Tuesday, October 19, 2010

India and the Commonwealth: The Coarse Timeline

1867: The foundation of "Dominion" status was the achievement of internal self-rule in the form of "responsible government". Responsible government in British colonies began to emerge in the 1840s - typically with Nova Scotia cited as the first colony to achieve it in early 1848 - and then being granted to most of the major settler colonies - British North America, Australia, and New Zealand - by 1856. The British North America Act was formally promulgated in 1867 and Canada achieved Dominion status.

The British North America Act, 1867 established the Dominion of Canada by fusing the North American British colonies of the Province of Canada, the Province of New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The two subdivisions of the Province of Canada, Canada West and Canada East, were renamed Ontario and Quebec, respectively, and were given equal footing with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Parliament of Canada, as representation by population was accepted for the Canadian House of Commons, as was a notion of regional equality in the Canadian Senate, with the Ontario, Quebec and Maritime "regions" receiving an equal number of senators. This creation, or Confederation, was done to counter the claims of manifest destiny made by the United States of America, for the defence of Britain's holdings. American threats were evinced by the invasions of the Canadas during the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Fenian raids.

Prior to the BNA Act, 1867, the British colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island discussed the possibility of a fusion to counter the threat of American annexation and to reduce the costs of governance. The Province of Canada entered these negotiations at the behest of the British government, and led to the ambivalence of the Province of Prince Edward Island, which delayed joining the new Dominion for seven years. The constitutional conference, ironically, was held on Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown.

1880s: Four colonies of Australia had enjoyed responsible government since 1856: New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Queensland had responsible government soon after its founding in 1859. Because of ongoing financial dependence on Britain, Western Australia became the last Australian colony to attain self-government in 1890. With Federations emerging in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland, a serious movement for the Federation of the colonies that make up Australia today arose in the late 1880s. In this period, there was increasing nationalism amongst Australians, the great majority of whom were native born. The idea of being "Australian" began to be celebrated in songs and poems. This was fostered by improvements in transport and communications, such as the establishment of a telegraph system between the colonies in 1872. In 1884, Lord Rosebery is said to have used the term "Commonwealth" for the first time, while assuring an Australian audience that the "fact of your being a nation need not imply any separation from the Empire... There is no need for any nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a commonwealth of nations."

As a result of the long and tortuous (see [1]) Federation process, six separate British self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia formed a federation and collectively became states of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) was passed on 5 July 1900 and given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900. It was proclaimed on 1 January 1901 in Centennial Park, Sydney.

1907: The desire for New Zealand to create and maintain a separate national identity is a predominant theme in the country’s history, which was demonstrated clearly at Australia’s federation and not only New Zealand’s decision not to join the Commonwealth of Australia, but the clear indifference of the population and its governing officials to the issue. A growing sense of nationalism has been submitted as one motivation (see [2] for details) for the decision but this theory is not easily measurable. The differences in colonisation influenced decisions on federation by creating a foundation from which concepts of national identity might subsequently emerge. Although both countries were colonised for the similar purpose of settlement, the practical implementations of colonisation were distinct. Similarity of purpose does not equate to the uniformity of process, just as other colonial settlements such as Canada and South Africa experienced variations on the single aim of colonisation.

The decision for national separation in the Antipodes can be traced through each country’s colonial history. Claims of a unique national identity are symptomatic of the myths created through distinct modes of colonisation. Despite sharing numerous similarities, Australia and New Zealand’s colonial disparities caused their national separation and differing national identities in the early twentieth century.

Labelling Australia as terra nullius cleared the path for colonial conquest by ignoring the Indigenous presence and ownership of the land. The island continent’s subsequent colonisation occurred with the definitive purpose of establishing a site to assist in relieving the overcrowded prisons in England. Geoffrey Blainey further suggests that the Australian continent required a greater rationale to justify colonisation other than as a remote prison. According to Blainey, Australia offered an effective location along trade routes to Asia and a supply of flax and timber for shipbuilding. Australia’s geographical location provided the British with an opportunity to further establish the empire’s presence south of Asia and therefore, ‘Australia then was not designed simply as a remote gaol, cut off from the world’s commerce. It was to develop its own export trade’. Despite these purposes and the subsequent passages of free settlers later in the nineteenth century, the convict element gained prominence in perceptions and representations of the Australian population. Interpretations of colonial history influenced how a national identity was formulated and how the Australian population was assessed by their Tasman neighbours. Australia became depicted as a colonial child, separated from its imperial parent, adrift in a foreign sea.

