Wavell and His Majesty’s Government: the Conservative Party

This chapter attempts to investigate the relationship between the British government in India and His Majesty’s Government in London during Wavell’s viceroyalty of India. It discusses the difference in ideas, approaches and plans of Wavell with the British political leaders and bureaucrats such as Winston Churchill, Sir Stafford Cripps, Leopold Amery, Lord Pethick-Lawrence and Clement Attlee, and examines their actions, because they shaped the policies of the British government towards British India.

Wavell and the Conservative Party

Wavell’s relationship with Churchill had never been cordial but it worsened soon after he became the Viceroy of India because the British War Cabinet under Churchill realized, owing to their divergent ideas with Wavell that they had chosen the wrong person at the wrong time and for the wrong place.  Firstly, the War Cabinet had appointed Wavell as no suitable replacement to Linlithgow was available. Secondly, Whitehall wanted to preserve law and order in the country and did not want to touch upon the political and constitutional problems of the country. Amery wrote in his diary, Winston would not have been as keen about Wavell as Viceroy if he had realized how thoroughly Wavell backs up Allenby’s policy of sympathy with Egyptian nationalism. Amery opined that he would not be at all surprised if Wavell went a long way in trying to find a solution to the Indian problem.

Wavell, of whom Churchill thought of in cricketing terms as a ‘night watchman’ inserted to stonewall until the end of the war offered fresh options, on the contrary was a politically savvy military officer who started making plans for political changes in India even before he had assumed the top office in India. His first plan is known to history as the Wavell Plan. He was concerned about the tense political relationship then existing between the British government and the Indians and wanted to change that with a proactive approach.

The War Cabinet* issued a draft directive to the Viceroy, originally suggested by Cripps on 29 September 1943 and then approved it so that the new Viceroy should be able to approach the political leaders in India as and when he considers it desirable. But it was amended on 4 October on a more restrictive sense with the addition of the words but should consult the War Cabinet about the time and form of any invitation to be issued.

*The wartime Coalition Government in UK was headed by Winston Churchill of the Conservative Party and its Cabinet was composed of outstanding political personalities. The India Committee of the British Cabinet set up in 1942 was the powerhouse for Indian policy-and decision-making. Its members were chosen for their wide knowledge of India. Besides Attlee, the Deputy Prime Minister, who chaired the committee, other well-known ministers included Simon, Anderson, Grigg, Butler, Amery and Cripps, and Wavell was indirectly answerable to this committee via the Secretary of State for India, who acted as a middle-man between the Viceroy and the British government. Besides the above, Wavell was also answerable to the War Cabinet and Whitehall with regards to any political initiatives in India

The British Cabinet’s instructions exhorted Wavell to give top priority first to the defence of India and he was warned to beware above all things of raising political issues that might prejudice India’s war effort. All this meant in other words that he should simply forget about the political situation in India. Thus, not only did the Wavell Plan go into cold storage, the course of action proposed and endorsed by a majority of the India Committee was ruled out. Wavell also gathered from his private discussions with Churchill that the latter feared a split in the Conservative Party and some kind of a parliamentary trouble in case of any fresh step regarding political reforms in India.  Churchill was not ready to take this risk and was determined to block it as long as he was in power. *

*Churchill cancelled the meeting of the Cabinet on India and invited Wavell to see him alone. Winston had a formula for a directive which, in Wavell’s eyes, was mostly meaningless. It entailed instruction to improve the lot of the Indians; to make peace between Muslims and Hindus, and only at the end indicated that political progress during the war was not debarred.

Churchill never wished to see his new Viceroy taking initiatives on the political front in India. *

*Though Wavell always came up to the expectations of Winston and won many laurels on the battlefield, he never received the acknowledgements and recognition from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill for his services. In June 1941, Churchill wrote to Wavell that he had concluded that public interest would best be served by the appointment of General Auchinleck to replace you in command of armies of the Middle East. Although he acknowledged and appreciated Wavell’s services in the region but was very angry with him, as he had become impatient at Wavell’s reluctance to take the offensive against the Germans. He got into serious doubts about the intellect and vision of Wavell whom he always saw as an unimpressive and boring kind of person. He thought he was more like ‘the chairman of the golf club’. Quoted in Ronald Lewin, The Chief, p. 26; Churchill transferred him to the position of Commander-in-Chief of India in June 1941. Despite Wavell’s repeated requests he did not grant him home leave for some days. John Connell, Wavell: Scholar and Soldier, pp 464-507, Wavell was called back to London in April 1943, never to return as commander-in-chief for India.  The confidence of Churchill on the generalship of Wavell began to waver. Churchill decided to remove Wavell. Their relations became strained and when Wavell returned to England from the United States of America, instead of going back to India, he was told to take some of his overdue home leave.

