HL Deb 19 March 1907 vol 171 cc621-34

My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he will insist on a full discussion at the approaching Imperial Conference of the question of the disabilities of British Indians and their future treatment in the Colonies, as a matter of the highest importance to the unity of the Empire.

The noble Earl to whom my Question is directed has been good enough to hold some private communication with me on the subject, and I am sorry to say that he regards it as indiscreet of me to put this Question. If he had thought so very seriously, it would have been open to the noble Earl to have asked me to withdraw the Question, but this he has not done. I need hardly say that if, with the full weight of his authority, he had made such a request to me, I should have felt bound to remove the Question from the Paper. I must therefore feel that my indiscretion has not been more serious than that of which every questioner is guilty in the eyes of the Minister who has to reply to his Question. It has occurred to me that possibly my indiscretion may lie in the form of the Question, and that the words "insist on" may seem aggressive or hostile in some way. If that is the case, I would very gladly ask the noble Earl to allow me to substitute the word "ensure" or the words "take steps to ensure," which would express my meaning even better than the words as they stand on the Paper.

A Question similar to this has already been asked in another place, and the reply which was given by the Secretary of State for India was that the subject had not been placed on the Agenda of the Imperial Conference, but that, should opportunity offer and time permit, Mr. Morley proposed to invite the Conference to consider it. I think those who are acquainted with official phraseology will agree with me that that Answer means nothing at all. I think your Lordships will also agree that that is not the way in which to treat a question of immense importance to the Empire—a question which, as a matter of fact, vitally affects our national honour, and concerning which millions of our fellow countrymen feel keen resentment and indignation. It is on that account that I have put the Question on the Paper, as I wish to give the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies an opportunity of giving an Answer which will be more satisfactory to our follow citizens in India.

But in order to do so it is necessary to state—but I shall be as brief as possible in doing so—what exactly is at stake. I shall confine myself mainly to the disabilities of our Indian fellow subjects in South Africa, where the grievance is at present most serious and most keenly felt. In the Australian Colonies the attitude of our kinsmen is not what we should like to see, but it is the fact that no disability so humiliating as those which exist in South Africa is imposed on resident British Indians. The treatment of British Indians by the South African Republic was regarded as one of the main justifications for the late war. It was the subject of many important statements by responsible Ministers at the time, but I need not do more than quote one of them. The noble Marquess who leads the Opposition in your Lordships' House, speaking at Sheffield in 1899, said— A considerable number of the Queen's Indian subjects are to be found in the Transvaal, and among the many misdeeds of the South African Republic I do not know that any fills me with more indignation than its treatment of these Indians. What do you imagine will be the effect produced in India when these poor people return to their own country to report to their friends that the Government of the Empress, so mighty and so irresistible in India, is powerless to secure redress at the hands of a small South African State? It was naturally supposed, it was regarded, indeed, as a foregone conclusion, that on the termination of the war this restrictive legislation would be abrogated at once. But what is the case? The actual case is that the position of British Indians in South Africa is more intolerable now than it was under the Government of President Kruger. Well might our Indian fellow-subjects there say that the Boers may have chastised them with whips, but that under the British Government they are chastised with scorpions. I will briefly state what the difference is. Under the South African Republic British Indians could, as a matter of fact, if not actually by right, trade in any part of the Transvaal with a licence. They could live in any part of the country without molestation and without having to apply for exemption. Now, under the British flag, every Indian must live and trade exclusively in bazaars, with the exception of those who held licences to trade in town before the war, or who by virtue of education are able to obtain certificates of exemption from the local government; but these certificates at the present time are largely nominal and inoperative.

There are, besides these, many other humiliating restrictions on which I will not dwell; but, in brief, the fact is that the Boer law, which we regarded as so unjust and severe, was not in practice enforced, mainly owing to the intervention of the British Government, while the law which now prevails is more severe than that of South African Republic, and, what is worse, it is strictly enforced. This is an indignity and humiliation which is felt and keenly resented, not only by those whom it directly affects, but by every Indian to whom it is a matter of common knowledge, and the number of these latter is increasing daily and to a very remarkable degree. They regard it as a breach of faith, a violation of those solemn promises which they have been accustomed to receive from the mouths of our statesmen or in the most solemn declarations of the Sovereign of the Empire.

