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Karachi Troop Train Incident

Volume 41: debated on Tuesday 10 August 1920

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rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are willing to publish the official correspondence relating to the "Karachi Troop Train Incident," including the proceedings and findings of the Court of Inquiry held on the incident, the memorial submitted by Major-General D. Shaw to the Secretary of State and the correspondence between him and the India Office, and, if not, why not; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question and to make the Motion which stand in my name on the Notice Paper. It may be that some of your Lordships share the opinion which is held in some quarters to the effect that I am unduly persistent in this matter. If that is so I would only ask, Which of your Lordships, being convinced that any person or persons had been unjustly treated in a matter in which redress could only be obtained in Parliament, and having regard to your Lordships' duties and responsibilities as Members of one of the Houses of Legislature, would leave a single stone unturned to obtain redress of that injustice?

Injustice to an individual in respect of official conduct is a matter of serious public importance, as the contentment, good order, and loyalty of a community depend first and foremost upon faith in the justice and impartiality of those in authority. When a large number of persons is convinced that those in the highest authority have treated an individual —particularly an official—unfairly, the fertile seeds of discontent are sown, and the result is that the credit of government and of those in authority is impaired. Most particularly is this the case when the man who has been made to suffer unfairly is an officer of one of those great public services upon whose loyalty and confidence in authority we depend for the security and the stability of the State.

Public servants look to Parliament for an impartial umpire when officialdom has given a mistaken decision, and it would be indeed a bad lookout if their confidence in this supreme court of appeal were ever to be seriously impaired. I am not going to recapitulate the whole of this story. It is already recorded in the proceedings of your Lordships' House, and the facts are established so far as this House is concerned. Nothing that the friends of General Shaw and Colonel Macnamara have said in speech or writing as to the essential facts has been denied or controverted. It is therefore unnecessary to recapitulate those facts. On the contrary, so far from their having been controverted or denied, the spokesman of the India Office—my noble friend Lord Sinha—has made some important, though, if he will allow me to say so unnecessarily grudging, admissions. It is with these admissions and with them alone that I propose to deal this evening.

If the Government will publish the Papers I shall be well content to leave the rest to public opinion, for those Papers contain absolute proof of the truth of all that has been said on behalf of General Shaw and Colonel Macnamara. But even this publication of the Papers would be unnecessary if only the Secretary of State would admit fully and frankly the fact that the statement upon which General Shaw was condemned and punished was entirely unfounded and inaccurate. That is all I ask the Secretary of State to do; and quite frankly I cannot understand why he is unwilling to do it, seeing that he himself has in express terms dissociated himself from that condemnatory statement. I do not ask him to declare General Shaw blameless. General Shaw does not ask for that himself. I only ask him to remove a condemnation which is not only unjust but irregular. As soon as that is done, General Shaw can easily prove his own blamelessness if a fair opportunity is given to him and if it is considered necessary that the case should be tried again.

The Secretary of State has offered a fresh Inquiry. No doubt we shall be told this again, and no doubt the Under-Secretary will lay great stress upon it. But let me remind your Lordships of what I have said on former occasions. That offer was made upon conditions which General Shaw could not be expected to accept. It is one thing to go before a Court as an innocent person and to have your case tried ab initio, but it is quite another thing to go as one who has been condemned, and condemned by the highest authorities, particularly if the Court is subordinate to, and dependent upon, those very authorities whose decision is impugned.

The Secretary of State, feeling as he does that the condemnation was too sweeping, that it was in many respects inaccurate and required much modification, should have ordered a fresh Inquiry. He should have done so long ago, when he first looked into the case and formed an opinion. I have tried by private negotiation to get this matter cleared up in the very simple way that I have suggested—namely, that the condemnation should be withdrawn in as public and as full a manner as it was made. I have written not only to the present Secretary of State, but I have written to his predecessor, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, and I have written to his representative in this House. I have also asked them privately to fall in with my suggestion so as to avoid the necessity of troubling either this House or the other House of Parliament. with Questions and Motions. I hope that my noble friend Lord Sinha will allow me to refer to the private correspondence which I have recently had with him, as if I may do so it will bring me most quickly to the point.

