HC Deb 13 February 1934 vol 285 cc1893-902

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.1 p.m.

Duchess of ATHOLL

I have no wish to detain the House unnecessarily, but feel it my duty to bring before the House a very important revolutionary leaflet lately discovered of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for India appeared yesterday to be unaware. It is signed by the President of the Council of the Chittagong branch of the Indian Republican Army, whatever that may be. After using very violent terms about the alleged brutality of British rule it calls on the Chittagong branch of the Indian Republican Army to launch again with full vigour and energy an unrelenting and never-failing campaign against every Englishman, whether official or non-official, men or women, young or old, and all sorts of drastic steps will be taken, and nothing will be spared in this campaign, and for this the Army takes all responsibility for fulfilling the project. The Indian Republican Army wants to subvert the tyrannical Government, to break off the chains, to cut off all connection with Britain, to assert the national independence of India. And in pursuance of these circumstances, the Indian Republican Army further proclaims with bitter indignation to wreak vengeance on these usurpers, and is confined (sic) to carry on indiscriminate massacre and execution of the foes of our country, whether they are Englishmen or Anglo-Indians or our countrymen. This leaflet was found on the dead body of one of the Hindu terrorists who were killed when bombs were thrown and revolver shots fired at a crowd of Europeans in Chittagong on 7th January. Statements subsequently made by the District Magistrate and the prosecuting counsel at the trial of terrorists who were taken on that occasion show that this leaflet had been distributed since 24th December.

There is no need for me to emphasise the extreme seriousness of the language of the leaflet, but I wish also to emphasise that it is circulated by a body that is neither new nor merely local in character. The Indian Republican Army, or Hindustan Republican Army, as it is sometimes called, has been in existence for several years. It started in the United Provinces and in the Punjab, and in November, 1932, the Finance Member of the Punjab Government informed the Punjab Legislative Council of a leaflet which called upon all persons in Lahore to burn the shops, to shoot all Britishers at sight, and of another which called for the slaughter of "every white man or black official." The Finance Member emphasised the extreme gravity of the movement and said that experience had shown that terrorism spread with extraordinary rapidity if not controlled. The "Pioneer" of 19th January last tells us that evidence was led in the recent conspiracy trial in Madras to the effect that the alleged plot to murder the Governor of Bengal was the work of the Republican Army of Madras. Sir Alfred Watson, the late editor of the "Statesman," writing to the "Times" on 5th September last, spoke of the Hindustan Republican Army and of its elaborate schemes for present activities and future government. He said it had been largely influenced by the Russian Revolution and the Irish Republicans. On another day Sir Alfred told us of a pamphlet that had been widely circulated by the Indian Republican Army. This included an appeal signed by Subas Bose, chairman of the Calcutta Corporation, a gentleman who, I believe, is now at Geneva, to the effect that "it was necessary to produce thousands of Bhagat Singhs"—in other words, persons who would murder officials—" before India was free."

Therefore, it seems clear to me that the body, a branch of which has issued this appeal, is one which has been established for some years, which is widespread, extending anyhow over four Provinces, if not more, which is evidently now dangerously active, and which has a leading member of the Congress party associated with it. In the original draft of a speech delivered last month by the President of the European Association he speaks of terrorism as being as great a menace as it ever has been, and says: During the past six months there has been abundant evidence that this anarchical terror has spread its tentacles into every Province other than Bengal. He mentions "Various trials now or lately in progress at, amongst other places, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Delhi and Lahore; some of them, it is said, on an amazingly extensive scale." It is for this reason that the speech, in the original draft, went on to say that the association was opposed to the proposed transfer of the police. It would be interesting to know why this speech was not finally delivered as originally drafted and circulated to members of the association. Again, the "Review of India" for November last, gives a daily list for October which shows that on every day in the month there had been either a discovery of some terrorist act, or a trial or some terrorist crime or conspiracy.

When I see all this evidence of the widespread character of terrorist crime, and the extensive nature of terrorist conspiracies, stretching into several other Provinces besides Bengal, I feel that the House has had very little information on the subject. I remember that when we last had a speech from the Secretary of State for India on 17th July last, he did not tell us of any terrorist activities outside Bengal, and he said that in Bengal itself we had now "got level" with the movement. We had no subsequent debate on this matter, and I quite believe that up to the date of that speech the terrorist activities outside Bengal had not been nearly as serious as in the months that have since elapsed. But I do feel that the answer given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State yesterday, to a question I put to him about terrorist conspiracies in Provinces other than Bengal in the last six months in 1933, was rather inadequate. His statement that these cases had been very few and had occurred in only a few Provinces, seemed to me to leave out of account the extreme gravity of these murderous conspiracies and the magnitude of their extent. If you add up all these cases and put them on paper, they do not look very much, but that gives no idea whatever of what these cases actually mean.

