The First World War, the rapid growth of the revolutionary activities, and the popularity of the Home Rule Movement had their combined impact on the British Government, which decided to effect a change in its policies and adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the demands of the Indian nationalists. On July 12, 1917 Edwin Montagu, during a debate in the House of Commons, made a scathing indictment of the whole system by which India was governed. He further supported the India claim for a greater say in managing their government.
Shortly thereafter, Montagu was appointed the Secretary of State of India. He had sympathized with the aspirations of the people of India and as such can be compared with persons like Lord Pethick Lawrence and Sir Stafford Cripps. He brought a new outlook to his office. When the fortunes of the Allies were at their lowest ebb, he made the following declaration on August 20, 1917, “The policy of His Majesty’s Government, with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-government institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” They have decided that substantial steps in this direction should be taken as soon as possible and that it is of the highest importance as a preliminary to considering what these steps should be that there should be a free and informal exchange of opinion between those in authority at Home and in India. His Majesty’s Government have accordingly decided, with His Majesty’s approval, that I should accept the Viceroy’s invitation to proceed to India to discuss these matters with the viceroy and the Government of India to consider with the Viceroy the views of local Governments, and to receive with him the suggestion of representative bodies and others.
“I would add that progress in this policy can only be achieved by successive stages. The British Government and the Government of India on whom the responsibility lies for the welfare and advancement of Indian people must be judges of the time and measure of each advance and they must be guided by the co-operation received from those upon whom new opportunities of service will be conferred and by the extent to which it is found that confidence can be reposed in the sense of responsibility.”
The importance of the declaration lies in the fact that it started in categorical terms as to what exactly was going to be the goal of the British Government in India. It can be put on the same footing as the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858. While the authors of the Report on the Indian Constitutional Reforms regarded it as “the most momentous utterance ever made in India’s chequered history” which marked “the end of one epoch and the beginning of a new one.” Pradhan declared that it was a “revolutionary pronouncement.” To quote him again, “With the announcement of August 20, 1917, modern India has entered on a new era in her history.”
According to G.N.Singh, the August Declaration “created once again a division in the ranks of Indian Nationalists. The Moderates welcomed the declaration as the ‘Magna Carta of India‘. The Extremists, on the other hand, regarded the announcement as unsatisfactory both in language and substance and decided to continue agitation both for the release of the internees and for the better recognition of Indian claims and aspirations.” Tilak characterized the Montagu Declaration as ‘a sunless dawn’.