The point, is this. The statement on which General Shaw was condemned was contained in a telegram from the Government of India dated July 30, 1916. That telegram was read out in the House of Commons by the then Secretary of State, Mr. Austen Chamberlain. He stated that he concurred in the finding and in the decision of the Government of India. But he had at that time not seen the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry, in which there was evidence entirely inconsistent with this statement. The statement was that General Shaw knew that the responsible members of his staff were, with one exception, inexperienced, and that he took no steps and gave no orders to see that the safety or comfort of the troops was provided for.

I and some of my friends have elicited in this House that this statement was entirely inaccurate, and the India Office have not even attempted to prove that it was accurate. I have the statement made by my noble friend on July 21, which was as follows
"The Secretary of State.… considers and has always considered that the censure passed on Major-General Shaw and Colonel Macnamara was not in all respects accurate."
Then the Under-Secretary went on to say that the Secretary of State, while disassociating himself from the censure "which requires much modification" (I hope your Lordships will bear these words in mind) was advised that General Shaw and his Assistant-Director of Medical Services did not act up to "the full scope of their responsibilities." It is on this phrase that I want, to press the Under-Secretary. It is a very vague and unsatisfactory phrase. I do not think anyone will maintain for a moment that it is sufficient to satisfy an ordinary person that punishment amounting to the utter ruin and discredit of an officer with nearly forty years' service, against whom there had never been an adverse report, was justified.

In writing to my noble friend some days ago I asked him to explain clearly in what respect General Shaw failed to act up to the full scope of his responsibilities. I hope he will be able to do so, because I am not springing this question upon him. I gave him full and fair notice that that was what I was going to ask him to-day. But if he cannot do this, will he say where these responsibilities, which the Secretary of State has in mind, are defined. They are certainly not defined in the Regulations. I am fairly well acquainted with the Regulations for the Army, both in this country and in India, and I can find nothing to answer to a definition of those responsibilities. I have also asked the Under-Secretary to specify and definite the modification of the censure which the Secretary of States admits to be necessary. I quoted just now the words of the Secretary of State in which he said that the censure from which he dissociated himself required much modification. What is the modification that is required? It would be an immense advantage to know exactly how far the Secretary of State admits that it was inaccurate and unfounded.

I want to add two other questions. The first is—Is Mr. Montagu's opinion as to General Shaw's responsibility based upon ex parte and unofficial statements which have never been communicated to General Shaw? I have very good reasons for putting that question, and I hope that I shall receive an answer to it. Secondly, seeing that the Secretary of State at once, when he had to look into the case, dissociated himself from the censure, why did he not take steps to get it withdrawn? Why does he not take such steps now? He has the power to do so, and I submit he has the responsibility of doing so. He cannot wash his hands of the whole affair. It is an affair of his Department, and he cannot say "It is no affair of mine; I merely dissociate myself from it." I will ask my noble friend whether the Secretary himself is, in this matter, acting up to the full scope of his responsibilities, seeing that he cannot dissociate himself from anything that appertains to his Department.

The Secretary of State himself has invalidated the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry so far as General Shaw was concerned by stating, as he did, through the mouth of Lord Sinha, that the Court which investigated the incident was not constituted, and did not deal with General Shaw's conduct in regard to the incident, in the manner prescribed by the Regulations. If anything invalidates a finding that statement does. There remains therefore (it is a logical consequence, from which you cannot escape) no authority whatever for the public statements in regard to General Shaw made so cruelly to the detriment and discredit of that officer by Mr. Austen Chamberlain in the House of Commons on information supplied to him by the Government of India. That is why I am asking that the unjust condemnation should be withdrawn as publicly and in as clear and explicit terms as those in which it was made.

The noble Lord the Under-Secretary, speaking on July 21, said one of the things that the Court of Inquiry was asked to do was to indicate the persons liable for blame for the occurrence. "Liable to blame" is not synonymous with guilty. No man can be declared guilty until a charge has been brought against him, and proved before a competent tribunal. A mere statement that So-and-so is liable to blame does not in any way impair the innocence which we must attribute to every man, whatever charge may be brought against him, until he has been charged and condemned. Incidentally, I should like to say that the Under-Secretary has been misinformed by his Department in regard to several matters which were the subject of questions in this House—in regard to the Transport Regulations, and in regard to the assertions that General Shaw exceeded the Regulations on his own responsibility. I have here the Transport Regulations which were in force at that time, but I do not want to confuse the issue with any minor point. The only thing is, I do not want to pass over this opportunity without saying that I cannot accept the statements which the noble Lord was put up to make on these several points.

