The United Kingdom Cabinet Mission of 1946 to India aimed to discuss the transfer of power from the British government to the Indian leadership, with the aim of preserving India's unity and granting it independence. Formulated at the initiative of Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the mission had Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, did not participate in every step but was present.
The British wanted to keep India and its Army united so as to keep it in their system of 'imperial defence' even after granting it independence. To preserve India's unity the British formulated the Cabinet Mission Plan. The Cabinet Mission's role was to hold preparatory discussions with the elected representatives of British India and the Indian states so as to secure agreement to the method of framing the constitution, to set up a constitution body and to set up an Executive Council with the support of the main Indian parties.
The Mission held talks with the representatives of the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League, the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India. The two parties planned to determine a power-sharing arrangement between Hindus and Muslims to prevent a communal dispute. The Congress, under Gandhi and Nehru, wanted to obtain a strong central government, with more powers than state governments. The All India Muslim League, under Jinnah, wanted to keep India united but with political safeguards provided to Muslims like parity in the legislatures because of the wide belief of Muslims that the British Raj was simply going to be turned into a Hindu Raj once the British departed, and since the Muslim League regarded itself as the sole spokesman party of Indian Muslims, it was incumbent upon it to take the matter up with the Crown. After initial dialogue, the Mission proposed its plan over the composition of the new government on 16 May 1946. In its proposals, the creation of a separate Muslim Pakistan was rejected.
The plan of 16 June 1946 had a united India, in line with Congress and Muslim League aspirations, but that was where the consensus between the two parties ended since Congress abhorred the idea of having the groupings of Muslim-majority provinces and that of Hindu-majority provinces with the intention of balancing one another at the central legislature. The Muslim League could not accept any changes to this plan since they wanted to keep the safeguards of British Indian laws to prevent absolute rule of Hindus over Muslims.
Reaching an impasse, the British proposed a second plan on 16 June 1946 to arrange for India to be divided into Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority India that would later be renamed Pakistan since Congress had vehemently rejected 'parity' at the centre. A list of princely states of India, which would be permitted to accede to the dominion or attain independence, was also drawn up.
The Cabinet Mission arrived in India on 23 March 1946 and in Delhi on 2 April 1946. The announcement of the Plan on 16 May 1946 had been preceded by the Simla Conference in the first week of May.
The approval of the plans determined the composition of the new government. The Congress Working Committee officially did not accept either plan. The resolution of the committee dated 24 May 1946 concluded that
The Working Committee consider that the connected problems involved in the establishment of a Provisional Government and a Constituent Assembly should be viewed together... In absence of a full picture, the Committee are unable to give a final opinion at this stage.
And the resolution of 25 June 1946, in response to the June plan concluded
In the formation of a Provisional or other governance, Congressmen can never give up the national character of Congress, or accept an artificial and unjust parity, or agree to a veto of a communal group. The Committee are unable to accept the proposals for formation of an Interim Government as contained in the statement of June 16. The Committee have, however, decided that the Congress should join the proposed Constituent Assembly with a view to framing the Constitution of a free, united and democratic India.
In a provocative speech on 10 July 196 Nehru was quoted in the press as saying "We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly". By this Nehru effectively "torpedoed" any hope for a united India. Having been "duped in such a way", Jinnah withdrew the Muslim League's acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan on 17 July.
The Viceroy began organising the transfer of power to a Congress-League coalition but League president Muhammad Ali Jinnah denounced the hesitant and conditional approval of the Congress and rescinded League approval of both plans. Thus Congress leaders entered the Viceroy's Executive Council or the Interim Government of India. Nehru became the head, vice-president in title, but possessing the executive authority. Patel became the home member, responsible for internal security and government agencies. Congress-led governments were formed in most provinces, including the NWFP, in Punjab (a coalition with the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Unionist Muslim League). The League led governments in Bengal and Sind. The Constituent Assembly was instructed to begin work to write a new constitution for India.
Jinnah and the League condemned the new government, and vowed to agitate for Pakistan by any means possible. Disorder arose in Punjab and Bengal, including the cities of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. On the League-organized Direct Action Day, over 5,000 people were killed across India, and Hindu, Sikh and Muslim mobs began clashing routinely. Wavell stalled the Central government's efforts to stop the disorder, and the provinces were instructed to leave this to the governors, who did not undertake any major action. To end the disorder and rising bloodshed, Wavell encouraged Nehru to ask the League to enter the government. While Patel and most Congress leaders were opposed to conceding to a party that was organising disorder, Nehru conceded in hope of preserving communal peace.
League leaders entered the council under the leadership of Liaquat Ali Khan, the future first Prime Minister of Pakistan who became the finance minister, but the council did not function in harmony, as separate meetings were not held by League ministers, and both parties vetoed the major initiatives proposed by the other, highlighting their ideological differences and political antagonism. At the arrival of the new (and proclaimed as the last) viceroy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma in early 1947, Congress leaders expressed the view that the coalition was unworkable. That led to the eventual proposal, and acceptance of the partition of India. The rejection of cabinet mission plan led to a resurgence of confrontational politics beginning with the Muslim League's Direct action day and the subsequent killings in Noakhali and Bihar. The portioning of responsibility of the League, the Congress and the British Colonial Administration for the breakdown continues to be a topic of fierce disagreement.
Virtually every Briton wanted to keep India united. Many expressed moral or sentimental obligations to leave India intact, either for the inhabitants' sake or simply as a lasting testament to the Empire. The Cabinet Defense Committee and the Chiefs of Staff, however, stressed the maintenance of a united India as vital to the defense (and economy) of the region. A unified India, an orderly transfer of power, and a bilateral alliance would, they argued, leave Britain's strategic position undamaged. India's military assets, including its seemingly limitless manpower, naval and air bases, and expanding production capabilities, would remain accessible to London. India would thus remain of crucial importance as a base, training ground, and staging area for operations from Egypt to the Far East.
But the British still hoped that a self-governing India would remain part of their system of 'imperial defence'. For this reason, Britain was desperate to keep India (and its army) united.
The Mission's aim was to ensure the unity of British India.
By this scheme, the British hoped they could at once preserve the united India desired by the Congress, and by themselves, and at the same time, through the groups, secure the essence of Jinnah's demand for a 'Pakistan'.