“At the stroke of the midnight hour, as the world sleeps, India awakes to light and freedom.” Jawaharlal Nehru delivering his Tryst with Destiny speech late on the night of August 14, 1947, to the constituent assembly is the historic moment that has been ingrained in the Indian minds as the occasion of the declaration of “independent” India. Now, the country is celebrating the 75th year of that moment. But did India actually become free from the British crown on August 15, 1947? The answer is no. What happened 75 years before was that India and Pakistan became “dominions within the British Commonwealth of Nations”. Lord Mountbatten, who served as the dominion of India’s first governor-general (1947–1948), functioned on behalf of the emperor King George VI. The governor general held full power to give assent “in his Majesty’s name” to any law of the dominion of India.
India technically remained under the crown until sovereignty was claimed on behalf of the Indian people by the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950. Over the years, the awkward short period of “independent” India as a constitutional monarchy has been erased from public memory.
What is a dominion state?
The British Imperial Conference of 1926 described the dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
It was in this conference that dominion status was formally accorded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa and Irish Free State.
The conference also made the declaration that the governor-general of the dominion is “the representative of the crown, holding in all essential respects the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the dominion as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain’, and that “it is the right of the government of each dominion to advise the crown in all matters relating to its own affairs”.
This 1926 definition was modified on April 28, 1949, after a meeting in London of the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon, and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs. A major development after this meeting was the declaration that countries could enjoy full Commonwealth membership without recognising the British monarch as their sovereign. The declaration that India will become an “independent sovereign republic” also happened after this meeting. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, affirmed India’s desire to continue the full membership of the Commonwealth and its acceptance of the “king as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of Commonwealth”. It was accepted and India became the first nation to enter into such an arrangement.
On January 22, 1947, months before the independence, the constituent assembly of India had passed a resolution with the objective that India must become an “independent sovereign republic”. While this resolution was being passed, the crown appeared to be a great barrier to independent India’s inclusion in the Commonwealth. However, two years later, Nehru and India achieved it, showing the path to a whole bunch of other nations.
Indian Independence Bill and Churchill’s dissent
India and Pakistan were made dominions under the British crown via the provisions of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, which got royal assent on July 18, 1947. The Indian Independence Bill was presented in the House of Commons of the British Parliament by prime minister Clement Attlee on July 4, 1947. Three days before, his predecessor Winston Churchill wrote to him asking to change the name of the bill.
“I’m worried to hear that you’ll call the India Bill, ‘The Indian Independence Bill’. This is completely against what we’d been told before,” Churchill wrote. “The only reason why I gave support to plans agreed with Mountbatten is because they’d establish Dominion status. Dominion status is not the same as Independence, although it may lead to independence. It’s not true that a community is independent when its Ministers have in fact taken the Oath of Allegiance to the King. This is a very serious issue and the correct process and naming should be used. The correct title would be, it seems to me, ‘The Indian Dominions Bill’. I’ll also support it if it were called ‘The India Bill, 1947’ or ‘The India Self-Government Bill.”
Indian leaders and dominion status
In the 1926 Imperial Conference, India was represented by the Maharaja of Burdwan. He gave a lengthy opening speech about India’s loyalty to the British empire at the conference. Many leaders of the nationalist movement—including M.K. Gandhi—wished India to gain dominion status in the 1920s.
Harshan Kumarsingham, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, notes in his journal ‘The Tropical Dominions’—published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Royal Historical Society—that the “traditional elites of Congress whose political aspirations were ‘overwhelmingly legalistic’, the full status of being a Dominion alongside Canada and Australia appealed greatly. They themselves through the 1925 Commonwealth of India Bill (which the British Labour party helped draft) and the 1928 [Motilal] Nehru Report all basically advocated the Dominion model for India.”
