Independence of Indian delegations to the League

“…the most outstanding principle animating the activity of the League of Nations was the recognition of the principle of nationality and the equal sovereignty of nations, big or small.”

I have already referred to the manner in which Indian delegations to the League of Nations and its ancillary bodies functioned as distinct units representing High Contracting Parties to any international activity. On questions of major policy, Indian delegations, by virtue of the instructions received from the Secretary of State for India who, no doubt, had earlier informed the Indian Government about them, found their initiative circumscribed to a very large extent. In any case, there was no question that Indian delegations to the league of Nations, when discussing problems concerning national sovereignty or the minorities questions with reference to Central Europe, could have dared to refer from the tribune of the League Assembly to the problems of Indian independence, of Indo-British relations or of minorities in this country. Such a thing would have become ‘outrageous’ to His Majesty’s Government, and in all certainty would have stopped once and for all the mockery of India’s performances inside the League of Nations. I have known occasions, however, when some of the Indian delegates even to the League Assembly made oblique references to the poverty of this county, but even declamations made by them at Geneva on questions of this character in the inter-war period – few as they were – could hardly have made any adequate impressions upon the conscience of the world.


The late Sir Jehangir Coyajee might have claimed laurels for having initiated and got a resolution through the League Assembly of a milks and water variety concerning the world economic depression, but this is an achievement which could not have taken India very far on the road to the establishment and stabilisation of her national sovereign status and function within the framework of the League. In the next chapter I have discussed one or two instances wherein Indian delegations, particularly the representatives of workers and employers, did actually make use of the tribune to indulge in a frontal assault on Britain’s domination over this country, but even here it must be remembered that the references were, to say the least, far too mild to produce the requisite impression upon the statesmen of the world, who were more intoxicated with power politics as between one big nation and another, than with ‘puerilities’ relating to the urge for freedom in a dependency like India.

The Instrument of Ratification of the Optional Clause of the Permanent Court of International Justice, which was reproduced in the preceding section of this chapter, specifically stated that disputes between the Government of India and the Government of “any other member of the League which is a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations”shall be outside the jurisdiction of the Hague Court, with the result that a Monroe Doctrine enveloping the life and living of 400,000,000 in this country has been set up by the United Kingdom in such a clever manner as would undoubtedly have been most difficult to penetrate by any friendly Powers disposed to secure Indian freedom, if such friendly Powers ever had foregathered at Geneva. Curiously enough, a puny country like Siam (now Thailand under Japanese occupation) on admission to the membership of the League of Nations, or for that matter Afghanistan and even Iraq (which was admitted to the League after the termination of British Mandate over it) were able to flaunt their independence in the face of the assembled statesman of the world at Geneva with a gusto which had made many an Indian, who took part in the work of the League or who had the opportunity of observing the performances of the Indian Delegations to Geneva during the inter-war period, feel bitter about the utter futility of this country expecting to obtain a proper place in the comity of nations.

Until retribution overtook the insensate activities of certain major powers and procured the destruction of the League system as a result of the Japanese guns booming over the Sungari river in 1930, the rape of Abyssinia by Mussolini and the events following the anschluss under Hitler, the most outstanding principle animating the activity of the League of Nations was the recognition of the principle of nationality and the equal sovereignty of nations, big or small. I have observed with my own eyes the manner in which delegates to the League Assembly, even from countries like Latvia or Estonia, carried away full honours in debate and procured conditions which resulted in the protection of their legitimate interests against those of their not particularly friendly bigger neighbours.

It is quite true that His Highness the Aga Khan was elected President of the League Assembly in 1937, but I am not quite clear whether this election was not more a compliment paid by international statesman to this Prince of Sport, than a compliment to India and her place in the League system as a dependency of the United Kingdom! Unless I am grossly mistaken, it is clear that the problems of our nationality and the sovereignty of our country were never adequately discussed at Geneva during the inter-war period. I have known attempts, particularly at the time of the first Rounds Table Conference, by people like Dr. Moonje and others, to get India under the ambit of minority treaties of the League of Nations, and propositions like a small International Committee, mainly drawn from among those statesmen of the world who, have figured prominently in the activities of the League of Nation, to be set up for the purpose of solving the Indo-British disputes which were from time to time hoisted in distress signals from India.

