Sept 1, 2005

Indian Constitutional Round Table Conferences

London 1931-1933

Essay by

David Steinberg

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Note - I originally posted this essay on Wikipedia but decided to copy it to my own web site unmodified,

1. British Commitments to Self-government

2. Right of Indians to Draft their Own Constitution

3. Proposed Indian Round Table Conference 1922

4.  The Concept of an All India Federation

5. The Genesis of the Round Table Conferences

6. Were They Really Round Table Conferences – Were they Honest Negotiations?

7. Agenda – Dominion Constitution?

8. Why the Congress Did Not Attend

9. First Round Table Conference (Nov. 1930-Jan. 1931) – All India Federalism Embraced and Lack of Hindu-Muslim Agreement Glossed Over

10. Second Round Table Conference (Sept.-Dec. 1931) - A Conservative Federation Scheme

11. Third Round Table Conference (Nov.-Dec. 1932)

12. Related Wikipedia Articles

13. References


1. British Commitments to Self-government

The two most important official statements of British policy concerning India were Queen Victoria’s Royal Proclamation, of 1858, when the crown took control of the East India Company’s Indian territories, and the statement of Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu (July 17, 1917 - March 19, 1922) to the House of Commons on 20 August 1917.

Queen Victoria’s Proclamation included the promise that –

“… so far as may be, Our Subjects, of whatever Race or Creed, be freely and impartially admitted to Offices in Our Service, the Duties of which they may be qualified, by their education, ability, and integrity, duly to discharge.”

The British Government of India studiously subverted this promise denying Indians commissions in the Indian Army and almost completely excluding them from the Indian Civil Service and the higher ranks of the Indian Police.

Edwin Montagu’s statement included the following –

“The policy of His Majesty’s government, with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral Part of the British Empire…. I would add that progress in this policy can only be achieved by successive stages. The British Government , and the Government of India, on whom the responsibility lies for the welfare and advancement of the Indian people, must be the judges of the time and measure of each advance, and they must be guided by the co-operation received from those upon whom new opportunities of service will thus be conferred and by the extent to which it is found that confidence can be reposed in their sense of responsibility.”

The promise of “responsible government” together with the subsequent Indian representation on international bodies clearly implied a commitment to move India to dominion status (see Mehrota pp. 238-241 and Keith p. 268, 467, 468) as was explicitly confirmed by the viceroy, Lord Irwin (1926–1931) on 31 October 1929 (see India, Gwyer & Appadorai pp. 224-225)-

The goal of British policy was stated in the declaration of August 1917 to be that of providing for the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire…. I am authorized on behalf of His Majesty's Government to state clearly that in their judgement it is implicit in the declaration of 1917 that the natural issue of India's constitutional progress, as there contemplated, is the attainment of Dominion Status.


2. Right of Indians to Draft their Own Constitution

British policy, until almost the end of the British Raj, was that the timing and nature of Indian constitutional development was to be decided exclusively by the British Parliament though, it was assumed that Indians would be consulted as appropriate. This was formally stated in the Government of India Act 1919 and reiterated in Lord Irwin’s announcement of the appointment of the Simon Commission. The British only conceded the right of Indians' to frame their own constitution in the 1942 Cripps Declaration. Indian unhappiness with this paternal approach was described by Mehrota (pp. 219-221) -

“All political parties in India in the 'twenties recognized the legislative supremacy of the Imperial Parliament. Even the Congress, which took its stand on the principle of self-determination, bowed to the sovereign and ultimate authority of Parliament. What it challenged was the assertion contained in the Preamble to the Act of 1919 that 'the time and manner of each advance can be determined only by Parliament'. 'Now, that is a proposition', said Motilal Nehru, 'which we cannot accept…. , Liberals, Independents and Muslim Leaguers-all alike claimed that Indians should have an equal voice in framing the future constitution for their country, however much they might have differed from Congressmen in the manner of asserting that claim. Dominion precedents were frequently quoted by Indian nationalists in support of their demand to frame their own constitution and submit the same to Parliament for ratification. The recent example of Ireland and the remarks made by Imperial statesmen justifying the procedure followed in her case only strengthened the claim of Indian nationalists. The latter noted and remembered what Lloyd George had remarked during the debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 14, 1921: 'Here we are going to follow the example which has been set in the framing of every constitution throughout the Empire. The constitution is drafted and decided by the Dominion, the Imperial Parliament taking such steps as may be necessary to legalize these decisions.'… Sir John Simon …. (in a) speech he … delivered in Parliament on November 27, 1922 … (said) 'I believe it would be true to say that Constitutions which promote prosperity and loyalty, and which have been found to be lasting Constitutions for subordinate States in our Empire, have, almost without exception, either actually or virtually, been formed by those who were to live under them themselves.’”

