HL Deb 19 February 1912 vol 11 cc62-74

*LORD AMPTHILL had also given notice to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether they have any information as to the working of the Gold Law of 1908 and the Township Amendment Act of 1908–9 in the Transvaal which are now being put into force, and whether they have received any complaints from the British Indian community to the effect that those laws are affecting them with cruel injustice, and, if so, whether His Majesty's Government have taken any action in the matter.
  2. 2. Whether the provision of the Act of Union empowering the Imperial Government to advise His Majesty to withhold assent from legislation unjustly affecting British Indians is regarded as operative or not; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am profoundly discouraged in asking further Questions because I understand that, although the Colonial Office will inquire into matters in certain circumstances, it is only when they consider it necessary and advisable to do so. I also understand that it is a mischievous thing to quote the remarks of Union Ministers. I confess that I am surprised, but it seemed to me that the reply which the noble Lord gave just now was carefully prepared in intelligent anticipation of things which I might say, but which I certainly did not say.

Now, my Lords, I put my next Question about the working of the Gold Law and the Township Amendment Act. The old Transvaal Law of 1885—the law of the old South African Republic—prohibits the holding of fixed property by Indians, denies them municipal and political franchise, and requires them to be segregated in locations. That law has never been operative, and up to the present time Indians have been able to hold property by getting their European friends to hold it in trust for them, and those trusts have been upheld by the Courts of Law. The system has been acquiesced in and supported by the Courts of Law. But these two new laws—the Gold Law of 1908 and the Township Amendment Act of 1908–9—seem to require a more stringent application of this old, and, if I may say so, obsolete law, and attempts are now being made to confiscate these properties which have hitherto been held in trust in the manner I have described, and so to compel the Indians to take refuge in locations where, of course, they will be unable to carry on the businesses which they have established, some of which have been in existence for twenty years and more, and will be driven out of the country by economic ruin. At present legal segregation has been impossible, as the old law of 1885 contained no sanction to that effect, but these new laws, if they are rigorously applied, will have the effect of driving the Indians into locations. It appears from what I have heard that a beginning has been made in that way. But I will merely ask the noble Lord whether he has any information as to the facts and whether he has received any complaints.

My second Question has reference to the provision of the Act of Union which protects British Indian subjects by means of the Veto of the Sovereign. This matter is one of even wider interest at the present time, for we have on the one hand the statement of the Prime Minister—I do not know whether my memory serves me rightly or not—that the Royal Veto is as dead as Queen Anne, and on the other hand the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty that the minority in Ireland will have to rely for protection on the Royal Veto. Between those two opposing statements we have to make up our minds whether there is any solid protection for British Indians in South Africa by the same means. If there are any Papers I hope they will be laid, and accordingly I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to the working of the Gold Law of 1908 and the Township Amendment Act of 1908–1909 in the Transvaal.—(Lord Ampthill.)


My Lords, I earnestly hope that my reply to the noble Lord this time will meet with a little more approval from him than my last reply. I must begin by telling him that since I last spoke on this question in your Lordships' House on December 6, 1911, no new complaints in regard to the working of either the Gold Law or the Township Amendment Act have reached us, but the Secretary of State has been in correspondence with the Union Government about the position of Indians under those Acts which has formed the subject of complaint in the past. The questions raised involve, as the noble Lord must know, very complicated and intricate legal issues, which it would take me a long time to explain. I am quite sure that it would be more satisfactory to the noble Lord and to the House generally that Papers should be laid in regard to them, and that is what we propose to do in regard to this particular matter. The Papers in question will contain a copy of the very important judgment in the case of Tamblin v. Rex, to which I referred on December 6 last year, and there will also be included assurances from Ministers that they do not propose to interfere with vested rights. I think that covers the first Question. In his second Question the noble Lord asks whether the provision of the Act of Union empowering the Imperial Government to advise His Majesty to withhold assent from legislation unjustly affecting British Indians is regarded as operative or not. I am not quite sure to what the noble Lord alludes. There is no provision which gives any special power—


Section 65 of the Act of Union.


Sections 64, 65, and 66, so far as I remember, are general.


