HL Deb 18 June 1918 vol 30 cc228-36

LORD HARRIS had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether their attention has been called to a letter alleged to have been addressed by Sir S. Subramaniya Aiyar, K.C.I.E., late Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, to President Wilson attributing to the British Government in India misrule, oppression, the grant of exorbitant salaries, the refusal of education, the sapping of the wealth of India, the imposition of crushing taxation, the imprisonment of thousands of people, and the deaths of civilian prisoners from loathsome diseases; and, if so, whether they propose to take any steps in condemnation of the same; and, if they have not had their attention called to it, whether they will make inquiries.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question has been deferred, at the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Curzon, for so long that answers have been given in another place which practically dispose of any obscurity there may be in it; but I shall take the liberty, thanks to the elasticity which is accorded to Questions in this House, of offering a few remarks upon the reply of the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State has stigmatised this letter as "disgraceful and improper"; but, notwithstanding that, the Government of India has decided to take no further notice of it than the reproval which has been described by the Secretary of State—namely, that "they express their surprise and regret at the letter"; yet, "in view of Sir S. Subramaniya Aiyar's age, health, and past services, they do not propose to take any further action, but warn him not to do it again." In the meantime the Secretary of State does not propose to interfere with the discretion of the Government of India. I take leave to deprecate that inaction. This person is an ex-Judge of the High Court of Madras. He is a pensioner; and it seems rather odd that he should, in his letter, take exception to exorbitant salaries and large allowances when he is drawing a very handsome pension, towards which, I imagine, he has not contributed as an Indian Civil Servant would have contributed.

I should like to call your Lordships' attention to a comment in the Madras Mail,We merely wish to draw attention to the existence of the Defence of India Act, which makes it criminal to spread false reports or reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm, or to prejudice His Majesty's relations with Foreign Powers, or to promote feelings of enmity and hatred between different classes of His Majesty's subjects. This ex-Judge of the High Court of Madras, who ought to be learned in the law, has disregarded the law according to the opinion of the Madras Mail, and, at any rate in the opinion of the Secretary of State, has behaved "disgracefully and improperly." As I have said, he is a pensioner, but the Government of India do not propose to take any further action than this mild reproval; therefore the Indian taxpayer is to continue to contribute to a pension which is probably handsome. Now, I have known of a case—and I dare say the noble Earl has known of others—where an Indian Civil Servant, who during a very long service had been contributing to the pension he was to receive, has been mulcted of a portion of his pension because he has, in the opinion of the Government of India, behaved improperly. That is the penalty which is meted out to an Englishman if he misbehaves in India. But apparently the Government of India do not think it necessary to penalise an Indian who, although he is a lawyer, although he ignores the law, behaves "disgracefully and improperly."

I deprecate this inaction because I am certain that it will be a discouragement to the loyal and law-abiding subjects of His Majesty in India; and I have very little doubt that those who follow and support Mrs. Besant, and others who entertain opinions similar to hers, will claim this reply of the Secretary of State as a triumph for their policy. The British Raj may be vilified and the law may be disregarded by a lawyer, and the only action that is taken by the Government of India is something like what one would say to a little child—namely, that he is a naughty old man and is not to do it again. So much for the Government of India and its inaction.

But the Viceroy exercises other authorities than those in participation with his colleagues. He is Grand Master of the Indian Empire, and this individual is a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire; and if the Viceroy contemplates giving some commendation to a member of that Order, what it amounts to is this, that in his opinion the Knights of the Order ought to be prepared for all time to accept this individual—who has, as the Secretary of State says, behaved disgracefully—to accept him during his life as a comrade and brother of the Order. If this man has behaved disgracefully he has certainly disgraced his knighthood, and if the Viceroy contemplates taking no action in the matter—not submitting any proposal to the Sovereign—all I can say is that I should imagine that there are other members of the Order besides myself who resent that we should be compelled to accept the comradeship of a man who has been breaking, the law in the way I have described, and who has acted disgracefully. As my noble friend knows quite well, and a great deal better than I do, if this man disobeyed any of the rules of his caste—I do not know what his caste is—certainly if it is an honourable caste, he would be compelled to do some penance. This man has offended, according to the Secretary of State, against the honourable and chivalrous rules of his Order—in other words, of his caste—and I hope sincerely that the Viceroy may regard it as a duty to his Sovereign and to his comrades of the Order to take some notice of it.


