HL Deb 22 February 1887 vol 311 cc280-6

, in rising to ask the Secretary of State for India, Whe- ther it is the fact that 25,000 prisoners have been liberated by order of the Governor General, in honour of the Jubilee; whether there is any precedent in English or Anglo-Indian administration for a proceeding of this nature; and, if the statement above referred to proved correct, what conditions have been imposed or precautions taken to prevent injury or danger to the public from so large a release of persons presumably, in part at least, belonging to the criminal classes? said, it was, perhaps, superfluous to say that he did not wish to criticize, in any censorious spirit, the action of the noble Earl the Governor General of India, who was necessarily entitled to be allowed a large discretion in the exercise of his functions, and who had the advantage of being advised by men who thoroughly understood Native feeling. But if a considerable percentage of prisoners were proposed to be released in England, the project would be vetoed by public opinion; nor did he think that the release of ordinary prisoners—for there seemed to be no question here of political offenders—on occasions of public rejoicing was an idea which modern society readily accepted. He wished to know whether these 25,000 prisoners, at the time of their release, had undergone sufficient punishment or not? If they had, ought they not to be released whether there was a Jubilee or not? If they had not, was it expedient to set them free merely in order to give more éclat to a public celebration? As regarded the law-abiding population of India, he supposed their interests ought to be considered in the matter; and it certainly seemed to him to be a poor compliment to them to let loose upon them 25,000 persons, many of whom must belong to the criminal class. Since he had put the Question on the Notice Paper he had found that there was a precedent for the course taken; but he was not aware that there was any precedent for discharging prisoners on so large a scale as this, and even if Native precedent was to be acted upon to a certain extent, he objected to the practice being carried further than had previously been done. The proceeding was one which had caused a good deal of surprise in this country; and though, for obvious reasons, he was not willing to censure what had been done, especially without hearing what was to be said in defence, he thought his noble Friend the Secretary of State for India (Viscount Cross) would, in any case, not be sorry to have an opportunity of explaining the circumstances of the liberaion of this large number of prisoners.


said, he felt bound to bear his personal testimony that the acts of grace to which he understood that Lord Dufferin had obtained Her Majesty's sanction in connection with the celebration of the Jubilee in India were not without precedent. Of course, the precedents for such acts could not reach far back in the records of British Indian government, for the simple reason that these acts were essentially acts of Sovereign power. No such power was possessed by the Company, and no such power could have been exercised by the Government of the Company. The noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) had alluded to the precedent of 1877, when Her Majesty assumed the title of Empress of India, and when a similar liberation of Native Indian prisoners took place. At that time nearly 16,000 persons were liberated, and the number represented, he believed, about 10 per cent of the total number of prisoners in the various Provinces of India. Her Majesty, in the capacity of Sovereign of India, had, undoubtedly, acted on that occasion in conformity with the immemorial practice of the Sovereigns of India. No doubt, She acted on the advice of Her Indian Government. But that advice was, of course, approved by Her Ministers at home; and he believed that the noble Earl opposite was one of the Ministers responsible for the approval of it. At any rate, the noble Earl had not then ceased to be a Member of the Cabinet which approved it. He could assure their Lordships that in 1877 no ill results followed the liberation of prisoners, and he was persuaded that no ill results were likely to follow on the present occasion. The prisoners liberated in 1877 were very carefully selected; and, no doubt, they had been carefully selected now by the local Governments, who would be especially affected by the result of that selection. The selections were not made from the criminal classes; they had special reference to the good behaviour of the prisoners liberated; and they were confined to pri- soners sentenced for light offences—he thought mostly for debt. The liberated prisoners were also carefully watched afterwards; and, though he spoke from memory, he believed he was right in saying that of the 16,000 prisoners released in 1877 only two were afterwards re-committed. He could, however, fully appreciate the not unnatural impression which had, doubtless, prompted the Question asked by the noble Earl; and had he not been personally concerned in the Government of India, he should probably have shared them. The proceeding referred to in that Question could not be followed in England. In this country it would be justly regarded not merely as absurd, but as mischievous. Many things could be done with safety in England which could not be practised with safety in India, and he submitted that the converse of that proposition was equally true. The whole social and intellectual fibre of the Eastern World differed from that of the Western, and notably in this—that the inveterate disposition of all Oriental peoples, whether Hindoo or Mahommedan, African, or Asiatic, was to cherish with the most passionate tenacity all the characteristics of personal government in its most personal form. Those populations infinitely preferred to the most perfect administrative machine any form of government in which they recognized the personal presence of a human heart and a human will. That was why the transfer of our Indian Government from the Company to the Crown was popular with the Natives of India; not because of any change made in the constitution or policy of the Government of India, but because it substituted in the popular imagination a human being for an abstract impersonal entity. Once, in the course of a tour of inspection along a solitary pass on the North-West Frontier, he was riding in advance of the gentlemen who were with him, when his bridle rein was seized by an old grey-headed Indian woman, who began to address him with great volubility in a language which he did not understand. It appeared, when the story was interpreted, that the woman was a widow and had an only son, who was a soldier in Her Majesty's Native Army, and who, for some offence not very grave, was then undergoing a term of imprisonment. This man's aged mother, having heard that the Viceroy was about to pass that way, had waited night and day for more than a week in that savage and solitary part, and, as she alleged, without food—indeed, he did not see how she could get anything to eat in such a place—in order that she might not miss the opportunity of imploring from his clemency the liberation of her son. It was absolutely certain, if her appeal had been made to an Indian Sovereign, it would have been granted on the spot, and she would have gone her way with gratitude in her heart and benedictions on her lips. As, however, the appeal was made to the Executive head of a very highly organized Government machine, he was obliged to cause her to be informed that her application would be at once referred to the Secretary to the Government of India in the Military Department, and that the Secretary would submit the matter, with his Report, to the Military Member of the Council, who would then communicate on the subject of it with the Commander-in-Chief; that, on hearing from the Commander-in-Chief, the Government of India, in another of its Departments, would enter into correspondence about it with the local Government; that, finally, all the documents relating to the case would be laid before the Viceroy; and that if, in the opinion of his duly constituted advisers, the application could be entertained, it would be granted, otherwise not. It was, of course, difficult to make her understand that these explanations were not ironical, and he would not forget the expression of pained perplexity, and then of absolute dismay, with which she received them. They often heard a good deal of the supposed right of non-British races subject to the British Crown to be governed according to their own non-British or anti-British ideas. So far as this doctrine had reference to the fundamental conditions of British supremacy throughout all parts of the British Empire, he believed it to be thoroughly unsound. But local prejudices were no more entitled to be treated as universal truths, when they happened to be British, than when they happened to be Oriental; and for such a Government as that of India to place itself in supercilious antagonism to Indian sentiments and traditions, which its own, experience had proved to be innocuous, would be, he submitted, not policy, but pedantry.