In 1929, Gandhi proposed a resolution at the Lahore session of Congress that called for the British to grant dominion status to India within a year. However, Gandhi was strongly opposed by young leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. The All India Congress Committee voted in favour of the resolution. However, Bose then introduced an amendment during the open session of the Congress which demanded a complete break from the British crown. They said there would be no true freedom till the British connection was severed. Nehru, who was in contact with other nationalist movements across the British Empire, had a clear vision of the racial ill-treatment faced by the people of British colonies. He reasoned that the white dominions will not recognize India on an equal footing. He also pointed out, that no form of “dominion statutes” would give Indians real power without the entire withdrawal by the British.
Bose moved an amendment to Gandhi’s resolution, which was supported by Nehru.
Gandhi admonished it, saying, “You may take the name of independence on your lips… but all your muttering will be an empty formula if there is no honour behind it. If you are not prepared to stand by your words, where will independence be?” Bose’s amendment was rejected by 1,350 to 973 votes.
Just as Nehru pointed out, the British reluctance to accept India’s constitutional parity with the settler dominions became the biggest hindrance against India gaining dominion status in the 1930s. Though the British government kept making public statements that dominion status would ultimately be given to India—the most explicit offer came from Lord Irwin who faced the Civil Disobedience movement—they never really intended to grant it. However, World War II forced the empire to change its stance. Indian manpower and money were crucial for the empire to fight the bloody war. And, they needed the support of Congress.
In 1942, the Cripps Mission— headed by Sir Stafford Cripps, a left-wing Labourite—agreed to offer dominion status after the completion of the war in exchange for Indian cooperation in the war effort. Historian and lawyer Rohit De note in his journal 'Between midnight and republic: Theory and practice of India’s Dominion status' that by then the relations between the Congress and the British government were at their lowest ebb. Gandhi described Cripps Mission’s offer as a “post-dated cheque from a failing bank”. The fact that Churchill was the prime minister of Britain also made Indians not believe that offer.
A key factor for the failure of the Cripp’s Mission was that the British government was reluctant to place the defence ministry under Indian control. They were desperate to have a future where India was under their sphere of influence; they were clear that India has a pivotal role to play in safeguarding the British interests in Asia. Attlee, who was secretary of state for dominion affairs between February 1942 and September 1943, even asked whether Indian dominion-hood could be reconciled with the continued presence of British troops in India. De notes that the Naval and air force mutinies of 1946, however, shook the confidence of the empire; the establishment understood that it can no longer depend blindly on its army or civil service to maintain control over India. Thus, the British decided to leave India forever.
Why did Congress accept offer of dominion status in 1947?
There is a view that it was because the Congress leaders were “old men in a hurry… who were prepared to compromise when faced with the prospect of what amounted in effect to sovereignty.” However, De notes that dominion status helped cement Congress’s plans for transforming India. They also saw the dominion status as a temporary step to placate the British before establishing a republic. Also, the executive instruments from the viceroyalty became handy for them to use for “the nation's needs” during the “transition” phase. For instance, colonial-era preventive detention rules were used against both right-wing and left-wing extremists as well as local goons. Emergency measures, commodity controls and rationing imposed by the British during wartime were employed as a measure to “stabilise and manage” the economy.
Another important reason for accepting the offer was that the Indian politicians wanted the princely states also to join the Indian union, that would be formed soon. In 1947, a third of the land of the Indian subcontinent was under the control of native princely states. Each of these princely states had an independent treaty-based relationship with the British crown. Many of these princes had aspirations of declaring independence. The solution to overcome this challenge was suggested by Lord Mountbatten. He urged that if the Congress leaders accept the “dominion status”, that would help the new state to continue with the paramountcy the British viceroy had over the princely states. And, this move gave Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel an upper hand while negotiating with princes for integrating them into the new Union of states.
“Legally, if Crown rule was replaced by a republic, the treaties signed by the crown with the princely states would be extinguished. There would be no King’s government in India to inherit paramountcy,” De notes in his journal. By creating a dominion—and retaining the office of governor-general—the Indian politicians ensured the continuity of the relations the princely states had with the crown.