Self-Determination and Indian Politics



(Maharaja’s College, Vizianagaram)


It has been well said that “ideas rule the world”. The idea of self-determination, which has caught the imagination of all peoples today and is considered to be a sovereign right of every nationality, had its origin in the 19th century. People like Mazzini and J. S. Mill held that it is the natural right of every nationality to mould its political destiny. The natural corollary of such a view was that multi-national States were considered as unnatural unions and “every nationality, a State” has become an axiom. J. S. Mill thought that “ it is in general a necessary condition of free institutions, that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.” 1


Thus having taken its origin in the mid 19th century, self-determination became a cardinal principle in framing the peace treaties after the Great War of 1914. President Wilson, the ill-fated Utopian idealist, expressed his belief that “self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” In January, 1917, i.e., about a couple of months before America entered the Great War, addressing the Senate on the future role of America in international politics he said: “ I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord adopt the Doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world: That no nation should seek to extend its policy any over other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and the powerful.”2 This doctrine of “exclusive Universalism” underlies the peace treaties of 1918 and it has resulted in the creation of nearly thirty individual sovereign Sates in Europe.


This right of self-determination has gained strength with time and today it has become the key-note of nationalism. Liberal thinkers of the present century have unreservedly admitted that complete autonomy and independence is the birth-right of every nationality. “It (the Nation-State) will not be answerable, save in the arbitrament of war, to others outside itself. It will claim to settle its own frontiers, its own tariffs, the privileges it will accord to such minorities as dwell within its boundaries, the strangers it will admit, the beliefs it will exclude, the form of government it desires.”3 The late Mr. Willkie, plainly stated, “if we want to enjoy freedom and fight for it, we must be prepared to extend it to every one.”4 Thus we are to take it for granted that every nation, just because it is a nation, has an inherent right to be united and to be free.


As the liberal thought in the present age has considered self-determination as an inviolable right of all people, it has become the touchstone of the good intentions of the great Powers in the present war which is described an ideological war–a war to establish peace, justice, and human liberty. Many pious declarations have been hurled on this throbbing world, the most authoritative of them being the Atlantic Charter. The right of self-determination for all nations is admitted in the clause that “they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” 5 President Roosevelt said, “we are committed to full support of those resolute peoples everywhere who are resisting aggression.”


From this we are led to hope that self-determination will be conceded to India also. Liberal thinkers all over the world have categorically expressed the view that the giving of independence to India is not only politically expedient but morally necessary. Prof. Harold J. Laski remarked that “delaying in fulfilling the unanswerable claim of India to self-government is indefensible.” 6 It is revealing to note the following words of Mr. Willkie: “Cairo on, it (the question: what about India) confronted me at every turn. The wisest man in China said to me, ‘when the aspiration of India for freedom was put aside to some future date, it was not Great Britain that suffered in public esteem in the Far East. It was the United States.” 7 Thus conceding of self-determination to India has become the touchstone of the good intentions of the Allies.


In the pages of history we find nowhere a nation winning both the war and the peace. We find a gulf of difference between the rosy ideals expressed during the stress of war and the clauses in peace treaties. “This time we arc getting the post-war disillusionment during the war.” Mr. Churchill, in explaining the implications of the Eight-point Declaration, stated in the House of Commons: “The Joint Declaration does not qualify in any way the various statements of policy which have been made from time to time about the development of constitutional government in India, Burma or other parts of the British Empire.” 8 Thus it has become clear that the principle of self-determination will be applied only with certain reservations and modifications in view of imperial interests.


The trend towards such a qualified self-determination can be perceived in the different pronouncements made by the British Government during the present war on Indian constitutional problems. The first authoritative statement expressing the British Government’s willingness to concede self-determination to India, was made by the Viceroy on behalf of the British Government, and is now commonly known as the “August Offer.” The Viceroy, with the full approval of His Majesty’s Government, declared; “There has been very strong insistence that the framing of that scheme (that is, the new constitutional scheme for India) should be primarily the responsibility of Indians themselves and should originate from Indian conceptions of the social, economic and political structure of Indian life.” 9 But in that very ‘Offer’ it is revealed how the self-determination to be conceded to India is qualified by certain ‘if’s.’ We are told that full independence, will be given to India only after fulfillment of the obligations due to Great Britain, which is an allusion to such questions as minority rights, the treaties with the States, etc. Thus the ‘August Offer’ not only showed the unwillingness of the British Government to part with power, but also raised the issue of minorities “into an insuperable barrier to India’s progress.”


