On 16 May 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru, moved a motion in the Constituent Assembly, to ratify a Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference declaration that he took part in a few weeks earlier. The Conference declared that India would continue to be a Commonwealth of Nations member.
Two years earlier, in May 1947, Indian leaders, particularly the Congress, were adamant that India would never join the Commonwealth of Nations. A month later, this radically changed: they felt that India should temporarily be a dominion under the British Crown and thereby part of the commonwealth; This would facilitate stability to the partition-induced uncertain political and social ambience that prevalent at the time.
During the constitution-making process, the Assembly declared that India would be an independent sovereign nation. This was in effect, a rejection of dominion status in favour of complete independence, and also implied the severing of ties with the Commonwealth. So, it was expected that India would discontinue its Commonwealth membership.
However, it seemed like India wanted to continue its membership. But there was a problem: India had declared itself an independent republic, thereby disqualifying itself. This issue was the main agenda of the Prime Minister’s Conference in April 1949. Nehru managed to convince the conference attendees that India should be allowed membership, in spite of its independent republic status.
Nehru now had to get this declaration ratified by the Assembly; not everyone was onboard or aware of the decision of remaining in the Commonwealth. In his speech moving the ratification motion, Nehru anticipated criticism. He emphasised that India’s membership had no bearing on the country's independence and suggested why this was beneficial – a primary motive being friendly relations. Many members were not convinced.
Shibban Saxena suggested that Commonwealth membership was akin to dominion status. He reminded the Assembly that Nehru and the Congress had for many years vigorously opposed dominion status for India. Secondly, he was concerned that India’s membership implied that it was part of the ‘Anglo-American’ power bloc, thereby constraining India's foreign policy going forward.
H.V Kamath highlighted the unique arrangement of India’s relationship with the Commonwealth that the declaration proposed - ‘It is a new development, may I say, in political theory, this association of an independent Republic with the Commonwealth of Nations, which has a king at its head.’
He preferred that India adopt the approach that Ireland was considering. Ireland would not join the Commonwealth but recognised and confirmed the existence of the special relationship between the various Commonwealth nations. Also, Kamath rejected the argument made by others that the lack of Commonwealth membership was the same as living in isolation.
Not all members were critical of Nehru’s motion. Ananthsayanam Ayyanagar viewed India Commonwealth membership as India's desire to maintain and further friendly relations with nations. Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyyar said that India’s membership of the Commonwealth was not a divergence from the Assembly’s idea of India being ‘a Sovereign Independent Republic, both in her internal affairs and external relations.’ Ayyar was joined by Frank Anthony in arguing that India’s economic and military interests were served by having a cordial relationship with Britain, and Commonwealth membership could serve this purpose.
The debate ended with Nehru making closing remarks. In a long speech touching on various things, he suggested that the opposition to India’s membership arose out of place of bitterness towards the British and its past relationship with India. He argued that things were different now - ’the world has changed; England has changed; Europe has changed; India has changed; everything has changed and is changing….’
In the end, the Assembly adopted the motion that Nehru had proposed. India would continue to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
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