He was annoyed with Wavell’s political views and his insistence on pursuing them that he even refused to attend Wavell’s farewell party when he was leaving for India as the viceroy-designate. On 7 October 1943, Amery recorded in his diary,

Winston who seems to have been rather on the rampage at first and more or less accused Wavell of playing for his hand and trying to do a public stunt to which Wavell seems to have said that he had no desire to go to India and was quite willing to resign if the PM did not trust him.

 Wavell, in spite of all these impediments did introduce some confidence building measures in India like his determined efforts to help the victims of the Bengal famine.

At the beginning of his viceroyalty, Wavell had a high opinion of Gandhi, thinking that he would help in resolution of the political deadlock in India. In spite of Whitehall’s reluctance, Wavell released him from prison in 1944 as he had been seriously ill for some time. Wavell also wrote many letters to Whitehall concerning Gandhi’s demand that he wanted to talk to the Viceroy concerning the formation of a national government. Amery wired back to Wavell on 4 October in which he stated that the entire Cabinet was perturbed over his contacts with Gandhi. They considered Gandhi a political dead horse and believed that Wavell’s re-opening of negotiations with him would revive his political career.

Wavell’s actions on behalf of Gandhi led to severe disagreements with the people in London including an exchange between the Viceroy and the British Cabinet which created a row with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted no part of negotiations with Gandhi. The debate gathered momentum over the next few days. Amery maintained that the Viceroy should have avoided a direct collision with the PM and the Cabinet on an issue, not of substance, but of tone and wording. Amery lent his dissent to the War Cabinet’s decision at its meeting on 14 August, recorded in the minutes that on the ground that in a matter not of broad policy, but of wording and tone, the earnest and repeatedly expressed opinion of the Viceroy should not be overridden. 

 Wavell nearly resigned over his stand concerning Gandhi’s release from prison, but he withdrew from his earlier determination to do so. There was a strong Indian reaction to His Majesty’s Government’s decision of not having parleys with Gandhi. Wavell complained to Amery of an obviously hostile Cabinet who seem to have no confidence in my judgement on any matter and justified his complaint by reference to the previous incidents. Indian reactions to Wavell’s reply had been strong and Wavell rightly suggested that the Cabinet has destroyed at one blow my reputation for fairness and good temper in my correspondence with Gandhi. In his protesting letter to Amery, Wavell wrote, they have now turned down my recommendations for:

  1. Indian Finance Minister
  2. Section 93 in Bengal at the beginning of the year
  3. Bajpai’s status
  4. The form of my reply to Mr. Gandhi; and
  5. My requests for food imports, of which my great persistence has produced an inadequate amount. He warned Amery that His Majesty’s Government must really give up trying to treat the Government of India as a naughty and tiresome child whose bottom they can smack whenever they feel like it.

Future interaction between Wavell and Whitehall suffered immensely due to this episode. It substantially weakened Wavell’s position in the eyes of the Indians and he feared that there might be a Congress-League coalition against the British government. *

*Gandhi-Jinnah talks were expected to be held soon and possibly result in a compromise between the two main parties. Wavell believed that Gandhi had the talent and would manoeuvre successfully as Jinnah would not totally understand his feelings and intentions. He wrote that ‘I am sure that Gandhi’s real object is to get the Working Committee out of detention and that he will go a very long way (with the usual mental reservations) in dealing with Jinnah to secure the cooperation of the Muslim League. Having drafted an agreement of some kind he may tell Jinnah that he is at a disadvantage because the working committee, who alone can commit the Congress, are in detention and may suggest a joint approach to Viceroy to secure their release.’ Wavell, Viceroy’s Journal p.87; Wavell to Amery 15 August 1944, Wavell Collections

In the meantime, a further clash between Churchill and Wavell occurred when Whitehall suddenly announced that the pay and allowances of the British forces serving in the Far East were to be increased. Despite the fact that under the rules of defence expenditure the costs would mainly fall on India and would almost inevitably involve a corresponding increase in the pay of Indian forces and result in increased inflation in India, the Delhi government was not consulted. Wavell did not like such decisions being made in London without even consulting Delhi.

In one of his private telegrams of protest to Amery which was imprudently permitted to come to notice of Churchill, Wavell feared that the Council will take the line that if His Majesty’s Government has to bribe the British forces to fight in the Far East, they should pay the bill. Wavell’s use of such flagrant language against him and Whitehall was more than insubordination and highly treasonable in the eyes of Churchill, who condemned Wavell’s seditious language and accused him of insulting the British soldier. Wavell noted in his diary that this exchange of letters and controversy would neither improve Churchill’s mindset about India nor would it improve personal relations between the two.

He visualized right at the outset that if the British government did not take the initiative to break the political and constitutional deadlock in India, it would result in chaos, civil war and partition of India. By middle of 1944, Wavell once again stressed upon the home government to reconsider his earlier Wavell Plan, which had been turned down in 1943. He was also conscious of the fact that India’s services in the war must be recognized along with other contributions which India had made towards turning the tide of war.

