It was a pleasant late winter day on Friday, 3rd February 1928, when members of the 7-member Indian Statutory Commission, led by Sir John Simon, arrived at Bombay on the west coast of India.
Members of the Commission were confronted by protesters waving black flags. Few would have imagined then, but the forces they inadvertently set in motion that day would have a profound impact, the effects of which continue to haunt the sub-continent to this day.
Government of India Act, 1919
As we have seen earlier, Indians expected greater devolution of powers from the British rulers after the end of the first world war, to which they had contributed more than a million soldiers. The British government, unwilling to grant any substantial concessions, enacted the Government of India Act, 1919.
The act resulted in a bicameral legislature consisting of the 145 member Legislative Assembly (of which 103 would be elected) and the 60 member Council of State (of which 22 were elected). The right to vote was subject to several restrictions, due to which the voter base for the Legislative Assembly was restricted to 9,09,874 voters in 1920 (representing roughly 1% of the then population of India).
Largely unnoticed at the time was Section 41 of The Act, which mandated the creation of a commission to conduct an inquiry into the system of Government, the growth of education and the development of representative institutions in India. This commission was to be constituted after 10 years from the enactment of The Act, which meant that it was due in December 1929. The British government decided to advance it by 2 years with dubious intentions, as we shall see.
India in 1927
By 1927 the struggle for independence (insofar as there was any struggle still underway) was all but dead. The period between 1920-22, when the Non-Cooperation Movement briefly threatened to bring an end to British rule, were but memories of another time. Having withdrawn the Non-Cooperation Movement in the face of multiple outbreaks of violence (more about that at a later date), M.K. Gandhi had gone into semi retirement from active politics. Without his unifying leadership, the national movement was drifting like a rudderless ship. Only a handful of underground revolutionaries were still active.
By late 1927, the British rule seemed more secure anyone could have possibly imagined in the heady days of the early 20s. India, it seemed, was destined to remain under the British yoke for the foreseeable future…
…until the British government gave the virtually dead struggle a new lease of life.
The Simon Commission
Elections to the British House of Commons were due in 1929. The Conservative Party, which was in power in the late 20s, faced the prospect of losing power to the Labour Party in the 1929 elections . The Conservatives feared that a Labour government would be more sympathetic to Indian demands and thus likely to concede far greater reforms than they were willing to countenance.
In order to forestall that possibility, the Conservatives decided to advance the constitution of the Commission to ensure that its work would be completed before the 1929 elections. And so on 8th November 1927, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin announced the constitution of the statutory commission.
If Indian leaders were astonished to hear the announcement, their surprise soon turned to indignation when Baldwin announced that the commission would consist of 7 British members of parliament. In other words, the commission that was to help prepare the future constitution of India did not contain a single Indian member. Whether it was due to arrogant disregard for Indian opinion or plain incompetence, the composition of the commission was bound to be unacceptable to any self-respecting Indian.
The Indian Response
All political parties in India, irrespective of their ideology, unanimously decided to boycott the commission. The situation was aptly summed up by Tej Bahadur Sapru in his presidential address at the annual session of the All-India Liberal Federation
I do not think a worse challenge has been thrown out ever before to Indian nationalism… if our patriotism is a prejudice and if the patriotism of of the seven members of parliament is to be treated as impartial justice… we are not going to acquiesce in this method of dealing with us. Neither our self-respect nor our sense of duty to our country can permit us to go near the commission.
With one ill-advised decision for short term gains, the Conservatives had strengthened the hands of the very forces they sought to forestall.
The Congress in Action
The 42nd annual session of the Indian National Congress was to be held at Madras between 26th and 28th December 1927. the party- energised by the unexpected developments of November- moved a proposal to adopt dominion status as its ultimate goal, which was in keeping with the general mood of the moderate faction led, among others, by an eminent lawyer from Allahabad called Motilal Nehru.
The younger section led by Motilal’s son, a 38 year old lawyer called Jawahralal Nehru, opposed the resolution and moved a counter-resolution demanding complete independence (while they abstained from voting). Unexpectedly perhaps, the resolution was passed unanimously.
The Congress Boycott
With its cadre spread right down to the grassroots (owing to structural changes initiated in the early 20s), the involvement of the Congress took the proposed boycott to an unprecedented level. There was a complete hartal in every city across India on 3rd February. The commission was greeted by protesting crowds waving black flags and carrying banners with the words “Go Back, Simon” wherever it went.
On 16th February, Lala Lajpat Rai moved a resolution in the Legislative Assembly calling for a refusal to cooperate with the commission (his tryst with the commission would ultimately lead to his tragic death later that year). The resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of the elected members. Extraordinarily, the passing of the resolution was accompanied by cries of “Bande Mataram” in a chamber usually known for its loyalty to the British rulers.
