Monday, May. 27, 1946


No armies were marching, no fleets deploying, no bombs falling when the world's richest colony received its offer of freedom. It was 8 o'clock in the evening of May 16. At that moment, in Room 63 of the circular Council House of New Delhi, the British rulers of India voluntarily went on record before their subjects and the world with a plan—not a weasel-worded promise nor a string-tied offer, but a concrete plan—for the government of an independent, unified India.

The Indian factions facing each other across the table at Simla had not been able to agree on the independence they all demanded. The predominantly Hindu All-India National Congress insisted on a strong central government for all of India. Mohamed Ali Jinnah's Moslem League insisted that the Moslems should have an independent state of Pakistan, separate from Hindu India. At Simla both advanced from these extreme positions, but they never reached common ground.

Off India's Back. They left it to the British Raj to build a "sturdy central pier" (as the London Times called the May 16 White Paper) "requiring only a comparatively short span from either side" to bridge the gulf between Moslem and Hindu. Pakistan was rejected. Instead, the plan set up a union of all India with a central government to control defense, foreign affairs and communications; it could raise revenues for those functions. To please the Moslems the White Paper offered the possibility of strong regional governments which could plan their own economic and social development. Two would be in the areas demanded for Pakistan, one in the predominantly Hindu group. Any measure involving a major "communal" issue must be approved by the majority of both religious groups in the union legislature.

The British proposed two intermediate steps leading to a final transfer of power: 1) the Viceroy will set up an interim all-Indian cabinet; 2) the provincial assemblies and the princes' states will send delegates to a constituent assembly to frame a permanent constitution for India.

Through Mohandas Gandhi the Congress Party indicated that it will support the British plan. He said: "The mission and the Viceroy are as God-fearing as we ourselves claim to be. Whatever the wrong done to India by British rule, if the statement of the mission is genuine, as I believe it is, it is in discharge of an obligation they have declared the British owed toward India, namely, to get off India's back."

Note of Regret. Winston Churchill, who called the White Paper an "able but melancholy document," realized with a note of regret that the Empire was, indeed, in liquidation. "No one will doubt," he said, "the sincerity and earnestness with which the Cabinet ministers and the Viceroy have labored to bring about a solution of the Indian difficulty . . . with a zeal which would be natural were it to gain an empire, not to cast it away."

The Britons whose statesmanship had produced the plan for India—Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps, A. V. Alexander, Lord Wavell—were determined to push through a solution. Their able spokesman, aging Pethick-Lawrence (74), told correspondents: "What will happen if one person ... or groups of people in some way tried to put spanners [monkey wrenches] in the wheels, I am not prepared at this stage precisely to say; but the intention is to get on with the job."

The spanner thrower they had in mind was Jinnah. If he refuses to cooperate, the Congress will likely go ahead and form an interim government. Jinnah would then have a clear choice between cooperation and civil war.

Nearby, strategic Ceylon also moved closer to independence last week. London announced a new constitution which will bring Ceylon to the "threshold of Dominion status," with self-government, except in defense and foreign affairs. But across the Bay of Bengal the British would promise Burma nothing more than a new election and broader popular government before June 1947, "if all goes well."