HL Deb 17 July 1918 vol 30 cc962-9

LORD LAMINGTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether there is any precedent for debarring an elector of this country who has committed no offence against the law from speaking in public, and whether they will not reconsider their decision prohibiting Dr. Nair from addressing public meetings or writing to the Press.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question that stands in my name is entirely founded on the notice which appeared in The Times on July 8. I may say I have not had any communication whatever, directly or indirectly, with Dr. Nair, whom I have never met in my life. Put quite briefly, what has occurred is that Dr. Nair, who is a very well-known editor in the Madras Presidency in India, many months ago had arranged to come over to this country for private reasons and for medical treatment. He is a very ardent supporter of our system of administration in India, and also, as I understand from writings of his that I have seen, he views with considerable anxiety, if not alarm, the proposals that have just been put before the public, the so-called reforms of our system of administration in India.

According to The Times, when Dr. Nair, arrived in this country, towards the end of June, he was informed that he would not be allowed to address any meeting or to publish his views on these Indian reforms. According to The Times, this was because in April some Indians who strongly favoured Home Rule for India were coining over as delegates to this country to put their views before the public here. They had passports for that purpose, but at the instance of the War Cabinet in this country these passports were cancelled. Among those Indians was Mr. Tilak. In the meanwhile Mr. Tilak who, like his comrades, had been debarred from coming here, had instituted a suit against Sir Valentine Chirol, a well-known writer on Indian affairs, and consequently he has been granted a permit to come and bring his suit against Sir Valentine Chirol. But he equally has been told that he is not to be allowed to indulge in any propaganda on Indian Home Rule.

Dr. Nair's visit to this country was not in any way connected with political propaganda, but certain friends of his apparently had wished him to express his very strong views about the sufficiency of our rule in India and his anxieties concerning these reforms. I can see no justification for putting Mr. Tilak and Dr. Nair on the same plane. Mr. Tilak is well known in India for his pronounced hostility to our rule there; in fact he was described to me to-day by an Indian gentleman as one who is irreconcilable to our rule in India. It is quite true, I saw recently in the Press that he had proposed that if his views on Home Rule were adopted he would collect a great army to support us in this conflict against Germany. Beyond that, I never heard in my life any pretence on the part of Mr. Tilak that he advocated British rule in India in any form. He has been twice convicted for sedition, and sentenced to the Andaman Islands, and it was only on grounds of ill-health that he was not sent there. I have no wish to press my case against Mr. Tilak, but it is very obvious that the Government were afraid of his stirring up the people here and doctrinating them with his views of Home Rule. He was regarded as a source of danger.

The Government of India have information at their command which I have not—I have not read Mr. Tilak's utterances in recent years—and I cannot say whether they were right or wrong in their decisions. But I do maintain that it is most unfortunate that a gentleman like Dr. Nair, a supporter of our rule in India, who has not come here for the express purpose of propaganda, should be debarred from expressing his views, his admiration indeed, of our rule in India. Above all, he is an elector for Edinburgh University. I really do not know under what powers the Government propose to debar him from writing or speaking. I would even say, let us by all means allow both Mr. Tilak and Dr. Nair to speak, so that we may hear freely the views of eminent Indians on these very vast and far-reaching proposals that have just been laid before Parliament. For myself, I would welcome the free ventilation of opinion so that we might see to what extent Parliament is justified in passing these new Indian reforms. I would rather have both sides speaking in this country than that a gentleman like Dr. Nair should be debarred from giving expression to his views.


My Lords, may I say a few words in support of the plea of my noble friend? Dr. Nair is a loyal Indian moderate, and he is the leader of the non-Brahmins of Southern India who, as Your Lordships know, are in an enormous majority. When the war broke out he gave up a large practice and went with the Expeditionary Forces to East Africa and to Mesopotamia as a medical officer. He did that at a time when the little Home Rule Party led by Mrs. Besant was taking advantage of our difficulties and trying to raise a ferment throughout India. It is true, as my noble friend has said, that two Home Rule deputations have been stopped, one at Colombo and the other at Gibraltar; but the objects of those deputations have really adequate support in this country already. There are two subsidised papers, a considerable Home Rule organisation, and a large number of very facile writers who sometimes show great economy in the matter of truth. There is also a very active speaker who has been going about the country addressing labour meetings and trying to persuade his audiences that the Brahmins and the lawyers are the only democrats in India. So that the Home Rule movement is very well represented in this country.

