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Clause 3—(Bengal And Assam)

Volume 440: debated on Monday 14 July 1947

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I beg to move, in page 3, line 5, to leave out "awards of boundary commissions," and to insert:

"the award of a boundary commission."
I think it would be for the convenience of the Committee if we discussed together the two Amendments to this Clause and the two Amendments to Clause 4. Two of the Amendments are formal, and the only difference between the other two is that one applies to the boundary commission in Bengal, and the other to the boundary commission in the Punjab. These Amendments have been put down at the request of the Partition Council, which, as the Committee knows, is a body set up to settle matters arising out of the transfer of power. The object of the Amendments is to ensure that the reports of the chairman of the commissions, who, as the Committee knows, is Sir Cyril Radcliffe, shall have the force of an award.

We consider that these Amendments are improvements on the Bill. I understand that they have the approval of the chairman of the boundary commissions. The Amendments tie up the Bill, and the matter is not left so vague as it was before. We are now certain that when the boundary commission in either Province makes an award, it will become final, and no further legislation of this sort will be necessary. The Amendments, therefore, are clear and satisfactory. I think it might be convenient to make the observations I wish to make in regard to Bengal at this stage, rather than on the Motion, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

It would be more advantageous if we first dealt with the Amendment now before the Committee.

I have no more to say on the Amendment, which I consider to be a technical matter. Would I be in Order in referring to the terms of reference?

It would be better to deal with that on the Motion that the Clause stand part.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 3 line 19 at end, add:

"(4) In this section, the expression 'award' means, in relation to a boundary commission, the decisions of the chairman of that commission contained in his report to the Governor-General at the conclusion of the commission's proceedings."—[Mr. A. Henderson.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

This is a very, important Clause. It refers, for the first time in our detailed discussions, to the partition of Bengal. Some of us in the past have spoken in favour of Indian self-government, and have said that even if Indian self-government meant giving self-government to a divided India, we should still be in favour of it. I have said, in previous speeches, that it might be necessary to give self-government to "parts of India," which is an expression used in one of the Government's own statements. None of us has as yet spoken in favour of or against the division of major Provinces such as Bengal or the Punjab. At first sight, it is repugnant for a great Province like Bengal to be divided up. Bengal has a great history, and a history which involves the, question of partition. Anyone who has discussed or considered the history of Bengal will know of Lord Curzon's proposals to this end, which created the utmost commotion; they have now taken their place in the written history of India as being a troubled matter.

We now come to the very great problem which faces the Government and their representatives in India, namely, if there is to be a divided India, how the boundaries are to be arranged so that in the Muslim areas there is a Muslim majority. It can be seen that without some such scheme as this, there is in fact no suitable line which can be drawn to divide the Muslim majority area from a non-Muslim majority area. We therefore come up sharply against the fact that two major provinces of India, with their proud history, have, to the regret of many—it will break the hearts of many, including those who have devoted their lives to the administration of these Provinces—to be divided. If that has to be the case, in order to achieve settlement, all the Opposition can do is to put forward certain considerations, and trust that the boundary commissions, to whom this very difficult task is confided, will be able to do their work with the utmost success and dispatch.

Under the terms of reference for the boundary commission with regard to Bengal, the commission are instructed to demarcate the boundary of the two parts of Bengal on the basis of ascertaining contiguous areas of Muslims and non-Muslims, and in doing so to take into account other factors. I can only wish the new chairman of the boundary commission, whom we all respect, the utmost success in his very difficult task. It is a task of a most complicated character, and it is bound to involve him and the other members in the utmost difficulty of mind. It will draw from them all qualities of judgment with which we trust they are fully endowed.

5.0 p.m.

I wish to refer, not to the comparatively clear mathematical question of ascertaining contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims, but to the next phase, namely, that the commission, in doing so, will take into account "all other factors." These factors are very considerable. When we examine this question of the division of Bengal as we have known it—that is, the great Province of Bengal—we see that it will lose, under the broad demarcation of this Bill, some one-third of its inhabitants, including Calcutta. Even with the Sylhel district, Eastern Bengal will have only 44 million inhabitants—that is, on the 1941 census—and what is more striking is the fact that besides this loss of inhabitants in this, the largest, part of Pakistan, which will be the largest single unit of Pakistan, the majority of the basic industries will be on the Western side of the frontier, in the new India, and the main sources of wealth left to this vast population will be the raw jute itself. The majority of the processing mills for the jute will be across the border, in the outskirts of Calcutta. That means that the basic wealth, including what coal and steel there is, will be across the border. Therefore, I would like to ask the Government how, broadly, they mean to interpret the terms of reference to the boundary commission, and whether there is any opportunity of so allocating the boundary that some of the basic sources of wealth may be found in this the largest single unit of Pakistan?