It is a matter of the highest importance to the cause of Imperial unity that this grievance should be removed, and in considering the matter it is as well to remember one or two leading facts in regard to the Indian Empire. The grievance to which I am alluding affects the whole of the people of India—that is to say, three-fourths of the whole population of the Empire; it affects the people of a dominion of which the trade is more important than that of any other two nations of the Empire put together; it affects that part of the Empire which must be described as the strategic pivot on which the whole defence and security of the Empire depends, and, what is more, the only part of His Majesty's Dominions except the United Kingdom that pays a full share for the defence of the Empire as a whole. I think it is absolutely necessary in view of these facts—facts which I have not hesitated to repeat, although they may seem mere platitudes, because of their enormous importance—that the people of India should be kept contented. That is an obligation which arises not only from our material interests, but also from those high moral duties which devolve upon this country and its Government.

There is at the present time unrest and discontent in India. The greater part of that discontent is due to political aspirations which we ourselves have encouraged in our fellow-citizens in India, but part of it, and by no means a negligible part, is due to the treatment of British Indians in the Colonies. I am not one of those who regard this unrest in India with any serious anxiety. In the body politic, just as in the corporeal body, unrest and ill health are often the necessary preludes to growth and development. Illness, as is well known, will often carry off some permanent weakness and disability, and so all political sores and eruptions, ugly though they look on the surface, may be the means of carrying off morbid influences which are not so apparent. But irritation must be allayed before any new regime is prescribed. We know that the Secretary of State for India is contemplating political innovations. I am glad of it; I shall welcome those innovations provided they do not ignore the existence of a large section, or large sections, of the peoples in India who do not desire a rapid extension of Western methods. But the point I wish to make is that no political concessions will act as a remedy for discontent unless they are administered with sympathy—real sympathy, human sympathy, the sympathy which springs from knowledge of the feelings of the aggrieved and from recognition of their human rights, not the professional sympathy of politicians who administer a legislative remedy according to recognised rule and practice, just as a physician administers a drug. That sympathy must show itself in acts which cost effort and sacrifice, not in such as can be made as easily as a charitable dole. There is, in my opinion, no way in which that sympathy can better be shown than in the redress of the grievances under which British Indians suffer in the Colonies, and particularly in South Africa. Here the effort is to persuade our Colonial brethen to see our point of view—the point of view which we must necessarily hold as the paramount power in the Empire, the nation on which devolves, takes the hegemony of the Empire and which has to control the unity and harmony of the Empire as a whole. The sacrifice is to run the risk of incurring the displeasure of our colonial brethen. But if there should be displeasure at any representations which we might make, I do not for a moment believe it would be lasting. I believe that the colonists would respect us for courageously and freely expressing our views on a subject like this, and insisting that they should be considered and met with due respect by all the other nations of the Empire.

Let me make it clear that I am not in the slightest degree imputing blame to His Majesty's present Government. It is, of course, obvious that they found the present state of affairs existing when they came into office; but what I do say is that His Majesty's Government will be held blameworthy by a large proportion of the citizens of the Empire if they do not make a big effort to redress those grievances and to succeed where their predecessors unfortunately failed. I noticed with satisfaction and pleasure that in the new Constitution for the Transvaal they reserve powers which were obviously intended for this purpose. I hope and trust they will not hesitate to use that power.

No man, my Lords, has, ever had a better chance of remedying this evil than the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and I venture to think that no man has ever had a clearer duty than he has in this matter. The noble Earl has been Viceroy of India and he is now Secretary of State for the Colonies. He has come from India with a knowledge of the feelings and the wishes of Indians to the Colonists, with whose wishes and sentiments he is now equally acquainted. He seems to me, therefore, to be a mediator, one might almost say providentially appointed, to effect reconciliation between our fellow-citizens in India and our brethren in the Colonies. The sympathies of the noble Earl in this matter are no secret. I hope he will have the courage to act up to his opinions, and that good fortune will aid his endeavours. The noble Earl will, I daresay, tell me that this subject has not been placed on the Agenda for the Imperial Conference, but I cannot see why, when the Premiers of the Colonies are assembled, he should not say to them that this is a question which has not been placed on the programme for the Conference, because that programme has been drawn up mainly with reference to their own wishes, but it is a question of the highest importance to the Government of this country who have to regulate the relations between the different parts of the Empire, and to preserve the unity and harmony of the whole; and, therefore, he must ask them to be so good as to listen to the views held by His Majesty's Government on behalf of this country, and, if they will, to express their own. I do not see how it can be doubted that the representatives of the Colonies would most readily and willingly lend themselves to such an appeal.