My Lords, I have first to thank the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) for his courtesy in postponing his Question until to-day. It has enabled me to have communication with my noble Friend the Viceroy of India (the Earl of Dufferin), and I am now able to give the House that information which probably your Lordships would like to have. There can be no doubt whatever, as the noble Earl (the Earl of Lytton) observed, that if you look upon this matter in a Western point of view it was a very startling announcement; and it is simply because we are dealing with Oriental peoples, with Oriental notion3 and prejudices and Oriental customs, that the Viceroy, in the exercise of the discretion which he undoubtedly has in distributing the mercies of the Crown, acted in the manner stated. I am quite sure no one who knows the Viceroy could possibly think that he has acted without, in the first place, great consideration, or without consultation. Therefore, I think it would best suit your Lordships' convenience if I read the telegram which I have received from the Viceroy, which explains the reasons why he had acted on precedent, and the precautions taken that improper persons should not be let out. The telegram is as follows:— From Viceroy, February 20, 1887.—Release of prisoners.—23,007 criminal and 298 civil prisoners were released in British India on account of Jubilee. Measure most acceptable to Native sentiment, and supported by practice of Native rule. Precedent on assumption of title of Empress of India by Her Majesty, when 16,000 prisoners were released. No prisoners released whose conduct in gaol has not been good, and none whose release was likely to give rise to blood feuds or other disturbances of the public peace. All professional and habitual criminals and prisoners convicted more than twice were excluded from act of clemency. The great majority of prisoners were those whose sentences would have expired between the 16th instant and the 20th of June next, 50th anniversary of Her Majesty's accession. Government of India has no reason to believe that release on January 1, 1877, occasioned any public danger, and does not anticipate any in this instance. Releases have been made from gaols scattered all over British India, in view to spreading number of released as evenly as possible over all localities. That is all the information I have on the matter, and I do not think I should be justified in saying more.


said, he had succeeded the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Lytton) as Viceroy, and his experience in this matter went to confirm the statement made by the noble Earl. He (the Marquess of Ripon) went to India three years after the liberation of the 16,000 prisoners referred to, and he never heard from anyone any objection taken nor any criticism made. Nor did he believe that any evil consequences had resulted. He was sure their Lordships could place such complete confidence in the present Viceroy as to be sure that the course he had taken on this occasion was wise and prudent.