Lord Wavell succeeded Lord Linlithgow as Governor General in October 1942, when the people were in the grip of a grave economic crisis: scarcity of essential commodities, increasing cost of living and Great Famine in Bengal. Politically the country was much more dividend than it was when Linlithgow had taken charge (April 1936). The history of his long Viceroyalty was ‘a cumbersome record of frustration and futility’. Linlithgow bequeathed to his successor ‘an unenviable legacy’.
By the middle of 1945, the War was approaching its end, but was still continuing in the East against Japan. To break the political deadlock in India, since the resignation of the Congress ministries in 1939, Wavell announced a new plan, through a Radio Broadcast. Main features of the Wavell Plan were:
- to ease the political situation and to advance India towards her goal of self-government,
- to set up a new Executive Council which would be entirely Indian except for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-chief,
- caste Hindus and Muslims would have equal representation in the executive council,
- the executive council would work like a provisional national government,
- the new government would work under the Government of India Act, 1935
- the formation of interim government would in no way be prejudiced to the framing of a new constitution at some later stage by the Indians themselves,
- settlement of the communal issue which is the main stumbling block in the way of advance,
- the functions of the new executive council could be:
- to prosecute the war,
- to carry on the government of India, and
- to consider the means by which a new permanent constitution could be agreed upon and a long term solution could be facilitated,
- the portfolio of the member of external affairs which the Viceroy was holding would be transferred to an Indian member.
To discuss the above Plan Viceroy Lord Wavell convened a conference of various political and party leaders in Simla. The Conference assembled at Simla on 25 June 1945. There were 21 invitees including Abul Kalam Azad (Congress President), Jinnah, leaders of the Sikhs, Europeans and the Scheduled Castes, as also some Premiers or ex-Premiers of provinces. The Hindu Mahasabha was not invited. Gandhi did not attend the Conference, but he remained at Simla during the discussion and was available for consultation by the Congress leaders.
The deliberations of the Conference were held under the presidentship of the Viceroy. There was general agreement on three points: (1) prosecution of war against Japan (Germany had already surrendered); (2) interim administration of British India by an Executive Council ‘consisting of men of influence and ability recommended by the conference of all portfolios in the Executive Council, except the War portfolio which would be held by the Commander-in-Chief. But differences on two points remained unresolved; (1) composition of the Executive Council; (2) the Viceroy’s veto which the Congress wanted to be abolished, but the Muslim League wanted to be retained. The Congress submitted a list which included two ‘Caste Hindus’, one Muslim, one Parsi and one Indian Christian. This ‘proved, if proof were needed, that the Congress was a truly national organization’. The Premier of the Punjab, Khizr Hyat Khan, claimed a seat for a Punjabi Muslim representing the Unionist Party which was in power in that province. Jinnah did not submit any list, but he objected to the inclusion of any non-League Muslim in the Executive Council. Wavell himself prepared a list which gave the Muslims, who constituted only about 25 per cent of the total population of India, 6 representatives in an Executive Council of 14. This arrangement was rejected by the Congress as also by Jinnah. Moreover, Jinnah demanded, in addition to the retention of the Viceroy’s veto, some other safeguards for the Muslim Members of the Executive Council, e. g., a provision requiring a clear two-thirds majority in case of proposals objected to by the Muslim Members all of whom would be his nominees.
Wavell dropped the Plan; the deadlock continued. The Congress complained that he ‘capitulated’ to Jinnah, for the Viceroy should have taken a forward step as the Congress had agreed to join the Executive Council even though the Muslim League had decided to keep out. The Congress, which claimed to represent all the communities and the entire nation, could not have accepted these intrasigent demands of the League. The failure of the Simla Conference gave a veto power to the League that whatever is not acceptable to the League could not be implemented. It was now clear that the Muslims League could make or mar the fortunes of the Muslims, as the British Government gave it the power to veto any constitutional proposal which was not to its liking. No Muslim outside had, therefore, any chance of a political career in future.
1945-46 ELECTIONS AND THE COMMUNAL DIVIDE
There was a remarkable change in the political situation in the second half of 1945. At the international level, Nazi Germany had been defeated and destroyed. Japan had surrendered after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In general elections held in England July 1945, Churchil’s Conservative Party was defeated and the Labour Party came into power in England with Attlee as the new Prime Minister and Sir Pethick Lawrence as the new Secretary of State. Both were anxious to get Britain out of India, as rapidly as possible. The Labour Party professed radical and socialist principles and had supported India’s aspirations for self-government. After the War, Britain’s internal condition and world position had vastly deteriorated. Its industry was chaotic, foreign trade dwindled; Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. The world situation was now becoming serious.
It was in this background that Viceroy Lord Wavell announced general elections in the winter of 1945-46. It were these elections which sealed the fate of the communities. It was here that religion was brought to the forefront. Muslims were asked to vote for the League because “a vote for League and Pakistan was a vote for Islam. ” In 1937 the League won only 25 per cent of Muslim seats, in 1946 it captured almost 90 percent. The most significant feature of these elections was Muslim communal voting in sharp contrast to the anti-British unity of the earlier days. The league held a convention of Muslims legislators in April 1946 where Jinnah declared that there could be no compromise on the issue of Pakistan as a fully sovereign state and warned the British government that if they were going to sell 100 million Muslims for some illusionary hope, it would be the greatest tragedy in the history of Great Britain