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August 15, 2020

Jinnah and the Plan


August 15, 2020

The 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan was a watershed in the history of the Subcontinent. Its failure proved to be the last nail in the coffin of a united India and paved the way for the birth of Pakistan.

The Plan was presented by the British in an attempt to resolve the politico-constitutional problem of India. The two main parties of India, the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, were offering different solutions to the problem. Where the Congress stood for a free, united India; the League homed in on a separate homeland for Muslims.

The Cabinet Mission Plan sought to strike a compromise between the discordant positions. It proposed a loose federation verging on a confederation to be called the Union of India. The Union or central government would control only three departments – foreign affairs, defence and communications – the rest would be vested in the provinces. The Union would consist of three units or groups. Group A would comprise Hindu majority provinces; Group B would consist of western Muslim majority provinces; and Group C would be made up of eastern Muslim majority provinces. The Plan’s opt-out clause provided that any province could call for reconsideration of the constitution after 10 years.

Thus, the Cabinet Mission Plan sought to divide India into two autonomous regions on the basis of religion, and authorized each unit to quit the federation after the stipulated period. On the face of it, the Plan ruled out the League’s demand for Pakistan. The reason given by the Mission was that such a demand was not practicable. The Mission saw no justification in including non-Muslim majority regions of Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan. And in case those regions were not included in Pakistan, the proposed Muslim state would be too small and weak to remain independent. Ironically, in the 1947 partition scheme each province was bifurcated.

Notwithstanding the Mission’s stance, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the League accepted the Plan. A close look at the Plan in its context would reveal that Jinnah’s acceptance of the constitutional scheme was occasioned by at least three factors.

In the first place, when the Plan was presented to the Congress, it sought to get the Mission’s assurance that in the event the Congress accepted the Plan while the League turned it down, power would be transferred to it (the Congress). Such an assurance would have given the Congress carte blanche in dealing with the Muslims. Because of the enormous political weight of the Congress, the Mission held out the assurance.

As the Plan fell short of the demand for a separate state, the Congress knew for a fact the League would spurn it without demur, which would make the British hand over power to the Congress. Already, the 1937-39 Congress provincial governments had given Muslims a taste of Hindu rule or Ramraj as Gandhi would call it. Jinnah was set against giving the Congress another bite at the cherry at the expense of Muslims. Therefore, he decided that the League may accept the constitutional scheme.

In the second place, the Congress had unleashed the propaganda that the partition of India was a British ploy and that Jinnah and the League were in cahoots with them to execute it. The propaganda was entirely baseless as the demand for Pakistan was occasioned by an increasing sense of insecurity among Muslims over trampling of their political, social and economic rights. It was that sense of insecurity that had initially translated itself into the demand for separate electorate, which the Congress opposed.

To dub those demands a brainchild of the British amounted to shutting eyes to the facts. The Congress would also give Jinnah a rap on the knuckles for allegedly putting the skids under its efforts to secure the independence of India by pressing for partition. Jinnah wished to give lie to such allegations and remind his critics that he was as keen for independence from British imperialism and a settlement of the Hindu-Muslim problem as Gandhi, Nehru or Azad were.

However, the strongest reason for Jinnah to accept the Cabinet Plan was that, being a constitutional expert, he saw in it the seeds for Pakistan. The proposed units, two of which were to comprise Muslim majority provinces, were to be given full autonomy. Each region after 10 years could opt out of the federation and proclaim independence. And, most significantly, the units were to be created on the basis of religion – the same basis on which the case for Pakistan rested.

The League’s acceptance of the Cabinet Plan knocked the Congress for six. The party was dead sure Jinnah wouldn’t accede to the Plan, which meant that power would be transferred to it. However, Jinnah’s astute move threw cold water on Congress’ plans. Now the ball was in their court. But a weak centre and strong units were not acceptable to the Congress. What the party itched for was a strong centre and weak units, as embodied in the 1928 Nehru Report. This also holds good for the constitution of the independent India, which is federal in form but unitary in spirit and which is one of few federal constitutions in the world that vest residuary powers in the central government.

The Congress leadership therefore started putting its own interpretations on the Cabinet Plan, which were completely out of kilter with its spirit. Jawaharlal Nehru maintained that the groupings as provided in the Plan were not mandatory and vowed to set up a strong centre at the expense of provincial autonomy. His views were so unwarranted that Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the Mission, had this to state: “I do not know myself how such a thing would be possible, but if anything of that kind were to be attempted, it would be a clear breach of the basic understanding of the Plan.”

The Cabinet Plan had two parts: the constitutional scheme and the provisions relating to the setting up of an interim government to run the affairs of the country until a new constitution was drawn up. The Congress accepted the constitutional scheme – but only with its own rabid interpretation of the compulsory grouping clause. The party also initially refused to join the proposed interim government.

The reason for the refusal was the viceroy’s acceptance of the League’s claim that it alone had the right to nominate all the Muslims in the interim administration. In the wake of the Congress’ refusal to join the interim setup, power should have been transferred to the League, which had acceded to the Plan in toto. Be that as it may, the viceroy was reluctant to exclude the Congress, India’s largest political party, from the interim government. Therefore, he allowed the party to nominate one Muslim to the interim government, upon which the Congress joined the interim set-up. However, the viceroy’s decision caused the League to withdraw its acceptance of the Cabinet Plan.

Later, upon the viceroy’s persuasion, the League also joined the interim setup. The Congress got the important departments of defence and interior, while the League secured the equally important portfolio of finance. From the very outset, it became clear that the two parties could not get along together. The council of ministers exhibited little unity and the two parties used their power to settle scores against each other. Liaquat Ali as finance minister shot down every Congress proposal and presented a budget which heavily taxed big industrialists, who pulled the Congress’ purse strings. Those events convinced both the British and the Congress that smooth power-sharing between the two political parties was a tall order.

Meanwhile, in a changing of the guard, Lord Mountbatten was appointed the new viceroy. The Cabinet Plan was thrown on the scrapheap and the stage was set for the partition of India, which was formally spelt out in the June 3, 1947 Plan. By that time, the Congress leadership had also accepted that there was no alternative to the partition of India.

In retrospect, the acceptance of the Cabinet Plan was Jinnah’s last concession to the Congress, which advocated a united India. The concession demonstrated Jinnah’s earnestness for amicably resolving the communal problem. However, the Congress made a mess of that opportunity. The rest is history.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

The writer is an Islamabad-basedcolumnist.