An Agenda is not a sacrosanct document; it is not a portion of Holy Writ which cannot be altered; it is not even an Education Bill: and I personally for the life of me cannot see why even at the last moment some alteration in deference to the views of the paramount power in the Empire should not be made in the settled programme of the Conference. The noble Earl knows, I am sure, that it is not in any factious spirit that I ask this question. I think he will admit that I have some right to speak on behalf of the people of India, and some right to expect, on their behalf, a clear and unequivocal answer. I feel confident that he will give me something rather better than a merely official reply. An official reply is, of necessity, guarded and evasive. Officials who frame these replies, and I have had some experience in the matter, have not the right to say "Yes" or "No," or to say that this or that will or will not be done. But it is the highest privilege, as well as the duty, of the statesman to say "Yes" or "No" when great issues are concerned, and nothing will persuade me that this present issue is not one of the most important and the highest in the whole field of Imperial statesmanship. I therefore hope and trust that the noble Earl will be able to give a clear "Yes" in answer to my Question.


My Lords, the noble Lord has only done me justice in saying that this question appeals to me from my previous connection with the Empire of India. I became acquainted then with the sober, peaceful, and industrious character of the Indian people, and my experience also gave me an opportunity of knowing their patience under the stress of suffering, and their readiness to welcome management, if it be only sympathetic. I might go further and say that I am well aware that there must be somewhere in the records of the Departments here despatches in my name drawing attention to the very point with which the noble Lord has dealt. It was my duty to expostulate with regard to the treatment of British Indians in South Africa during my Viceroyalty. I have nothing to withdraw from the opinions which I then expressed. It appears to me that British Indians, if they are to be admitted into the Colonies, ought to be well treated there; and it would be desirable that those native gentlemen whom we have known in India, and with whom we have associated and sat on councils in India, should be able, if possible, to take a welcome share in the life of the countries to which they go.

But, my Lords, of course we have to consider the opinions of the self-governing Colonies in regard to this matter. The noble Lord said in the course of his speech that the particular part of the world to which he sought to draw attention was South Africa, and he spoke specially of the Transvaal and of the Boer rule. I would remind him that the law that existed there was criticised by the noble Marquess at the time of the war; and when the war ceased, it was within the option of the Government then established, and of Lord Milner in particular, to alter that law. It was not altered. I am not going now to argue whether that was right or wrong; but it does not lie with the noble Lord to make any imputation against the Government which I represent in this matter further than can be made against the Government that preceded us and the High Commissioner in charge at the time.


I most specially guarded myself against doing so.


I quite admit that. I would just say a word about a proposal for an alteration of the Ordinance which came up not long ago. There was such a proposal, and it was represented by a deputation of British Indians that it would aggravate their position. It is quite true that the effect of what has taken place since British rule was established in the Transvaal has been to make more effective the provisions which existed, but which were not so strictly enforced during the Boer rule. As to the new Ordinance, I felt it my duty to object to certain details, and these could not be brought into operation before the institution of responsible government. Therefore from that fact alone the Ordinance was bound to fail. But I acted in this way with great regret, because I believe that it was the desire of the High Commissioner, in bringing forward this Ordinance, to do all that he could to amend rather than to harden the position of the British Indians in the Transvaal. I am aware that they did not take that view themselves, and I think that in some ways their apprehensions were exaggerated. But I must testify that the sole desire of Lord Selborne was to make the arrangement as fair as he possibly could, holding the line between the view of the Indians and of the Colonists.

The noble Lord said that he thought I took the view that this Question was inopportune. I do think so. There are two words in the Question which are remarkable. The noble Lord mentioned one—the word "insist." There is another. In his notice he speaks of an "Imperial Conference." That must be an intelligent anticipation of the future, because at present we are dealing with the Colonial Conference. With regard to the word "insist," I think that that gives an impression which is rather hostile to any Conference at all. You "invite" people to confer with you; you do not "insist." What settlement can we have if not by agreement, and how is it to be brought about?

