HC Deb 10 November 1936 vol 317 cc832-42

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

10.59 p.m.


I desire to raise a matter of which I gave notice yesterday to the hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for India. In the course of Question Time yesterday I addressed to the hon. Gentleman three questions, each of which was related to the other, which raised generally the subject of the alleged interference on the part of the Government of India with those various people who are participating in the elections in India at this particular moment. The first question which I put to the hon. Member concerned a person named Mr. Masani. Mr. Masani happens to be the secretary of the Socialist party of India, which is affiliated, I believe, with the Congress. I do not propose to go into the details of the case except to say that Mr. Masani in the course of his ordinary work as secretary of the Socialist party of India undertook a journey to the Punjab district, but, apparently, before he had the chance to open his mouth or do anything at all he was accused of doing something that was prejudicial to the peace of the neighbourhood, and on that account he was invited to leave the district and was deported to Delhi. The importance of that question is this, that in the course of discussion on the Government of India Act, when it was before this House, we were frequently assured by the representatives of the Government that there would be complete freedom for all parties to participate in the necessary work preliminary to an election. Mr. Masani, naturally, as secretary of the Socialist party was going to a meeting for this particular purpose. If the secretary of an organisation of this sort is not permitted to go to an area and undertake preliminary work in connection with the election, then, clearly, the election is nothing but an absolute farce.

I associate with that question a second question which is of a nature rather graver. I refer now to the district of Allahabad. In that district there happens to be a body called the Court of Wards. I gather that this Court of Wards is an organisation upon which Government officials participate in the work, and their particular work is to act as trustees of very large estates. I am not now discussing whether it is proper for officials of the Government of India to act in such a capacity, but when an election of this sort comes up there is a tendency for those who are in charge of landlord interests to regard certain political organisations as tending to be inimical to the interests of the landlords, and in proof of that I propose to quote not from an unofficial but from an official circular. This is official circular K.70. C288634, dated 9th July, 1936, from the Secretary of the Court of Wards, United Provinces, Allahabad, to all the district officers in the United Provinces. The point is, that this is a statement issued by a person who is in practice a civil servant. It reads in part as follows: It is essential in the interests of the class which the Court of Wards specially represents, and of agricultural interests generally, to inflict as crushing a defeat as possible on the Congress, with its avowed Socialist principles. The Court has therefore decided to support in each constituency the candidate who (a) will actively oppose the Congress candidate and, if elected, the Congress programme; and (b) would have the greatest chance of success, if the Court of Wards remained neutral. The district officers are instructed to engage themselves in a systematic survey of the Province constituency by constituency and prepare themselves in support of the loyalist candidate in each constituency. It really is an intolerable situation if Civil servants in India are to be permitted to issue to officers in other parts of the Provinces documents of this sort, in which they specifically invite people to work against a particular candidate for Parliament. It is a contravention of repeated pledges made to us in this House when the Government of India Act was being considered. I know that there is keen controversy in India in relation to this letter. I know that the Government of India believe the Congress party entertain somewhat revolutionary ideas. I am not arguing that matter now, but I say that the Government, if they believe in the policy embodied in the Government of India Act, should make the conditions for its working as favourable as possible. You are making the conditions as unfavourable as you can if you give the impression that the Government qua Government is acting in such a way as to prevent one particular section of candidates having a chance of approaching the electors. This is really a question of the freedom of all candidates to approach the electorate in the way that seems to them best. I really must protest strongly against this action which seems to be engaged in by the Government of India.

There is one other observation. There has been sent to the Labour party in this country and to individual members of the party, bulletins containing news of events which have taken place in India, but recently the organisation responsible for sending these bulletins suddenly found their offices raided and the bulletins, apparently in that form, are not in future to come to this country. The point I wish to make is this. As I understand it, no allegation was made as to the impropriety of anything contained in particular bulletins; in fact, the authorities who send the bulletins specifically invited the magistrate concerned to state to which bulletin he objected, and his answer was that he did not refer to any particular bulletin but to the lot. If that is the way a controversy in India is conducted there is no such thing as freedom as we understand it in this country. If that is the situation, we really have no right to fling stones at Germany or Italy as to what is happening in their countries. We want these people to learn the art of self-government, and to become acquainted with democratic methods of government, but if they are to be prevented from circulating their views, although the circulation cannot be proved to be inimical to the law, then we have reached a condition of things in which there is no freedom at all. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that a given document violates the law, then the authors of the document should be prosecuted; but do not carry your enthusiasm for suppression to such a degree that you prevent the circulation of any documents which explain the views of a particular party in India.

The three points that I have raised are all inter-related, for they raise the fundamental issue of the freedom people expressing unpopular views to expound them as long as they do not break the law in so doing. I appeal to the Under-Secretary to give an explicit statement—a pledge, if will allow me to put it in that way—that there shall be for all people, whether they belong to big organisations or small ones, free access to the electorate in order that they may have a chance of getting representation of their point of view in the Assembly at Delhi. We have argued in this House before that, however generous one may be, these people will not be over-represented there—that has been secured by the Government of India Act, 1935. That being the case, we ought to be generous in allowing the minorities, which will remain minorities, to have as much chance as possible of acquiring for their party as many adherents as possible. Therefore, I hope we shall receive a reassuring statement from the UnderSecretary to-night.

