dead on arrival.
Yet, the British Government, in spite of the fact that it did not accept grouping, long-term proposal of the Cabinet Mission Plan, invited the Congress to form interim government at the centre. In fact, that was the plan really, the British were ‘bent on handing over India to their Congress friends as soon as possible’. Viceroy Wavell could not deny that the Mission was living in the pocket of Congress. Though he blamed Cripps, in particular, an old friend of several Congress leaders, especially Nehru, for his hole-and-corner private negotiations with the Congress, he admitted that they, as a whole, were unable to remain really impartial. This attitude went on to encourage the Congress to persevere in its unjustified and misplaced claims leading to India’s eventual break up, partition and Pakistan.
Jinnah withdrew his earlier acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, and decided to resort to Direct Action to wrest Pakistan. Jinnah’s rejection of the plan, in fact, marked the end of any prospect of united India. Jinnah refused to attend the Constituent Assembly, boycotting all its sessions on December 9, 1946, January 20, 1947, and February 3, 1947, and indeed sealed its fate. This boycott was in spite of the fact that he eventually agreed, in October 1946, in the wake of widespread communal riots and the threat of civil war in the country, to join the interim government. But this was essentially a tactical move, to act as sentinels which would watch Muslim interests and thus ‘resist every attempt which would directly or indirectly militate or prejudice our demand for Pakistan’. Jinnah wanted his Pakistan at all costs.
On February 20, 1947, the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, realizing the gravity of the situation in India, declared in British Parliament that the ‘present state of uncertainty is fraught with danger and cannot be indefinitely prolonged’. He assigned Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, the task of ‘transferring to Indian hands responsibility for the government of British India in a manner that will best ensure the future happiness and prosperity of India’. How far Mountbatten succeeded in this endeavour is a different subject matter. Suffice it to say that the unfair June 3 Partition Plan and the subsequent division of the two Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal and the injudicious demarcation of the boundaries of Pakistan speak volumes.
In the first instance, of course, Mountbatten tried to revive the Cabinet Mission Plan, but Jinnah was not interested. He told him bluntly that in May 1946, ‘there had been some prospect that this atmosphere could be created. Now, nearly a year later, the atmosphere so far from improving had taken a serious turn for the worse…’ The failure of the plan, thus, paved for the inevitable alternative, i.e., partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. The British plan to keep India one and united had reached the end of its tether.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at FC College University, Lahore. He is author of the award-wining book, The Charismatic Leader: Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Creation of Pakistan (OUP, 2008, 2014/2018) and the more recent, A Leadership Odyssey: Muslim Separatism and the Achievement of the Separate State of Pakistan (OUP, 2021).
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