There is little doubt that the Second World War cruelly exposed the sheer hollowness of the British Empire. The overweening arrogance of the British once considered of a piece with its greatness seemed comical now. The US, shrewdly realizing that the mantle of the leader of the capitalist world was about to pass to her, started turning the screws on Britain.
In February 1942 Chiang-kai- Shek visited India. Inured though he was to the human suffering, he was appalled at the condition of India. “The danger is in the extreme. If the British Government did not change the policy toward India, it will be like presenting India to the enemy and inviting them to occupy it,” said he in a message to Roosevelt.
The rapidly weakening Allied position in Asia prompted FDR to send Averell Harriman as his emissary to Churchill, to sound out the idea of “a new relationship between Britain and India.” Harriman, following his talks with Churchill, sent back the message that the British leaders remained strongly opposed to “stirring the pot.” Incredibly, Harriman reported that the United States was misreading the Indian situation, and the war effort was tied to the support of the Muslims, not the Congress Party and the Hindus! Harriman communicated to Roosevelt Churchill’s barefaced lie that 75% of the Indian Army were Muslims and largely opposed to the Indian Congress Party. Harriman noted that Churchill claimed that making a gesture toward the Congress would only offend the Muslims and not aid the war effort.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt suggested the forming of a small representative government in India which would be recognized as a dominion and not a vassal state. The very next day after receiving the President’s message. Churchill announced the Cripps Mission.
Cripps, a veteran Labour party leader and a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, was seen as sympathetic to the India cause. He also knew many Indian leaders, especially Nehru, personally. Roosevelt too sent his personal representative, A Johnson, to India and there were many discussions with the Congress party. The Muslim League was waiting at the wings.
Cripps’s proposals were mainly as follows:
1. Indian would get the dominion status immediately after the war.
2. A constitution making body would be set up on the cessation of hostilities.
3. The Provinces and the Indian Princely states would have the freedom to frame their own constitution, giving them ‘the same full status” as the Indian Union.
There were discussions and counter-discussions but the Congress party was principally opposed to the idea that the entire scheme had been framed without considering the consent of the people involved. In addition, the inherent possibility of the vivisection of India contained in the proposals was abhorrent to any person who wanted to live in a united, democratic India though this didn’t pose major hurdle at that time, because the immediate task was to form a national government.
The Muslim League objected to the proposals because though Pakistan was implicit in the proposal, its formation was relegated to the realm of remote possibility. In other words, the Muslim League wanted to the British to say explicitly that she would support the formation of Pakistan. Gandhi’s pity remarks on the Cripps’s proposals – ‘a post-dated cheque on a crashing bank’ – indicated that he thought that the Allied forces were likely to face defeat at the hands of the Japanese.
Despite all these problems, a national government could have been formed at the centre but for the acts of sabotage of both Churchill and the Viceroy. They were adamant that the national government would not be a full government with adequate powers. They wanted the Viceroy and the Commander in chief to lord over it. There was no way the Congress party would agree to sit on a puppet ministry at the centre kowtowing to the Viceroy and the C in C.
Johnson in his message to Roosevelt said “(Cripps) and Nehru would have solved the problems in five minutes if Cripps had any freedom or authority…. London wanted a Congress refusal.”
The doors of negotiations were now permanently shut.