Wavell and the Labour Government
With Labour Party’s victory at the polls in July 1945, Attlee, as the new prime minister, continued his opposition to Wavell’s proposed policies for India. According to Irail Glynn, the Labour Party also preferred, like its predecessor, that men in Whitehall to be the final judges of the policies to be adopted in India. Wavell was this kept in the dark by his own superiors resulting eventually in his failure to deal with the Indians in an atmosphere of mutual trust and to prevent the Pakistan plan from emerging soon.
Labour Party had been a strong supporter of the Congress and a big proponent of self-government in India for years. Above all, during the recent election campaign it had promised that if Labour is returned we would close the India Office and transfer Indian business to the Dominions Office . . . This act would give them confidence that they are no longer governed from Whitehall. At the start of the new parliament on 21 August 1945, Attlee replied to a question by Woodrow Wyatt about transferring Indian affairs to the dominions office by declaring that he had no statement to make.
The Labour Government on 13 August 1945 undertook three important steps:
- Release of the Congress prisoners
- Removal of ban on Congress
- Immediate ordering of general elections in India.
Wavell was called to London immediately in this regard and he gave his briefing about the problems of the Indian political scene. But ground realities were different as the Hindu-Muslim conflict had reached such a point that in the opinion of David McIntyre,
Only one week before the Victory Parade, Wavell was predicting the possibility of violent uprising, requested orders as to whether he should plan to scuttle or to stay.
- It had become clear after the Governors’ Conference on 2 August 1945 that elections to verify the claims of the Congress and the League should be held before the formation of the central and provincial ministries.
- Secondly, the Pakistan issue must be dealt with and its drawbacks brought to notice of all parties, especially the Muslims.
Wavell went to England with this frame of mind but was taken aback, for Whitehall had a diametrically opposite understanding of, and consequently, a different stance concerning the Indian problem. Although the Cripps Proposals had been rejected by both the Muslim League and the Congress, they had remained the only outstanding offer of the British government during the Second World War. R.J. Moore is right in suggesting that, the irony is that by the time Labour achieved office, its scheme for the transfer of power (Cripps Proposals) was no longer feasible.
The Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, in his briefing to the India Committee suggested that the best guarantor of political progress in India were still the Cripps Proposals. He said that while the constitutional issue was being settled, there would presumably be a time lag during which the business of India had to be carried on. He also suggested means for forming a provisional Executive Council from a provincial panel.
Wavell demanded two things during his talks in London:
- That the Pakistan issue be tackled
- The elections take place for the Constituent and Provincial assemblies.
The general elections which were held in 1945-46 witnessed that the Muslim voters gave an overwhelming mandate in favour of Pakistan while the Hindus overall voted for Congress which stood for a united India. This most visible victory of the League, however, was not accepted by the Congress and the British as a complete and wholehearted mandate of Muslims for Pakistan.
Durga Das has recorded his meeting with Attlee in 1945 and writes,
Attlee did not conceal his deep agitation over the Muslim demand for Pakistan and agreed with my plea that a minority should not be allowed to hold up progress of the majority to self-rule. He added that his intention was to promote in India a structure that would give her federal unity . . . He considered the Congress as a party which was the true advocate for freedom and the League a disruption its one and expressed the hope that in the impending elections the League candidates in Punjab, Sindh and North West Frontier would be defeated. That would help preserve the unity of India.
However, contrary to the desires of Attlee and many other well-known political pundits the results of elections to the Central Assembly and the provincial seats forcefully strengthened the case for Pakistan. Even then, Wavell was not ready to accept ground realities and thought that it was time for the British government to make a clear statement regarding its intentions for acceptance or rejection of the Pakistan demand. He held that the Congress and the League would be unable to settle/arrive at any agreement about the Pakistan issue and this would result in a political deadlock. He thought that His Majesty’s Government should not allow another deadlock in the event of parties failing to come to terms and, therefore, must be ready to offer its own plan.
