HC Deb 30 April 1935 vol 301 cc325-36

A Provincial Legislature shall have the power to make a law amending the provisions of this Act for the purpose of extending the franchise to every person of the age of twenty-one years and upwards upon the sole basis of the residential qualification provided in this Act, and if at the expiration of ten years after the commencement of Part III of this Act a Provincial Legislature has failed to make suck a law His Majesty in Council may make provision accordingly.—[Major Milner.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.27 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The Committee will observe that the Clause is intended to give power to a provincial legislature to make a law amending the franchise provisions of the Bill so as to give, in effect, adult suffrage to the natives of India. The new Clause further provides that, failing such a law being passed by a provincial legislature it shall be possible for His Majesty, by Order in Council to make provision accordingly. Most of us on this side of the Committee would be pressing the Government to confer adult suffrage upon the people of India if we thought that were practicable, but the great majority of us agree that at the present juncture that is not administratively practicable. I believe that it is practicable to have adult suffrage in the cities and larger towns, and I do not suppose that hon. Members who served with me on the Franchise Committee would disagree from me in that view. In India as a whole it is not possible at the moment. It might quite easily be possible within a very few years.

I would remind the Committee of the position which will exist under the Bill as it is at present before the Committee. The Committee are aware that franchise is one of the things which come under the heading of constituent powers, and in Clause 285 the Government, while retaining sole power to deal with these matters, have made provision for the Federal legislature or a provincial legislature to pass resolutions recommending an Amendment of the provisions of the Bill or proposing that an address be presented to His Majesty asking that certain alterations should be made in those provisions. That does not meet the case at all. It should be within the power of a provincial legislature to make its own laws in this respect. A provincial legislature is well able—probably better able than the Imperial Parliament sitting in this country—to decide when it is administratively possible for the people in a Province to have adult suffrage. In our view, the question of administrative practicability affords the only ground of objection to adult suffrage.

At present the Provincial legislatures and the Provincial governments are the most likely people to know when it is practicable, and we argue that the Provincial legislature should have the power to pass a law bringing about adult suffrage in the Province. Particularly do we think that that should be so when we bear in mind that the power given in Clause 285 of the Bill would only permit alterations to be made in this respect after 10 years had passed. We think it may easily be practicable in some Provinces to have adult suffrage before that time, and we believe that the extended franchise, such as it is, to be conferred by this Bill, will conceivably inspire interest and enable Provincial governments to train their presiding officers and other election officials so that it may be possible, not only in the towns but elsewhere in some Provinces, to bring about adult suffrage within less than 10 years. Whether that be so or not, we think that the Provincial legislatures should have the power suggested in the Clause.

There is another feature of the Indian legislatures, both Federal and Provincial, as proposed in the Bill, which causes us some concern. We believe that they are likely to be reactionary, that they are likely to consist principally of representatives of vested interests, and that, in the Federal Legislature at any rate, the Princes are likely to have an overwhelming power. We believe, therefore, that legislatures may possibly not be willing to extend the franchise and bring about adult suffrage as we should like to see it brought about, and so we provide in the Clause that, failing a Provincial legislature passing a law within 10 years providing what will be in effect adult suffrage, His Majesty in Council may make provision accordingly. I would point out that in both parts of the Clause the power is purely permissive. There is nothing binding about it, and in our submission the Clause is one which might advantageously be added to the Bill.

I do not know whether I need, in the House of Commons, labour the obvious advantages of adult suffrage, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not mind if I remind him of four reasons which were urged by himself and other members of the Franchise Committee in favour of adult suffrage. In the first place, I think we were all agreed that adult suffrage is the only way in which it is possible to get an absolute equality of political rights. Some of us have doubts, perhaps, as to whether even then absolute equality is obtained, but certainly adult suffrage does bring us as near as is humanly possible to such equality. That is the first reason why I hope that all of us may vote for the bringing about of adult suffrage in India at a comparatively early date.

