Churchill’s double game with the Cripps Mission to India, 1942

Sir Stafford Cripps enjoys a joke with Mr. Gandhi on his diplomatic mission in India, surrounded by Indian journalists and photographers. ©IWM

Only two years after the end of the war India became independent – reason enough to take a closer look at the connections between London and India during the Second World War in the project „Crossroads of Empire“ which aims to shed light on connections between the London Moment and British decolonisation following the war years. At the beginning of the war, the Indian independence movement was already well advanced. Its main actors had already been fighting for decades for political independence. Prominent leaders, such as Gandhi or Nehru, had spent time in London which influenced their political careers, but they were present at the Thames long before the 1940s. During the Second World War, however, there were of course momentous connections between political London and leaders of the independence movement in India, one of which was the Cripps Mission.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, India’s struggle for independence entered its decisive and final phase. Japan entered the war in 1941 on the side of the Axis powers and quickly conquered British territories in Southeast Asia towards India: in February 1942, the British fortress of Singapore fell. In March, the Japanese took Rangoon in British Burma, which posed a serious threat to India. In London, political decision-makers began to realise that an India that was unfriendly to the Allies, coupled with the rapid advance of Japanese troops, had explosive potential. In protest against the unilateral declaration of war by the British viceroy – who had not even given the appearance of a consultation with the political parties of India – the politicians of the nationalist Congress Party resigned at the beginning of the war (in contrast to the minority party of the Muslim League, which saw this as an opportunity to prove itself capable of government responsibility).

Apart from the physical threat of Japan to India, Britain was also under pressure from the US and China to secure India’s unconditional participation in the war against Japan. Therefore, on March 11, 1942, the War Cabinet decided to make efforts to resolve the differences, especially with the Indian Congress Party. From the outset, it was clear that the Congress Party’s approval could only be obtained by granting India greater autonomy rights. This contradicted the position of Prime Minister Churchill (“I have not become the King’sFirst Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the BritishEmpire”[1]), who in February 1942 finally had succumbed to the pressure of the Cabinet and Allies in March agreed to a British diplomatic mission to India.

On 11 March 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the British Cabinet, would be sent to India from 22 March to 11 April to work out a formula for India’s participation in the war and partial transfer of power acceptable to all three, the Hindu and Muslim parties in India as well as the British forces. His negotiating mandate was the “Draft Declaration”, a document on which the War Cabinet had agreed after along discussion laying out a middle ground acceptable to the British, including self-government after the war. The British viceroy in India, Lord Linlithgow, was a close ally of Churchill and personally convinced that no further concessions to Congress were necessary during the war. In his eyes, the only thing that mattered was to maintain the British status quo. Therefore, when he first came to read a copy of the Draft Declaration, he immediately offered his resignation in protest, which put Churchill in an embarrassing situation.

The socialist Cripps was previously England’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1940 to1942, where he played a key role in forging an alliance with the Western powers. With the reputation of a fabulous crisis manager, he returned to England in the spring of 1942. An additional success in India might have made him a promising rival of Churchill for the leading position in London. Churchill could not wish him a triumph, but first had to be grateful that for the duration of the diplomatic mission Cripps would solve two other problems: satisfying Roosevelt, who pressured for more Indian autonomy, and being able to postpone the confrontation with Linlithgow. Hence, with the deployment of Cripps, Churchill managed to make a virtue out of the imbroglio of a new Indian constitution and self-government, a negotiation position complicated by the limited bargaining position given to Cripps by the War Cabinet, the Hindu-Muslim-conflict, the position of the Viceroy and on top Churchill’s own reluctance to Indian independence. After all, if the British offer was rejected in India, the leftist Cripps would have to stand up for it, who, should his mission end unsuccessfully, subsequently would lose much of his dangerousness as a domestic rival. This position was shared by Linlithgow, who wrote to his secretary on 11 March: “Poor (…) Cripps is their latest victim! Anyway, theymay count on me to do my best in that direction!”[2]

Cripps arrived in Delhi on the 22nd of March 1942 determined for a successful negotiation. He was friends with Nehru and had forged a plan with him and Labour Party politicians in England in June 1938 that anticipated his current negotiating goal. Cripps had previously visited India in December 1939, where he had made clear his sympathies and political intentions. He secretly hoped, in collaboration with Congress, to lift the conservative Viceroy out of his saddle or at least dictate to him the conditions under which he would have to compete in the future.

