The Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946 intended to keep India unified as the British government set to depart. But with a polarized environment, coupled with different visions within political leaderships, the partition was inevitable.

At exactly 9:30 PM, on February 17, 1946,  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad heard the new British decision on the radio — that the imperial power was going to decolonise the subcontinent.

For Azad that year, India was on the cusp of freedom, a desire that consumed every Indian.

Under the Labour Party, the British government of Clement Attllee sent its Cabinet Mission to India on March 24, 1946. The main aim of this high-powered mission was deciding the transfer of power from the British to Indian leadership. The Mission consisted of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander.

“The year 1946 is a turnaround. The British are rethinking their legacy. As the three members of the British cabinet came to India, they wanted to salvage the country’s unity in some way. In part, they wanted to leave a successful legacy, of what will appear to be a successful legacy of the empire in the shape of an independent nation-state,” said Professor Faisal Devji, University of Oxford.

The prospect of the Cabinet Mission Plan shaping post-colonial India without breaking it was breeding amidst global political shifts, especially in a world smeared by the effects of World War II.

“The Labour Party in Britain has now come into power, and the British people want socialism. There is a decolonising thought process going on,” says Dr Amar Sohal, a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

“You get rid of Churchill and the Conservatives who want to hang on to power. Clement Attlee wants to decolonize, its economic, pragmatic and also an ethical commitment,” he adds.

The main purpose of the Cabinet Mission Plan was introduced on May 16 1946. It was to ensure a unified India, gaining independence without partition. “It is quite a good plan. Grouping provinces into three, two Muslim majority and one Hindu majority. It was a plan that wanted a state that was not a classical European state,” Faisal Devji told TRT World.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad proposed the idea of a shared nation with a genuine consensus between Congress and Muslim League, but his plan failed.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad proposed the idea of a shared nation with a genuine consensus between Congress and Muslim League, but his plan failed. (AP)

Contesting ideologies

To discuss the proposals of Indian freedom, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad arrived in Delhi on April 2, 1946. He was anxious not because of the ongoing negotiations between the British and Indian leaderships, but because of the unresolved communal question between the Hindus and Muslims that was eating away at the subcontinent.

“Azad wants to bridge these gaps. He thinks that modern India was created by Hindu and Muslim interactions. They were different at first, but they transcended those differences by having similar languages, culture, food, dress, and poetry. There is a cultural idea located strongly in the plains of India for him,” said Sohal.

While Azad views the Indian future in this sense, his colleague Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress party and Muhammad Ali Jinnah from the Muslim League hold onto different ideals.

For Nehru, a strong centre and a socialist government — both were vital for him.

“Nehru wants a strong centre, unlike Gandhi, he is more pragmatic. For him, India should be a European style nation-state. It should be centralised and a majority run state. For him, the communal problem of caste is a temporary problem, he believes it’s all due to British rule; once the British are out and India achieves freedom, it will guarantee freedom and equality for everyone,” said Devji.

Whereas, Muhammad Ali Jinnah held the opposite view. He wanted to resolve the communal issues first. His two-nation theory of 1940 makes an argument for parity between Hindus and Muslims. For him, the nation is an empty category. A loose centre with a separate autonomous Muslim state is vital for him in achieving equal rights.

“The main question then here is, how to secure Muslim political rights in free India?

One answer that Jinnah provides, is to have six states into a unified federated structure,” said Dr Shruti Kapila, an Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge.

This was necessary for Jinnah to ensure fair political representation and security for the Muslims of India.

“Throughout the 1940s, the decade is filled with violence, death and destruction. This is also described by Ambedkar as an era of civil war in India.  All the communities were very charged and mobilized, and the entire question of the division of India becomes a choice between having a continuous civil war and partition,” Kapila adds.

“Due to a huge popular mobilization, one cannot discard the ideological momentum behind the idea of Pakistan. Pakistan is a political idea, it is not a gain of brinksmanship that Jinnah is playing, by the mid-40s it has become a national cause.”

A weak centre

The Cabinet Mission Plan proposed that only three subjects will belong to the Central Government:  defence, foreign affairs and communications.

It divided the country into three zones: A, B and C. Section B would include Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, and British Balochistan. Section C included Bengal and Assam. According to the Mission Plan, Muslims of these majority provinces could exercise full autonomy.

In Azad’s words, the acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan by both the Congress and the Muslim League was a ‘glorious’ event in the history of freedom for India.

The two parties reached a settlement without any violence and conflict.

“Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan because he was getting several outcomes that he couldn’t get out of partition. He was getting the entire provinces of Bengal, Assam and Punjab. He was getting Calcutta, a city which he wanted to be the capital of Pakistan. Getting full provinces, through Cabinet Mission was also viable economically,” said Devji.

Although Congress accepted the plan at first, the party knew that the Centre proposed by the Cabinet Mission Plan would have little power. The Centre only had control over the defence, foreign affairs and communications. And the grouping of the provinces furthered the limits of the power of the Centre.

The turning point of the course of events takes place during a press conference in Bombay on July 10, 1946. These concerns of Congress surfaced under the newly elected president of the party, Nehru.

Nehru disregarded the terms of the Cabinet Mission Plan, and also spoke against the idea of grouping provinces.

As a response to this statement, Jinnah and the League withdrew from its earlier acceptance of the Plan.

“I think the main reason for the Cabinet Mission Plan failing is not because it was scuppered by the ill intention of leaders,” said Dr Kapila.

“The Plan tried to get a fix on the minority and majority problem, question of Muslim political rights and what the actual form of a free state of India will look like. It fails. Because the context it operates in is highly mobilized. Plus, Jinnah, Nehru and even Sardar Patel have distinct ideas of what the future of South Asia should look like”.

The tensions between the Congress and the League are evident within a charged communal climate of the country, later reflected in the Calcutta Riots of August 1946.

For Azad who was in Delhi at that time, “a shadow of disturbances were taking place in Calcutta and elsewhere”, and negotiations between the League and the Congress reached a deadlock. Partition was now inevitable.

Source: TRT World


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