This book is about a willing complicity too, about the failure of Britain to take real, purposeful steps to prepare India for Independence, and about deliberate blindness to the consequences of the desperate scuttle which flowed from that lack of preparation.
The book seeks to show that there was a willing collusion by the political classes in a policy, or a series of policies, amounting together to a lack of steady, consistent policy, which had as its inevitable outcome the condition in which India was left in 1947 – …terrible intercommunal hatred…together with an absence of the established political institutions and governmental organisations which are the basis of the harmonious society which Macaulay envisaged.
There was no intent to bring this about, but there was a silent connivance in holding back political progress for as long as possible – until finally Britain could postpone it no longer and finally had to scuttle out at short order, leaving chaos behind.
The story of the last thirty years of the Raj reveals little evidence of goodwill or wholehearted commitment to India’s well-being. On the contrary, it is an unsettling story of deceit and double-speak. These squalid political years were not a part of her history of which Britain can be proud.
The Declaration was made in the form of an official communiqué in the Indian Gazette on 31 October 1929:
In view of the doubts which have been expressed both in Great Britain and in India regarding the interpretation to be placed on the intentions of the British government in enacting the Statute of 1919, I am authorised on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to state clearly that in their judgement it is implicit in the Declaration of 1917 that the natural issue of India’s constitutional progress as there contemplated is the attainment of Dominion status.
But the Declaration implied no early threat to Empire: the viceroy had been presented with a memorandum by the Indian Home Department in Delhi which concluded that dominion status and responsible government were so inseparably intertwined that one couldn’t have one without the other. The obstacles in the path of full responsible government were “immense” and consequently a commitment to dominion status meant nothing. The memorandum is so important in showing how little Irwin’s assurance meant that it is worth quoting from it at some length:
Are the implications of dominion status now so wide that the imperial government could not feel itself able honestly to assert that dominion status is the goal of its policy equally with responsible government? The answer might seem to be in the negative, since the implications of dominion status need to be considered conjointly with the implications of responsible government.
In each case whether the goal of parliament be responsible government or whether it be dominion status, the problem is essentially the same, namely the extent to which government in India can be released from external control. In neither case can the consummation of the policy be reached by a stroke of the pen. The reality of dominion status cannot be obtained until the goal of responsible government has first been reached.
If we assume for the moment that the immense obstacles in the path of full responsible government have been successfully removed, that the entire executive and legislative authority in India has been made to accord with the will of Indian electorates, and the Parliament has ceased to be responsible even that there shall be a government in India, it would seem to follow that the imperial government, even if it so wished, might then be unable to deny to India a status equal to that of the other autonomous units of the Empire, which also reached dominion status through the same channel of responsible government.
If there be anything in this argument, the difficulty of accepting dominion status as the goal of British policy may be little, if at all, greater than the difficulty involved when responsible government was adopted as the declared policy of Parliament; and the connection between the two may be found to be so intimate that the final consummation of full responsible government may automatically involve the realisation of dominion status.
So the dominion status which Irwin promised wouldn’t be available for a very long time.
...When Irwin met Gandhi in December 1930 and was told that Congress would not participate in the Round-table conference unless assurances were given that its purpose was to draft a dominion constitution, he did not give that undertaking: that wasn’t at all what his Declaration meant. Baldwin had asked MacDonald what the statement, which he had already undertaken to support, actually meant. MacDonald replied that it meant no change to British policy. Samuel Hoare equally “failed to see anything either new or revolutionary in the statement”.
So here was the usual duplicity. Those who framed policy in London were well aware that Indians thought that there was something new and revolutionary about the statement, and encouraged them in that belief.
On 16 November he [Winston Churchill] wrote in the Daily Mail speaking of British rule in India with condescending approval: “The rescue of India from ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war, and its slow but ceaseless forward march to civilisation constitute upon the whole the finest achievement of our history. This work has been done in four or five generations by the willing sacrifices of the best of our race.”
The achievement was a British achievement and not an Indian one: “Progress would have been more swift, health and prosperity more abounding, if the British Civil and Technical Services in India had not been hampered by the forbearance we promised to observe towards Indian religious and social customs.”
Thus, although he purported to approve of the post-war policy of helping India to be involved in her own advance, there were limits to the assumption by Indians of full responsible government, “limits – hard, physical, obvious and moral – arising from Time and Facts”. So it had been an enormous mistake for the Labour Government, “amid all the Utopian dreams and predatory appetites and subversive movements” which the presence of the Simon Commission in India had excited, to make the new Declaration of eventual dominion status, a premature Declaration:
Dominion status can certainly not be attained by a community which brands and treats 60 millions of its Members, fellow human beings, toiling at their side, as “untouchables”, whose approach is an affront and whose very presence is pollution.
Dominion status can certainly not be obtained while India is a prey to fierce racial and religious dissentions and when the withdrawal of British protection would mean the immediate resumption of mediaeval wars.
It cannot be attained while the political classes in India represent only an insignificant fraction of the 350 millions for whose welfare we are responsible.
Many of India’s political leadership were in Delhi for the announcement of the Declaration, amongst them Gandhi, Mrs Annie Besant, the Nehrus, Motilal and Jawaharlal.
Only Jawaharlal Nehru opposed the idea of a Round-table conference. He was against political advance by means of negotiation. After just two days of debate, Congress issued the Delhi Manifesto agreeing to attend the Conference, but only on conditions: the release of political prisoners, the largest representation at the conference for Congress, the understanding that the purpose of the conference was not to determine whether or when dominion status was to be reached but to draft a constitution for the dominion. The conditions were not met: Congress boycotted the conference.
So in India the Declaration persuaded no one. Congress could see that dominion status was still a chimera. In March 1930 Gandhi began his new civil disobedience campaign, which concluded with the salt march. Nehru and his radical supporters thought that even the new Balfour-type dominion status was not true Independence.
So Irwin was under attack both in India and also in London – particularly by Churchill, whose accusations were described by Birkenhead’s son as “superb in eloquence, biting in scorn and containing charges of the viceroy’s weakness and irresolution, which indeed skirted the frontiers of his honour”.
Reports of the civil disobedience campaign sustained Churchill’s allegation that Britain was losing the will to govern. The Home Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council complained that the “government may not be retaining that essential moral superiority which is perhaps the most important factor in this struggle”.
Excerpted with permission from Keeping the Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India, Walter Reid, Penguin Books.