HL Deb 21 October 1908 vol 194 cc1118-28

rose "(1) to call attention to the imprisonment of Mr. Ghandi and other members of the Indian community in the Transvaal, and to inquire what communications have been received from India by His Majesty's Government on the subject of the treatment of British Indians in South Africa; (2) to inquire whether the Secretary of State for the Colonies has received any complaints to the effect that Indians thus arrested have been harshly treated and inadequately and improperly fed in the prisons, and, if so, how be has dealt with such complaints; (3) to inquire whether the Traders' Licensing Bills passed by the Legislature of Natal have been submitted for Imperial sanction, and, if so, what action His Majesty's Government intend to take; and (4) to move for papers." The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope your Lordships will not think me unduly pertinacious in bringing up this question again and will believe that nothing would be more painful to me personally than if my action were so regarded. I feel bound by every consideration of honour, and in pursuance of my duty as a former servant of the Crown in India, to refer to this subject so long as I can hope that any useful purpose may be served by so doing. I wish that I could persuade your Lordships to see this question in the same light in which it appears to me. I do not doubt for one moment that your Lordships feel exactly the same as I do, that you are animated by the strongest sympathy for the Indians in the Transvaal and very sincerely regret that they should have any cause to complain of their treatment under the British flag, but what I do wish is that I could persuade any large body of your Lordships to give expression to those feelings in such a manner as would not only help His Majesty's Government but would also convince our fellow-countrymen in the Transvaal that there is a strong feeling in this country on the question. I see in the continued failure to solve this problem a source of danger to the Empire at large and which may ere long become absolutely uncontrollable. It is the breach in the dyke which is becoming wider and wider—a breach which might in the first instance have been repaired with a few spadefuls of sand, the work of a small child, but which will now require the fevered labour of many people even if it be repaired at all and be made fit to keep out the torrential inrush of the sea.

What are the broad facts of the situation? I will confine myself to those facts, not only on account of the lateness of the hour, but also because it is the broad facts which are beyond possibility of dispute. I think that they are these:—one of the ostensible reasons why the South African War was waged was the redress of the grievances of our Indian fellow-subjects in the Transvaal, grievances which formed the subject of the most indignant protest on the part of our leading statesmen. The result of the South African war was to place the Imperial Government in the position of being able to redress those grievances. But what has actually happened? It is clear that the grievances still remain and that they must be a great deal more acute than they were before. Under the rule of the South African Republic the Indians were discontented, but there was no question of their having to suffer imprisonment, deprivation of property, banishment, and every kind of indignity rather than submit to the laws. That, my Lords, is what they are doing now rather than submit to laws which have been passed under the British flag, under the British Government. These Indians are not suffragettes or Socialists who are encouraged in a political agitation by the certainty of notoriety and of the applause of a considerable body of people. They have nobody to applaud them, they can hope for no notoriety which would be any satisfaction to them. Theirs is not a struggle for any sort or kind of political rights. They know full well that it would be absolutely futile for them to attempt anything of the kind. No, what they are fighting for, what they are struggling for is their very existence.

The tendency and, I am bound to say it, the real object, as it seems to me, of recent legislation in the Transvaal has been nothing more nor less than the extermination of the community of Indians who are resident there. With each successive surrender of the Imperial Government, with each successive diplomatic defeat, the success of this policy becomes more and more assured, and it is because its success has become so very nearly complete that the Indians have been driven to these courses, to suffer anything in order to save their community from actual extermination. What is the professed policy of the Colonial Government? I will endeavour to state it as nearly as I can in the actual words of the High Commissioner, Lord Selbourne, who was good enough to write to me on the subject. He said— Our policy is to treat the Indians who are now resident in the Transvaal with every possible consideration, but not to admit any more, that is, of course, subject to reasonable exceptions. Now the Indians themselves have no objection to that policy. They are perfectly ready to accept that policy, and that being so there is no reason why we should not accept it ourselves. All that they ask, and all that those who think with me ask on their behalf, is that that policy should be actually carried out, and that the methods by which it is carried out should be fair.