The second reason is that adult suffrage is obviously the best means of ensuring the representation of the people of a, country as a whole. Thirdly, in India in particular, adult suffrage would solve what we all admit to be the difficult problem of securing representation of all the elements in that very varied population, whether those elements were rich or poor, men or women or the depressed classes or labour or any others. A form of adult suffrage would obviously bring about the best representation of every section of the community. Fourthly, adult suffrage would avoid the necessity that we all deplore in the circumstances in India at present of having fancy or special franchises for different sections of the community, for example, for women, for depressed classes, for labour and for other classes, such as we understand are to be provided for in the Schedule on this matter.

For all these reasons, we urge this new Clause upon the Committee. I would further remind the Committee that adult suffrage has been for some years past in force with considerable success in Ceylon, where it is possible for any adult over the age of 21 to apply to be put on to the register of electors. We are not asking that that state of affairs should be brought about in India to-morrow, but that the Indian Legislature should have the power, when it believes it to be possible, useful and desirable, to bring such a change about and should have the power to pass a law to that effect, and that failing such a law being passed at the expiration of 10 years His Majesty in Council should bring about such a change. I sincerely commend what we on these benches regard as a very important Clause to the attention of the Committee.



10.38 p.m.


I regret that I cannot subscribe to the shouts of "Agreed" in support of this particular Clause. I understand the importance which hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite attach to the opportunity which should be given to Provincial Legislatures to introduce adult suffrage in what might be, under this Clause, the immediate future. I appreciate the argument put forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner), with whom I travelled round India to consider this very subject. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will remember that the Franchise Committee reported categorically against the introduction of adult suffrage, in the immediate future, at any rate, and they envisaged the lapsing of a certain amount of time, and did not see that it would be possible to introduce adult suffrage into India in a time which one could reasonably measure. In view of that finding, I think that the hon. and gallant Member will agree with me that he is rather optimistic in suggesting that the Government would be able to accept the new Clause, which he has so ably moved to-night. At the same time, I agree with him, that the subject is of great importance, and I will address myself to his arguments as expeditiously as I can.

The reasons which he gave in favour of adult suffrage were certainly good ones. One of our chief difficulties in India has been to frame all these very different franchises in order to try and achieve equality of treatment for the different communities and types of voter, the poor and the rich in town and country, and to establish a balance between all these. That has been one of the greatest difficulties in framing the elaborate franchise which we have framed at the present stage at a certain level. But there is a very great difference between the franchise we propose, which would enfranchise 35,000,000 people, and the franchise proposed by this new Clause, which would enable any Provincial Legislature in the almost immediate future, on the establishment of Provincial Autonomy, of its own volition to set up a franchise which if it were applied to the whole population of India would cover an adult population of 130,000,000.

I am afraid that I cannot accept the Amendment for the following reasons. In the first place, it would be contrary to the decision of the Joint Select Committee with regard to what are known as constituent powers. Those are powers to amend the present Constitution. On the advice of the Joint Select Committee we have inserted Clause 285 which gives to any Provincial Legislature after the passage of 10 years the opportunity of making representations to the Home Government on particular subjects, one of which would be the qualifications entitling persons to be registered as voters for the purpose of elections. After 10 years, therefore, a Provincial Legislature if it was so minded could make a representation to the Home Government on this matter and the Secretary of State would be under a statutory obligation to consider the matter and take action or to lay his reasons for not taking action before Parliament.

