HL Deb 16 November 1909 vol 4 cc590-9

*LORD AMPTHILL rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies what had been the result of his negotiations in regard to the question of British Indians in the Transvaal and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies will recognise that in this matter I have not been importunate, that I have even been patient, that I have refrained from asking him Questions on the subject from time to time when he represented to me that the moment was not opportune and that if I delayed he might be able to give me a more satisfactory answer. But I think the time has come when the matter will not brook any further delay, and when it is desirable that Parliament and the public should be informed of the present state of the case.

I will not take up time by repeating the past history of the question. I will begin with a period of four months ago, when the occasion of the discussion of the South African Constitution Bill raised hopes that this question—this unhappy question—which has reflected no credit on the Colony and no credit on the Imperial Government, which has been fraught with such misery to the British Indians in the Transvaal, would at last be settled; that there would be some generous concession on the part of the Colony, inspired, perhaps, by the Imperial Government, which would enable the British Indians to participate in the general rejoicing over the Union of South Africa. With these hopes in mind two Indian gentlemen, Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Hajee Habib, arrived as delegates from the British Indian community in the Transvaal on the 10th of July. They stated their case to the responsible authorities in this country, they refrained from any sort or kind of public agitation, and they waited patiently in the hope that their expectation would be fulfilled. I asked the noble Earl from time to time whether he was able to make any statement in this House as to the progress of his negotiations, and he led me to hope that by waiting a little longer it might be possible to hear a satisfactory announcement; and in the breasts of the delegates great hopes were engendered by the sympathetic manner in which the noble Earl received them and listened to their representations.

The Transvaal Ministers left the country and still nothing was settled, and the delegates waited on. Then the replies which they received from the Colonial Office became somewhat discouraging, and finally, about a week ago, they received an answer from the Colonial Office which crushed their hope of a settlement which they could regard as honourable and satisfactory. The delegates, who had all this while maintained an admirable patience and self-restraint, made a dignified and temperate statement to the Press and left the country. Mr. Gandhi, the principal of them, is going back to the Transvaal probably to be clapped once more into gaol and treated as a common criminal. That, my Lords, is the recent history of the question, and I think the time has come when we have a right to know what has actually passed between the Imperial Government and the Colonial Government.

Now, my Lords, what is the question at issue? I beg your Lordships to give me your attention, for that which I have to say is really a matter of very grave importance. During the past three years Indians in the Transvaal have been deprived of a right which Indians have hitherto enjoyed in every other part of the Empire—the right of entry into the Colony. That right, although it exists in theory in every other part of the Empire, is in some parts limited in practice. The Indians in the Transvaal are perfectly willing that the right should be limited in the Transvaal to any extent that the Colonial Government may think expedient, but they claim that they should not be deprived of it, and deprived of it in the particular manner which the Colonial Government have chosen. The manner which the Colonial Government have chosen for depriving them of this right—a right which I must again remind your Lordships exists in every other part of the Empire and always has existed—is that of classing them as prohibited immigrants; that is to say, classing them with the outcast and the scum of humanity I from every other nation. What it amounts to is this. During the past three years, and while the Imperial Government has been under the direction of the Liberal Party, a colour bar has been instituted in South Africa—a colour bar such as never before existed in the history of the British Empire. While the Bill for the Union of South Africa was under discussion in both Houses of Parliament the leaders of all Parties protested in the most solemn and emphatic manner against a provision instituting a colour bar. That provision was a disqualification from future political rights. But the colour bar which has been instituted in the Transvaal is far more serious, for it amounts to a deprivation of rights which have always existed—not a deprivation of political rights but a deprivation of social rights, of the ordinary rights of the subjects of His Majesty. It is a law declaring all Indians—never mind what their status or their education—unfit even to enter the Colony, because it classes them with prohibited I immigrants and places them in an inferior position to the people of any other non-Asiatic nation.

We are told that a compromise has been offered. The Indians are offered as a compromise residential permits for a few Indians annually, and they are considered unreasonable because they will not barter the honour of their race for this slight concession to the material comfort of their community. I cannot for the life of me understand the position of those who say that the Indians ought to accept this compromise, as people call it. My Lords, will you not allow Indians to have a sense of honour? Will you not admit that they can feel, that they have a right to feel, in these matters just as we should feel ourselves? Have they not proved it? Those of your Lordships who have followed the story of passive resistance in the Transvaal cannot possibly have any doubt on that subject. The Indians domiciled in the Transvaal—that is to say, who have a right to be there according to the present laws of the Colony—number some 13,000. At the present moment I am informed that there are only 5,000 in the Colony. That means that 8,000 Indians who have been unable to stand this persecution have been driven away from the country in which they have a right to live. Over 2,500 Indians have passed through the gaols of the Transvaal, and of that number all but 150 have been imprisoned with hard labour. Many hundreds of families have been utterly ruined, and the whole tale of self-sacrifice and suffering is one of the most remarkable and extraordinary you can find. About sixty Indians have been deported to India and landed there penniless and friendless, for India is not their home—they belong to the Transvaal.

