Lord Wavell: Governor General and Viceroy of India (1943 – 1947)

Lord Linlithgow retired as viceroy in the summer of 1943, and was succeeded by Lord Wavell, who remained 23rd Viceroy of India from 1 October 1943 to 21 February 1947. The most important events during his tenure were Great Famine of Bengal (1943), Rajagopalachari Formula (1944), Simla conference (1945); Conclusion of WW-II with surrender of Japan; Cabinet Mission (1946), Direct Action Day (1946), Interim Government under Nehru.

Bengal Famine 1942-43

Bengal Famine of 1942-43 resulted in the death of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million children, women and men during 1942-43. A constellation of natural as well as manmade factors led to this mega-tragedy such as Japanese occupation of Burma, the damage to the aman (kharif) rice crop both due to tidal waves and a disease epidemic caused by the fungus Helminthosporium oryzae, panic purchase and hoarding by the rich, failure of governance particularly in relation to the equitable distribution of the available food grains, disruption of communication due to World War-II, and the indifference of the then U.K. government to the plight of the starving people of undivided Bengal.

C. Rajagopalachari formula of 1944

The Congress and Muslim league were adamant on single and two nation theory respectively. To resolve the deadlock, C Rajagopalachari {CR} came up with a formula. This formula proposed that:

  • For the time being {till a provisional interim government is formed}, Muslim league would support the congress demand of complete freedom and single dominion.
  • Once the war ends, a commission would be appointed to demarcate the districts having a Muslim population in absolute majority and in those areas plebiscite will be conducted on the basis of adult suffrage.
  • All parties would be allowed to express their stance on the partition and their views before the plebiscite
  • If the plebiscite accepts separation, a mutual agreement would be signed to safeguard essential matters such as defence, communication and commerce and for other essential services.
  • In case of separation, the transfer of population would be on voluntary basis.

However, Jinnah rejected CR Formula because separation could not be deferred till after independence. The idea of safeguarding essential services was useless; and thought that a plebiscite in which both Muslims and Hindus voting contradicted the basic principle of Muslims being a distinct nation with an inherent right of self-determination.

Gandhi Jinnah Talks, 1944

Most of Congress leaders were still in Jail but Gandhi was released on 5 May 1944. He proposed to engage in Talks with Jinnah on his two nation theory. And, the CR formula was used as a basis of these talks. Gandhi and Jinnah met in September 1944. In these talks, Gandhi proposed that only the Muslims living in Baluchistan, Sindh, N.W.F.P and parts of the Punjab, Bengal and Assam, who desired to lives in separation from the rest of India, should form the new state. But on this, Jinnah insisted that Pakistan should include all the six provinces resolution of the Muslim league in 1940. He did not a mutilated, moth eaten Pakistan, same like Allama Mashriqi cried for.  Jinnah also reject other suggestions such as treaty of separation to provide for common services etc.

Bhulabhai-Laaqut Ali Talks, 1945

In January 1945, there were talks between the Congress leader Bhulabhai Desai and Muslim leader Liaquat Ali Khan to resolve a deadlock. As per the pact, both Congress and Muslim league would be given equal {40% each and 20 per cent reservation for the rest} of seats in Interim Government to be created under existing constitution but having all Indians except Viceroy and Commander in chief. A settlement would be worked out after interim government had taken office.

Desai claimed that these proposals had support of Gandhi, that they were based on informal talks with Liaqat Ali Khan and that if the British Government really wanted a Central Government with political backing they could get it now. He was confident that Jinnah was aware and had approved of what had passed between him and Liaqat Ali Khan.  The Viceroy fell in with this proposal and recommended its adoption to the Secretary of State. However, Secretary of State was not confident and doubted that Bhulabhai might be a stalking horse indeed!

When Viceroy met Desai, he was vague about Congress’s readiness to give the league equal status in interim Government. It was later rejected by Jinnah as well as Congress. Thus, Bhulabhai-Liaqut Ali pact or talks proved to be very costly for the political career of Bhulabhai himself.

Wavell Plan, June 1945

In the summer of 1945, Lord Wavell organised Simla Conference in order to solve the constitutional tangle. Both the Congress and the Muslim League took part in the Simla Conference but the Conference could not succeed on account of the attitude of the Muslim League.