Amery had been keenly observing these developments and formulated a new approach to the Indian problem. In his letter of 3 October 1944 to Wavell, he explained his plan in detail stating that India’s main grievance and source of bitterness was not the existing Government of India but Downing Street and the House of Commons. He further added that Indians constantly felt discriminated in all spheres of life by decisions taken by outsiders.

Based on his own soul-searching, Amery suggested to Wavell that he should announce that India would enjoy dominion status. He also visualized that the Viceroy would be more powerful and would exercise the power to override his council or dismiss it with his own judgement and without any prior approval from the Secretary of State for India or Whitehall.

Amery was not only interested in seeing the Delhi government rid of the remote control from Whitehall but also wanted to sideline the demand for Pakistan. He wanted to ensure:

This continuance of unity of India under the present Government does not preclude an eventual Pakistan, though I believe that in fact it would create an atmosphere in which at any rate the extreme Pakistan demand would no longer make the same appeal, and more practical considerations get the upper hand.

 He chalked out a programme in which the Congress would be empowered to impede the Pakistan demand. Therefore, he thought the essence of the idea in fact would be to release the Congress internees and to send an invitation to them to take part in coalition governments in the provinces and to participate in planning the future constitution at leisure. Amery feared that the division in Indian society was so obvious that the proposed Wavell Plan would result in further division among them. Similarly, after the failure of Gandhi-Jinnah talks, Amery suggested that, since the two main organized parties were incapable of finding a solution, both should be excluded from, or sparsely represented on the contemplated constitution-making body. To him, the best remedy was to avoid establishing a council proposed in the Wavell Plan and set up a council consisting of non-political elements instead. It would form a very suitable nucleus, partly because it would already include representatives of the princes.

On 6 December 1944 India Committee met to discuss the Wavell and Amery plans. The Wavell Plan was bitterly criticized by its members including Amery who put forward his own alternative scheme. He explained that what he had in mind was a body of some 40 to 50 persons, thoroughly representatives of all sections, parties, and interest groups and in particular the martial races of the Punjab. However, his idea was dropped, and Wavell’s proposals were postponed for another six months.

However, neither the British Parliament could be bypassed nor, could the two major political parties of India be ignored as proposed by Amery. Wavell was of the view that Amery has a curious capacity for getting hold of the right stick but practically always the wrong end of it.

 As Wavell did not appreciate the response from the India Committee* he decided to write directly to the prime minister. After complaining of the various grievances of the Delhi government against London, he informed Churchill that the current Government of India could not continue indefinitely, or even for long—the British Civil Service, on which the good government of the country had until then depended, might almost be described as moribund, the senior members being tired and disheartened. He said that with the approaching end of the Japanese war, political prisoners would have to be released and they would find a fertile field for agitation in food shortages and unemployment, following the closure of war factories, unless their energies had previously been diverted in trying to solve the constitutional problem.

*Wavell writing to Amery said that ‘I definitely do not agree with your remedy. If we held general elections in the present state of feeling there would be a great increase in communal bitterness, with unfortunate results on the war effort; and I do not believe that a constituent assembly on the Cripps model could be formed or would produce any useful result at this stage. I have reason to think that the Muslim league would not agree to a constitution-making body of this kind. Jinnah told Mudie a few days ago that he would not hear of such a proposal and gave figures to illustrate his objection; he repeated his opinion in another letter that Jinnah told Mudie during their recent talk that the Muslim League would not accept anything of the kind, as the method of the election of the Constituent Assembly outlined in the Cripps offer would be dis satisfactory to the Muslims. Wavell to Amery, 5 December 1944, Wavell Papers, Political Series 1944-45 p. 134.

Wavell, recommending an approach to Gandhi and Jinnah and their followers, said,

But the Congress and the League are the dominant parties in Hindu and Muslim India and will remain so. They control the Press, the electoral machine, the moneybags, and have prestige of established parties.

 He held that even if Gandhi and Jinnah disappeared tomorrow, he could see no prospect of having more reasonable people to deal with. He insisted on consideration of his plan because the commander-in-chief, governors of all eleven provinces, and the senior members of the services supported his plan.

Churchill’s response on 26 November 1944 clearly showed that he disagreed over the urgency of the matter. He held that these large problems require to to be considered at leisure and best of all in victorious peace. Wavell was anxious to write another letter to convince the prime minister of the urgency of the moment and to inform him of the psychological advantage but was restrained by Amery’s advice.* Amery suggested to him to refrain from a direct communique to the prime minister and promised to influence the members of the War Cabinet to get the matter referred to the Cabinet India Committee.

