HC Deb 17 December 1908 vol 198 cc2155-61
SIR C. SCHWANN (Manchester, N.)

asked the Under-Secretary for India whether he was now in a position to make a statement with reference to the proposed reforms in Indian administration.


The proposals of which I shall give a summary have been delayed much longer than we anticipated, and no one regrets that delay more than the Secretary of State. But it has this justification. He was anxious, and rightly anxious, to draw information and suggestions from the widest possible area of opinion, official and non-official, corporate and individual, British and Indian, in all grades and from all classes in India. The Blue-books will show that he has not failed in that duty. He thought that wide consultation of opinion was the best and surest means of securing, as he trusts he will secure for his proposals, the general consent and the hearty co-operation of all sections of the community. I want also clearly and emphatically to state that the Viceroy and Government of India are entirely with us, and no one could have been more actively helpful all through than Lord Minto. He it was who, more than two years ago, initiated these constitutional reforms, and it is largely due to his patience and persistence, to his tact and liberal-mindedness, that they have been brought into a final and finished form Hon. Members are aware that ever since the Government of India was taken over by the Crown fifty years ago, our aim has been gradually to associate the Indians in various ways and in varying degrees in the administration and government of the country. At present I want to deal, not with the past, but the future, and I would only say that just as the Indian Councils Act of 1861 marked the first stage on the Statute-book, and as that was followed by another Councils Act in 1892, so I hope that the Bill of 1909 when it becomes an Act will make a further and a real advance towards representative Government. Now, on touching upon the various topics, I think I may presume that hon. Members will bear in their minds the suggestions contained in the White Paper of a year ago. First of all, as to the Advisory Councils. It is not proposed to establish Advisory Councils, either Imperial or Provincial. The functions to be exercised by them will be better discharged, in our judgment, by the enlarged Legislative Councils. This, of course, does not imply any abandonment of the present useful practice of the authorities in provinces and districts informally consulting leading men on matters of public importance. I come now to the Legislative Councils, Imperial and Provincial. First, the alteration of their constitution, and secondly, the enlargement of their powers. The enlargement of these Councils, and the extension of their functions to the discussion of administrative questions, "are," say the Government of India, "the widest, most deep-reaching and most substantial features of the scheme now put forward." I will begin with the Provincial Councils. There is a general increase in numbers all round. I will not trouble the House with figures which will be in their possession in an hour. But the normal figure for the four large provinces will be (excluding the Governor or Lieutenant-Governor) forty-six, as compared with twenty-three, and smaller numbers for the three lesser provinces, namely, for Eastern Bengal and Assam, thirty-six; Punjab, twenty-four; Burma, sixteen. The members are divided into "official" and "non-official" members. In Madras, for instance, at present there are twelve official and eleven non-official members. I exclude the Governor in all cases. In Bombay the constitution is the same, but the existing Council works, and works well, with ten official and fourteen non-official members. We have determined to dispense with the necessity of maintaining an official majority on the Provincial Councils. This would give greater reality to the debates and the business of these assemblies. And if there are those who may be doubtful as to possible risks, I would remind them that the legislative powers of Provincial Councils are by law restricted to a limited field, and there is in reserve both the veto of the Governor and the general legislative powers of the Viceroy's Council. There will still be, as at present, non-official members nominated to represent special interests or minorities, or experts. The corporations of the Presidency towns, the Universities, and the chambers of commerce will return representatives. We intend to secure a representation of the landholding class, the Mahomedans, the planting community in certain provinces, and there will be a large increase in the number of members elected to the Councils by the municipalities and district boards. In Bengal there are now three members so elected, in the future there will be eight. In the United Provinces the increase will be from four to ten, and in Bombay from three to eight. The numbers on the Viceroy's Legislative Council will also be increased from twenty-four to sixty-two, excluding the Viceroy in both cases. But here we shall maintain a permanent official majority. We shall largely increase, from four to twelve, the elected representatives on the Viceroy's Council from the Provincial Legislative Councils: we shall endeavour to provide special representation of landholders and Mahomedans from various provinces, and we shall increase the representation of chambers of commerce and the Indian commercial community. These are dry figures, which will be more easily understood from the Papers, and with regard to which there are certain details not yet worked out. There are, as hon. Members are aware who have studied the question, difficulties in the method of obtaining representation of communities like the Mahomedans or landholders. We want to minimise nomination as much as possible, and we want to avoid creating special electorates if we can. Anyhow, we have made suggestions to the Government of India