Now we come to the question as to what are the methods. How is con- sideration shown to the Indians in the Transvaal? It is shown to them by legislation which has driven them to passive resistance, and to a ready acceptance of all the cruel consequences of their passive resistance. How has the question of immigration been treated? It has been made, what it never was before, absolute; that is to say, not limited by any real exception. There is a nominal exception, it is true, and that is in favour of ruling chiefs from India or high officials of Asiatic descent. But is it conceivable that any Indian chief, that any ruling prince of India, would pay a visit to Natal in order, forsooth, to be insulted as a "coolie," for even the Ministers, the statesmen of the Colony, do not hesitate so to stigmatise the well-born, highly-educated men of high caste who lead the Indian community. It follows from what I have just said that there are two questions. The first is that of the treatment of the Indians resident in the Colony, the treatment of Indians who have a right to be there, who were there before the war, and whose right to be there has been admitted over and over again. The second question is that of future immigration. Those two questions must be kept absolutely separate, and I do not propose, on account of the late hour, to enter into details of either of them, but I will go on at once to what would have been the conclusion of the argument on which I should otherwise have embarked. I will ask you how could the present situation have been averted in regard to each and either of those two questions?

In regard to the first question, that of the treatment of resident Indians, I say that the present situation might have been averted by the repeal of the registration law. Why should that registration law not have been repealed? Your Lordships will remember that the Indians voluntarily submitted to giving the finger-impressions and to registering as the result of a compromise which was arrived at in January. They say that the condition on which they made this voluntary agreement was the repeal of the Registration Act. The Colonial Ministers say that no such promise was made. It is, therefore, a question of which of the two sides you believe. I have no hesitation whatever in believing the Indian statement as to the conditions and I hold that on prima facie evidence it is hardly to be doubted. On what other conceivable condition could the Indians have voluntarily submitted to that which they have declared to be intolerable and humiliating to them under the compulsion of the Act unless it was the repeal of the compulsory law which caused them such indignity and humiliation? So far as I can see that is the only possible understanding on which they could have submitted to that compromise.

But even supposing that no promise was made, why should this Act not have been repealed during the last few months? It is no longer needed. The Transvaal Government have got all the Indians entered on their register. They know how many there are in the Colony for they have all come forward and submitted to registration. That, I think, was the original purpose and only professed intention of the Government—to ascertain how many Indians there were, who they were, and what they were. They have got that information, and so the Act has served its purpose and might very well have been repealed. If there were any goodwill, if there were any generosity towards the community, who have no votes, no political power, and are absolutely in the hands and under the control of the white colonists, surely that might have been done in order to avoid the present deplorable situation.

In regard to the question of future immigration, how might the present situation have been averted? I think that might have been done by allowing reasonable exceptions to the restriction of immigration. The position is this. The Indians are quite content to abide by the immigration law of last year as interpreted by the Courts, and if not worked in connection with this Registration Act, the repeal of which they say was promised. They are not only prepared to abide by the educational test, but they go further. They say: "Make that educational test as strict as you like; add to it if you will a condition that only a limited number of Indians, even as few as six, may enter in any year, and we shall make no further complaint. We shall feel ourselves bound by honour not to ask for more, and to agree with what you have done. All we want is that those few people who are necessary for the continued life of our community, without whom our community must perish, that is to say, the few doctors and lawyers and priests whom we require, should be allowed to enter the Colony. That is all we ask." I think this a concession which might have been made.

Now I pass rapidly to the question which is naturally asked by every thinking man with whom you discuss this question. What can the Secretary of State, what can His Majesty's Government, do? I appreciate to the full the difficulties in which the noble Earl finds himself placed. His position is that all the opportunities of refusing consent to the progress of oppressive legislation have already been given away, and all the opportunities of bargaining which formerly existed have equally been lost. But, nevertheless, knowing the noble Earl as I do, I do not despair of his being able to make use of those great qualities which we have learned to know and to admire in this House. The noble Earl has behind him the general power and influence of the Imperial Government, and that power and influence would exist even if in the case of Indians it were not most specially reserved under the Constitution which was granted to the Transvaal Colony.

