HC Deb 01 July 1897 vol 50 cc862-5
MR. J. HEATH (Staffordshire, N.W.)

On behalf of the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. J. T. FIRBANK), I beg to ask the Secretary of State for India whether, in consequence of the murderous outrage at Poona made on Mr. Band and Lieutenant Ayerst, the Indian Government will consider the desirability of adopting effectual means to prevent the inculcation of sedition through the Press?


said that before that Question was answered he wished to direct attention to its wording. In the first place the Question assumed as a matter of fact that sedition had been inculcated through the Indian native Press. That was an argumentative and hypothetical expression, and there was not a particle of evidence offered to support the statement. Moreover, sedition was a matter of opinion. [Laughter] He was perfectly serious in making that observation. The question of sedition could only be determined as an issue of fact, which when answered became an issue of law. What was or what was not sedition could never be discovered until the matter was subjected to some judicial investigation. He therefore objected to the Question, as it appeared upon the Paper, being put to a Minister. It was a most vicious Question in a Parliamentary sense, reflecting upon a whole class of the Press, that had ever been presented to the House of Commons.


The statement as to there having been a murderous outrage at Poona is a statement of fact which, if I recollect aright, has already been quoted in this House by a Minister of the Crown. As regards the latter part of the Question, I see nothing irregular in it. ["Hear, hear!"]


The police are now inquiring into the causes and circumstances of the outrage which has been recently committed at Poona. But the habitual dissemination of false intelligence and of appeals to religious animosities by a portion of the vernacular Press is a matter which has for some years past received the careful attention of the Indian Government; and if the result of the present inquiry be to show that this outrage was prompted by articles of this character, the question of taking measures to prevent the encouragement of crime through the Press will undoubtedly be taken into consideration. ["Hear, hear!"]


Would the inquiry be public?


If the hon. Gentleman thinks that a public inquiry into a murder conspiracy of this kind would facilitate the ends of justice he stands alone in that opinion. ["Hear, hear."]


That is a speech.


I am quite content to stand alone.

SIR W. WEDDERBURN (Banffshire)

Is it not the case that under the penal code stringent punishment is provided for these incitements to crime?


Order, order! That is really arguing the question. The noble Lord has simply stated that there will be an inquiry into the matter, and that does not justify the hon. Member in arguing the question that there are other means which would make it unnecessary to hold such an inquiry.


I beg to ask the Secretary of State for India whether he has received copies of a joint Hindu and Mahomedan memorial, dated 10th May 1897, regarding the Poona plague administration, addressed to the Governor of Bombay by upwards of 2,000 leading citizens of Poona and presented on their behalf by the principal Mahomedan and Hindu associations of the Deccan, giving specific instances of oppression and insult inflicted upon their families and religion, and declaring that a reign of terror had existed for the past eight weeks; whether he will state what reply was given to the petition, and what inquiry was made to test the truth of these allegations; and, whether he will lay a copy of the petition and of the reply upon the Table of the House?


I had not seen a copy of the memorial to which the hon. Member refers until I received one to-day from him. The measures taken at Poona to prevent the spread of the plague, which have been attended by a very remarkable amount of success, the deaths from plague having fallen from 177 per week to 7 per week within the last two months, have been made the subject of much misrepresentation and exaggeration in a portion of the vernacular Press. At present I can express no opinion as to the contents of the memorial, nor have I seen a copy of the Governor of Bombay's reply; but I am confident that he has been and is most careful to confine the action of the authorities to what is absolutely necessary for checking the plague, and to show all possible consideration to the religious opinions and customs of the inhabitants. I can say nothing with regard to laying papers on the Table until I receive an official report on the subject from India.

MR. HERBERT ROBERTS (Denbighshire, W.)

I beg to ask the Secretary of State for India, whether his attention has been drawn to the bitter complaints which have appeared in the vernacular newspapers of Poona and the Deccan, generally with regard to the methods pursued by the authorities in dealing with the plague; whether he is aware that no such complaints have been made with respect to the administration in Bombay, and if it be the case that the work of dealing with the plague at Bombay has been surrounded with more difficulty than at Poona; whether he is able to lay Papers upon the Table of the House with regard to the serious outrages which have been reported from Poona; and, whether he will order that a public and impartial inquiry shall be held to investigate the ad ministration with regard to the plague at Poona?


I am aware that, although the measures for checking the spread of the plague have been conducted on the same system at Poona and at Bombay, the unfavourable comments of the vernacular Press have been mainly confined to the newspapers of Poona and the Deccan. In view of the tone which had been previously adopted by those newspapers, this contrast does not afford matter for surprise. The recent outrages are now being inquired into by the police, and any publication of papers might tend to defeat the ends of justice. I have no reason to think, as at present advised, that any inquiry into the administration of Poona during the plague is necessary or desirable.