Compare this to Winston Churchill’s December 11, 1930 speech to the Indian Empire Society (James p. 4934-4938) –

“From many quarters we hear statements that opinion in India has advanced with violent speed. Full Dominion status with the right to secede from the British Empire and responsible control of the executive Government are cIamoured for by even the moderates represented at the Round Table Conference. The extremists who are, and will remain, the dominant force among the Indian political classes have in their turn moved their goal forward to absolute independence, and picture to themselves an early date when they will obtain complete control of the whole of Hindustan, when the British will be no more to them than any other European nation, when white people will be in India only upon sufference, when debts and obligations of all kinds will be repudiated and when an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu.

“All these absurd and dangerous pretensions have so far been met in speech with nothing but soft deprecatory and placatory words by the British Government in India, or at home. Vague high-sounding phrases about 'full Dominion status'; 'India a great world power' have filled the air. British-owned newspapers in India-of which there are still some-have been forced to the conclusion that Parliament will agree to anything that Indians can agree upon among themselves, provided that India remains nominally at least a part of the King's dominions. The effect of the speeches delivered during the five days' open session of the Conference has certainly been to give the impression that a vast extension of self-government is immediately contemplated and that all that remains is to settle the detail and method of the transference of powers, and to make some provision for the protection of minorities.

“It has therefore become necessary, in order that this landslide of opinion should not lead to undue disappointment, that the basic facts should be restated in unmistakable terms. The British nation has we believe no intention whatever of relinquishing effectual control of Indian life and progress. The Round Table Conference now sitting has no power to frame a constitution for India. No agreement reached at the Conference will be binding in any degree, morally or legally, upon Parliament. No agreement of the Conference is necessary to authorise the framing of a new Government of India Act. The responsibility for framing such an Act will rest entirely with the British Government…. Even in the present House of Commons with its Socialist minority Government, there is a substantial majority against the extension, in any period which it is profitable to consider, of anything like Dominion status. It seems certain that a new House of Commons will have come into existence before a Government of India Act can be introduced, and it is highly probable that that new House of Commons will be far more representative of the strong, patriotic elements of our country than the present. Therefore the persistent attempts to avoid stating unpalatable truths, and to shirk facing the stern facts of the situation, can only excite false hopes which may afterwards lead to strife and suffering.

“So much for the facts in England! What are the facts in India? We are told that the opinion of India has changed. But the facts of India have not changed. They are immemorial. The political classes of India are a mere handful compared to the population. The Western ideas they have gathered and reproduced have no relation whatever to the life and thought of India. The vast majority can neither read nor write. There are at least seventy different races and even more numerous religions and sects in India, many of them in a state of antagonism….

“If the British Government and its servant and projection, the Government of India, had maintained a true contact with realities, three-quarters of the distress caused to the politically-minded classes in India could have been avoided. If, instead of raising alluring hopes of speedy Dominion status, we had concentrated upon practical steps to advance the material condition of the Indian masses; if the Congress at Lahore which burnt the Union Jack had been broken up forthwith and its leaders deported; if Gandhi had been arrested and tried as soon as he broke the law; if the will to rule had been firmly asserted, there would have been no necessity for the immense series of penal measures which have, in fact, been taken…. the plain assertion of the resolve of Parliament to govern and to guide the destinies of the Indian people in faithful loyalty to Indian interests would in a few years-it might even be in a few months-bring this period of tantalised turmoil to an end.

“Where, then, do we stand? The word of the King-Emperor is inviolable. We are pledged not only to labour for the welfare of India, but perseveringly to associate Indians of every race and creed with the processes of their own development. The Act of 1919 is a rock which cannot be removed. By that Act we conferred great and new constitutional powers upon the Indian political classes and we pledged ourselves to extend those constitutional powers honourably and perseveringly. We have assigned no theoretical limit to the extension of Indian constitutional development within the Empire. But by that same Act we reserved to ourselves an equal right to restrict, delay, or, if need be, for a spell to reverse that process. So far as there exists any contract between a people conquered by force in former times, and the modern Parliament of a benevolent nation vowed to promote their welfare, that is the contract, and there is no other.

“Let us examine the problem upon this basis and in the light of practical events. The far-reaching extensions of self-government with which Mr. Montagu's name is associated were a bold experiment. They have not succeeded. The ten years which have passed have been years of failure. Every service which has been handed over to Indian administration has deteriorated; in particular, Indian agriculture, the sole prop of the life of hundreds of millions, has certainly not advanced in accordance with the ever-growing science and organisation of the modern world. The Indian political classes have not accepted the Montagu constitution. Even those for whose especial benefit and pleasure that constitution was devised have derived no satisfaction from it. Either they have refused to co-operate, or they have used the liberties which it conferred not for the purpose of improving the well-being of India, but merely as convenient tools and processes for political agitation and even sedition. There has resulted unrest, improverishment and discontent, drawing with them repressive measures and curtailments of civil liberties, which did not exist before the political liberties were widened.

