HC Deb 19 March 1878 vol 238 cc1596-606

in rising to call attention to the establishment of a censorship of the Press in Bengal and Bombay, and to move— That legislation for our Indian fellow-subjects subversive of fundamental principles of the British Constitution should be adopted without this House being previously consulted upon the urgent necessity of such a course, said, he was prepared by official speeches and semi-official leaders in the patronized Press for some measure from the Indian Government dealing with the subject; but he was not prepared for a measure of such arbitrary authority as that which had just been adopted by the Indian Government. It was a measure which it was quite evident was intended to open a vast field for the purpose of the total suppression, or the official editing, of all the newspapers of Bengal and Bombay, printed and published in any Native language—a measure which was not justified and not required. Provision was even made for the punishment of what fell short of sedition or libel—a most infamous proposal. He had heard of punishment for the commission of an offence; but punishment for its non-commission was left to the inventive genius of the Calcutta Government, fertile in despotic expedients. The Indian newspapers published in English, which were to be exempt from the operation of the law, were quite as outspoken as those newspapers which were published in the Native languages. In support of that view, he would refer to a passage taken from The Indian Representative, which said that Sinbad with the living incubus upon his shoulders was emblematic of India dragging itself along oppressed with the weight of the foreign Government it supported. He contended that legislation of such an exaggerated character would be useless to put a stop to even incendiary appeals against Her Majesty's Administration in India. It was confessed on all hands that the individual circulation of the Native Indian newspapers was small; but under measures of an oppressive character, they would be much more extensively read. Nothing could be easier than for the prohibited newspapers to follow the example of the Lanterne, which was freely circulated in Prance despite the precautions of the Government censors; and if circulated in that way, the influence of the able and fearless, though discontented, writers, would be greater than at present. By merely crossing the border into one of the numerous Indian States that were mixed up with our Dominions in India, the publisher of the journal prohibited by the British Government could quietly print his offensive journal, and by a thousand willing hands that journal could be disseminated in the very heart of the district in which this absurd and Draconian measure was instituted for the purpose of expelling him and his influence. In the worst governed portions of Europe at any time during this century there was nothing to rival this engine which had been set up in India for the suppression of freedom of opinion. Indeed, nothing like it had ever been proposed. It was unfortunate, when they were endeavouring to set their house in order in the face of Europe, so as to come forward in defence of right, and justice, and freedom, that that House should be led so far to forget its high mission as to overlook an act of tyranny which at one blow struck down the most valued privileges and rights of a population equal to that of Europe. It would open the door to a system of official terrorism over Natives, which was very undesirable, and lead to evasion, which would be more mischievous to the Government than the open sale of Native newspapers. He protested most warmly against the slur cast upon the Native languages and the embargo laid upon Native thought. Views about education in India differed very widely; but he thought it was sad to look forward to the time when 250,000,000 should have to learn to give up their Native education on behalf of a few thousand Englishmen who had come to dwell amongst them, and could only remain permanently by conciliating the goodwill of the Natives of India. Whatever might be the stringency of the strictures passed by the Native newspapers on the acts of the the Government and the Government officials, the strictures in the newspapers published in England were in no whit different from those published in the Native newspapers in India. It was admitted by the supporters of the Administration in India that the writers in the Indian newspapers disclaimed all intention of cutting off the connection between India and the Empire except as a last and extreme resource. There was not an assertion in the wildest of the Indian newspapers that could not be rivalled in the writings of both Whigs and Tories in their criticisms on the great Revolution of 1688. The Pioneer of Allahabad admitted they had never attacked the Government as a Government, they had only criticized particular measures of the Government; and that represented the truth of the case generally with regard to the Indian Press. That Press protested against the manner in which the Indian Government was conducted in Calcutta, in which taxation was managed, in which justice was administered, and against the tyranny of the magistrates, and demanded that the Indian people ought to participate in the work of governing India, and in doing so they were perfectly right. The sort of criticism published in the Indian papers was very much like that published in the English papers with respect to English administration. One of the Indian papers inquired why so much dissatisfaction prevailed?—and stated that the people were more happy under the Mahometan authorities than under their present rule—that injustice and oppression were more extensively practised now than at any former period—that the people were suffering under the most grinding and cruel oppression on the part of the police officials, who had given so much trouble that the Governor of Bengal had declared that the continuance of crime itself would be better than the continuance of the law under which such exaction and extortion took place. If complaints of this kind might be published in England, was it conceivable, was it permissible, that such a Draconian law should be established as that which was now applied to India? Even hon. Members of Parliament had in their places in that House denounced the salt tax, for instance, as being a cruel and grinding piece of oppression of the poorest classes of the Native community. These and such like comments had been made, and they had been published by English newspapers which circulated freely in India. Why should not Indians in India be permitted to use language such as any British subject could utter in England or Ireland with impunity, even if they did use the Native tongue? One of the Indian papers, which was severely denounced by the Calcutta Government, stated that one of the greatest sins of which it had been guilty was that it had complained of increasing maladministration in India in respect to taxation, justice, and police. It stated that the policy of the British Government was to destroy the national life and keep the people in subjection for ever. Now, was that true, or was it not true? Was it not a fair comment on the part of Indian politicians to say that the Indian Administration was hostile to national life in India? And he would ask what measures had recently been taken by the Government which were not of that character? He contended that, with regard to an overwhelming majority of the offences alleged against the Indian Press, they could be dealt with by the ordinary process of law, and that most of them were not offences at all. Except through a Native Press, we could learn nothing of what the Native populations of India thought of our government, and if we suppressed that Press, we must not be surprised one day to find that we had been slumbering on the edge of a pent up volcano. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "legislation for our Indian fellow-subjects subversive of fundamental principles of the British Constitution should not he adopted without this House being previously consulted upon the urgent necessity of such a course,"—(Mr. O' Donnell,) —instead thereof.

