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India (Drought In Bengal)

Volume 218: debated on Tuesday 21 April 1874

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Resolution

Selection Of Despatches

rose to move—

"That in the case of Abstracts and Summaries, such as the 'Abstract of Correspondence between the Government of India and the Secretary of State in Council relative to the drought in Bengal,' recently presented to Parliament without any guarantee as to the selection or editing of the contents, the name of the selector or editor shall he appended for the information of Parliament."
The hon. Member said, he could not help thinking this would be one means of insuring the bona fides of such abstracts and summaries, which were often over-carefully trimmed and edited. The Abstract of Correspondence between the Home and Indian Government, it had been generally observed, bore all the marks of having been carefully selected and prepared for a purpose. The Pall Mall Gazette had a leading article on the subject, pointing out that the practice of official editing was increasing and becoming dangerous. The Spectator remarked that an Abstract worse, or more carefully edited, had not recently come under its notice. It was above all things most important, at such a crisis, when a great calamity was impending over our fellow subjects in India, that public opinion should not be led in a wrong direction; but he was afraid it had been so led, and designedly. He did not wish to make more reference to debate-able matter in connection with the Indian Famine than was necessary; but it was known that two schemes of policy were under consideration and divided the supreme Government of India and the Bengal Government. There were two camps—one containing a large number of those old and experienced administrators in India who, being conversant with former famines and aware that the greatest efforts could alone deal successfully with the emergency, insisted that, if necessary, the entire force of the Imperial Government in India should be applied to stave off the famine; and in the other there were a number of gentlemen who—though no doubt equally willing to prevent disaster and equally sorry when that disaster turned out more serious than they had anticipated—did not rise to the height of the occasion, did not recognize the immensity of the disaster pending, and who, when the most vigorous measures were required, attempted to stop the famine by palliatives scarcely equal to alleviate the distress in a corner of the country. The despatches relating to this famine showed that Sir George Campbell, the; late Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, at the very first proposed that no more grain should be allowed to leave India. Lord North-brook trusted to private trade. A great many other propositions were made which were rejected by the Governor General, and though no doubt the Governor General had miscalculated the extent of the disaster, the Abstract presented to the House did not give them to understand that Sir George Campbell's policy was necessary for the occasion. Instead of being a fair and impartial summary of the state of affairs in India, the publication was what he might call in brief a Northbrook pamphlet, as it only showed one side of the ease, although the policy of the Viceroy had been entirely abandoned. On the 10th of November, 1873, a conference was hold at Calcutta House between the Governor General, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and a large number of Indian officials, when the question of the famine was fully gone into. During the whole of the discussion the Lieutenant Governor was prominent in recommending the most vigorous measures, while the Governor General was still unable to perceive the necessity for such measures. On the same clay the Lieutenant Governor wrote a remarkable letter pressing on he Government the measures to which he had called their attention; but the editor of the summary, in referring to that letter, said "it was written, it may be presumed, before the actual discussion at the conference." He could only interpret the words "it is presumed," as meaning that if Sir George Campbell had heard the cogent reasons of the Governor General he would not have written the letter; but this insinuation of the editor was contradicted by the fact that immediately after those reasons became known the Lieutenant. Governor followed up the policy he had already advocated by asking for a large advance of money on account of relief works. To this demand the Governor General replied on November 13 by a refusal. There could be no doubt that Sir George Campbell had been thoroughly alive to the severity of the crisis, and had been opposed in his schemes to remedy the evil; yet, from the account in the Abstract of a conference held at Government House, Calcutta, on the 8th of January, it appeared as if the Viceroy had been the prime mover and originator of everything that could possibly be necessary for the relief of the famine-stricken. In fact, one would think that but for the Viceroy, Sir George Campbell would have neglected the preparations which the crisis demanded. When it was remembered that two months previously Sir George Campbell had urgently besought the Supreme Government to take adequate measures, it did seem hard that all credit should be denied to him in this manner. There was another point to which he would direct attention, and in making these remarks he begged it to be understood that he was not discussing the policy of the Government of India, but was simply contending that the relative positions of the two Governments had not been fairly shown. The speech delivered by the Viceroy in reply to an address presented by the Municipality of Agra was described in the Abstract as "in the main a clear and forcible statement of facts and opinions which have already been collected and summarized." In point of fact, this speech of the Viceroy was of the most vague and generally optimist nature. "The Government had made every preparation"—"the Government had no apprehension"—"the Government were fully aware of the whole of the circumstances;"—such was the tenor of the observations; and by a sort of grim irony the official narrative of the dearth, drawn up at the time the speech was delivered, began with the remark that there was an "absence of any reliable information." On the one side it was stated that Government knew everything; on the other there was an admission that they were groping in the dark. He made no objection to the Viceroy's speech. Necessarily, being addressed to such an audience, it was of an optimist character, for it was important that no occasion should be given for a panic; but to bring it forward as a "clear and forcible statement of facts and opinions" was going a little too far. It was attaching importance to an utterly unimportant communication. There were distinct indications of an animus and bias in the publication to which he was drawing attention. Everyone who took an interest in Indian affairs and took a candid view of them, would have thought it only natural that in an Abstract of this nature some note should be taken and some specimens given of the highly important and weighty Minutes, anticipations, and estimates of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. Sir George Campbell's policy had been opposed by the Viceroy during the first two or three months of the Famine danger, and no doubt Lord Northbrook had thought that in taking this course he was working for the best; but, as a matter of fact, it was the policy of the Lieutenant Governor which was now followed, while that of the Viceroy, having presumably been found to be wrong, had been wholly abandoned. Although speaking from the Liberal benches, he had no hesitation in saying that nothing more fortunate had over happened to a population on the brink of a terrible distress than the appointment of the Marquess of Salisbury—a nobleman of high intelligence and masculine will—to be Secretary of State for India. With the accession of the Marquess of Salisbury a new era commenced in the treatment of the, Bengal Famine, and the policy of the new Secretary of State Lad been, in fact, a thorough adoption of that of Sir George Campbell, the late Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. In every respect the former policy of Lord Northbrook had been ordered to be given up—often in telegrams and despatches of singular insistence—by the present Secretary of State for India. Well, in the official publication there was not a single despatch from Sir George Campbell given in extenso. There were two despatches from the Duke of Argyll, in very guarded anodyne terms, acknowledging that Lord Northbrook was doing his best, and giving him full permission to do his best. Another document given in full was a Minute of the Viceroy giving his reasons for disapproving a prohibition of the export of grain. Now considering the great importance of that subject, it would surely have been well, when one side was given, to have given also some of the powerful statements of the Lieutenant Governor, so that Members of the House might be enabled to form a judgment for themselves. Another point to which he wished to allude was this, that at page 21 the Viceroy was represented as having alluded to the fact that every requisition and suggestion of the Government of Bengal had been complied with, except the prohibition of export." Now, considering Sir George Campbell demanded in November a great advance of money with a view to the immediate commencement of relief works, the scattering of relief houses broadcast over the land, and the distribution of grain within an easy distance of every village, and that this demand was positively refused by the Governor General, it did seem strange to find the Viceroy represented on the 23rd of January as having complied with every requisition and suggestion of the Government of Bengal. In one sense the words might be true, for the Viceroy, having discovered the utter inadequacy of his own policy, had found it necessary to adopt the great measures of relief proposed by Sir George Campbell, but the language of the Abstract conveyed the impression that there had been all along a hearty co-operation with the Lieutenant Governor. There was a minor matter—namely, the extraordinary style in which the Abstract was couched—to which it might be well to call the attention of the House. As much as possible, an Abstract ought to be a clear, dry, impartial summary, and any expression of opinion as to the importance of documents should be left entirely to the House. But the editor of this Abstract, trenching almost on the Privileges of the House, informed thou that such and such a document was "most important" and such another a "careful summary." Surely, it was not for an anonymous compiler or editor, or even any editor whatsoever, to suggest words of approval or reprehension for the adoption of Parliament. As a specimen of the style employed, the compiler stated that the Correspondence contained "a powerful letter from the Bengal Government." Who authorized him to say whether such a letter was powerful or not? It was little short of trenching upon the Privileges of that House to declare in what light they were to regard Papers which were to be subsequently submitted to their attention. In pages 10 and 17 similar expressions of opinion were to be found, and they were told that such a reply was "carefully prepared," and that such an address was "a clear and forcible statement." It would be some safe-guard against such a system if the House knew at least the name of the gentleman who had arrogated to himself such lofty functions, and it would be only due to his own sense of his importance that he should be required to put his name to his compilation. It was possible that if a man's name were brought forward he would be more cautious, both in the selection of the Papers and in the communication of his opinion of the importance of this or that document. He was perfectly willing to withdraw his Amendment if Members having greater experience could suggest some other means by which his object could be gained. Something, however, was necessary to re-assure the House and the country, and to restore a sense of confidence that Abstracts of this kind had not been tampered with. It was clear that departmental responsibility had not been sufficient to prevent excesses of this kind. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That in the case of Abstracts and Summaries, such as the Abstract of Correspondence between the Government of India and the Secretary of State in Council relative, to the Drought in Bengal,' recently presented to Parliament without any guarantee as to the selection or editing of the contents, the name of the selector or editor shall he appended for the information of Parliament."'—(Mr. O'Donnell.)