“In these circumstances, a new Parliament will have to decide what is now to be done. Our right and our power to restrict Indian constitutional liberties are unchallengeable. Our obligation to persevere in associating the peoples of India with their own government is undoubted. We are free to call a halt. We are free, for the time being, to retrace our steps, to retire in order to advance again. So long as the continuous purpose is sincerely and unswervingly pursued, Parliament has entire discretion. It is evident that our first efforts to create an all-India constitution have been ill-conceived. It may well be that our duty and our course now lie in curtailing the functions of an all-India body and in building up in each province more real, more intimate, more representative organisms of self-government. It may well be that these organisms, when developed and established, will form a surer foundation for an all-India Government than the present crude and unduly Westernised conception.

“But here I must draw attention to a very grave danger. The Indian gentlemen and notabilities who are attending the Round Table Conference are in no way representative of the real forces which challenge British rule in India. It is true that, drifting with the tide, many of them have become the mouthpiece of extreme demands, but they have no power to pledge the Indian Congress Party to sincere acceptance of any agreement that may be outlined. The danger is that in an unwise endeavour to reach an agreement here in London, the Socialist Government will commit itself to concessions and extensions of self-government which will weaken our hands in the future, without in any way procuring the assent of the ruthless forces of sedition and outrage. Our concessions will, therefore, only be used as the starting-point for new demands by revolutionaries, while the loyal elements and the masses of the people will be the more unsettled by further evidences of British weakness. The truth is that Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed. It is no use trying to satisfy a tiger by feeding him with cat's-meat. The sooner this is realised, the less trouble and misfortune will there be for all concerned. Above all, it must be made plain that the British nation has no intention of relinquishing its mission in India, or of failing in its duty to the Indian masses, or of parting with its supreme control in any of the essentials of peace, order and good government. We have no intention of casting away that most truly bright and precious jewel in the crown of the King, which more than all our other Dominions and Dependencies constitutes the glory and strength of the British Empire. The loss of India would mark and consummate the downfall of the British Empire. That great organism would pass at a stroke out of life into history. From such a catastrophe there could be no recovery. But we have yet to learn that the race and nation which have achieved so many prodigies and have faithfully discharged so many difficult tasks, and come safely and invincibly through all the perils of the centuries, will now fall a victim to their own lack of self-confidence and moral strength.”


3. Proposed Indian Round Table Conference 1922

Descriptions of what happened vary greatly (listed from the most to least probable)

a. Malaviya Proposed Round Table, The Viceroy Lord Reading Agrees, Mahatma Gandhi Sabotages the Idea Proudest p 194-5 (fully referenced)

"The Prince of Wales was due in Calcutta on 24 December, and any more violent disorder there had to be prevented at all costs..... During the next two months over 30,000 people were arrested in India as a whole, and of the top leadership of the non-co-operation movement, only Gandhi remained free…. There was a very real danger for the government that its new wave of repression would drive the Liberals and Moderates back into the Congress camp, which would have been disastrous. Malaviya had been urging the viceroy for some time to call a round-table conference with Gandhi and the Moderates. In mid-December, Reading agreed, promising at the same time to release the political prisoners, end the repressive measures, and even grant 'full provincial autonomy' if Gandhi would call off the non-co-operation movement…. At first, Gandhi agreed. But he quickly changed his mind, wiring Malaviya: ‘Non-co-operation can cease only after satisfactory result conference. In no case have I authority to decide for Congress.’ His ‘private notes’ made at the time give a more complex, perhaps more revealing, reason for his decision: ‘I am sorry,' he wrote, 'that I suspect Lord Reading of complicity in the plot to unman India for eternity.’

"There is little doubt that if Gandhi had agreed to attend the conference, the Moderates would have joined forces with him to achieve substantial constitutional concessions. Reading was prepared to give full responsible government to the provinces, despite the doubts of London and most of the senior governors. He told Montagu: ‘I ... was prepared to act on my own responsibility if the proper assurances had been forthcoming.’ This would have been not merely a step but a giant leap towards self-government, advancing the eventual transfer of power by a full 15 years. But it was not to be…. at a stormy annual session of Congress in Ahmedabad, Gandhi came under attack both from those who wanted to seek an accommodation with the government and those who wanted more militant action immediately. But in the end, as always, Gandhi carried the day, His rejection of Reading's offer was confirmed, and he was given dictatorial powers over non-co-operation. He announced that the postponed campaign of 'offensive civil disobedience' in Bardoli would go ahead.

"Although they had been upset by Gandhi's intransigence, some of the Moderates were still hoping to find some way of bringing Gandhi and Reading together, to achieve the positive constitutional advances they knew were possible. Jinnah and Malaviya called an all-parties conference in Bombay …. Gandhi attended 'informally', after Congress had agreed to postpone the start of civil disobedience until the end of the month. The motions calling for a round-table conference were passed unanimously, But then Gandhi threw another spanner in the, refusing to take part. Obsessed with putting full-scale satyagraha to the test, he decided that a conference 'for devising a scheme of full swaraj [is] premature. India has not yet incontestably proved her strength'."

b. Reading Proposed Round Table – Cabinet Vetoes Bridge p. 11 (Based on D. A. Low, “The Government of India and the first Non-cooperation Movement, 1920-22”, Journal of Asian Studies, XXV (1966), pp. 241-59)