New Zealand’s colonial process was, comparatively, awkward and indecisive. New Zealand, as a geographical space, had been previously overlooked as a site for colonisation. Blainey writes that ‘while the continent of Australia flanked routes to many trading points, New Zealand was too far to the east and south to be prized as a potential port of call’. British ports and penal settlements were already established in Australia, leaving little incentive to annex or colonise New Zealand. As the trade relations between the colonies gained momentum during the first half of the nineteenth century, the European population in New Zealand expanded. By 1840, New Zealand was populated by traders and whalers as well as missionaries who were intent on introducing civility to the ports such as Kororareka and converting the Maori to Christianity. Their demands for law and order and the alarming rate at which settlers and squatters arrived looking for land prompted consideration of annexing the remainder of New Zealand and implementing colonisation. This decision was accompanied by the New Zealand Company’s desire to colonise locations in New Zealand by launching a social experiment to create settlements resembling the homeland both physically and in class stratum. Keith Sinclair writes Edward Wakefield’s version of colonisation meant that ‘the new colonial society would consist of a vertical selection of English society, excluding the lowest stratum. It would form, not a "new people", but an "extension" of an old, retaining its virtues, but eliminating its poverty and overcrowding’. The Treaty of Waitangi was significant in establishing sovereignty and, unlike the Australian colonies, acknowledging the Maori presence upon—although not ownership of—the land. The Pakeha population perceived itself as better than previous colonial settlements, as they were free settlers, some ‘selected’ for the colonies, and these ideas extended to the Maori. The Maori Wars provided historical reference for the colonial concept of the noble Maori warrior and their fighting prowess proved to the colonists the Maori were superior to other Indigenous peoples. The disparate intent of colonisation enabled New Zealand to produce an alternative rendering of identity to Australia.

Despite their separate histories and distinct modes of colonisation, Australia and New Zealand share an enmeshed history. New Zealand’s initial population was acquired through Maori trade with the New South Wales colony, and ‘it was this trade which brought to New Zealand the early Pakeha settlers. They were mostly young men from the Australian colonies’. The subsequent gold rushes in Victoria, then Otago and the Westland produced a trans-Tasman population wandering between both countries. These connections constructed the ‘Australasian’ region and established the grounds for considering New Zealand as a possible seventh state at Australia’s federation. The inclusion of a clause in the Australian Constitution to allow New Zealand (or other states) to join the federation after 1901 demonstrates the two countries’ integration during the nineteenth century.

Captain William Russell submitted to the Australasian Federal Council in 1890 that New Zealand should remain separate to the Australian federation because ‘colonisation had proceeded in an entirely different manner’. His statement implied New Zealanders were not tainted by a history of convictism and were hence, socially and culturally superior. It is not difficult to dismiss Russell’s assertion of a morally superior New Zealand ‘type’. Asserting the moral superiority of New Zealanders forgets South Australia was not a convict colony, but the original Wakefield settlement in the Antipodes. However, the bare facts of immigration were not as powerful as the myth the New Zealand Company had constructed that New Zealand ‘was at least created as nearly in the image of the motherland as could be expected’.

The propaganda of the New Zealand Company offers partial explanation as to how New Zealanders configured themselves differently to the Australian colonial population. The Company desired settlers who were ‘of good character’ and their advertising created the belief settlers were specially selected, not corrupted by convict origins and they would flourish in a climate similar to the British homeland, or at least, more similar than their trans-Tasman neighbour. A sense of identity was crafted ‘from the unholy alliance between formal and informal myths of settlements, from the ideas of the progressive British paradise’. From this perspective, Australia’s population, due to its convict past and lack of rigorous selection, was of poorer physical quality, as was the environment, and ‘it was widely believed that a climate ranging from bracing to temperate produced the strongest physical and moral character’. At the time, it appeared New Zealand’s federation with Australia would compromise the purity of a ‘carefully selected’ population. Australians were the descendents of convicts and ‘it was in 1902 that New Zealanders were famously hailed as not simply "British" but "best British"’.

While the above seems like a popular reason for the lack of a Federation, as Phillipa Mein-Smith notes, "the environment was shaping the politics of identity." A distinct purpose of creating an Australian federation was to implement a White Australia policy, and prevent migration from the Asian north. Rather than accept this measure as a strategy in maintaining the British exclusivity of the colonies, New Zealanders believed ‘that Australia in fact needed coloured labour because white labour was unsuited to the tropics and this put the purity of New Zealand "stock" at risk’. Queensland’s practice of using ‘coloured labour’ in the sugarcane industry fuelled these theories and it was feared the practice would continue after federation, allowing easy entry of Islanders into New Zealand. Chan states, ‘racialism in Australia helped to bring together political opponents in the cause of federation, but in New Zealand it had the opposite effect – it helped in the decision not to join the Australian Commonwealth’.

