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Wavell Plan and Shimla Conference

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  • Last Updated : 20 Jun, 2022

Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed as the Viceroy of India by Winston Churchill in September 1943. He was the successor to Lord Linlithgow, the longest-serving Viceroy of  British ruled India. The arrival of Lord Wavell was amidst times of turmoil between the empire and those who stood for independence from them. The unrest was also between those who propagated the idea of a divided and undivided India. Lord Wavell was formerly the Commander in Chief of India making him a suitable choice for the position of Viceroy of India and having a better understanding of the pertaining issues at the time of his appointment. 

A conference was convened at British India’s summer capital, Shimla in 1945 was attended by the most famous names from the Indian freedom struggle who acted as representatives of their respective communities or political organizations. The events that took at the Shimla Conference were between men who stood tall over their beliefs of their communities and their respective ideologies and the role they would play after the departure of the Queen’s government from India. This conference did not reach a productive end, however, the conference acted as a platform to further reinforce the individual demands of the respective attendees regarding their role or level of representation granted to their communities post-independence, finally resulting in the failure of the conference.  

Background of Wavell’s Plan and Shimla Conference:

The events prior to the conference bottled up the dissent against the Raj exponentially. The Quit India Movement by M.K Gandhi launched in 1942 led to his arrest and imprisonment at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. M.K Gandhi protested from the jail using Satyagraha, his fast for twenty-two days ended with his release as the Raj was worried Gandhi’s death would increase the resistance against the establishment. Gandhi was also infected with malaria-causing his health to severely deteriorate. During the tenure of his imprisonment, his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his trusted aide Mahadev Desai died at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. With the growing agitation, Lord Linlithgow and Wavell recommended Gandhi’s unconditional release to Winston Churchill, in one of the letters Winston Churchill says “ it seems almost certain that the old rascal [Gandhi] will emerge all better for his so-called fast.” It was finally the Secretary of State of British India L.S Amery who convinced Churchill to release Gandhi. While Lord Wavell was trying to lobby for a united India and did not want to cater to the demand for a separate state for the Muslims as directed by the All India Muslim League led by Jinnah. After multiple correspondence and meetings with both Jinnah, Gandhi, and other prominent members, Wavell drafted a plan that would be presented at the talks in Shimla which could possibly resolve the differences between AIML and INC.  

Before understanding the cause of conflict and the failure of the conference here is a brief understanding of Wavell’s Plan for the Shimla Conference. Wavell’s responsibility was to formulate a plan acceptable to both the Indian National Congress (INC) and the All India Muslim League (AIML), to create a smooth transition of power. INC under the persuasion of Gandhi rooted for an undivided India, however AIML under the persuasion of M. Jinnah was hell-bent on the creation of a new state for Muslims in the country, later to be known as Pakistan. To further deliberate on the plan and create a common consensus the Shimla Conference was convened on June 25th, 1945, inviting twenty-one political leaders including Gandhi and Jinnah.

A Brief Explanation of Wavell’s Plan:  

1. The number of seats in the executive council was to be increased and the council will only consist of Indian members other than the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief who would be representing the British establishment.  

2. Equal representation was guaranteed to both Muslims, Caste Hindus, Sikhs, Depressed classes, etc. Six of the fourteen seats were given to Muslim members.  

3. The role of British officials and the transfer of power was clarified in the plan. The Viceroy would have the veto power but assured that its use would be minimal. The foreign relations portfolio would be transferred to an Indian member and the affairs related to Defence would continue to be taken care of by the British officials until the complete transfer to a new Indian army.

4. That meeting was to be convened between the INC and AIML to nominate members to the new executive council.

5. Wavell wanted decentralization of power, where the executive council at the center would grant the provision for similar executive councils to be formed at the local level consisting of local leaders in each province.

It was assured that this plan was to ensure the smooth transition of power and in no way would influence prejudice of any kind in drafting the individual Indian constitution. The larger objective Wavell wished to achieve was the unity of the provinces and under no circumstances allow the creation of a state on communal differences. 

However, Wavell was unable to create a common consensus over the presented plan. The primary reason for the failure was the expected disagreement between INC and AIML, more specifically the disagreement between Gandhi and Jinnah. Lord Wavell left a remark in his journal about the stubbornness of both leaders stating that  “Gandhi and Jinnah are behaving like very temperamental prima donnas.” 

A Brief History of Shimla Conference: 

1. Lord Wavell Invited the most prominent 21, political leaders, to the Viceregal Lodge, Shimla, and this conference started from 25th June to 14th July 1945. The list of Invited guests also included Dr. B.R Ambedkar to represent the “Depressed Classes”, Tara Singh representing “Sikhs”, M.N Roy to represent the laborers, and other prominent leaders to represent non congress or non-league persuasions.

2. Abul Kalam Azad spoke in his capacity as the President of the INC clarifying its non-communal stance that the INC will maintain and expressing disagreement towards the demands proposed by Jinnah. In rebuttal, Jinnah accused the INC of being Hindu-centric, this dispute carried on throughout the conference. Six of the sixteen members were assigned for Muslims.  

3. As per the Wavell Plan, the attendees were supposed to nominate members from their fold to be part of the executive council. All entities who took part in the conference nominated a member of the executive council. Tara Singh was to represent the Sikhs, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar would be representing the Depressed Class. Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Madhav Shrihari Aney, and  B. N. Rau were the five “Caste-Hindus” who was nominated to the council.

4. Out of these four Muslim members were to be nominated by the AIML. The AIML wanted the right to nominate all the six Muslim members to the Executive Council and demanded that AIML be recognized as the sole representative of  Muslims.  

5. INC was ready to submit its list of candidates for the new executive council but Jinnah delayed the submission from AIML. On further correspondence with Wavell, Jinnah stood his ground and expected Wavell to agree to his demands. When Jinnah did not receive a response from Wavell he declined to be part of the plan and completely withdrew from the talks. No concrete decision was taken at Shimla resulting in the failure of the conference.

The failure of Wavell’s effort was complete when the world war ended and the Labour Party came into power. The leaders of the Labour Party wanted to grant India its independence quickly, therefore sent the cabinet mission to fulfill this very purpose. The Shimla Conference is viewed as one of the major events that led to the partition of the country. M. Jinnah’s stubborn stance on the creation of a separate state for Muslims and apprehension against the INC nominating Muslim representatives caused the occurrence of partition to be inevitable.  

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