I would like to make it clear that I am not taking sides in this matter, that I am not trying to advocate that one side of India should be stronger than the other; I am trying to make sure that the economy of the area to be set up shall be viable, that it will be able to pay its way. If I want any justification for my remarks, I would refer the Committee to the extensive White Paper published at the time of the Cabinet Mission, in which a divided India was dismissed as impossible owing to the great difficulties it would have to face. But now that we are to face, inevitably, that divided India, let us see that the parts of it have as good a future as we can make for them.

Now I come to the question of a port. This vast area of Eastern Bengal, which is known best to my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), is to depend, so far as we can see, on the port of Chittagong. This is an adequate port in the proper sense of that word, and is situated somewhat far to the East. But whether Chittagong is adequate or not, it is clear that the major portion of the trade and communications will filter down to Calcutta, as they have done throughout history and as they are likely to do in the future. I want, therefore, to ask the Government whether any proposal has been put forward, in the course of the suggested partition of Bengal for an international—if I may so describe it—or impartial port arrangement to be made for Calcutta? Has there been any discussion that Calcutta shall offer facilities, under all circumstances, to the trade of Eastern Bengal, and can we be assured that the raw jute, which is so much a part of the wealth of Eastern Bengal, will find its way to the processing mills of the West?

I know that I have put on the shoulders of the Under-Secretary a question which it is impossible for him to answer now, but I would ask whether there has been any consideration given to this matter, whether the freeing of the port of Calcutta for the merchandise of the East has been arranged or discussed? If so, I am sure the Committee will he glad to hear it, for it is with great anxiety and a sense of sorrow that we come, on this occasion, to the question of the division of a major Province which has given so much to India in the past and which I hope will, in its new form, give a great deal to the future of both India and Pakistan.

I hope I shall be in Order in offering a little footnote to history in connection with the partition of Bengal. Everybody who has served in India must share in the regret which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Butler) has expressed at the splitting up of a great historical Province which, even though it has been amorphous in its boundaries, nevertheless has acquired a historical tradition. This is not, of course, the first time partition has been established in Bengal. When Lord Curzon was Viceroy of India he found that the Province of Bengal was so bloated that he came to the conclusion that it was impossible for any single Administration to conduct its affairs with efficiency. If my memory serves me right, I think the population of Bengal was then about 70 millions. What is now Eastern Bengal was grossly and scandalously neglected. The new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam was created to give that huge area a corporate and provincial existence, detached from the main, provincial Government in Calcutta. That induced an unreasoning agitation which swept the whole of Bengal from end to end year after year until, in 1911, it was agreed that what was called the great Bengali nation should be reunited and the new province of Bihar and Orissa was created. There is an interesting story attached to this. In the Bar Library of Calcutta after the Revocation of Partition an eminent advocate said, "You have been crying for the moon, for a united Bengal. Now you have got the moon, but you have lost the great and glorious sun, in the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi." Now we see a division which was so violently opposed when imposed from without, accepted as essential because it comes from within.

There is only one further point I want to make. My right hon. Friend expressed doubts as to whether Chittagong can really serve the interests of Eastern Bengal. My engineering friends tell me that the port is capable of great development, but that development has been held back by the centralising influence of Calcutta. There is this flow of raw jute from the producing areas of East Bengal to the mills of Calcutta. This is a serious matter for those connected with the jute interests, and if any assurance can be given on that subject it will be welcomed by those who founded and developed this great source of prosperity to Calcutta and India.