I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord defined what he wanted us to do; but I gather from the way in which he spoke of my duty in laying down the view of the Government that he would go as far as to say that if provisions of this kind were to find their way into a law passed by a Colonial Government in future it would be the duty of the Secretary of State to advise His Majesty to refuse assent to it. That course would be a very serious matter indeed, and I point out to the noble Lord that I think it is contrary to the precedent of what has taken place on former occasions. This subject was not mentioned at all in the Conference of 1902, but it was mentioned in the Conference of 1897. Mr. Chamberlain then made an eloquent reference to the position of British Indians, but he also stated that— His Majesty's Government thoroughly appreciate the objects and needs of the Colonies in dealing with this matter. We quite sympathise with the determination of the white inhabitants of Colonies which are in comparatively close proximity to millions of Asiatics that there should not be an influx of people alien to their civilsation and customs, whose introduction would interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labouring population The right hon. Gentleman went on to describe the arrangements made in Natal, and added— I hope to be able to arrange a form of words which will avoid hurting the feelings of any of His Majesty's subjects while at the same time amply protecting the colonies from the invasion of any class to whom they could justly object. But it is not only in the Conference that this expression of opinion as regards just consideration for the Colonies has been made. I find that Lord Curzon in March, 1905, speaking in the Viceroy's Council at Calcutta, stated that— Colonies possessing, or likely before long to possess, rights of self-government cannot be dictated to in such matters; and the feeling that exists among them is undoubtedly very strong that it seems to be our duty to do nothing to inflame that feeling, but to lose no opportunity of pleading the cause of those whose natural protectors we are. That is the position which I think His Majesty's Government ought also to assume.

The noble Lord is not satisfied with the reply which was given by my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for India in another place. He pointed out that the reason why other subjects took first place in their consideration was that they were brought forward by a majority of the Governments taking part in the Conference. I think that is a good reason. But I do not think the noble Lord need assume from this fact that, should opportunity offer and time permit, the matter will not be considered. I hope that among the engagements of the Conference there may be an opportunity for it to give attention to some subjects which do not appear in the formal agenda list. At any rate your Lordships will remember that not all the Colonies are equally interested in this question, and no doubt there will be subordinate Conferences—if I may use the expression—where, in some form or other, I hope there will be opportunity provided to discuss with our friends from across the seas the matter to which attention has been drawn by the noble Lord.


My Lords, my noble friend expressed a hope that he would not receive a too official Answer to his Question, and he told your Lordships that the answers to such questions as his were generally guarded and evasive. I do not think the Answer to which we have listened can properly be described as an evasive Answer, because the noble Earl dealt very very fully and fairly with the question. That the noble Earl should reply in guarded terms is not in the least surprising, for the question we are discussing is certainly one of the most difficult and delicate which any Government has lately had to consider. We have to try and steer a course between two conflicting currents of public opinion. On the one hand, there is a strong feeling—in which I share—of concern that the Indian subjects of His Majesty should receive in one of our Colonies treatment which can be described as humiliating to them, or as tending to deprive them of the advantages and rights they had been led to expect would be theirs when they settled in that part of our dominions. My noble friend was good enough to quote a speech I delivered in 1899, and in which I devoted some attention to this subject. I feel as strongly about it now as I did then, and I am not at all surprised that these feelings should be entertained by my noble friend.

On the other hand, we have to take into consideration the fact, and it is an undoubted fact, that throughout these Colonies there is a very strong feeling that the indiscriminate influx of Asiatics or of any persons of alien race should not be permitted. How strong that feeling is must be apparent to anyone who will take the trouble to read the Papers which have been laid on the Table of the House. Let anyone look at such a document as Sir Arthur Lawley's despatch, in which he enlarges with some minuteness on that aspect of the case.

