Toward Independence

Toward Independence

This article deals with ‘Toward Independence – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here


Whether freedom was seized by  Indians or power was transferred voluntarily by British as an act of positive Statesmanship ?

  • British decision to quit was partly based on ungovernability of state in 1940s is beyond doubt
  • It is difficult to argue that Britishers had consistent policy of devolution of power which came to logical culmination in August 1947 because Act of 1919 or 1935 were meant to secure British hegemony over Indian empire rather than making Indians master of their own affairs.
  • Even in 1950s , British foreign office & colonial office were contemplating ways & means of protecting economic & strategic interests in Asia & Africa

Developments that forced Britishers to leave

  • When WW2 broke, India was considered most strategic point of defence of Empire in Middle East & South East Asia . Along with that, Indian resources ie Agricultural , industrial & manpower was mobilised to war efforts .
  • In May 1940, Winston Churchill became PM of Britain & he was patriotic champion of Empire . At that time there were two policies prevalent in Britain towards India
Churchillian Negativism – Acknowledged the need for granting self governance to India at some stage in future but preferred to postpone it as long as possible
– Churchill openly declared –  “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”
Crippsian Constructiveness – Sir Stanford Cripps was Labour Party’s member of War Council & was committed to Indian Independence for long
– In meeting with Nehru in 1938, Clement Attlee had agreed on idea of Indian Constituent Assembly elected on basis of Universal Adult Franchise

Hence his Labour colleagues were in favour of giving Indians their legitimate right.

  • Some of the allies of Britain in War & USA in particular didn’t like the idea of Empire & Churchill cant easily cast aside it since through  LEND LEASE ACT  Britain had become too much dependent on USA . Franklin Roosevelt finally forced him to sign ATLANTIC CHARTER in August,1941 which acknowledged right of self determination for all people of world (although Churchill later interpreted in way that it meant European people under Nazi attack only)
  • During last years of WW2 & in period that immediately followed conditions in India changed very drastically that gravitated almost inevitability towards India’s independence.
    • Ruthless repression during Quit India Movement destroyed whatever goodwill Britishers enjoyed
    • Inflation as consequence of war was widespread
    • Famine of Bengal (The Great Bengal Famine)  killing more than 3 million
    • INA trials & RIN Mutiny

All this was directing towards the fact that if Britishers tried to consolidate their control again,  it would result in revolution & regime that will follow would be Anti British . Hence, they thought it is better to sign some good settlement

  • In Global Politics too, Balance of Power shifted towards United States . Although Britain emerged victorious in war & there was no dearth of desire to maintain old imperial system of power but being dependent on United State’s loans it didn’t posses financial capacity to shoulder the responsibility of world
  • United Nations Charter & its strict trusteeship rules made empire morally infeasible
  • European element in its armed forces was already hankering for demobilisation – for an opportunity to go home – rather than staying on indefinitely in India . To many Britons, India did no more appear to be an ideal place for their civil and military careers or an easy field for their protected expatriate entrepreneurship.
  • Administratively, the Indian Civil Servicethe famed “steel frame” of the empire – was reduced during the war to a wholly run-down state.  The  enlistment of the Britons for the war took precedence over their recruitment in the ICS, and the British entry into the cadre practically stopped at the height of the war in 1943. Irrespective of its putting up a brave face, the Raj, had little reason to feel very secure with a minority of loyal Europeans in the ranks in the mid-1940 (587 in number) along side an Indian majority (614 in total) of uncertain proclivities in a rapidly changing circumstance.
  • Financially, India was no more a debtor to Britain for meeting the expenses of her “governance” and Britain on the contrary-had become indebted to India to the tune of above £3,300 million (almost one-fifth of Britain’s GNP) . This debt was result of expenses of Military because in 1938 when  indian government was unable to pay for such a huge army  British government decided that they would pay for Indian British army fighting on foreign soil & in WW2 huge Indian army was deployed in South East Asia
  • India was traditionally considered to be a strategic asset for maintaining control over Britain’s world empire, particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But it was now doubtful as to how long that would be viable, as already there was stiff opposition against the use of British Indian Army for post-war restoration of the Dutch and French empires in Indonesia and Indochina.

British policy towards  India after war

  • Britain had little alternative but to hope against all hopes, and to try to ensure its future of some kind in India by diverting the Indians from their goal of sub-continental liberation, at any rate, and by disuniting and dividing them if at all possible.
  • Of all the divisions in  Indian society they found Hindu – Islam division most effective . Raj had succeeded in subtly setting one of two communities against other by acknowledging Muslim League  as only representative of Indian Muslims & used demand of Muslim League’s for Pakistan to thwart all constitutional negotiations with Congress .