But supposing there were no reserved powers; supposing that we had not even that shadowy power of "suzerainty" by which we were able to oblige the South African Republic to treat Indians moderately, we should still have the power which we should exercise in the case of a foreign country with which, as might be imagined, we had a treaty or agreement that they should treat the citizens of the British Empire with justice and consideration. Or, imagine even that we had no such treaty and that in any foreign country our fellow-subjects were ill-treated, oppressed, driven out of the country, banished, deprived of their means of livelihood, of the fortunes and incomes they had built up during the course of many years residence; supposing that these things were done to them, do your Lordships imagine for one moment that we should not take such steps as were necessary to bring about a fairer treatment of those fellow subjects of ours? But surely, my Lords, we should not be taking any of the risks which would be involved in so dealing with a foreign country if we were to negotiate with the colonists of the Transvaal. We take risks, as your Lordships know, on behalf of persecuted communities and oppressed nationalities for whom we have no responsibility whatever. We are willing to take risks, the most extreme risks, if it is a matter, say, of persecuted Armenians or of natives of the Congo, but surely we run no risks of that kind in dealing with the colonists of the Transvaal. If they are indeed British, as we have been so loudly and frequently assured they have become since they received their Constitution, surely they have the honour of our race at heart; surely they have the honour of this nation, of the Imperial Government at heart, and would never wish to bring about the violation of pledges which have been made before the world and civilised mankind over and over again. Surely they must see that it cannot be to their interests to jeopardise the peace and the security of the Empire by producing, as I tell your Lordships with all sincerity and earnestness I believe they may do, very much greater and far more serious discontent in India than exists at the present time.

But even if they do not see these things, if they do not regard—and I think they must if it were put to them rightly—these questions of honour and expediency, surely they must know that it cannot be to their own ultimate and larger interests that there should be disturbance of internal peace and that there should be controversy within the British Empire.

I know that a Blue Book has just been published; I have only just obtained a copy and have not had time to read it; but, nevertheless, I have thought it best not to postpone my several specific questions because I hold that a statement from the Secretary of State will be more widely read and will carry greater weight than the official despatches in any Blue-Books. I trust that that which the Secretary of State may have to say will be of an encouraging nature and may lead us to hope that even now, in spite of the latest most anxious and disquieting news, there is hope of some generous concession on the part of the Transvaal Government, something that may lead to a solution of this most difficult, and to my mind most anxious problem.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to the imprisonment of Mr. Gandhi and other members of the Indian community in the Transvaal."—(Lord Ampthill.)


I am sorry that the noble Lord was obliged to bring this matter on at so late an hour, partly because I should have liked him to have had a fuller House in dealing with this very interesting subject, and partly also because the fact that a Blue Book was published to-day does seem to me to make it a little premature to raise a discussion on this subject in the House. At the same time I quite appreciate the noble Lords' desire to hear a statement which, under the circumstances, will be a very brief one, by me upon the subject. I think, if the noble Lord will forgive me, there is need for great caution in approaching this question. Of all unfortunate things that could happen, it seems to me the most unfortunate that we should appear to be taking sides over this question, either in this House, or elsewhere, and divide ourselves into two classes of pro-English and pro-Indians. That would be, in my mind, an entirely false way of looking at this which is an instance of one of the very greatest of the difficulties that confront those who have to take part in the government of this great Empire, viz., the relations between the white and the coloured races that inhabit different parts of it.

I do not know that at this moment there is a more difficult and anxious problem of government than that, and I am sorry therefore, that the noble Lord, whose enthusiasm on behalf of those whom he served so well, I can quite comprehend, seemed to go somewhat far, I will not say in taking sides, but in making imputations against the Colonial Govern- ment in this matter. For instance, the noble Lord said it appeared to him that the object of the Transvaal Government was to exterminate the Indian colony there. I have followed closely, of course, the various phases of the difficulty, and I do not think that is an expression which can in any way be justified by what the Colonial Government have done. In the second place, the noble Lord alluded to a difference of opinion on a matter of fact which had taken place between the Indian leaders and the Colonial Secretary for the Transvaal. The noble Lord said that obviously one party was not speaking the truth, and the party he believed was not the Indian party. I think the noble Lord might have reflected that where a diametrically different account of a conversation or of conversations is given by two parties, it is possible that the fact may be due to a misunderstanding and not to wilful mendacity on one side or the other, and I am sorry that the noble Lord should have made a charge of that kind, which I am certain it is impossible to support.