In this conference, Jinnah said that only Muslim league has right to represent Muslims of India and congress or any other non-league entity does not represent Muslims. Congress had no right to nominate any Muslim in executive council. He also demanded that in case of the division of votes and objection by the Muslim members, there should be a provision that vote is cleared only by 2/3rd of majority.

This apart, Wavell had given place to six members in the executive council of 14 and also a power to veto any constitutional proposal which was not in its interest. However, this was unjust because Muslims represented only a quarter of the Indian population.

Nevertheless, this particular decision {of giving Jinnah Veto to block any constitutional process in executive council} of Wavell practically ensured the creation of Pakistan. This is because from Cripps Mission to Wavell plan, the situation had reversed in favour of Muslim League. While Cripps mission had recognized Congress as only platform to discuss with the government; Wavell plan created two platforms. It made Muslim league representative of Muslims in India. Jinnah’s status was raised to equal of Gandhi and two representatives were created for the first time – one for India and the other for Pakistan.

RIN  Mutiny, 1946

On February 18, 1946, a section of non-commissioned officers and sailors known as Ratings, serving in the Royal Indian Navy, mutinied against the British Officers.   The violence broke out in Mumbai and over 200 people lost lives in this disturbance. The mutiny made an impression on the British, that it would be better to leave the country. On February 19, the second day of this mutiny, Cabinet Mission was sent to India.

Cabinet Mission Plan 1946

Cabinet Mission was composed of three Cabinet Ministers of England viz. Sir Pethick Lawrence, Secretary of State for India; Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

The mission arrived on March 24, 1946 to devise a machinery to draw up the constitution of Independent India and make arrangements for interim Government.  The mission spent some 3 weeks to discuss with the leaders of various political parties, but could not arrive at any agreed solution. So finally it announced its own recommendations on May 16, 1946. The key recommendations were:

  • Undivided India, thus turning down the demand of Pakistan of Muslim League.
  • Restriction upon communal representation.
  • An interim cabinet made of all Indian Members.
  • Formation of the constituent assembly on democratic principle of population.
  • It recognized Indian Right to cede from the Commonwealth.

The most important proposal was of a Union of India that would be empowered to deal with the defense, foreign affairs and communications. This would be a weak centre and strong province government. All subjects other than the Union Subjects and all the residuary powers would be vested in the provinces. The Princely states would retain all subjects and all residuary powers.

Congress accepted the idea of constituent assembly but rejected the scheme of the government having weak centre and strong provinces. The plan had also divided India’s states into 3 groups and this idea was also rejected by Congress.

The Muslim league first approved the plan. But when Congress declared that it could change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly, they rejected the plan.  On July 27, the Muslim League Council met at Bombay where Jinnah reiterated the demand for Pakistan as the only course left open to the Muslim League. Jinnah called the Muslims to resort to “Direct Action” to achieve the land of their dream “Pakistan”.

Direct Action Day, August 16, 1946

16 August 1946 was fixed as the Direct Action Day by Muslim League to show the strength of Muslim feelings both to British and Congress. In Calcutta, the communal tension was whipped up by both Hindu and Muslim newspapers. The Muslims announced a strike on that day while Hindus asked them shopkeepers to keep shops open. The result was Great Calcutta Killing in which 6000 Hindus and Muslims butchered each other and 20,000 others were maimed, raped or violated. Riots soon spread to all parts of North India and it turned into a Civil War between Hindus and Muslims. Amidst this situation of Chaos and insanity, Mahatma Gandhi went to calm down the maddened riotists.

Constituent Assembly – December 6, 1946

By the December 1946, the elections to the Constituent assembly had taken place and it met for the first time on 6 December 1946. The members of the constituent assembly were elected by the Provincial assemblies by method of single transferable vote system of proportional representations. Congress won 208 seats and Muslim league won 73 seats. However, Muslim league demanded for a separate Constituent assembly for Muslims in India.  So, the British declared that the decisions of the Constituent assembly would not be valid in the Muslim majority areas. Thus the working of the assembly got virtually crippled.

Atlee’s Declaration – February 20, 1947

The Prime Minister of Britain Clement Atlee declared on February 20, 1947 in the House of Commons that the British would quit India after transferring power into the responsible hand not later than June 1948. The idea was that the Indians should settle their issues before that. He also announced the appointment of Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy in place of Lord Wavell.

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  • Dhananjay B Patel

    Thanks a lot, this gives a complete detailed plan of all was sorted, although great bullet points which made it easy to understand.