HC Deb 07 November 1939 vol 353 cc37-41
Mr. Wedgwood Benn

(by Private Notice)asked the Under-Secretary of State for India, whether His Majesty's Government have any statement to make on the position in India as disclosed by the announcement and correspondence published by the Governor-General which appeared in Monday's newspapers?

The Under-Secretary of State for India (Sir Hugh O'Neill)

It is difficult to answer the right hon. Gentleman's question in a form which would not run to undue length for an answer to a Private Notice Question. But my Noble Friend the Secretary of State is making, this afternoon, a full statement of the Government's position on this important matter in another place, of which I propose to give this House the salient points.

I need hardly say that His Majesty's Government share the profound regret of the Governor-General at the failure of consultations which he has been holding during the last week to produce an agreement between representatives of the Congress on the one hand and of the All-India Moslem League on the other. The general position, as the House is no doubt aware, is that the Congress Party still insist that, unless His Majesty's Government can make a declaration in the sense they have been demanding, they cannot consider any plan of the kind which the Governor-General had invited them to consider.

His Majesty's Government find it impossible to accept this position. The longstanding British connection with India has left His Majesty's Government with obligations towards her which it is impossible for them to shed by disinteresting themselves wholly in the shaping of her future form of government. Moreover, one outstanding result of the recent discussions in which the Governor-General has been engaged with representatives of all parties and interests in India has been to establish beyond doubt the fact that a declaration in the sense proposed, with the summary abandonment by His Majesty's Government of their position in India, would be far from acceptable to large sections of the population. But this does not mean that we have in any sense weakened in our determination to assist India by such means as are in our power to reach without avoidable delay the position in the British Commonwealth of Nations to which we are pledged; and the Governor-General has made it clear that he is not deterred by his present failure from hoping for a reconsideration by the parties interested, and His Majesty's Government warmly approve the readiness which he has expressed to be of such service as he can whenever opportunity offers.

Meanwhile the position at the moment in the Provinces is that, while in three Provinces where the Congress has not been in power the Ministries remain in office, in five of the remainder the Congress Ministries have resigned, and in the remaining three they appear to be on the point of doing so. The Governors have accordingly had no option but to assume to themselves by proclamation the powers which provisions in the Act enable them to assume in such a situation. But let me make it plain that Section 93 of the Act under which this action has been taken is in so sense a penal provision; it simply provides the machinery, the possible necessity for which Parliament foresaw for dealing with a situation of this kind, for carrying on the King's Government.

It is our hope that, in the absence of opposition from the supporters of Congress or from other quarters, the Governors with the aid of their official advisers and the members of the public services will succeed in conducting smoothly and efficiently the administration of the Provinces, the difference being—obviously a fundamental difference—that their actions will be decided in responsibility to this House and not in pursuance of advice tendered to them by Ministers responsible to a Provincial Legislature. We greatly regret that the Ministries which have with so much zeal been carrying on the government of their great Provinces and tackling with energy and resource the many problems with which administration has naturally brought them into contact should have found it necessary to withhold their further services from their country. But we refuse to believe that this withdrawal will be for long, and we shall continue to hope, so long as any grounds for such hope remain, that the Proclamations by the Governors need have only a temporary duration, for I can assure the House that the Governors will be only too ready to recall to their counsels responsible advisers as soon as they are available.

Mr. Benn

May I ask the right hon. Baronet two questions arising out of that reply? First, is it not possible by further discussion with Congress to overcome these difficulties about the scope and constitution of this Constituent Assembly at the end of the war? Secondly, do the Government realise what a serious and almost impossible responsibility it is to lay upon this House to undertake support of, or criticism of a Governor who is attempting to carry on, in these difficult circumstances, the administration of these Provinces?

Sir H. O'Neill

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's question about an assembly or conference, I am sure the Viceroy would be only too glad to help in any way by which he thought that anything like general agreement could be reached in this difficult situation.

Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne

Arising out of the statement, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he will consider the desirability of sending to the various Provincial Governments in India a request from this House as a whole—one which, I believe, would be supported by Members of all parties—that the position should be reconsidered and that, in this time of war and strain they should not come to an immediate decision to resign but should continue to negotiate with the Governor-General in the hope that some settlement can be arrived at? I believe that if a request were made from the House of Commons as a whole to the Provincial Governments to carry on during the war it might have a very great effect in India.

Mr. Graham White

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government of India and the Secretary of State have, in fact, had an opportunity of considering in detail the proposals, whatever they may be, for an assembly? Have details of these proposals been submitted to them by the Congress Party?

Sir H. O'Neill

No, Sir.

Mr. White

Would it not be possible to ask that these details should be furnished, so that they might be considered?

Sir H. O'Neill

I think the position which the Congress leaders have taken up so far is that they do not feel themselves able to enter in any such discussions, unless the Government agree, as a preliminary, to give a declaration, in the sense which they desire.

Mr. Benn

Is there really so much difference between the statement made by the Congress Working Committee and the real interpretation of the 1926 pact; and is it not possible by discussion with Congress to make it plain to them that within the ambit of what is agreed policy in this House, their desires might be met?

Sir H. O'Neill

I think the right hon. Gentleman will gather from my original reply that the Viceroy is only too anxious to keep the door open for any discussion.

Mr. Grenfell

Are we to understand from the Under-Secretary's statement to the effect that the Government are not deterred by the failure of the negotiations, that the Government may assume the initiative in re-opening the negotiations on a new basis?

Sir H. O'Neill

The Viceroy has already stated that he would be only too glad to discuss the matter with the representatives of Congress, and also with the representatives of the minorities, if they can show that there is any chance of agreement.

Mr. Gallacher

Is the Minister not aware that while there may be differences of opinion, Congress represents the great mass of the Indian people and that their demands will have to be met sooner or later; and would it not be better to meet their demands right now by making the declaration that is asked for?