Dr. Nair is the champion of the working-classes, whose interests I am bound to say are neglected in the Report of the Secretary of State. He is, as my noble friend has said, a voter for University College, and I think he can fairly claim to be in a somewhat different position from Mr. Tilak or the deputations. Mr. Tilak, I understand, is coming, and it is natural that the Government might feel reluctant to give any privilege to Dr. Nair and not to give it to Mr. Tilak; but I see no reason why Mr. Tilak should not have complete freedom to speak and to write as he likes when he gets here. The kind of attacks that he has been making in India would be exceedingly ineffective here, and it would be very probable that he would be answered.

Now, the Secretary of State has published this great Report and said that it is to be sent out for general discussion. That Report does not inform this country that all moderate opinion has strongly and in some cases passionately criticised what that Report contains. Is it right that a very able Indian moderate should be prevented from giving his views at a time when views are asked for? Sir Satyendra Sinha, who is a high public official of Bengal, has publicly blessed the Report, although, of course, no other official of any Government would be allowed to do so. Then after a decent interval the Maharajah of Patiala, who could not give his opinion directly on any question relating to British India, and who with his brother chiefs would die rather than let the proposals which the Secretary of State has made be applied in his case, expressed general approval of Sir Satyendra Sinha's views. There have been some other attempts for the creation of an atmosphere which are not fair to the opponents of Mrs. Besant in this country; and I hope that the noble Lord will say that this muzzling order may be relaxed in this country, or at any rate relaxed so far that Dr. Nair may be able, if not to address public meetings, at least to write as he pleases in the papers.


My Lords, in rising to answer the Question which my noble friend has put on the Paper, I am afraid I cannot maintain that any precise precedent can he found for the course of action to be taken with regard to Dr. Nair. The circumstances of Dr. Nair's arrival in this country from India, which I will explain in the course of my answer to my noble friend's Question, are of such a character that I think no English precedents can well be given as relevant. The question of prohibiting an Indian coming to this country from addressing public meetings on the subject of Indian reforms, now that the Report of the Secretary of State and of the Viceroy has been published, is undoubtedly a matter of some difficulty, and I may say that it has received prolonged and careful consideration by His Majesty's Government. The question at issue is complicated by the former decision which His Majesty's Government found themselves obliged to make, before the publication of the Report, in the case of Mr. Tilak.

As the House is aware, some months ago Mr. Tilak and a group of his associates were given passports in India to come to this country to advocate a policy of Home Rule for India. His Majesty's Government when they heard of it decided to prohibit these gentlemen proceeding on their journey here, and instructions were immediately given for those who had already started to be shipped back to India. Subsequently it was found necessary to modify this order so far as Mr. Tilak was concerned in order to permit him to come to this country, if he so desired, to be present at the action for libel which he is bringing against Sir Valentine Chirol, alluded to by my noble friend. In offering this concession His Majesty's Government imposed the strict condition on Mr. Tilak that he should be obliged to confine himself when in this country to the law suit proceedings; that he should not be allowed in any circumstances to take part in public meetings, or to express in public any views on Home Rule for India.

I may say here that it is not yet definitely known whether Mr. Tilak has decided to come to the United Kingdom and to comply with these conditions. I need not justify at any length the restrictions which His Majesty's Government thought it necessary to impose on the grant of a passport to Mr. Tilak. It must be remembered that in India, as indeed in other parts of the Empire, the necessary and reasonable rule has been laid down that passports to proceed to Europe from India and those other countries during the war are re- stricted to persons who can show that there is a public or private necessity for the journey. His Majesty's Government decided, and I think your Lordships will agree decided rightly, that there was no public necessity for a group of persons to come here from India for the avowed purpose of conducting a violent agitation in favour of Home Rule for that country, and at the same time for denouncing the Secretary of State's and the Viceroy's inquiries as altogether inadequate and perfunctory in their character. Therefore the passports of Mr. Tilak and his friends were accordingly cancelled.

But when Mr. Tilak represented that he had also an important private object for the journey, and that the embargo would place him at a great disadvantage in the prosecution of his libel action, the Government of India and the Secretary of State for India recognised that he had a legitimate grievance. The question then was whether, if granted a passport to enable him to carry on his action, he should be under restrictions or not as regards political activities and agitations while in this country. If no conditions were imposed there was no reason why the other Home Rule delegates who had been turned back with him should not similarly obtain passports on the pretext of private business, and that would thereby defeat the policy which His Majesty's Government have thought necessary to adopt towards the Home Rule propaganda in this country. The condition which I have mentioned has accordingly been strictly imposed upon Mr. Tilak.

