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Old Monday, August 18, 2008
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Round table conferences

First Round Table Conference

The 1930s were years of difficulty and tension. The Simon Commission Report was harshly criticized, and Congress launched a civil disobedience movement in April 1930. This movement was declared illegal, and both Gandhi and Nehru were arrested.

In an effort to avoid confrontation with the Indian political parties, the British Government invited all parties to present their point of view at a Round Table Conference.

The first session of the First Round Table Conference began in London on 12 November 1930. All parties sent representatives except for Congress, which issued an ultimatum saying that it would have nothing to do with any future constitutional discussions unless the Nehru Report was enforced completely.

The delegates included 16 from the United Kingdom, 16 from the Indian states and 57 from British India. The Muslim representatives attended the conference, as the Muslims were not part of the civil disobedience movement. Representing the Muslims were Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Sir Agha Khan, Maulvi Fazal-ul-Haq, Sir Muhammad Shafi, Sir Shah Nawaz, Chaudri Zafarullah, and Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah. The conference unanimously decided to create a federal system for India. Even the princely states agreed to join an All India Federation.

Eight subcommittees were established to work out agreement on major points of concern: the federal structure, the provincial constitution, franchise, the provinces of Sindh and NWFP, defence services, and minorities. Among the important decisions taken were the following:

A federation would be established comprising the provinces of British India; dyarchy would be abolished in the provinces and responsible government under Indian ministers would be introduced; the separation of Sindh from Bombay was agreed in principle and a committee was to be appointed to deal with the ensuing financial problems; North West Frontier Province was to receive the status of a Governor’s province.

Differences arose concerning the distribution of subjects in the federal system, and the subcommittee on minorities failed to reach agreement about their rights. At the end of the conference, the Muslims declared that no advance would be possible without sufficient safeguards for the Muslims of India.

The First Round Table Conference ended on 19 January 1931. The British Prime Minister explained Government policy toward resolving the Indian constitutional problem and accepted the proposal for responsible governments in the provinces and a federal government at the centre. After the conclusion of the first session, it was generally felt that a second session would be of little use if Congress refused to participate again.

Gandhi-Irwin Pact

After the First Round Table Conference concluded, Congress felt very isolated. When the civil disobedience movement failed, Congress began looking for ways to come to terms with the government. For its part, the British government wanted Congress to attend the Second Round Table Conference, because it would be difficult to implement any constitutional reforms without the largest party in India.

When Lord Irwin invited Gandhi for talks, Gandhi agreed to end the civil disobedience movement with no preconditions. Talks between Gandhi and Irwin continued from 17-19 February 1931, culminating in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, signed on 5 March 1931.

Under the Pact, Congress agreed to end the civil disobedience movement and to attend the Second Round Table Conference. The government agreed to withdraw all ordinances curbing Congress, to withdraw all notifications and enactments relating to offenses not involving violence, and to release all persons detained during the civil disobedience movement.

Second Round Table Conference

The Second Round Table Conference opened on 7 September 1931 in London and lasted until 1 December 1931. Gandhi was there as the representative of Congress. Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar died before the Second Round Table Conference. In his place, Allama Muhammad Iqbal came as the Muslims’ representative.

Two committees were set up under the conference, one on federal structure and the other on minorities. Gandhi was a member of both. The most important and sensitive issue before the conference was the Hindu-Muslim relationship. From the Muslim point of view, this was bound to affect the shape of the proposed federation.

The minorities subcommittee faced many difficulties, as Gandhi refused to accept minority demands and declared that it was difficult to reach agreement. He attributed this difficulty to the composition of the Indian delegation and demanded that the minority committee be disbanded so that it should not block the progress of constitution making. Gandhi demanded that the work of constitution making be started by putting aside the minorities issue.

Sir Muhammad Shafi, a Muslim representative, did not agree to Gandhi’s proposal and insisted that minorities issue must be resolved before taking up constitution making. Sir Shafi also demanded that Jinnah’s Fourteen Points be incorporated in the future constitution of India. No settlement of the minorities issue was reached due to Gandhi’s refusal to accept the existence of the communal problem. Gandhi put forward his own scheme to solve this problem. His solution was based on proposals made in the Nehru Report.

Independently, the minority groups; Muslims, Anglo-Indians, a section of the Indian Christians, and members of the European business community — reached an agreement among themselves and endorsed the principle of separate electorates. This agreement was presented by the Agha Khan to the tenth meeting of the minorities committee on 13 November 1931, but it was rejected by Gandhi, who insisted that as Congress represented 85 to 95 percent of the entire Indian population, only Congress could speak for the minorities. Under these circumstances, further progress was impossible.

The communal problem also hampered the work of the federal structure committee. The Second Round Table Conference thus ended without reaching any concrete conclusion. The British Government placed responsibility for reaching a solution upon the Indian delegates and warned them that if the Indians were unable to solve the communal problem, then the British government would have to decide the problem of representation.


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