The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002

Off the Shelf
Stafford Cripps, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru
V. N. Datta

SOME of us still remember Sir Stafford Cripps’s visit to India. A general feeling prevailed then that his visit to India would free us from the fetters of British rule and lead to a dawn of freedom. We thought that his visit was an American gift because that inveterate foe of India, the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill, had been forced by the then US President Roosevelt to put pressure on him to take concrete steps for establishing self-government in India. That was the popular view. But within a few days, all was over, and we heard no more of Cripps unti11946. The formula he evolved this time to settle the Indian question seemed too complicated. When India became free in 1947, Attlee and Mountbatten were lauded as the liberators of India from the thralldom of British rule. But Cripps was nowhere, like Chowdhry Rahmat Ali in Pakistan.

In our studies at undergraduate level Cripps is remembered for his 1942 proposals, and for Gandhi’s aphorism calling his proposals "a post-dated cheque" on a failing or crashing bank, whatever it may be. Professional historians take the view that Cripps, Nehru’s friend, was a well-meaning man but was pulled back by Churchill, whom he had no strength to fight. S. Gopal takes the view, generally accepted by historians, that the War Council (barring Attlee) had no intention of promoting self-government in India. Gopal ridicules the ambiguity of Cripps’s proposals. This view has become a customary part of Indian historiography.


Speaking generally, the National Movement in India is studied in India as Nationalism versus British Imperialism, but the constitutional aspects of self-government are neglected. Reginald Coupland figures nowhere but some references are made to R.J. Moore’s researches.

In view of a general apathy to the constitutional history of India and to Cripps, a recently published book, The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952) by Peter Clarke (Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, 2002, £ 20, pages XVIII + 534) is welcome. Peter Clarke is Professor of British History and Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He has made a substantial contribution to British history and politics in the 20th century. Clarke’s aim is to rescue Cripps from oblivion by writing on him a three-dimensional biography.

The biography covers the most crucial part of British history of the 20th century through the study of this political figure. In tune with the British historiographical tradition of relating a personality to his milieu, he explores the social and political developments of the time. Yet there are limits to a biographical perspective. His focus on the biographical life of Cripps limits the scope of his study. Historical events are studied in the context of Cripps’ personality, and therefore certain questions inevitably remain unanswered. In short, biographical study is a limited study of human situation. Clarke’s book testifies to this limit.

Broadly speaking, the book is divided into five parts: Cripps’ early life, his Ambassadorship to Russia, his two Missions to India, his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finally a moving account of his illness and death. Clarke has used an enormous range of source material in the reconstruction of Cripps’ life. He had an unrestricted access to the Cripps’ private collection of papers, especially his Diary of 1946, hitherto unused, which throws light on the Cabinet Mission to India. I have always felt that Diaries, unless written for posterity with a design, are more reliable than autobiographies. Regrettably, Clarke has not used Nehru’s journal of his prison days (1942-45), which reveals Nehru’s disappointments with Gandhi on his leadership from 1939-42.

Clarke has drawn a somewhat frightening portrait of Cripps, who emerges from this study a man of luminous intellect, stiff-necked, self-righteous, self-opinionated, a vegetarian, non-alcoholic, non-smoker, reading law books, incapable of forming enduring friendship, writing letters to his wife on politics, looking up to Jesus as his hero, and Marx as his guardian, without seeing any incompatibility between the two. Taciturn and reserved, he knew not how to relax. A self-mortifying individual who made austerity a religious cult, he was regarded in the Press as the "English Gandhi". Churchill quipped, "He (Cripps) has all the virtues that I dislike, and none of the vices that I admire." However, when Cripps died, Churchill paid a most memorable tribute by calling him the "Soul of Honour."

The most fascinating chapter in the book is "Cripps and Churchill." In the section dealing with Cripps’ proposals Clarke has used with care Coupland’s Diary, which gives an account of Cripps’ negotiations with Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Azad. Clarke has dispelled the view that Churchill scuttled his proposals. He shows that Churchill’s telegrams of April 10 reached Cripps when the Congress Working Committee had already rejected his proposals. As a candid historian, Clarke suggests a number of explanations for the failure of proposals.

I believe the crucial factor of Cripps’ failure was Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence and his determination to keep India out of war. For this a close study of the proceedings of the Congress Working Committee (1939-42) is needed. On the issue of non-violence, Rajaji, K.M. Munshi, M.N. Roy and Bhulabhai Desai were made to quit the Congress. Maulana Azad resigned on the same issue. And just a month before the Quit India Movement, Gandhi asked Nehru to resign due to his differences on India’s participation in the war effort despite the fact that he had nominated Nehru as his successor a few days earlier. To Gandhi non-violence was more important than independence. In his journal Nehru wrote, while in prison, that on the issues relating to war "Bapu turned the wrong way" and there was "a marked deterioration in the great man," though "greatness still remains" but "the old sagacity is gone. The so-called Gandhian era is over," he added.

Clarke looks to the Indian situation through the eyes of Cripps, who relies on the advice of Gandhi and Nehru. Like Cripps, Nehru had no political base in the party. Gandhi, assisted by Patel, was the controlling authority. In 1946 Cripps and Pethic-Lawrence partly succeeded because they picked up Patel. I fear that Clarke has not given due treatment to Patel’s role. Patel stood up to Gandhi and had his own way to settle constitutional problems. In 1946-1947 Patel was the guiding star, though, of course, Nehru too joined him. Gandhi had not nominated Patel as his successor because of his physical stamina—he was suffering from cancer. Cripps had a profound influence on the political destiny of India from 1942 onwards until Mountbatten took over as the Viceroy. The Mountbatten Plan was a reproduction of the Cripps proposals with suitable variations.

Though Cripps brought ethical values to politics he did not understand the rocky nature of the material world. Clarke is absolutely right in saying that he lacked political adroitness. Cripps’ liberal voice stands out amidst the more strident assertions of British imperialists. Yet Clarke’s book confirms that ultimately voices such as those of Cripps were not effective enough to bring reconciliation within the fractured Indian polity in the 1940s. No historical figure in fact could alter the turn of the historical forces.

This book is essential reading for any serious student of Modern Indian History. Using first-class hitherto unpublished material, Clarke has presented a vivid and sensitive portrait of Cripps. This shows his profound scholarship and wide sweep, in exquisite prose written with verve and effortless ease.