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi caused New Zealand’s colonisation to unfold differently to Australia’s. The Maori Wars and King movement provided the Maori with a visible presence in New Zealand and allowed the incorporation of noble Maori warrior into the myth of superiority of the population. The Treaty offered the colonists proof they possessed greater ethics when handling their country’s indigenous affairs and ‘it was widely assumed that race relations were better in New Zealand, both because white New Zealanders were morally superior, lacking the taint of convictism, and because the Maori were a superior "native" type’. Such assertions overlook the raw facts of the Maori Wars and the loss of Maori land rights. When considering federation, the advancement of the argument to ‘protect Maori rights’ is based upon historical colonial myths. Australia was declared terra nullius and Aboriginal rights to the land, and subsequent land struggles and massacres, were never acknowledged. Colonisation erased the existence of an indigenous people in history. New Zealand colonisation required the acknowledgement of the Maori people to allow settlers access to the land. By federating with the Australian colonies, it was believed the Maori would lose their rights to vote, despite alterations to the First Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902), which prevented Asians, Pacific Islands and Aborigines from voting. The Act was modified, ‘in deference to New Zealand’s concerns and the possibility that it might one day enter the Federation, an exception was made in this Act for the Maori’. These practical measures made by Australian politicians failed to impact upon the historical concept that New Zealand was the more socially just colony. The federating colonies shared a different colonial history, and subsequent perception, of indigenous rights and bloodshed to their smaller Tasman neighbour and these differences could not be reconciled. The disparity in addressing indigeneity was absorbed into the national identity, causing national separation to appear natural and inevitable.

In terms of other factors, the complementary Gold Rushes in Victoria and Otago, the economic depression in New Zealand in the 1880s followed by a depression in Australia in the 1890s, etc. meant that Australia and New Zealand grew too far apart despite the twelve hundred miles of separation between the two countries. With the advent of refrigerated shipping in 1882, the larger British market was a more attractive economic enterprise and ‘refrigeration and the export of frozen meat, butter and cheese reinforced New Zealand’s identity as different from Australia’s, as "Britain’s farm"’. New Zealand established an independent identity through trade relations but this economic reasoning cannot be presented in isolation from historical and other factors in decisions of federation.

The Royal Commission established to investigate the viability of joining the Commonwealth after 1901 found that ‘there was a minor economic advantage in federation but that it was outweighed by all the disadvantages, the chief of which was the loss of independence’. New Zealand chose not to take part in Australian Federation (see [3]) and assumed complete self-government as the Dominion of New Zealand on 26 September 1907.

1910: In 1871, diamonds had been discovered at Kimberley, prompting a diamond rush and a massive influx of foreigners to the borders of the Orange Free State. Then, gold was discovered in the South African Republic in 1886. Gold made the Transvaal the richest and potentially the most powerful nation in southern Africa, however the country had neither the manpower nor the industrial base to develop the resource on its own. As a result, the Transvaal reluctantly acquiesced to the immigration of fresh waves of uitlanders (foreigners), mainly from Britain, who came to the Boer region in search of employment and fortune. This resulted in the number of uitlanders in the Transvaal eventually exceeding the number of Boers, and precipitated confrontations between the old order and the new.

After an uneasy peace in the First Boer War, the Second Boer War was fought from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902 between the British Empire and the Dutch-speaking Boer inhabitants of the two independent Boer republics: the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging signed on 31 May 1902. It ended with the annexation of the region under the British Empire. Thus, for the first time, the four colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State were under a common flag, and the most significant obstacle which had prevented previous plans at unification had been removed. Hence the long-standing desire of many colonial administrators to establish a unified structure became feasible. The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 from the four colonies.

The Early Ideas of the Commonwealth: Conferences of British and colonial prime ministers had occurred periodically since 1887. Issues of colonial self-government spilled into foreign affairs with the Boer War (1899–1902). The self-governing colonies contributed significantly to British efforts to stem the insurrection, but assured that they set the conditions for participation in these wars. Colonial governments repeatedly acted to assure that they determined the extent of their peoples' participation in imperial wars in the military build-up to the First World War. The assertiveness of the self-governing colonies was recognised in the Colonial Conference of 1907, which implicitly introduced the idea of the Dominion as a self-governing colony by referring to Canada and Australia as Dominions. Followed by this lead, the colonies of New Zealand and Newfoundland became Dominions in 1907, and the Union of South Africa became a Dominion in 1910.

