HC Deb 11 December 1946 vol 431 cc1175-80
The Prime Minister

I propose, with Mr. Speaker's permission, to make a statement on India. The House will have seen that the conversations with Indian leaders which took place during last week have unfortunately ended without agreement being achieved. As the House knows, the Government issued a statement at the conclusion of the conversations, but hon. Members will no doubt wish to have some account of the present situation.

It will be remembered that on 16th May last the Cabinet Mission made proposals which it was hoped would bridge the gap between the Hindu and Muslim points of view and enable Indians to frame their own Constitution by the accepted democratic method of a Constituent Assembly. In order to provide the most hopeful basis for cooperation in Constitution making, the Cabinet Mission found it necessary to recommend both the outline of a future Constitution for India and a particular procedure whereby the details might be elaborated. The essence of their proposals was that, while there would be a Union of India limited to Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications, there would be opportunity, by the adoption of a particular procedure in the Constituent Assembly, for Provinces to form groups for the administration of such subjects as it was decided should be dealt with in common. To provide this opportunity the Mission proposed that the Constituent Assembly, after a preliminary meeting to decide the order of business, should divide up into sections, two of which cover the Provinces which the Muslim League chimed should constitute Pakistan. These sections would settle Provincial Constitutions and decide whether a group Constitution should be framed for the Provinces within the section, and. if so, for what subjects Individual Provinces would be free to opt out of a group after the first election under the new Constitution. The intention of the Mission was that the decisions of sections should be taken by majority vote.

Subsequently a difference of opinion developed between the Congress Party and the Muslim League as to the meaning of the Cabinet Mission's Statement on the question of the procedure within the sections of the Constituent Assembly, and it was largely because of misgivings in regard to this that the Muslim League withdrew its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission's plan at the end of July last.

The Congress view is that Provinces have a right to decide both as to grouping and as to their own Constitutions and that, therefore, the decisions in the sections cannot be by simple majority vote. The Congress, however, have stated that they are prepared to accept the ruling of the Federal Court as to the proper interpretation of the Cabinet Mission's Statement.

It was mainly in the hope of resolving the difference of view on this matter that His Majesty's Government invited the Indian representatives to come to London. We had very full and friendly discussions with the Indian representatives, but I regret to say that up to the present we have not succeeded in resolving this difficulty. Consequently the Constituent Assembly, which was summoned to meet in India last Monday, is holding its preliminary session without representation of the Muslim League.

In the statement which the Government issued at the conclusion of the conversations we have said that we have had legal advice which confirms that the statement of 16th May means what the Cabinet Mission have always said was their intention, namely, that the voting in the sections should be by majority vote. This is the view which is accepted by the Muslim League and on the basis of which they originally accepted the Cabinet Mission's proposals. From their point of view this is an essential element in the plan because, if the agreement of all the Provinces within the section is required to the framing of a group Constitution, it is probable that the opposition of some of the smaller Provinces will prevent group Constitutions being framed. The intention of the Cabinet Mission was that, while an individual Province might be outvoted in the section, its freedom would be safeguarded by the right to opt out of the group after the Constitution had been framed

His Majesty's Government feel that all parties in the Constituent Assembly should agree to work the scheme in the way intended by the Cabinet Mission, but if the Constituent Assembly desires that this fundamental point should be referred for the decision of the Federal Court, such reference should be made at a very early date so that the decision can be, known before the meetings of the sections of the Constituent Assembly take place.

It may seem to hon. Members that these differences as to matters of procedure are of small importance in relation to the paramount need for securing a Constitution for India which has the widest possible measure of consent. The peaceful transfer of power to an Indian Government freely set up by agreement among Indians is a matter of supreme importance, not only for India but for Asia and the world as a whole. But it must be remembered that the representatives who came to London were not in a position to commit their parties and that the issues stir deep and passionate feelings. Time must be given for the parties, after full debate, to decide their attitude. It may also be that the subject will come under consideration by the Federal Court. In these circumstances the Government feel that a general Debate on Indian affairs at the present time would be in opportune and might destroy the prospect of a settlement.

I am sure I am speaking for all parties in this House in making appeal to all communities in India to co-operate in framing a Constitution which, because it is based on consent, will be welcomed by all and worked in a co-operative spirit.

Mr. Churchill

His Majesty's Opposition have shown over all these long months great forbearance and restraint in not raising a Debate upon India, but I must give the Leader of the House notice that we feel that a Debate must now take place. Matters are assuming so grave an aspect that it is necessary that the nation at large shall have its attention concentrated upon them in order that the issues which have to be decided shall receive their due need of public attention. Therefore, I would ask that the undertaking given to us for a full two-day Debate should be made good before we separate for the Christmas holidays.

Mr. Clement Davies

While it is right and proper that an authoritative statement should be made and has been made by the Prime Minister so that we might be informed as to what the situation is, might I point out that not only this House but throughout the country, and, I am sure, in all India and in the British Commonwealth of Nations, people are awaiting with the deepest anxiety the result—and I hope the successful result—of these negotiations? If they fail, the consequences might be so serious that I fear even to look beyond them. In these circumstances, white negotiations are still going on might I suggest that it would be gravely inopportune to say one word now which might jeopardise the success of those negotiations? Might I also point this out? I understand that the negotiating parties who came over to this country have gone back or are going back to consult with their people Until they have had in opportunity of doing that, might I suggest that any reference to a Debate might be postponed?

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

The Prime Minister has, of course, said that which confirms what the Leader of the Liberal Party has said. The Prime Minister said: In these circumstances the Government feel that a general debate on Indian affairs at the present time would be inopportune and might destroy the prospect of a settlement. We were hoping in the light of that that the Leader of the Opposition would not think it necessary to press for a Debate. I do not know whether, in the light of what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), the Leader of the Opposition still wishes to press for an immediate Debate.

Mr. Churchill

It was not without grave reflection and consultation with my friends that I felt it my duty to ask for a Debate before we separate for Christmas. I still feel that that is so, and I should be quite prepared to be in my place when the time comes and give the full reasons which have actuated me in making this request.

Mr. Morrison

In those circumstances, that being the responsible request after consideration by the Opposition, I do not feel and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister does not feel that we ought to refuse facilities for a Debate. The House is in possession, and has been for some time, of all the information in regard to the Government's proposals for Indian constitutional reform. An undertaking was given some time ago that an opportunity would be given for a Debate on India at an appropriate time. We hoped that the Debate could have been delayed, but if it is the view of the Opposition— I nearly said the House, but I gather it is the view of the Opposition—that a Debate should take place, the Government are prepared to table a Motion for consideration tomorrow and on Friday.

Mr. Churchill

I certainly cannot complain of the manner in which the Leader of the House has made good, on behalf of the Government, the undertaking which he gave to us.

Mr. Gallacher

Could the Prime Minister say whether it was injudicious on the part of the Government to say that they would not recognise the Assembly unless all parties were represented, and does this not provide the Muslim League with the opportunity of holding up affairs? Would the Prime Minister not consider recognising the Assembly as it is constituted at the moment?