"Lord Reading, the Liberal Viceroy (1921-6), had reached the end of his tether…. faced with massive demonstrations looming against the Prince of Wales in Calcutta, he wavered add asked for permission to convene a round table, conference and offer concessions-possibly full provincial autonomy. An emergency meeting of the Cabinet India Committee refused him outright and told him to arrest Gandhi, who was still at large, forthwith. Still smarting over the Irish Treaty of the previous week, they were not prepared to retreat again at the bidding of a nervous Viceroy whose character some of them doubted. Gandhi was arrested in March 1922 and jailed for six years (though he was out in two). Civil disobedience collapsed."

c. Reading Opposes the Proposed Round Table Reading 1945 p. 195

"The situation was in fact critical. The influence of the Government had so gravely declined that in various quarters both in India and in England it was suggested that the only course was for the Viceroy to call a Round Table Conference in an attempt to reach an agreed settlement of India's political problems. But Lord Reading set his face against all such hints and proposals, and not only declared his intention of refusing to take the initiative in summoning such a conference but also of rejecting the proposal if made by anybody else. For he realized that there could be no compromise with the out-and-out extremists, who at this time were in full control of the non-co-operation movement; as he himself wrote: 'The truth is, the more I consider the question of a Round Table Conference, the more I lean to the conclusion that unless the non-co-operationists make very material changes in their programme, it will not be possible to conciliate them.'"


4. The Concept of an All India Federation

The Montagu-Chelmsford Report (1918) foresaw the eventual need for an All-India federation (“Granted the announcement of August 20th, we cannot at the present time envisage its complete fulfilment in any form other than that of a congeries of self-governing Indian provinces associated for certain purposes under a responsible government of India; with possibly what are now the Native States of India finally embodied in the same whole, in some relation which we will not now attempt to define.") The Simon Commission clearly foresaw the necessity for an All-India federation but saw it as a far off goal. It was not within the Commission’s mandate to investigate this issue. The Report states (vol. 2 p. 13)

“That some of the leading Indian Princes envisage some such polity in the future is shown by the pronouncement made on 19th December, 1929, by H.H. the Maharaja of Bikaner to the Legislative Assembly of his State. "I look forward to the day when a United India will be enjoying Dominion Status under the aegis of the King-Emperor and the Princes and States will be in the fullest enjoyment of what is their due-as a solid federal body in a position of absolute equality with the federal provinces of British India." However distant that day may be, we desire in our proposals to do nothing to hinder but everything to help its arrival, for already there are emerging problems that can only be settled satisfactorily by co-operation between British India and the States.”


5. The Genesis of the Round Table Conferences

The Viceroy, Lord Irwin, convinced the new Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald to allow him to make the following public statement to still Indian suspicions on 31 October 1929 (see India, Gwyer & Appadorai pp. 225-227).

“The Chairman of the [Indian Statutory] Commission has pointed out in correspondence with the Prime Minister … that as their investigation has proceeded, he and his colleagues have been greatly impressed, in considering the direction which the future constitutional development of India is likely to take, with the importance of bearing in mind the relations which may, at some future time, develop between British India and the Indian States…. He suggests that what might be required, after the Reports of the Statutory Commission and the Indian Central Committee have been made, considered and published, but before the stage is reached of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, would be the setting up of a Conference in which His Majesty's Government should meet representatives both of British India and of the States, for the purpose of seeking the greatest possible measure of agreement for the final proposals which it would later be the duty of His Majesty's Government to submit to Parliament. … With these views I understand that His Majesty's Government are in complete accord….

“The goal of British policy was stated in the declaration of August 1917 to be that of providing for the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire…. I am authorized on behalf of His Majesty's Government to state clearly that in their judgement it is implicit in the declaration of 1917 that the natural issue of India's constitutional progress, as there contemplated, is the attainment of Dominion Status.

“In the full realization of this policy, it is evidently important that the Indian States should be afforded an opportunity of finding their place, and even if we cannot at present exactly foresee on what lines this development may be shaped, it is from every point of view desirable that whatever can be done should be done to ensure that action taken now is not inconsistent with the attainment of the ultimate purpose which those, whether in British India or the States, who look forward to some unity of all-India, have in view.

“His Majesty's Government consider that both these objects, namely, that of finding the best approach to the British Indian side of the problem, and secondly, of ensuring that in this process the wider question of closer relations in the future between the two parts of Greater India is not overlooked, can best be achieved by the adoption of a procedure such as the Commission has outlined. When, therefore, the Commission and the Indian Central Committee have submitted their Reports … His Majesty's Government … will propose to invite representatives of different parties and interests in British India and representatives of the Indian States to meet them, separately or together, as circumstances may demand, for the purpose of conference and discussion in regard both to the British-Indian and the all-Indian problems. It will be their earnest hope that by this means it may subsequently prove possible on these grave issues to submit proposals to Parliament which may command a wide measure of general assent.”