The Colonial Conference of 1907 also retired the name "Colonial Conference" and the term "Imperial Conference" was to be used instead from 1911. It mandated that meetings take place regularly to consult Dominions in the running the foreign affairs of the empire. The idea of the Commonwealth developed from the Imperial Conferences. A specific proposal was presented by Jan Christian Smuts (of the Boer Wars fame) in 1917 when he coined the term "the British Commonwealth of Nations," and envisioned the "future constitutional relations and readjustments in the British Empire." Smuts successfully argued that the Empire should be represented at the all-important Versailles Conference of post-first world war in 1919 by delegates from the dominions as well as Britain.

In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference (not to be confused with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that sowed the seeds of the Palestine-Israel conflict), Britain and its dominions agreed they were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations". With the British King at its head, the Commonwealth was likened to a family, its members - Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - united by race, culture and language; and family relationships were based on mutual accommodation and understanding, not on contracts, the successful working of which, in any case, required a spirit of compromise. Formal organization would have destroyed the organic unity of the Commonwealth. Within the family, members would attain self-government as they reached political maturity and were capable of exercising independence of judgement and action. Disagreements might prevail within the family, but all members would stand together in time of need.

The substance of the Balfour Declaration of 1926 was incorporated in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, whose purpose was to give effect to the resolutions passed by the 1926 and 1930 Imperial Conferences. The Preamble to the Statute speaks of the Crown as "the symbol of their free association" and of those nations being "united by a common allegiance to the Crown." The Statute of Westminster applied to the six dominions which existed in 1931: the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Irish Free State, the Dominion of Newfoundland (see [4]), the Dominion of New Zealand (see [5]), and the Union of South Africa.

The Course of the Dominions post-Balfour: While the dominions had no wish to dissolve old family ties, through which they might be able to influence Britain's European policy, thereby enhancing their own international status, the dominions had slowly but steadily started disassociated themselves from British policy. This started with the Chanak crisis of 1922 in Canada; the non-endorsement of the Locarno treaties of 1925 and the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936.

But all had rallied behind the British in the second world war. Each dominion government had secured the support of its parliament to support the British; and the dominions had arrived independently at identical decisions, symbolizing the essential unity of the Commonwealth. Australia ratified the Statute of Westminster in 1942; to clarify government war powers, the adoption was backdated to 3 September 1939—the start of World War II. Independent foreign policies and regional interests since 1919 had led the dominions, by the forties, into regional defence pacts to safeguard their security. Australia and New Zealand had signed the Canberra Pact in 1944; Canada and the US had entered into the North American Defence Pact in 1940; and, after the war, Canada sponsored the formation of NATO. So the dominions, like the UK, sought post-war regional agreements with the Americans.

British Foreign and Military Policy in the Aftermath of WWII: The manner in which the Commonwealth family would function after 1945 would depend largely on the situation in which Britain and the dominions found themselves at the time. The British realized that they were no longer the primary global power, and that the USA was the ultimate bulwark of western security against the USSR. With British resources greatly diminished by war, a White Paper admitted, in 1946, that Britain could not revert to its pre-war imperial role and that regional defence arrangements would be necessary in the future. The British knew that their security was now tied up with that of West Europe; at the same time, West Europe was then taking the first steps to economic recovery and could not be relied upon to guarantee western security. Meanwhile, the Soviet threat to the continent loomed large - in February 1948 the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia and in June 1948 began the Berlin blockade.

Could the Commonwealth play a role in this situation? The British had no doubt that it must serve as 'an independent and strong unit' among the world's chief powers. The Commonwealth was the fount of British power; and it gained strength through the united front it presented to the world. The integrity of each member was the common concern of all, so the defence of the UK was the 'vital concern', not only of the British but also of each separate member of the Commonwealth. Equally, the UK alone without the support of the Commonwealth 'would lose much of its effective influence and flexibility of power'. Indeed, the British Chiefs of Staff thought that one of the 'essential measures' required to assure British chances of survival and victory in a war was the maintenance of the united front of the Commonwealth. All dominions shared the British desire to contain the Russians, and none thought it could stand on its own against them. On Europe, British relations were, by mid-1948, closer with the US than with the Commonwealth; but as head of the Commonwealth, Britain could envisage herself as the link between the US, Europe and the Commonwealth. And the dominions would realize that the consolidation of West Europe could only safeguard the Commonwealth by building a barrier against the Russians.

