A critical and historical understanding of Lord Archibald Wavell’s viceroyalty (Oct.1943-Mar.1947) is important for understanding the rational dynamics amongst the three leading political actors of that time, the British, the Hindus and the Muslims. The study focuses primarily on Lord Wavell’s response to Muslim politics in India in the 1940s. The hypothesis of this study is that Lord Wavell was against the demand for Pakistan, because he believed that India was a natural geographic unit and could be preserved as such. Therefore during his viceroyalty he struggled to achieve that aim, and floated and backed schemes that tried to preserve the union of India such as his Wavell Plan, the Cabinet Mission Plan and the. Breakdown Plan. However, Pakistan emerged despite Wavell’s attempt to sidetrack it. It is important to note that although Pakistan came into being almost six decades ago, it still faces the effects of the problems it inherited from the decisions taken by the last two British viceroys.
Wavell’s viceroyalty was significant and decisive because of the developments that led to a sudden British exit from India under his successor. Wavell struggled from the start of his viceroyalty to keep India united. He suggested that India should be granted independence by March 1948 and in keeping with timeframe, he suggested appropriate plans for an orderly. British retreat from India before they were forcibly thrown out by the ever increasing strength of the Indian political awakening. However, by the end of Wavell’s term, Congress had become convinced by its experiences, especially by its participation in the Interim Government that the partition of India was the only way out from a very complex situation.
Among the immediate problems that Wavell was faced with, were: firstly, the need to carry the war with Japan to a decisive and speedy victory; secondly, to deal with the Bengal famine; thirdly, to deal with the day to day issues of the Indian Government; and finally, to break the political deadlock in India, which was his most important concern.
Right from the beginning of his term, Wavell saw a variety of complex problems littering the Indian political scene. The main ones were the following:
- Hindu-Muslim friction, which had entered its final phase, in the 1940s.
- The Muslim League demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims based on the two-nation theory and the multifarious political complexities it had given rise to.
- This demand (for Pakistan) had divided the Muslims into two groups, its supporters and detractors, which were as sharply opposed to each other as were the Muslim League and the Congress. Additionally the Cripps Proposals had been rejected both by the Congress and the League at a critical juncture of the Second World War and the British Government was not ready to break the political impasse.
- Muslim politics in India had become quite complicated, for a number of political parties and groups with conflicting ideas and divergent programs had emerged on the political landscape. Uslim parties like the Unionist Party, the Khudai Khidmatgars, and the Majlis-i-Ahmar, were strongly against the Pakistan demand.
He wanted to take steps to end it whereas Whitehall had no intentions of doing so. He felt that the smooth running of administration during the war required co-operation from major political parties. Therefore he wanted to constitute an Executive Council consisting of their representatives, however, the authorities in London did not concur with his planning. They advised Wavell to wait until an appropriate moment for that move; he had to wait until the defeat of Germany for such a green signal.
At the beginning of the Simla Conference (1945), there were signs that it would succeed as Indian National Congress had accepted the parity principle between the Caste-Hindus and Muslims and agreed not to nominate any Muslims either. Wavell’s insistence on accommodating Khizar Hayat Tiwana’s (Premier of Punjab) right to nominate a Muslim to the Executive Council, however, led to his differences with the Muslim League, which in turn led to the failure of the Simla Conference.
This break with the Muslim League produced a situation which in its turn also dealt a strong blow to his dream of cooperative team work between the Muslim League and the Congress in the Executive Council. The complex situation which resulted was too much for even a man of Wavell’s capabilities and perforce he had to declare the Simla Conference a failure.
