The Cripps' Mission

Upon his arrival in India, Cripps held talks with Indian leaders.

There is some confusion over what Cripps had been authorised to offer India's nationalist politicians by Churchill and Leo Amery (His Majesty's Secretary of State for India), and he also faced hostility from the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. He began by offering India full Dominion status at the end of the war, with the chance to secede from the Commonwealth and go for total independence. Privately, Cripps also promised to get rid of Linlithgow and grant India Dominion Status with immediate effect, reserving only the Defence Ministry for the British. However, in public he failed to present any concrete proposals for greater self-government in the short-term, other than a vague commitment to increase the number of Indian members of the Viceroy's Executive Council. Cripps spent much of his time in encouraging Congress leaders and Jinnah to come to a common, public arrangement in support of the war and government; however, the Congress leaders felt that whatever Cripps might say, his political masters were not interested in granting the complete Indianisation of the Viceroy's Executive Council, its conversion into a Cabinet with collective responsibility, or Indian control over Defence in wartime. They were also suspicious of an opt-out clause which Amery was rumoured to have offered the Muslim League in any putative Dominion arrangement. There was too little trust between the British and Congress by this stage, and both sides felt that the other was concealing its true plans.

The Congress stopped talks with Cripps and, guided by Mohandas Gandhi, the national leadership demanded immediate self-government in return for war support. When the British remained unresponsive, Gandhi and the Congress began planning a major public revolt, the Quit India movement, which demanded immediate British withdrawal from India. As the Imperial Japanese Army advanced closer to India with the conquest of Burma, Indians perceived an inability upon the part of the British to defend Indian soil. This period concurred with the rise of the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The British response to the Quit India movement was to throw most of the Congress leadership in jail.

Jinnah's Muslim League condemned the Quit India movement, participating in provincial governments as well as the legislative councils of the British Raj, and encouraging Muslims to participate in the war. With this limited cooperation from the Muslim League, the British were able to continue administering India for the duration of the war using officials and military personnel where Indian politicians could not be found. This would not prove to be feasible in the long-term, however.

The long-term significance of the Cripps Mission only really became apparent in the aftermath of the war, as troops were demobilised and sent back home. Even Churchill recognised that there could be no retraction of the offer of Independence which Cripps had made, although by the end of the war Churchill was out of power and could only watch as the new Labour government gave India independence. This confidence that the British would soon leave was reflected in the readiness with which Congress politicians stood in the elections of 1945–6 and formed provincial governments. In retrospect, this unsuccessful and badly-planned attempt to placate the Congress in return for temporary wartime support was the point at which the British departure from India became inevitable at the war's end.

Gandhi was thus firmly anchored to pacifism when the war broke out in 1939, but many of his closest colleagues and the rank and file in the Indian National Congress could not bring themselves to accept the feasibility of defending the country against aggression without resort to arms. Twice during the war—after the fall of France in 1940, and the collapse of the British position in South East Asia in 1941—when there was a possibility of a rapprochement between the Congress and the Government for a united war effort, Gandhi stepped aside rather than be a party to organized violence. The rapprochement did not come. The only serious British effort for a compromise was made in the Spring of 1942 with the dispatch of the Cripps Mission to India; it proved abortive.