The Cabinet Mission Plan

The Cabinet Mission Plan

  • The Congress demand was for transfer of power to one centre, with minorities’ demands being worked out in a framework ranging from autonomy to Muslim provinces to self-determination on secession from the Indian Union — but after the British left.
  • The British bid was for a united India, friendly with Britain and an active partner in Commonwealth defence.
    • It was believed that a divided India would lack depth in defence, frustrate joint defence plans and be a blot on Britain’s diplomacy.
    • Pakistan was not seen by Britain as her natural future ally.
  • British policy in 1946 clearly reflected this preference for a united India, in sharp contrast to earlier declarations.
    • Attlee’s 15 March 1946 statement that a ‘minority will not be allowed to place a veto on the progress of the majority’ was a far cry from Wavell’s allowing Jinnah to wreck the Simla Conference in June-July 1945 by his insistence on nominating all Muslims.

1946 Cabinet Mission to India:

  • Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced on February 19, 1946 the dispatch of the Mission of three Cabinet Ministers:
    • Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India,
    • Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and
    • A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
  • The announcement was accompanied by a statement of the terms of reference of the Mission “to promote in conjunction with the leaders of Indian opinion, the early realization of full self-Government in India.
  • Mission was aimed to discuss and plan for the transfer of power from the British Government to Indian leadership, providing India with independence.
  • While making policy statement of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Prime Minister made a statement related to the question of minority: “We are mindful of the rights of the minorities and the minorities should be able to live free from fear on the other hand we cannot allow a minority to place their veto on the advance of the majority.”
  • The Cabinet Mission arrived in India in March 1946.
  • Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, did not participate.

Purpose and proposals:

  • The Mission’s purpose:
    • Hold preparatory discussions with elected representatives of British India and the Indian states in order to secure agreement as to the method of framing the constitution.
    • Set up a constitution body.
    • Set up an Executive Council with the support of the main Indian parties.
  • The Mission held talks with the representatives of the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League, the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India. The two parties planned to determine:
    • a power-sharing arrangement between Hindus and Muslims to prevent a communal dispute, and
    • to determine whether British India would be better-off unified or divided.
  • The Congress party  wanted to obtain a strong central government with more powers compared to state governments.
  • The All India Muslim League under Jinnah, though ready to keep India united but with political safeguards provided to Muslims such as ‘guarantee’ of ‘parity’ in the legislatures.
    • This stance of the League was backed up by the wide belief of Muslims that the British Raj was simply going to be turned into a ‘Hindu Raj’ once the British departed; and since the Muslim League regarded itself as the sole spokesman party of Indian Muslims, it was incumbent up on it to take the matter up with the Crown.
  • After initial dialogue, the Mission proposed its plan over the composition of the new government on 16 May 1946. The announcement of the Plan on 16 May 1946 was preceded by the Simla Conference of 1945.

Cabinet Mission Plan of 16 May, 1946:

