Sri Aurobindo and The Cripps Mission
In March 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps, a senior left-wing politician and a member of the war Cabinet of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, arrived in India. His mission represented an attempt by the British to secure active Indian participation in the Second World War, which was then entering a critical phase. The Japanese, who had begun their campaign with the successful invasion of China a few years before, had by then shocked Great Britain by routing British-led Allied forces and successfully invading Hong Kong, French Indo-China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and finally Burma. The Japanese had in view the total collapse of the British Empire in Asia, and the invasion of India was envisaged as the principal means toward that end.
As Japan lay poised to enter India through its northeast frontier, the British turned desperate and appealed to the Indian leaders for more support for the war effort. In return they promised greater self-government to India once the war was over.
After three weeks of intense activity amongst leaders of diverse parties and factions, political and religious, and just when it appeared that acceptance was feasible, the Indian National Congress turned down the Cripps Proposal, and the Mission was deemed a failure. Britain would now have to defend its Indian empire without further political or military support from the country’s political leaders. Even worse for the British, the Congress decided to intensify its anti-British movement. It was a time of great peril for India and for the civilized world as a whole.
These events surrounding the Cripps Mission, occurring just a few years before India’s Independence in 1947, are generally dealt with in a cursory manner in Indian history text books. However, for those associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the Cripps Proposal bears a very special significance: Sri Aurobindo, who had ceased political activity in 1910 and withdrawn from the public eye from 1926, came out publicly in support of the Proposal. On the very next day after Cripps’ broadcast on all India Radio, Sri Aurobindo sent a telegram to Cripps expressing his “hope that it will be accepted” by Indian leaders. Upon seeing that negotiations were proving difficult, Sri Aurobindo intervened once again and sent a message through an intermediary to Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru urging that Cripps’ offer should be accepted unconditionally. He also sent telegrams along the same lines to C. Rajagopalachari, the senior Congress leader, and Dr. B.S. Moonje of the Hindu Mahasabha. Finally he sent the devotee-advocate Duraiswamy Iyer to meet senior political leaders and impress upon them the need to accept the Proposal for the greater good of the nation. But these significant steps, remarkable as they were coming from Sri Aurobindo himself, were of no avail in the end. When asked why he took all the trouble when he knew the mission would be a failure, Sri Aurobindo is said to have replied, “For a bit of nishkama karma”.
This entire episode, of particular interest to students of Sri Aurobindo and Indian history, has been substantially covered in a new book, Sri Aurobindo and the Cripps Mission, edited by Sunayana Panda. The editor has compiled various documents and essays of historical importance pertaining to the Cripps Proposal; she has also penned three articles that help the reader to better understand the actions of some of the principal personalities in this episode.
The book is neatly divided into four parts. The Introduction offers the reader a brief but fascinating account of the life of Sir Stafford Cripps. We also have the full text of his broadcast, as well as the text of the telegram sent to him by Sri Aurobindo. The second section, “The Point of View of the Ashram”, presents the views of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, and some Ashram writers. This is followed by the “The Point of View of the Indian Leaders”, such as Gandhi and Nehru. In the final part, we come to know of “The Point of View of the British”, especially Winston Churchill and Stafford Cripps. In each section, historical documents relevant to the theme are presented. The reader will find it most interesting to read seldom cited but important texts pertaining to the Proposal, such as the full Cripps broadcast, the resolution of the Congress Working Committee, Churchill’s statement in the House of Commons, and comments in the London press, among others. The reader will also find interesting some of the communications exchanged regarding the Cripps Mission between President Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Churchill of Great Britain.
The tone of this work is informative in nature and is written for the lay reader, in particular for the devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who would like a more complete understanding of this episode. Thus, no background in the subject is necessary to appreciate the contents of the book. Particularly praiseworthy is the editor’s general approach towards the subject as expressed in the Preface. A certain broadmindedness is evident in the effort to look at the issue from various points of view. She writes “Certain episodes of history have come down to us, retold by successive generations, as seen from one particular point of view. The passage of time allows us to have a look at the bigger picture and see the facts from another point of view, as well as to see facts that were not revealed earlier.”
It is now widely believed that an acceptance of the Cripps Proposal would have mitigated the unfortunate circumstances in which India achieved her independence, and could have even prevented the partition of India. Sri Aurobindo seems to partially hint as much in his telegrams to various leaders. Senior Congress leader K.M. Munshi remarked years later in 1951 that had the Cripps Proposal been accepted, the Partition could have been avoided, as also the Kashmir quandary. However, it is also important to remember the circumstances in which the offer made by Cripps was rejected, and to understand that from an ordinary, superficial standpoint, rejecting the Proposal appeared to be a sensible thing to do. It is in this context that the serious student will note and appreciate the editor’s willing acceptance of the complexity that must exist in any genuine historical narrative. She writes,
“It is easy to blame the Indian leaders of the time for the horrors of partition. It is time we looked at their own words and try to understand why they took those decisions. They weighed the arguments for and against and finally chose, in good faith, the option that seemed to them to be the right one. Perhaps through these essays the reader will come to be less judgemental and more compassionate towards those who had the fate of millions in their hands.”
Though perhaps beyond the scope of the editor’s immediate purpose, some more detail on the grounds for the rejection of the Cripps Proposal would have been welcome. These included the deep mistrust caused by Britain’s failure to live up to promises made in the past, anger over the Viceroy’s 1939 declaration, (made without the knowledge or the approval of the country’s political leaders and provincial representatives) which announced India’s participation in Allied war effort, and the fears that the acceptance of certain clauses in the Cripps Proposal would further legitimize the potentially disruptive demands of the Muslim League and the 600-odd princely states. Documents released decades later support the contention that both the Viceroy (Lord Linlithgow) and the Secretary of State (L.S.S. Amery) were out to sabotage the nation. Messages exchanged between them expose the fact that both opposed the Cripps Mission and that they deliberately undercut Cripps. Even as the British government showcased the Cripps Mission – largely under pressure from the United States – as evidence of its new liberal policy towards its colonies, personal and private correspondence between its senior officials in India reveals their contempt for the Mission and their private elation over its subsequent failure.
A presentation of these contemporaneous issues can serve not only to temper our judgement of those who chose to reject the Proposal, but much more to highlight that Sri Aurobindo’s view in this matter expectedly stemmed from a perspective that was vastly superior to any possessed by the individuals concerned, and that his vision and knowledge were far removed from their relatively ignorant and short-sighted human fears, calculations and mistrusts. A.B. Purani reports that Sri Aurobindo, in answer to a question, remarked about his efforts to convince Indian leaders to accept the Proposal:
“Even if I had known for a certainty that it would fail, still it had to be done. It is the question of the play of forces and the important thing is that the other force should not be there. We cannot explain these things – this play of forces – to people who ask for a rational explanation, because it is so ‘irrational’!”
The book would serve as an excellent primer on the subject and does so in a language and format that is easily accessible. It is certainly recommended reading for anyone who is interested in understanding more fully the Cripps Proposal and the role Sri Aurobindo played in advocating its acceptance. It is hoped that more such interesting and illuminating books are published that can highlight the Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s participation in the shaping of world events.