Cabinet Mission Plan (Cabinet Mission, 1946)
The Cabinet Mission Plan was a statement made by the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, on May 16, 1946, that contained proposals regarding the constitutional future of India in the wake of Indian political parties and representatives not coming to an agreement. The members of the Cabinet Mission were: Lord Penthick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and A.V Alexander, First Lord of Admiralty.
In September 1945, the new elected Labour government in Britain expressed its intention of creating a Constituent Assembly for India that would frame India’s Constitution; the Cabinet Mission was sent to India in March 1946 to make this happen. The Mission had to deal with a major obstacle: the two main political parties – the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League – had fundamental differences over India’s future. While the Muslim League wanted the Muslim majority provinces of India to constitute a separate sovereign state of Pakistan, the Congress wanted a united India. The Mission, at the Shimla Conference, attempted to facilitate an agreement between the Muslim League and the Congress. When this failed, the Mission came out with its own proposals known as the Cabinet Mission Plan.
The Plan is around nine pages long – organised around twenty-four points. While some parts of the Plan are written in explanatory prose – unpacking the political context, approach and rationale behind its proposals, other parts of the Plan are written in a quasi-legal style laying down the future steps to be taken that included the form of elections to the Constituent Assembly and its preliminary functioning. The core of the Plan is Point 15 (excerpted below) which lays out the basic form of the future constitution of India.
Point 15 consists of six sub-points that proposed the basic form of the Constitution of India; strikingly, all relate to the federal structure of India. The Plan rejected the Muslim League demand for a separate state of Pakistan and instead called for an Indian Union that consisted of British provinces and the Princely States. While the Plan rejected Pakistan, it proposed a unique federal set-up that it hoped would be acceptable to the Congress Party and the Muslim League: it introduced the concept of grouping/sections; provinces and princely states were free to form groups under the Union, having a legislature and executive, enjoying significant autonomy.
The Plan was initially accepted by the Muslim League and the Congress Party. However, the Congress Party soon rejected the ‘grouping’ part of the plan; specifically, its was concerned about and opposed the grouping of provinces on the basis of religion. The Muslim League was not open to changing any part of the Plan and so any consensus between the Congress and the Muslim League broke down. Further attempts by the Cabinet Mission at reconciliation failed. Nonetheless, the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly began and an interim government, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime minister, was set-up. The Muslim League refused to be part of both; it initiated ‘Direct Action Day’ triggering large-scale violence across the country.
The Plan, also referred to as the ‘State Paper’, had a significant influence over the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly during its initial stages, particularly the debates around Nehru’s Objective Resolution and federalism. The Assembly acknowledged that it was a creation of the Plan; it wanted to, as far as possible, adhere to the Plan’s proposals as means of maintaining its legal legitimacy and to keep the door open for the Muslim League to join its proceedings. At the same time, the Assembly also asserted that its legitimacy was derived from the people of India and not the Plan.
The Cabinet Mission Plan is critical to scholarly works that engage with various aspects of Indian constitutionalism, law, politics and history, particularly on partition and federalism. Recent work have paid close attention to British perspectives as well: Walter Reid in Keeping the Jewel in the Crown emphasises the British self-interest behind the setting up of the Cabinet Mission: ‘to secure Britain’s defence interests in India and the Indian Ocean Area’. Other scholars have taken to evaluating the Cabinet Mission and its Plan: Granville Austin argues that the Cabinet Mission (‘non-Indians’) should have never attempted to mediate between the Congress and the Muslim league: ‘it was foredoomed to failure’. The Cabinet Mission Plan continues to be relevant to scholars and the general public in understanding and making sense of not only the origins of the Indian Constitution, but also the future of the Indian republic.
15. We recommend that the Constitution should take the following basic form:(1) There should be a Union of India, embracing both British India and the States which should deal with the following subjects: Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Communications; and should have the powers necessary to raise the finances required for the above subjects.(2) The Union should have an Executive and a Legislature constituted from British Indian and States’ representatives. Any question raising a major communal issue in the Legislature should require for its decision a majority of the representatives present and voting of each of the two major communities as well as a majority of all members present and voting.(3) All subjects other than the Union subjects and all residuary powers should vest in the Provinces.(4) The States will retain all subjects and powers other than those ceded to the Union.(5) Provinces should be free to form groups with Executives and Legislatures, and each group could determine the Provincial subjects to be taken in common.(6) The Constitutions of the Union and of the groups should contain a provision whereby any Province could by majority vote of its Legislative Assembly could call for a reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution after an initial period of ten years and at ten-yearly intervals thereafter.