I feel, further, that the event which occurred at Chittagong just a month ago, which happily was frustrated of its evil intention by the great promptitude and bravery of the police and officials generally, and the very grave contents of the leaflet from which I have quoted, are very difficult to reconcile with the statement made last week by my right hon. Friend, to the effect that manifestations of terrorism in Bengal have been checked.

11.10 p.m.


I hope that the right hon. Gentleman to-night, in view of the great seriousness of the subject which the Noble Lady has raised, will give us all the information in his power, and will be as open and as candid with the House as he thinks proper to be. Nobody, of course, would ever accuse the right hon. Gentleman of either distorting or suppressing the facts of the case, but some of us are inclined to think that there is a tendency in this matter to take up a complacent and comfortable attitude, and to use that fatal phrase, "We have the situation well in hand," which usually precedes some signal catastrophe. We find, either in Press reports or from reliable private information, that people on the spot take a very much graver view. As an example of what I mean, I would refer the right hon. Gentleman to the question which the Noble Lady asked him on 5th February. The Noble Lady put this question: May I ask my right hon. Friend if it is not the case that the necessity for recently introducing this Bill into the Bengal Provincial Council, and the speech made by the home member of the Bengal Government, to which the question refers, indicate that there has been a recrudescence of terrorist crime since 17th July last, when he informed the House of Commons that in his opinion we had now 'got level' with terrorism? The right hon. Gentleman replied: No, Sir, my Noble Friend is not correct in drawing that assumption from what I have said. What has happened is, that better organisation against terrorism has brought to light information which was not in our possession before. The situation is better in that respect than it was last July. Our information is better, and because our information is better, we are now able to take more effective steps against terrorism."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1934; cols. 779 and 780, Vol. 285.] The real meaning of that is that whereas the right hon. Gentleman first said, "We have got level with terrorism," he sub- sequently discovered that we had not got level with terrorism and now the Government congratulates itself on an improvement in the situation because they know it is worse than they thought it was in July. That sort of attitude is disposed to shake our confidence in these replies to questions. The Government of Bengal have introduced a Bill, the Preamble of which, I believe, states that: Whereas this question has of late assumed particular importance, owing to the intense and widespread recrudescence of the activities of terrorism and of armed robbers … and the Home Member, Mr. Reid, introducing the Bill in the Bengal Legislative Council, said: I want no one in the House to be under any illusion as to the present situation. We are confronted with a very big and dangerous organisation, a dangerous conspiracy, and a growing conspiracy. That is the ominous part of it. What is to prevent the right hon. Gentleman from giving us once more a reassuring answer to-night, and, six months from now, again telling us that there is improvement, because, again, he has found out that our alarm in this month of February was better justified than he knew at the time? If all these strong measures have failed to check the spread of this infection in India and if the improvement in the situation upon which we have been congratulating ourselves so heartily, is without proper foundation, and if the organisation is, as the Home Member says, growing and ominous, then those facts will be most relevant to Members of this House when they have to consider whether the time is yet ripe for transferring to the hands of Indian Ministers in Bengal and the other infected Provinces, the great responsibility of controlling the police and the judiciary. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will take my humble suggestion that in any way to minimise the position when he knows of its real dangers, will be, from every point of view, impolitic in the extreme.

11.15 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for INDIA (Sir Samuel Hoare)

In the few minutes that remain for my answer I must not be tempted into a controversy on constitutional questions such as was suggested by my hon. and learned Friend. All I will try to do is to put before the House such information as I have and without any complacency, of which he feared I might have been guilty in the past, which I entirely disclaim—the last thing in the world that I wish is to be complacent in the very difficult and dangerous issues that face us—to deal with the two or three main points raised by him and by my Noble Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Duchess of Atholl). It is a difficult question to treat effectively for three reasons. First of all, there is the risk of complacency such as is referred to by my hon. and learned Friend; secondly, there is the risk of falling into an attitude of pessimism, the kind of attitude which would discourage the loyal forces in India, particularly in Bengal; and thirdly there is the risk in the course of these discussions of disclosing information which would be valuable actually to the terrorists themselves.