This statement was backed by Stanley Baldwin the leader of the Conservative Party but opposed by many Conservatives as well as by prominent Liberal Party leaders Lloyd George and Lord Reading and by Sir John Simon. The statement did have appositive impact in India at least until opposition pressure forced the government to declare that Irwin’s announcement did not imply any change in established British policy toward India (Bridge 1986 pp. 37-37). According to Bridge (p. 34) –

“There is little doubt that Lloyd George's interest in the declaration was purely strategic, but Reading's was not. His objection was that the declaration rested on two dangerous ambiguities. First, it could be read as constituting a departure from the 1919 policy of reform by stages. Second; it was not clear that Parliament, not the conference between the British government and Indian politicians, was the final arbitrator…. Perhaps there was a personal element too. As Viceroy, Reading had been denied a round table conference in 1921. Why should Irwin be allowed a declaration in 1929?”


6. Were They Really Round Table Conferences – Were they Honest Negotiations?

The Oxford dictionary defines “round table” as “An assembly where parties meet on equal terms for discussion.” The Indian Round Table Conferences did not fit within this definition since the British Government issued the invitations, set the agenda and chaired the conferences. However, they were a big step forward from the extremely patronizing approach exemplified by the Simon Commission. In the event, the first conference was by far the closest to the ideal of a round table conference while the third, was really just a short and limited consultation exercise.

By inviting representatives of minor elements in Indian life e.g. Indian Christians, Eurasians, British commercial interests etc. the British diminished the role of the few elements that really did count i.e. Congress, Muslims, and the Sikhs in the Punjab.

The White Paper and the subsequent Government of India Act 1935 did not reflect an honest attempt to accommodate Indian opinion as reflected in the round table conferences –

“Among the divergent reasons for the condemnation of the (white paper) proposals there was, in the first place, a general agreement in regard to the failure of His Majesty's Government to respect the principle of negotiation. Every section of Indian opinion held the view that the Government had ignored the implications of the statement made by the Prime Minister on December 2, 1931,in,which he said that "the Government must carry on these negotiations until a point was reached when the proposed agreement was initialled-a very well-known stage in the negotiation of treaties." But the White Paper proposals did not bear even the semblance of an " initialled" agreement.” (Gangulee p. 165)


7. Agenda – Dominion Constitution?

If the British leadership really stood behind their pledge of eventual dominion status for India they would have asked the Indian delegates to frame their own dominion constitution and then met with them to broker compromises on issues on which they could not agree, negotiate temporary safeguards, perhaps with a treaty (as was done with Eire, Iraq and Egypt) to cover British responsibilities and interests. This would have enabled the British leadership to keep overall control for another generation while allowing more constructive cooperation with Indian politicians. A few quotes will illustrate this –

According to Bridge (p. 25)) Halifax thought -

“The solution had to be daring or it would fail. He was proposing dyarchy at the Centre. This, he hoped, would, be enough to satisfy some Swarajists but also to keep control over essentials. He elaborated further in a letter to Lord Stonehaven, a fellow Conservative who was Governor-General of Australia:

“I don't believe, with the right admixture of courage and prudence, this problem ought to be insoluble. Whatever you do is clearly a risk. . . I should seek to define very clearly -to myself what were the limits of risk you were entitled to run and what were the safeguards you must retain. And I don't believe that, on these principles, it is impossible to present the problem in such a form as would make the shop window look respectable from an Indian point of view, , which is really what they care about, while keeping your hand pretty firmly on the things that matter and on the gears that you may have to work if the engine races.

“Irwin, in accordance with his commonsense Conservative philosophy, had found a solution above logic, based on personal judgement and tacit trust more than upon constitutional devices. The Indians would get the appearance and some of the substance of central responsibility, while Britain would keep ultimate control over the essentials of the army, States, foreign affairs, police and finance should things get out of hand.”

It is possible that this would have been acceptable, as a transition stage, with moderate nationalists. According to Gopal (pp. 50-51)–

“The Government were now committed to consultation with Indian leaders and a precise ultimate objective. This statement, Irwin's first real initiative in India's constitutional problem, lost him friends in England…. In India, on the other true that the Viceroy had given no pledge that Dominion Status would be established soon, or even that it would be discussed at the conference; but few had expected it. Indeed it was believed that only joint discussions with the Princes, as envisaged in the statement, could form the prelude to even the first step towards Dominion Status. In the Congress, while Jawaharlal Nehru was inclined to suspect this ‘ingeniously worded announcement, which could mean much or very little', Gandhi and his senior lieutenants were not prepared to reject it out of hand. The real test was whether the British meant what the Viceroy said.

‘I can wait for the Dominion Status constitution, if I can get the Dominion Status in action, if today there is a real change of heart, a real desire on the part of the British people to see India a free and self-respecting nation and on the part of the officials in India a true spirit of service.’

“So the Congress,. In association with the Liberals, issued a manifesto offering to co-operate in drafting a Dominion constitution if certain acts were done and certain points clarified….

‘We understand, however, [added the signatories], that the conference is to meet not to discuss when Dominion Status is to be established, but to frame a scheme of Dominion Constitution for India. We hope that we are not mistaken in thus interpreting the import and the implications of this weighty pronouncement of the Viceroy.’”