The hon. and gallant Member referred to the last few words of the new Clause. Let me remind him that the substance of the last few words, to which he attached importance, is already met in the Bill in Clause 285 (4). If His Majesty in Council decided to take action on the lines suggested in Clause 285 (4) it would be necessary to apply to the Provincial governments concerned or to the Government of India, as is provided for in Sub-section (i) of the proviso to that Clause. The substance of what hon. Members desire in the latter part of their Clause is already inserted as a general power in the Bill where it may happen to be necessary. What they desire in the early part of the Clause would, we think, be unsound. We think that, apart from these Constitutional arguments, to allow a Provincial Legislature to introduce adult suffrage in the immediate future would be extremely inadvisable. We think that it would be beyond the limits of administrative practicability to poll these large numbers in the immediate future. As it is, in our scheme we have extended the franchise to the limits of practicability. In each case we have carefully consulted the Provincial governments as to how far they are able to go. If hon. Members will refer to the report of the Franchise Committee in the Chapter which deals with adult suffrage they will see on pages 16 and 17 set out at length the administrative possibilities under present conditions for the polling of voters in India.

To sum up in a few words, the problem amounts to this, that to poll voters efficiently it is essential to have properly qualified presiding officers, apart from polling clerks, to conduct elections properly. At the same time it is essential to man the polling stations with proper polling clerks. We made exhaustive examination in India as to the number of presiding officers who would be available in particular districts and Provinces, and the Franchise Committee came to the conclusion that, quite apart from the problem of polling Hindu and Moslem voters on separate days, which would be necessary, it would be impossible in India to poll more than 25,000,000 in one day, and even that would entail the dislocation of some of the ordinary business of government in administration. Referring to the large figure that I gave of the adult population that would have to be enfranchised if adult sufferage were introduced, it would be become impossible to envisage in the immediate future an expeditious or efficient election on the basis of adult sufferage with the present administrative machine in India and with the presiding officers available.


You can do it in six days.


If you had to set aside separate days for polling different sections of the community, it might be necessary to double that number of days, and if the hon. and gallant Members refers to the report of the Franchise Committee he will see that if an election is to take six days it means that some of the administrative work will have to be suspended, as some of the officers will have to act as presiding officers in the election. It must also be remembered that long distances in India have to be travelled, and the question of distance combined with time and numbers really makes it impossible to poll the whole population of India in the immediate future. There is also the difficulty of manning the polling stations with police. In India it is essential to avoid any communal trouble on polling day, and if polling takes place on different days the polling stations will have to be manned by the police. The Franchise Committee found that the same round figure of 25,000,000 was the maximum which could be polled under the present police arrangements. There is also the difficulty of polling the women, getting them into the booths. For all these administrative difficulties, the Government are obliged to consider the new Clause as unacceptable. The concluding argument is that it would be unwise to jump at one stage from the present proposed franchise to the immediate prospect of adult suffrage. If it is going to come, it is much better that it should come after Indians have had experience and gained a knowledge of the use and the value of the vote, and after we have overcome some of the problems connected with illiteracy. For these reasons, the Government are unable to accept a proposal which hon. Members opposite regard as somewhat important.

10.48 p.m.


I do not dispute the many practical difficulties in regard to adult suffrage, but some of the arguments of the Under-Secretary of State were rather fallacious. Take his last argument that you should give time for Indians to learn the use of the vote. You cannot learn the use of the vote unless you have the vote, and if you are going to disfranchise a large proportion of the population whether for six or seven or 10 years, they will not have learnt how to use the vote at the end of that period. It is foolish to say that all the elections should take place on one day. That does not happen now. An election takes a fortnight or three weeks in Assam, and it is only recently that we in this country have polled on one day. That is not a final argument. I agree that at the present moment it is difficult in most Provinces, not in all, to introduce adult suffrage, but the Under-Secretary has missed the point of the proposal. It is this. You are making arrangements for certain sections of the population to have a vote, for certain special sections to have a vote, women, labour and the depressed classes, but there are large sections, like the landless labourers in the rural areas, who will not have a vote.

