HC Deb 10 February 1947 vol 433 cc1395-404
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I deire to make a statement on Indian policy.

It has long been the policy of successive British Governments to work towards the realisation of self-government in India. In pursuance of this policy an increasing measure of responsibility has been devolved on Indians and today the civil administration and the Indian Armed Forces rely to a very large extent on Indian civilians and officers. In the constitutional field the Acts of 1919 and 1935 passed by the British Parliament each represented a substantial transfer of political power. In 1940 the Coalition Government recognised the principle that Indians should themselves frame a new constitution for a fully autonomous India, and in the offer of 1942 they invited them to set up a Constituent Assembly for this purpose as soon as the war was over.

His Majesty's Government believe this policy to have been right and in accordance with sound democratic principles. Since they came into office, they have done their utmost to carry it forward to its fulfilment. The declaration of the Prime Minister of 15th March last which met with general approval in Parliament and the country, made it clear that it was for the Indian people themselves to choose their future status and constitution and that in the opinion of His Majesty's Government the time had come for responsibility for the Government of India to pass into Indian hands.

The Cabinet Mission which was sent to India last year spent over three months in consultation with Indian leaders in order to help them to agree upon a method for determining the future constitution of India, so that the transfer of power might be smoothly and rapidly effected. It was only when it seemed clear that without some initiative from the Cabinet Mission agreement was unlikely to be reached that they put forward proposals themselves.

These proposals, made public in May last, envisaged that the future constitution of India should be settled by a Constituent Assembly composed, in the manner suggested therein, of representatives of all communities and interests in British India and of the Indian States.

Since the return of the Mission an Interim Government has been set up at the Centre composed of the political leaders of the major communities exercising wide powers within the existing constitution. In all the Provinces Indian Governments responsible to Legislatures are in office.

It is with great regret that His Majesty's Government find that there are still differences among Indian Parties which are preventing the Constituent Assembly from functioning as it was intended that it should. It is of the essence of the plan that the Assembly should be fully representative.

His Majesty's Government desire to hand over their responsibility to authorities established by a constitution approved by all parties in India in accordance with the Cabinet Mission's plan, but unfortunately there is at present no clear prospect that such a constitution and such authorities will emerge. The present state of uncertainty is fraught with danger and cannot be indefinitely prolonged. His Majesty's Government wish to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take the necessary steps to effect the transference of power into responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June, 1948.

This great sub-continent now containing over 400 million people has for the last century enjoyed peace and security as a part of the British Commonwealth and Empire. Continued peace and security are more than ever necessary today if the full possibilities of economic development are to be realised and a higher standard of life attained by the Indian people.

His Majesty's Government are anxious to hand over their responsibilities to a Government which, resting on the sure foundation of the support of the people, is capable of maintaining peace and administering India with justice and efficiency. It is therefore essential that all parties should sink their differences in order that they may he ready to shoulder the great responsibilities which will come upon them next year.

After months of hard work by the Cabinet Mission a great measure of agreement was obtained as to the method by which a constitution should be worked out. This was embodied in their statements of May last. His Majesty's Government there agreed to recommend to Parliament a constitution worked out, in accordance with the proposals made therein, by a fully representative Constituent Assembly. But if it should appear that such a constitution will not have been worked out by a fully representative Assembly before the time mentioned in paragraph 7, His Majesty's Government will have to consider to whom the powers of the Central Government in British India should be handed over, on the due date, whether as a whole to some form of central Government for British India or in some areas to the existing Provincial Governments, or in such other way as may seem most reasonable and in the best interests of the Indian people.

Although the final transfer of authority may not take place until June, 1948, preparatory measures must be put in hand in advance. It is important that the efficiency of the civil administration should be maintained and that the defence of India should be fully provided for. But inevitably, as the process of transfer proceeds, it will become progressively more difficult to carry out to the letter all the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935. Legislation will be introduced in due course to give effect to the final transfer of power.

In regard to the Indian States, as was explicitly stated by the Cabinet Mission, His Majesty's Government do not intend to hand over their powers and obligations under paramountcy to any Government of British India. It is not intended to bring paramountcy, as a system, to a conclusion earlier than the date of the final transfer of power, but it is contemplated that for the intervening period the relations of the Crown with individual States may be adjusted by agreement.

His Majesty's Government will negotiate agreements in regard to matters arising out of the transfer of power with the representatives of those to whom they propose to transfer power.

