Should India have accepted the Dominion status in 1947?

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There are many wrongs in a society, in any society. There is a need to correct these. However, in the process of any change or transformation, there are often people who lose; in fact, they can lose very badly. These people are typically the beneficiaries of an old system. Given that they had stood to benefit for so long, they do indeed deserve to lose. There is no doubt about that. However, in this context, I would like to make a qualification. This is from the viewpoint of pragmatism. The qualification is in the very interest of those who had been suffering for long under an unjust system. There is a need to take care in how the change is brought about. This is because there can be a reaction, a strong reaction, from those who lose. This is natural. We may not like it at all but there is no escape from how human beings tend to behave. The losers in a sudden social, political and economic transformation can get motivated to take actions that can be very painful for others and that can somewhat negate the gains from the historic changes underway. In view of this, important changes need to be brought about in a phased manner.

I will apply this general principle to raising an important question related to the events around 1947 in India. More specifically, I will reconsider the British proposal to the Indian people (read the Congress Party) in 1940s to accept the Dominion status for India after the British control over India would come to an end on August 15, 1947. Let us consider the facts first.

To cut a long (and familiar) story short, after the movement for independence (and after some changes in UK and the rest of the world), the British agreed to give in to demands of the Congress Party in India in so far as handing over the Government of India is concerned. It is well known that Britain followed the policy of ‘divide and rule’ in India on religious grounds. This policy aggravated, if not caused, the tendency amongst the politicians within the country towards dividing the country into two parts. Partition of India came. The country got divided into two parts – India and Pakistan. There were serious riots. Most of the British in the Government of India ‘tolerated’, if not engineered, the riots in the aftermath of the independence in August 1947. The British hardly played any pro-active role in preventing and dealing with the riots. A huge number of people died (the figure for deaths varies between two lacs and two million). The number of people displaced is estimated at between 10 and 12 million. There were other huge costs as well. Till day, there is hostility between the Government of India and the Government of Pakistan, to put it mildly.

Why did the British not act proactively to ensure peace around the time of independence? It can be that they were bitter after losing power and they had lost interest in the welfare of the people of the Indian subcontinent. Could this have been avoided? This would have been quite difficult. However, some effort could have been made to soften the blow. In this context, it may have helped if the Indians had accepted some of the proposals made by the British. They had suggested that India should accept the Dominion status, which is to say that India would not become a Republic. Instead, the King/Queen of England would continue to be the head of the state in India (as is the case with other countries like Canada and Australia though their histories were quite different). This proposal was rejected outright in India even though the Dominion status would not come in the way of effective political control by Indians, given that independence was being granted to India anyway. It is possible that the rejection of even the idea of the Dominion status left the British angry and possibly even bitter. Perhaps the British lost positive interest thereafter. May be, they reacted.

Consider a counterfactual now. Suppose the Congress Party and others had accepted the idea of Dominion status for India in the 1940s. The Dominion status need not have been permanent; it could have been negotiated to have the arrangement for, say, the next twenty-five years (from 1947 to 1972). Then there may have been a continued positive link between India and Britain in the 1940s; this is when changes were being contemplated and negotiated actively. The British may have felt involved more positively in the process of transition from British rule to independence for India. There may have been more positive thinking among them in the transition from British rule. Perhaps, India would not even have got divided, if the British had played a more constructive role. Who knows? But even if the partition was unstoppable, the damage related to the riots in the process of Partition during 1947-48 may have been reduced. Perhaps, the whole issue of Kashmir would not have arisen at all. Or, it may have been resolved more amicably with the British playing a more active and positive role (note that the British were hardly involved in a serious way in the drama that was unfolding in Kashmir at the time of partition; it was effectively the ‘locals’ deciding or deliberating on the issue). There may have been a lot more peace within the Indian subcontinent all these decades if the transition from British rule to independence had been handled better in 1947. An important part of the shift could have been the acceptance of the Dominion status for the whole of India. This is a hypothesis worth considering.

I cannot help recalling the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688, in what may seem a digression. Leaving aside the many complexities, the British Parliament became supreme but the royalty was not kicked out. Instead, the royalty remained the head of the state (though with hardly any powers for all practical purposes). It is as if the British Parliament accepted, in a sense, the ‘Dominion status’! The point is that the big change was by historical standards quite peaceful. It also did not ignore the long history of monarchy.

It is true that the Kings and Queens have not always been good to their subjects but these are typically cases where the Parliament is not supreme. We are considering a case in which the government is elected but the Dominion status prevails.

Some may feel that it is shameful to have an ‘outsider’ as head of the state. So, they may reject the idea of the Dominion status for India. However, it is important to keep in mind that though the British exploited India, they also made positive contributions in a variety of ways; this has been accepted now even by some reputed Indian historians such as Tirthankar Roy. So, it is not unambiguous that the British were complete ‘outsiders’ to India by the time of the independence.

Some ‘rationalists’ think of an ideal blueprint and consider a shift from a given situation to an ideal scenario. However, they hardly pay any attention to the transition process as if it is irrational to do so. This neglect of the transition process makes the shift difficult to implement and often violent. In this context, acceptance of the Dominion status may have helped. After all, during the Partition, it was a major loss of lives. These were not British lives but lives of people of the subcontinent. Each life matters (recall that the agitation against the British was called off after the ‘small’ Chauri Chara incident on February 5, 1922). So, acceptance of the Dominion status may have been a small price to pay for a possible peaceful transition shift. The British may have played a more positive role in 1947 if the Dominion status had been accepted. This may have reduced tensions not only during 1947-48 but also for decades thereafter in the region.

History matters. It can constrain the choice about the path to be taken at any point of time, given the history till then. Under the circumstances in 1947, it may have been preferable to accept the Dominion status for a while rather than opting for a republic straightaway. This column is not a negative critique of the freedom fighters. I realize what they have done for us. It is only an attempt at learning from History. It is an attempt at considering possible ways that could have avoided the huge human cost around the time of independence.