I understand that Section 65 provides that "the King may disallow any law within one year after it has been assented to by the Governor-General, and such disallowance … shall annul the law from the day when the disallowance is so made known."


I am quite aware of that provision, but it applies to all legislation. I mean there is no provision in the Act which has a special bearing on legislation as regards Indians. The section to which the noble Lord has called attention is a general provision applying to all legislation. I do not think I ought to go into the question of the analogies which the noble Lord has brought forward. What may happen in regard to a Bill which has not yet reached your Lordships' House I do not know; and in regard to the Veto being as dead as Queen Anne, the noble Lord must know that in regard to South African legislation the operation of laws has within the last few years been delayed for a short time in order to give an opportunity for consideration. At any rate there is no provision specially dealing with this question in which the noble Lord is interested. Sections 64, 65, and 66 are entirely general in their application.


My Lords, we are allowed in this House to speak rather discursively on questions, and therefore with your permission, having had a very special connection with this subject and interest in it, I should like to say a few words. I do not think it is realised entirely, certainly not in this country, how very complicated and difficult this question is. I can only say for my part that I do most earnestly desire a settlement for the sake of South Africa quite as much as for the sake of India. The Indian case has been repeatedly and ably stated in this House, and elements in that case are undoubtedly very strong. You will not suppose, my Lords, that I would for a moment underrate the strength of the Indian case, or the importance of the sentiment that underlies it. It is not my business to state that case, but I want it clearly to be understood that I attach the greatest weight to it.

But in order that this matter may be settled it is necessary that those who have the settlement of it, whether in India or in South Africa or here, should understand the other side of this case. Now what really is in question in the matter is the comparative systems of living under Eastern and Western civilisations. If you take two traders in South Africa, equally capable, equally industrious, equally sober, equally honest, one an Indian and the other a European, the Indian will always beat the European in trade, and must do so because the Indian lives under the Eastern system of civilisation and the European lives under the Western. It is not necessary to express any opinion as to the comparative merits of those systems of civilisation. I merely state a literal plain fact which lies at the root of the whole of this question. The Eastern system of civilisation is so much cheaper than the Western that the two men in all other respects equal cannot compete on equal terms in the same town at the same business. In this is to be found the reason why in South Africa public feeling is so strong for the exclusion of Indians, and you have only begun to understand the difficulties and the complications of this question when your Lordships realise that fact. If there was no restriction on immigration at all, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the European trader would disappear from South Africa. At any rate that is the absolute conviction of all South Africa, and I do not myself see where the flaw is in the argument.

Now, my Lords, suppose that gradually in this country, in county town after county town, English tradesmen were excluded and Chinese tradesmen took their places, or that Bond-street and Regent-street gradually became monopolised by Chinese tradesmen. Would public opinion remain in this country as neutral, as impartial, in the matter as it is now? Obviously it would not. Or, to put a converse case, which, fortunately, has never occurred and is never likely to occur, suppose that it was found that the land in India was all passing out of the hands of Indians into the hands of Europeans. Surely the Indian Government and public opinion in India would be very strong in favour of some regulation or some modification of such transfer.

That brings me, my Lords, to the principle on which and through which I think these matters must be considered. It is not a sound basis, I venture to submit, to say that all subjects of the King can have the same rights in all parts of the Empire. I think a better basis is to say that the particular and special interests of each part of the Empire ought to be the first consideration of the whole Empire. I do not say that those local and special considerations should not sometimes give way to the general interests of the Empire, but I do think that those occasions should be exceptional and not general. Applying those principles to India, surely all parties in this country agree that in a matter affecting the people of India what should be considered first and foremost are the welfare and the interests of the people of India. What a reasonable inhabitant of South Africa asks—I do not say they are all reasonable in this matter, but most of them are—is that the interests of South Africa should be the first consideration of the Empire in considering this matter, and the solution of the difficulty is the one that my noble friend behind me (Lord Ampthill) mentioned, and which has been, I think, accepted in principle by all parties except unreasonable ones, and that is that, while South Africa should be free to restrict any future immigration, those British Indian subjects who were domiciled in the Transvaal before the war should have every possible consideration shown them. Every possible restriction on their rights as British subjects should be removed.