11.12 p.m.


I am anxious, as is my hon. Friend who has just spoken, to hear the reply of the Under-Secretary, and I would like to endorse very emphatically the appeal that he has just made to the Under-Secretary, for the sake of the sincerity of the Government and particularly for the sake of the sincerity of the people of this country. I am positive that the Under-Secretary is disturbed in his own mind regarding the facts to which reference has been made this evening. I am certain that he would rather that these incidents had not occurred, and I hope very much that before he has finished his reply he will give an assurance to the House that, so far as in him lies, he will do all in his power to prevent these very grave incidents from occurring again. Reference has been made to the notorious circular of the Court of Wards. I understand that that is not, in fact, an official body, but I am sure, on the other hand, that it is viewed as an official body by large numbers of people. It has a status and prestige which one can only interpret as, if not official, certainly quasi-official.

I believe that the Under-Secretary regrets that this circular was ever sent out. It is an attempt to prejudice the case—indeed to prevent a free election being held—and, in this particular area at least, an attempt to prevent the expression of a real opinion held by the electorate in that neighbourhood. I would like to draw special attention to the last paragraph of the circular, which reads: When the Court of Wards receives these lists, it will choose the candidate whom it will support, and issue instructions about the manner in which that support should be given. Any semi-official body that sends out such instructions, particulars of which have been given and further particulars of which I have added, is surely guilty of a dis-service to the Indian people and indeed to the British Government. I am glad also that reference has been made to the position of Mr. Masani. I feel particularly keen on this matter, because Mr. Masani is the secretary of the Congress Socialist party. As long as he is externed, not only may other districts follow that example, but he cannot get in touch with his own followers in that particular district, and obviously cannot secure that adequate expression of opinion which alone can justify the contention of this country that we are desirous of seeing a real development towards political freedom in India.

Time does not allow me to deal with the third matter to which my hon. Friend has referred further than to say that it is absurd that ordinary literature sent out in the ordinary process of propaganda should be prevented from having normal circulation. Any sort of type-written or duplicated document has been prevented from circulating, which means that the views of all bodies cannot find expression. The mouths of those who wish to put those views are stopped. I trust earnestly that the matter will speedily be put right. I am certain that the Under-Secretary is sincere in his desire to see the elections carried on under as fair conditions as possible. I hope he will admit frankly that these instances—we could quote others—throw a sinister shadow over the preparations for the coming elections. We do not want these elections to take place under the shadow of a swastika, even though it should be a British swastika. We want them to take place in the atmosphere of honest discussion and freedom of speech to which we are accustomed in this country. It is true that many do not realise the great changes that are taking place in India, but it is up to the Under-Secretary and his chief to instruct those who are so backward, that, in fact, a, new era has begun. I hope a message will go forth from the House to India to-night to assure the people of India, whatever their political opinions may be, that we in this country are desirous to have the elections conducted fairly, and that these intimidations and threats to freedom of speech and thought will be speedily removed so that an atmosphere may be created in which the Indian people can choose their own destiny, within the very narrow limits which have been laid down for them.

71.18 p.m.


May I start my answer by saying that the Government welcome the opportunity of making their attitude on this important subject perfectly clear? It is the view of the Government and of my Noble Friend, that we have no wish to interfere officially in the Indian elections. We do not wish any sinister shadow of the Swastika, or anything else, to be cast upon those elections, and what we said during the passage of the India Act about making the conditions for working these elections as favourable as possible, stands as true to-day as it was when we said it. We wish the officials to conduct themselves according to the Public Servants' Conduct Rules, which I think it would be well to read to the House. An official is asked to subscribe to these Rules about taking part in politics and elections: Subject to any general or special order of the local government, no Government servant shall take part in, subscribe in aid of or assist in any way, any political movement in India or relating to Indian affairs. and further: No Government servant shall canvass or otherwise interfere in or use his influence in connection with or take part in any election to a legislative body, whether in India or elsewhere. These Rules, it will be seen, are perfectly explicit, and in order to make sure that they are observed, as we believe they will be, steps have been taken—I think I can safely say, in all the Provinces—to draw the attention of Government officials to these Rules and to ensure the fulfilment of the desire which the hon. Members opposite have in mind. I expect hon. Members will bear in mind that when we pass from an old system to a new there are certain considerations which must be remembered. The official himself has to accustom himself to a new atmosphere, and I think it is valuable, therefore, to have this opportunity of reminding the House that officials are being inspired with the view that they should accustom themselves to this new Atmosphere of the new reforms in India.

Certain cases have been put forward by the hon. Member, and I shall try to show him that I believe his suspicions in those cases are virtually unfounded, and that there is no intention of the Government, through its officials, to take part in the elections. As to any isolated, detailed cases, in every case which we have investigated, if there has been any possible breach, appropriate action has been taken, and I am glad to say that the cases have been very few indeed.