However, the Simla Conference is of immense political importance from the Muslim League’s point of view. It helped to establish two main points: firstly, it established Jinnah as the sole and undisputed leader of the Indian Muslims; secondly, it also proved that the Muslim League was the most powerful and unmatched political representative of the Muslims. For the Muslims, the acceptance of the principle that they would get representation equal to the Caste-Hindus was in essence recognition of the Two-Nation Theory. Flush with confidence on both counts, Jinnah asked the Viceroy to announce the holding of the general elections to verify the respective claims of the League and the Congress. In spite of this, in retrospect, Jinnah once described the Simla Conference as a snare for the goals of Muslims in India, in the failure of which lay the seeds of the future making of Pakistan.
In England, the Labour Party, which had promised to grant India independence, had won the elections and come into power. Also, with the end of the Second World War, they wanted to hand over power to the elected representatives, something which was close to the heart of neither the Congress nor the Viceroy, each for their own reason. Congress leadership was not in favour of calling a quick election because they felt that having been incarcerated for the duration of the war they had lost touch with the masses. Wavell, on his side, felt the elections would only help to create further divisions between the two main communities in India and wanted to initiate another effort at reconciliation between them in the form of their joint participation and effort at working together in the Executive Council.
Following the elections to the central and provincial assemblies in 1945-46, both the Muslim League and the Congress gained decisive victories in their respective constituencies. This substantiated Wavell’s fears that elections would only help to widen the gulf between them, the two leading communities instead of bridging it.
The Muslim League had proved its case as the sole authoritative representative of the Muslims of India whose main demand was for a separate homeland, but neither His Majesty’s Government nor Wavell wanted such a solution to India’s independence. Therefore, they decided to send a mission comprising of three cabinet ministers of the British Parliament to India. The mission’s aim was to try to bridge the political gulf between the two main parties with the aim of transferring the power in India to the elected representatives of the people. It was also supposed to seek an agreement with Indian leaders on the principles and procedures to be followed in framing a constitution for an independent but united India. The mission was known as the Cabinet Mission.
The cabinet delegation and Wavell worked hard to achieve their goal but bereft of any executive powers they failed in their attempt to bring about a negotiated settlement between the two major parties. To break the political impasse they presented their own constitutional scheme for India known to history as the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946).
The Cabinet Mission Plan as presented consisted of two parts, a long-term part and a short-term one. Although initially hesitant, Jinnah was able to convince the League leadership that accepting the plan in full would be in the interest of Muslims at large. The Congress on the other hand, accepted the long-term part of the plan only upon the persuasion of Lords Stafford Cripps and Pethick Lawrence. However, their acceptance seemed to lack sincerity as they started nitpicking and raising objections in spite of the fact that the Cabinet Mission had stated clearly upon its presentation that their plan ha to be accepted or rejected ‘as is’ without any modifications.
As far as Wavell was concerned the scheme though containing a ‘grouping’ clause did not defer to the demand for ‘Pakistan’ as stated by the Muslim League in its Lahore Resolution of 1940. This was exactly what Congress had in mind when it had stated that it was totally opposed to any scheme for the division of India. However, in the end, both His Majesty’s Government and the Congress united to defeat Wavell’s attempt to keep India united via the Cabinet Mission Plan.
Jinnah and the League had accepted the plan in full because they felt that it contained the seed and substance of ‘Pakistan’ as envisioned in the Lahore Resolution. In addition Jinnah was afraid that the increasing Hindu-Muslim bitterness might lead to full-scale civil war which he wanted to avoid at all cost.
Congress remained complacent on the Pakistan issue and preferred to focus on the freedom of india to grab power without caring whatsoever about the cost involved to attain such a goal. Congress considered not only the unity of India vital but also wanted the unitary form of government in the long run which could guarantee economic and industrial development. If these objects were missing, it was ready to allow the League to have Pakistan but of its, i.e. Congress’s choice. Congress demanded that the provinces should be given the choice to opt out from the groups which would help her getting Assam and NWFP provinces in Hindustan. This demand was fantastic claptrap. Likewise, its attitude towards the demand for Pakistan, which was based on the ‘two nation’ theory, remained one of self-deception and negation of principles of nationalism which led into making wrong calculations and judgements at an extremely crucial period of Indian history. At a time when their thoughts, words, and actions could lead to some repercussions, Congress leaders like Gandhi, Patel and Nehru used them extravagantly and, more importantly, without a sense of timing.
