India in League of Nations

“India contains 300,000,000 people, and to say that those people should have no representation of their own in the League of Nations would be carrying the logic of the Government representation very far.”

David Hunter Miller in his monumental book, The Drafting of the Covenant, stated with the authority derived from his close association with Woodrow Wilson, that very early at the meetings of the League of Nations Committee   in 1919 “it had been agreed that India should be a member of the League. Mr Wilson had acquiesced, and no one else seemed to care.” French opposition to the inclusion of the Dominions within the framework of the League of Nations was resolute but abandoned after a grim struggle in the green rooms of the Peace Conference, with the result that as far as India was concerned, as one commentator put it, there could not have been any difference to the Geneva organization by the addition of one more country, viz., India, to the group of hangers-on to the British Empire, viz., the Dominions which obtained admissions to the League of Nations.


Article 1 of the Covenant of the League of Nations provides that “any fully self-governing State, Dominion or Colony not named in the Annex may become a Member of the League.” But India was not a self-governing Colony, or Dominion or State at the time of the Treaty of Versailles, with the result that what has come to be recognized as “an anomaly among anomalies” as David Hunter Miller called it, had become an accomplished fact. No one, by any stretch of imagination, sought to compare India with Canada at this period as regards the essentials of self government, and to quote Miller again, “India contains 300,000,000 people, and to say that those people should have no representation of their own in the League of Nations would be carrying the logic of the Government representation very far.” Obviously, the inclusion of India in the Annex of original signatories of the Covenant of the League of Nations gave a series of heartaches to some of the Empire statesmen and the legal draftsmen of the Peace Conference, with the result of ingenuity was taken recourse to, and the problem of India’s membership to the League of Nations was solved in a simple, yet astonishing manner. I have examined the original draft of Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations dated February 14, 1919, which contained the phrase “States Members of the League,” We in this country have little faith in constitutional formalism or the legal niceties of treaty-drafting, but I claim that India’s inclusion as an original member of the League of Nations had been and still continues to be, despite the ignominy which came to be heaped upon this institution since 1930 on account of its failure to check Japanese aggression in Manchuria and Italian aggression in Abyssinia, a fact of tremendous importance to the future evolution of our national and international status and function.

India’s admission as an original member to the League of Nations had automatically meant her admission to the International Labour Organization, the permanent Court of International Justice, the International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation at Paris, the International Institute of Agriculture at Rome and several other League, semi-League and non-League organizations, which cropped up with such astounding rapidity and ingenuity during the inter-war period. The manner in which India sought to stabilize her position in the International Labour Organization, ultimately leading to her recognition as one of the eight chief states of industrial importance in the world, and to membership in her own right of the Governing Body of the International Labour Office, is fully dealt with in the next chapter. Here it is worth noting that, despite her hopelessly anomalous position as a dependency only enjoying the attributes of a sovereign State for purposes of the organizational activities of the League of Nations, India secured representation at almost every international conference, such as the Washington Conference on Naval Armaments, the Geneva Economic Conference, the London Reparations Conference, the London Naval Conference, the Hague Reparations Conference, the World Disarmament Conference, and others.

It is clear that the rationale behind India’s participation in these League and non-League Conferences since 1920 is of considerable importance to us and must be examined here in some detail. At the time of the Peace Conference, the Indian “deputationists” were included in the Empire delegation, and were given opportunities for attending the plenary sessions of the Peace Conference in rotation with the representatives of self governing Dominions. After India obtained original membership of the League of Nations, Indian delegations went forth in their own right to almost every conference of an international character, as has been indicated above. The Secretary of State for India, in consultation with the Government of India, normally selected these delegations and instructed them during the early years of India’s association with the League and its complementary international system. Curiously enough, the factual position remains to be even today that communications from the League of Nations Secretariat intended for “India”, which is an original member of the League, are forwarded to the India Office in London and not to the Government of India direct. In the case of the International Labour Organization, the communications of the International Labour Office are sent direct to New Delhi with copies to the India Office, though the replies from New Delhi are forwarded to the International Labour Office through the Secretary of State in London. This procedure was apparently adopted and kept almost sacrosanct even today, on account of the fact that, at any rate during the early stages of India’s association with the League of Nations, His Majesty’s government felt the need not only for coaching this country in the art of participation in international affairs, but also for the co-ordination and maintenance of a common policy as between the United Kingdom and the various units of the Commonwealth. I have closely watched in my time at Geneva the activities of the Indian delegations of the League of Nations, and one predominating impression left with me is that, apart from functioning as an individual unit in the League, the Indian delegation proper also functioned as a unit in the informal conferences of Empire delegations held naturally under the leadership of the leader of the United Kingdom delegation to the League of Nations for the time being, to compare notes and to bring about as much as possible a common front of the United Kingdom, the Dominion, and Indian delegations, especially when questions of first-rate political importance were discussed by the League Assembly.

Till 1929 Indian delegations to the League of Nations were led by non-Indians, a fact which created considerable irritation in this country. Still, the delegations of the League Assembly in 1927 wrote as follows: “The Indian delegation is not constitutionally in the same position as those of the Dominions, but in our view, the actual liberty of the Indian delegation to follow an independent policy corresponds to the liberty which the Indian delegation would, in fact, exercise if the constitutional status of India within the empire were different.” Elsewhere in their Report, this delegation said as follows: “It would, in our view, be a matter of great regret if the opportunities offered to India by the League towards the development of her status among the nations of the world were imperfectly realized through ignorance or misunderstanding of the facts. For this reason, and because the representation needs to be based upon an informed and enlightened public opinion, we feel that great importance should be attached to publicity”. Besides closely watching the activities of the Indian delegates to the League Assembly and the International Labour Conference for a period of years, I have, on the invitation of the Secretary-General, worked in close liaison with the Indian delegation to the Assembly of 1931 as a Collaborator of the League of Nations, and though I found that Indian delegates were generally supposed to be marionettes functioning on the wire pulling of the Secretary of State, there were individual instances when Indian delegates did make an attempt to present to the outside world through the League forum some of the pressing problems of this country, though I cannot say that Indo-British political questions were at all discussed with the zest with which they could have been dealt with by a purely national Indian delegation to the League Assembly in any particular year, as the Irish Free State delegation to the League sought to do.

In 1929, the Indian delegation was first led by Sir Muhammed Habibullah, an Indian member of the Executive Council of the Governor-General, and in every subsequent year Indian delegations to the League of Nations Assembly were led by Indians, and the system of nominating an Indian Prince to lead the Indian delegation to the League Assembly once in three years was also adopted. India became a High Contracting Party for purposes of the work of the League of Nations and allied international organisations, and Indian delegates were vested with plenipotentiary powers.

This piece is extracted from India in World Politics – A Historical Analysis and Appraisal by Dr Lanka Sundaram, published by Sultan Chand & Company, 1944 edition. This is part 1 of a 2 part essay series, on India and the League of Nations.

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