The ‘Nehru’ Constitution
Secretary of State for India, Lord Birkenhead had thrown down a challenge calling on Indians to produce a constitution having the general support of the people of India. This was back in July 1925. While announcing the constitution of the statutory commission, he renewed the challenge.
I have twice invited our critics in India to put forward their own suggestions for a constitution. That offer is still open.
Indian leaders decided to accept the challenge. After a series of deliberations, it was ultimately decided to entrust a committee under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru. The committee’s report was placed for consideration at the All Parties Conference in Lucknow in August 1928. Lack of unanimity resulted in the ‘Nehru Constitution’, as it came to be known, being placed before a representative convention in Calcutta on 22nd December.
The Muslim League and a section of the Khilafat Committee, led by a prominent Bombay lawyer called Muhammad Ali Jinnah, proposed certain amendments to the communal settlement proposed in the Nehru constitution which were rejected after an acrimonious debate. Prompting Jinnah to withdraw from the convention in protest.
The disillusioned Jinnah threw in his lot with the Aga Khan and Sir Muhammed Shafi. The joint front demanded, among other things, separate electorates for Muslims in statutory bodies.
An Uneasy Decision
The last days of December saw Congress delegates from all corners of the country converge for the annual session in Calcutta. It soon became evident that the party was deeply divided between the faction whose ambitions for the immediate future were restricted to dominion status and the extremists, whose immediate demand was nothing short of complete independence.
M.K. Gandhi proposed a compromise, suggesting that Dominion Status be laid down as the immediate objective, subject to the Nehru constitution being accepted in its entirety by the British parliament within a year. The left-wing extremist faction led by the party’s rising stars Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose (who enjoyed an excellent relationship back then) strongly opposed the proposal. The amendment was lost by 973 votes to 1350.
For the time being at least, the country’s largest political party had declared dominion status (akin to Australia or Canada) as its ultimate objective. The ball was now firmly in the court of the powers that be in Westminster.
Congress Proposes, Westminster Disposes
The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, issued a statement on 31st October 1929, that the natural issue of India’s constitutional progress was the attainment of dominion status. The declaration was widely appreciated by Indian leaders. But the drama was far from over.
The new government formed after the 1929 elections was an unstable coalition, largely dependent on the Liberal Party. With the Conservative Party as well as Liberal Party opposed to it, the new government was unable to proceed with the proposal to work towards dominion status. When Gandhi, Nehru and others met him on 23rd December 1929, Lord Irwin was unable to give any assurances, whereupon M.K. Gandhi declared that he was all for complete independence. It was the tipping point for the hitherto moderate Gandhi who would declare
I have burnt my boats
- As expected, the 1929 elections brought the Labour party to power, albeit in coalition with the Liberal party
- Gandhi’s declaration in favour of complete independence marked his return to the vanguard of the struggle for independence after a 7 year hiatus
- Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as president of the Indian National Congress at the Lahore Session in last week December 1929
- During the Lahore Session it was declared that Sunday, 26th January 1930 would be पूर्ण स्वराज्य दिवस (day of complete independence)
- M.K. Gandhi launched the Civil Disobedience Movement in March 1930
- Jawaharlal Nehru became an unwavering supporter of Gandhi, resulting in a parting of ways with Subhas Chandra Bose, whose admiration of Gandhi was never unconditional (Bose too would become Congress president in the late 30s)
- Nehru would go from strength to strength, becoming one of the most prominent Congress leaders in the 30s. He went on to become the first prime minister of independent India, serving for a record 17 years
- The twentieth anniversary of the पूर्ण स्वराज्य दिवस (day of complete independence) was chosen to be the day on which the constitution of independent India came into force. 26th January has, ever since, been celebrated in India as Republic Day
- One of the members of the Simon Commission, Labour Party leader Clement Attlee served as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, in the course of which his government would grant complete independence to India
- Disillusioned with the Congress, Muhammad Ali Jinnah completely threw in his lot with the Muslim League. His demand for seperate electorates for Muslims would prove the tipping point in the chain of events that ultimately led to the creation of Pakistan
- Lord Irwin, whose name changed to Lord Halifax became the secretery of state for foreign affairs in 1935. In his new avatar as Lord Halifax, he would be instrumental in executing prime minister Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler, leading to the infamous Munich Agreement in 1938 that paved the way for Hitler’s bloodless annexation of Czechoslovakia.
- Bipan Chandra & Others, India’s Struggle For Independence, Penguin India Books, 1989
- R.C. Mazumdar & Others, Struggle for Freedom, The History and Culture of the Indian People (Volume Eleven), Bhavan’s Book University, 1969