The Irwin Declaration was a statement made by Lord Irwin on 31 October 1929 on behalf of the British government in India. The declaration was intended to placate leaders of the nationalist movement who had become increasingly vocal in demanding dominion status for India. The Nehru Report, 1928 prepared by the Indian National Congress clearly 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 a 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 dominion status became a common and forceful part of the vocabulary of the Indian political class. The Act contained terms like ‘self-governing’ and ‘responsible government’ which Indians felt were vague and ambiguous.
The Declaration was a five-line statement made 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, the Declaration made no mention of any timeline for this to happen.
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 of dominion status and attacked the Declaration. In India, nationalist leaders welcomed the Declaration and radically changed their manner of engagement with the British government: they now wanted all negotiations between India 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 seems clear that Lord Irwin himself intended his Declaration as merely a statement that was not meant to materialise any time in the near future; this was at odds with Indian political leaders who were adamant about the realisation of dominion status. 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.