Vantage point

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Cabinet Mission Plan 1946 - An Opportunity Missed

The past few weeks of Jinnah-bashing and Jinnah-praise have suddenly made people nostalgic. Was Jinnah black, white or grey? Did he alone cause the partition? Or was the Congress to blame as well?

I have always believed that the greatest opportunity missed in keeping the then-India united, and also putting in place a perfect political system, was badly screwed up by the Congress in 1946. I am referring to the Cabinet Mission Plan, which Jinnah and the Muslim League accepted but Nehru and the Congress rejected. While Jinnah's life from 1937 onwards is a long series of blunders, the decision to accept the Plan stands out as a wise one which could have saved the day had the Congress kept an open mind.

I don't know how many readers will remember the Plan from among the dozens of plans and commissions that our history books are filled with. Folks who have written our history books obviously have a statist policies in mind, so the Cabinet Mission Plan is rubbished and the Congress' decision is rejected.

Let us re-visit the plan and evaluate it, benefitting from the experience of independent India. As I have written before, I am of the opinion that the Central Government in India is too powerful and this Delhi-centric polity is harmful for the country. States and even local governments need to have more power than they currently do. In an ideal scenario, the Central Government should be in charge only of National Defence and Foreign Policy, as all other issues are implemented and have an impact only at a local level.

So while we currently espouse the cause of small government, we also need to espouse the cause of a smaller Central Government.

Now let us look at the Cabinet Mission Plan -

- India would be a Federation consisting of British provinces and the Indian Princely States.
- The Federal government would deal with defence, foreign affairs and communications. All other subjects will be looked after by the units of the federation.
- There would be three groups of the provinces. Group 'A' was to include Madras, Bombay, U.P., Bihar, Central Province and Orissa; Group 'B' was to comprise of Punjab, Sind, North West Frontier Province and the British Baluchistan (this Group was to constitute Muslim Majority areas), and Group 'C' was to include Bengal and Assam. These groups would draft their own constitutions in consultation with different provinces included in each group. A province could opt out of the group by a majority decision of its legislature.
- A constituent Assembly consisting of 389 members - 292 from provinces, 4 from the territories governed by chief Commissioners and 93 from Indian Princely States - would draft the Constitution of India.
- An Interim Government at the Centre consisting of representatives of all communities would be installed on the basis of parity between the representatives of the Hindus and Muslims.

Imagine a subcontinent like this. Would it not make more sense? The groupings are quite spot on as they segregate India into the three broad sub-cultures that exist. Even in the current Indian set-up, it is the Peninsula+Plains (Group A) part that is getting the most focus as it constitutes the maximum voters. The interests of the North East and Bengal (Group C) are not pursued as vigorously as they should be.

An India under the Cabinet Mission Plan would be an India with stronger state governments, and segregated realistically, yet it would have been more united, because Unity would not have cost any province its freedom.