The Labour Government, though it agreed with the seriousness of the demand for Pakistan, wanted to find out for itself whether it could be dealt with effectively by some other means. They decided to send a fact-finding mission consisting of members of the Parliament to India. Wavell welcomed this proposal and rejected the other one according to which the two main leaders from the Congress and the League should go to London for talks. The Parliamentary delegation was able to confirm that Jinnah was firm on his stand. It also concluded that the demand for Pakistan was not a bargaining counter on the part of Jinnah, therefore, it had to be faced and tackled by appropriate political means.
Wavell and the Cabinet Mission
The British government decided, the foundation of a provisional constitution for India must be based upon the 1935 Act, and such a constitution must continue to provide a unitary framework, but within it means of satisfying, to the greatest degree compatible with preservation of India as a single state, the aspirations of Indian Muslims for self-rule. This was the game plan of the India Office as conveyed to the Cabinet Mission on its departure for India.
According to Philip Ziegler, Lord Pethick-Lawrence was technically to be in charge of whatever negotiations were necessary; but in fact, Cripps and the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, took over responsibility. The Cabinet Mission which came to negotiate with Indians about the formula and modus operandi of the transfer of power, did not wish to include Wavell, the Governor General, during its workings in India. Probably they thought they knew more than him, therefore, they thought of him as less than useful. The Labour Government, however, included him after his note of protest. Though they decided to include Wavell as one of the negotiators, he was not taken into confidence about their game plan. Wavell rightly observed, I may be left with all the loose and awkward ends to tie up, and perhaps to implement a policy with which I do not agree. He, therefore, made it clear that he should not be treated as a communicator but negotiator and mediator and if it is the wish of H.M.G. that I should be responsible for implementing in India any settlement to be negotiated, I must really and genuinely be consulted.
Wavell’s relationship with Cripps had never been cordial, and it worsened with time. Wavell thought that Cripps could not be an honest and impartial negotiator because he is sold to the Congress point of view. Wavell deplored that both Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence failed to maintain high standards of impartiality, fair play and justice while they were dealing with the Hindu-Muslim problem. He complained to the prime minister that the late Cabinet Mission had too many unofficial advisers and indirect contacts, which had made his job and the job of the Mission more difficult in settling disputes. Further, he said, I thought it was a mistake that the Mission should have had, outside the official discussions, such a continuous and close touch with one of the two main parties, the Congress. This naturally aroused the deep suspicions of the Muslim League about the intentions of the Cabinet ministers.
Wavell was dissatisfied with the tactics of double-cross and underhand dealings adopted by the Cabinet delegation during their negotiations with the Indian leaders. Cripps methods created suspicion and confusion as Wavell thought that Abdul Kalam Azad and Jinnah were being presented with different propositions. According to Patrick French, in the end the Delegation created more problems than they solved, and the last chance to retain a united India disappeared.
The Cabinet. Mission Plan had pleased neither the League nor the Congress. The Cabinet delegation, especially Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence, knew that without Congress’s support of the plan, a government of a united India though with a weak centre, could not be formed. Cripps, especially wanting to avoid the formation of a government by Jinnah at all costs, persuaded the Congress to at least accept the long-term part of the plan. Wavell wrote on 25 June 1946:
The worst day yet, I think. Congress has accepted the Statement of May 16, though with reservations on its interpretation. They did not intend to do so, having always said they would not accept the long-term policy unless they accepted the short-term one, the Interim Government. Now Cripps, having assured me categorically that Congress would never accept the Statement of May 16, instigated Congress to do by pointing out the tactical advantage they would gain as regards the Interim Government. So, did the Secretary of State. When I talked to him on this, he defended on the grounds that to get the Congress into the Constituent Assembly was such a gain that he considered it justified. It has left sin an impossible position vis-à-vis Jinnah.
Describing the delegation members’ underhand dealings with the Congress, Sudhir Ghosh has written:
This ‘parity’ between the majority and minority, between the Muslim League and the Congress, was of course wholly unacceptable to the majority party. In giving Mr. Jinnah such an indication, the Viceroy had seriously slipped up and the Secretary of State was disturbed about it. He sent for me on 12 June and told me how upset he was about it all. Was there no way of persuading Gandhiji to find a way out of this tangle? I told the Secretary of State that only thing to do was to have a heart-to-heart talk with Gandhiji and to appeal to him for help. So, he asked me if I could not fetch Gandhiji to his house for a talk that evening . . . It was because of Gandhi’s influence that the Congress accepted the long-term part of the plan only on 25 June.
