HL Deb 24 March 1909 vol 1 cc518-27

rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies—(1) Whether it is a fact that the Transvaal Government have arranged with the Portuguese Government that the authorities at Delagoa Bay should forcibly detain and deport to India British Indians who are placed over the border for offences under the Registration Law. (2) If so, whether His Majesty's Government have either approved or disapproved of this action on the part of the Colonial Government. (3) Whether there is any precedent for handing over British subjects to a foreign Government to be punished for offences committed in British territory; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said

My Lords, the Questions which I desire to put to the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies are questions as to fact, and I hope that they are sufficiently clear. With your Lordships' permission I propose to reserve anything I have to say in regard to the Motion for Papers until I have such information as the noble Earl may be pleased to give to the House. I trust that it may not be necessary to press the Motion, and that I have been misinformed in regard to circumstances which, if they have been correctly reported, seem to me to be extremely unusual and exceedingly grave.


My Lords, the noble Lord's Question, as he says, is very largely one of fact. He asks us whether it is a fact that the Transvaal Government have arranged with the Portuguese Government that the authorities at Delagoa Bay should forcibly detain and deport to India British Indians who are placed over the border for offences under the Registration Law. In the first place, I think it is desirable to state what the general position is. The Transvaal Government have decided that the most reasonable course to take and the best in the interests of the Indians themselves is that where they have broken the Registration Law they should be returned to their country of domicile.

The noble Lord

will, I am sure, agree that, in reply to this Question, there is no need to enter into the general question as to the rights, moral or otherwise, which the Transvaal Government may have to remove Indians from their own Colony. That is a question in which I know the noble Lord takes a keen interest, but it really does not arise on this particular point. We assume, for the purposes of the reply to this Question, that the Transvaal Government have a right to remove certain British Indians over their borders. No British Indian domiciled in Africa has been deported from Africa, and that statement will, I think, remove a misapprehension under which, I do not say the noble Lord, but some of the noble Lord's friends have been labouring.

The ordinary course would undoubtedly be for the Transvaal Government to conduct the Indians whom they desired to remove to their borders and pass them into the neighbouring territory, whether that territory be Natal or Portuguese East Africa. But the Transvaal Government, having taken pains to ascertain the domicile of a number of these Indians, find that India is their native country. They have, therefore, arranged, in a manner which I have no doubt they conceive to be, as I said, the best in the interests of the Indians as well as their own, to return those Indians to India. In order to do this the Indians have to pass through either Portuguese or Natal territory, and the arrangement, as I understand, is that they are passed through either Natal or Portuguese East Africa and that necessarily an arrangement is made with either Government for their transport across those respective territories. It is perfectly obvious that, under the Natal law, the further process of placing them on board ship and conveying them to India is a legal process. They are ex hypothesi not Natal Indians, and therefore they become subject to the law in Natal. I am not absolutely certain as to what the law in Portuguese East Africa is, but I am making inquiry on that point, and, indeed, into the matter generally. I think, however, that one must assume that these Indians, who are also ex hypothesi not Mozambique Indians, must fall under the Portuguese law which renders it possible to place them on board ship.

It may be, and I am sure is, from the point of view of the noble Lord opposite a regrettable thing that these Indians should be deported at all; but, assuming that the Transvaal Government have a right in their discretion as a self-governing Colony to deport them, I do not think that any hardship is involved in that particular method of deportation to which the noble Lord in this Question draws attention. On the contrary, this method is designed so as to cause the least practical inconvenience to those who are subjected to it.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will perceive that I have received no very explicit answer from the noble Earl. I gather from his statement that some arrangement has been made with the Portuguese Government for the deportation to India of British subjects. The noble Earl went on to say that it was necessary that some arrangement should be made with the foreign Government, but he made a further remark which seems to me one of the most extraordinary I have ever heard. He premised, as I understood his interpretation of the law, that the power of the Transvaal Government ceases once they have conveyed those Indians over the border; that they cannot continue the assault once the Indians are across the frontier. That, I believe, is quite correct as a general principle of constitutional law. But then the noble Earl suggested that, once they are over the border, they somehow or other—I cannot remember his exact language—fall under a Portuguese law which enables them to be deported. Without pretending to any expert knowledge of constitutional law, I venture to assert that there is absolutely no sanction or precedent of any kind for action of this sort, and that it is an entirely new departure for any Government to entrust the punishment of its political offenders to a foreign Government.