In a speech at the Federal Structure meeting Nov 25, 1931 Gandhi said

“Yet, while I say that the safeguards are unsatisfactory as they have been presented, I have not hesitated to say, and I do not hesitate to repeat, that the Congress is pledged to giving safeguards, endorsing safeguards which may be demonstrated to be in the interests of India.

“At one of the sittings of the Federal Structure Committee, I had no hesitation in amplifying the admission and saying that these safeguards must be also of benefit to Great Britain. I do not want safeguards which are merely beneficial to India and prejudicial to the real interests of Great Britain. The fancied interests of India will have to be sacrificed. The fancied interests of Great Britain will have to be sacrificed. The illegitimate interests of India will have to be sacrificed.”

If Labour were in power with a strong majority and Britain were not in extreme financial crisis, it is possible that Halifax and the Labour government might have followed this path. However, the labour minority government was weak, unstable, transient and overwhelmingly focused on domestic issues. Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald was anxious to maintain India as a “non-party” issue which meant appeasing the Conservative and Liberal parties. The Conservative Party in turn wanted to appease its right wing diehard element. The leader of the diehards, Winston Churchill in a speech in Parliament on August 20, 1930 (James p. 4913-4914), stated –

“The original plan, on which all three British parties had agreed, was to send out the Simon Commission, to consider their Report in Parliament, to refer it to a Joint Committee of both Houses before whom Indian deputations could express their views, and then to pass a Bill carrying into law the Report as modified by Parliament, and to give orders to our officials and officers in India to put it strictly and firmly into effect. That was the adopted plan, and that was the constitutional procedure. But all this has now been swept aside in favour of a Round Table Conference, a sort of large lively circus in which 80 or 90 Indians, representing hundreds of races and religions, and 20 or 30 British politicians divided by an approaching General Election are to scrimmage about together on the chance of their coming to some agreement.

“I wish to place on record my conviction that it is almost certain that the result of the Conference will be confusion worse confounded. I hope, indeed, it will not be disastrous. It is very wrong to encourage false hopes in the minds of the Indian political classes. They are only a handful compared to the vast Indian masses for whom we are responsible, but they are entitled to be treated with good faith and sincerity. It would be wrong to lure and coax them over here with vague phrases about Dominion status, when it is quite certain that these Indian politicians will not obtain Dominion status in their lifetime. We may not be able to win their agreement; let us make sure we do not lose their respect. In dealing with Indian problems and with earnest men it is far wiser and far safer to be blunt and plain. The Round Table Conference has no power to confer any Constitution upon India. Parliament alone can deal with that. No proposal for Dominion status would pass through, even the present House of Commons. We do not know what the next House of Commons will be like, but it seems certain that is will be less favourable to Dominion status for India than the present Parliament. Therefore I take this opportunity of stating these facts and truths simply and straightforwardly so as to prevent, so far as a private individual can prevent, the very grave dangers and reproaches of disappointed hopes.

“Let me, however, also reaffirm the inflexible resolve of Great Britain to aid the Indian people to fit themselves increasingly for the duties of self-government. Upon that course we have been embarked for many years, and we assign no limits to its ultimate fruition. But I thought the great merit of the Simon Report was in showing that our steps should be turned in a different direction from that followed in the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. The experiment of magnifying the power of an All-India Assembly has failed. It has produced weakness and inefficiency in government, confusion in the minds of the masses, and has in no way satisfied even those political classes for whose benefit it was devised. It is in the building up of truly representative institutions in the great provinces of India, institutions which shall have their roots deep in the soil and in the life of the Indian masses, that the path of practical progress now lies. Until these local organisms have been effectively developed and are seen to be working well and giving good government and justice to the Indian people, it would be unwise in any way to increase the responsibilities of the Central Assembly-that artificial abstraction of Indian nationalism which only ignorance and folly could identify with India.”

It was clear that whatever its aim, the round table conference would not be framing an Indian constitution let alone a dominion constitution.


8. Why the Congress Did Not Attend



“As the Viceroy's House meeting wore on Jinnah and Sapru reasoned with Gandhi and Nehru, urging them to realize that the avowal of Dominion Status and the offer of a Conference were tangible advances in British policy. Gandhi then said that he did not want his people to go to the Conference in their weakness. While India was disunited as she was at present, and while there were these vast differences of opinion among his friends, there was no use in going to London. . . . For this lack of unity he blamed British rule and said that he had learned the lesson of divide and rule from the British. . . . Could the Round Table Conference bring about unity in England? . . . The only difficulty he saw was the lack of unity. If there were complete unity, His Majesty's Government could not refuse to admit the grant of Dominion Status.

“It is quite clear that Gandhi was not referring to the left and right wings of the Congress but to the Hindu–Muslim conflict. When Motilal wrote to Gandhi in complaint against the viceroy's secretary's transcript of the discussion, he was explicit about the thrust of Gandhi's remarks: that 'owing to [the] weakness in [the] communal position the British Cabinet's assurance of sup­port was necessary'. There was 'no use going to London while communal differences persisted', unless the Indian leaders knew that the viceroy and the Cabinet would support their claims. To go to a Conference divided and without assured British back­ing for Dominion Status would be to invite Britain to play off the communities against each other and to deny constitutional advance in view of their disunity….