Accepting these three assumptions, let me deal in turn with the suggested criticisms. It seemed to me that underlying the speech of my Noble Friend was the feeling that whatever the Government of India or I may have recently said upon the subject, the terrorist movement was spreading very widely and was becoming more dangerous in the Provinces outside Bengal. I do not want to be either optimistic or complacent, but what I can say to the House and what I have already said in answer to questions that have been asked me, is that my evidence does not go to substantiate that criticism. The terrorist movement, I admit, is not confined to Bengal. It never has been confined to Bengal, although it has shown itself at its worst in Bengal. The terrorist movement originally started in the North of India, and it is true to say that it has its tentacles in the Provinces outside Bengal. When one comes to analyse the terrorist cases in recent months the fact is that in the last six months there have been eight conspiracy cases connected with the terrorist movement, that five of these cases were in Provinces outside Bengal, but a careful analysis of those cases goes to show that apart possibly from the case in Madras, where there were special features connected with it, the other cases do not show any new or abnormal feature. What is further satisfactory to note is that the police have been able to deal effectively, so far as we can judge, with the movement and in the Provinces outside Ben- gal they have been able to deal with the movement without any special powers outside the ordinary Statute law. That is the most recent information I have about the examples of terrorism outside the Province of Bengal. I do not wish to minimise the gravity of those cases, nor to exaggerate them. They do not appear to me to exhibit any new features. Moreover, we have been able to deal with them effectively, as far as I can judge, by the police and the administrative machinery of the Provinces. Secondly, there seems to be a criticism underlying my Noble Friend's speech that either our information is inadequate or that we do not sufficiently disclose it to the House. I disclaim the justice of that criticism altogether. I have attempted to give the House whatever information I can safely give it. Nor do I think that my information is inadequate. There is not a day that passes without my receiving information not only from official sources but from unofficial sources. Very few weeks pass without my discussing this question with officials back here on leave from the Province of Bengal and other Provinces, and I disclaim entirely the charge that the information at our disposal is either inadequate or that I in any way withhold it from this House.

My Noble Friend has quoted as an example the fact that in an answer given yesterday we appeared to be ignorant of the fact that the leaflet from which she quoted was found upon one of the criminals who was arrested in the Chittagong outrage a few weeks ago. It is perfectly true that we have not had a copy of that leaflet. What is also true is that, in practically every outrage of this kind that has taken place, not only in recent months but in recent years, going back eight or ten years, certainly going back three years to the Chittagong Armoury raid, leaflets of this kind have been found upon the persons of criminals. I have made inquiry from the Government of Bengal whether there is anything new or unprecedented in this leaflet. It was an outrageous leaflet. It could not have been more outrageous. It differed in no material respect from the leaflets that have previously been discovered in any other serious outrage, and of which I have many copies at the India Office. I hope I have said enough to show that if we did not have this leaflet it did not mean that in any way our information was inadequate upon the subject.

Lastly perhaps the most important question that arises out of a discussion of this kind is the question whether our provisions for dealing with terrorism are adequate or not. I will never be driven to the point of saying they are adequate. In dealing with a foe as subtle, as insidious, as unscrupulous as the foe with which we are confronted in terrorism, I should never say our measures are entirely adequate. What, however, I will say is that without exception we have given the Government of India, and the Government of Bengal in particular, every power for which they have asked. I will say further that, just as we have given them all the support for which they have asked, so we will give them every support in the future. We realise that we are faced not with a transitory movement, here to-day and gone to-morrow, but with a movement that has been endemic in India, and in Bengal in particular, for many years. We believe the only way to deal with a movement of that kind is to adopt permanent rather than temporary measures against it, and the most significant feature of the new legislation that is now being introduced into the Bengal Council is the fact that those measures will be made permanent and not temporary.

If you pass from the general position to the local position on the spot, particularly in difficult and dangerous districts like Chittagong, there, again, we have given the local administration every kind of local power they require. I can satisfy any Member of this House, however much he may be in doubt about the general position, that there is no power for which the local administration in Chittagong have asked that we have not given them. The satisfactory part of our situation is that, first of all, there is a splendid spirit in the personnel of the Government of Bengal, and particularly in the personnel in these dangerous districts. The District Magistrate at Chittagong rose equal to a very difficult situation. I know him well personally, and he is a very remarkable man, in whom we can have full confidence.

The authorities, both military and civil, fully co-operated with each other in suppressing the outbreak. Further than that, the European community at Chittagong, which might well, under this grave provocation, have been expected to be drawn into a state of alarm, excitement and panic, kept their nerve completely and went on with their ordinary avocations. I understand that they are satisfied with the measures that have been taken, and that they are giving the local administration every support that they possibly can give. That goes to show that we, the Government, are resolute in our determination to eradicate this evil, even though it may take time. Secondly, it shows that we have behind us the services in the Government of India, and, in Bengal, with the finest morale and the practical support of the European population. Perhaps, most important of all, more and more we are finding that Indian public opinion is veering to our side, and giving us that support that was conspicuously lacking in former years.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.