Pethick-Lawrence and Cripps were partly successful in trying to clear up the mess created by Wavell’s assurances to Jinnah because he had refused (Wavell) to allow the Muslim League to form the Interim Government without the Congress, contrary to his earlier assurances. Wavell’s justice, fair play and honesty were now put to the test. He told Alexander,
I should normally ask to be relieved of my appointment after what happened; that I thought I had been placed in an impossible position with the M.L. (Muslim League) and that Cripps had not been quite straight.
He thought of resigning but soon dropped the idea, reasoning that his resignation would badly expose the conduct of the three Ministers and His Majesty’s Government and did not want to embarrass either of them. Though Wavell regretted for a short while the failure of not forming the Interim Government, he still believed, we must try to leave India united; and we must secure the cooperation of the Congress which represents the great majority of Indian political opinion whatever our views on the past record of that party. Besides, he held that too much dependence on the shifting views and actions of a set of inexperienced, short-sighted and sometimes malevolent politicians had caused the failure.
According to Kevin Jeffreys, certainly, in assessing the record of the post-war Labour Government, historians are agreed that Attlee’s party made only limited advances towards its stated aim in 1945—the creation of a socialist commonwealth. In some policy areas, continuity with wartime practice was undeniable. Under Ernest Bevin, for example, the surprising choice as Foreign Secretary, hopes of a ‘socialist foreign policy’ soon disappeared as the Cold War got underway, but in case of India it seems oversimplification of the facts. The Labour Government had high regard and respect for Congress and wanted to quickly transfer power to their so-called socialist brothers. This state of mind led the delegation to appease the Congress at all costs during the negotiations and they used all means, moral or otherwise to enlist its leaders’ support for keeping India united.
Meanwhile Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence continued their daily secret meetings with the Congress leaders. Lawrence took daily walks, with Agatha Harrison (Secretary, India Conciliation Group), a friend of C.F. Andrews, who was himself an associate of Gandhi which prompted concerns about their integrity in Wavell’s mind. He thought, but far more unfortunate than these was the presence of Agatha Harrison and Horace Alexander, who lived in the Congress camp, were completely sold to Gandhi and saw the S.of S. almost daily.
According to Sudhir Ghosh: why Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence, at moments of crisis in the India-Britain negotiations, chose to meet Gandhiji secretly in the garden at the back of the Viceroy’s house in New Delhi without making knowledge either of the British Viceroy or of the Indian political leaders in a struggle to hand over power to an undivided India is, I see now many years later, a poignant as well as a dramatic story.
While saluting the services of these English leaders for the Congress, B/R. Nanda, a biographer of Gandhi quite frankly admits:
Not merely the compulsion of events, but a measure of idealism went into the policy which Prime Minister Attlee initiated and carried through during the years 1946-47. And in so far as the British Government was impelled by idealism, by a desire to open a fresh chapter in Indo-British relations, it was a victory for Gandhi, who had pleaded for thirty years for transformation of a relationship between the two countries. Among the advocates of this transformation were several English men and women. Hume and Wedderburn, C.E. Andrews and Horace Alexander, Brailsford and Brockway, Laski and Carl Heath, Mauri Lester and Agatha Harrison who never wavered in their sympathy for the Indian cause in their own day they represented a tiny and not-too-influential minority, but in the fullness of time their opinions became the national policies of their country.
Even Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence quite frankly admitted that they had contacts with the Congress leaders about the nature of which Wavell was unclear. Lawrence admitted that he wrote a secret letter to Nehru while he was in Simla. However, even such favours failed to win Congress’s support as it kept raising the bar. Even, Pethick-Lawrence later conceded,
We think you will agree that it was our experience that it is the consistent practice of Indian parties to take up a bargaining position well in advance of what they expect to get and we feel that it would be fatal to deal with Nehru’s letter on assumption that it is final challenge under threat of a direct breach with Congress. We regard it rather as another attempt, such as was constantly made during Mission’s negotiations, to squeeze some further concessions out of H.M.G.