said, he did not see much objection to the Motion, and if the hon. Member would consent to strike out the four words "such as the Abstract" he should offer no opposition to the Resolution. He had, however listened with astonishment to the speech of the hon. Gentleman he had stated in plain language that, in consequence of no signature being attached to this Abstract of Correspondence, the India Office had trimmed and selected it for the purpose of loading the public to a wrong conclusion, and that it was not an impartial statement, but showed an animus and bias. This was strong language for any Member of that House to use, and before bringing forward such a charge against a public department, he ought to have availed himself of all the information within his reach. It was clear, however, that the hon. Member had not read the despatches from which the Abstract was made, for they were only published that morning; yet, not having read the original despatches, he declared the Abstract compiled from them to be garbled. He doubted whether the hon. Member had even read the Abstract with any care. His whole objection to it was that it was not signed; but if the hon. Member would look to the close of the Abstract he would see that it was signed—to use his own classic phrase—by the distinguished appellation of Sir Henry Anderson, the chief of the India Revenue Department. The present Government had nothing to do with the policy of Lord Northbrook and Sir George Campbell as originally proposed. When the Marquess of Salisbury came into office there was but one scheme before the India Office, and he felt it to be his duty to support it, because he believed that it was capable of saving the lives of many thousands who were seeking relief. If that scheme succeeded, there would be ample time afterwards to decide to whom the merit of having originated the scheme was due. He would not detain the House by contradicting the statements of the hon. Gentleman; but they were founded upon a complete misapprehension—namely, that no person had signed this Abstract, and that in consequence a licence had been taken which otherwise the head of the Department would not have allowed. Sir Henry Anderson, who had signed the Abstract, was a most distinguished public servant, and he was also an intimate friend of Sir George Campbell. He could, therefore, be implicitly trusted to make a fair and impartial Abstract of the despatches between the India Office and the Government of India. He could not conceive that a public Department would knowingly publish an unfair Abstract of Correspondence when they knew that the despatches themselves were to be laid upon the Table of the House a few days afterwards. The Marquess of Salisbury was most anxious to afford all information to the House of Commons and to the country at large upon the subject of the famine, and he directed Sir Henry Anderson to continue the Abstract, which had been commenced before he came into office, because it was impossible to publish within a few days so great a pile of despatches, and he wished the public to have the substance of the information without delay. The course taken by the Marquess of Salisbury would, he trusted, commend itself to the House. He did not think it necessary to enter into the merits of the measures adopted by the Indian Government. The hon. Gentleman would have an opportunity of reply; and he (Lord George Hamilton) hoped he would take the opportunity of withdrawing the charges he had made, not only against the India Office, but also against a distinguished public servant like Sir Henry Anderson.

