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UBC Theses and Dissertations

An inquiry into colonial disengagement : the cabinet delegation to India, March to June, 1946 Bajpai, Kanti Prasad


This thesis is about colonial disengagement, a term signifying the process of decolonisation from the decision to end colonial rule to the final withdrawal of imperial officials and armed personnel. Specifically, this thesis is about British colonial disengagement as revealed in a vital case—India during the period March 1946 to August 1947. The focus is on the role of the British Government in that process, which, in the Indian case, involved the transfer of political authority—that is of ultimate responsibility for government— from imperial to nationalist hands. This occurred in two phases: the first, during the Cabinet Delegation's mission to India from March to June 1946; and the second, during Mountbatten's mission from March to August 1947. In analysing the role of the British Government, the inquiry will deal with the former phase, of which a detailed first-hand account is available in "The Transfer of Power" archival documents recently released by the British Government pertaining to the period 1942-1947. The documents are used extensively in the analysis. The attempt is made to explain the role of the British Government in terms of the interaction and impact of five factors: (i) British interests; (ii) British obligations; (iii) the desire for a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority; (iv) the momentum of constitutional change; and (v) declining British power in the face of the increasingly powerful and polarised nationalist movement. On the basis of the evidence collected primarily, from the documents, but also from important secondary sources, it is argued that while each of these factors had an impact on how Britain disengaged, three factors in particular were most significant: British strategic interests, the desire for a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority and the lack of British power in relation to the nationalist movement. These three factors, it is further argued, interacted to cause the government to pursue a disengagement plan that would elicit the agreement of the two major nationalist parties—the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League—and that this pursuit, in turn, seriously limited its room for manoeuvre in the process of transferring authority. It is shown, finally, that the lack of room for manoeuvre was partly inherent in the Indian political situation and partly in British objectives, and that the Congress and the League were equally constrained by similar factors. Thus, in the end, it is concluded that to the extent that the Indian case is paradigmatic of British disengagements generally a more pessimistic view of what accommodations and political arrangements the departing imperial administrations and nationalist movements can or cannot make during the process of transferring authority may be necessary.

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