As the conditions of war began to turn in favor of the Allies, the Viceroy Wavell felt that the time had come to make proposals for a resolution of the political deadlock in India. His objective, as stated in a letter to Churchill, was to form “a provisional government, of the type suggested in the Cripps Declaration, within the present Constitution, coupled with an earnest but not necessarily simultaneous attempt to devise a means to reach a constitutional settlement.”
Talking to Gandhi
Wavell had a one-and-a-quarter hour meeting with Churchill on 29 March 1945. The Prime Minister thought that the problem of India, ‘could be kept on ice”, but Wavell told him quite firmly that the question of India was very urgent and very important. It was on 31 May that Wavell at last got a go-ahead from the Cabinet largely on the lines he had desired. He left London on June 1, and landed at Karachi on June 4.
The British Government’s new proposals were publicly disclosed on 14 June 1945, on which date the Viceroy made a broadcast at New Delhi and the Secretary of State made a statement in the House of Commons. In this broadcast, Wavell said the proposals he was making were not an attempt to impose a constitutional settlement, but the hope that the Indian parties would agree on a settlement of the communal issue which had not been fulfilled, and in the meantime great problems had to be solved. He therefore invited the great leaders to a conference in Simla on 25 June to consult with him the formation of the new Executive Council. The Viceroy concluded the broadcast with the announcement that orders had been given for the immediate release of the members of the Congress Working Committee who were in detention.
Wavell separately interviewed Azad, Gandhi and Jinnah on 24 June. Azad appeared to accept the main principles underlying the proposals, including wholehearted support for the war effort. He said that the Congress would accept equality of Caste Hindus and the Muslims but would not compromise on the method of selection. The Congress must have a voice in the selection of non-Hindus and the Muslims in particular must not be selected by an exclusive communal body.
The Quaid-i-Azam being greeted by Lord Wavell, Simla Conference, 1945
Gandhi said that he would attend the conference if the Viceroy insisted but would “sit in a corner”. In the end he did not attend the meeting but remained available at Simla for the duration.
Jinnah expressed the anxiety that the Muslims would be in a minority in the new Executive Council and he claimed that the Muslim League had the right to nominate all the Muslim members to the Council. Wavell said he could not accept this. Jinnah argued that the League had won all the by-elections in the preceding two years and therefore represented all the Muslims of India.
Talking to Govinda Vallah Pant at Simla
On the very first day of the conference on June 25, it became clear that the real issue was the composition of the Executive Council; all parties would accept the proposal if they could reach an agreement on the method of selection. By June 29 it became clear that the parties would not be able to come up with an agreed list of Executive Councilors and the conference was adjourned till July 14 to enable them to file separate lists.
In a meeting with the Viceroy on June 27, Jinnah had said that he wanted a council of fourteen, including the Viceroy and commander-in-chief with five Hindus, five Muslims, one Sikh and one Scheduled Caste. He said that this was the only council in which the Muslims would stand a chance of not being out-voted on every issue. It was after seeing Jinnah on July 11 that the Viceroy accepted that the conference had failed because he had been unable to accede to Jinnah’s demands. After the failure of the conference Jinnah explained:
“if we accept this arrangement, the Pakistan issue will be shelved and out into cold storage indefinitely, whereas the Congress will have secured under this arrangement what they want, namely, a clear road for their advance towards securing Hindu national independence of India, because the future Executive will work as unitary Government of India, and we know that this interim or provisional arrangement will have a way of settling down for an unlimited period, and all the forces in the proposed Executive, plus the known policy of the British Government and Lord Wavell’s strong inclination for a united India, would completely jeopardize us.”
When the conference met on July 15, Wavell formally announced his failure and sportingly blamed himself for the result. In fact, the Viceroy deserved the greatest praise. With resolution and persistence he had succeeded in winning the consent of Churchill and of others to open the Indian question and give the Indian leaders another chance to install a national government.
It was the two principal political parties, the Congress and the Muslim League, that were really responsible for the failure. They had taken up positions that admitted no compromise.
Congress leaders blamed Jinnah for the lost opportunity and said that the Viceroy should have gone ahead without the League. But in fact the entire plan had been based on the idea that the Executive Council would be an all-party body.
Some days after the conference, at a public meeting the Quaid-i-Azam, referred to Gandhi’s presence at Simla during the Simla Conference in scathing terms:”The first question is why did Mr. Gandhi as one of the leaders of the recognized parties go to Simla? Having gone there, why did Mr. Gandhi not attend the conference? The reason is simple. It was to play the role of wire puller.”
Quaid-i-Azam and other leaders being introduced to Lady Wavell,Simla 1945
Addressing the members of the Simla District Muslim League, 1945
Quaid-i-Azam addressing a Press Conference at Simla, 1945