  • The Cabinet Mission rejected the proposal of a sovereign Pakistan with six provinces as a non-viable concept and offered instead, on 16 May, a three tier structure of a loose federal government for the Union of India, including both the provinces and the princely states.
  • A united Dominion of India as a loose confederation of provinces would be given independence.
    • There should be a Union of India, embracing both British India and the states, which would deal with Foreign Affairs, Defense and communications, and would have the power necessary to raise finance required for these subjects.
    • The Union should have an Executive and Legislature constituted from British Indian and state representatives.
    • Any question raising a major communal issue in the Legislature should require for this decision a majority of their representatives present and voting of the two major communities as well as a majority all members present and voting.
  • The provinces would enjoy full autonomy, for all subjects other than the Union subjects and all residuary powers should vest in the provinces.
  • The provinces should be free to form groups with executives and Legislatures and each group could determine the provincial subjects to be taken in common.
    • The six Hindu majority provinces viz., Madras, Bombay, C.P., U.P., Bihar and Orissa would form Group A.
    • The Muslim Majority provinces in the north-west (the Punjab, the N.W.F.P., Sind) would form Group B. Bengal and Assam would form Group C.
    • After the first general elections a province could come out of a group.
    • After ten years a province could call for a reconsideration of the group or union constitution.
  • The full autonomy of the provinces and the provision for grouping were meant to give the Muslim League if not the form, the ‘substance of Pakistan‘. It was obvious that Group B and Group C would be under absolute control of the Muslims.
  • Cabinet Mission Plan was ambivalent on weather grouping was compulsory or not.
    • The Muslim League took the compulsory grouping of provinces to be the corner-stone of the whole edifice of these proposals and would even talk or think of a compromise on that issue.
    • But the Congress thought that the making of groups was optional for the provinces, and the later was free to join or not to join any group.
    • Finally, however, the British Government decided in favour of the League’s view on this point.
  • The consensus between the Congress and Muslim League ended since Congress abhorred the idea of having groupings of Muslim majority provinces and Hindu majority provinces with the intention of ‘balancing’ each other at the Central Legislature.
    • The Muslim League could not accept any changes to this plan since the same ‘balance’ or ‘parity’ that Congress was loath to accept formed the basis of Muslim demands of ‘political safeguards’ built into post-British Indian laws so as to prevent absolute rule of Hindus over Muslims.
  • Proposals for the Constitution-making Machinery:
    • The plan also made provision for a constitution-making Assembly.
    • The provinces were to send their representatives in the Constituent Assembly on the basis of their population.
      • Roughly, one representative was to be sent for every one million people.
    • The seats allocated to each province were to be divided into three sections
      • General, Muslim and Sikh-210 General, 78 Muslims and 4 Sikhs.
    • A Constituent Assembly was to be elected by the recently constituted provincial assemblies to draft a constitution for the whole of India; it would first meet at the Union level and then split into three sections: Section A, Section B and Section C.
    • The Constituent Assembly, thus formed, would be divided into three sections:
      • Section A (corresponding to Group A): Representing Hindu-majority regions;
      • Section B: Representing the north-western Muslim-majority region;
      • Section C: Representing the north-eastern Muslim-majority region i.e. Bengal and Assam.
    • These sections would settle provincial constitutions of the provinces included in the section and also decide whether any group constitution should be set up.
    • After a constitution was finally settled for all the three levels (Province, Group and Union), the provinces would have the right to opt out of any particular group, but not from the Union; they could also reconsider the constitution after an interval of ten years.
    • The constitution of the Union and of the groups should contain a provision whereby any province could, by a majority vote of its Legislative Assembly, call for a reconsideration of the terms of the constitution after an initial period of ten years and at ten-yearly intervals thereafter.
    • The princely states would be given, through negotiations, adequate representation at the Central Constituent Assembly.
  • In the meanwhile, an Interim Government would look after the day-to-day administrative matters. The final goal, as Pethick-Lawrence announced, would be to “accord … independence whether within or without the British Commonwealth” as Indians would choose of their free will.

The Cabinet Mission rejected the demand for Pakistan on several grounds:

  • The Cabinet Mission argued that a separate sovereign state of Pakistan would not solve the communal problem because the percentage of non-Muslims living in the north-west zone of Pakistan would be 37.93% and those living in north-eastern zone 48.31% of the total population.
  • There was no justification for including in Pakistan the predominantly non-Muslim districts of Bengal, Assam and the Punjab.
    • According to them, every argument that could be used in favor of Pakistan could equally be used in favor of the exclusion of the non-Muslims areas from Pakistan.
  • The Mission also considered whether a smaller Pakistan, involving a division of the Punjab and Bengal was possible.
    • The objection to this option was that it would be against the wishes and interest of a large proportion of the inhabitants of these provinces and that in the West it would divide the Sikh community into two.
  • These objections against the division of the country were further reinforced by administrative, economic and military considerations.
    • For example, the communication system had been organized on an all-India basis; its break up would seriously hurt both the parts of the country.
    • The division of the armed forces was even more difficult.
  • The Princely States would find it difficult to join one or the other Union.
  • There is the geographical fact that the two halves of the proposed Pakistan State are separated by some 700 miles and communication between them both in war and peace would be dependent on the goodwill of Hindustan.


  • Reaching an impasse, the British proposed a second, alternative plan on 16 June 1946.
    • This plan sought to arrange for India to be divided into Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority India that would later be renamed Pakistan, since Congress had vehemently rejected ‘parity’ at the Centre.
    • A list of princely states of India that would be permitted to accede to either dominion or attain independence was also drawn up.