to the effect that it might be possible to devise a system of electoral colleges by which in the more advanced provinces the Mahomedans, landholders and other special communities might obtain their representation on the Councils in proportion to their numbers and importance without the creation of special electorates. We have not yet received the views of the Government of India on this subject and its practicability. But hon. Members will clearly see what our aim is. We recognise that there are special communities and interests which should and must get representation on the Councils. They would not obtain it if we were to introduce there our home electoral system. We want to secure it for them in the least invidious way, and the way most acceptable to themselves. Next, as regards the enlargement of the power of these Councils, both Provincial and Imperial. At present questions are allowed, and there are many put, on notice given, and the Budget is discussed annually after it has been finally approved by the superior authority. But there is no other material for discussion save the actual legislative measures from time to time laid before the Councils. Opinion is unanimous that the facilities for debate should now be extended. It is accordingly proposed that discussion of general administrative questions should be permitted upon resolutions which may be moved and divided upon by any unofficial member, such resolutions to take the form of recommendations to Government, and to have only such force and effect as Government, after consideration, shall deem due to them. Supplementary questions will be allowed. And the manner of presenting the Budget will be entirely recast, so as to permit of its consideration by the Imperial Legislative Council resolved into Committee—or by Standing Committees of the Provincial Legislative Councils—and the moving of recommendations to Government before its form is finally fixed by the Executive Government. It is difficult to summarise this part of our proposal, but hon. Members will find that that which I have endeavoured to summarise is set out in full detail in the despatch of the Government of India. It is all explained there, and the provisions apply both to Provincial Councils and the Viceroy's Council. It would be an incomplete work, however, if we did not go lower down in the scale of administration and government than the Provincial Councils. We want to make an effective advance in the direction of local self-government, and to do something to vivify and make popular the constitution and functions of the local and district boards, and other minor boards in the country. We look for detailed assistance in this matter from the Report of the Decentralisation Commission shortly to be issued. The object that we have in view is to train the people of the towns and districts of British India to manage their own local affairs intelligently and successfully; and in our opinion the control of Government in this department of administration should be exercised from without rather than from within. The Government should revise and check the acts of the local bodies, and not dictate them. The cardinal principles of this branch of reform are laid down in a celebrated Resolution of Lord Ripon's Government of India in 1882, which we shall endeavour to see effectively carried out. With regard to Executive Councils I have still a word to say. Hon. Members know that Madras and Bombay alone of the provinces possess Executive Councils. The work of Lieutenant Governors of the other large provinces has largely increased, and we believe it might lead to greater efficiency if in certain cases they were assisted by Executive Councils. We do not intend immediately to give every Lieutenant-Governor an Executive Council, but we propose to take Parliamentary powers for the purpose at once. We also propose to add to the numbers of the Executive Councils in Madras and Bombay either one or two additional members, and one of these we think should in practice be an Indian. We do not alter the constitution of the Viceroy's Executive Council, and the House is aware that the Secretary of State has power at present of recommending at any time to the King the appointment of an Indian, if qualified, to be a member of that body. Some of the proposals that I have adumbrated can be brought into operation at once, some will need legislation in India, and some will need legislation here. A Bill, as hon. Members know, will be introduced in Parliament early next session. The proposals are a real step forward, and go a long way to meet in Lord Minto's words "the political aspirations of honest reformers." They are intended to associate a much larger body of Indians in the work of government, to throw greater responsibility upon them, both in the higher and in the lower ranges of government, to maintain British supremacy clear and unchallenged at the top, but to endeavour to secure that under our guiding, directing, and restraining hand, that the Indians shall learn the work of administration and government in the only school worth anything, the school of experience. I would make an appeal to hon. Members of all parties, to men of good will, outside and inside the House, British and Indian. It is, it may be, a supreme moment, I hope a golden moment, in the relations between this country and India. Let these reforms have a chance, a fair chance in India. Every detail may not please every individual. Let them go forth from this House as the spontaneous and ungrudging offer of the British nation to the peoples of India. There is a fine saying of Milton's— Let England never forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live. We are here face to face with the greatest and most difficult problem of government that can try the capacity of our race. With a good heart, with a clear head, with a right mind, with quiet courage we shall not fail.

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