Remarks

The Irwin Declaration was a statement made by Lord Irwin, then Viceroy of India, on 31 October 1929 regarding the status of India in the British empire. It was intended to placate leaders of the Indian nationalist movement who had become increasingly vocal in demanding dominion status for India. The Nehru Report, 1928 stated: ‘1. India shall have the same constitutional status in the community of nations, known as the British Empire, as the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia…’. While demands for dominion status were made by some Indians during the first two decades of the 20th century, it was only after the passing of the Government of India Act 1919 that this demand became a common and forceful part of the vocabulary of the Indian political class. 

The Declaration was a five-line statement in simple non-legal language. It attempted to clarify to its British and Indian audiences that the intention of the British government was to facilitate India attaining dominion status in the future. However, there was no mention of any timeline.  

The Declaration triggered political developments both in Britain and India. In Britain, there was a backlash: significant parts of the political class and the general public were against India attaining obtaining dominion status. In India, nationalist leaders welcomed the Declaration and radically changed their mode of engagement with the British government: they now wanted all negotiations between Indian political leaders and Britain to be about the formalisation of dominion status for India and the framing of a new Constitution. 

Walter Reid in Keeping the Jewel in the Crown traces the complex political developments in Britain that took place before and after the Declaration. It seemed like Lord Irwin himself intended the  Declaration to not materialise any time in the near future; Indian political leaders, on the other hand, felt that dominion status was within arms reach. Political developments that emerged from this point onwards ultimately led the Indian National Congress to pass the Purna Swaraj Declaration.

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In view of the doubts which have been expressed both in Great Britain and in India regarding the interpretation to be placed on the intentions of the British government in enacting the statute of 1919, I am authorised on behalf of his Majesty’s Government to state clearly that in their judgement it is implicit in the Declaration of 1917 that the natural issue of India’s constitutional progress as there contemplated is the attainment of Dominion status.