Indian Centrality in the British Empire (see [6] for details): The British Chiefs had no doubt that India (and Pakistan) would be a 'most desirable addition' to Commonwealth defence. India had been the backbone of British power since the nineteenth century, providing four-fifths of the British defence effort east of Suez during the second world war. At a time when Britain was experiencing difficulty in raising sufficient forces to meet its international commitments, the withdrawal of more than 20,000 Indians who were manning most of the administrative sections of the SEAC would leave two alternatives to the British - either to replace them with local men - a task time-consuming and expensive - or to introduce British troops in the SEAC; but only at the cost of abandoning their commitments in the Middle and Far East. One of India's main assets was, in fact, 'an almost inexhaustible supply of manpower'; India could produce 'almost as many soldiers as the Commonwealth could mantain'. In October 1949, the Cabinet Defence Committee admitted:

The effect on Army organisation of the granting of self-government to India and Pakistan is often overlooked. For here was a highly trained expandable reserve on which we could count in time of emergency or war. While the cost of this Army to the United Kingdom in peace was relatively small, it was a definite factor in our potential military strength.

Not surprisingly, any discussion on the transfer of power since the forties was usually accompanied by rumination on the participation of an independent India in the imperial defence system. The offer of dominion status with the right to secede from empire, made in the Cripps plan of March 1942, was qualified by the stipulation that power would be transferred to Indians subject to the signing of a treaty to safeguard British interests - and the war cabinet clearly had military interests on its mind. In March 1946, the Labour government intended to accept the recommendation of an Indian constituent assembly for independence only if 'satisfactory arrangements' were made for the defence of the Indian Ocean area. In May 1947, the imminence of partition did not dissuade Lord Mountbatten, then Viceroy, from suggesting to Nehru that India and Pakistan could establish a joint defence headquarters on the lines of the Austro-Hungarian empire before 1914. The Austrian and Hungarian armies had been separate, but there had been a defence headquarters consisting of representatives of both according to their strength, 'with the Emperor at its head'. Military and foreign policy considerations received top priority in official memos and discussions during the negotiations for the transfer of power in 1946-47; and the India Office affirmed, on 8 November 1946, that the military aspect of a future treaty between India and Britain had received most consideration from the British, although it had never been mentioned to Indian leaders.

The chief advantage of India to Britain was strategic; India was the only base from which the British could sustain large-scale operations in the Far East. If India left the Commonwealth, the British position in the North Indian Ocean would be weakened and oil supplies from the Persian Gulf could not be guaranteed. The British conceived India's participation in a loose organization of Commonwealth defence. The maximum military requirement of India would be that she participate actively in any war in which the Commonwealth might get involved; the minimum was that she accept responsibility for her own frontiers. The British should also try to get Indian assistance in a Middle East war. India should accept only British assistance for maintaining the efficiency of her armed forces, and make available and maintain bases for offence at the required degree of readiness. This conformed with the conclusion of the Commonwealth Defence Conference of 1946 that Commonwealth forces should be standardized and have uniformity of organization and training, and the closest possible liaison should be maintained between officers of dominions, so that collaboration between Commonwealth countries in war would be 'easy and effective'. The British were concerned at Indian approaches to the USA for economic and military assistance; and American diplomats in New Delhi resented British attempts to play off Indians against the US by warning them of the dangers of 'dollar imperialism'.

The March Towards 1947: Political discord and administrative exigency prompted the British to wind up the Raj in August 1947 without achieving any of the conditions that would have guaranteed their military and economic interests in an independent India. Nevertheless, the fact that the British contemplated treaties to safeguard their interests in post-independence India, even while they hoped she would remain in the Commonwealth, suggests an attitude to India quite different from that to the old dominions. India owed her position in the Commonwealth to conquest; the 'natural link' of race, culture, common loyalties and instincts - in the words of the Economist - 'all that is involved when one people regards another as its own kith and kin' - did not exist between her and Britain. The 'old' Commonwealth could be 'an effective unity' without formal organization and treaties; with the membership of the new dominions of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, it would be difficult for the new Commonwealth to ensure that anything was understood 'unless it is put down on paper'.

Thus, a Cabinet Committee on Commonwealth Relations, with an official committee in support, had already been established under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in 1947, as the time of Indian independence approached. In addition to the Commonwealth Relations Secretary, Philip Noel Baker, the membership included Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary; Stafford Cripps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Lord Jowitt, the Lord Chancellor. The Committee’s main concern up to that point had been with finding a formula "to enable the greatest number of independent units to adhere to the Commonwealth without excessive uniformity in their internal constitutions." But their efforts were concentrated on attempts to devise some form of relationship through the Crown. The idea had been aired of distinguishing between acceptance of the King’s jurisdiction in external relations on the one hand, and in internal affairs on the other. Where the latter jurisdiction was not acceptable, continuing Commonwealth membership might nonetheless be feasible on the basis of the former.

