On February 20, 1947, around 17 years after the Purna Swaraj Declaration, British Prime Minister C.R. Atlee made it official: the British would leave India and transfer power to a government manned by Indians. Speaking in the House of Commons, Atlee viewed this step as the culmination of the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, and other measures that progressively gave Indians greater provisions for self-government.
The British intended to transfer power to authorities established by a Constitution approved by all parties. However, Atlee acknowledged that as it stood, such a Constitution was not on the horizon, the current situation was uncertain and ‘fraught with danger and cannot be indefinitely prolonged’. The British, he seemed to suggest, would no matter what, transfer power and leave not later than June 1948.
Atlee also announced a new Viceroy for India – Lord Mountbatten – who was given the task to oversee the transfer of power ‘in a manner that will best ensure the future happiness and prosperity of India’. Ironically, there was nothing happy or prosperous about the partition of India that is widely considered to have been a consequence of Mountbatten’s decision of choosing a new date for Indian independence - 15th August 1947 - a year before Atlee’s date of June 1948.
Two days after Atlee’s historic speech, Jawaharlal Nehru responded: Far from celebrating the ‘definite declaration’ of the British leaving, he warned Indians that ‘the decision will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences and puts a burden and responsibility on all concerned’.
Nehru was referring to the political situation in India - the Muslim league had boycotted the Constituent Assembly. Atlee insinuated that if a Constitution prepared by a ‘fully representative assembly’ was not ready, India might be partitioned. Nehru, aiming to steer away from such a future invited ‘afresh all those who kept aloof and we ask all to be partners in this join and historical undertaking casting aside fear and suspicion’.
Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly's work was well underway – without the Muslim League. The Objectives Resolution had been passed in January 1947, and in February, the constitution-making process received a shot in the arm: the critical Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities etc. sat for the first time. The Cabinet Mission Plan in its constitutional scheme had provided for such a Committee. On 24 January 1947, the Assembly adopted a resolution moved by Govind Ballabh Pant and the Committee was formally constituted.
At its first meeting, the Committee unanimously appointed Sardar Patel as its Chairman. Patel reminded other members that ‘…This committee forms one of the most vital parts of the Constituent Assembly and one of the most difficult tasks that has to be done by us is the work of this committee…’. The Committee promptly appointed five sub-committees that included the crucial Sub-Committees on Fundamental Rights and Minority Rights. Over the next few months, these Committees would submit reports that formed the basis of the fundamental rights and minority rights provisions of the Constitution of India, 1950.
(Thumbnail image courtesy: Wiki Commons, India Post, Government of India)