Labour Party comes in power

  • Labour Party won in July 1945 . There  are different views about this win & Indian independence
VP Menon Labour victory was main factor responsible for early transfer of power
Other Historians Skeptical about this
– Attitudes of Attlee & Cripps had gone ideological sea change during the war & after war . Labour government turned out to be remarkably radical in its approach to foreign, defense & imperial policy
  • What was dominant now in British imperial thinking vis a vis India was the need for a reorientation of relationship in an orderly way within the structures of Dominion Status & Commonwealth of Nations  that would serve as model for other colonies in Asia & Africa & would safeguard British long term interests if not power
  • Evidently after war it was no longer convenient & far less profitable to rule directly over a colony for reaping all economic advantages from it but World War by no means meant end of imperialism .  They were trying to renew it with new means ie NEOCOLONIALISM

Muslim League and demand of autonomy

  • Major obstacle in transfer of Power was Hindu -Muslim divide
  • In 1940 Lahore Resolution, Muslim League elevated Indian Muslims from the status of a minority to that of a nation & subsequent developments projected Jinnah as sole spokesperson
  • As Congress launched Quit India Movement , Britishers found useful ally in Jinnah & Muslim League to thwart any political development in India. In 1943 League’s ministries were installed in Sind, Bengal & NWFP through active maneuvering of British Bureaucracy but demand of Pakistan wasn’t well defined at this stage . Jinnah wanted Autonomy for Muslim Majority Provinces in a loose Federal Structure with  Hindu-Muslim parity at central government

Rajaji Formula (1944)

  • In April 1944 , C Rajagopalachari proposed a solution commonly known as Rajaji’s Formula
  • Plan
    • Post War Commission would be formed to demarcate the contiguous districts where Muslims were in absolute majority & there a plebiscite of the adult population(Muslims and non Muslims)  would decide whether they prefer Pakistan
    • Border districts could choose to join either of the two sovereign states
    • In case of a partition, there would be a mutual agreement to run a certain essential services like defence or communication
    • Implementation of scheme would wait till after full transfer of power
  • In  July 1944 , Gandhi decided to have dialogue with Jinnah based on Rajaji Formula which indeed amounted to acceptance of Pakistan but Jinnah didn’t agreed to proposal

Desai – Liaqat Pact

  • Bhulabai Desai (reputed Congress leader) and Liaqat Ali Khan (2nd in command in Muslim League) engaged in back channel negotiations whereby Desai offered equal representation to Muslim League in Council of Ministers in return for support for complete independence .
  • Liaqat Ali Khan didn’t acknowledge this pact once it opened in public and Desai became political paraih for this act

By end of 1945, all these negotiations failed

Wavell’s view/Plan – Shimla Conference (1945)

  • Wavell (who became Viceroy in 1943 & was previously Commander in Chief) had clear understanding that INDIA AFTER WAR WILL BECOME RUNNING SORE WHICH WILL SAP THE STRENGTH OF BRITISH EMPIRE . He said india will be ungovernable by force because a policy of ruthless repression wouldn’t be acceptable to British public. Some constructive move needed to be taken immediately
  • 1945: Visited London & convinced Churchill to form Congress-Muslim League coalition government in India as pre-emptive measure to forestall the political crisis he predicted after war & convened Conference at Shimla to form entire Indian Executive.
  • His Suggestion was Council with only Viceroy & Commander in Chief as British members but his terms were not acceptable to Congress & ML also created some problems later. It said CASTE HINDUS & MUSLIMS would have equal representation with 1 seat each for SC & Sikhs .
    1. Congress Objections – Congress didn’t agree that it represented Caste Hindus but whole nation.  Congress naturally objected to what  it felt was an attempt to reduce it to the status of a purely ‘caste Hindu’ party, and insisted on its right to include members of all communities among its nominees for the Executive. ( Maulana Azad was in their nomination list & he was infant President of Congress at that time)
    2. Muslim League Objections- Conference really broke down due to Jinnah’s intransigent demands that the League had an absolute right to choose all the Muslim members and that there should be a kind of communal veto in the Executive, with decisions opposed by Muslims needing a two-third majority. Given the existing political situation, the first demand was quite fantastic, for even apart from Congress claims , the British had no intention of sacrificing the Unionists, who still controlled the Punjab government and had been in addition consistently loyalist and much less troublesome than the League
  • Wavell called off meeting & coalition government couldn’t be formed

