HC Deb 31 October 1984 vol 65 cc1297-9 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

As the House will be aware, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi today. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will be equally appalled at that tragic news. I am sure, too, that the whole House will wish to join in expressing to Mrs. Gandhi's family, and to the Government and people of India, our profound grief and sympathy.

This despicable act has robbed India of a great and courageous leader. Daughter of Pandit Nehru, one of the pioneers of India's independence, she led her country for a total of 16 years as Prime Minister, a period which saw India's emergence as an industrial power as well as a major influence in world affairs. Her death has also robbed the Commonwealth of a statesman of outstanding stature and experience.

Mrs. Gandhi chaired the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in November last year, with dignity, authority and charm. We shall all feel the loss of her wise counsel and her deep humanity, the more so because we knew her not only as a statesman but as a friend of this country.

I understand, although it is not yet confirmed officially, that Mrs. Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi, whom we know well and for whom we have both affection and respect, has been sworn in as the new Indian Prime Minister. We wish him well at this difficult hour in his country's history.

Only a few days ago, Mrs. Gandhi sent me a message in which she said: All terrorism and violence are condemnable and contemptible". The murder of a democratic leader is an attack on democracy itself. We utterly condemn this savage and treacherous crime. Let there be no doubt that acts of terrorism will only strenghten the resolve of free peoples that those who resort to violence shall not prevail.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I first associate all of us on this side of the House with the expressions of sympathy offered by the Prime Minister to the family of Mrs. Gandhi, and offer good wishes to the new Prime Minister of India.

We mourn with the people of India the tragic and violent death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. She was a woman of immense stature whose life was full of turmoil, challenge and great achievement. From the age of 12, when she joined the non-co-operation movement, her whole life was given to securing the emancipation of her country, first in the struggle for independence and then in the even more monumental task of economic and political development.

Mrs. Gandhi knew, in the words of her friend, Aneurin Bevan, that political liberty is the by-product of economic sufficiency. In that knowledge she fought a lifelong contest against poverty and against war, the bringer of poverty.

For nearly 20 years, for half the life of independent India, Indira Gandhi was the most important figure in that country. Throughout that time the principles that guided her were devotion to the maintenance of parliamentary democracy and determination to produce tolerance and common purpose out of the diversity and distinctiveness of the peoples of India.

India and Britain are linked by centuries of history, by family, by community and by the ties of the Commonwealth, in which Indira Ghandi was an inspiring leader. We cherish all those relationships, and because of that we grieve today for the death of a fellow democrat, and we grieve for the death of a friend.

Mrs. Gandhi was a woman of greatness and vitality. Her attention to the dominant issues of our time went far beyond the boundaries of her beloved India. She was a cofounder of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries and a wise and courageous advocate of political dialogue between North and South, East and West. She played a vital role in resisting the proliferation of nuclear weapon states. She was tireless in her argument for reform of the world's financial and trading systems. She was a fierce opponent of racism and sectarianism of every sort and a resilient promoter of racial harmony in every country, including our own.

In all nations and in every age, there is a chasm between the ideals of peace and harmony and the fulfilment of those ideals. Indira Gandhi spent her years trying to bridge that chasm with a determination that was at times almost superhuman. She brought intellect and imagination to bear on every task, and in defeat or victory, failure or triumph, she had a compelling dignity that must be a model for all who would seek to lead.

There will be many tributes to Indira Gandhi in great Parliaments like this and in other places throughout the world wherever freedom from want and freedom from oppression are valued. But we can best mark her memory by seeing that in our time her campaigns to achieve those objectives of freedom are fulfilled.

Today, another democrat was brutally murdered. That shall not wound democracy. Its strength overwhelms violence; its appeal ignores boundaries on maps or in the minds of people around the world. With Mahatma Gandhi we say: I do not want to shut my home to be walled in on all sides, nor my windows to be shut. I want the culture of all lands to blow about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them. Nothing shall blow democracy off its feet.

Mr. David Steel (Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

My hon. Friends and I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to Mrs. Gandhi's family, the Government and people of India. Does the Prime Minister agree that the terrible murder of Mrs. Gandhi illustrates again how violence breeds violence and that the greatest challenge facing leaders in our democratic societies is how to encourage their peoples to reconcile conflicts within those countries by peaceful means? Does the right hon. Lady recognise that we wish to pay tribute to Mrs. Gandhi's remarkable leadership, inside and outside the Commonwealth, of the developing countries in their efforts to secure a more just share of world resources, which was appreciated round the world?

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

As treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the chairman of which is Dr. Jakhar, Speaker of the Lok Sabha of India, and on behalf of Members of Parliament of all creeds, races and political parties throughout the Commonwealth, I should like to express what I believe would be their feelings of shock and horror at this outrage, their distress at the enormous loss that it has meant to the Commonwealth as a whole, and their sympathy to the members of Mrs. Gandhi's family.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

We, like all others, grieve for India and for the family of Indira Gandhi. We should remember that she probably lost her life in defending the unity of her country, that most precious asset, with its democracy. We should also remember that perhaps her greatest legacy is that she hands to her son a united and democratic country. A country that was able to sustain within months of independence the tragic loss of Mahatma Gandhi is strong enough to sustain even this loss.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I wish to associate with what has been said the people of Northern Ireland, who themselves have experienced terrorism, as indeed has the Prime Minister. We share the Prime Minister's determination that violence must never be permitted to attain its objectives.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

As Member of Parliament for a constituency with one of the largest Sikh populations in the country, although many of them disagree with some of the policies of the Indian Government, I am sure that they condemn what has happened today. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that violence of this kind must always be rejected wherever it occurs, whether in New Delhi or in Brighton, because in the end, whatever our colour, it diminishes us all?

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

As a former secretary and president of the Endo-British Group, you, Mr. Speaker, will be aware of the deep concern and continuous interest and affection in which Back Benchers of both Houses of Parliament hold the great continent of India.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary for their speedy visit to India House this morning. I know that the high commissioner greatly appreciated it.

As the House is to be prorogued today, Back Benchers will have little time to sign the book that is now open. With permission, therefore, the letter being sent by the officers of the Indo-British Group is available in both Whips' Offices for signature by Members of all parties so that the prorogation difficulty can be overcome.

Those of us who had the privilege of meeting and listening to the late Indira Gandhi were well aware that so often the great people of India, despite their great responsibilities, have an inner calm and peace. It is thus excessively sad that such a person should be mown down in violence.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that the whole House, including many hon. Members—I am one—who have sizeable Asian communities in their constituencies, wish to echo the tributes, but because it would be difficult to call all those wishing to speak I think that we should now move on.