In this respect, however, he had counted his chicken before they hatched. Although Cripps behaved correctly towards Linlithgow and informed him of his negotiations, the Viceroy, of course, noticed what was being played, locked himself in, and finally called in Churchill to assist his governor at the crucial moment. By early April, Cripps had almost got Nehru and the Congress leadership to join a national government that would work like the British Cabinet, while the Viceroy only played the role of constitutional head of state. Since no such constitutional change was to be expected during the war, however, all depended on the Viceroy assuming the role assigned to him and replacing it with convention, which the constitution did not contain. In this situation, everything depended on the man who had just held this office. The Viceroy should have spoken the decisive word, but remained silent and instead reported to London that Cripps wanted to violate his constitutional rights and duties. As a result, the “Cripps offer” was torpedoed in a last decisive conversation with Nehru on the 9th of April, shortly before Cripps was to return to London, as Cripps had promised much to Congress, but failed to deliver guarantees. Due to this, they turned down Cripps offer on 11 April and thus foredoomed the mission. Cripps returned to London disappointed, while Churchill and Linlithgow were relieved.

The Indian Congress could not remain inactive in this critical situation, but had to send out a political signal. A resolution called “Quit India” was passed, urging the British to leave India immediately. Following the resolution, fierce protest between Congress supporters and the British forces broke out in the summer of 1942, instead of India joining the war effort with Britain.

Back in London, Churchill accused Cripps of having exceeded his powers, while in fact, Churchill’s own secret negotiating with Linlithgow had considerably hindered the mission itself, but Churchill had achieved his goal: After his success in Moscow, on his second mission during the war Cripps didnot return to London with another triumph.

This reason for the failure of the Cripps mission – the efforts by the Viceroy and the Prime Minister to sabotage the mission behind the scenes – was first represented by the Indian historian Partha Sarathi Gupta, who relies on documents published in 1970. Messages between Linlithgow and the British Foreign Secretary show that they opposed the mission and deliberately deceived Cripps. While the British government used the Cripps mission as evidence of its liberal colonial policy, personal and private correspondence reveals contempt for the mission and joy at its failure. The main thing was to show the world public, especially the Americans, the good will of the British government.

Ultimately, the long-term importance of the Cripps mission only became clear after the war. When Indian troops were demobilised and sent home, it became clear that Cripps’ offer to the congressional leaders of Indian independence could not simply be withdrawn, and gave Indian politicians insisting on independence the decisive push to persuade the newly elected Labour government to concede independence.

Literature

Gupta, Sarathi Partha, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-1964, London, 2002, 2nd Edition.

Kleibrink,Bernhard, „When you lose India, don´t blame me“: Winston Churchill und Indien 1939 bis 1947, Frankfurt (Main), 2004.

Kulke, Hermann, Rothermund, Dietmar, Geschichte Indiens, München, 2018, 3rd Edition.

Mansergh, Nicholas, Lumby, E.W.R (eds.), Constitutional relations between Britain and India. The transfer of power 1942-47, Vol. 1, The Cripps Mission January-April 1942, London, 1970.

Owen, Nicholas, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947, Oxford, 2007.

Stein, Burton, Arnold, David, A History of India, Hoboken, 2010, 2nd edition.

Weigold, Auriol, Churchill, Roosevelt, and India: Propaganda during World War II, London, 2008.


[1] Churchill at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in London on 10.11.1942, cited after Kleibrink, Bernhard, “When you lose India, don’t blame me”: Winston Churchill und Indien 1939 bis 1947, Frankfurt (Main), 2004, p. 235.

[2] Linlithgow to Laithwaite, 11.03.1942, cited after Kleibrink, p. 156.


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