Currently the Supreme Court of India is hearing a very important case pertaining to Indian Parliament’s decision to abrogate article 370 of Indian Constitution that had given special powers and privileges to state of Jammu and Kashmir. While making his submission Senior Advocate Rakesh Dwivedi in early of part his speech (full speech is available on YouTube) made a reference to Atlantic Charter (around 90 second mark). To be honest, the mention of Atlantic Charter was a surprise but what is not a surprise is very little media coverage this got. Why was I surprised with mention of Atlantic Charter in the Supreme Court? The answer is very simple. It finds very little reference or mention in popular history in India. This includes newspapers, magazines and even history textbooks. So, before we go any further, lets understand what Atlantic Charter and its significance is on shaping the world after World War 2 including formation of current institutions like United Nations.

Atlantic Charter was a joint statement issued by British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR). This statement was issued on August 14, 1941. One important and nuanced point to note here is … this statement was issued about 4 months before bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan (this attack is considered America’s “official” entry in World War 2). The Atlantic charter had 8 clauses. From India’s standpoint, 3rd clause called “Right to Self- Determination” was very important. Most historians agree that this provided hope to British colonies that their freedom could be achieved. After this news reached India’s shore, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill made it clear that this clause did not apply to British rule in India.

For President Roosevelt right to self-determination was a guiding principle. He disagreed with British Prime Minister Churchill with regards to India’s independence. According to some media reports, FDR insisted on India’s independence as one of the pre-conditions for America’s involvement in WW2. However, while Churchill was adamantly against extending the principles of the charter to Britain’s colonies, President Roosevelt wanted Britain to commit to decolonization. Captain Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son and military aide, was present in those meetings and has described these conversations in his book, “As He Saw It”.  Accounts from the book and declassified documents do show FDR had continued concerns over British Governments treatment of India.

On Memorial Day 1942 (Monday May 25, 1942) America’s Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. His closing remarks were –

“If this war is in fact a war for the liberation of peoples it must assure the sovereign equality of peoples throughout the world, as well as in the world of the Americas. Our victory must bring in its train the liberation of all peoples. Discrimination between peoples because of their race, creed or color must be abolished. The age of imperialism is ended. The right of a people to their freedom must be recognized, as the civilized world long since recognized the right of an individual to his personal freedom. The principles of the Atlantic Charter must be guaranteed to the world as a whole-in all oceans and in all continents. And so, in the fullness of God’s time when the victory is won, the people of the United States will once more be afforded the opportunity to play their part in the determination of the kind of world in which they will live. With courage and with vision they can yet secure the future safety of their country and of its free institutions and help the nations of the earth back into the paths of peace. Then, on some future Memorial Day, the American people, as they mark the graves of those who died in battle for their country in these last two World Wars, can at last truly say-“Sleep on in quiet and in peace; the victory you made it possible for us to win has now been placed at the service of your country and of humanity; your sacrifice has not been made in vain.”

The reference to end of imperialism was very much about British rule and independence of its various colonies in Asia and Africa. In my opinion America’s role in India’s freedom struggle is not discussed enough. Starting from Gadhar movement (which lead to rise of Sardar Jawala Singh aka Potato King) in Gurudwaras of California to FDR putting pressure on British Government, there have been significant contributions. Hopefully, one day this wrong would be corrected. As India and America get closer in 21st century, it’s important to highlight these historical ties to put relationship between world’s oldest and largest democracy in context. This would help future generations understand this collaboration has been about democratic values and not about outsourcing for cheap labor!

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