I had not intended to intervene at this stage, but in view of what has been said about the situation in my old Province of Bengal I feel I must say just a few words. I do not think it is profitable to go back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Reed) has gone back, for present purposes, over old history, interesting though it is. It is not a question today of merely reversing any process through which Bengal has gone in the past. The boundaries will be essentially different from any provincial boundaries hitherto recognised. For example, when the old Province of Eastern Bengal was established with its capital at Dacca, Assam was an integral part of that Province. Assam is now being taken away, though Sylket and possibly certain small portions of the adjacent area may or may not be included. The portion of Pakistan which will comprise the new Eastern Bengal will be smaller in area and, I think, probably larger relatively in population than the old Province of Eastern Bengal. There has been a very considerable increase of population in the portion of Bengal which will he included in Pakistan and that, in itself, taken in conjunction with the lack of heavy industries, constitutes a very serious economic problem. A large part of the population of these areas is definitely on the margin of subsistence.

Something has been said about the possibility of developing Chittagong. Do not let us blind ourselves to the actual facts of the situation. In the territory of Bengal, as we know it today, there are two great river systems dependent upon the Ganges and the Brahtnaputra. Both these rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal, and there is a confluence at the mouths of these rivers. Neither river gives ready access to Chittagong. Chittagong is served by a comparatively small river of which few have ever heard. Its name is Karnafuli, or, in the local dialect, Kynso-Kyoung. It is a very small river navigatable only for a very short distance, and if one goes up it in a launch in dry weather one is likely to stick only a few miles above the port of Chittagong. The river system of Bengal is connected with a network of minor waterways all giving access to the port of Calcutta. Chittagong is served by a railway from Chandpur, which is a narrow gauge railway not capable of carrying very much traffic. I do not say that the new Pakistan or the Eastern portion of Pakistan with a portion of Assam is not capable of development, but any economic development on a considerable scale must certainly take a very long time. There is as far as I am aware no mineral wealth; there certainly cannot be a lot because there are hundreds of feet of alluvium over the whole area. Not only has if no industries to speak of, but most of the forest wealth of Bengal will be on the other side of the boundary.

All I can say is that—and I join with my hon. Friend when he said he was not taking sides, for I also am not taking sides—I hope in the financial and economic adjustments that are made very special consideration will be given to the backward condition of the portion of Bengal which will go into Pakistan and the need for development. There is no doubt whatever that in the past from the common revenues of India development has taken place outside what will be the eastern portion of Pakistan on a greater scale than within that area. These are matters which certainly deserve the most careful consideration. Do not either let us accept too readily anything that may he said about the rosy prospects of the development of the harbour of Chittagong or anything else, whatever it may he.

5.15 p.m.

I am sure that the Committee will have listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) with the greatest interest. He has drawn attention to one of the immensely difficult problems which is likely to arise out of the partitioning of the existing Provinces of India. I ask the Government to deal on more general lines with one of the difficulties to which my right hon. Friend has drawn special attention. There is a very great temptation to politicians when they come up against some political difficulty to think that if they refer it to an arbitral tribunal, with a highly respected lawyer as chairman, that, in some way, that will enable the political difficulties to be got round. As a matter of fact the whole question will depend perhaps in the first place, in some degree, on the membership of the tribunal. I would ask for some information about that, because we have obviously to contemplate in a matter of this kind which will be regarded as almost life and death to some of these Provinces, whether the terms of reference will provide that if there is a difference of opinion between the representatives of the Hindus and of the Muslims the decision of the chairman is to be final and conclusive. I cannot find anything in the Bill dealing with that matter or anything on the subject in the statement of 3rd June.

I pass over that to what I feel is a much more fundamental difficulty. If the Parliamentary Secretary will turn to the statement of 3rd June, 1947, Paragraph 9, he will find that this is said about the Boundaries Commission:
"A Boundary Commission will be set up by the Governor-General, the membership and terms of which will be settled in consultation with those concerned. It will be instructed to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on a basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. It will also be instructed to take into account other factors."
There is a long and vast history of disputes of this kind ever since 1919. If we draw a line clearly on grounds of race, we find that in almost every case we divide the agricultural hinterland from the towns that they feed, and we may very well have a division between for example, coal and iron. In this case, the most outstanding difference which it will make is between the jute which is grown in the Eastern area and manufactured in the Western area. When the White Paper of 3rd June was made, it was, I think, contemplated that the same individual was to be Governor-General of both of the Dominions. Under this Bill, it says that the
"boundary commissions appointed or to be appointed by the Governor-General in that behalf."
I take it that the terms of reference of these boundary commissions will have to be created between—

The boundary commissions personnel have been appointed and the terms of reference have been accepted.

