Thus the British Monarch held the technical position of the head of each State. There were also some substantive matters in regard to which the other members of the Commonwealth looked towards the United Kingdom for leadership. These were trade and other economic relations, defence and foreign relations.
There has now been a change in regard to the position of the British monarch as well as these substantive matters. This was the result of the entry of a large number of non-white countries into the Commonwealth. There are now 53 members in the Commonwealth and majority among them are from Asia, Africa and the American hemisphere. South Africa joined as the 53rd member.
The Charter of Commonwealth began to change when India and Pakistan became its members in 1947. This was very soon followed by other Asian countries like Ceylon (Sri Lanka, later), Malaysia and Singapore. On March 6, 1957 Ghana became the first independent African member.
With the winds of change in Africa which brought independence and membership of the Commonwealth to many countries of that continent, the Charter of the Commonwealth also changed. By 1977, more than one-third of the members of the association of the Commonwealth which numbered 36 were African.
It was Nehru who made a substantial contribution to the new nomenclature of the Commonwealth and gave a new form which was indicative of the substance. He insisted on two points:
(1) The name “British” should be dropped. It should be known only as the Commonwealth.
(2) Any member, if it so desires, can become a republic and instead of the governor-general appointed by, and owing allegiance to, the Crown, a president bound by the country’s constitution can be its formal head.
After some resistance, the white members of the Commonwealth including the United Kingdom accepted the change. If such changes had taken place earlier, Burma would not have left the Commonwealth. This innovation made possible entry into the Commonwealth of a vast number of newly independent countries of Africa.
This was not merely a change in the name. Nehru’s success in this field was symbolic of that of the Asian-African States who gradually asserted their independent position in many fields. The most important among them was the exclusion of the Union of South Africa from the Commonwealth.
On the matter of discrimination based on racial distinction, even the United Nations only went so far as to make a recommendation against it. The Commonwealth made it clear that the Union of South Africa had no place inside it, if it continued the racial discrimination. It was no more an association dominated by the Anglo-Saxons.
The communique issued by Commonwealth Prime Ministers on April 28, 1949 explained the developments connected with it: “The Government of India had informed the other governments of the Commonwealth of the declared intention of the Indian people that under the new Constitution which is about to be adopted, India shall become a sovereign republic.
The Government of India has, however, declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King / Queen as the symbol of the free association of independent member-nations and as such the head of Commonwealth.
The governments of the other countries of the Commonwealth, the basis of whose membership of the Commonwealth hereby changes, accept and recognise India’s continuing membership in accordance with this declaration.”
The process set in motion by India at that time has crystallized now. As Peter Balvocaresse, a British scholar’ notes, “This was a revolutionary step.
Without it the expanding post-war Commonwealth, with its strong republican tendencies, could not have taken shape. The independence of each member of the British family of nations has been accepted for a generation, but none has so far consistently pursued a foreign policy which ran counter to that of Britain. This Nehru set out to do, without impairing his good and continued relations with London, but once more he was substantially successful.”