HC Deb 22 March 1935 vol 299 cc1557-64

3.2 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 58, line 32, leave out "and Nicobar."

The object of this Amendment is to transfer the administration of the Nicobar Islands from the Government of India to the Colonial Office. At the present moment, the Nicobar Islands are under the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman Islands who is directly responsible to the Home Member of the Government of India. Owing to the trend of affairs in India I should like to submit that it is no longer desirable that these islands should remain under Indian administration. I would remind the Committee that these islands were annexed by us in 1869 after amicable negotiations with Denmark and the Indian Government, therefore, can claim no prior vested interest in them. In 1931, the Islanders themselves petitioned the Government of India that they should be transferred to the administration of the Colonial Office. This petition was shelved, and I believe has never been heard of again. My hon. Friend the Member for the English Universities (Sir R. Craddock) will, I believe, bear me out when I say that the reason for that petition being put forward by the islanders was that they were afraid of the exploitation of Indian traders, whose presence they fear and detest. They are a simple and honest people who are very easily put upon. In 1913 when my hon. Friend visited the islands I believe that the price of an old top hat was paid for by as many as 250 cocoanuts, which I am sure hon. Members will agree was excessive.

Apart from this these islands are of great strategic importance to the British Empire. They are ideally situated as an establishment for a naval or seaplane base, lying as they do on the main trade route between Colombo and Singapore, linking up our lines of communication with the Far East. Owing to their proximity to the main route from Colombo to Singapore, and owing to the commanding position they hold at the head of the Malacca Straits, their potential value as a future base should not be overlooked. Moreover, in putting forward this plea for the transfer of the islands to the Colonial Office, I would remind the Committee that Nankouri, which is in the centre group of the islands, possesses a magnificent landlocked harbour large enough to accommodate half the Royal Navy, possibly indeed at the present moment the whole of our Navy. This harbour was surveyed and favourably reported on in 1932 by two flying boats of the Royal Air Force, and in their report they described the harbour as being of the greatest possible use and value to us.

If the Amendment is accepted, as I hope it will be, or if the Government will consider the matter again between now and Report stage, the administration of these islands would presumably come under that of the Federated Malay States Government, and the problem of communication should not prove an insuperable difficulty inasmuch as Penang is closer to the Nicobar islands than any Indian port. At the present time contact between the Nicobar islands and the Andaman islands is very occasional, indeed only one station ship visits only 2 of the 20 islands once in three months. I submit that there is no affinity between the indigenous populations of the Nicobar islands and the Andaman islands. The Nicobarese are of the Indo-Chinese stock, their manners and customs point to an Eastern rather than an Indian origin, whereas the Andaman islands would continue under the control of the Government of India as a penal settlement and would remain in that position. The present administration which I should like to see altered, is carried out by two agents who assist the Nicobar chiefs to keep law and order, to collect fees for licences, and prevent smuggling of guns and liquor. One of them is a European with the honorary rank of assistant commissioner, but in reality is a missionary appointed by the Bishop of Rangoon. The other is an Indian Tahsildar, resident in the Central Group. It has been alleged from many quarters that these gentlemen lack the highest administrative qualities, and if the transfer is made to the Colonial Office the possible detrimental effects which the Nicobarese have suffered in the past would be remedied.

I do not wish to go into the question of trade, but a convincing case can be made out to show how trade would be improved if this change were to take place. At the present time, owing to the lack of supervision, there is a great deal of poaching of pearl shells by Japanese motor boats successfully operating from Penang and Singapore. It is rumoured, indeed alleged, that their interest is not limited to pearl shells. However that may be, this poaching takes place and makes great inroads into the revenue of the islands. I ask the Government to consider this matter seriously. Given administration from the Colonial Office, the islands would be given closer supervision and this poaching would be stopped. On account of the future potential military and naval importance of the islands, for economic reasons and indeed for medical reasons as well as on account of the petition of the islanders themselves I urge the Government to accept the amendment.

3.11 p.m.


As probably the only Member of this House who has ever visited these islands I would like to support generally what has been said by my hon. Friend who moved the Amendment. I think the islands should be brought within the excluded areas. The islands are entirely different from the Andamans. The people come from an entirely different stock. The Andamanese are of the negrito type, but these Nicobarese are of a very different standing.


What is the population of Nicobar Islands?


The population is 10,225 according to the 1931 statistics.