I apologise. Obviously this will be an immensely difficult problem because, if other matters are to he taken into account in addition to race and religion, this will make the task of the boundary commissions more difficult, and we can only hope that they will have the wisdom of Solomon in order to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

Those of us who know India view with great regret that Bengal itself should have to be divided up again. We are not going to dispute at the moment the fact that this is going to happen, because it is agreed on this Bill that certain things are necessary in order to get a working plan at all. I feel when these two Provinces of Eastern and Western Bengal are demarcated, provision must be made for facilities which have existed in the past; and one of those to which I should like to draw the Committee's attention is the free passage and communication between the Kingdom of Nepal and India as we have known it. The normal line of communication to the capital, Khatmandu, is through what will be Western Bengal, but there are other more difficult ways of getting to it, and they are through some of the centres of population of Nepal and through the United Provinces. It should be clearly stated in this Bill that whatever Government takes over this particular area should give full agreement to free access to and from Nepal for any purposes which either Great Britain or Nepal may require in friendly relationships with each other. This ought to be mentioned in particular in this Bill so that there can be no argument about it afterwards. I cannot believe that the new Government of these new Provinces will object in any way, but we ought to have the safeguard in the Bill from the point of view of our own interests and in view of our old relationships with the Maharajah of Nepal and his people. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies I hope he will give us some assurance on this point, because I feel it is one of great importance.

As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) has told us, this is a most important Clause. I have been connected with this particular corner of India since 1904, and even before that there were considerable arguments as to which Province Sylhet should belong to, either Assam or Bengal. I remember when the railway was opened first over the hilly section, it took the longer route from Chittagong to Upper Assam, and certainly it developed Chittagong as a port. It was said then that the railway took the long routes because the engineer in charge of the Assam and Bengal railway would not build it upon the easiest and most profitable line. He said there would be no distinction in that for him. Instead of building it through the black country and the populous districts, he took it over the most difficult hill section where no population exists, and owing to landslides, disease, and no population, that section of the Assam—Bengal railway has never paid. Despite that handicap, the port of Chittagong did develop, and before this war had a very big export and import trade both ways, most of which was going to upper Burma.

I can remember in the Assam Legislative Council about the year 1924 a resolution was passed that the Province of Sylhet should be incorporated in Bengal and excluded from Assam, but at that same time an amendment was moved that Cachar should also be included in the Province of Bengal. There is no doubt that in the district of Sylhet people are Bengalese speaking and not Assamese speaking, and as for religion, I understand that the Muslim religion is that of the majority. I look at this Clause with some fear as, later on, there may be some agitation to include Cachar also in Bengal, and that would lead to certain trouble for the two new Provinces, at any rate for Assam and for Pakistan. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies I wonder if he would give the Committee information about Cachar and whether it is likely to be included in the instructions to the Boundary Commission.

I wanted to say, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, a word about Sylhet. In view of the fact that the hon. and gallant Member for Down (Sir W. Smiles) who has a close knowledge of Assam, has dealt with the question, I do not think it is necessary to refer further to the matter, except to ask when we will get news of the result of the referendum in regard to that place.

The result of the referendum in Sylhet has been received today and is as follows: Voters for joining East Bengal, 239,619; For remaining in Assam, 184,041; Percentage of valid voters of the total electorates entitled to vote, 77·33 per cent.

The right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) referred to the economic problem that will face the two new Provinces of East and West Bengal, and it would not be very fitting on my part to attempt to deal with the points that he and other hon. Members have made, more especially as the right hon. Gentleman has a much greater knowledge of that part of India than I have. However, I know sufficient about the situation in that part of India to agree with him whole-heartedly as to the very difficult problem that will face both these new Provinces. It is also quite fair to remind the Committee of the views that were expressed in the Report of the Indian Cabinet Commission last year, when they said, in terms that the right hon. Gentleman has quoted this afternoon, that there were great doubts as to whether these partitioned areas of India would be viable.