A few days ago the Prime Minister, speaking at the Guildhall, used memorable words of which I beg leave to remind your Lordships, for they bear very closely on that which I have been saying. The Prime Minister said— If we do not forget, as we cannot and as we ought not to do, that besides Briton and Boer South Africa contains a vast population of the coloured subjects of the King, we may, I believe, feel the strongest confidence that the same width of outlook, the same liberality of temper which has made possible the Union, will be exercised as widely and as promptly as policy and prudence may allow in extending to its broadest possible limits both the rights and privileges of citizenship.

Well, my Lords, if that is not merely an empty phrase, it means that His Majesty's Government have at heart the cause of the British Indians, and that they have felt bound to do something to promote it. What have His Majesty's Government done or been doing to repair the grave mistakes of the past—the mistakes which gave sanction to this unfortunate legislation? There have been communications; there have been communications with the delegates in this country and there must have been communications with the Government of the Colony. I hope that the noble Earl will see his way to lay those Papers on the Table of the House. I am aware—painfully aware—that this cause has suffered from the advocacy of a person so insignificant and uninfluential as myself, but there was nobody else to take it up. The cause, however, is worthy of the advocacy of the foremost in the land. It is a cause which has been advocated by the foremost in the land, by the leaders of both Parties, and I fail to understand why they are not still advocating it. Will none of your Lordships take up the question—take it out of my feeble hands—and press it as you would press any question which concerns the plighted words of our Statesmen, the honour of our race, and the contentment of the people of India. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to the negotiations in regard to the question of British Indians in the Transvaal.—(Lord Ampthill.)


My Lords, I feel sure that the House will agree that in what the noble Lord said about his presentation of the subject he has been unduly modest. The case as he has more than once brought it before the House could not, I think, have been argued with greater ability, if he will allow me to say so, or with more reason or moderation, and although the points involved are somewhat difficult and technical, I think the noble Lord has on previous occasions succeeded in making them clear to the House at large.

Like the noble Lord, I will not attempt to travel over the earlier history of this difficult subject. It is quite true, as he said, that the visit of so many South African Statesmen here in connection with the Union Bill afforded, in our opinion, a favourable occasion for an attempt to arrive at some solution of the difficulty which would be satisfactory to the Indian population of the Transvaal, acceptable to the Colonial Government, and reasonable in the view of public opinion here. If, as I fear, we have not been altogether successful in arriving at such a solution, I can assure the noble Lord and the House that it has not been for want of efforts on my part—on the part of His Majesty's Government; and I do not think any failure there has been is in any way due to the manner in which the spokesmen for the Indians have put their case, because they put it with skill and with fairness; neither has it been due to a want of a true and deep-seated desire on the part of the Transvaal Ministers to settle the question if they could.

The two points to which our attention was originally directed as constituting the principal grievance, partly theoretical and partly practical, of the Indians in the Transvaal were these. The first was a desire that Act No. 2 of 1907—what is known as the Voluntary Registration Act—should be repealed. It was considered that the continued existence of that Act on the Statute Book of the Transvaal constituted a slight to the Indian population, and its repeal was demanded. In the second place, we were told that if the Indian community in the Transvaal was to continue and prosper it was necessary that from time to time certain professional persons, either priests or doctors or the like, should be able to have free access to the country, because it was evident that if by lapse of time those who belonged to those professions in the country died or left the Transvaal, the community might be left without those adjuncts to its general civilisation, which would make it impossible for it to continue. In the conversations which I had with the Transvaal Ministers those two points were principally borne in mind, and the outcome of our conversations was that they expressed themselves willing, if an opportunity offered, to repeal Act No. 2 of 1907, which had really fallen into disuetude because its place had been taken by an Act of last year, called the Asiatics Registration (Amendment) Act. I pointed out, on the second matter, that it would not be fair to admit these professional persons from India merely under a temporary permit but that if admitted in limited number— and it was considered that the number of six in each year would meet the case—they ought to be admitted as residents in the country with the power of settling there permanently. On that point, too, the Transvaal Ministers expressed them selves willing to attempt to meet the wishes of the Indians. Therefore, so far as the practical difficulty was concerned and the practical disabilities under which the Indian population laboured, it seemed as if there was a good prospect of those being removed.

But there remained the theoretical grievance, of which the noble Lord has spoken. That grievance consists in the I fact that in the Transvaal, unlike other parts of the Empire, Asiatics are explicitly excluded from the Colony instead of being subjected to the treatment they receive in some other Colonies—that is to say, of being admissible in theory, but being kept out in fact by being subjected to impossible tests. What happens is that in some other parts of the Empire the admission is, to use the words of the noble Lord, limited in practice. It is not only limited in practice; it is made altogether impossible. An education test is supplied for admission, and a task is set to an Asiatic, although not to an European, which is obviously an impossible one for him to carry out. He is asked, for instance, to translate some scientific work full of technical terms into modern Greek or Roumanian. It is impossible for him to fulfil that obligation, and therefore he is not admitted.

