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Commonwealth of Nations Comprises One-Fourth of the World’s Population

BY Venkat Pulapaka July 7, 2019
Commonwealth of Nations poster.

A 1941 Poster depicting seven representatives from the Commonwealth Armed Forces. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-1523)

The Commonwealth of Nations, or simply the Commonwealth, is a political association of 53 member nations that focuses on inter-governmental issues. It has a Secretariat that focuses on non-governmental relations between the different member nations. India is one of the independent member nations of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth came into existence in 1949 and since then various independent nations from Africa (19), the Americas (13), Asia (7), Europe (3) and the Pacific (11) have joined the association.

The roots of the Commonwealth

The roots of the Commonwealth, one of the oldest political associations in the world, go back to the British Empire. At one time or the other, some of these nations became self-governing but retained Britain’s monarch as Head of State. For example, Australia and Canada. 

However, two of the independent nation members of the Commonwealth, Rwanda and Mozambique, never had any historical ties with the British Empire. Therefore, membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation and nothing else.

The Commonwealth of Nations is 70 years old today. It came into existence following the signing of the London Declaration on 26 April 1949. And as such, various organizations of the Commonwealth are celebrating the 70th Anniversary with a series of events.

To know more on the formation of the Commonwealth of Nations and its impact over the last seven decades, let’s take a peek into its colonial legacy.

Commonwealth of Nations purpose

a. To provide economic assistance among the member countries.
b. To strengthen and promote democracy in the member countries.
c. To safeguard and ensure that human rights are being embraced in the member countries.

The Balfour Declaration in 1926

The origins of the association go back to the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1926. The Imperial Conference of British Empire leaders had signed and announced the declaration in 1926.

Arthur Balfour had drafted the declaration and it was approved by the other members of the first Inter-Imperial Relations Committee. As Arthur Balfour was the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the declaration was named after him.

Arthur Balfour

Arthur Balfour. (George Grantham Bain)

Other member nations of the committee include the then South Africa Prime Minister J. B. M. Hertzog, Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King, Walter Stanley Monroe of Newfoundland, Joseph Gordon Coates MC* PC of New Zealand, Stanley Melbourne Bruce of Australia, William Thomas Cosgrave of Irish Fine Gael,  and Stanley Baldwin of the UK.

As per the declaration, the United Kingdom and its Dominions will be autonomous communities within the British Empire. They will be equal in status with respect to their domestic or external affairs. But they would be united by a common allegiance to the Crown.

In 1931, the Balfour Declaration was adopted into law with the 1931 Statue of Westminster.

The London Declaration in 1949

Later in 1949, the London Declaration was adopted after deliberation for six days in London by the heads of the governments from India, Pakistan, Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

The London Declaration was bold and innovative for the first time. It said the British Crown would be ‘the symbol’ of the Commonwealth. However, India could remove the Crown as their head of state, but recognise it as the head of the Commonwealth.

The Declaration stress on equality and freedom of its member nations in all respects and in the process the prefix British was removed from the title.

Nehru’s role in India joining the Commonwealth

In an article titled ‘India’s membership of the Commonwealth – Nehru’s role’, writer Y Rafeek Ahmed said a political storm arose in India at that time after India decided to join the Commonwealth even after proclaiming itself a republic.

The political storm was expected as the decision came after leading nationalists before independence had denounced and rejected the idea of a Commonwealth, Rafeek Ahmed said. That included Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

During the 1930s and early 40s, Nehru was one of those leaders who had slammed the British Commonwealth. It was, therefore, simply presumed that Nehru as the first prime minister of an independent India would keep the nation away from the British Commonwealth.

However, thanks to India, the London Declaration once for all ended the British Commonwealth of Nations as the association had to accommodate the constitutional changes in India. Nehru’s India informed to all governments in the Commonwealth that under the new constitution the country would become a sovereign independent republic.

However, the Indian government affirmed its desire to continue its full membership of the Commonwealth. It also said the Crown of England can remain the symbol of the free association of independent countries.

In the 1960s, India pulled away from the Commonwealth of Nations

But, in the 1960s, India started to pull away from the Commonwealth of Nations. At the same time, the whole character of the whole organization transformed due to major developments. During that time, several African countries joined the Commonwealth. At the same time, issues pertaining to South Africa and Rhodesia plagued the Commonwealth.

At this stage, most of the African countries wanted India to aggressively support their continent’s anti-colonial agenda. However, leaders in Indian restrained itself from playing an active role in the African issue. Indian leaders like Indira Gandhi believed India’s involvement may cause resentment among the African nations.

In the 1970s, a shift in India’s foreign policy

In the 1970s, the Indian foreign policy paid more focus on bilateral and/or regional security issues. As a result, the relationship between India and the Commonwealth became lesser and lesser.

However, not so surprisingly, the nature of the Commonwealth started to take on an economic dimension. Over time, this trend increased in its proportion. Also, it was during this period, the Commonwealth’s aid to India almost doubled between 1965 and 1971.

With the end of the Cold War, the 1990s witnessed systemic changes in the preoccupations of India. It shifted its focus on friendly ties with the United States. At the same time, India wanted to expand its economic relations with various trade groups in Asia. As a result, the Indian had little interest in the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth of Nations members

With a view to handle the growing demands from the 53 members of the association, a Commonwealth Secretariat was inaugurated in 1965.

At last count, the following are the member nations of the Commonwealth –

Africa: Botswana, Cameroon, Gambia, The Ghana, Kenya, Kingdom of eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia.

Asia: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

Caribbean and Americas: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, The Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and The Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Europe: Cyprus, Malta, and United Kingdom.

Pacific: Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Commonwealth comprises one-fourth of the world’s population

Thus, the Commonwealth of Nations comprises one-fourth of the world’s population. It also extends over all the continents. The Commonwealth nations are, therefore, linked together by ties of common purpose, friendship and common endeavour.

In this connection, there are various Commonwealth organizations to deal with diverse activities like trade negotiations, women’s leadership, small business sector, youth participation and laws.

To handle all these activities and in addition to the Commonwealth Secretariat, there are organizations like the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) and Commonwealth Foundation.

Commonwealth is a time-tested forum

The Commonwealth is, therefore, a time-tested and a valuable forum on the global stage. As such it has a lot to gain from India’s growing global stature. Sadly though, several political leaders from India have failed to attend Commonwealth’s summits, either deliberately or otherwise.

With several alternative forums address the same values as that of the Commonwealth, it has not found favour with India.

Modi at CHOGM in 2018

It is in this context that in 2017, Prince Charles invited India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the biennial of CHOGM. Because India is a key contributor to the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Kingdom hopes that it will be a valuable partner to Britain.

Modi did attend the meeting. Obviously, this increased India’s diplomatic visibility.

Both England and India are at two divergent stages. At a time when England is trying hard to pull out of the European Union, it is attempting to strengthen its relations with the various members of the Commonwealth, especially India.

While India, though strong on the geopolitical theatre, it is at a crossroads on the economic front. Therefore, both the countries need each other to first stabilize, consolidate and sustain at the same time. In this context, it becomes imperative for both countries to strengthen their relationships.

Key to reinventing the Commonwealth

As academic MS Rajan once said the key to reinventing the Commonwealth lies in the hands of prominent member states to make the organization dynamic and purposeful.

This surely offers India an opportunity. Consequently, India can lead a revitalization process and ensure that the Commonwealth would emerge as a pole in a non-hegemonic order.

Now, with the return of the NDA government at the centre, the Narendra Modi government in India is likely to increase its involvement in the Commonwealth.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “The Baltic Way: When Two Million People Formed a Human Chain, Demanding Freedom“.

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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