Reactions and acceptance:

  • Agreement on the Cabinet Mission proposal looked likely when on 6 June Muslim League accepted it on the assumption that “the basis and the foundation of Pakistan” had been “inherent” in the plan and this would ultimately lead to “the establishment of complete sovereign Pakistan”.
    • Why Muslim League accepted the Cabinet Mission plan, which in its preamble categorically rejected the Pakistan demand, is a subject of contradictory interpretations.
      • For Ayesha Jalal, the Mission plan was a perfect “way forward for Pakistan Jinnah was after”, for he never really wanted partition; and the Muslim League reiterated Pakistan demand as its ultimate goal only as a face saver.
      • For Asim Roy too, the resolution suggested that Jinnah was still willing to “accept something less than what almost everyone else knew as Pakistan”.
      • For R.J. Moore, however, the very rhetoric of acceptance signalled that it was “an attempt to turn the scheme to advantage, without compromising in principle”.
  • Congress’s reservations:
    • The resolution of the Congress Working Committee dated 24 May 1946 in response to May plan (Cabinet Mission Plan) concluded that: The Working Committee consider that the connected problems involved in the establishment of a Provisional Government and a Constituent Assembly should be viewed together… In absence of a full picture, the Committee are unable to give a final opinion at this stage.
    • The first priority of Congress had been independence of India, which the Mission argued would follow only after the drafting of a constitution.
    • Congress also did not like Assam and North-West Frontier Province, where Congress had won majorities in recent elections, to be grouped with the other Muslim majority provinces. The Sikh majority areas in Punjab were another cause of anxiety.
    • Also it wanted additional power for the central government to intervene in crisis situations or extreme break-down of law and order.
    • In June 1946, Congress conceded the possibility of Muslim majority provinces (which formed Group B and C of the Cabinet Mission Plan) setting up a separate Constituent Assembly, but opposed compulsory grouping and upheld the right of NWFP and Assam not to join their groups if they so wished.
      • Therefore, although the Congress Working Committee on June and the AICC on 6 July announced conditional approval of the long term plan offered by the Cabinet Mission, within a few days Nehru, the newly elected president, declared in a press conference on 10 July in Bombay that Congress had “agreed to nothing else” other than participation in the Constituent Assembly and “regards itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best and most probably the group system would collapse as the NWFP and Assam would not agree to it.
  • Question of Grouping:
    • Congress wanted that a province need not wait till the first elections to leave a group, it should have the option not to join it in the first place.
      • It had Congress- ruled provinces of Assam and NWFP (which were in Sections C and B respectively) in mind when it raised this question.
    • The League wanted provinces to have the right to question the union constitution now, not wait for ten years.
    • There was obviously a problem in that the Mission Plan was ambivalent on whether grouping was compulsory or optional. It declared that grouping was optional but sections were compulsory.
      • This was a contradiction, which rather than removing, the Mission deliberately quibbled about in the hope of somehow reconciling the irreconcilable.
    • The Congress and League interpreted the Mission Plan in their own way, both seeing it as a confirmation of their stand.
      • Thus, Patel maintained that the Mission’s Plan was against Pakistan, that the League’s veto was gone and that one Constituent Assembly was envisaged.
      • The League announced its acceptance of the Plan on 6 June in so far as the basis of Pakistan was implied in the Mission’s plan by virtue of the compulsory grouping.
    • Nehru asserted the Congress working Committee’s particular interpretation of the plan in his speech to the AICC on 7 July 1946: ‘We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly.’
      • The implication was that the Assembly was sovereign and would decide rules of procedure.
      • Jinnah seized the opportunity provided by Nehru’s speech to withdraw the League’s acceptance of the Mission Plan on 29th July, 1946.
  • Following consultations, the Viceroy invited 14 men to join the interim government on 15 June 1946. They were
    • five from Congress (Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhabhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari and Hari Krishna Mahtab);
    • five from Muslim League (Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan, Mohammed Ismail Khan, Khwaja Sir Nazimuddin and Abdul Rab Nisthar);
    • Sardar Baldev Singh (representing the Sikhs),
    • Sir N.P. Engineer (representing the Parsis),
    • Jagjivan Ram (representing the scheduled castes) and
    • John Mathai (representing the Christians).
  • The short-term plan to constitute an interim government also fell through on the sticky issue of parity, as Congress wanted to include a Muslim candidate (Zakir Hussain) among its nominees.
    • Objecting to this decision, on 29 July 1946, Jinnah announced that his party would not participate in the process to form the Constituent Assembly as he considered only Muslim League can nominate Muslim Candidate.
    • Hence the Muslim League Working Committee withdrew its earlier approval of the Mission’s long term plan and gave a call for “direct action“.

