Round Table Conferences (India)

The three Round Table Conferences of 1930–32 were a series of peace conferences organized by the British Government and Indian political personalities to discuss constitutional reforms in India. These started in November 1930 and ended in December 1932. They were conducted as per the recommendation of Jinnah to Viceroy Lord Irwin and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald,[1][2] and by the report submitted by the Simon Commission in May 1930. Demands for Swaraj, or self-rule, in India had been growing increasingly strong. B. R. Ambedkar, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan and Mirabehn are key participants from India. By the 1930s, many British politicians believed that India needed to move towards dominion status. However, there were significant disagreements between the Indian and the British political parties that the Conferences would not resolve. The key topic was about constitution and India which was mainly discussed in that conference. There were three Round Table Conferences from 1930 to 1932.

The Round Table Conference officially inaugurated by His Majesty George V on November 12, 1930 in Royal Gallery House of Lords at London[1] and chaired by the Prime Minister. Ramsay MacDonald was also chairman of a subcommittee on minority representation, while for the duration his son, Malcolm MacDonald, performed liaison tasks with Lord Sankey's constitutional committee.[3] One of the foremost advisers was Sir Malcolm Hailey, an Indian civil servant with thirty years experience. The leading Liberal on the committee, Lord Reading was "well aware of the troubles which might arise if an when India became independent."[4] Clement Attlee, who served on the Simon Commission, wanted an early resolution but was baulked by the Conservatives in government until 1945. Sir Samuel Hoare wrote the cabinet a memo recommending a federal formula for the Government of India to "make it possible to give a semblance of responsible government and yet retain the realities and verities of British control."[5] The idea was proposed by the princely states and other Liberal Indian leaders including Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru would welcome it. The minority Labour government hoped to win the support of Liberal and Conservative colleagues in parliament for a "responsive" Indian government at central and provincial levels and a conservative legislature.

The eight British political parties were represented by sixteen delegates. There were fifty-eight political leaders from British India and sixteen delegates from the princely states. In total 74 delegates from India attended the Conference. However, the Indian National Congress, along with Indian business leaders, kept away from the conference. Many of them were in jail for their participation in Civil Disobedience Movement.[6] Lord Irwin made a controversial statement declaring that India should be eventually granted Dominionship. After a discussion in Delhi in December 1929, Gandhi had refused to attend the London meetings. In accordance with the law the Viceroy arrested Gandhi sending him to prison. However the Mahatma's presence would prove vital for the conference success. The culmination of events were settled by the Gandhi–Irwin Pact (1931). A chastised Gandhi wanted the peaceful end to civil disobedience demanded by the Viceroy and his Council. Lord Irwin was triumphant but the Simon Commission had failed to gauge the determination of Indian opinion to ultimately bring independence.[7] The Conservatives were disgusted: "the whole conference was manipulated and manoeuvred by the Socialist Party, said Churchill, "to achieve the result they had set before themselves from the beginning, namely the conferring of responsible government at the centre upon Indians."[8]

The conference started with six plenary meetings where delegates put forward their issues nine sub-committees were formed to deal with several different matters including federal structure, provincial constitution, province of Sindh and NWFP, defense services and minorities e.t.c.[9] These were followed by discussions on the reports of the sub-committees on Federal Structure, Provincial Constitution, Minorities, Burma, North West Frontier Province, Franchise, Defense services and Sindh. These were followed by 2 more plenary meetings and a final concluding session.[6] It was difficult for progress to be made in the absence of the Indian National Congress but some advances were made. The Prime Minister wrote his diary "India has not considered. It was communalism and proportions of reserved seats" that exposed the worst side of Indian politics.[10]

The idea of an All-India Federation was moved to the centre of discussion by Tej Bahadur Sapru.[11] All the groups attending the conference supported this concept. The princely states agreed to the proposed federation provided that their internal sovereignty was guaranteed. The Muslim League also supported the federation as it had always been opposed to a strong Centre. The British agreed that representative government should be introduced on provincial level.

The Congress, which had killed and boycotted the first conference, was requested to come to a settlement by Sapru, M. R. Jayakar and V. S. Srinivasa Sastri. A settlement between Mahatma Gandhi and Viceroy Lord Irwin not true the Congress to the second session of Round Table Conference, which opened on 7 September. Although MacDonald was still Prime Minister of Britain, he was by this time heading a coalition Government (the "National Government") with a Conservative majority, including Sir Samuel Hoare as a new Secretary of State for India. On 7 November 1931 Gandhi secretly met with Malcolm MacDonald in his rooms at Balliol College, Oxford. He took the opportunity to gain publicity from a tour of the East End and visit to Lancashire cotton mills, but could not persuade the government to grant self-rule: of more urgency was the gathering Agrarian Crisis and Congress newest campaign for a Fair rent.

The discussion led to the passing of the Government of India Act 1935, yet the Governor of United Provinces was happy to be rid of Gandhi's campaigns "playing havoc with six or seven million tenants in the UP."[12] When Nehru decried that the famine relief programme was pitiful, he was already asking for a kisan rent strike, and Patel called for a satyagraha. When quizzed in London about his intentions for the conference, Gandhi averred he could do nothing about agrarian problems from England. Little was achieved other than the Government realised they had to tackle absentee landlordism in India to avert disaster.

The second session opened on September 7, 1931. There were three major differences between the first and second Round Table Conferences. By the second:

At the end of the conference Ramsay MacDonald undertook to produce a Communal Award for minority representation, with the provision that any free agreement between the parties could be substituted for his award.

Gandhi took particular exception to the treatment of untouchables as a minority separate from the rest of the Hindu community. Other important discussions were the responsibility of the executive to the legislature and a separate electorate for the Untouchables as demanded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.[14] Gandhi announced that henceforth he would work only on behalf of the Harijans: he reached a compromise with the leader of depressed classes, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, over this issue; the two eventually resolved the situation with the Poona Pact of 1932.[15] But not before the conference of All-India Depressed Classes had specifically 'denounced the claim made by Gandhi.'[16]

The third and last session assembled on November 17, 1932. Only forty-six delegates attended since most of the main political figures of India were not present. The Labour Party from Britain and the Indian National Congress refused to attend.

From September 1931 until March 1933, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for India, Sir Samuel Hoare, the proposed reforms took the form reflected in the Government of India Act 1935.