Amendment proposed, in line 2, to leave out the words "such as the 'Abstract.'"—( Lord George Hamilton.)

joined in the hope that the unpleasant charge against Sir Henry Anderson would be withdrawn, and bore testimony to the honourable character and good service of that distinguished public servant as a thorough guarantee to the House for the fidelity and trustworthy nature of the summaries of the Correspondence relating to the Famine. A more difficult task could not be assigned to anyone than that of placing before the House an exact and unobjectionable Abstract of the views about the Famine—so variously expressed by the many authorities who had recorded opinions—and tried to give facts which, though correct one day, were gain-said the next day by the ever-changing phases of the condition of the people. He deprecated any premature discussion on the Indian Famine, for the simple reason that if no greater evils than those at present known fell on the people, we had little to complain of; but he feared, from the alarming news recently received, that still greater calamities were to be apprehended next June, July, and August. This opinion was founded on the experience gained in the great famine of 100 years ago, when one-third of the population of Bengal were its victims. That famine was anticipated, owing to failure in the rains, as early as September, while this was not seen until November, whereby two months were lost in making more timely preparation to lay in stock's of grain. The population, which was then 10,000,000, had now increased to 60,000,000; and, judging from the information as to the extent of cultivation existing at the end of last century, the land set apart for raising rice was double the area of the land at present stated to be under this cultivation. But in respect to statistics, he was sorry to say that the Permanent Settlement had cut oft from the Government, or prevented the Government from collecting those useful statistics regarding the people and agriculture of Bengal, which could be obtained from all other parts of India.

said, that in the course of his speech he did his utmost to avoid imputing anything improper to any person; but, at the same time, men of the most honourable private character would, under the influence of strong party feeling, put forth statements to which legitimate objection might be taken. Nevertheless, respect for private virtue ought not to blind Members to what caused inconvenience to the public. Of course, he did not challenge the statement that the signature of Sir Henry Anderson at a certain page of the Abstract carried with it editorial responsibility. For all that, there had really appeared to be no clue to the person who was responsible for the compilation of these Abstracts. Sir Henry Anderson's signature seemed purely to refer to an isolated tabular Return of exports, and the presumption that this was the case was strengthened by the circumstance of the tabular Return in question emanating from the Revenue Department, of which Sir Henry Anderson was the Secretary. The noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for India had not given a single reason against the Motion; but he had resorted to a line of argument which it was difficult to reply to by appealing to the private virtue of officials, which was tantamount to closing a Member's mouth. If he had stated anything incorrectly, the vast experience of the noble Lord, and his knowledge of the despatches themselves, would have enabled him to point out the inaccuracy; but the noble Lord had limited himself entirely to a personal matter—namely, the great respectability of Sir Henry Anderson, which was not a fair way of putting pressure on a Member, He attached comparatively slight importance to the technical success of his Motion, and believing that publicity was the best correction of the practices of which he had complained, he was prepared to accept the alteration proposed by the noble Lord in the terms of the Motion.

said, if the Motion were altered as proposed, there would be very little sense in it.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question." put, and negatived.

Main Question, as amended, put, and negatived.