The law of all nations requires that criminals even should be punished in the country in which they have offended, and in accordance with the laws which they have transgressed. I would even venture, with all deference, to appeal to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and ask, in my ignorance, whether or not that is a correct statement of the ordinary law of civilised nations. But this suggestion that the Indians are made subject to the laws of the Portuguese Government and that it is in that manner that the deportation is justified seems to me to be absolutely new and unprecedented. Imagine, to take an extreme case, that the Portuguese Government, or, say, the Chinese Government, had a law which enacted that anybody who disobeyed a policeman should be subjected to the penalty of decapitation. What should we do if a British citizen by disobeying a Chinese or Portuguese policeman made himself amenable to that penalty? Should we not interfere? And yet it appears, from what the noble Earl has told us, that there is no idea or question of interfering with the Portuguese Government when they take it upon themselves to punish men whose offence—if offence it is—has been committed in a British Colony.

The noble Earl

began by anticipating what he imagined to be a possible contention of mine by telling me that no Indian domiciled in South Africa had been so deported. I should be extremely glad to think that this was the case, but I am not quite sure that the noble Earl has been correctly informed on that point. I have heard that one of the chief objections is that these men are being deported to countries to which they do not belong, and that, surely, does not come within the power of any Government of any nation? I am told that some of them have come from Natal and are being deported to India. Others do not belong to India at all, in that they have been born and are domiciled in the Transvaal. As I said just now, these Indians are not criminals. At the worst they are passive resisters, and they are passive resisters in circumstances of the utmost provocation. Surely this does not justify the Colonial Government in treating them as outlaws, and in depriving them of any rights they may possess as British citizens—for instance, the right of appeal for relief to their own Courts?

What is their offence? Their offence is that they have protested by the only means open to them not against a law, but against the manner of carrying out a law. They have protested against what they believe to be a breach of faith on the part of the Transvaal Government. That they have not protested against the law which obliges them to be registered is surely manifest from the fact that they have twice voluntarily submitted to registration. It may be denied that they have cause to protest against a breach of faith, but if there was no promise on the part of the Transvaal Government certainly there was a promise on the part of the late High Commissioner, speaking in the name of the Imperial Government. Lord Milner, as High Commissioner, in 1903 told the British Indians in the Transvaal that if once they registered they would not be required to register again. He said— Registration gives you a right to be here and a right to come and go. Acting on that absolutely explicit assurance and pledge, the Indians voluntarily registered themselves again.

Then came the new order of things, and the Transvaal Government, in spite of this undertaking, insisted that there should be registration once more. The attitude of the Indians was—If you think it necessary, if it is convenient to you, we will register again, but we will do so voluntarily; what we do not like is to be compelled and to be compelled in the manner in which you intend to put pressure upon us. Your Lordships remember the story. The Indians successfully resisted compulsion, and at the beginning of last year, as the result of what is known as the compromise, they voluntarily registered themselves for a second time almost to a man. The reason that they pocketed their pride and gave way was that they believed, wrongly we are told, that the Registration Act of 1907—the Act which they regarded as humiliating and offensive and unnecessary—would be repealed. Whether or not there was such a promise we shall probably never know, and it is not to my purpose to discuss the question here. Anyhow, that was the belief and the understanding on which the Indians for the second time, in spite of a second breach of faith, voluntarily registered themselves again.