His Majesty's Government believe that British commercial and industrial interests in India can look forward to a fair field for their enterprise under the new conditions. The commercial connection between India and the United Kingdom has been long and friendly, and will continue to be to their mutual advantage.

His Majesty's Government cannot conclude this statement without expressing on behalf of the people of this country their goodwill and good wishes towards the people of India, as they go forward to this final stage in their achievement of self-government. It will be the wish of everyone in these islands that, notwithstanding constitutional changes, the association of the British and Indian peoples should not be brought to an end; and they will wish to continue to do all that is in their power to further the well-being of India.

This concludes the statement on policy.

The House will now wish to know of an announcement which is being made public today. Field Marshal the Right Honourable Viscount Wavell was appointed Viceroy in 1943 after having held high military command in South-East Asia, the Middle East and India with notable distinction since the beginning of the war. It was agreed that this should be a wartime appointment. Lord Wavell has discharged this high office during this very difficult period with devotion and a high sense of duty. It has however seemed that the opening of this new and final phase in India is the appropriate time to terminate this war appointment. His Majesty has been pleased to approve, as successor to Lord Wavell, the appointment of Rear-Admiral the Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, who will he entrusted with the task of transferring to Indian hands the responsibility for the government of British India in the manner that will best ensure the future happiness and prosperity of India. He will remain on the active list, in accordance with his wish that his future employ- ment in the Royal Navy shall not be prejudiced. I feel sure that the whole House will wish Lord Mountbatten well in his great task. The change of office will take place during March. The House will be glad to hear that His Majesty has been pleased to approve the conferment of an Earldom on Viscount Wavell.

Mr. Churchill

Will the right hon. Gentleman lay before the House the reasons for the termination of the appointment of Viscount Wavell at this particular moment? Will he indicate to us, as it is essential to our comprehension of the position, what differences, divergences or disagreements have arisen between the Viceroy and His Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have made the announcement with regard to the termination of the Viceroyalty of Lord Wavell, and I do not propose to add anything to it.

Mr. Churchill

Surely, we are entitled to be treated in a reasonable manner. Is it not a fact that if Lord Wavell's Viceroyalty had ended with the war, it, would have ended 18 months ago, and that had it ended after three years, it would have ended in June last? What, then, is the reason for this difference and disagreement which have lead to the removal and dismissal of a Viceroy in the full conduct of Government policy?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that Lord Wavell was not appointed for a fixed term. As has been stated, it was thought that in the changing phase of the Indian problem, it was a suitable time to make a change. I do not propose to add anything to that statement.

Mr. Churchill

May I ask, in all humility, because the House is entitled to a reasonable explanation, why has this moment been chosen for this momentous new departure? There must be some reason. Is there any reason why it should be concealed from the House? Why should we not be told the truth?

The Prime Minister

I have already stated the reason—[HON. MEMBERS: "What reason?"] Will hon. Members wait a moment. I have already stated the reason in the statement I have made, that we regard it as a suitable time to make a change, owing to the change in the phase of the Indian problem. I do not intend to say more than that. I am not aware that there is any precedent for such a request.

Mr. Churchill

What are the reasons which make this time appropriate for a change? There must be some reason. Surely, the right hon. Gentleman did not wake up one morning, and say, "Oh, let us get another Viceroy"? It must have some purpose or reason behind it, and we have a right to know what is that purpose or reason.

Hon. Members


Mr. Clement Davies

is it the Prime Minister's intention to give a full opportunity at the earliest possible moment for Debate on this very important statement? That obviously cannot be this week, but can we have an assurance that it will be next week? Are we to understand that the purport of the statement that has been made amounts to this—that the Government have now fixed the definite date of June, 1948, as the day on which they will transfer the government of India to the people of India, whether or not agreement has been arrived at between Congress and the Muslim League?

The Prime Minister

The Government are perfectly willing to have a Debate and indeed will welcome the opportunity for full Debate on all these matters. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) asked a question?

Mr. Churchill

I did ask that some reason or explanation should be given for the extremely important executive action which the Government have taken, and which must have been animated by some motive accessible to human intelligence.

The Prime Minister

When the right hon. Gentleman was Prime Minister he made a great many changes in both military arid civil appointments. I never understood that there was any obligation on him to give an explanation why those changes were made.

Mr. Churchill

May I ask this question? Here we are dealing with a great policy which is unfolding before us. Are we not dealing with an officer who has been serving the Government in the most intimate relations? Now he is dismissed. May we not know what are the differences which have arisen to lead to the dismissal of one Viceroy and the appointment of another? Surely that is a matter which, in the history of either House of Parliament, has never been denied fair discussion.