My Lords, before the noble Earl answers, there are one or two observations which I should like to make. My noble friend opposite has proposed, in the case of Sir Subramaniya Aiyar, that his pension should be taken away or reduced, and that his name should be removed from the Order of K.C.I.E. to which he belongs. Now, there is no doubt that the letter in question was a very foolish and very improper one, and it has been stigmatised as such in unmistakable terms by the Secretary of State. No doubt it was very wrong to write such a letter as that to the head of a foreign State. On the other hand, these things are done in politics all over the world, and I am not sure that things of the same kind have not been done in this country. Among ourselves they have certainly been done, and done with perfect freedom, with no penal clause, however strong may be the stigma of public opinion attaching to them What is the situation? The situation is that the Government, on August 20 last, announced a policy. The Government which the noble Earl opposite represents here announced a policy of the extension freely and progressively of responsible Government in India, and involved in that was an attempt to bring classes together who have been so very hotly divided upon many points. It is desirable while this is under discussion, as it is likely to be for some time to come, that as far as possible bitterness and action which can provoke violent reaction should be abolished. The learned Judge whose name is associated with what has been done is a very well-known man in India. He is retired Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, and has to my knowledge rendered very distinguished services on the Bench. As to his pension, that perhaps he regards as part of the contract into which he entered when he undertook to serve the Government of Madras as a Judge.


What about good behaviour?


Every Judge is appointed on those terms, but you cannot remove him except for grave misconduct—for what is, in effect, a breach of some very binding public rule. A retired Judge has perfect freedom to take part in politics—if he expresses himself decently, if you like—and you would take away his pension only for gravest matters coming within the Criminal Law. To remove him from the Order to which he belongs is again to make a declaration of war which I think is at this moment highly inexpedient in India. To my mind the most material circumstance of all is that the Viceroy advised the Government not to take action, and in those circumstances I should be very sorry if the Government were to depart in any way from the line taken by their representatives in the other House of Parliament. However reprehensible it is, and however bad, violent action is not calculated to make things any better but probably a good deal worse.


My Lords, in the regrettable absence of the Under-Secretary of State for India I will reply on behalf of the India Office to my noble friend, and I think I shall be able, in what I have to say, to throw some further light upon the incident to which he has referred. The worst parts of the language of the retired Judge are contained in the quotation which appears in the Question as put upon the Paper by my noble friend. As regards that language, all of your Lordships will agree that it is, to use the adjectives which my noble friend quoted from the Secretary of State, disgraceful and improper in the extreme. I think that the noble and learned Viscount opposite did not by any means err on the side of severity in the manner in which he spoke of that language. I think, indeed, he might have spoken rather more strongly than he did. These statements undoubtedly contain a series of outrageous calumnies against British government in India—calumnies which would be culpable if they emanated from any man, but which, coming from a person of the age, experience, and authority of this ex-Judge, no one can possibly be found to excuse. It is quite true, as my noble friend Lord Harris pointed out, that the author of these remarks was a Judge of the High Court of Madras for twelve years and ended by being Acting Chief Justice, and that he received as recognition of his long, and up to this point meritorious, career the high honour of a Knight Commandership of the Indian Empire.