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


Sir, I hope the hon. Member who has made this Motion (Mr. O'Donnell) will not suppose that I shall presume to pronounce an opinion upon the use which he has thought fit to make of his right as a Member of Parliament to introduce it to the notice of the House. No doubt he has done so under a very strong sense of the urgency of the case, and I do not at all make myself a judge of his conduct in that respect; but I must say, and that in the name of the urgency and importance and difficulty of the case, I am disposed to make an appeal to him and an appeal to others not to attempt to prosecute discussion upon it at the present time. It appears to me that the matter undoubtedly is one of extreme gravity. I have rarely read an announcement affecting the proceedings of any portion of the Government of this country with greater pain than that with which I have read the recent tidings from India respecting the Order concerning the Press of that country. And that pain will, I believe, be shared by the whole of the Members of Her Majesty's Government, and those Members of the House who may have, or may have conceived they had, information sufficient to judge the whole case, and likewise to arrive at the conclusion that the Indian Government had acted wisely in the matter. For my own part, it appears to me that the objections which obviously apply to a measure such as that which has been adopted are so strong that I must, in common fairness and in common sense, presume that the Indian Government has seen reason of very great strength in order to induce it to resort to so extreme a proceeding. Therefore I am impressed, Sir, with the belief—and I cannot help thinking that the sentiment will generally pervade the House—that both prudence and fairness, and I would almost say decency, or, at any rate, Parliamentary propriety, require that we should wait to know what those reasons are before we proceed to discuss a matter of this kind. Taking it at its best, and supposing that the Indian Government are right, still the proceeding is one which must cause us the deepest pain. It must cause the deepest pain to all Members of this House, and particularly to those hon. Members who think with me, that the questions relating to the internal government of India, and the questions which concern the morality and justice with which we treat the people of India, are of far greater consequence, and will ultimately operate with far greater force in determining the relation between this country and India than those questions about her Frontiers and about foreign Powers on which a large number of the people of this country are so fond of dwelling. If we should arrive at the conclusion that the conduct of the Indian Government was wise—and I confess the reasons must be very strong indeed which will induce me to believe that the conduct of the Indian Government has been wise—the subject must still be a painful one, and one which should only be approached with full notice, and full time and materials for its consideration. If, on the other hand, we are to arrive at the conclusion that the measure had been unwise, do not let us suppose that our path becomes thereby a clear one, for one of the unfortunate incidents of distant government—one of the necessary and unfortunate incidents of distant government—is that it often happens, and has often happened in Indian matters, that even where we may think an error has been committed, any attempts to correct the error involve greater evils than even if the error were allowed to continue undisturbed. I can, as I have already said, pass no judgment on the course taken by the hon. Member, and I wish to be understood as most carefully reserving my own opinion upon every point of this case, except that I regard the matter as one of the extremest gravity; but we are not prepared for discussion at this moment. I make no doubt whatever that Her Majesty's Government will lose no time in placing us in possession of the fullest information with regard to it; and, in fact, informing us of everything they know upon a matter of the kind, as they will be anxious that we should share, as I think we are entitled to share, their responsibility in this matter. If that be so, I would represent to others, I would even entreat them—but possibly I am anticipating what will proceed from Her Majesty's Government, and if so, I do not think I am rendering any bad service to the public interest—but I would entreat them to wait the opportunity when we may be able to discuss the question with the information before us which the examination necessarily requires, especially as we cannot anticipate the reasons which may be given. We see in India that the proposition is one which has been carried through with great rapidity, as if it were a matter of extreme urgency, and that no doubt is a part of the res gestæ upon which we may have to pronounce judgment. It does not seem to me to bear on the question whether we ought to go forward with the discussion at this moment. The matter does not stand as I admit it might stand if this had been a mere project with respect to which a long interval would elapse before the authority of the Indian Government would be committed to it; but, as I understand the matter, the proceeding has been prompt, absolute, and final. If that be so, it is obvious the question of time is a question which does not press urgently upon us; and, even if it did, no urgency could be so great, in a matter of such delicacy, difficulty, and gravity as this as to call for discussion under the circumstances. I think there would be no evil so great in a matter of this gravity as our attempting to approach this discussion without the possession of those means which are absolutely necessary to form a judgment, in order to make that discussion satisfactory.