Sir John Anderson

Arising out of the point made by the Leader of the Liberal Party, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he does not appreciate the extreme complexity of the issues involved, and the utter impossibility of dealing with them in an orderly fashion within a fixed time limit in the presence of so many uncertain and unknown factors, including the uncertainty which must continue over a prolonged period—

Mr. John Paton

On a point of Order. May I submit that we appear to be anticipating the Debate?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I have the point in mind.

Sir J. Anderson

I was asking whether the right hon. Gentleman appreciated the many unknown factors in connection with this subject, including the uncertainty which must obtain for a considerable period, as to whether it will, in fact, be possible to hand over responsibility to an authority capable of dealing with India as a whole.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right about the uncertainties, and one of the reasons for this statement is to try to remove uncertainty. It is a fact that despite all the declarations we have made, there are still people in India who think they can hang on and let things drift. We are against drift.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite


The Prime Minister

We want to bring this uncertainty to a close, in regard to this matter.

Sir J. Anderson

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he has not dealt with my point about a fixed time limit? How can that be reconciled with the uncertainty that must continue for a prolonged and unknown period?

The Prime Minister

That is the reason why we put in a date. I think that the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman would be far better developed in a Debate rather than by question and answer.

Mr. Blackburn

Is it a fact that His Majesty's Government, while very anxious to fulfil the promise of self-government which the Coalition Government gave to India, do not seek to abandon all responsibility for the security of India?

The Prime Minister

No. I have made it perfectly plain that it has been our constant endeavour to have settled government in India. We shall not obtain that by long continued uncertainty, and as it is the policy of this Government and I think of this House that the Indians should become responsible, I think it is time for them to face up to the fact that that responsibility is now upon them.

Mr. R. A. Butler

With reference to the question of date, is it the Government's intention to bring legislation before this House at a date prior to June, 1948; and if so, does not that give less than a year for all the Indian difficulties to be resolved; and if they are not resolved is it still the intention of the Government to go ahead with the fixed date and hand over power to small units without proper consideration of the central government, and, in fact, hand over India to chaos?

The Prime Minister

It is not the intention to hand India over to chaos. I really think that the points which are now being made would be much better developed in a Debate. They are perfectly legitimate points for which we have a full answer. It does not clarify the matter to try. o deal with it by question and answer.

Mr. Churchill

Is there no answer to be given to the question of whether there have been any differences or divergences between His Majesty's Government and the Viceroy?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We have had quite a number of questions and answers, and I think this matter might well await the promised Debate.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

On a point of Order. I wish to ask a question which has really nothing to do with the subsequent Debate if you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will allow me. Does not the Prime Minister realise that his reluctance to answer the reasonable—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

When I called the hon. Gentleman I understood that he had a fresh point which he wished to raise, but the one he is now raising is clearly one which can be disposed of in the Debate which has been promised.

Mr. Stewart

Very respectfully I would ask your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to conclude my question, and you will see that what I am asking is a fresh point. I am asking, does the Prime Minister realise that his refusal to answer must lead to the conclusion that sharp differences of opinion have arisen and in view of that are we to understand that Lord Wavell is or is not to be permitted to make a public statement?

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Is it in keeping with the Rules of Order and procedure of this House that the Leader of the Opposition should be able to ask the same question 15 times, while the Leader of the Communist Party cannot ask one simple little question?

Ears Winterton

Reflection on the Chair.

Mr. Gallacher

In view of the point that has been raised by the Leader of the Opposition, is it not possible to ask whether any labour or trade union leader was considered for this important appointment?

Mr. Churchill


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Unless there is a point of Order I think we should get on.

Mr. Churchill

On a point of Order. Am I not perfectly entitled, in view of the momentous statement that has been made by the Prime Minister, to ask him if he will answer the question put to him by the Leader of the Liberal Party, as to whether Lord Wavell will make, or is to be permitted to make, a public statement?

Mr. Nally

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I ask for your Ruling? Time and time again we have an important statement made from the Front Bench by a Minister—in this case the Prime Minister—that involves matters in which hon. Members on all sides of the House and of all parties are vitally interested. Time and time again also—today being a case in point—a very large part of the time available is taken up by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) repeating the same question. Whenever he rises, no look is cast by him towards the Chair—a fact for which many other hon. Members can vouch—

Earl Winterton

Reflection on the Chair.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the hon. Member has any general comment to make, I think it would be much better if he addressed it to Mr. Speaker when he is in the Chair.