Debates in India: On 22 January 1947, the resolution passed by the constituent assembly had declared that India would become a sovereign, independent republic (see [7]). However, in order to facilitate a smooth transfer of power, India agreed to temporary Dominion status in August 1947, although no final decision about continuing membership in the Commonwealth was then taken. A constituent assembly met in Delhi to frame the constitution. The question regarding Britain was what would happen to the position of the Crown when India got her own constitution? The Congress policy on this was clear and had been so for decades. That India would become a republic and while there would be friendly ties with Britain there would be no formal ties with the British Crown. The basic nationalist position had been stated by Subhas Bose (see [8]):

Independence which India aspires after today, is not ‘Dominion Home Rule’ as we find in Canada or Australia – but full national sovereignty as obtained in the United States of America or in France.

Bose was writing in 1933. By 1947 nationalist India was even more determined to have an India totally free of British control in any shape or form.

However, the post-WWII scenario had set in an ambiguous phase with regards to the Commonwealth. This is certainly true as seen from Jawahar lal Nehru's correspondences with Attlee and with his Cabinet colleagues. While the British and Americans' negative role in the Jammu & Kashmir crisis and the subsequent United Nations sponsored ceasefire, and direct association with an overtly racist apartheid-era Pretoria regime and the Australian government with an official "White Australia" policy, and a covertly racist regime in New Zealand were serious causes for doubts on the part of Nehru, Iqbal Singh (see [9]) opines that V.K. Krishna Menon and Nehru were veering to the possibility that India's continued association with the Commonwealth would help India in influencing Commonwealth policies on international politics and thus in shaping world events on the parallel of the main body of the dog wagging the tail rather than the other way around. Besides that, the possibility of gaining technologically and economically from the UK-USA bloc versus non-association with any other bloc also seems to have played its role in the considerations.

Nevertheless, the British intelligence had an almost complete knowledge of the shift in the Indian debate and as a result, Attlee and the last British Governor-General Mountbatten were applying tremendous pressures on India to accede to the idea of the Commonwealth under more and more unacceptable demands. Despite these pressures, Nehru maintained an ambivalent stand citing the constituent assembly process. Upon invitation of Attlee, Nehru had promised to visit Britain to discuss the idea of Commonwealth. However, the departure of Mountbatten and the takeover of C. Rajagopalachari in June 1948 plus a host of other reasons meant that Nehru could not visit Britain to discuss this issue.

1948 Conference (see [10] for details): A plan to discuss the idea of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting of October 1948 was overtaken by the decision of the Irish Republic in effect to drop out of the Commonwealth by virtue of the repeal of the External Relations Act of 1937 as well as by the Indian decision to become a republic. What was now at issue was thus something very different. It was not whether a distinction could be drawn between the rôle of the Crown in relation to external relations on the one hand and internal affairs on the other; but rather whether, by means of some dilution in the applicability of the principle of allegiance to the Crown, the political advantages of India remaining in the Commonwealth could be secured and the substance of Commonwealth cohesion, which had been so imaginatively conjured up could be safeguarded and developed.

Nehru broached this question during the 1948 Conference, the first such gathering which he had attended. Liaquat Ali Khan and D. S. Senanayake were also attending for the first time as Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Ceylon respectively. At the meeting, Nehru proposed a 'Ten Point Memorandum' drafted largely by G.S. Bajpai and B.N. Rau (and a subsequent 'Eight Point Memorandum') on the settlement between India and the Commonwealth, under which the President of India would act as the representative of the British monarch in India. Among some of the ideas floated by India include the concept of "dormant sovereignty" of the Crown on India (V.K. Krishna Menon), the role of the Crown as "the fountain of honor", etc. The Cabinet Committee on Commonwealth Relations recognised that Nehru's proposals could not constitute a basis for continued Commonwealth membership. The authority to appoint Heads of Missions abroad being vested in the Crown was a further stumbling block. It was generally agreed that a further conference would be required to deal exclusively with the issue at an early date, specifically before the enactment of the new Indian Constitution in July 1949. Consultations indicated that it would be practicable to hold such a meeting in London in late April, or at the beginning of May.