Strengthening Of Pakistan Demand

  • The genesis of this demand has sometimes been traced back to Iqbal’s reference to the need for a ‘North West Indian Muslim state’ in his presidential address to the Muslim League in 1930, but the context of his speech makes it clear that the great Urdu poet and patriot was really visualizing not partition, but a reorganization of Muslim-majority areas in N.W. India into an autonomous unit within a single weak Indian federation. Choudhry Rehmat Ali’s group of Punjabi Muslim students in Cambridge have a much better claim to be regarded as the original proponents of the idea. In two pamphlets, written in 1933 and 1935, Rehmat Ali demanded a separate national status for a new entity for which he coined the name Pakistan. No one took this very seriously at the time, least of all the League and other Muslim delegates to the Round Table Conference who dismissed the idea as a student’s pipe-dream. But the League after 1937 urgently needed some kind of a positive platform, while the Federal clauses of the 1935 Act showed less and less signs of ever coming near implementation and were in any case felt by Muslim leaders to envisage an unacceptably strong and Hindu-dominated central government.
  • During this time separate state of Pakistan began to attract support across section of Muslim Population
    1. Educated Muslim Middle Class & Muslim Business Interests started welcoming the severence of a part of the sub continent where they would not suffer from unequal competition with Hindu business houses & professionals
    2. Peasants in Punjab & Bengal also saw it as freedom in future from Hindu Bania & Zamindari exploitation
  • During closing years of war both Krishak Praja Party & Unionist Party were gradually shoved off the political centre-stage in Muslim majority provinces of Bengal & Punjab where Pakistan demand became ideological rallying symbol that helped overcome the various fissures within heterogenous Muslim community . Jinnah launched a well orchestrated mass campaign to popularise the idea of Pakistan in rural Punjab using Sajjad Nishins (custodians of Sufi shrines) & Pirs . Their huge rural influence were used & after issuing  fatwas supporting Pakistan,  Pakistan became religious responsibility of Muslims

Election Results in 1946


  • Won overwhelmingly in General(Non Muslim) constituencies securing 91.2 % seats
  • Won 52/102 seats in Central Legislature
  • Obtained Majority in all states except Sind, Punjab & Bengal

Muslim League

  • Won 86.6% of Muslim votes
  • Won all the 30 Muslim seats in Central Legislature
  • Won 442/509 Muslim seats in provincial legislatures although lost in Assam & NWFP
  • League claims presented the election results as plebiscite for Pakistan

But it should be noted that franchise was still limited ,confined to just 10% & looking at future results in East Bengal where Muslim League lost in 1954 & failure to control affairs in West Pakistan too , gives idea that they might have lost if universal franchise would have been there.

Cabinet Mission  1946

  • 19 Feb 1946 ie day after RIN Mutiny ,  Attlee announced  Cabinet Mission with Lord Pethick Lawrence(Secretary of State (SoS) for India) , Cripps (President of Board of Trade) & AV Alexender(first Lord Admiralty) to discuss
    • Principle & Procedures for framing new Constitution for India
    • Formation of Interim Government based on agreement in Indian parties
  • They had prolonged discussions with Indian leaders of all parties and groups.
Muslim League Held Legislature’s Conference in Delhi & defined Pakistan as Sovereign Independent State consisting of Muslim Majority Provinces of Punjab, NWFP, Sind & Baluchistan in North West & Bengal & Assam in North East
Congress Declared that complete independence for united India was Congress’s demand

As Congress and Muslim League couldn’t come to any agreement on fundamental issue of unity or partition of India, Mission put forward their own plan.

  • Cabinet rejected proposal of Sovereign Pakistan with 6 Provinces as a non viable concept because
    • There was no justification to include Non-Muslim majority districts of Punjab, Bengal and Assam in Pakistan
    • It would be injurious to disintegrate the transportation, postal and telegraph system of India.
    • To divide armed forces of India would entail gravest dangers.
    • Princely States would find it difficult to join one or other union
    • There was geographical fact that two halves of Pakistan would be separated by 700 miles & communication between them in case of war & peace will depend on Hindustan’s goodwill.