Sir, I confess I have been a little surprised at the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. O'Donnell) bringing forward his Notice to-day, because very recently the hon. and learned Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan), put a Question to me upon the same subject—namely, whether the somewhat meagre telegram in the morning papers on the 15th instant was a correct report concerning the Bill the Indian Government recently brought in; and he further asked if I would undertake to lay the Act upon the Table of the House as soon as we received it? In reply to that Question, I willingly undertook not only to lay the Act upon the Table of the House, but also the discussions which took place thereon in the Indian Council. In the absence of the text of the Act, and the other information, it is absolutely impossible to discuss properly or fully the Motion of the hon. Gentleman; and I hardly expected that, under the circumstances, he would have brought it forward.


I beg to make an explanation. I certainly did not ask such a Question.


I said the hon. and learned Member for Louth asked the Question; and, of course, I thought the hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. O'Donnell) would have waited till we were in possession of these Papers. The India Office is not yet in full possession of the information. I can only concur fully in the reasons which have been so ably urged by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich why this discussion should not proceed. I think it is only justice that we should postpone our judgment till the facts are fully known to us. A great deal has been said of the Act recently passed, and I think it desirable that the law on the subject as it at present stands on the Indian Code should be better known. It provides that any person who by words spoken, or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, excites, or attempts to excite, feelings of disaffection to the Govern- ment established by law in British India, shall be punishable with transportation for life, or for any term, to which a fine may be added, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added, or with a fine. This being the state of the law in India, it is only fair to the Indian Government to say that they are entitled to apply this stringent law to the editors of papers whose writings bring them within this class of offenders; and the Indian Government may, in the legislation which they have recently passed, have been anxious to mitigate the severity of the present law, and, by mitigating it, render it more suitable to be applied in putting down, with only such severity as may be necessary, seditious libels on the Administration and the Empire. It is only right that I should make this statement, because at present there seems to be an impression abroad that there is no provision, excepting the new Act, under which the editors of papers publishing seditious libels can be punished. I hope, after what has passed, the House will not proceed with the discussion.


said, he would not continue the discussion at the present moment; but one word he must say in justice to himself, because in the telegram which reported the measure from India, the Viceroy, it appeared, stated that he (Sir George Campbell) had proposed such a measure. He must say that to the best of his belief that statement was not, properly speaking, correct. He had no recollection of having proposed such a measure. He believed he had done nothing of the kind. He certainly had expressed himself in strong language of the evils with which they had to cope in India in connection with the matter—no one could have done so more strongly; but as regarded the remedy, he thought that was a point the most difficult that could be conceived in an absolute Government co-incident with free institutions. Therefore, considering the matter as one of great difficulty, he had been very slow indeed to propose a remedy; and when he was an official in India, it was the one thing that he hesitated to deal with—in fact, so to express himself, he had rather shirked it. One part of the news from India certainly did astonish him, and that was that the Bill was passed in a most summary way. The question had been considered for many years, and that it should now have been passed in this extraordinarily rapid manner was to him most strange. He understood that no Notice was given of any intention to pass the measure; for that on one day, Notice was given, and on the same day it passed into law. He must therefore express his great surprise that the measure had been passed in so rapid and unprecedented a manner for reasons which had in no degree been explained.


hoped, after what had been stated by his right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich, that the discussion would not be continued. It was scarcely possible that the House could have to consider a more important subject; but it did appear to him that at the present moment they did not possess the requisite materials to continue the discussion. He could not imagine why the Indian Government, after 10 years' consideration, should have passed this measure so rapidly. Nothing could be more certain than that for a Bill of that kind Notice should have been given just as it would have been given in that House. It was evident, from the statement of the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for India, that the Bill had been passed by the Indian Government without consulting the authorities in England; and it was therefore the more important that the House should be placed in possession of full information before proceeding to discuss the matter.


said, that considerable surprise had been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich, and by other hon. Gentlemen at this Star Chamber Government in India. He desired to remind hon. Members that that House, for many years past, dealt with another country in the same way that the Indian Government had dealt with India—he referred to Ireland. In 1848, in dealing with certain Press offences, the House passed an Act called the Treason Felony Act. They found, too, that in 24 hours, the British Government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act; and, in the face of Europe, England, which had the character of being the protector of civil and religious liberty, left the liberty of Ireland in the hands of a Star Chamber in the Dublin Castle for the time being; but he was not aware that either the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich or the hon. Member for Hackney had expressed surprise when that Act for Ireland was before the House. The people of England and of Europe would see from this discussion that this state of things was another evidence of the value of the British Constitution, and that every people except Englishmen themselves enjoyed it. He was sure this discussion would be read in Ireland with great interest, because it would show the position that India was fast arriving at as an Empire under the British Constitution.


said, that especially in deference to the wish of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich, he bogged the leave of the House to withdraw the Motion.


explained. He had not stated that the Secretary of State had not been consulted on the subject, but that he was not in possession of the text of the Act or of the discussion which had passed in regard to it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.