In June 1934, for the first time, the Indian National Congress formally demanded that a Constituent Assembly composed of Indians be set up to frame a Constitution for India. This added a new strand to Congress’s political engagement with the British on the future of India. Going forward, the demand for a Constituent Assembly would be made alongside calls for ‘Purna Swaraj’ or complete freedom.
The trigger for the Congress’s demand was the 1934 British White Paper. The Round Table Conferences organised to resolve India’s constitutional and communal issues, had failed. Following this, the British government, without consulting Indian political leaders, drafted a set of constitutional reforms. These were widely criticised and attacked by Indian political parties. The Congress now felt that the only way forward was for Indians themselves to decide their constitutional future.
On June 16-17, 1934 the Congress Working Committee passed a resolution which stated that the White Paper ‘in no way expresses the will of the people of India…the only satisfactory alternative…is constitution drawn up by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult suffrage or as near it as possible, with the power, if necessary, to the important minorities to have their representative elected exclusively by the electors belonging to such minorities’
The British did not take notice, it went ahead and embarked on a process to implement its constitutional proposals. With every move that the British made, the Congress reiterated, with greater force and conviction, its demand for a Constituent Assembly. The British government’s next step was to refer the White Paper to a Joint Committee set up by the two houses of British parliament. The Committee was tasked to prepare a report. When this Report came out, Congress termed it as a document that aimed to ‘facilitate and perpetuate the domination and exploitation of this country’.
Then in 1935, the British passed the Government of India Act, which was the culmination of the process that began with the White Paper. The Government of India Act 1935 was in effect going to be the Constitution of India. The Congress rejected the Act and in a 1936 resolution declared that ‘no constitution imposed by outside authority and no constitution which curtails the sovereignty of the people of India and does not recognise their right to shape and control fully their political and economic future can be accepted. ‘
The resolution went on to say that the only Constitution that was acceptable was one that was based ‘on the independence of India as a nation and it can only be framed by a Constituent Assembly elected on adult franchise or a franchise which approximates to it as nearly as possible.’ The Resolution once again demanded ‘in the name of the people’ for a Constituent Assembly.
In the same year, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his presidential address at the Faizapur Congress, told the gathering that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was now the ‘cornerstone of Congress policy today’. And indeed, it was. Resolution after resolution, speech after speech, the Congress kept re-iterating its call for a Constituent Assembly.
Towards the end of the 1930s, the Congress had more or less managed to saturate Indian political discourse with the demand for a Constituent Assembly. Around the same time, the Second World war was on the horizon, and the British saw the cooperation of Indians as critical in the war effort. The British government could not ignore Indian political demands anymore. In August 1940, through a statement made by Viceroy Linlithgow – ‘August Offer 1940’ – it recognised the right of Indians to frame their own Constitution. While this was a victory of a sort, the communal problem now took centre stage – the Muslim League had passed the Pakistan Resolution earlier in the year. The setting up of an Indian Constituent Assembly was still miles away.