The Labour Party did not mind letting Jinnah down while trying to appease the Congress. It cared the least for upholding any moral standards while dealing with him. And the Cabinet Delegation also decided to blame him for its failure. Lawrence went to the extent of using provocative language and even passed irresponsible remarks about Jinnah.
Wavell before offering the formation of the government to the Congress, wanted some clarifications. He wanted to make it clear to the Congress that it must first accept the statement of May 16 fully and sincerely on the lines laid down by the Mission. Besides he did not want any reduction in the powers of the governor-general unless both parties agreed to it. He also requested Whitehall to stand firm against any blackmailing by the Congress. He wanted to correct the Congress’s impression that they had got the British on the run. But the prime minister told him to carry on with what he had been directed to do. But perhaps the greatest of all the impediments to a solution was the state of mutual mistrust amongst the various political actors. According to Leonard Mosley,
Jinnah and the Muslim League mistrusted the Congress and Congress mistrusted the Viceroy; Wavell mistrusted the Labour Government; Attlee did not necessarily mistrust Wavell but had certainly lost faith in him.
Attlee asked Wavell to accept Sir Maurice Gwyer as political adviser. Wavell felt very bad about it and thought that the prime minister and his Labour Government did not trust his political wisdom because it was not sufficiently pro-Congress. He wrote,
I had a letter from the PM, pressing me again Maurice Gwyer as Political Adviser. He has obviously been told that I receive nothing but official I.C.S. advice and that my political judgement is therefore unsound, i.e., not sufficiently pro-Congress. I think my judgement is better than H.M.G.’s and shall say so; and tell him that if H.M.G. don’t like it their duty to find another Viceroy, as I will not be a figure-head.
Nonetheless, he acted upon the directions and started negotiations with Nehru. Nehru, sensing the weak and awkward position of the governor-general vis-à-vis his own government in London began to behave as if he had already become the Prime Minister of India and expected Wavell to act accordingly. Wavell, under the circumstances, was forced to accept his suggestions.
Wavell was convinced that a coalition government would not only help to bypass the demand for Pakistan but help avoid a civil war as well. However, Nehru and Gandhi did not share his feelings and insisted that the Congress Party should solely be allowed to form the Interim Government regardless of the consequences. When Wavell warned that one-party rule would lead to a certain civil war, as was obvious from the carnage on the Direct Action Day, Gandhi pounded the table and said, if a bloodbath was necessary it would come about in spite of non-violence. Gandhi in his letter on 28 August told Wavell that Congress would not bend itself to adopt what it considered a wrong course because of the brutal exhibition recently witnessed in Bengal. Such submissions would itself lead to an encouragement and repetition of such tragedies. Therefore, he advised Wavell to wholly trust the Congress concerning the formation of the Interim Government.
Wavell aware of the repercussions and the backlash it would bring to induct one party rule in a multi-religious country with hostile feelings, three days before induction of the Nehru’s government, again asked His Majesty’s Government to declare the Grouping was a mandatory part of the Cabinet Mission Plan. To him, it was not a matter of legal niceties but of practical considerations and also because it would put the full weight of His Majesty’s Government behind that important part of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Wavell wrote:
Though the consequences may be serious I think it as well that things have come to a head. Calcutta with its 4,400 dead, 16,000 injured and over 100,000 homeless showed that a one-party government at the Centre was likely to cause fierce disorders everywhere. Far from having any sobering effects, it had increased communal hatred and intransigence. If Congress intentions are as Gandhi’s letter suggests the result of their being in power can only be a state of virtual civil war in many parts of India while you and I are responsible to Parliament.