Wavell tried by all means to achieve his objective of sidetracking the demand for Pakistan and maintaining the unity of India without prejudice to the interests of Muslims in a united India. He believed that, if established, a coalition government consisting of the Congress and the League would be able to solve the communal and constitutional problems facing India. However, because of the wide gulf separating the political parties, Wavell’s vision of a coalition government soon began to fade.
Wavell, himself could not be fully absolved of the responsibility for the failure of the Cabinet Mission Plan. The complex political situation put his sense of impartiality and fair play to the test and he was found wanting. He broke the pledge given to the League of allowing it to form the government without the participation of the Congress but then allowed the Congress to form an Interim Government on the same lines, but without the League’s participation.
After the formation of the Interim Government by the Congress, Wavell felt that it was imperative to bring the League into the government to prevent a wider catastrophe from engulfing India especially following the Direct Action Day killings in Calcutta (August 1946). He also felt that rule by Congress alone would definitely lead to the division of India. He, therefore, in spite of opposition from His Majesty’s Government and the Congress worked to bring the League into the Interim Government.
However, the formation of the Interim Government which Wavell was able to achieve at the centre eventually caused more harm than good to his dream of a united India. He had felt that the Congress would refrain from repeating the blunder it had committed in 1937 by not forming coalition governments in the provinces. That step had caused great damage to the communal harmony in the country and had forced the Muslim League to adopt the Lahore Resolution in 1940; he was proved wrong once again. Muslim League knew the true intentions of the Congress High Command, that the main leaders of its Working Committee aimed at establishing a unitary form of government under the slogan of a strong centre in united India.
The coalition Interim Government instead of lessening the political tensions in India helped to increase them as both the League and the Congress declined to work as a team thus exposing their communal agendas. Congress, although a bigger party than the Muslim League, felt frustrated because they were not allowed to act unilaterally, especially because Liaquat Ali Khan, who was the finance member in the Interim Government, created severe problems for the Congress leadership. This forced even Patel to think openly on the lines of partition as the best political solution for India, something which Congress had tacitly accepted since the Rajagopalachari formula of 1942.
The Muslim League which had withdrawn its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, joined the Interim Government with the promise that they would accept it. Wavell failed to force the Muslim League either to attend the Constituent Assembly or to resign from the Interim Government. He, as an honest, impartial and keen observer was convinced that unless the Muslim League got a clear-cut statement from the Congress and His Majesty’s Government regarding Grouping, it would not accept the long-term part of the Cabinet Mission Plan and would not attend the Constituent Assembly’s meetings. The Congress had been demanding Wavell’s dismissal since August 1946, the Labour Party also considered him a spent force. But the fact was that Wavell was neither acceptable to the Congress nor the British Government for he was too impartial and honest. For the League, he failed to deliver the goods. In fact,he was made ineffective by the command and control of Whitehall.
Wavell thought of India as a single geographic unit and, therefore, wished to maintain its unity. This led him not only to denounce but even attempt to derail the demand for Pakistan. Initially he thought of it simply as a bargaining counter and believed that it’s creation could be avoided. However, with the passage of time, after he witnessed the rapidly rising support for the Pakistan demand and increasing popularity of Jinnah as the sole spokesman of the Muslims, he came to the conclusion that it needed to be taken very seriously and dealt with accordingly. This prompted him to suggest to His Majesty’s Government to expose the weaknesses of the Pakistan demand as incorporated in the Lahore Resolution. This was a strategy which he suggested should be adopted before the elections in order to lessen the popularity of the League’s demand; he was not allowed to pursue this course of action.