“Moonje wrote direct to Gandhi to urge him not to agree to any modification of the Nehru Report in order to placate the Muslims, and a group of Bombay Hindus proffered similar advice.' Jayakar counseled him that no concession could possibly be made except at the stage when a Dominion consitution was being framed. Earlier concessions would be plucked from their context and become the basis for further demands. Clearly, Gandhi could foresee that he would have no room for manoeuvre on the communal ques­tion unless the government were prepared to back his demand for Dominion Status.

It is scarcely surprising that Gandhi refused to attend a Con­ference in London without being assured of either Indian unity or government support for Indian freedom.

Both Sapru and Jinnah believed that Indians must as a first priority solve the communal problem. If India could not achieve her own unity then she could scarcely expect to achieve dominionhood.”

Moore 1974 pp. 100-104


All the Indian actors attended the first round table conference except Congress which was the only organized national party and the only organization that could justly claim to speak for a mass or supporters. It really was Hamlet without the prince of Denmark. Congress might well have attended a round table tasked with drafting a dominion constitution. However, even this would probably have split Congress as radicals, such as Nehru had rejected dominion status as a goal in favour of complete independence. “Like the rest of the Congress leadership, Gandhi knew that attendance at the London conference would be political suicide. Congressmen would be forced to follow an agenda set by the British and they were certain to return home with far less than they demanded. Moreover, and this galled, Congress would have to sit alongside other 'representatives' of India, most notably the princes. They were forthrightly denounced by Gandhi as 'pawns' created and used by the British.” (Lawrence James p. 524).


9. First Round Table Conference (Nov. 1930-Jan. 1931) – All India Federalism Embraced and Lack of Hindu-Muslim Agreement Glossed Over

Three key points about this conference were:

·                     a weak Labour minority government was in power which increasingly sought support from the Conservatives and Liberals;

·                     the Congress boycotted the conference though “moderate Congress” positions were espoused by the Indian Liberals; and,

·                     the huge economic crisis of the Depression was putting huge stresses on the British economic-social-political system.

The Round Table Conference was opened officially by the King on Thursday, 13 November 1930. Someone to everyone’s surprise, the idea of an All India federation was unanimously moved from a likely necessity in the dim future to the centre of discussion. All the groups attending the conference supported the concept though for different reasons.

·                     The Conservative and Liberal leaderships saw this as a way of avoiding the demand of British India for a responsible national government. In the first place, the inclusion of the Indian Princely States would delay any transfer of responsibility at the Centre and secondly, providing the princely States with weightage, and ensuring that the princes themselves picked their representatives at the Centre could be used both to deny the Congress power, and to ensure a conservative and pro-British cast to the eventual federation. According to Bridge (pp. 55-57) –

Sir Samuel Hoare lost no time in acquainting himself with the implications of all-India federation. First, he saw Hailey, who was in London as a Government of India adviser at the Conference. The shrewd Hailey advised him to press MacDonald for “an undertaking that there will be no dyarchy at the Centre except on the basis of a central federal assembly". "Having begun with federalism", Hailey continued, "and arranged for a further enquiry into it", it might then be possible to go on with provincial autonomy…. the Conservatives and Liberals saw it as the "only chance of getting away" from the road to central responsibility for British India …. If it failed, it was still a useful delaying tactic. If the Princes actuaIly did federate, their presence would make central responsibiIity much more palatable from a British point of view…. On 12 December Hoare presented his thoughts to shadow cabinet in a document headed "Conservative Policy at the Round Table Conference"…. None of the Conservative delegation had "the least intention of weakly surrendering our position in India", Hoare then related how the Conference had agreed to an all-India federal legislature and thereby taken the "remarkable step" of "eliminating the Legislative Assembly of British India". This had "made it possible to rescue British India from the morass into which the doctrinaire liberalism of Montagu had plunged it"…. "It is possible to give a semblance of responsible government and yet retain in our hands the realities and verities of British control", to "keep for ourselves the threads that really direct the system of government'

There could be "a very wide interpretation of the overriding powers of the Viceroy". The army, "the ultimate instrument of control", would be "completely in our hands".

As to finance, we could [so] tie it up with (1) a Statutory Currency Board for the control of exchange, (2) a Reserve Bank for managing reserves and many kindred financial questions, and (3) a permanent prior charge upon the Federal revenues for interest upon loans, salaries and pensions, the payment of the army etc. that the sphere of responsibility could be reduced to a minimum…. Like Irwin before him, Hoare unfolded a grand design for holding the commanding heights of the Raj while gaining important kudos for giving away inessentials.

It is clear that even Hoare, the most moderate of the Conservative leadership did not intend to honour Britain’s commitment to give India dominion status if this could be avoided.