But suggestions like these, however delectable they might have been and however beneficial in all certainty they would have provided, were never given any chance, for the League system of the inter-war period, despite all protestations to the contrary, was a system of high-power politics, a system based upon poise and counterpoise as between individual countries and groups of countries for dominance at Geneva and, through Geneva, over the whole world. Unless India becomes free, I am not clear in my mind whether the continuance of Indian participation in a revived League of Nations, or other International political organizations which might be set up after the conclusion of Peace, on the basis of our performances at Geneva during the inter-war period, would at all be worth the candle for our people. We have learnt a lot and suffered a lot in between the two wars, and we are not likely to be interested in the continuance of a position in which India is made to function as an appendage of the british Imperial System.

Still, it is worth-while noting in this place the few instances when Indian delegates to the League of Nations Assembly and its associated organisations sought to protect the special interests of this country in non-political and technical matters. India took an independent line of action in the Washington Labour Conference of 1919 regarding the Hours Convention, the Genoa Maritime Conference of 1920 resulting in protection to employment of Indian seamen, the International Labour Conference of 1921 concerning a weekly rest day, the Barcelona Transit Convention of 1921, the Convention on the suppression of traffic in women and children of 1921, the Convention on traffic in obscene publications of 1923, and the Convention on Opium and Drugs of 1925.

In the first Committee of the first Assembly of the League of Nations, India and Australia voted in a minority against Great Britain and other Dominions on the subject of the method for the selection of four non-permanent members to the League Council, while India voted against the whole of the British Commonwealth in regard to the second part of the resolution in question. It had been one of the outstanding achievements of India and her delegations to the League Assembly that they had consistently striven to introduce economy in the expenditure of the League of Nations. At the Genoa Maritime Conference of 1920, Indian seamen engaged in British shipping, and the Secretary of State for India definitely instructed them to take a firm stand on this point notwithstanding the fact that there was a great move on the part of the British delegates to drive Indian lascars off British ships. The Question of compulsory disinfection of wool found the Indian and British delegations in directly opposite camps at the International Labour Conferences of 1921 and 1924, and feelings actually ran high among the British delegates, inasmuch as the refusal of India to fall in with their proposals had meant an additional charge on british Industry. It must be confessed that the success attending India’s fight on this question, which resulted in the rejection of the British proposals, must have looked extremely important in the eyes of the delegates to these two International Labour Conferences.

These and other minor incidents attending on India’s participation in the activities of the Leagues of Nations, which directly or indirectly resulted in her being in a camp opposite to either the United Kingdom or other members of the British Commonwealth, cannot however, be regarded as a first class attribute of India’s national sovereignty. I have always wondered at the devotion to duty displayed by British Proconsuls and the Secretaries of State for India before 1922, compared to that of their successors after the introduction of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms and the stabilisation of the imperfect membership of India in the League of Nations during the past twenty five years. There was hardly a single incident in recent years which is capable of comparison with the resignation of Lord Curzon over the question of supremacy of the civil administration, the resignation of Montagu over the Treaty of Sevres which profoundly disturbed Indian Muslim opinion about the shabby treatment meted out by the Allies to Turkey, the abolition of Indenture by Lord Hardigne, etc.

One need not be cynic if he affirms that further doses of constitutional reforms in this country, and the expansion of the scope for Indian representation to international conferences of the League and the non-League systems, have actually produced results incommensurate with the labour and trouble which went towards making this participation possible, but it is not my purpose here to defend or give a testimonial to the system of proconsular government in this country in the period preceding and immediately following the last Great War.

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 2 of a 2 part essay series, on India and the League of Nations. Read Part 1 here.