I will make no comparison now between the position of these men before the war and after the war. I will only state what I believe to be literally true as regards their status after the war at the time when I went to South Africa. They had not, of course, a vote, nor any prospect of a vote. That was a disability in respect of white men; but there are special reasons connected with the franchise which rather remove that from the category of questions which we are considering to-day. If you remove the franchise as a disability, there are only two remaining. A British Indian subject might not own the freehold of land, and he might not engage directly in a mining enterprise. I say here, my Lords, what I have said before a Transvaal audience. I do not think those two restrictions are justifiable. I think they are not only not justifiable but they are very foolish, because they are perfectly inoperative. A British Indian is forbidden to hold land in freehold, but he holds it absolutely securely through the medium of a white man with whom he makes an arrangement. And exactly in the same way, if he wishes to take part in mining operations he is able to do so through the co-operation of a white man. Consequently while these two were legal restrictions they were inoperative legal restrictions. And therefore really all the disabilities in respect of which we had contended at one time with the Government of the Transvaal had been removed, and when I went to South Africa there was really no question in dispute between the British Indian community and the Government.

Now what brought about the change? Why on that serene atmosphere has a dispute arisen which I have deplored intensely and do deplore, and which I think it is of the utmost importance should cease? I have said that the policy agreed upon by all parties was that while the question of future immigration should be left to the decision of the people of South Africa, those who were domiciled in the country should have every consideration shown them. When that policy was advanced and emphasised by myself the Europeans accepted it, though I do not say without some little grumbling. The British Indians accepted it likewise; they not only accepted it, but gave me quite clearly to understand that they admitted its reasonableness and approved of it. Why was the legislation passed which has been the fons et origo mali? I will tell you, my Lords, and I do not say this in any way as a reflection on the British Indian community. Nothing would be more unjust than to identify them as a whole with the speculations of certain of their compatriots, whether in the Transvaal or in India. But the fact is that one day the people of the Transvaal woke up and found that they were being silently flooded by an immigration of unauthorised Indians. They found that the system was organised and had reached great dimensions, and they became thoroughly frightened. You will ask me, my Lords, for some proof of this statement. Within five years immediately following the war there were 1,500 successful prosecutions of Indians who had come into the country and whom nobody could contend had any right to be there. Police officers were having bribes offered them at every frontier post and the great majority of cases of illicit entrance escaped detection and prosecution altogether.


Are you speaking of the Transvaal now?


Yes. Police officers in the Transvaal wore having bribes offered them at every frontier post. I will not trouble your Lordships by quoting them, but if any noble Lord wishes to see the cases I have them here. I will give one instance to show the extent to which the system had gone. One Indian was convicted in Johannesburg who offered an inspector of police £400 a month and a sergeant £200 a month if they would pass any Indian who came to them with a certain certificate from this man—that is to say, one Indian offered two police officers £7,200 a year. The business was sufficiently large to make it worth the while of one agent to offer two policemen a retainer of £7,200 a year. That will show you the size and scale on which the matter was being organised. And in another case instructions were found on an Indian who had never been in South Africa at all, giving him information wherewith to answer questions that might be put to him. He was supposed to represent an Indian who had been domiciled in the country before the war and with whom he had had no connection at all, and he had a regular little code of instructions to enable him to answer questions as to the principal people who lived in the town and the physical features of the town, with a few words in English, Dutch, and so on.

I mention these facts to show your Lordships why it was that the people of the Transvaal became thoroughly frightened. They were afraid that this question was going to be settled over their heads, that no option was going to be left to them of saying whether future immigration should be restricted or not, and that was the origin of the legislation which has been the sole cause of the trouble. I am not here to say that there was nothing in that legislation with which fault could be found. I am not here to say that there was no criticism possible upon it. I do not wish for one moment to appear to adjust the balance of blame between the British Indians or between the South African authorities. I realise most fully the great importance of this question to India. I realise how intensely Indians feel it. But I do want your Lordships to realise that the action which was taken in the Transvaal was not wholly gratuitous. I want the people of this country to understand that it is not mere causeless selfishness on the part of South Africans which makes them view with great anxiety the possibility of unrestricted Indian immigration, but that they have a real case and that the matter is one of immense importance to them. I believe the matter can be settled. I do not think it is beyond the limits of statesmanship to settle. There are many Indians who are reasonable, fair-minded, honourable men. With them on the one hand and the South African Government on the other, and His Majesty's Government as the honest broker between them, it seems to me that a settlement is wholly possible. I am sure it will be as deplorable for South Africa if this question is not settled as I am told by those who are in a position to know it will be for India.


