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Government Policy: Parliamentary Delegation

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 12 April 1945

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I desire to make the following statement with regard to India.

The statement made by the Viceroy, after his return to India, contemplates the steps which His Majesty's Government propose should be taken to promote the early realisation of full self-government in India. The full significance of these proposals does not seem to have been properly appreciated in India. Since it is the firm conviction of His Majesty's Government that it is by and in consultation with the directly elected representatives of the Indian people, that decisions as to the future governance of British India should be taken, it was a necessary preliminary that elections should be held to the Provincial Legislatures and the Central Assembly in India. It was announced that after the elections in India, preparatory discussions would be held with the elected representatives of British India, and with the Indian States, in order to secure the widest measure of agreement as to the method of framing a constitution. Unjustified suggestions have gained wide currency in India that these discussions would be a fruitful source of delay. I desire to make it plain that His Majesty's Government regard the setting up of a constitution-making body, by which Indians will decide their own future and also other proposals embodied in the announcement, as a matter of the greatest urgency.

This misunderstanding has led His Majesty's Government to consider whether opportunities of personal contact between this country and India, which have been greatly interrupted during recent years, cannot now be increased. They regard it is a matter of importance that members of our own Parliament should have an opportunity to meet leading political Indian personalities, to learn their own views at first hand. They would also be able to convey in person the general wish and desire of the people of this country that India should speedily attain her full and rightful position as an independent partner State in the British Commonwealth, and the desire of Parliament to do everything within our power to promote the speedy attainment of that objective. His Majesty's Government are, therefore, arranging for a Parliamentary delegation to go to India under the auspices of the Empire Parliamentary Association. The intention is that this party should leave this country as soon as possible. In view of the difficulties of transport, it will be limited in size. The delegation will be selected by the Association in consultation with Parliamentary representatives of the chief political parties in this country.

During the transition towards complete self-government India will be passing through difficult times. No greater disservice could be done to a future Indian Government and to the cause of democracy than to permit the foundations of the State to be weakened and the loyalty of its servants to those who are in authority to be undermined before that new Government comes into being. Therefore the Government of India cannot divest itself of the responsibility which rests upon it and upon all Provincial Government of preserving law and order and of resisting any attempt to resolve the constitutional issue by force. The realisation of full self-government can only come by the orderly and peaceful transfer of control of the machinery of State to purely Indian authority. His Majesty's Government could not permit any attempt to be made to break down the loyalty of the administrative services or of the Indian armed forces, and they will give full support to the Government of India in securing that their servants are protected in the performance of their duty and that the future constitution of India shall not be called into being by force or threat of force. In addition, the great need of India, whatever Governments are in power, is to raise the standard of life, of education, and of health of the masses of the people. Boldly conceived plans to meet this are already in being and His Majesty's Government are giving every encouragement to proceed with them so that improving social conditions may go forward simultaneously with the institution of self-government.

The right hon. Gentleman has just made a statement, the terms of which I have no doubt have been very carefully considered, and rightly so, by His Majesty's Government. I am sure he will understand me if I say that my right hon. Friends and I would like a little time to look at them before making any comment upon them, as I daresay will other hon. Members also. However, I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question or two on a point in the statement which is not quite clear to me, and that is, what are to be the functions of this Parliamentary delegation? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware there have been many such delegations at differ- ent times to Dominions and to Colonies of the British Empire, but all those delegations, I think, have been entirely unofficial. Is this delegation to be on the same lines? I presume that it is. Is it to differ in any way from these other delegations that have gone out from here before? If so, how is it to differ, and is it to make a report? If so, to whom is it to make a report? I think those things ought to be cleared up so that there may be no danger of misunderstanding in India about the functions of any delegation of this kind. Finally, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I wholly endorse what he said at the conclusion of his statement, that no force, or threat of force, can ever be a possible basis for the development of self-government in India, and we would also endorse his statement about the standard of living and the need for improvement in that respect.

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. With regard to the first part of what he said, this is an Empire Parliamentary Association delegation. Nevertheless, I think it would foe in a rather special category. As I conceive it, one of its purposes would be first of all to convey the good will of the British Parliament, and also to make contacts, to get information, and to assess the situation. I would hope that upon its return, Mr. Speaker, you might give it an opportunity of conferring with His Majesty's Government in order to express its views and impressions. At that point we could consider what further action should be taken. In that sense, it is rather exceptional, but we should certainly wish to have the advantage of the views and opinions and impressions of the delegates on their return.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, is not this conferring on the Empire Parliamentary Association a status somewhat different from what it has held in the past? After all, it is only a voluntary association.

That is perfectly true, but, on the other hand, there is an active branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association in India. The Association has a good many contacts, and we thought that it was a convenient arrangement. That was the reason why we thought the Empire Parliamentary Association would provide suitable auspices.

