India finally won its independence on 15 August 1947. Power was transferred by the British to the two Dominions, India, and Pakistan. It has often been suggested that Britain’s decision to liquidate the Indian empire by partitioning it and transferring power to the two Dominions was a part of the strategy of keeping them tied to the apron strings of the former colonial power, since Dominion status would make them members of the Commonwealth, and, as members of the Commonwealth, the Dominions were united by their common allegiance to the British crown.
This certainly is a false notion. India’s Dominion status did not imply something less than independence, nor was this status thrust upon Indian leaders by the British. Lord Mountbatten came to India committed to the ideas enshrined in the Cabinet Mission Plan (Cripps’s three-tier scheme) and proceeded to hastily draft a Plan for the transfer of power, without consultations with any Indian, and sent it to London for approval of the Cabinet. But he soon realised that its implementation was not possible.
It was his Constitutional Adviser, V P Menon, who persuaded the Viceroy to try his own (Menon’s) scheme ~ Dominion Status for both India and Pakistan. The matter was virtually settled when Menon succeeded in winning Nehru’s support for the idea, as Patel had already approved it. With that, Congress became committed to it. Mountbatten’s Partition Plan was declared on 3 June, and it was accepted by both the Muslim League and the Congress, (except the ‘Nationalist Muslims’ who felt betrayed).
Initially, Pandit Nehru also had his own reservations, as he had always batted for complete independence, and an overwhelming majority of Indians, he said, also wanted it. “The words ‘Dominion Status’ are likely to irritate people because of their past association.” He added that though in theory Dominion status is equivalent to independence, “such fine points are not understood by the people.” He admitted that because of sentimental reasons, he would like to have the closest possible relationship with the British Commonwealth ~ ‘but without the offending phraseology’ and asserted, to allay fears about India’s independent status, that “under Dominion status, India would always have the power to leave the Commonwealth when she wished” (Quoted by Leonard Mosley in The Last Days of British Raj p.131).
Power was transferred to India based on Dominion status which made it easier for the British Parliament to pass a law to make India a Dominion under the Statute of Westminster. Within two weeks, the Indian Independence Bill secured the approval of both Houses of Parliament. It was recognised in India that a Dominion could withdraw from the Commonwealth at any time. So, after gaining independence, the Constituent Assembly continued to work on the declared objective of making India a republic. But could a republic remain a member of the Commonwealth with the British Crown as its head? The problem was as much legal as political and required deft handling by all.
The British government was quite keen on keeping India in the Commonwealth. Even the Conservatives were keen. Leo Amery, a former Secretary of State for India, in a series of letters to Prime Minister Clement Attlee suggested that a ‘formula’ should be devised by which India’s Republican status could be reconciled with her membership of the Commonwealth. In his letter dated 14 April 1949, he wrote to the Prime Minister of the disastrous consequences that might follow from a complete severance of India’s links with the Commonwealth “It would be difficult to sustain Pakistan as a member, or even as an associate if India broke away completely.” Moreover, the Commonwealth would lose one of its strongest justifications as “the great world nation group which transcends the boundaries of race and colour”.
India also had good reasons for continuing membership in the Commonwealth. It had developed close economic and military links with the UK which could be fostered and promoted by her membership. Britain was not only India’s principal trading partner but also its principal source for the procurement of defence materials and this continued till the beginning of the 1960s. There was also the realisation that if India withdrew from the Commonwealth while Pakistan remained, it would be in an advantageous position to influence British policy towards India-Pakistan disputes, particularly the Kashmir dispute.
Moreover, it was thought, membership in the Commonwealth would enable India to look after the interests of overseas Indians living in British colonies and dependencies. The lynchpin of the Commonwealth was allegiance to the British Crown which would be impossible for a Republic to accept. Various suggestions were made to reconcile Republican status with membership in the Commonwealth and ultimately a formula was found.
As the Final Communique of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference (1949) recorded: “… The Government of India has informed the other Governments of the Commonwealth of the intention of the Indian people that under the new constitution … India shall become a sovereign independent republic. The Government of India has 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 is not hereby changed, accept, and recognize India’s continuing membership in accordance with the terms of the declaration.” (Italics added). Krishna Menon, then the Indian High Commissioner in London, played an important part in the long-drawn negotiations with the British government, preceding the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference). The final drafting of the Declaration was made by Krishna Menon and Norman Brook (later Lord Brook), then Secretary to the British Cabinet.
This Declaration made it possible for India to remain within the Commonwealth thus laying the foundation for the future development of Indo-British relations on a firm footing. This was indeed a win-win situation for all. Even Churchill, a long opponent of India’s demand for independence, welcomed this new development. In his speech delivered in the House of Commons on 28 April 1949, he said: “I am unfeignedly glad that an impassable gulf has not opened between new India and the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations or between our famous past in India and our anxious present all over the world… It seems to me that the personal dignity of the King is not impaired by the conditions under which India remains in the Commonwealth.”
It was maintained at the time that the compatibility between republicanism and membership of the Commonwealth extended only to India, but later when other members of the Commonwealth became republics, all of them (except for South Africa) were allowed to continue their membership. In South Africa’s case, it was racism and not republicanism that led to her ouster in 1961, though she was readmitted in 1994 following the first multi-racial elections that year.