The existence of this problem today and in the future is also well known to those who have accepted the responsibility. The national leaders in India as well as the provincial leaders in Bengal and in Assam and the representatives of the communities have expressed themselves as being in favour of the partition of these two Provinces. We can only express the hope and the belief that they will realise that what is essential in the interests of both the Muslim and the Hindu populations in the two Punjabs and in the two Bengals is the need for co-operation if they are to be able to emerge successfully front those difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that the hemp was in Eastern Bengal and the factories in Western Bengal, and unless they avoid following the policy of cutting of their noses to spite their faces it may well be that on an economic basis they will not be able to make both these new Provinces viable.

5.30 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A Butler) asked about the terms of reference of the boundary commissions. I would admit at once that the terms of reference are not very precise and, from that point of view perhaps, not as satisfactory as they might be. I would remind the Committee, however, they they have the merit that they are based on the agreement of the Indian leaders of the majority parties. It is made quite clear that the function of the boundary commission is to demarcate boundaries between the two parts, and to do so on the basis of ascertaining contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. That is the fundamental basis of the plan, but the commission will also take other factors into account. A question has been asked as to what is meant by other factors. It surely waist mean that the primary basis is to be whether the majority of the population is Muslim or non-Muslim, but that in certain cases there may be special factors of a different kind which would justify a departure from this principle.

The provision that other factors will be taken into account has been made primarily to enable the commission to have regard to the special circumstances of the Sikh community in the Punjab, where considerations such as the location of their religious shrines can reasonably be taken into account up to a point. I would, however, emphasise to the Committee that it is for the commission itself to decide what are other factors and how much importance should be attached to all or any of them. In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Down (Sir W. Smiles) I would say that the terms of reference have been published and that I am afraid that it is not possible or practicable at this stage to alter them. The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of Calcutta and asked whether any consideration had been given to the possibility of making in international or a free port. All I can say in regard to that is that we ourselves have not given consideration to that possibility in working out this plan because, as the Bill indicates, we have taken the line as being one that must be drawn on the basis of majority populations, and Calcutta, rightly or wrongly, is to be found within that section of the existing Bengal which contains a majority of Hindu population.

The hon. and gallant Member tom Perth and Kinross, Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) asked about the communications between Nepal and the outside world, and suggested that provision should he made in the Bill for safeguarding them. I suggest to him that it would be far better for such matters to be dealt with by mutual agreement rather than by inserting a provision in a Bill which, incidentally, can be altered or modified by either of the new Dominions at a later stage, because their constituent assemblies, as we know, are to be sovereign bodies There is a treaty of 1923 providing for the free transit of goods imported through India to Nepal, and I should certainly not late to think that the Governments of the new Dominions would wish to do other than implement that treaty. I think I have covered the points that have been raised on this Clause.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was wrong in saying that the terms of reference as to boundaries have been published in this country.

They have been published in India but not here, and I now find that they are almost exactly a reproduction of paragraph 9 of the White Paper on Home Rule. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did give a certain explanation of the other factors to be taken into account, and he referred to matters like the location of the shrines of the Sikhs and so on, but I did not hear any reference to purely economic considerations. There may very well be cases where it is extremely undesirable that a boundary between the two Dominions should be drawn in that way, even though it may be fairly clearly the line of demarcation between the two religions. May we have an assurance that one of the matters that can he taken into account is such a problem, for example, as separating the agricultural hinterland from a town, or something of that kind? Also, if a railway were to follow exactly what were the religious lines of demarcation, it might he going perpetually in and out from one Dominion to the other.

I am afraid that I cannot give any such assurance. I can only remind the hon. Gentleman that I indicated a few moments ago that it is for the commission itself to decide what the other factors are that they may wish to take into consideration. I would also remind him that the terms of reference have been approved by the leaders of the major parties.

Before we part from this Clause, I wish to express my personal regret that it is necessary. It sets up what can only amount to the reductio ad absurdum of communal feeling From that point of view, there may be something to be said for it, for I cannot see this partition of Bengal working. I think that all this Committee can do is to register their deep regret that this Clause should have been thought necessary by the peoples of India, and to assure them that any good service that we in this country, either as a nation or as individuals, can afford towards what one can only call the rehabilitation of Bengal will be freely placed at the disposal of Bengal, and, at the same time, beseech the two communities of Bengal to think again in a spirit of human charity. I feel that this Parliament can seldom have passed a more deplorable Clause.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered no stand part of the Bill.