A bland catalogue
Jaswant Singh

The Cripps Mission
by Prashanto Kumar Chatterji.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.
Pages 217. Rs 300.

The Cripps MissionThe transfer of power from Britain to India and the birth of Pakistan on August 15, 1947, was the culmination of a series of developments and unsuccessful efforts to avoid a division. The first such effort on the part of the imperial power was the visit of the one-man Cripps Mission to India in 1942. Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to India at a time when the war was not going well for the Allies and Japanese forces were knocking at the doors of India after impressive successes in South-East Asia. The principal war ally, the USA, had persuaded the War Cabinet of Britain, headed by Sir Winston Churchill, to send Sir Stafford to India with a set of short-term and long-term proposals to solve the Indian question.

Sir Stafford was an ideal choice for the task. He had a good rapport with Jawahar Lal Nehru and was once praised by Mahatma Gandhi. No one in India doubted his sincerity but his mission was doomed to failure from day one, given the rigid attitude of Churchill who made no secret of his unwillingness to preside over the liquidation of His Majesty’s Empire, and the scepticism of the Congress which considered the proposals as a postdated cheque on a crashing bank.

The proposals left the Indian national leadership depressed. Although for a person unacquainted with Indian affairs, these would appear to go a long way to meet India’s aspirations, yet the limitations put on them fettered the principle of self-determination in a way that would imperil the whole exercise. The proposals dealt mainly with the future. While asserting the principle of self-determination, they gave the right to the provinces not to join the Indian Union, and to form separate independent states. The same right was given to the rulers of about 600 big, small and tiny princely states.

Elections to the constitution-making body were to be held under the system of separate religious electorates but there was no provision for elections in the states. The rulers could nominate their representatives. This would make the constituent assembly a mixture of members elected by separate religious electorates and vested interests and those nominated by the rulers. This would open a vista for not one but an indefinite number of partitions.

A war was on at that time and defence was the most important thing in everybody’s mind. Sir Stafford agreed that there might be a Defence Member in the national government and the Defence Department would deal with public relations, petroleum, canteens, stationery and printing, amenities for troops, etc. The British Commander-in-Chief would exercise full authority over the armed forces and military operations.

Sir Stafford subsequently made it clear that there would be no ministers with any powers. The Viceroy’s Executive Council was to continue, only with some Indian representatives of political parties added to it. Such a situation could not be acceptable to the nationalist leadership. Yet the author makes the point that the Congress was being over-ambitious and had rejected the plan on wrong assumptions. And he claims to have kept both the imperialist and the nationalist viewpoints at bay and told the Cripps story objectively, basing his narrative on documents. And that has turned out to be the biggest weakness of the book. In dealing with a matter, which is totally political in nature, avoiding interpretation and analysis has made the narrative almost a bland catalogue of sequence of events. The failure of the Cripps Mission is a fact of history and one would have expected the book to open a window on what the British War Cabinet had in mind about the future of India.