Award of Cabinet Mission

  • Cabinet Mission proposed 3 Tier Structure of loose Federal Government for Union of India, including Provinces and Princely States.
  • There would be a Union Government at the top in charge only of Foreign Affairs, Defense & Communication & should have powers to raise finances required for these subjects.
  • All Residual Powers would be vested in Provincial Governments which would be free to form Groups & each Group would have its own Executives and Legislatures and could decide what Provincial Subjects to take on in common
  • A Constitutional Assembly was to be elected by the recently constituted Provincial Assemblies to draft a Constitution for the whole of India . It would first meet at Union Level and then split into three sections
    1. Group A : Consist of Hindu Majority Provinces
    2. Group B : Muslim Majority Provinces in North West
    3. Group C : Include Bengal and Assam
    4. Of Chief Commissioner’s Province, three (Delhi, Ajmer-Marwara & Coorg) would join Group A & One (Baluchistan) would join Group B
  • Princely States would be given through negotiations , adequate representation at Central Constituent Assembly .
  • After a Constitution was finally settled at 3 Levels (Union, Group & Province) , the Provinces would have right to opt out of any particular Group but not from Union. They could also reconsider  the  terms of  constitution after 10 years .
  • Final goal would be independence whether within or without British Commonwealth

Response of parties towards Cabinet Mission’s Award

1 . Muslim League

  • Accepted it on assumption that the basis & foundation of Pakistan had been inherent in the plan & would ultimately lead to formation of Pakistan
  • However, why Muslim League accepted Cabinet Mission’s proposals when its preamble categorically rejected formation of Sovereign independent Pakistan is subject to contradictory interpretations – some argue that Jinnah till then never really wanted Partition

2. Congress

  • Had reservations
    1. Its priority was independence but Cabinet Mission said independence would be given after drafting of Constitution
    2. It didn’t like grouping of Assam & NWFP where they had majority to be grouped with other Muslim majority states
    3. Sikh majority areas in Punjab were other cause of anxiety
    4. It wanted additional power to be vested in Center to intervene in crisis situation or extreme breakdown of law

They gave conditional approval of long term plan offered by Cabinet Mission . In press conference they clarified that their approval means nothing more than participation in Constitution Assembly

Short term plan,  interim government formation also wasn’t able to form because Congress insisted to include Muslim nominee.

Direct Action Day

  • Jinnah took this Congress insistence as betrayal by Congress & withdrew from earlier approval to long term plan of Cabinet Mission & gave a call for Direct Action . 16 Aug 1946 was chosen as Direct Action Day
  • Qaid e Azam who till now was champion of constitutional politics ,  finally arrived to bid goodbye to constitutional politics & prepare Muslim nation for agitational politics
  • Muslims were to observe this throughout country with nationwide hartal , protest meetings & demonstrations to explain meaning of Pakistan & reasons of rejecting Cabinet Mission
  • In Bengal with Muslim League in power they declared holiday & large rally was organised . While they were going back Muslim crowd began to attack Hindus & their properties . Hindus fought back & this craziness went for 4 days called GREAT CALCUTTA KILLINGS leaving 4,000 dead

Riots following Direct Action Day

  • Muslim League mobilised the masses around ideological symbol of Pakistan while Hindu Mahasabha also raised slogan of Hindu Rashtra & launched mass mobilisation campaign
  • Chain reaction followed Calcutta carnage . Riots broke out in districts of Chittagong , Dacca , Mymensingh , Barisal & Pabna & at most places except Calcutta  both shared equal causalities . Hindus were at receiving end in Bengal
  • This led to mass carnage in Hindi belt . Here also communal feeling was building since start of 1940 & Muslims were organised under banner of Muslim National Guard (MNG) under symbol of Pakistan while Hindus were organised as Swayamsevaks by RSS whose number reached from 48,000 in 1938 to 6 Lakh in 1947
  • News reached till NWFP & there although Congress government was in power , Pathans started to attack Hindus & Sikhs in Dera Ismail Khan & Tonk
  • Worst communal inferno took place in Punjab . Here  Unionist Ministry banned RSS & MNG but in retaliation Muslim League started Civil Disobedience Movement & Muslims started to attack Hindu property . Hindus retaliated too & in 3 months 3500 dead & property worth 150 million destroyed

