On Thursday, the UK’s main opposition Labour Party released its manifesto, which promises to issue an apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. It also includes a pledge to institute an audit into the country’s colonial past.
Earlier this year, former Prime Minister Theresa May had stopped short of a formal apology when she expressed “deep regret” for the colonial misadventure on its 100th anniversary.
Over the years, issues relating to India have found mention in many election manifestos in the UK. In the 1945 election, India’s freedom had been a campaign promise of the Labour party, its manifesto pledging “the advancement of India to responsible self-government”.
From 1945 to 2019, we trace the Labour Party’s manifestos for campaign promises and notable mentions relating to India.
This was the first election in the UK after World War II, which saw Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party lose to Labour, which at the time was led by Clement Attlee.
Under the subhead “A World of Progress and Peace”, the Labour manifesto said:
“… the Labour Party will seek to promote mutual understanding and cordial co-operation between the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, the advancement of India to responsible self-government, and the planned progress of our Colonial Dependencies.”
The Indian Independence Act, 1947, was passed when Attlee was Prime Minister.
India found two mentions in the 1950 Labour manifesto.
Under the subhead “One World of Peace and Plenty”, it said:
“The selfish and cowardly bungling of the Conservative Government landed us in a war which collective security could have prevented and for which the Government had not prepared. The Colonies were shamefully neglected and the democratic aspirations of the Indian people met with continuous frustration and delay.”
The subhead “Unity of the Commonwealth” included:
“By recognising the desire of Commonwealth countries for complete national self-determination, the Labour Government has immensely helped to strengthen the essential unity of the Commonwealth.
“In April, 1949, all the Commonwealth Prime Ministers welcomed the free choice of India, Pakistan and Ceylon to join the Commonwealth as full and equal members, and accepted India’s decision to be a Republic while recognising The King as head of the Commonwealth.
“These decisions marked an event of epoch-making importance. They created a bridge of friendship and co-operation between the peoples of East and West which will prove increasingly essential as the movement towards world-wide unity proceeds. These decisions would never have been taken under a Tory Government in Britain.”
In the election, Labour suffered considerable losses, but was able to retain a slim majority. It called for a reelection the next year.
Under the head “Peace”, the Labour manifesto said:
“The Tory (Conservative) still thinks in terms of Victorian imperialism and colonial exploitation. His reaction in a crisis is to threaten force. His narrow outlook is an obstacle to that world-wide co-operation which alone makes peace secure. He would have denied freedom to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma.”
The Labour party lost this election, and the Conservatives returned to power, with Churchill again becoming Prime Minister. Labour remained in opposition for 13 years after this election.
The manifesto from this year hailed Clement Attlee, who was leading the party, as “the man who freed India”.
Under the subhead “Empire into Commonwealth”, it said:
“Labour worked to transform the British Empire into a Commonwealth of free and equal peoples. We helped India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma to achieve their freedom; we encouraged West Africa to move rapidly towards self-government; and we began to tackle backwardness and poverty in South-East Asia through the Colombo Plan.”
Under the subhead “Two Worlds”, the 1959 document read:
“No action of the Attlee Government evoked greater enthusiasm than the freeing of nearly 500 million people in India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. The transformation of the old British Empire into the first inter-racial Commonwealth of free nations was the supreme achievement of the Labour Government.”
The manifesto, under “The End of Colonialism”, said:
“When World War II unleashed the demand throughout Asia and Africa for the end of colonialism, Britain’s first response was an act of creative statesmanship. The Labour Government, headed by Clem Attlee, granted full and complete independence to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and thereby began the process of transforming a white colonial empire into a multi-racial commonwealth. No nobler transformation is recorded in the story of the human race.”
It said of the European Common Market (the predecessor of the European Union):
“Though we shall seek to achieve closer links with our European neighbours, the Labour Party is convinced that the first responsibility of a British Government is still to the Commonwealth.”
This election brought Labour back to power, and Harold Wilson became Prime Minister.
India found no mention in the 1966 manifesto. The 1970 document included one pledge under the subhead “The World Economy”:
“In the coming decade we shall develop closer technological relations with India and other countries. Trading and technological links may also play a part in helping to bring China into the community of nations. Labour still believes that China should be a member of the United Nations.”
Labour lost the election, and Harold Wilson was replaced by Edward Heath as Prime Minister.
After many elections, India again found a mention in 2005.
Under the subhead “Helping make you more secure”, the manifesto said:
“We will continue to strongly support the peace process between India and Pakistan, and back moves to resolve the long-running dispute over Kashmir.”
Labour won this election, and Tony Blair became Prime Minister for the third time.
India found a mention twice in the 2010 manifesto.
Under “Investing in science and research”, it said:
“As we create a more diverse economy, we will strengthen support for exporters to help us increase our market share with our traditional markets in Europe and the United States, while breaking further into the emerging markets of China, India and Brazil.”
Also under “Strengthening global security and preventing Conflict”:
“We will work with Greece and Turkey for long-term stability in Cyprus; and continue to support bilateral efforts by India and Pakistan to improve relations. The two countries have profound ties to the UK, which we are determined to nurture. We will keep up the pressure for the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and a return to democracy in Burma.”
This year’s manifesto under “Effective diplomacy”, promises to:
“Issue a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and hold a public review into Britain’s role in the Amritsar massacre.”– the latter referring to Operation Blue Star.
In 2014, declassified UK government documents had revealed that British military advice was given to Indian forces prior to Indian Army intervention at the Golden Temple. There have been calls for a public inquiry into the exact nature of that advice from some British Sikh groups over the years.