Towards the 1949 Conference: Attlee further decided that, in order to prepare adequately for a meeting of this delicacy and importance, it would be advisable to send personal emissaries to the other Commonwealth capitals to explain to the other Pr ime Ministers both the position reached in the discussions in London and the various considerations which, in the opinion of UK Ministers, must be taken into account in reaching a decision. Attlee put all this to the full Cabinet on 3 March 1949, and secured their full agreement. Lord Listowel, a former Secretary of State for India and Burma, went to Australia and New Zealand; Patrick Gordon-Walker, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, went to Pakistan and Ceylon, and subsequently to India; Sir Percival Liesching, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Commonwealth Relations Office, went to South Africa and Sir Norman Brook, the Secretary to the Cabinet, went to Canada. It was during Gordon-Walker’s visit to India that the term "Head of the Commonwealth" seems to have been aired. In his book "The Commonwealth," he suggested that the idea originated in a letter he had written to Mountbatten in the previous year. At all events it was not a total novelty when it made its appearance at the Prime Ministers’ Meeting. Among other things proposed by Gordon-Walker would be the power of the King to appoint the President of India and such authority "would be renewable each time a President assumed office." Such preposterous ideas (see [9]) left Nehru insulted, not to mention the insult over lobbying efforts in Pakistan and Ceylon prior to visiting India.

Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was signed and sealed on 4 April 1949 with initial members being the U.S., the U.K., Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Iceland and Portugal (under Salazar). News of the signing led to more opposition in the form of Jayaprakash Narayan, H.V. Kamath and N.G. Ranga. Nehru assured Narayan that "neutrality ultimately depends on the strength of a country and not on any vague association." By predicating India's stand as a self-enlightened one, Nehru was treading on slippery lines. The other claim to the membership in the Commonwealth was that Indian diaspora was spread all over the Commonwealth and this number amounted to 9 1/2 million people (then). The internal debates within the Constituent Assembly and the Congress leaves us with no doubts that the tensions were palpable on this matter.

Squaring the Circle: The Commonwealth Prime Ministers gathered at Downing Street (in London) on the morning of Friday 22 April 1949. The Indian Prime Minister recalled that he had spoken informally to Attlee and other Prime Ministers during the 1948 Meeting about India’s desire to remain in the Commonwealth while becoming a republic. He had no desire to create difficulties for other Commonwealth countries; at the same time he could not accept the idea of two-tier membership. He thought rather that India’s association with the Commonwealth might be based on (i) Commonwealth citizenship, deriving from the British Nationality Act of 1948; (ii) a declaration of India’s continuing membership; and (iii) continued acceptance by India of the status of the King as the symbol of the free association of Commonwealth countries. This should not create difficulties in international law. Commonwealth peoples were not foreign to one another. The strength of the Commonwealth had rested in its power to change and adapt its forms. Nehru hoped that this suggestions would meet the views of other countries. They went as far as India could go to meet those views and to avoid damage to the feelings and sentiments of the other countries of the Commonwealth.

Dr Daniel François Malan, who had recently replaced Smuts as South African Prime Minister and was welcomed by Attlee to his first Prime Ministers’ Meeting, spoke at some length. His statement was subsequently circulated at his request as a Meeting document. He thought it natural that a gradual relaxation of the common allegiance to the Crown should accompany the growing consciousness of separate nationhood. The situation was different in countries with a mixed population. The present strength and cohesion of the Commonwealth derived from factors less tangible but even more potent than the common allegiance to the Crown: tradition; consciousness of a common outlook and way of life; a sense of community of interests covering a wide field. The most important factor was the capacity to adapt: rigidity in the constitution would have disrupted it long ago. A further step in this direction would ensure its continued existence, enhance its prestige and increase its usefulness.

A pre-arranged division of labor between the white countries ensured a tough stance on the matter by Australia and New Zealand. Iqbal Singh (see [9]) opines that Nehru's "scepticism seemed to have mellowed down for some reason." At the conclusion of the discussion the Prime Ministers agreed to meet again after the weekend. Attlee said that he would circulate some proposals for consideration then. There would be separate discussions meanwhile. There ensured four short meetings during the course of Monday 25 and Tuesday 26 April, at which agreement was hammered out on the basis of successive drafts. An initial draft used the word "common security" which was opposed by Nehru. The concept of "Head of the Commonwealth" was introduced, and was disliked by both Malan and Nehru. In answer to objections to be expected to dropping the word "British," Nehru said he would agree to its retention in the first paragraph of the text on the grounds that this was historical. As for the question of whether the designation of the King as Head of the Commonwealth implied any new Crown responsibilities in relation to individual countries, the Meeting agreed that it should be placed on record that this was not the case. Moreover the title did not connote any change in the constitutional relations existing between the members of the Commonwealth.

