This Month in Constitution-Making (February 1947): Britain Announces It Will Quit India

09 February 2022

On 20 February 1947, British Prime Minister C.R. Atlee made it official: Britain would leave India – and soon.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Atlee informed members that Britain would transfer power to Indians – specifically to authorities established by a Constitution ‘approved by all parties’. Atlee acknowledged that as it stood, such a Constitution was not on the horizon, as key political groups were absent from the Constituent Assembly. Whether this political conflict was resolved or not, Atlee seemed to suggest that Britain would leave India before June 1948, no matter what.

Two days after Atlee’s historic speech, Jawaharlal Nehru made a statement. He warned Indians that the imminent departure of the British ‘…will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences and puts a burden and responsibility on all concerned’.

On Nehru’s mind was the uncertainty in India’s political landscape that primarily revolved around the Muslim League’s boycott of the Constituent Assembly. Nehru knew that if the Muslim League did not come on board, Britain would view the Constituent Assembly as lacking complete representation and insist on the partition of India. In what was implicitly a statement aimed at the Muslim League, he saidall those who kept aloof and we ask all to be partners in this joint and historic undertaking [constitution-making] casting aside fear and suspicion’.

Britain’s declaration of quitting India had put Indian leaders in a fix. To ensure that the British actually left, they had to draft and settle a Constitution quickly – which is what they resolved to do. But if they put constitution-making on full throttle, the chances of the Muslim League joining would be even slimmer. In any case, most Indian leaders had slowly resigned to the fact that the British would leave behind not one but two independent dominions.

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