*Wavell wrote that ‘I have been careful not to commit myself with Jinnah or anyone else. It would be quite impossible for me to shut myself up and refuse to see any of the Indian politicians or to try to find out what they are thinking. I am sure it is right that I should continue to see political personalities as opportunity offers, to have a chance to size them up. I think you can trust me not to give away anything.’ Wavell to Amery 27 December 1944, Wavell Papers, Political Series, 1944-45, pp 134-5

The India Committee in its meeting of 6 December disagreed with the vitals of the Wavell Plan but did invite him to London for a face to face meeting where he could justify the details of his plan.

Wavell thought that it would be a grave mistake to postpone, because of Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru’s non-party conference, as that would produce no proposals of value; and he proposed that he should reach London about 15 January. Now, Churchill directed Amery to place before the Cabinet the question of whether Wavell should come home at all at this juncture. He feared, I expect he is going to make trouble and stage a scene for resignation. But Wavell was quite conscious of the urgency for getting both the parties to work together in the coalition government and this would, he expected, generate team spirit. Their cooperation would also help to sideline the Pakistan issue. He met with Jinnah on 6 December 1944 and got an opinion. Writing to Amery on 12 December 1944, Wavell told him:

Jinnah was prepared to accept the unity of India as an ideal, but an ideal quite unattainable in present conditions. He said that the Muslims had been led by their experience of Congress domination to regard Pakistan as the only possible solution. I put it to him that if in the critical post-war years, on which the whole future of India may depend, we were busy cutting up the country, all parties would suffer, and that it would be very much better to hold India together for the time being at least and to undertake partition only if the Hindus and Muslims found in practice that they could not carry on.

Wavell thought that Jinnah would cooperate if an Executive Council was constituted under the present constitution.

Wavell arrived in England on 23 March and his first meeting with the India Committee took place on 26 March. * Attlee, who chaired the meeting, was horrified at the thought of a rule by the brown oligarchy. ** Attlee declared, he was dismayed that we should hand over the people of India to a few very rich individuals who would control the caucuses without responsibility to anyone. Wavell noted in his diary on 18 April that Attlee started attacking me at once . . .John Anderson complained that I would not admit that I was making radical changes in the constitution. Cripps was absent; Grigg and Simon were hostile.

*Attlee refused to allow Wavell to see a record of discussions on the Indian constitutional problem in the India Committee, as ‘the making of this request is, I fear, only another example of having a Viceroy with no political experience.’ Hugh Tinker remarks that ‘Attlee’s complaint seems particularly peevish when we recall that the man he chose to succeed Wavell, Mountbatten, had even less knowledge of British politics.’ Hugh Tinker, Viceroy Curzon to Mountbatten p. 193.

**Attlee also held that a government responsible neither to parliament nor to a legislature would leave His Majesty’s Government powerless to protect the Indian masses, who would be defenceless. He also said that the new members would owe allegiance to an outside body and not to the viceroy, who would be forced more and more into the position of a Dominion Governor-General. Therefore, effective control would pass to an Executive Council ‘responsible only to the party caucuses.’

India Committee showed a lack of concern about the Indian problem and tried to avoid the Wavell Plan. They did not want to go beyond the Cripps offer of 1942. Churchill, like Attlee, also disapproved of the Wavell Plan. At that moment, Wavell realized,

now I think we have missed the bus in any case. The sudden collapse of the Germans and the approaching reoccupation of the whole of Burma will make Indian politicians less accommodating than a few months ago. If I got my own way now, I feel it would be too late.

Wavell’s repeated requests annoyed Churchill who gave an ungracious reply to him and said, I do not consider that your visit to this country was necessary at the present time.

In the meantime, the War Cabinet had been replaced by a “caretaker” Conservative Cabinet in June 1945. However, this time both the India Committee and the Cabinet accepted the Wavell Plan but not in its entirety. Thus, Wavell called the Simla Conference in June 1945 which, however, failed to produce any results.

One of the main reasons for Churchill’s continued tense relations with Wavell was that the former was vehemently opposed to granting of freedom to India. Wavell rightly wrote to Churchill, I know you have often found me a difficult and troublesome subordinate; I have not always found you an easy master to serve. Wavell got nothing from Churchill which could have made him popular in India. Amery much later conceded that the failure of the Simla Conference in 1945 was due to Churchill’s obstinacy. Churchill never wanted Wavell to succeed in his political plans for India and it can be rightly said that it was he, not Wavell, who was responsible for the failure of the Simla Conference. *

*Wavell went to see Churchill on 31 August 1945 when he had been ousted from power. He had an hour-long meeting with him. Churchill was in a good mood and ‘revealed that the only reason he had agreed to my political move was that India Committee had all told him it was bound to fail.’ Wavell, Viceroy’s Journal p.168.

By Courtesy : Wavell and the Dying Days of the Raj by Muhammad Iqbal Chawla, Oxford University Press, Karachi 2011



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