The issue which I am putting to your Lordships is as simple as anything can be, and I shall state in terms of extreme moderation. General Shaw and Colonel Macnamara have been condemned and held up to odium in a manner which constituted the severest punishment, upon a statement which the Secretary of State himself admits to be inaccurate. The Secretary of State can, if he likes, declare that they were wrongly condemned. It is also open to him, if he thinks that they are liable to blame, to order—not to ask, but to order—that they shall be charged and tried—for those things have not yet been done. If he will not do this, will he let the public judge of the matter themselves by publishing the Papers. I beg to move.

Moved, That there be laid on the Table of this House the official correspondence relating to the Karachi Troop Train Incident, including the proceedings and findings of the Court of Inquiry held on the incident, the memorial submitted by Major-General D. Shaw, to the Secretary of State and the correspondence between him and the India Office.— (Lord Ampthill.)

My Lords, before I deal with the specific question which the noble Lord put at the end of his speech, I ought perhaps to say that, having regard to the time that has elapsed—the Karachi troop train incident took place in June, 1916, that is, more than four years ago, the Court of Inquiry submitted their Report in July of the same year, and the action taken by the Government of India with reference to General Shaw was also more than four years ago—it is impossible for the Secretary of State, who has more than once carefully considered the matter, to reopen the case, which was decided more than four years ago by his predecessor in office, and with regard to which he offered General Shaw the only possible alternative in his power—namely, a fresh Inquiry. Having regard to these facts the Secretary of State has come to the conclusion that there would be no justification for the presentation of Papers. In fact, he said that more than a year ago, when he was questioned on the subject and asked to lay Papers in the House of Commons in July last year.

Coming to the merits of the question, I am not quite sure what exactly it is that the noble Lord wants the Secretary of State to do. I understood him to say—in fact he wrote me, as he said, to the same effect—that he does not ask the Secretary of State to declare that General Shaw is not liable to blame.

To declare that General Shaw is blameless, which is a rather different thing.

He was held to be liable to blame by the Report upon which the Government of India took action. The Secretary of State, therefore, could not cancel the finding of that Report and declare that General Shaw was not liable to blame, except as the result of another Inquiry which he offered General Shaw more than three years ago, which he kept open for 2½ years, but which General Shaw refused some little time ago to accept because he said it was impossible for him to go out to India, or something of that kind. He was offered all his expenses, including legal expenses and the expense of staying there, and every facility for getting out every witness he wanted to be examined before the fresh Court of Inquiry.

My noble friend will misquote me. It is a very important point. I did not say that I do not ask the Secretary of State to declare General Shaw not liable to blame, but that I do not ask the Secretary of State to declare General Shaw blameless. That is a very different thing; there is all the difference in the world between being liable to blame and being blameless. I have admitted that the Court of Inquiry found General Shaw liable to blame, but that does not mean that he is blameworthy until it has been tried and proved.

The Secretary of State, on the advice of the Military Committee at the India Office found it impossible to do anything more than offer General Shaw a fresh Inquiry on the ground that there were irregularities in the first Court of Inquiry that was held because there was no definite charge made against him, and that he had no opportunity of cross-examining witnesses and was not present throughout the Inquiry. That is the only thing the Secretary of State was advised he could do, and it was because he felt that some of the statements upon which Mr. Chamberlain based the statement that he made in the House of Commons were not strictly accurate and because of the irregularities in the procedure under the Regulations that he offered General Shaw the Inquiry I have mentioned. In those circumstances I venture to submit that it was not possible for the Secretary of State to do more than he did. After all, General Shaw is not complaining of the action that was taken either by the Commander-in-Chief or the Government of India in removing him from his command. That is not the point of complaint.