My Lords, I am sure the House will have listened with deep interest to the observations which have fallen from the noble Earl on the Front Bench opposite, who is able to speak on this subject with a quite unequalled degree of authority and knowledge. The noble Earl will well remember that he and I have had many communications in old days on this topic, and I entirely agree with him as to its difficulty and complication. The noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, mentioned that this subject was brought up at the Imperial Conference, not at very great length it is true, and he also said that no representative of India was present. All I can say is that I did my best as Secretary of State for India to put the position to the representatives of the various self-governing Colonies from the Indian point of view, and I hope I succeeded to some extent in putting various aspects of it before them in a light which had scarcely occurred to them all. I think, therefore, that the noble Lord is a little pessimistic in thinking that the conversations which took place at the Imperial Conference have been or are likely to remain entirely without, result.

The noble Earl who has just sat down fairly drew attention to the main cause of the difficulty which has arisen in the self-governing Colonies in various parts of the world where the small white race governs and the coloured race competes in trade and in work. As he quite truly said, the main difficulty is due to the different standard of life; and as I ventured to point out to the representatives of some of the Dominions—I think in particular to the representatives of some of the Antipodian Dominions who were complaining in particular of the competition of Asiatic seamen—you cannot make it anything in the nature of a criminal charge against a man that he is content to live upon rice and water whereas his competitors demand beef and beer. But the practical result of that difference is that the one kind of labour is able to undersell the other. Then the noble Earl went on to say what also is perfectly true, that in this country we have no notion of what is meant by the competition of that cheap and cheaply-living labour, and he asked what would be felt if we were subjected to that direct competition here. My Lords, we are, indeed, fortunate in that respect.

Similar problems of the partial or complete ousting of one class or race by another occur in many parts of the Empire, and are not always confined by any means to competition between white men and men of colour. I might give as an instance the problem which has arisen in Burma of late by the competition there of Indian cultivators who have come in in very large numbers and gradually elbowed out, by greater fitness in some respects for the particular work which is to be done, the indigenous Burman, a fact which tends to create a problem of its own. The noble Earl pointed out what some of the difficulties in South Africa have been. I am able to concur with him completely in what he said of the goodwill of the Ministers of the South African Union—which was equally, I am sure, felt by the Ministers of the Transvaal when he was governing there—in trying to settle this question, but I am afraid there has not been anything like universal goodwill shown by a great many South Africans in this matter. There has, I fear, been a great deal of prejudice and jealousy beyond what can be justified by the dread of trade competition. One thing, I think, which has been particularly felt by Indians in this matter is that an educated Indian of standing, belonging, perhaps, to an ancient race, is sometimes talked of as though he were in all respects exactly on all fours with the lowest type of Kaffir; and it is not to be supposed that people of a proud race, as Indians are, will consent for a moment to be spoken of in such a way or so to be treated. Of course, we all know that to Ministers and to men of standing in South Africa matters look very differently. They quite appreciate the differences which exist between different races and different-members of those races. But there has been far too much loose talk in South Africa, as in some other parts of the Empire, on this question of colour, and it is that, I think, in particular, that Indians have resented.

It is quite true that what Indians desire, and what India as a whole is determined if she can compass it to see done through the agency of the British Government, is that those Indians who are in Africa should have a thoroughly fair chance and should not be subjected to fresh disabilities of any kind. It is not the wish of most Indians that there should be further emigration from India to South Africa, or indeed—in some respects I think it is a singular fact—to other parts of the world. There is now a strong body of educated Indian opinion which takes exception to any form of Indian emigration, though emigration under indenture has been to the benefit both of the Indians themselves and the various Colonies to which they have gone. But it cannot be disputed that a growing prejudice against any form of emigration for purposes of labour exists in India, and therefore I am quite certain that any attempt, if such were made now, to flood South Africa with Indians would not be countenanced by the better class in India itself.

