Staying loyal to George

From August 15, 1947 to January 26, 1950, when the Constitution came into force, India was a self-governing Dominion in Britain's Commonwealth. The overwhelming sentiment in the country and the Congress was for getting out of it, in accordance with the freedom movement's vow to achieve purna swaraj — complete independence. The Constituent Assembly had resolved that India would be a "sovereign, democratic republic". Yet, Jawaharlal Nehru, though respectful of public opinion, had begun to discern a distinct advantage in keeping alive a link with Britain and the Commonwealth without constricting Indian sovereignty in any way.

Britain was, of course, keen that India should remain in the Commonwealth, like the other self-governing members — Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand — and was trying hard to persuade Nehru. Two men vigorously advocating the continuance of the Commonwealth link were Mountbatten and Krishna Menon, the latter then high commissioner to Britain. The problem, however, was how to square the circle, and reconcile India's republicanism with the deep devotion to the British Crown of not just Britain but also other Commonwealth countries inhabited by people of British origin. Painstaking, sometimes nitpicking, negotiations therefore followed; in these draftsmanship was no less important than statesmanship. (Many appreciated the contribution of the secretary-general of India's foreign ministry, G.S. Bajpai.)

What made Nehru believe that a "free association" with the Commonwealth, implying some kind of a close relationship with Britain, was in India's best interest? Being both an idealist and a realist, he was determined not to compromise on his policy of nonalignment and independent judgment. At the same time, he knew that India, with much economic and diplomatic potential but without actual power, needed some international connection. The US was irritated over non-alignment and displayed this irritation when the Kashmir issue was referred to the UN. For the USSR nonalignment was a policy of "collaboration with British imperialism". At the UN, Moscow kept entirely aloof from the Kashmir issue though it indicated that it would support India on both Kashmir and Hyderabad provided it "lined up with the USSR in war and peace". Confidence could no longer be reposed in the UN. Britain and the Commonwealth, as a multi-racial association for an exchange of views, seemed the only viable option.

Another even more powerful reason that was not mentioned loudly was the economic and military dependence on Britain. That country, like Russia today, was then the principal supplier of military hardware needed by India. Also there were quite a few British officers in the highest echelons of the Indian defence services; the last of them went home only in 1955.

There was one serious difficulty, however. Britain's own stand on Kashmir at the UN was adversarial; indeed, America was being led by Britain in this respect. Moreover, many important Britons were messing around with the Nizam of Hyderabad's bid, encouraged by Pakistan, for independence. No wonder then that talks between Britain and India and at meetings of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, desultory until then, turned serious and sustained only after Hyderabad's integration with the Indian Union.

The sticking point for quite a while remained the position of the British king in the Commonwealth and, at one remove, in independent India. Attlee, then British prime minister, and Mountbatten both made proposals the essence of which was that India should remain in the Commonwealth and "accept common allegiance to the Crown". Some of their suggestions were absurd. For instance, they thought the king could be the president of India. Alternatively, the Indian president could have the same position as that of governors-general appointed by the British monarch. Nehru told them that these ideas were totally unacceptable. Yet Attlee wrote him a letter extolling the virtues of not only the king but also of the entire royal family that Nehru termed "surprisingly naοve".

Aware of the strength of anti-Commonwealth sentiment, Nehru once discussed the issue in the Congress Parliamentary Party but without asking for a vote. At the Congress session at Jaipur in December 1948, however, he got the general idea of a "free" association with the Commonwealth endorsed. But all concerned — critics and supporters alike — were aware that there was yet no precise formula to be accepted or rejected. It was towards the end of April 1949 that the final decision was reached. Under it India accepted "the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth". According to Krishna Menon, King George VI said to him: "So, I've become 'as such'."

Nehru returned from London on May 1, 1949. A fortnight later the Constituent Assembly met. There was still much opposition to the Commonwealth link not only among leftists but also within the Congress party. But after an inspiring speech by Nehru — during which he said that though he was a "bad bargainer" he had brought them an agreement that would be good for India and good for the world — the House approved the London deal.

A meeting of the AICC in the idyllic surroundings of the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun was his next destination. Here feelings against the Commonwealth were even stronger. A veteran Congressman from Nagpur named Awari — on whom Mahatma Gandhi had conferred the rank of "General" — was vehemently opposed to the proposed link. What he wished to convey to "Panditji" was that the British had "befooled" him and he had allowed them to do so. Unfortunately, the colloquial language he used included an expression that in polite society is considered an expletive. Nehru naturally was enraged by "this vulgarity". Awari failed to understand the reason for the prime minister's anger and repeated his remark. Before things could get out of hand, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, a popular and highly skilful leader, intervened. To Nehru he whispered that Awari's offensive word was commonly used by village folk, and he hinted to the "General" that he shut up. Needless to add, Nehru's magic worked: and the AICC, too, approved the Commonwealth link by a large majority.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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