At a Conservative Party Council meeting on 30 June, he (Hoare) announced that Conservative participation in the session would be contingent upon "a clear and definite assurance from the Government" that "the essential safeguards must be real and permanent, and capable of being exercised in the interests of this country no less than in those of India” (p. 66)

·                     The Labour leadership saw the All India federation concept as one which could plausibly be portrayed as in keeping with Britain’s liberal long-term Indian commitments while, gaining Conservative and Liberal support and allowing Britain to maintain control of India’s finances to Britain’s (and, in the British view, India’s) benefit;

·                     The Princely States say the All India federation concept as a way of reducing the burden of British paramouncy and ensuring their future autonomy within a truly self-governing India if one should ever emerge; and,

·                     Sapru, the leading Indian Liberal, worried about the inability of Indians to negotiate a communal agreement, saw an All India federation as a means of progress as a path to rapidly acquiring Dominion Status with safeguards while somehow brushing under the carpet the vital Hindu-Muslim disagreements

There was little attention paid to the obvious contradictions –

·                     without the congress no worthwhile deal was possible;

·                     without a major and immediate share of real power at the Centre and a clear path to a democratic, united, dominion status India with a strong central government no deal with Congress or the Indian Liberals was possible;

·                     a democratic, united, dominion status India with a strong central government would be unacceptable to the Muslims and Princes;

·                     the essence of the Conservative party position was to deny Indian politicians power at the Centre for as long as possible and to prevent, if possible, the emergence of a dominion status or independent India controlled by Indian politicians.

These contradictions would doom all attempts to work out and acceptable Indian constitution before independence in 1947.


10. Second Round Table Conference (Sept.-Dec. 1931) - A Conservative Federation Scheme

Four major differences from the first round table:

·                     Congress Representation - The Gandhi-Irwin Pact opened the way for Congress participation in this conference. Gandhi attended as the sole official congress representative. Gandhi claimed that the Congress alone represented political India; that the Untouchables were Hindus and should not be treated as a “minority”; and that there should be no separate electorates or special safeguards for Muslims or other minorities. These claims were rejected by the other Indian participants.

·                     National Government - two weeks earlier the Labour government had fallen. Ramsay MacDonald now headed a National Government dominated by the Conservative Party.

·                     Financial Crisis – During the conference, Britain went off the Gold Standard, Cabinet tied the rupee to sterling thus using India gold to stabilize Britain’s currency and the general election returned a large Conservative majority.

This conference proved again that the devil’s in the details. In spite of serious efforts Ghandi was unable to reach agreement with the Muslims on Muslim representation and safeguards.

At the end of the conference Ramsay MacDonald undertook to produce a ‘communal award’ for minority representation with the proviso that any free agreement between the parties could be substituted for his award. “Mr. MacDonald announced the 'Communal Award' on August 16, 1932. According to the Award, the right of separate electorate was not only given to the Muslims of India but also to all the minority communities in the country. The Award also declared Untouchables as a minority and thus the Hindu depressed classes were given a number of special seats, to be filled from special depressed class electorates in the area where their voters were concentrated.” (The Communal Award 1932).

Aiyer (pp. 346-347) justly commented -

... is any country in the world which has not had its own backward classes, or the problems created by their existence. The problems are generally more acute, where the backward classes are racially distinct from the other classes in the country. The treatment of the coloured races by their fellow subjects of European or American extraction is a far more heinous blot on the civilization of the latter and the governments of the countries where such treatment is tolerated. How solicitous the white races are at heart for the welfare and uplift of coloured races can be judged from the manner in which the negroes are treated in the southern states of America and the negroes and the Asiatic races are treated throughout Africa and elsewhere. The world knows how, after going to war with the Boers on the pretext inter alia of the ill-treatment of Indian settlers in South Africa, the British Government coolly handed over the destinies of its Indian subjects to the keeping of the white settlers and how the Imperial Government proposes to confer responsible government on a handful of white settlers in East Africa in disregard of the interests of the much larger numbers of Indian settlers. No one in India can believe in this effusive solicitude of the British Government for the depressed classes as a sincere answer to the political demands of the country. It is believed, not without justice, that the various reasons put forward as arguments against any large relaxation of Imperial control are not the real reasons which weigh with the Imperial Government. The true reason is that, though the British Government admits that they hold the country as trustees for the people, they are not wholly disinterested trustees. On the other hand, they are deeply interested in the maintenance of the status quo and in their own domination of India.

Gandhi took particular exception to the treatment of untouchables as a minority separate from the rest of the Hindu community. To reverse this situation, he negotiated the Poona Pact with Dr. Ambedkar the untouchable leader.


11. Third Round Table Conference (Nov.-Dec. 1932)

From September 1931 until March 1933, under Hoare’s supervision the proposed reforms took the form reflected in the Government of India Act 1935.


Related Wikipedia articles

·                     British Empire

·                     British Raj

·                     Secretary of State for India

·                     India Office

·                     Governor-General of India

·                     Indian Civil Service

·                     Government of India Act

·                     History of Bangladesh

·                     History of India

·                     History of Pakistan