But a great step forward was taken by the Cripps offer. In one of his conferences in Delhi, Sir Stafford clearly and pointedly defined the purpose of the British proposals as “complete and absolute self-determination and self-government for India.” When he was asked by a pressman, “Is there any difficulty in the way of India participating in the Atlantic Charter?” he replied, “None at all.” But various forces led to the breakdown of the Cripps Mission. As Prof. Laski has pointed out, “the instructions given to him were too rigid, and prevented the requisite elasticity in negotiations, and moreover he was unlucky in his colleagues, some of whom at least were afraid of the consequences of his success.” 10 Thus ended the latest chapter in the story of India’s advance towards self-determination.


While India is thus struggling towards the attainment of self-determination, the principle has taken a dangerous turn in her internal polity. The policy of ‘divide and rule’ has at last succeeded in raising the disruptive forces in India. Before 1937, Mr. Jinnah wanted to work the new provincial constitution ‘for what it was worth’. By 1938, he found the weather favourable to launch on a new adventure. “Democratic systems,” he wrote to a British Journal, “based on the concept of a homogeneous nation are very definitely not applicable to heterogeneous countries such as India, and this simple fact is the root cause of all India’s constitutional ills.” 11 In the same article he put forth his theory of two nations. He argues that Hindus and Muslims constitute two nations, with no affinities with each other. Accordingly, as the Muslims are not a mere religious community but a nation, Mr. Jinnah claims the right of self-determination for the Muslims.


Self-determination implies, (a) the right to frame the constitution, and (b) the right to secede. Taking the former, “the first step in constitutional self-determination is to determine by what kind of body the constitution is to be made.”12 In this connection a spirit of compromise is a pre-requisite for any settlement regarding the nature of the constitution making body. “Constitution is an accommodation. It is a balance wherein there must be give and take.”13 The concrete form of the demand for self-determination for India put forth by the Congress is the Constituent Assembly which is the usual democratic process in framing a constitution. The Federal and State constitutions of the United States of America, the constitutions of the British self-governing Dominions, more especially those of Australia and Ireland, the constitution of France under the Third French Republic, those of Switzerland of 1848 and 1875, were all the work of representative bodies. On more than one occasion the Congress expressed most succinctly and authoritatively its views regarding the constitution making body. For example, in the Working Committee’s Resolution of 1939, it is stated: “They hold that a Constituent Assembly is the only democratic method of determining the constitution of a free country…..The Constituent Assembly should be elected on the basis of adult suffrage existing separate electorates being retained for such minorities as desire them. The number of members in the Assembly should reflect their numerical strength.”14


But the Congress view has not received universal acceptance. Nor can we expect it in India where division is the rule and compromise the exception. Some intellectuals like Sir Maurice Gwyer expressed the view that constitution-making should be done by a small group of experts, and especially of men who are past-masters in the art of Government. The Constituent Assembly plan was opposed even more vehemently by the Muslim League and other minority parties like the Scheduled Castes. Their fear was that the strict adherence to the ‘logic of democracy’ would lead to ‘numerical democracy’ and ‘majority rule’. Anyway, “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the idea of a Constituent Assembly belongs to the period before the communal schism had become so deep and difficult to bridge as it is now.”15 As Mr. Jinnah says that the Muslims are a nation, he now argues, in strict adherence to the logic of self-determination, that the Muslims must live under a State organisation of their own choice and creation.


Another implication the principle of self-determination is the right of secession. In a multi-national State, If people are unwilling to be partners in the Union, they have “a right to dissolve the partnership by withdrawal and to establish new States on national foundations.”16 It is on this basis that Mr. Jinnah is fighting for Pakistan.17 In the Lahore resolution as well as in the press statement issued by Mr. Jinnah after the termination of his talks with Gandhiji in Bombay, he has defined the Pakistan boundaries as follows: “The division should be on the basis of the present boundaries of the six provinces, namely the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, Sind, Bengal, Assam, and Baluchistan, subject to territorial adjustments that might be necessary.” Today Mr. Jinnah has become the idol and Pakistan the symbol of the Muslim League.



The Muslim demand for self-determination was first belittled as a vision and a dream and was looked at with indifference. But within the short space of half-a-dozen years the Pakistan scheme has gained tremendous strength. Their right to self-determination is admitted in a way not only by the British Government but also by Mahatma Gandhi.