Formation of Interim Government

  • Wavell managed to constitute Congress dominated government on 2 Sept 1946 with Nehru as PM but it came to complete impasse when Muslim League also persuaded to join
  • 9 Dec 1946 : Constituent Assembly started to meet but League decided to boycott it because Congress refused to accommodate its demands for sectional meetings of drafting group constitutions
  • Country was burning &  Gandhi single handedly decided to bring back public conscience & moved fearlessly to riot torn areas . His presence had miraculous effect but it failed to provide permanent solution . 77 years old, Gandhi was now a lonely figure in Indian Politics and described by Historian – ” His Role in Congress was similar to that of a head of an Oxbridge College who is greatly revered but has little influence on the Governing Body.”
  • By March 1947, Congress leaders had more or less reconciled themselves to the idea of conceding Pakistan & accepting freedom with partition as preference option to continuing communal violence . However, this was tinged with optimism that partition would be temporary &  they decided in favour of Division of Punjab & Bengal into two provinces each to separate Muslim population from non Muslim population & said that provinces can join  union on voluntary basis + appealed to ML to join Constituent Assembly & Immediate recognition to government

Breakdown Plan of Wavell

  • Britishers were now significantly scarce of resources & not able to contain communal violence
  • Back in 1946 , Wavell has proposed Breakdown plan ie in case of disagreement British should withdrew to 6 Pakistan provinces leaving congress to deal with rest of India but at that time this plan was rejected considering it dishonourable to leave without universally agreed arrangement
  • Again in Sept 1946 Wavell predicted that British rule in India will not last beyond Spring of 1948 & again proposed same plan

Lord Mountbatten & Plan Balkan

  • Attlee didn’t like this defeatist attitude . Called back Wavell & Lord Mountbatten replaced him in Dec 1946 & on 20 Feb 1947 he announced that power would be transferred by June 1948 to such an authority or in such a way which seemed most suitable
  • He realised that it is virtually impossible to hand over power to United India & in middle of April he introduced what he called PLAN BALKAN . He proposed partition of Punjab & Bengal & handing over power to provinces & sub-provinces which would be free to join one or more constituent assemblies
  • Demission of more power to Provinces & absence of strong center would certainly lead to Balkanisation of India & no surprise that Nehru rejected the proposal
  • Jinnah cast them aside too as he was not prepared to accept partition of Punjab & Bengal which would give only truncated , moth eaten Pakistan
  • Alternate Plan : MOUNTBATTEN PROPOSED TO TRANSFER POWER TO TWO SUCCESSOR DOMINION GOVERNMENTS OF INDIA & PAKISTAN . Nehru who was opposed to idea of Dominion status was won over by assuring  it to be interim arrangement
  • 3 June : Mountbatten announced his plan to advance date of Transfer from June 1948 to 15 August 1947 & plan provided partition of Bengal & Punjab 
  • Hindu majority provinces which had already accepted the existing Constituent Assembly  would be given no choice while Muslim majority ie Bengal,  Punjab, Sind, NWFP & Baluchistan could decide whether to join existing or new separate Constituent Assembly for Pakistan .
  • This would be decided by referendum in NWFP and Sylhet & in case of Baluchistan  tribal representatives would be consulted . Nehru, Jinnah and  Baldev Singh on behalf of the Sikhs endorsed the plan the following day and thus began the fast march to transfer of power.
  • By Late June, partition of India was a fait-accompli . Bengal Assembly & Punjab Assembly decided in favour of Partition & West Punjab & East Bengal would go to Pakistan & rest to India .  Later NWFP & Sind also decided to join Pakistan
  • Mountbatten next task was to appoint two boundaries Commissions constituted under Sir Cyril Radcliffe in not more than 6 weeks . Indian independence act was ratified by Crown on 18 July & was implemented on 14/15 August 1947
  • Pakistan became independent on 14 August 1947. After brief ceremony at Karachi , the newly designated capital , Mountbatten handed over reading of King’s message & Jinnah took over as Governor General of Dominion of Pakistan
  • On 15 Aug 1947 India became independent

Reaction of Independence

  • Nehru became PM & Whole of nation plunged to celebrations
  • But there were many who were not in mood to celebrate
Gandhi Decided not to participate in celebrations & spent day in fasting & prayers
Muslim nationalists Eg Maulana Azad – His book India wins Freedom revealed that he didn’t celebrate  either
Hindu Nationalists Eg Veer Savarkar – they campaigned for Akhand Bharat
People of Punjab & Bengal Feeling of uncertainty in minds of minority
They found suddenly themselves in enemy territory
What followed was most violent bloodshed & greatest human displacement in history of mankind. 10 million people displaced & 1 million people were killed + 75,000 women were raped . Trains full of dead-bodies reached stations
Gandhi too was murdered by Hindu nationalist
  • Indian freedom thus came with sense of loss caused by partition while to many Muslims in Pakistan partition itself meant freedom

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