I consider that it would be inopportune for me to attempt to give any detailed description of Mr. Tilak's past career at this particular juncture when his libel action against Sir Valentine Chirol is about to come before the Courts. I will merely say this, that his career and his personality are sufficiently well known throughout the country here and in India, and it is not difficult to imagine the sort of campaign which he would conduct against the Reforms Report and against British rule in India if he were permitted to come here and to have freedom of speech as part of the conditions.

I now come to the case of Dr. Nair. Let me say at starting that I entirely agree with my noble friend that Dr. Nair is a very different gentleman from Mr. Tilak. I have the pleasure of the acquaintance of Dr. Nair. I met him when I was in India, and I know that as a resident of Madras he is a gentleman of the highest integrity and loyalty to the Crown; and in any course of action which the Government find it incumbent upon them now to take with regard to Dr. Nair, I wish emphatically to say that it in no sense is a reflection upon the character of that gentleman. Dr. Nair, I understand, is stated to have announced publicly his intention of coming to England to combat the views of Mr. Tilak in the event of Mr. Tilak coming to this country and holding meetings in favour of Home Rule. It is true that now Dr. Nair has come to this country for the purpose of receiving medical advice for his health. He was given a passport by the Government of Madras, and the permit was granted unconditionally. The Secretary of State for India, directly he heard that Dr. Nair was coming to England, felt himself obliged on grounds of justice and fair play to request Dr. Nair to give an undertaking to observe the same conditions of reticence during his visit to England as had been imposed upon Mr. Tilak in the event of his coining here for his law suit. This course had the Prime Minister's approval.

Your Lordships, I trust, will appreciate the difficulty of the situation from the brief history of this case which I have given. Three alternatives were open to His Majesty's Government. They could, in the first place, have reversed the action which they took in refusing to allow Mr. Tilak and his friends to come here on a Home Rule mission, and of course in that event no undertaking would have been asked from Dr. Nair; and there may be arguments, as they have been advanced by my noble friend, for that course of action. However, His Majesty's Government, in view of all the circumstances in which we are engaged in this war, and of the great preoccupation of Government Departments, and especially those which are engaged in this particular branch of the Service, rejected that course after long and careful consideration, because in view of all the circumstances surrounding Mr. Tilak's career and avowed opinions they were not prepared at this juncture to give him freedom to start an agitation.

The second alternative would have been to retain the prohibition on Mr. Tilak and to leave Dr. Nair free to speak. Your Lordships will, I think, see from what I have said and the peculiar circumstances of this case that there are and would arise the very strongest objections if that course were taken. Undoubtedly it would have caused many Indians throughout India to have misinterpreted seriously the attitude of his Majesty's Government towards Indian Reform, and would have given a handle to many in that country to contend that the bona fides of His Majesty's Government in their announcement on August 20 of last year was in question.

My Lords, the third alternative, which the Government have found themselves compelled after consideration to adopt, is to continue for the time to impose the prohibition in both cases. I quite admit that the action taken may be open to criticism, but I hope that Dr. Nair will continue to display that loyalty which has characterised him in the past by abiding faithfully and honourably by the under-taking which he gave upon landing in this country, and thereby placing the position of himself and of Mr. Tilak, in the event of that gentleman coming to this country for his own private purposes, on the same footing. I hope you Lordships will agree that at any rate for the time being and at the present juncture, after hearing what I have said, this course, of the three alternatives, presents the least objection.


May I, with the permission of the House, ask whether I correctly understand that Dr. Nair was informed before he left India.


No, he was given a permit without any conditions imposed, and he was asked on landing here to sign an undertaking.


My Lords, I cannot help reflecting that we are a most extraordinary people. Because in time of war and of great national emergency the Government think it unwise to allow an avowed enemy of this country to come here and agitate against. British rule in India, fair-play demands that we should not allow an avowed and loyal friend to speak up for the country to which he is proud to belong at the same time. I have no personal experience of India, and therefore can give no opinion from the Indian point of view; but I wholly disbelieve in this principle of government, and I should be sorry by my silence to have connived at it.