The historic Cripps offer marks an important stage in the progressive development of responsible government, in India. It is historic in the sense that Parliament has conceded to India the right to frame her own constitution. But here it has introduced the novel and pernicious principle of non-accession. “If some provinces decided not to accede, then so far as they were concerned, they would not be parties to the constitution.” Sir S. Cripps trenchantly remarked that if the Indian Communities fail to forge a United Constitution and  “want to separate nobody in the world can stop them.” Thus, for the first time, territorial self-determination is conceded to India by the British Government.


The territorial self-determination gained further ground by the C. R. formula which says that, (1) after the termination of the war a commission shall be appointed for demarcating contiguous districts in the North-East and North-West India, wherein the Muslim population is in absolute majority, (2) in the areas thus demarcated a plebiscite shall ultimately decide the issue of separation from Hindustan, and (3) the plebiscite shall be held on the basis of adult suffrage or other practicable franchise. Mr. C. Rajagopalachari thinks it ‘childish’ to quarrel over unity! His theory behind the formula which he has drawn up is that “administrative unity was not of very great consequence. We could have twenty different States if we were really united, united in culture, trade, and everything else.”


The C. R. formula has gained publicity and importance as it became the basis of the Gandhi Jinnah talks. Gandhiji’s formula, which was later on presented to Mr. Jinnah, is mostly based on the C. R. formula. The Gandhi formula clearly reveals the sincerity with which Gandhiji approached the problem. It “accepts the principle of sovereign States, consistent with friendliness.” But will Mr. Jinnah, who is now in the plenitude of power, agree to anything short of complete surrender to the Muslim League’s Lahore resolution of 1940? He claims the right of self-determination for Muslims as a nation and as a territorial unit. He has chosen to understand the word ‘self-determination’ to mean communal self-determination, and any other interpretation is a ‘misconception’ for him.


How far is the right of self-determination for the Muslims in India tenable? Is it a ‘day dream’ of Mr. Jinnah or is it a  ‘birth-right’ of the Muslims? To call it a vision, or to consider the Muslims as a separate nation with no affinities with the rest of India, would be untenable. To divide India into two separate nations is politically inexpedient. As Lord Curzon remarked at the Lausanne Peace Conference (1923), “the right of self-determination is like a two edged sword and can be admitted only with reservations: It is, and has been in the past, a unifying force; but it may be, and has recently become, also a disruptive force. Manifestly, if the theory were actually applied in all cases it would lead to the disruption of some of the oldest existing States of the world.” 18 If the principle of communal self-determination is conceded, India will be torn to pieces. Such Ulsterisation of India is not political sagacity. It would lead to chaos and anarchy.


Economically, partition is ruinous to the prosperity and industrial advancement of the country. “The political and economic unity of India is natural because it is the natural response to its geography.” 19 Today India, being a single unit, has been a vast free trade area. But with partition arise problems relating to such topics as customs, markets for the goods produced etc. Moreover there can no longer be the present inter-provincial co-operation in times of famine and stress.


Morally, the Muslim demand for self-determination is indefensible. Any attempt made by fractions of peoples to vivisect a definitely established State is a moral crime. They cannot have any rights over and above the State, or at the expense of the unity and integrity of the State. “There was no rule of positive international law which recognised the right of fractions of peoples as such to separate themselves by a simple act of their own will from a definitely established State of which they form a part.”20 In his letter dated September 15th, Gandihiji has rightly reminded Mr. Jinnah that a body of converts and their descendants cannot claim to be a nation apart from the parent stock. “If India was one nation before the advent of Islam, it must remain one in spite of the change of faith of a large body of her children.”21


Historically, Mr. Jinnah’s conception of self-determination is false. Several countries in Europe are multi-national States, and no constitution of any country, except that of Russia, has given self-determination for the minorities. To imitate the Russian example without introducing the Russian background is to invite dangerous and deleterious consequences. Russia being a classless State having community of interests among the proletariat, combined with cultural autonomy, has proved to be a success as a multi-national State. Self determination acts as a supreme unifying force under such conditions, while in other countries it generally leads to disintegration and disruption. Nor should we overlook the fact that the right of self-determination of the Russian Republics is only theoretical in nature.  “The State as a whole maintains unity unimpaired and has even, like other federal States, increased its centralisation of authority.” 22


