In late 1939, World War II broke out. Germany had invaded Poland leading to Britain declaring war Germany. Without consulting Indians, Britain dragged India into the war irking India political groups. The Indian National Congress, the leading political force at the time, was expectedly not pleased; it condemned the unilateral decision, refused India’s cooperation in the war, and directed its party’s elected legislators to resign from provincial governments.
The British knew that for it to acquire long term, stable and sustained cooperation from Indians towards the war effort, major political groups had to come on board. For this, it had to offer these groups something in return.
On 8 August 1940, Viceroy of India Lord Linlithgow made a statement of behalf of British parliament which came to be known as the ‘August Offer’. He promised that a Constituent Assembly would be set up after the war to determine India’s constitutional future with a caveat: no future system of government would be instituted that did not have the support of minority political and religious groups. He also, in what appears to be a token towards Indian self-government, proposed to expand the Viceroy’s council to include a certain number of Indian political representatives.
The Offer was significant as this was the first time that the British acknowledged the demand for Constituent Assembly. The Congress and other groups had made this a central plank of their political work for years. The British largely ignored these demands and went about drafting and implementing its Government of India Act 1935 – what was effectively the British-imposed Indian Constitution.
The Offer was interesting in that most of its promises were amorphous, vague, lacked specific timelines and commitment. In the next few weeks, Indian political groups began to respond.
Predictably, the Congress rejected the Offer which it felt was another attempt by the British to ‘deny India her natural right of complete national freedom’. A decade has passed since Congress had replaced the relatively smaller demand for ‘dominion status’ with the more substantial ‘complete freedom’. It was further peeved with the British tactic of insinuating that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was a Congress exercise in imposing a Constitution on minority groups.
Gandhi who had recently decided to stay away from politics faced pressure from different directions to give his reaction to the Viceroy’s statement. He felt that the Offer was
‘…deeply distressing. It widens the gulf between India, as represented by the Congress, and England. Thinking India outside the Congress, too, has not welcomed the pronouncement’…My own fear is that democracy is being wrecked. Britain cannot claim to stand for justice, if she fails to be just to India. India’s disease is too deep to yield to any make-believe or half-hearted measures…’
The Muslim League termed the Offer as ‘progress’ but was not pleased with that the British did not conuslt Indian political groups with regards to the the proposed expansion of the Viceroy’s council. The Hindu Mahasabha, that claimed to represent Hindu interests, was reasonably warm to the Offer, and even promptly nominated its members to the Viceroy’s council. Unlike the Congress, the Mahasabha was fine with the Offer of dominion status but hoped that the British were sincere about it.
As the months went along, it appears that Indian political groups, even those who were initially somewhat supportive of the Offer, felt that the British were evasive and not serious about constitutional and political reforms. By the end of the year, most political parties rejected the Offer. The British objective of garnering India’s cooperation in the war effort through the Offer was a spectacular failure.