ALL-PARTIES CONFERENCES (more aptly, ALL-PARTY CONFERENCES), a series of conventions which took place in 1928 bringing together representatives of various political parties and communities in India with a view to working out a mutually agreed formula for the country's constitutional advance in response to the invitation of the British government.
On 7 July 1925, Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, had, in a speech in the House of Lords, said : "Let them [the Indians] produce a constitution which carries behind it a fair measure of general agreement among the great people of India. Such a contribution to our problems would nowhere be resented. It would, on the contrary, be most carefully examined by the Government of India, by myself, and I am sure, by the commission, whenever that body may be assembled. " He repeated the statement at the time of the constitution, on 8 November 1927, of the Statutory Commission, better known as Simon Commission. The Indian National Congress at its annual session at Madrās in December 1927 authorized its Working Committee to confer with other parties and draft a Swarāj (self-government) constitution for India which should be placed before the All-Parties Conference to be held during early 1928. A large number of political parties and social organizations were invited to take part in the Conference which held its first meeting at Delhi on 12 February 1928. The Central Sikh League received the invitation as representative of the Sikhs. The League nominated Bābā Khaṛak Siṅgh, Sardār Bahādur Mehtāb Siṅgh, Master Tārā Siṅgh, Giānī Sher Siṅgh, Amar Siṅgh Jhabāl and Sardār Maṅgal Siṅgh to take part in the Conference.
Sharp differences on vital questions arose between the Muslim League on the one hand and the Hindu Mahā Sabhā and the Sikhs on the other during the first session of the All-Parties Conference held at Delhi on 12 February 1928 under the presidentship of Dr M. A. Ansārī. At the next session held on 19 May 1928, the Conference appointed a committee of ten members headed by Paṇḍit Motīlāl Nehrū to lay down broad principles which should serve as the basis for the new scheme. Maṅgal Siṅgh represented the Sikhs on the committee. The committee presented on 10 August 1928 a unanimous report known as the Nehrū Committee Report which was placed for review before the All-Parties Conference at Lucknow on 28-31 August 1928. The Report suggested Dominion Status for India; federal system of government with a strong centre; responsible executive; bicameral legislature at the Centre and unicameral ones in the provinces; adult franchise and joint electorates with reservation of seats proportionate to population for the Muslims in provinces where they were in a minority and for non-Muslims in the North West Frontier Province. There were no provisions made specifically for the Sikhs. The recommendations of the Nehrū Committee, as adopted at the All-Parties Conference at Lucknow, were to be placed before an All-Parties Convention which met at Calcutta in December 1928.
Maṅgal Siṅgh the sole Sikh member of the Nehrū Committee had signed the Report and put the seal of Sikhs' assent on its recommendations. Some other Sikh Congress leaders such as Sardūl Siṅgh Caveeshar and Amar Siṅgh Jhabāl supported the stand taken by Maṅgal Siṅgh, but Master Tārā Siṅgh, Giānī Sher Siṅgh and some other Akālī leaders were strongly opposed. They argued that their demand had been complete abolition of communal representation not only in the Punjab but all over the country. If communal representation was to be given to any minority community in any other province, the same concession should have been given the Sikh minority in the Punjab as well. The Report was considered at the annual session of the Central Sikh League at Gujrāṅwālā on 22 October 1928. Giving his presidential address extempore, Bābā Khaṛak Siṅgh said that the Report had sinned against the self-respect and dignity of India by limiting the national objective to Dominion Status. This meant that the people would have to fight twice over - first, to win Dominion Status and then, Swarāj or complete independence. The second point of Bābā Khaṛak Siṅgh's criticism was that the Nehrū Report had laid the foundation of communalism by accepting separate electorates. Giānī Sher Siṅgh sponsored the main resolution castigating the Report for acquiescing in the principle of communal representation. The resolution advocated a system of joint electorates with plural constituencies, adding that, if community-wise representation became inevitable, Sikhs should have at least 30 per cent of the seats in the Punjab legislature and the same proportion of representation from the Punjab in the Central legislature. Among other speakers were Sant Siṅgh of Lyallpur, Amar Siṅgh Jhabāl and Būṭā Siṅgh, Advocate. Maṅgal Siṅgh, who was a signatory to the Nehrū Report, told the conference that he had urged upon the committee that either communal representation be discarded altogether or that Sikhs' share be fixed at 30 per cent. Master Tārā Siṅgh said that the Sikhs wanted neither British rāj nor Muslim. He declared that, while working with the Congress, he would not flinch from laying down his life to secure the Sikhs their rights. The original resolution, disapproving of the Nehrū Report and its goal of Dominion Status and demanding 30 per cent seats for the Sikhs in case separate electorates were adopted, was carried by a large majority.
At the All-Parties Convention held at Calcutta commencing from 22 December 1928, Sikhs were represented by 30 delegates of the Central Sikh League, besides 8 members of the Nāmdhārī sect. Sardār Bahādur Mehtāb Siṅgh, speaking on behalf of the Sikh League on 29 December 1928, opposed the provision for reservation of seats in any province, adding that if the principle was to be accepted in the case of one community it should apply to others as well. At the following session (30 December), an amendment was moved on behalf of the Sikh League to the effect that communalism should not be made the basis of future policy in India in any shape or form and that the Nehrū Report be amended accordingly, but it was ruled out of order by the President, Dr M. A. Ansārī. Harnām Siṅgh read out a long prepared statement on behalf of the Sikh League, stressing the historical, economic and political importance of the Sikhs in the Punjab, and how they had been ignored in the Nehrū scheme. The Sikhs, he said, were prepared to make all sacrifices in the interest of the nation, provided communalism was completely expunged from the Indian body politic, but the communal principle was, on the contrary, the basis of the Nehrū Report. He declared that his party did not support the Report and would take no further part in the proceedings of the Convention. The delegates representing the Sikh League walked out of the Convention. Mahātmā Gāndhī while moving for adjournment of the Convention sine die remarked that personally he felt that justice had not been done to the Sikhs.
The disappointment of the Sikhs with Nehrū Committee Report and the All-Parties Conference drove even some progressive and nationalist sections of the community away from the Indian National Congress. The Sikh leaders planned a strategy which forced the Congress leadership not only to shelve the Nehrū Committee Report for good, but also to come to terms with the Sikhs who held a conference at Lahore at the end of December 1929 to coincide with the 44th annual session of the Congress to be held there under the presidentship of Paṇḍit Jawāharlāl Nehrū. Bābā Khaṛak Siṅgh, who presided over the Sikh conference, reiterated the Sikhs' determination not to let any single community establish its hegemony in Punjab. A resolution passed by the conference demanded that, if communal representation was to continue, the Sikhs should get 30 per cent share of the assembly seats in Punjab, with adequate provisions for the protection of their rights in other provinces.
The Sikh conference, and even more dramatically the mammoth Sikh march that preceded it, made a tremendous impact. Congress leaders led by Mahātmā Gāndhī came to meet Bābā Khaṛak Siṅgh and his colleagues and gave them the assurance that no political arrangement which did not give full satisfaction to the Sikhs would be accepted by the Indian National Congress.
K. S. Thāpar