And so the question, it seems to me, really comes to this. Is it a greater slight to a race to be told frankly that the members of that race will not be admitted except under certain provisions and limitations, or that they should be told that they are on a theoretical equality with European subjects of His Majesty, but that so far as individuals are concerned they will invariably be kept out? That is a difficult question. I think it might fairly be argued that you do not really save the dignity of a race by, if I may use the phrase, making a fool of the individual in the manner which I have described. On the other hand, it cannot be disputed that the Indians, as represented by their spokesman, Mr. Gandhi, and Mr. Hajee Habib, who accompanied him, one representing the Hindu and the other the Mahomedan population in South Africa, undoubtedly take the view that if theoretical equality be admitted any administrative steps may be taken, even those of the most fanciful kind I have alluded to, for the exclusion of Asiatics; consequently the proposition to which they were prepared to accede, although I think with some unwillingness, was this—that an education test should be devised for all immigrants into the Transvaal, both whites and Asiatics, but that power should be given to the Executive to refuse to admit even those who passed that test. That, it was considered, would safeguard the theoretical position of the Indian. The Transvaal Ministers took exception to that proposition. They took exception to it, first, on the ground that it was a mere device, that it did not represent any practical state of things; and, in the second place, on the ground that once theoretical equality was granted they would be subjected to a continual pressure to increase the amount of practical equality, and that there would be a continual demand for the admission of a greater number. They wished to be safeguarded by statutory obligation or by statutory power to admit a certain fixed number, but they thought that if this complete equality in theory was given the number to be admitted would be subjected to a continual possible increase.

I think we should all of us be glad if it were possible that all the subjects of His Majesty all over the world bad equal access to the whole of His Majesty's Dominions; but I am sure that anybody who has even a slight acquaintance with the opinions of those who inhabit our various great over-seas Dominions know that this is an ideal which if it ever is to be attained will only be attained at a very distant date. I do not see myself any signs of a softening of opinion in that direction. I do not know that I should be overstating the case if I said I saw some signs of hardening in the opposite direction. We may all regret that, but we all know that we cannot force on the self-governing Dominions a policy of this kind to which they are so strongly opposed. We know, too, that with them it is not merely a question of prejudice. The matter has its very practical side from the point of view of labour questions, sanitary questions, and other important departments of social life. As I say, I did my best to assist—I could do no more than assist—at arriving at some solution. The Transvaal Government expressed themselves in general terms willing to bring forward some such legislation as I have mentioned if opportunity offered—that is to say, if their Parliament ever met again for business before the formation of the Union. I am not certain that their Parliament will meet for business, and, therefore, their intention must be taken as being subject to that possibility.

There is also this side to the matter. When the Union Parliament is formed questions affecting Asiatics come under the Union, and there may be something to be said, both from the point of view of white South Africa and of the Indians, for postponing any further legislative action until the Union Parliament has been formed. We hope that the Union Parliament will be disposed to take a broad view of this question, subject to the strongly held opinions which I have mentioned. What may be the precise views of the representatives of India on this point I am not aware—whether they would prefer that those practical steps which the Transvaal Government were disposed to view favourably should be taken before Union, or whether they would prefer to wait until the Union Parliament had come into being. The fact that the grievance which would remain even after such legislation is a theoretical grievance is one which in a sense adds to the gravity of the situation. I am very far indeed from saying that this question of theoretical equality ought to be ignored; and I am disposed to think that within the limits which are possible it is one which those who are responsible for the different Dominion Governments ought to bear in mind. I think I have nothing further to add in the way of giving direct information to the noble Lord. But he has asked for Papers. He will see, of course, that I cannot engage to publish any more Papers on the subject without the concurrence of the South African Government, but I have no reason to suppose that they would object to such written communications as have passed between us being made public, and I will inquire with a view to seeing if it is not possible to publish at any rate some part of the correspondence at an early date.


My Lords, I am not going to take up time as I know that the noble Earl is called away by other duties, but I should like to say that I am greatly obliged to him for the trouble he has taken in making this reply to my Questions. The noble Earl said he was not sure what the attitude of the representatives of India would be on this question of theoretical equality, which he was rather disposed to make light of.


I think the noble Lord misapprehended me. What I said was that I was not certain as to whether, assuming it to be possible, the Indian representatives would prefer that the practical steps which I indicated should be taken, or whether, if the theoretical grievance could not be removed, they were indifferent as to those steps being taken.


I will put it this way. If your Lordships were in the position of the Indians and were told, "You cannot come in here because you are prohibited immigrants—that is to say, you belong to the same category as people who are flying from justice in their own country and people who are verminous and infected with disease," or if it were said to you, "You cannot come into this Colony because we are engaged in our work of development and have no room for you here." I do not think there can be any doubt as to which you would prefer. The theoretical grievance could be removed by a stroke of the pen without the Colonial Government giving away an ounce of anything material that they value. I cannot resist the conclusion that it is only false pride and fierce prejudice which stand in the way.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.