India became independent on August 15, 1947, or did it? Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech, ‘tryst with destiny’ delivered on the midnight of August 15, is remembered as the moment a new nation was born thereon. In reality though, that was the moment when India and Pakistan acquired dominion status. While India remained a dominion till 1950, Pakistan retained the status till 1956.
In simpler words, dominions were autonomous communities within the British Empire which were “equal in status” but had an “allegiance to the Crown”. What it meant was that King George VI continued to reign as the Emperor of India and Lord Mountbatten was the first Governor-General of the country. Nehru was sworn in as the premier, but served on the command of the British Governor-General, and unelected Indian nationalist leaders were administered oaths in the name of the British King-Emperor. What it also meant was that a British field marshall led the Indian army and judges appointed by the British continued to be part of the high courts and the federal court.
It was only on January 26, 1950, that the country was able to break free from the monarchy and transform into a sovereign democractic republic after its constitution came into effect. The three years of dominion status though, were crucial in the ultimate creation of a democratic republic.
The road to dominion status though, was not a smooth one. For indeed, both the Indian National Congress, that was at the forefront of the freedom struggle, and the British government altered their stance over it.
The issue of dominion status was in discussion since the First World War days. In 1927, during the Madras Session, the Indian National Congress, in response to its objection to the Simon Commission (as it did not have a single Indian member), decided to form a committee that will draft a Constitution for India.
The brief to the committee was simple: It had “to consider and determine the principles of the Constitution of India along with the problem of communalism and issue of dominion status”. Legal historian Rohit De, in his research paper ‘Between midnight and republic:Theory and practice of India’s Dominion status,’ writes “despite the emergence of radical and revolutionary politics and the growing power of the socialists within the Congress party, the national leadership strove to find a middle ground.” The All Parties Conference of 1928, reached the consensus, that though independence was its goal, they would not agree on ‘a higher ground’ than Dominion status.
And the report in its foremost article made a case for a dominion status. The report said, “We have therefore made our recommendation on the basis (1) that we are agreed that nothing short of dominion status will satisfy India and (2) that the form of government to be established in India will be the same and not lower than that of the other self-governing dominions.”
Congress President Motilal Nehru was adamant that the goal of the Indian National Congress was freedom in substance, by “whatever name you call it.”
A year later though, once Jawaharlal Nehru took over Congress presidency, the generational change was reflected in its ideology. Nehru believed that the thought of the dominion ‘suffocated and strangled him’. In his opinion, no amount of dominion status would give Indians real power, unless the British gave up on military and economic control over the subcontinent in totality.
Yet, in months leading up to Independence, the Congress did agree for dominion status. The reason for the reversal in their stance, as De explains in his paper, is that it bought them time to establish the legal and infrastructural basis for the Indian republic. It also bought them time to integrate the over 500 princely territories into the national framework.
The British too, however, was equally unsure about dominion status to India. In an email interview with Indianexpress.com, De writes: “Objections to India getting dominion status came not only from within the British parliament but also from the leaders of the other dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), who did not want to be placed on a status of equality with a non-white polity.”
With the beginning of the Second World War though, relations between the British government and the Congress party had deteriorated sharply. By 1942, the British parliament realised that there was need for them to maintain some form of control over India, even if that meant pacifying the nationalists with some reforms. Military control over India was deemed necessary given the strategic positioning of the subcontinent between Africa and Southeast Asia, and also because it could provide the British with military troops in times of need.
However, the naval and air force mutinies of 1946, and the growing communal violence in India, shook the confidence of the British administration. On February 20, 1947, Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced the granting of “full self-government” to India by June 30, 1948. For the same, Lord Mountbatten, a member of the royal family and one of the top British naval officers, was appointed to oversee the constitution-making process.
But with the growing communal violence, the date of granting “full-Independence” was advanced by nine months. “This was partly because he (Mountbatten) realised that the constitution-making process would take longer than anticipated, and that if they waited until 1948 the country would be in turmoil,” writes De. “Dominion status could be granted by Act of Parliament and did not require a complicated process of constitution-writing. The grant of Dominion status was speedy and able to accommodate a variety of transnational arrangements,” he adds.
Though short-lived, the dominion status of India, was in fact instrumental in the shaping of the republic. In an opinion piece written in The Indian Express in 2017, Meghnad Desai writes that “this conservative approach to full Independence in 1950, has been a help rather than a hindrance”.
The provisional Indian government inherited a vast set of powers from the British government, and used it to quell internal opposition that was necessary to form a strong social and economic basis for a new republic. However, the extended use of colonial powers by the Congress, did not go without criticism. The Congress used the same colonial detention laws to lock up Hindu extremists, communists and local goons. The Communist party was most sharp in its criticism as they came up with the rallying cry “Yeh azaadi jhoothi hain” (this freedom is fake).
Yet, perhaps the biggest benefit of dominion status was in the greater negotiation power it gave to the government with respect to the princely states. Since, the King-Emperor maintained status quo, the treaties with the princes continued to be in place even after 1947.
But the unique feature of the dominion status of India, unlike most other dominions of the British government, lay in its ephemerality. As De explains in his email, “The remarkable feature of India’s dominion status was not that we had it, but we were able to move on from it in a short period of time to a constitution with a written bill of rights and limited powers of government.”