Now, the action of the late Government was animated by a desire to hold the balance as evenly as possible between these two sets of conflicting considerations; and I think that anyone who will take the trouble to read the long and closely-reasoned despatch of Mr. Lyttelton contained in the Blue-book of 1904 will think that we were at any rate not unsuccessful in endeavouring to give due weight to each side of the argument. In that despatch there is laid down the necessity of distinguishing between the treatment accorded to Asiatics entering these self-governing Colonies for the first time, and those Asiatics who have acquired a domicile in the Colonies and have settled down and developed their business. Then there is the further distinction which is to be made between that part of the resident Asiatic population which may be described as a superior class of people, educated men who have business premises, and the more numerous class who herd together in the bazaars, and for whose sake, if not for the sake of the community which surround them, it is necessary to take special precautions to prevent them from being a danger to the other residents in the Colony. All these aspects of the case are fully dealt with in the despatch; and it is to that document I would refer anyone who desires to know what the policy of the late Government was.

My noble friend makes a specific suggestion that this question should be referred to the Colonial Conference. That is a suggestion which I think must be left to be acted upon or not to be acted upon as His Majesty's Government may upon reflection consider best. I admit that there are some reasons which make me doubt whether it would be, on the whole, desirable that this question should be officially laid before the Conference. I understand that no representative of India is likely to take part in these proceedings.


India will be represented by the Secretary of State.


But there is no one who comes to this country with special and intimate knowledge of the particular class of immigrants we are discussing this evening. I heard with satisfaction the noble Earl's statement that, although the question might not be officially laid before the Conference, he did not think it impossible that advantage would be taken of the presence of the Colonial representatives in order to discuss it at what I think he called subsidiary Conferences. I think that it is a more hopeful course than official reference to the full Conference.

The matter is a very delicate one; feeling runs high about it; and if we are to overcome the deep-rooted antipathies and objections which exist in the public mind in the Colonies, it can only be done by endeavouring in the most temperate and tactful way to convince them that while there is a Colonial side to the question, and while we fully recognise how much weight should be given to the Colonial aspect of the case, there is also an Imperial side, a side which concerns our great Indian Empire, where, as my noble friend truly said, these questions are watched with increasing interest. It is therefore not too much to hope that the Colonial statesmen may be found ready to take into account not only the arguments which appeal most directly to them, but also those other and more far-reaching arguments by which other parts of the Empire are affected. We may, I feel sure, gather from the statement that has been made this evening that the matter will not be lost sight of, and that all that can possibly be done, in whatever way the Government think most effective, will be done to ensure proper treatment for these Indian subjects of the King.


My Lords, I may perhaps be allowed, as I take the deepest interest in the question which my noble friend opposite has submitted this evening, to state that I am quite satisfied with the Answer given by my noble friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He could not be expected to give more than an assurance that the matter would not be lost sight of. I agree with what has fallen from the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition, that the means which should be used to arrive at a just settlement in this most delicate question must be left to the judgment of His Majesty's Government. The utmost tact will be required in order to avoid that the discussion of the subject, instead of loading to conciliation, should lead to further estrangement. I would especially press the point to which the noble Marquess has called attention, that especial consideration should be given to the legal status of those who are resident in the Colonies whose character is well known in the Colonies. And in any ordinance which may be enacted a distinction should be drawn between those who from long residence have acquired a domicile, and others who as immigrants might affect the labour market, and in connection with whom more difficult points may arise. For the first time at this Conference India will be represented, and I wish to express my great satisfaction that His Majesty's Government have acceded to this legitimate demand of India. It is quite obvious that the representative of India will be aware of the strong feeling which exists throughout India with regard to this question, and that he will be able, at all events in any subordinate Conference which may be summoned, to plead the cause of India. No doubt this is a matter of the utmost importance to the friendly relations which ought to exist between the various parts of the Empire, and I agree with the noble Marquess that it requires very delicate handling on account of the antipathies and prejudices which unfortunately are so deep-rooted in some of the Colonies. I feel confident that His Majesty's Government will not lose sight of this question and that the presence of the Colonial premiers will be utilised in order that some solution may be found of this question worthy of the great traditions of the Empire.


While I am grateful to the noble Earl for the courtesy evidenced in his full consideration of my Question, I cannot refrain from saying that I am disappointed. I had hoped—


I am afraid that, as we have been discussing order in debate, I must draw the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that he has merely asked a Question and not made a Motion, and that he is therefore not entitled to a reply.


I beg your Lordships' pardon. I had no idea I was out of order.