Formation of interim government:

  • The dilemma before the Government was whether to go ahead and form the Interim Government with the Congress or await League agreement to the plan.
    • Wavell, who had opted for the second course at the Simla Conference a year earlier, preferred to do the same again. But the Secretary of State, argued that it was vital to get Congress cooperation.
  • On 12 August 1946, the Viceroy announced that he was inviting Nehru to form the provisional government.
    • After consulting with Nehru, the names of 12 members of the interim government were announced (Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Asaf Ali, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarat Chandra Bose, John Mathai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Sir Shafaat Ahmed Khan, Jagjivan Ram, Syed Ali Zaheer and C. H. Bhabha).
    • The list contained 5 Hindus, 3 Muslims and one scheduled caste, Christian, Sikh and Parsi each.
    • The Congress replaced the Muslim League candidates with its own party members.
  • Interim Government was formed on 2nd September 1946 with Congress members alone
    • Thus Congress leaders entered the Viceroy’s Executive Council or the Interim Government of India.
    • Jawaharlal Nehru became the head, vice president in title, but possessing the executive authority.
    • Vallabhbhai Patel became the Home member.
  • The British in 1946, in keeping with their strategic interests in the post-independence Indian subcontinent, took up a stance different from their earlier posture of encouraging communal forces and denying the legitimacy of nationalism and the representative nature of the Congress.
    • Continuance of rule had demanded one stance, withdrawal and post-imperial links dictated a contrary posture.
  • Congress-led governments were formed in most provinces – including in the NWFP, in Punjab (a coalition with the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Unionist Muslim League).
  • The League led governments in Bengal and Sind.
  • The Constituent Assembly was instructed to begin work to write a new constitution for India.

Coalition and breakdown:

  • Jinnah and the League condemned the new government, and vowed to agitate for Pakistan by any means possible. Disorder arose in Punjab and Bengal, including the cities of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta.
  • On the League-organized Direct Action Day, (16 August 1946), also known as the Great Calcutta Killings, was a day of widespread riot and manslaughter between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Calcutta.
    • The day also marked the start of what is known as The Week of the Long Knives.
    • The ‘Direct Action’ was announced by the Muslim League Council to show the strength of Muslim feelings both to British and Congress because Muslims feared that if the British just pulled out, Muslims would surely suffer at the hands of overwhelming Hindu majority. Communal riots spread throughout India.
  • Viceroy Wavell stalled the Central government’s efforts to stop the disorder, and the provinces were instructed to leave this to the governors, who did not undertake any major action.
    • To end the disorder and rising bloodshed, Wavell encouraged Nehru to ask the League to enter the government.
      • While Patel and most Congress leaders were opposed to conceding to a party that was organizing disorder, Nehru conceded in hope of preserving communal peace.
    • Wavell quickly brought the League into the Interim Government on 26 October 1946 though it had not accepted either the short or long term provisions of the Cabinet Mission Plan and had not given up its policy of Direct Action.
    • The Secretary of State argued that without the League’s presence in the Government civil war would have been inevitable. Jinnah had succeeded in keeping the British in his grip.
  • League leaders entered the council under the leadership of Liaquat Ali Khan, the future first Prime Minister of Pakistan who became the finance minister.
    • But the council did not function in harmony – separate meetings were not held by League ministers, and both parties vetoed the major initiatives proposed by the other, highlighting their ideological differences and political antagonism.
  • The Congress demand that the British get the League to modify its attitude in the Interim Government or quit was voiced almost from the time the League members were sworn in.
    • Except Liaqat Ali Khan, all the League nominees were second-raters, indicating that what was at stake was power, not responsibility to run the country.
    • Jinnah had realized that it was fatal to leave the administration in Congress hands and had sought a foothold in the Government to fight for Pakistan. For him, the Interim Government was the continuation of civil war by other means.
    • League ministers questioned actions taken by Congress members, including appointments made, and refused to attend the informal meetings which Nehru had devised as a means of arriving at decisions without reference to Wavell.
    • Their disruptionist tactics convinced Congress leaders of the futility of the Interim Government as an exercise in Congress-League cooperation. But they held on till 5th February 1947 when nine members of the Interim Government wrote to the Viceroy demanding that the League members resign.
    • The League’s demand for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly that had met for the first time on 9th December 1946 had proved to be the last straw.
      • Earlier it had refused to join the constituent Assembly despite assurances from His Majesty’s Government in their 6th December 1946 statement that the League’s interpretation of grouping was the correct one.
    • A direct bid for Pakistan, rather than through the Mission Plan, seemed to be the card Jinnah now sought to play.
  • At the arrival of the new viceroy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma in early 1947, Congress leaders expressed the view that the coalition was unworkable. This led to the eventual proposal, and acceptance of the partition of India.