It is absolutely idle to say that the protest of these Indians is simply sentimental, that it has no solid foundation or reason, and that it is quite uncalled for, as is sometimes urged. Men do not suffer as these men have suffered without very good reason. Do your Lordships know that over 2,000 of these Indians have suffered imprisonment, mostly with hard labour? Do your Lordships know that every one of them has suffered great pecuniary loss, and a considerable number of them absolute financial ruin? And what about the leader, the man who is represented as a mere agitator, and who, for the third time, is undergoing imprisonment with hard labour for the sake of his opinions and because he is defending what he regards as the honour of his community? Mr Gandhi, I think your Lordships will be interested to hear, is the son of an Indian gentleman of good birth and high position who was a former Prime Minister of the State of Kathiawar. He is a barrister by profession, but, in spite of his birth and his professional ties and obligations, he served during the war in the dangerous capacity of a stretcher-bearer with the British troops. Again, during the recent Natal rebellion he undertook the same perilous duty with the British force. He is a man who devotes all his means and most of his time and energy to public service and to the purest philanthropy. This is the man who is leading this movement, and with him there are several hundreds of others who, I can assure your Lordships from the knowledge I possess, will persist to the bitter end, whatever be the extremity of ruin or misery it brings upon them. In these circumstances it is simply fatuous to say that they have no good reason for undergoing sufferings of this kind.

I have always maintained, and I still maintain, that a little good-will would at each successive stage have solved this question. I am extremely sorry that my noble friend Lord Curzon is not here today, for I am quite certain that, as the result of his recent visit to South Africa and of his intercourse with the men on the spot, he would bear me out in my opinion that this is the case. But somewhere—not everywhere but somewhere —among the authorities concerned there is a lack of that good-will which is necessary. Has not the Secretary of State, by virtue of his office and by virtue of that personality which attracts and charms us all, sufficient persuasive power to overcome that false pride which forms the obstacle to a final settlement of this deplorable dispute? The Secretary of State, through his mouthpiece in the House of Commons, has told us that he has been making constant friendly representations to the Government of the Transvaal and to the High Commissioner. Why have those friendly representations borne no fruit? We shall hear, I hope, within a few days, as the Secretary of State has been good enough to inform me that he proposes to publish Papers in regard to those friendly representations.

But I should like to ask the noble Earl now, Has he not explained—surely he has explained—the vital necessity of avoiding offence to the people of India at this present time when we are doing everything in our power in this country to assure them that our good-will is greater than ever, and that we are prepared to treat them with greater trust and confidence than before? Has he not suggested that it would be well to remove this one blot on the fair prospect of South African unity in which we all rejoice at the present time? All classes in South Africa, as we learn from communications in the Press, and particularly from the eloquent and interesting letter from my noble friend Lord Curzon which was published the other day, are forgetting their old hatreds, hatreds of that extreme kind which result from national hostility—they are forgetting them in order to unite for mutual self-interest in the future. Only the Indians, their fellow subjects and our fellow subjects, are left out in the cold.

Have the Indians done nothing for South Africa? Have they no right at all to share in the goodly heritage of the future? No man who has even an elementary acquaintance with the history of South Africa can deny that they have a full right to share in that heritage. And I say that, even if they were in the wrong in this dispute, which I for one cannot for an instant admit, now would be the time above all others to condone their faults and to treat them with generosity. I cannot understand why it has been impossible for so long to make such a concession as would put an end to this miserable dispute. How can those on the spot, who have all authority and all power, suffer in pride in any way by making a concession to those who are dependent and powerless? So little is required. As I have said on previous occasions, it is merely a matter of repealing a law which has served its purpose, which is absolutely useless now if that purpose was honestly and fairly stated at the outset, and which has been pronounced by the Courts of the Colony to be absolutely unworkable. That is all that is required—that and a small concession in the shape of altered legislation which would not give away one atom of principle that the Colony sets its heart on, but yet would meet the views of the Indians in regard to the point of honour.