What General Shaw complains of, as I understand my noble friend, is the statement made by the Secretary of State (Mr. Chamberlain) in the House of Commons based upon the telegram from the Government of India, which, again, purported to be based upon the findings of the Court of Inquiry. With regard to that, the Secretary of State said more than two years ago that some of the statements in that telegram from the Government of India were not quite accurate. For example, it is not correct to say that General Shaw took no steps whatsoever to ensure the safety and comfort of the troops. He did take certain steps, but those steps were not sufficient. The Secretary of State and his advisers, both then and now, think that if General Shaw had acted up to the full scope of his responsibilities he would have taken further steps which, if they had not prevented the deplorable incidents that happened, would certainly have made them less probable.

The noble Lord asked me to specify to what extent the Secretary of State had modified the condemnation which was pronounced by Mr. Chamberlain in the House of Commons. I was under the impression that I had already done so. I have to-day again endeavoured to make it clear to my noble friend as well as to this House that nobody ever intended to charge General Shaw with callous indifference either to the comfort or safety of the troops which were put into that train. Nobody has ever charged him with that. But what appeared from the evidence given before the Court of Inquiry, upon which the Government of India took action, was that General Shaw as officer commanding at Karachi did not personally see the troop-train nor view the conditions under which the journey across the desert was to be undertaken at the hottest time of the year; that the unsuitability of the normal conditions of train accommodation and scheduled times for unacclimatised British troops ought to have suggested itself to him; that it was open to him to make, on receipt of instructions regarding the diversion of the "Ballarat" to Karachi—and he received that information days before the steamer arrived—and in view of his local knowledge ought to have made, representations to Army headquarters of the danger of sending those troops across the desert at that time of the year. Even if he did not consider that such a representation was advisable, the Secretary of State was advised that he ought to have considered it advisable. And even though it might have meant some displeasure, so far as he himself was concerned, at Army Headquarters he might have issued better instructions to promote the comfort of the troops, which would have been advantageous, and the omission to take special measures to meet the abnormal conditions suggested a want of forethought on the part of an officer in his position, by reason of which the Government of India and the Commander-in-Chief were entitled to take and did take the action that they took—namely, to remove him from his command.

I want to make it clear again that the present Secretary of State as well as Mr. Austen Chamberlain never intended to suggest that, in being blameworthy with respect to the omissions I have mentioned, General Shaw had been in any way guilty of callous indifference to the welfare, the comfort, and the safety of the troops concerned. The incident is four years old, action was taken four years ago, the matter has been twice considered by the Government of India and by two successive Secretaries of State on the advice of their military advisers, and it is impossible, the Secretary of State is advised, to do away altogether with the Report and findings of the Court of Inquiry. In those circumstances I venture to submit to your Lordships that it would serve no useful purpose to publish, and the Secretary of State does not consider he would be justified in publishing, the Papers in question.

My Lords, I cannot say that I am satisfied with the reply I have received, and I am perfectly certain that those of your Lordships who have done me the honour of attending to the matter cannot feel that it is in any way convincing. The reason given for saying that the presentation of Papers is not justified is that more than four years have elapsed since the incident took place, and that a fresh Court of Inquiry has been offered. If the Secretary of State would only lay these Papers your Lordships would see at once why General Shaw could not possibly accept the conditions on which the fresh Inquiry was offered. He has not refused a fresh Inquiry. What he has done is to say that he cannot accept the Inquiry on the particular conditions which were offered. The noble Lord has tried to palliate the matter by saying that no one has charged General Shaw with "callous indifference." I ask your Lordships whether the words in the telegram from the Government of India that General Shaw "knowing his staff was inexperienced"—an untruth— "took no steps and gave no orders," is not as direct a charge of callous indifference as could be made. That statement was not only inaccurate; it was deliberately and entirely untrue.

The noble Lord has not satisfied me about this "defining the scope of General Shaw's responsibility." All that he has said is that General Shaw ought to have represented the danger of the journey. The noble Lord knows nothing about the Army or the responsibilities of a military officer. But let me say this. It was by, no means unusual to send troops that very journey at that time of the year. It had been done again and again, and there had been no previous trouble except in the case of the Connaught Rangers. Therefore he was not confronted with any unusual situation, and had every reason to think that these troops were sent that way because there was some urgent military necessity; and the officer who questions an order given to him, when he has reason to presume that it is given on account of military necessity, is simply asking to be dismissed from his post as unfit to hold it.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.