Two developments in the later half of 1941 changed the Indian situation. After overrunning a big part of Europe, Hitler invaded Russia on 22 June 1941. in the East, Japan attacked the American Naval fleet at Pearl Harbour and quickly swept the British from Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia and Burma, posing a serious threat to the security of India. The German invasion of Russia confronted the Indian Communists with a dilemma. While the British policies in India remained repressive and reactionary as ever, Britain now was an ally of Russia against Germany. In January 1942, the Communist Party of India toeing the Comintern line, called for full support to the anti-fascist ‘people’s war’, even while reiterating its demand for the independence of India and immediate national government. The deteriorating war situation also demanded reappraisal of the Congress programmes. The Indian leaders were worried about the safety and defence of India. On its part, the Congress called off the movement for the time being and offered cooperation to the government for the defence of India provided Britain agreed to give full independence after the war and the substance of power immediately. As that war came nearer India day by day, Britain felt obliged to make some gestures to win over Indian public opinion. At international level, Roosevelt raised the question of Indian political reforms with Churchil. Chiang-Kai Shek on a visit to India in February 1941 expressed sympathy towards ‘India’s aspirations for freedom’. The Labour leaders of Britain also put pressure on Churchil to seek active cooperation of the Indians in the war. To secure this cooperation, the British government decided to send a Mission headed by Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the British cabinet and a Left wing Labourite to settle the terms of cooperation. Cripps arrived in Delhi on 22 March 1942, with a draft declaration on the basis of which he was to conduct negotiations with the leaders of the Indian national movement.
Sir Stafford Cripps spent three weeks in India in March-April 1942. After hectic activities and prolonged discussions, he announced his proposals in the form of a Draft Declaration on 30 March 1942. The draft proposal in its preamble announced that the objective was the creation of a new Indian Union which shall constitute a Dominion associated with UK and other dominions by a common allegiance to the Grown, but equal to them in every respect, and in no way subordinate in any respect of its domestic and external affairs. The scheme had two parts: (i) procedure for framing a dominion, constitution, and (ii) interim arrangements during the war period. For the first part, it was suggested that after the end of the war, fresh elections would be held for all provincial legislatures; the members of the lower house of provincial legislatures and the representatives of the states would form the electoral college to elect the constitution-making body; the constitutional body would be about 1/10 of the total members of the electoral college and will be elected by a system of proportional representation. The constitution-making body would prepare a constitution for the Indian Union but if a province expressed its unwillingness to accept the constitution, it will be free to refuse accession to the Indian Union’. It would be free to formulate its own constitution which will have the same status, powers and functions as the Union of India. A treaty would be made between His Majesty’s Government and the constitution-making body by which the constitution would be bound to honour the interests of racial and religious minorities. The second part of the scheme regarding immediate and interim arrangements during the war period made no change in the Government of India Act 1935. It stated that ‘during the critical period…. His Majesty’s Government must inevitably bear the responsibility for and retain control and direction of the defence of India, as part of the World War effort, but the task of organizing to the full the military, moral and material resources of India must be the responsibility of the Government of India, with the cooperation of the people of India’.
Rejection of the Cripps Proposals
There is no doubt that the Cripps proposals were a step ahead of the August Offer. It recognized for the first time the right of the dominion of India, the full right of Indians to frame their constitution and decide the principles on which the new constitution was to be framed. It also accepted the right of the Indian Union to secede from the Commonwealth. However, the proposals were calculated to please the Muslim League and the Indian Princely States. The scheme recognized the right of the Muslim majority provinces to frame their own constitution. The States were given the option to either join or stay out of the Union.
The Congress objected to the provision of Dominion Status rather than full independence, the representation to the Princely States in the constituent assembly, not by the people of the states but by the nominees of the rulers, and above all, the provision for provincial option which implied the acceptance of Pakistan and partition of the country. With regard to the second part, the question of the Executive Council and especially of its Defence member were subject of intensive discussion.
The conflicting opinion between the Congress and the British government led to the failure of the mission. The rejection of the Cripps’ proposals by the Congress was equally accepted by the Liberals, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Sikhs and the Indian Christians, though the different and often diametrically opposite reasons. Gandhi termed the proposals as ‘a post-dated cheque on a crashing bank’. The Liberal leaders looked at the cryptic incorporation of a provision aiming at the partition of the country. The Hindu Mahasabha condemned the offer as an instrument of ‘balkanization of India’. The Sikhs protested that they would by all possible means resist the ‘separation of Punjab from the Indian Union’. The leaders of the Depressed Classes criticized the scheme on the grounds that it did not protect the interests of the minorities.
Initially, only the Muslim League had accepted the proposals but after its rejection by the Congress and others, the League also followed suit, since the political disadvantage of its being the only open supporter of the scheme in the current climate of opinion, were considerable. The League rejected the proposals on the grounds that
- It did not clearly accept the demand for Pakistan,
- It did not provide for another constituent assembly comprising only of Muslim members,
- It did not provide separate electorate for the constituent assembly,
- No dates for the proposed interim arrangements had been fixed, and
- The representation of the Muslims in the provincial assemblies was inadequate. The Cripps proposals, instead of bridging the gulf between the British government and the Indian nationalists, served only to widen it.
The failure of the mission led to the worsening of the political situation in the country, leaving the Indian people frustrated and embittered. People in exasperation began to feel that the time has come for a final assault on the British imperialism.