I venture once more to appeal to the noble Earl to renew, with all his might, those friendly representations which he has been making during the past year; and I base my appeal, not only on those considerations which I have just advanced, but on a far higher ground—I base it on the solemn pledge which was contained in the Proclamation of Queer. Victoria in 1858, a pledge which is still binding on the servants of the Crown. Your Lordships will forgive me if I quote that oft-quoted pledge once more. It is— We hold Ourselves bound to the natives of Our Indian Territories by the same obligations of duty which bind Us to all Our ether subjects, and these obligations, by the blessing of Almighty God, We shall faithfully and conscientiously fulfil. I hope that the noble Earl can promise to lay on the Table the correspondence which has passed on the subject of these negotiations with the Portuguese Government so that it may not be necessary for me to press my Motion for Papers. I think, in a matter of this gravity and of this extremely unusual character, it is right and necessary that Parliament should be exactly informed as to what has been arranged, how it has come to pass, and what part His Majesty's Government have played in the negotiations.


My Lords, I have no right to speak again, but perhaps, by the indulgence of the House, I might say one word. In spite of the noble Lord's very kindly reference to myself, I am sure he will forgive me if I do not enter at this moment on the broad and general question. Nobody could complain of him for touching upon it once more, because we all know that his feelings are most deeply involved in it; but I think it will be better to wait until the Papers are laid in regard to the whole registration question before we attempt to discuss that again.

But, as regards the particular subject-matter of the noble Lord's Question, assuming that the Transvaal Government have a right to remove from their borders an Indian or any person who has broken the law, the simple course is to conduct that person to the frontier, in which case he becomes undoubtedly subject to the laws of the country into which he is conducted. They may be milder or they may be more severe than the laws of the country from which he has be removed. The noble Lord mentioned a hypothetical case of a man, guilty of some small and possibly technical offence against the law, being conveyed over the frontier into a country where the penalty for another small offence might be decapitation. Supposing that analogy to hold, that is a very good reason for not simply turning people over the frontier, but for making arrangement by which they can be conducted in a train through the neighbouring country, placed on board ship, and taken in comfort to their own homes, It seems to me that the noble Lord's argument was, in its essence, directed against the alternative course of simply putting people over the frontier and tended to support the course that has been taken—that is to say, of merely carrying people through the neighbouring country in a train and placing them on board ship at the harbour of the country.

These deported Indians, in the belief of the Transvaal Government—and it must be remembered that these people have all been tried—are, so far as it is possible to ascertain, Indians domiciled in India; and I repeat that, leaving out all the other aspects of this unhappy business, it does seem to me the most rational and convenient course to place them on board ship with a view to their return to their country of origin rather than simply to turn them over the frontier, which by, general consent and the common practice of nations, they would be entitled to do. I firmly believe that this particular provision of which the noble Lord complains as unprecedented has really been framed with a view of securing to the utmost degree the comfort of the Indians whom the Transvaal Government, for reasons of their own, are not prepared to admit as citizens of their country.


May I ask the noble Earl whether he is going to include the Papers among those he is about to present?


As I told the noble Lord, I am inquiring how the technical point as to placing these people on board ship at Delagoa Bay, supposing such had taken place, was covered by the existing Portuguese law. We know the other case of their being embarked at Durban is covered by the Natal law. On that point I am making inquiries, but no communications have passed on the subject so far, except the bare statement of what has occurred from the Transvaal Government.


But may we expect the Papers? That is my point.


I do not exactly know what Papers the noble Lord wants. I shall be very happy to give him any information; but I have stated the facts of the case.


Yes; but there must have been correspondence between the noble Earl and the authorities in South Africa. What I desire to know is whether this correspondence will be included in the Papers on the general question which the noble Earl is going to present very shortly.


I do not think it will be possible to include it in the particular Blue-book to which the noble Lord refers and which is practically ready. But I will see if there is anything that can be laid at a later date.

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