There have been certain cases of the kind mentioned by the noble Earl—there were in the past—of unscrupulous action on the part of Indians acting as organisers with a view to securing entrance, sometimes, I am afraid, under direct false pretences, into Colonies into which they were forbidden to pass, and I think it cannot be disputed that the action taken by the various South African Governments at different times, which we have sometimes considered over-harsh and narrow, has not therefore altogether been without provocation. But I do hope and believe that the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, is speaking with some exaggeration when he tells us that the state of feeling is as bad as ever it was, and that there is nothing to look forward to but a period of dis- satisfaction and unrest. There are. I admit, some problems of difficulty. The particular problem connected with the passage of Indians through Portuguese territory always seemed to me a peculiarly difficult one, and if the noble Lord is right in thinking that there has been some connivance—although I do not think he mentioned a specific instance of it—some sort of collusion between certain Portuguese authorities and certain subordinate authorities in British South Africa which has had the effect of causing Indians who had a right to return to British territory to be deported at their own expense to India, that obviously would offer, and I am quite certain would arouse, a most legitimate occasion for complaint. But I do not understand that the noble Lord quoted a specific instance where that had actually happened.

I am sure the noble Lord will allow me to remind him that what the Colonial Office asks for—I think naturally asks for—in cases of this kind are the actual positive data, and, if possible, sworn statements of those who allege that they have been victims either of a breach of the law or of an unfair interpretation of the law. It is impossible, as my noble friend behind me (Lord Emmott) pointed out with great force, for a Governor-General in South Africa to go to the Ministers there with complaints of a merely vague or general character; and the noble Lord, I am sure, will agree that complaints of that kind must be supported by specific statements, and, so far as possible, by a mass of evidence. This question is one which has given all of us who have had at any time to do either with the Colonies or with India a great deal of anxiety. So far as I am able to judge, the position is not misunderstood by educated opinion in India. I do not believe that the sound opinion of Indians expects or demands that kind of equality of access which the noble Earl opposite has pointed out in the conditions of the British Empire it is not possible should everywhere be given; but it is undoubtedly true that any suspicion of deliberate injustice, or of prejudice, or of the sort of contemptuous treatment on the ground of colour to which I have alluded, arouses in India a deep and stern feeling of indignation. On every ground, therefore, we desire to see these causes of dispute and difficulty cleared away, and I am quite certain that the Department which my noble friend behind me represents will not be backward in making every needed representation, where a clear case is brought forward, to our friends the Ministers in South Africa.


I am not going to take up your Lordships' time, but perhaps I may exercise my right of reply by making a few remarks on three points. In the first place, I congratulate myself that my Questions, if they have done nothing else, have at any rate elicited the two extremely important pronouncements which we have heard from the noble Marquess the Leader of the House and my noble friend on the Front Opposition Bench. Those pronouncements will at any rate serve to call public attention to this matter, which they admit to be of such tremendous importance—a thing which I myself have not yet succeeded in doing in spite of some five years of endeavour. May I also add that I appreciate the sympathetic tone in which those pronouncements were made. The second point on which I wish to say a word is this. I find that Section 147 of the South Africa Act says that "the control and administration of Native affairs and matters specially or differentially affecting Asiatics throughout the Union shall rest in the Governor-General in Council." It was that which gave me the impression that there was a special provision, but I was mistaken in thinking that it was to be exercised in some special manner through the Royal Veto. The third point is with reference to the statement which was made in so fair and sympathetic a manner by my noble friend. The India us themselves do not ask for unrestricted right of immigration. That cannot be too often repeated. All that they ask for is the removal of the Registration Law, which they regard, and which they cannot help regarding, as unjust, humiliating, and offensive, and which as a matter of fact is unnecessary. My noble friend says this is a question which he believes can be settled. Seeing that it is no more than the removal of a law which is no longer necessary, of course it can be settled. But what worries me and makes me anxious is that it has not been settled long ago in spite of all this lapse of time. As Papers have been promised, I withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.