HC Deb 11 March 1942 vol 378 cc1069-71
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

The crisis in the affairs of India arising out of the Japanese advance has made us wish to rally all the forces of Indian life, to guard their land from the menace of the invader. In August, 1940, a full statement was made about the aims and policy we are pursuing in India. This amounted, in short, to a promise that, as soon as possible after the war, India should attain Dominion status, in full freedom and equality with this country and the other Dominions, under a Constitution to be framed by Indians, by agreement among themselves and acceptable to the main elements in Indian national life. This was, of course, subject to the fulfilment of our obligations for the protection of minorities, including the depressed classes, and of our treaty obligations to the Indian States, and to the settlement of certain lesser matters arising out of our long association with the fortunes of the Indian sub-continent.

However, Sir, in order to clothe these general declarations with precision and to convince ail classes, races and creeds in India of our sincere resolve, the War Cabinet have agreed unitedly upon conclusions for present and future action which, if accepted by India as a whole, would avoid the alternative dangers either that the resistance of a powerful minority might impose an indefinite veto upon the wishes of the majority or that a majority decision might be taken which would be resisted to a point destructive of internal harmony and fatal to the setting-up of a new Constitution. We had thought of setting forth immediately the terms of this attempt, by a constructive British contribution, to aid India in the realisation of full self-government; we are, however, apprehensive that to make a public announcement at such a moment as this might do more harm than good. We must first assure ourselves that our scheme would win a reasonable and practical measure of acceptance, and thus promote the concentration of all Indian thought and energies upon the defence of the native soil. We should ill serve the common cause if we made a declaration which would be rejected by essential elements in the Indian world, and which provoked fierce constitutional and communal disputes at a moment when the enemy is at the gates of India.

Accordingly, we propose to send a member of the War Cabinet to India, to satisfy himself upon the spot, by personal consultation, that the conclusions upon which we are agreed, and which we believe represent a just and final solution, will achieve their purpose. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House has volunteered to undertake this task. He carries with him the full confidence of His Majesty's Government, and he will strive in their name to procure the necessary measure of assent, not only from the Hindu majority, but also from those great minorities, amongst which the Moslems are the most numerous and on many grounds preeminent.

The Lord Privy Seal will, at the same time, consult with the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief upon the military situation, bearing always in mind the paramount responsibility of His Majesty's Government by every means in their power to shield the peoples of India from the perils which now beset them. We must remember that India has a great part to play in the world's struggle for freedom and that her helping hand must be extended in loyal comradeship to the valiant Chinese people, who have fought alone so long. We must remember also that India is one of the bases from which the strongest counter-blows must be struck at the advance of tyranny and aggression.

My right hon. Friend will set out as soon as convenient and suitable arrangements can be made. I am sure he will command in his task the heartfelt good wishes of all parts of the House and that, meanwhile, no word will be spoken or Debates be held, here or in India, which would add to the burden he has assumed in his mission, or lessen the prospects of a good result. During my right hon. and learned Friend's absence from this House, his duties as Leader will be discharged by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

The House will have listened with deep interest to the statement which has fallen from the lips of the Prime Minister, and I wish to express, on my own behalf and on behalf of my hon. Friends with whom I am associated, our agreement with him that it would be very injudicious at this juncture to have an immediate discussion on the step which the Government are taking. We would like to read the statement he has made and to reserve our judgment until we have done so.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask my right hon. Friend, on a point of elucidation—

Sir Herbert Williams

On a point of Order. As there is no Motion before the House and as one right hon. Gentleman has spoken and two others have risen to speak, would it not be better to regularise the situation?

Mr. Speaker

I think I can deal with the situation.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the consultations or discussions for which my right hon. and learned Friend will be responsible in India will proceed on the basis of the Government declaration of August, 1940, or will the matter be left quite open?

The Prime Minister

The discussions will proceed upon the basis of the new conclusion at which the War Cabinet have unitedly arrived.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Lord Privy Seal will, himself, have contact with all sections of Indian opinion, including the representatives of the Indian States?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that is a matter which we can leave to my right hon. and learned Friend in the full discharge of his duty.

Sir Percy Harris

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a great part of the House wish the Lord Privy Seal good will in his tremendous task; and that he has the confidence of the vast majority of hon. Members?