After jointly presenting the Agreement to the King, the Final Communique was released and presented as the London Declaration on the issue of India's continued membership of the Commonwealth (see [11] for details). The Final Communique found instant favour with the press. The Times said that "the Prime Ministers had met to confront a problem which would have split apart any organization less flexible than the Commonwealth. The upshot of their work had been set out 'with a lucidity which could not be bettered.' 'It is doubtful whether any agreement of such consequence had ever been evolved in so short a time.'" News of the agreement was hailed by all those on the opposition benches in the British House of Commons, including Winston Churchill and Clement Davies. By contrast, Jan Smuts, who had been defeated by Malan in the South African general election the previous year, was bitterly opposed.

The Aftermath: Modulo the lego-diplomatese, the declaration had two main provisions. First, it allowed the Commonwealth to admit and retain members that were not Commonwealth realms, including both republics and indigenous monarchies. Thus, Republicanism, in the past synonymous with secession, was now accepted as compatible with full membership. Second, it renamed the organisation from the 'British Commonwealth' to the 'Commonwealth of Nations', reflecting the first change. The London Declaration also established a Precedent in the sense that, while the discussions in 1949 were concerned with the specific case of India alone, the Prime Ministers agreed that it "should be put on record as the opinion of the Meeting that, while it was not possible to bind future Meetings or Governments, it could be logically assumed that a future Meeting would accord the same treatment to any other member as had been accorded to India at this Meeting."

While the reception accorded to the agreement was naturally of interest in the case of all the participating countries, nowhere was the reaction of more importance than in India. In a broadcast on his return, Nehru emphasized that he had "looked to the interests of India, for that is my first duty." While the draft of the Agreement was informed to Patel (who approved it with his own suggestions), there was much dissension on the "easy acquiescence" of India. In a speech to the Constituent Assembly, Nehru spoke of the need to touch upon the world problems "in a friendly way and with a touch of healing. And the fact that we have begun this new type of association with a touch of healing will be good for us, good for ['certain other countries'] and I think good for the world." Despite the misgivings, the Constituent Assembly ratified the Declaration by an overwhelming majority (as had the Indian National Congress in December 1948). His handling of the issue puts beyond doubt that Nehru was one of the key figures in the making of the modern Commonwealth.

[1] Timeline for the Federation of Australia
[2] Joanne Smith, "Twelve hundred reasons why there is no Australasia: How colonisation influenced federation," Australian Cultural History, Vol. 27, No. 1, April 2009, pp. 35–45
[3] Timeline for the Dominion of New Zealand
[4] Newfoundland never adopted the Statute; by request of its government, the United Kingdom resumed direct rule in 1934 and maintained it until Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949.
[5] Prime Minister Gordon Coates, who led the New Zealand delegation to the 1926 Conference, called the Balfour Declaration a 'poisonous document' that would weaken the ties of empire. At the 1930 Imperial Conference, the conclusions of the conference were re-stated, and Sir Thomas Sidey obtained a clause exempting New Zealand from the Statute of Westminster until such time as it should be ratified by the New Zealand Parliament. New Zealand adopted the Statute on 25 November 1947 by its Statute of Westminster Adoption Act.
[6] Anita Inder Singh, "Keeping India in the Commonwealth: British Political and Military Aims, 1947-49," Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1985), pp. 469-481
[7] Debates of 22 January 1947
[8] Mihir Bose, The Magic of Indian Cricket: Cricket and Society in India, Routledge Press, 2006
[9] Iqbal Singh, Between Two Fires: Towards an Understanding of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Foreign Policy, Volume Two, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1998
[10] Peter Marshall, "Shaping the 'New Commonwealth', 1949," The Round Table (1999), Vol. 350, pp. 185-197
[11] Statement of The London Declaration, 27 April 1949

The Governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon, whose countries are united as Members of the British Commonwealth of Nations and owe a common allegiance to the Crown, which is also the symbol of their free association, have considered the impending constitutional changes in India.

The Government of India have informed the other Governments of the Commonwealth of the intention of the Indian people that under the new constitution which is about to be adopted India shall become a sovereign independent Republic. The Government of India have, however, declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of The King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.

The Governments of the other countries of the Commonwealth, the basis of whose membership of the Commonwealth is not hereby changed, accept and recognize India’s continuing membership in accordance with the terms of this declaration.

Accordingly the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon hereby declare that they remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.

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