So far as the imprisonment of Mr. Gandhi, which I very greatly regret, is concerned, I have no official knowledge of it, no knowledge of it beyond what I have seen in the newspapers, but I have telegraphed to the Transvaal in order to find out what the particular circumstances connected with Mr. Gandhi's imprisonment were. I assume, of course, that he has been taking part in that passive resistance campaign and that he has paid the penalty which no doubt he intended to pay for a breach of the existing law. I do not desire at this moment to enter into the very complicated question of the controversy which has taken place, and I do not think it would be fair of the House to do so, but I should like to say one word upon what fell from the noble Lord with regard to the question of exceptions of entry in the cases of Indians who were not domiciled in the Transvaal before the war. I have not been able entirely to understand whether the Indian community demanded generally the entrance of those who were able to pass an education test, or whether, first, they adopted the very much milder proposal which, I understand, the noble Lord makes, viz., that a very small number of Indians should be admitted to fulfil certain functions which obviously could not be filled by replacing from the community—such classes as lawyers and priests. So far as I am able to judge from seeing the papers for a considerable time the demand was for a general entrance of Indians who were able to pass a high education test, and that, I fancy, is a point on which it would be altogether impossible to induce the Transvaal Government to give way, and I understand that the noble Lord, on behalf of his friends, abandons that.

But as regards the admission of a few people of a special kind, the case in my opinion is an entirely different one. The noble Lord spoke of exceptions as applying only to native chiefs of high rank and persons of distinction, but the noble Lord will recognise that in the last Act there is power given to the Governor to make exceptions of a general kind, and I think it would be very reasonable, and I have expressed that view in communicating with the Government, that some kind of undertaking might be given that the people specially admitted by the Governor, that is to say, by the Government acting in Council, from time to time should comprise a sufficient number of those of the professional classes to supply the wastage which from time to time must take place in the community. That is a point on which I hope a really satisfactory arrangement may be reached.

The noble Lord next asks whether we have received any complaints to the effect that the Indians arrested have been harshly treated and inadequately fed in prison. I did receive a complaint of the kind stating that there had been cases of great hardship, including that of old persons and children at various places having been placed in rooms which were not clean and not having had the food that they required. I immediately telegraphed the Governor of the Transvaal to find out what the truth was of those statements and to ask for a report by telegraph. I have not yet that report; when I receive it I shall be happy to communicate it to the noble Lord opposite.

Then the noble Lord asks a third question on which he said nothing, but which, perhaps, he might like me to answer. It refers to the Traders' Licensing Bills passed by the Legislature of Natal. Three Bills were introduced into the Natal Legislature. The effect of the first was to prohibit indentured labour from 30th June, 1911. That was a Bill which undoubtedly would have lain within the competence of the Natal Government to undertake, but the Bill has, as a matter of fact, been dropped altogether. The second Bill, which we have not yet seen in its complete and final form, forbids any licence to trade being given to an Indian after 31st December, 1908, and the third provides for the total extinction of all Indian licences after the lapse of ten years. As soon as I received the intimation that those Bills had been introduced I wrote a despatch and sent it to the Governor of Natal drawing attention to the nature of the Bills and explaining that it was exceedingly improbable that we should be able to advise His Majesty to assent to the provisions of the last two. I thought it desirable to give a warning of that kind immediately, but I have not yet received the Bills in their final form, and when they do arrive we shall be able to give them our full attention. The noble Lord finishes up by moving for Papers, but he will understand that he has just got one lot and will not be in a hurry to ask for any more just at this moment. We will keep him supplied with all the information we can.

Motion by leave, withdrawn.