I wonder if I might ask the right hon. Gentleman to give further consideration to the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Max-ton). This is, I think, a complete departure from any previous practice. I think, if the Government will look at the matter, they will find that all other visits have been made in response to invitations from the Dominions concerned, and I should have thought, if the Government's object is something more than a good-will mission, as it appears to be, they might be wiser to send out a mission representative—if it were agreed—of all parties in this House under the auspices of the Government rather than to stretch this Empire Parliamentary Association into a role it has never had before.

That will, of course, not affect the position of the delegation, as far is I can see, because it was proposed, in any case, that the delegation should be chosen after consultation with the principal Parliamentary political parties, and therefore it comes, in that sense, very much to the same thing. However, if there is any general or widespread feeling in the House that they would like the Government to confer through the usual channels, as to the particular status of the delegation, I would certainly be willing to receive and consider representations on that.

Whilst thanking the right hon. Gentleman for that, may I ask him to bear in mind that there is also the position in India to be considered? It is very important that we should not raise false hopes of the functions of this commission in India. Therefore, if it goes under Government auspices, it could have terms of reference approved by this House and there would be no room for misunderstandings.

I do not want any misunderstandings. I do not conceive it as a commission. I do not conceive it as having particular terms of reference. I do not think so. I quite agree that one does not want to give any false impressions in India. This is considered to be a useful visit which will make contacts, and will, let us hope, sweeten relations between this Parliament and India, and enrich the knowledge of Parliament itself but, at the end of the day, obviously the responsibility for policy must rest upon His Majesty's Government responsible to Parliament and this country.

Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would not consider again the advisability of a deputation going from this House, not in the nature of a mission from this House, but representative of the dominant party in this House?.

No, Sir. I think it would be foreign to the traditions of the House and to the spirit of the whole thing if we were to draw this delegation from the majority party in the House only. I think here, at any rate, we must adopt something like the principles of Proportional Representation.

I would like to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the fact that in many previous missions the North-East corner of India—Assam and Bengal—was not visited. I hope this delegation will visit that part of India, and especially that it will get into touch with the Moslem leaders of Bengal and Assam.

We had not got as far as the itinerary. I will certainly undertake that the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point shall be kept in mind.

Could my right hon. Friend make it quite clear—there may be some misunderstanding—that if the ultimate decision of the Indian peoples is that they do not wish India to remain a partner in the British Commonwealth, they may be allowed to make that decision; and also that there will never again be any further mention of Dominion status in connection with India?

I do not think there need be any misapprehension about that. The offer of 1942 included a provision that the treaty contemplated between the new self-governing India and His Majesty's Government would not impose any restrictions on the power of India to decide her future relationship to the remainder of the British Commonwealth. His Majesty's Government stand by that position, though it is, naturally, our hope that India will remain of her own free will, within the British Commonwealth.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, whilst thanking him for the open mind he has shown, if he will give very careful consideration to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden)? This is no ordinary occasion. The delegation will be going to India under wholly exceptional conditions when great and far-reaching constitutional changes are pending in India, which will come to a head in March and April. Any Parliamentary delegation going to India is bound to be regarded in India as an official delegation and, therefore, would it not be better to give it that cachet from the very beginning and send it to India under direct Government auspices instead of through the agency of the Empire Parliamentary Association?

I have undertaken to consider the representations which were made by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton).

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in considering this matter, bear in mind that there was a Standing Joint Committee on Indian affairs which was empowered to visit India and other places; and will he consider whether that would be a solution?

My memory is not too clear about the point, but I should doubt whether that would be a suitable way out.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider that the failure to solve this problem of India has been due largely to a failure of appreciation of India in this country, and of appreciation by India of this country and also lack of understanding between the countries? Would he indicate what steps he proposes to remove that misunderstanding?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of impending changes, he will consider deferring the trial of 300 arrested members of the Indian National Congress so that they may be tried by an Indian court after the elections?

I gather that my hon. and gallant Friend's figure is a very great exaggeration. I do not think it right to deal with that matter now.

I want to ask the Minister whether it would not have been better to have left out that part of the statement which contains a threat, and whether the Indian National Congress and the Moslem League will be consulted at every stage?

I do not profess to be as strong a believer in firm and ruthless government as the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), and really I did not detect in this statement any threat to anybody. I merely stated that the Indian Government had the responsibility of government. The fact is there have been certain indications of threats the other way.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether in view of the many suggestions which have been made, reconsideration will also take the form of consultations with all sections of opinion? I think it is possible he may go wrong.

I am much obliged for the friendly warning, but I did not gather that the main idea was challenged. There was some disagreement about the form of the delegation, and I will certainly regard that with the greatest friendliness.

Having regard to the growing strength and influence of the trade union movement, may I ask, without wishing to suggest a particular bias, whether the right hon. Gentleman will see that the strongest trade union representation is included in the delegation?

There is no reason why those consulted should not keep that point in mind, but perhaps I ought not to say anything which prejudges the issue at this stage.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to keep in mind that those who go to India should know something about India, and should be able to bring home some useful information?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether opportunity will be given to discuss the statement he has made, otherwise than by question and answer?

I am bound to say, quite apart from the time factor, in regard to which we are in considerable difficulties, I am a little doubtful whether that would be advantageous.