Following the victory of the Muslim League in the elections, Wavell kept Whitehall thoroughly informed of the latest political developments in India so that when the Cabinet Mission proposed its Plan for India it incorporated all those ideas which Wavell thought would help to keep India united in addition to offering the best constitutional arrangement for safeguarding the rights of the minorities, especially the Muslims, in India. What Wavell disliked was the modus operandi of the Mission’s delegates who tried to sidetrack the Muslim League’s point of view by sometimes openly, and at other times surreptitiously, siding with Congress delegates. These unfair and sometimes underhanded actions of the Cabinet Mission’s delegates aroused fear in Wavell’s mind that the Muslim League just might begin to oppose the Cabinet Mission Plan. At the same time his own position vis a vis the Congress was considerably weakened by such tactics as it came to the conclusion that Wavell could easily be bypassed while taking important decisions concerning India.
While all this activity with regards to the Cabinet Mission Plan was in progress, Wavell was also involved in giving finishing touches to his ‘Breakdown Plan’. Considerable controversy surrounds the aims and objectives of Wavell’s Breakdown Plan. H.M. Close, Narendra Sarila and Victoria Schofield are of the view that Wavell’s Breakdown Plan was designed to give Jinnah a smaller Pakistan. This study shows that Wavell’s Breakdown Plan did not aim at the partition of India. He was forced to draft his plan because of the highly depleted strength of the British military and civil forces which would have been unable to properly assert and maintain government’s control over all of India in case Congress decided to follow up on its threats of civil disobedience as it had during the ‘Quit India’ movement. The main aim of the Breakdown Plan included the following:
1. To implement the Cabinet Mission Plan in full which would involve peaceful transfer of power to the Indians while providing for the safe evacuation of all foreigners and maintenance of a united India after the departure of the British.
2. In case the two leading parties failed to compromise on the Cabinet Mission Plan, he thought that he would pressurize each of the two parties concerned by trying to make them realize that they would fall far short of their eventual aims if they rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan.
3. The third and final phase of his Breakdown Plan envisaged the phased withdrawal of British authority from four of the six Hindu-majority provinces but it would retain full control of the Centre and the Muslim-majority provinces from where he felt, the British still would be in a position to dictate a final and favourable constitutional solution to the political problem.
Whatever the merits of Wavell’s Breakdown Plan, His Majesty’s Government opposed it on the following grounds:
1. They considered it as indicating a case of ‘cut and run’ or a ‘defeatist’ attitude on his part;
2. In spite of their highly weakened positioned, something which was obvious to Wavell, His Majesty’s Government was unwilling to,even entertain the idea of completely cutting its links with India at such short notice.
3. His Majesty’s Government thought that implementation of Wavell’s Breakdown Plan would send a wrong signal to the Congress Party, i.e. this would inevitably lead to the creation of Pakistan and this was something that they were loathe to do under any circumstances.
4. Finally, such a move would have required legislation in the British Parliament and it was highly unlikely that it would get approval in that body. All these moves led to a deterioration of Wavell’s relationship with both His Majesty’s Government and the Congress and led to his dismissal soon after.
However, several of the ideas included by Wavell in his Breakdown Plan, unfortunately, outlived his presence in India. Whereas he had included the partition of Punjab and Bengal in his Breakdown Plan just to impress upon the Muslim League, the futility of its request for a Pakistan based upon the Lahore Resolution. With the aim of keeping India united, his successor, Lord Mountbatten and his team of Hindu advisors namely V.P. Menon and others, actually included them in their partition plans for these two provinces in June-August 1947; this led to the mass migrations and killings of countless innocent people. So those parts of Wavell’s Breakdown Plan which were actually put into practice went squarely against Muslims which was not the way he had intended them to be used in the first place. And finally, his dream of preventing the foundation of Pakistan by offering Muslims sufficient concessions within a united India also failed to materialize.
Courtesy of: Wavell and the Dying Days of the Raj by Muhammad Iqbal Chawla, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2011