The people who are not going to have the vote are the most defenceless, from the economic point of view, in the whole community; and we have a responsibility, in giving any advance in self-government in seeing whom we are going to place in control, and what is going to happen to these people whose economic position renders them defenceless. You are going to hand over the vote to a section of the community and if you hand it over without any provision for a future advance of the franchise I think it is very unlikely that there will be any advance, in view of the conditions in India. I want to see some direct incentive to the local governments to take steps for making provisions for polling a much larger number. They must envisage the possibility in the near future of adult suffrage. I want us to have the power here, so that if it is not done we can step in—so that we can say we have not relinquished all power in respect of these people so far as the vote is concerned and that we can give them protection; and that if they are not given the vote within a certain period of time by the Provincial Governments this House will step in and give them the vote. We might have a device similar to that used in the United States at one time, whereby the States lost a, certain amount of their voting power at the centre if they did not enfranchise a certain proportion of their population. As this thing stands at present we are just passing a Bill enfranchising a certain section, and leaving out of account a very large body of people who are the most helpless and whom we ought not to leave without some protection.

10.53 p.m.


I am not surprised that the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) and the hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) did not refer to one very important element of this Clause, which is as to what would be the cost of polling 130,000,000 people instead of 35,000,000. It is quite evident that one of the principal objections to the whole of this proposal is the enormous cost which it would entail to the Government of India. The Under-Secretary did not give us any idea of what the extra cost would be, although I have no doubt that the Committee must have gone into that question when they considered adult suffrage.


There are specimens at the end of the Franchise Committee's report.


Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us what the cost of this proposal is, for it is very important that we should know. There is another reason why it is surprising that this Clause should be put forward from the Opposition benches. On every other occasion when there has been a question of a safeguard which involves a special intervention of the Governor-General, and still more when there has been any proposal to maintain the control of this House over any of the affairs of India, Members opposite have always been vocal in denouncing any such proposal. Now, when we come to the question of adult suffrage, they suggest that if progress under the Constitution we are setting up does not proceed sufficiently rapidly in certain, directions to satisfy them then the whole matter should be dealt with by Order in Council here. Surely what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If it is right to do this in the matter of the franchise why is it not right in all the other matters in which hon. Members opposite have always taken precisely the opposite view?

There was another thing which the hon. Members opposite did not mention and that was whether the people of India would be better off financially or socially, or whether they would be better governed should they all have the vote. I do not see how it is going to alter the representation between one party and another, between the Moslems and those of other religions, or between one section of the community and another. What you do have at present is some guarantee that voters, or a reasonable proportion of them, will be able to read enough to know whom they are voting for and will not have to do it merely by painted signs and things of that kind. Until education has proceeded a good deal further you would have wholly illiterate voters, and I have not heard any argument that the total result would produce any material difference, or do the people of India any material good. I have referred to the question of expense. To carry out this proposal in that vast country, holding such a gigantic number of people, attempting to do what has never been done before in this world—nothing approaching it has ever been done—to do that is one of the most absurd proposals I have ever heard put forward.

10.57 p.m.


The argument of the hon. Member who has just spoken is an extraordinary one as coming from a representative in an elected Chamber. The argument, I understood, was that it does not really matter to India how many people exercise the vote.


I was in this House for many years representing 10,000 voters. They altered the electorate to 45,000, and I am still here.


I should have thought that if we are about to extend self-government of India, self-government must be government by the Indians. It cannot be by anyone else. We have heard the Under-Secretary state that if this proposal were universally adopted throughout India 130,000,000 Indians would be governing themselves, instead of 35,000,000. I should have thought that if the principle of self-government is a good principle and is contained in this Bill, this Clause is one that ought to be included in the Bill. But I do not want to follow the hon. Member any further. I wish to address myself to the Under-Secretary's statement. The only argument that he advanced against the Clause was that it was impracticable. Surely the Provincial Legislatures themselves are going to be the persons to determine whether the proposals are practicable or not. I would like to quote the report of the Franchise Committee which was mentioned by the Under-Secretary. On page 21 we find this: It will then be for the Legislatures themselves, after a definite period has passed, to determine at what pace the electorate should be extended and the date when they may wish to introduce adult suffrage. That is the only proposal which is contained in the new Clause.

It being Eleven o'Clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.