But Pethick-Lawrence did not agree with Wavell’s statement that Congress always meant to use their position in the Interim Government to break up the Muslim League and in the Constituent Assembly to destroy the grouping scheme. In response to him he advised Wavell, we should therefore like you to avoid pressing the grouping question to a final issue before the Interim Government takes over and has a period in office. Thus, Wavell was left with no choice but to invite the Congress to form a new government in September 1946.
But Jinnah was not ready to yield to such pressure tactics on his principled stand for Pakistan, referring to which Ayesha Jalal has written,
Not to be outwitted and without wasting further time, Jinnah accepted Wavell’s offer of joining the Interim Government on 13 October 1946. Wavell had made this offer despite opposition from Nehru and His Majesty’s Government. His aim of bringing the two parties together was an attempt to try and solve the major constitutional and political issues, especially those related to Pakistan, but it seems that enough time had already been wasted and now only the adoption of the Cabinet Mission Plan in its entirety could have ensured the unity of India. Such delays had already created doubts in Wavell’s mind that things were moving too fast to be contained simply by bringing the two parties together.
Wavell sincerely believed that the Congress’s objection to the Grouping clause was contrary to the Cabinet Mission’s interpretation, therefore, he showed reluctance to call the meeting of the Constituent Assembly unless the Congress accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan in its entirety. He maintained that the Compulsory Grouping part was the crux of the Cabinet Mission Plan whereas the Congress leaders believed that accepting that part would result in ‘Balkanization’ of India. In fact,
at this stage a difference of opinion between the Viceroy and the London authorities was noticed. Attlee and Pethick-Lawrence not only regretted Wavell’s intimation to Congress that he would not call the Constituent Assembly until the point about grouping was cleared up, but also asked the Viceroy not to take any steps which were likely to result in a breach with the Congress.
Now Wavell pressured the Muslim League that it must either attend the Constituent Assembly meetings or otherwise resign from the Interim Government to which Liaquat Ali Khan responded that the League members would be ready to resign whenever required, but they would not accept the long-term plan unless His Majesty’s Government declared that the provinces must meet in Sections. Wavell did try again as he himself was convinced that the League’s stand was right. He also knew of the growing risk of civil war in case of the League’s resignation from the government which might put the life, property and interests of the British imperialists in jeopardy. He was equally aware of the growing tendency towards militancy in the League circles which he himself conceded was because of a lack of firmness and honesty on the part of the British government.
Failing to convince Whitehall to make an unequivocal statement regarding the Cabinet Mission Plan, Wavell on 20 November 1946 announced the decision of His Majesty’s Government to call the Constituent Assembly on 9 December. In fact, the Labour Government itself had been under extreme pressure from Congress leaders like Nehru and Patel who had twice threatened to resign from the Interim Government if their demand for dismissal of the League ministers from the Interim Government was not met. Thus, in order to break the deadlock and to bring about a settlement on the issue of the Constituent Assembly, Whitehall invited two representatives each from the Congress and the Muslim League along with one Sikh to fly at once to London for discussions.
On 2 December 1946 in London, Wavell apprised His Majesty’s Government:
The Muslim League leaders raised cries of Pakistan and Islam in danger originally to enhance their prestige and power and thus their bargaining value as a political party. They have now so inflamed their ignorant and impressionable followers with the idea of Pakistan as a new Prophet’s Paradise on earth and as their only means of protection against Hindu domination, that it will be very difficult to satisfy them with anything else. I think Jinnah is honest in saying that he had great difficulty in putting across the Mission Plan with his party, though he was probably wise enough to recognize it as a reasonable compromise worth trying at least for a period.
He recommended to the British government to make the fullest use of the present discussions to try and restore the Mission’s plan to its originally intended form. He feared that it would be impossible to carry out the present negotiations with any hope of success unless the Labour Government made up their mind ‘whether or not they are prepared to stand up to the Congress’. On their part the British government thought that Wavell had outlived his usefulness in his present position so did not heed his advice and decided to re over him. The immediate reason for his removal, however, was his insistence upon implementing his ‘Breakdown Plan’ in case of a political deadlock which he felt was imminent.
Courtesy of: The Dying Days of the Raj by Muhammad Iqbal Chawla, Oxford University Press Karachi 2011