Q. “… instead of rejecting the plan (Cabinet Mission Plan), they (the Congress Leadership) resorted to a half-baked legalistic stratagem to reserve their position on its long-term arrangements and accepted its short-term provisions.” Examine.  


  • The Cabinet Mission consisting of three British Cabinet Ministers was sent in 1946 to India. It aimed to discuss the transfer of power to Indian leadership, the way of drawing up the Constitution of Independent India,  and to make arrangements for interim Government.

Long term arrangements of the Plan

  • The plan proposed to create a three tier arrangement of a loose federation of government.
  • The Union Government with an Executive and a Legislature would consist of both British India and Princely States’ representatives. The Union would be weak with power to deal with foreign affairs, defence and communication.
  • Any question raising major communal issues in the Legislature would require approval of each of the two major communities (Hindu and Muslim).
  • All subjects other than Union Subjects and all residuary power would be vested in the provinces.
    The Princely States would retain all subjects and all residuary powers other than those ceded to the Union.
  • Province would be free to form “Group” with Executives and Legislatures. As soon as the new constitutional arrangements come into operation, it would be open to any province to come out of any Group in which it had been placed.

Short term provisions

  • The short term provisions in the plan was to form an interim government and then formation of the Constituent Assembly. In interim government, all the portfolios would be held by Indian leaders  having the full confidence of the people.

The response of Congress

  • The response of various political parties including Congress over the recommendations of the Cabinet Mission Plan was ambiguous. Neither they could accept it in its entirety nor could they reject it in toto. Different parties accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan recommendations in their own interest with different interpretations.
  • Congress accepted the plan and decided to go for the formation of interim government and Constituent Assembly. At the same time, Congress interpreted many long term arrangements like” Grouping” in its own way and objecting to several provisions like weak centre, communal voting and non-elected Princely States’ representatives.
  • Sardar Patel maintained that the plan was against the formation of Pakistan with Muslim League’s veto gone and only one constituent Assembly was to form.
  • Congress rejected the League’s interpretation of provisions of Grouping which League had considered as having inherent idea of separate state, Pakistan.
  • Nehru retracted from the Mission Plan’s long term arrangements almost completely by saying that we are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly. The implication was that the Assembly was sovereign and would decide rules of procedure and could change the Mission Plan.
  • Muslim league first approved the plan. But when Nehru declared that it could change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly, they rejected the plan.

Hence, Congress’s response to the plan was confusing and instead of rejecting the plan completely, they reserved their position on several long term arrangements and accepted the short term provisions for the formation of interim government and Constituent Assembly.

This type of the  Congress response was due to the fact that on the one hand it viewed the plan as offering a great opportunity to draft the Constitution on the other hand it wanted democratic representations from Princely States, no communal votings and a strong centre to preserve unity of India.

But this half baked legalistic stratagem did not work as Muslim League rejected the plan and stalemate continued.

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