I am very doubtful whether those figures include the whole of the islands. The largest island "Great Nicobar" comprises some high hills where there are more warlike hill tribes who are very skilled with bows and arrows. The people are exploited by Indian and Chinese traders who come across from Moulmein or the Straits. They have no coinage, and coconuts, as hon. Members will agree, are a very inconvenient form of coin. A Nicobarese never accepts a gift without returning one. When I gave a Nicobarese a cigarette or two in a short time he returned with a dozen coconuts as his gift to me. They are an extraordinarily honest people. There is very little crime among them, and they appear to be very happy, except for the exploitation to which I have referred. When a man owes something like 250,000 coconuts and the only account is kept by notches on' a bamboo, it is very difficult to know what to do with him, as his account mounts up. The exploiters get from him a large number of coconuts, and then when you go up to the huts which are raised on piles you find all kinds of things including chickens and other domestic creatures, gramophones, cups and saucers and tea spoons and a lot of worthless articles for which great quantities of coconuts have been given. In the old days when sailing vessels used to call there for water, the chiefs who are very friendly always adopted the name of the captain of the ship and called themselves Captain Cook or whatever the name of the captain happened to be. They dressed in a costume which was an extraordinary mixture. When I went there I was met by a chief who was wearing a top hat and a loin cloth and who called himself "Friend of England," and was very proud indeed of that title.

I think these islands ought to be separated from the Andamans and made an excluded area. I think to do so would concentrate attention on the duty of administering the Nicobars. At present the islands are looked upon as a sideshow to the Andamans. They have been also used partly for settlement purposes in respect of convicts. The harbour of Nankouri to which my hon. Friend the Mover of the Amendment has referred was visited by the "Emden" during the War. She went in there and stayed for some time. I do not propose to take up the time of the Committee any further in the narrative of my adventures and experiences in the Nicobars. I should like to say, however, that when I went there in the capacity of Home Member from a visit of inspection to the Andamans I did my best to deal with the question of these debts and to put things on a better footing. I secured the appointment of a Deputy Superintendent for the Nicobars under the Chief Commissioner and urged that a limit of repayment which was within their means should be fixed and all the debt beyond that limit remitted by these exploiters. That was carried out. I do not know with what ultimate success, but I certainly think that at the present time these people ought to be excluded from the purview of the convict settlement of the Andamans and placed under the special charge of the Chief Commissioner, as one of these excluded areas.

3.18 p.m.


I am sure that the general information on the subject of the Nicobar Islands which we have received will be very valuable to the Committee, and that we are grateful to the hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Donner) and the hon. Member for the English Universities (Sir E. Craddock) for their contributions to our discussions.


Will the hon. Gentleman see that a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT containing those speeches is sent to the islands?


Certainly. I think it was the hon. Member for Islington who said that there had been a petition from the islands. We have actually no knowledge of such a position, but perhaps in exchange for the OFFICIAL REPORT, which I shall be glad to send to them, we may receive a copy of their petition. The hon. Member for West Islington said that a top hat was worth 200 coconuts. Some of his English friends in this House belong to what is known, I believe, as "the top hat brigade", and I believe that the hon. Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Raikes) is a member of it. I think it would ease our discussions if they were to pay a visit to the Nicobar Islands, and I think the price of top hats in the Nicobar Islands would probably be cheaper than in Bond Street.


Will the hon. Gentleman allow us to travel at the expense of the Government?


I think this discussion has been valuable. This very important group of islands is administered with the adjacent islands of the Andamans, with which they form one geographical unit. The total area of this geographical unit is just over 3,000 square miles, and the population is as given by the hon. Member for West Islington, whom I would like to congratulate on his knowledge. These islands will be administered under the Act by regulations made by the Governor-General, provision for which is made under Clause 95, Sub-section (3). Power to extend the provisions of that Subsection (3) to relate to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is given under Clause 96 of the Bill.

The actual results of the operation of making the Nicobar islands a Chief Commissioner's Province will not alter their status very considerably from what the hon. Member for the English Universities suggested, and that is that they should be an excluded area. In general, it may be said that their administration would not be very different in either case, whether they are excluded or under the Governor-General. We consider, taking, as we do, a pride in the Government of the Indian Empire and the Governor-General being to that extent in contact with my right hon. Friend beside me, that the administration of the Nicobar Islands will be conducted very efficiently by the Government of India through the Governor-General. We consider, therefore, there would be no advantage in the reasons given by the hon. Member for West Islington for transferring the Nicobar Islands to the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office. We appreciate all that he has said about strategic considerations, but I would remind him that the hon. Member for the English Universities has found it possible already to give protection to the inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands in regard to their debts, and that is one example of the methods by which the Indian administration is able to help the inhabitants of these islands. I fell convinced that if their administration continues on the same generous lines as in the past, it may be more efficient to keep them under Indian administration, being, as they are, geographically within the ambit of that administration. Therefore, I trust, after the Committee has appreciated the points that have been raised, the importance of which cannot be denied, the hon. Member for West Islington will withdraw his Amendment.


In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.24 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 58, line 34, at the end, to insert: Provided that it shall be lawful for His Majesty on an address presented to him at any time after the expiration of five years from the passing of this Act by the Federal Legislature to issue a proclamation conferring on a Chief Commissioner's Province the status of a Governor's Province as from the date to be mentioned in such proclamation. We wish to suggest a method by which a Chief Commissioner's Province shall be raised to the status of a Governor's Province.


These words are unnecessary. The point is covered by Clause 272, where there is the power that the hon. Member requires.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 95 to 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."—[Dr. Morris-Jones.]

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.

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