What should the Government attitude be to the transition period? The Government's attitude, surely, should be to keep the elections free and open, a fair field and no favour. It should also be to keep the situation tranquil and quiet, which is a matter of supreme importance, particularly in a transition period, when power is to be transferred to Indian Ministers. In this connection, I think it would be valuable if I reminded the House of some words used by the Home Member in India when, in referring to the two desiderata to which I have referred, he said: It is the duty of Government to protect the structure of law and order and the machinery of the administration from subversive and unconstitutional attacks. That is as important a duty of Government as it is to keep the elections free and to prevent officials from interfering. In relation to that, it is interesting to note that an Amendment was moved by a certain section of the House in the Legislative Assembly, which requested the Government, in fact, to keep the elections free from unruly conduct and demonstrations likely to cause a breach of the peace—which shows that there is anxiety in the Assembly on the other side to enlist the services of the Government to preserve an atmosphere of tranquillity during the election period.

As far as I could see, the anxieties of the hon. Gentleman opposite arise from a fear that in interpreting this duty the Government should restrict legitimate political activity. Let me therefore examine in detail the cases in which he considers there has been such alleged interference, and let me come first to the case of Mr. Masani. As a preface to considering this case, I should like to say it is always difficult to decide about individual cases, and we here, my Noble Friend and myself, must be guided by the opinion of the authority on the spot. The Governor of the Punjab gave it to us as his considered opinion that it would prejudice the situation in the Punjab if Mr. Masani was allowed to continue his projected tour. An order was therefore served upon him, of which the wording is set out in the Punjab Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1932, that he was, to put it shortly, about to act in a manner prejudicial to public safety and peace. That is the considered opinion of the Punjab Government. I have said that it is difficult to decide on individual cases, but the reason the Punjab Government took this action was that they considered, from information in their hands, that Mr. Masani, although not a Communist himself, had Communist affiliations, and that under the guise of electioneering he would on entering the Punjab undertake a campaign for preaching sedition and fostering a revolutionary mentality. That is the opinion of the authorities on the spot.

I have said that Mr. Masani is not, we believe, a Communist, but he has Com- munist affiliations, which can be proved by his record. He has crossed the line established in the speech, which I have just quoted, of the Home Member. His invitation, for instance, in a speech at the end of last June, when he advocated a widespread strike of the transport services, was made as a beginning of measures for the overthrowing of Imperialism. It is that sort of case which it is important that the Government should make clear at this stage cannot be tolerated in a period when we want the elections to be free from anything that savours of direct action or affiliation with Communism. I must remind hon. Members that Communists in India are declared to be an unlawful body, and anything that savours of affiliation with Communism cannot be tolerated by the Government in a transition period.


Is it declared illegal to be a Communist?


The Communist body is declared to be an unlawful association.


What does the hon. Gentleman mean by Mr. Masani's Communist affiliations?


I mean his association with Communists, from information which is in the possession of the local government of the Government of India. I hope that he will wean himself from these associations, but as long as he continues with associations which in India are not those which the Government can tolerate, the Government are obliged to take the action they have taken. In the case of the Court of Wards, I am glad to be able to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of a certain feeling which he has in this case. The Court of Wards is not an official body, and I think that some of the hon. Gentleman's misapprehensions, which were shown from certain of his expressions, such as saying that a civil servant issued this circular, and that it was an official circular, arise from a misapprehension of the proper nature of the Court of Wards. The Court of Wards was in fact, under the old Act of 1912, in the United Provinces, an official body, but its nature has been completely changed by the Act of 1933, under which its members are non-official. The circular was issued by the Secretary to the Court of Wards, who is himself a nonofficial. Therefore, I think that all the ease which is based on the fact that the Court of Wards is an official body must necessarily fall to the ground.

In the case of the Congress news sheets, as I attempted to show in answer to questions, the offices of Congress were not suddenly raided and documents were not suddenly found. In fact, a warning had been given to Congress and a district magistrate warned a certain Dr. Lohia that he must either get permission for the use of these bulletins as news sheets or register them as newspapers. This warning was disregarded and the magistrate therefore took action under the Press Act, which he is fully entitled to do. The President of the Congress has asked the Local Government to reconsider the matter and for permission to issue a further series of bulletins. The Local Government is giving consideration to that, and if the matter is regularised I am sure hon. Members will be satisfied. May I say on this third matter that I would not for worlds deprive hon. Members of the briefs they are able to get through these news sheets.




Information to enable them to interest themselves in Indian affairs, but I hope I have been able to show that the material which they have put forward is not in every respect as sinister as they themselves have tried to make out.

In conclusion I should like to say that in the democratic structure of the new Constitution a combination of freedom and order is absolutely essential. The Government cannot abrogate its functions for preserving order or weaning any particular person from Communist affiliations, because of its elections. Its object is to create a fair field and no favour, not to encourage sedition or to abdicate its responsibility for law and order. And provided we inspire ourselves, as we do in this country, with the need for freedom and order hand in hand, I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied by my assurance that it is our intention that no official shall interfere with the free elections which are coming forward in India.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.