ROUND TABLE CONFERENCES, held in London during 1930-32, were a series of high level meetings attended by representatives of the British government, rulers of Indian princely states and leaders of public opinion in British India to discuss proposals for introducing further constitutional reforms in India on the basis of the Simon Commission's report. The adjectival term ‘round table', reminding one of the Arthurian legends, has been defined as "pertaining to a conference, discussion or deliberation in which each participant has equal status." In 1909 a small group of British imperialists known as the English Round Table Group was formed with the object of bringing about a closer union of the self-governing sections of the British empire such as Canada, Australia and other white dominions. Not much concerned in the beginning with non-white dependencies such as India, they were impressed by Indian contribution towards the imperial defence effort at the outbreak of the World War in 1914. From 1915 onwards the Round Table Group became deeply involved in the consideration of radical changes in Indo British relationship. In fact, the idea of "Responsible Government in India," hailed as the crucial expression in the British declaration of 20 August 1917, originally emanated from a member of this group. The Government of India Act, 1919, embodying what are generally called the Montagu-Chelmsford (Montford for short) Reforms, was broadly based on a scheme prepared by the Round Table Group as early as 1916.
The Government of India Act, 1919, had provided for the appointment of a Royal Commission at the end of-ten years to go into the working of the Reforms and make recommendations for the future political se-tup. However, in view of the intensification of political unrest in India, the date was advanced and a statutory commission consisting of Sir John Simon (1873-1954) and six other members of British Parliament was appointed on 8 November 1927. The exclusion of any Indian from it caused resentment in India and almost all political parties decided to boycott it. The Commission nevertheless visited India during 1928 and submitted its report to British Parliament in May 1929. The report, published on 7 June 1930, besides making several proposals as a basis for a new constitution for India, recommended that the proposals be discussed in a conference of representatives of the British Government and those of India. Accordingly, the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, announced on 31 October 1929 a Round Table Conference comprising representatives of British India and of the Indian states. All communities and interests and political parties, except the Indian National Congress, agreed to participate in it. Sardār Ujjal Siṅgh and Sardār Sampūran Siṅgh, both members of the Punjab Legislative Council, represented the Sikhs.
The first Round Table Conference was inaugurated by the King-Emperor at a public session in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords on 12 November 1930. It was attended by 16 members from Britain, 16 from Indian States and 57 from British India. After debating for five days the question whether the future constitution of India should be on a federal or unitary basis, the Conference set up nine sub-committees to deal with subjects such as federal and provincial structure, minorities, franchise, defence and services. The work of these sub-committees, with the exception of the one on minorities, proceeded more or less smoothly. The Minorities Committee, a body of 39 members (of whom 33 were Indian), with the British prime minister as chairman, was unanimous that "the new constitution should contain provisions designed to assure minority communities that their interests would not be prejudiced," but there was no consensus on how to do it. In the concluding meeting of this sub-committee, the Sikh representative, Ujjal Siṅgh, while regretting that a satisfactory solution to the intricate minorities problem had eluded them, said that "the main political power in the provinces is going to pass from the British to the majority community. The minority has, therefore, natural apprehensions. What is recognised is that the communal feeling is not extinct and the communal principle is bound to remain a part and parcel of the Constitution. The majority, therefore, should be generous to the minorities. Let the minorities feel that they have a sense of security and that they are fully protected." On 19 January 1931, when the Conference was adjourned sine diu, the British prime minister remarked, "You must agree amongst yourselves... an imposed agreement might make your constitution unworkable.”
On the return of the delegates to India, Sir Tej Bahādur Saprū and Dr M.R. Jayakar endeavoured to bring about a rapproachement between the Government and the Indian National Congress. As a result of the Gāndhī Irwin Pact signed on 5 March 1931, the Congress agreed to participate in the Round Table Conference through its sole representative, M.K. Gāndhī. The second session of the Conference was held from 7 September to 1 December 1931. The main hurdle again was a deadlock in the minorities Committee on the question of reservation of seats for minority communities. While the Muslim representatives insisted on having separate electorates on communal basis, Mahātmā Gāndhī strongly opposed separate reservation for the depressed classes. The Sikh representatives pointed out that while "Taking India as a whole the Muhammadans are certainly a strong minority, there are three or four other minorities—the Sikhs, the Europeans, the Christians and the Depressed classes—whose rights have to be protected... It will not bring a solution nearer if the Hindus and the Muhammadans alone are to negotiate. They cannot negotiate for all minorities, nor can the settlement be arrived at without adjusting the claims of other important minorities." The Sikh representatives said that they were opposed to reservation of seats by law for the majority community in the Punjab. For the Sikhs, they demanded 30% representation in the Punjab Legislative Assembly and one-third share in the Punjab Cabinet and the Provincial Public Service Commission. Alternatively, they demanded the boundaries of the Punjab altered by transferring predominantly Muslim areas to the North-West Frontier Province so as to produce a communal balance in the remaining Punjab which should then have joint electorates with no reservation of seats. If neither of these alternatives was accepted, the Punjab, they proposed, be administered by the Central Government until mutual agreement on the communal question was arrived at. They demanded that Punjabi should be the official language in the Punjab, with the option to use Gurmukhī script in writing it. Government should provide facilities for teaching Punjabi, in Gurmukhī script, where certain fixed number of students opted for it. At the centre the Sikhs should be given 5% of total seats reserved for British India in either house of legislature; at least one seat in the Cabinet; adequate representation in the All-India services and on the central public service commission. Proportion of the Sikhs in the army be maintained at the pre-war level and they should be adequately represented in the Army Council when constituted. Sikhs living in other provinces should have the same weightage as given to other minorities. Residuary powers should vest in the Central Government which should declare religious neutrality and should have special responsibility to protect the minorities. Safeguards guaranteed for the Sikhs in the Constitution should not be rescinded or modified without their express consent.
The Round Table Conference was again adjourned sine die on 1 December 1931. In his closing speech in the plenary session, the British prime minister declared that the British Government's policy favoured central responsibility on a federal basis, subject to transitional reservations and safeguards, and provincial autonomy in British India. Admitting the failure of the Conference to evolve an agreed solution of the Minorities' question, he announced that the British Government would supply a provisional scheme in order that the constitutional progress might not be held up.
The British prime minister announced his Award on 16 August 1932. It provided for separate communal electorates for Muhammadan, European and Sikh voters, and clubbed the Depressed Classes with the 'general' constituency with reservation of special seats for them. The Sikhs were given representation much below their expectations 19% in the Punjab, 6% in the North-West Frontier Province and 2.5 % in the Central legislature. What especially irked the Sikhs, who had all along opposed the domination of any single community in the Punjab, was the 51.4% reservation for Muhammadans giving them permanent statutory majority in the province. The Sikhs also got no representation in the United Provinces and Sindh. As a protest both the Sikh delegates resigned their membership of the Round Table Conference and of its sub-committees.
The third and final session of the Conference, held from 17 November to 24 December 1932, was a tame affair. Only 46 delegates attended. The Indian National Congress again boycotted it. So did the representative Sikh organizations, although the government managed to secure the presence of two Sikh advocates, Tārā Siṅgh of Mogā and Būṭā Siṅgh of Sheikhūpurā. At the Conference, they put forth proposals not dissimilar from those of their predecessors. The Round Table Conference yielded no consensus and the British Government introduced its own scheme in the form of Government of India Act, 1935, which was framed generally on the lines suggested by the Simon Commission.
Ajīt Siṅgh Sarhadī