“The present malignancy of the minority question is due very largely to President Wilson’s pedantic obsession with what he called the self-determination of nations.”23 The Utopian idealist could not imagine the evil consequences that would follow an indiscriminate application of the principle of self-determination. A minority can fight for fundamental rights; but it can claim no right to affect the unity and integrity of a well-organised State. In fact, when once fundamental rights are guaranteed to the people of a State, there is no scope for a minority problem at all. But it may still exist in a subject country like India, for the minorities are mostly “artificialities created by the mutual aggressiveness of the great sovereign powers.”24 The British Government, in their eagerness to raise a strong party as a counter-blast to the Congress, promoted the diabolic tendencies of separatism. To consider that self-determination is a talisman for all minority problems is a palpable misconception, for there can be no real minority problem when fundamental rights are granted to all the people in the State.


Thus the principle of self-determination is a very subtle and complex one. “This doctrine though generally accepted as never clearly stated. No definition of the word ‘peoples’ was given, nor any indication of the Minimum size of the unit to which it might apply.”25 The result of it is that very community, small as well as big, is up for a separate homeland rending the air with the cry of ‘stan’.


The proper application of the doctrine of self-determination lies in balancing the two opposite principles of autonomy and authority. “There must be a balancing of the opposite principles of central authority and local autonomy, avoiding on the one hand the subjection of a people to alien control or influence against its will, and on the other the multiplication of small units which makes for instability and invites aggression.”26 So if the right of self determination is conceded either to the communities or to the territorial units in India, it would become a great disintegrating force with consequences which cannot be fully imagined.


The doctrine of self-determination ceases to be a worthy ideal if it leads to the vivisection of any country or the continent of Europe. Any adherence to the ‘obsessed’ Wilsonian conception of self-determination may prove to be a fateful act in the history of mankind. Experience is the best school of learning and we now know, thanks to Hitler, on what depends the stability and security of Europe. As Mr.Walter Lippman and Mr. Summer Wells have pointed out in their recent writings and pronouncements, the first step to a functioning world order is only through joint defence, common foreign policy and ‘organic consultation.’ The re-creation of small sovereign States in Europe, each with its own political, economic and military powers, is to repeat the fallacy. “Undiluted universalism would only widen the gap between the reality of the world situation and the idea of world order.”27 “The re-creation of the small countries of Europe as political units, yes; their re-creation as economic and military units, no.”28 Similarly, any nationals or minorities, living in an already well-established State can fight for political autonomy, but not for the vivisection of the State. Self-determination remains as an ideal to be aspired after, only when it brings about a balance between the two opposite principles of ‘togetherness’ and separateness, of authority and autonomy.


1 On Liberty and other essays–P. 384. (The World’s Classics)

2 Quoted from ‘The World Crisis and the Problem of Peace’–Chitale.

3 H. J. Lalki–A Grammar of Politics, P. 221.

4 One World-P. 133.   

5 The Hindu-Aug. 16, 1941.

6 One World–P. 131.

7 The Hindu-Aug. 12, 1941.

8 The Hindu-Sept. 11, 1941.

9 India and Freedom-L. S. Amery.

10 “Reflections on the Revolution of our time.”

11 Time and Tide. Jan. 19, 1940.

12 The Constitutional Problem in India–R. Coupland, Part III, P. 32

13 H. J. Laski–“India must be won over”–The Hindu, Mar. 25, 1942.

14 Indian Annual Register, 1939, ii, 238.

15 The Constitutional Problem in India–R.Coupland, Part. III. P. 35.

16 Garner--Political Science and Government, P.134.

17 It means ‘land of the pure’. Originally it was spelt as Pakistan, which referred to the five   Northern units of India, viz., Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan provinces), Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan.

18 Garner-Political Science and Govnnment. P. 134.

19 Coupland–The Constitutional Problem in India. Part III, P. 101

20 Gamer–P. 135

21 The Hindu, Sept. 29, 1944

22 Webbs–Soviet Communism, Vol. I.

23 H. G. Wells. “Fundamental Rights”–The Hindu–April 20, 1941.

24 Ibid.

25 Sir John Hope Simpson–“The problem of National Minorities”–The Fortnightly, July 1944. 26 Radhakamal Mukerjee–Democracies of the East.

27 The Economist.  July 22, 1944.       

28 One World. P. 128.