Now, what are the actual facts connected with this deplorable publication? This old man—he is now in very advanced years; I think nearer eighty than seventy—retired in the year 1907. He then fell under the influence of Mrs. Besant, who is very active in her operations in the Presidency of Madras, and under that influence he became President or Honorary President of the Indian Home Rule League. This letter by the retired Judge, although it came to our cognisance in England only a few weeks ago, was written as far back as June 4, 1917. I have the whole letter here, a portion of which only has appeared in the Press in this country. The first part of the letter contained a plea, couched in not improper language, for Home Rule in India; the latter part consisted of a eulogy of the services of Indian soldiers in France and other theatres of war; but in the middle part of the letter occurred the passage which appears in the Question of my noble friend, and which no language could be too strong, in my judgment, to condemn.

The writer of this letter, which was addressed to President Wilson, entrusted it to an American gentleman and his wife travelling in India who were known as lecturers and authors in their own country, to be handed to President Wilson on their return to the United States. It was communicated at Washington to the British' Embassy, by whom it was transmitted to the Foreign Office here. It was passed on by them to the Secretary of State for India, who was as much astonished at this incident as could be any member of your Lordships' House, and who took it out with him to India. The Secretary of State, I think quite properly, did not want himself to be responsible for bringing about the publication of the letter, which had not then appeared in any form in print; still less did he want to advertise the culpable folly of its author. Accordingly when he went, in the discharge of his mission, to Madras in company with the Viceroy, they sent for the writer of the letter—this is an incident which was, of course, not known to my noble friend—and administered to him a severe reprimand. That was, I think, either at the end of last year or in the early part of this year.

At a later date—in May of the present year—the letter appeared in the Indian Press, and from there it was communicated to journals in this country. The noble Lord probably saw it, as I did, for the first time in the columns of The Time. How it got into the Indian Press, who communicated it, we do not know. There is some reason, I am told, to believe that it got in the first place into the American Press and may have been copied from there into the Press in India. Now, my Lords, when we first saw the publication, while there could be no two opinions as to its character, the question naturally arose whether this act was to be treated with the extreme severity which no doubt the language in itself merited, or whether it was to be regarded rather as a melancholy aberration on the part of an old man who had in the course of a long career rendered considerable service to the State, who is now in advanced years, in the enjoyment only of feeble health, and whose utterances on a matter of this sort, I believe, are devoid of any influence and can carry no conceivable weight with any respectable class of his fellow-countrymen.

This was a question which, feeling it difficult ourselves to resolve without more local knowledge than we possessed, we naturally referred to the Government of India. They replied in the general terms which were quoted by nay noble friend—namely, that they were addressing the Judge, through the Government of Madras, informing him that his action in writing to President Wilson in the manner he had done was regarded with regret and surprise by them, but that in view of his great age, failing health, and past judicial services they did not propose to take any further notice of his action. At the same time, the old man was warned that any repetition of such conduct could not be passed over by the Government of India. The noble Lord is dissatisfied with that notice. He thinks it was insufficient for the circumstances of the case. I believe that there were—and I think I can easily show to the House that there are—good subsidiary reasons for taking the line that the Viceroy and his colleagues did.

In the first place, there was no direct evidence, as I pointed out just now, that the retired Judge was himself responsible for the publication. Again, as I have also pointed out, the letter had already been made the subject of a severe personal reprimand by the Viceroy and the Secretary of State. Further, although I would not wish to lay too much stress upon this, it must be remembered that there had been an interval of nearly a year between the original writing of the letter and its publication, whether accidental or not, in India and in this country. There is another consideration which is always present in the minds of the Government when they are dealing with eases of this sort, and that is the inexpediency of doing anything which may convert a person relatively harmless into a political martyr, and may arouse political agitation at a time when such a thing is extremely undesirable.

The noble Lord raised the question of the pension enjoyed by this person, and of his membership of a great and distinguished Order. As regards the pension, the Statutory Rules for High Court Judges in India do not provide for the withdrawal of pension; and it was felt by the Government of India that the forfeiture of his Knight Commandership of the Indian Empire, which would furnish him with an advertisement that the Government of India were not at all anxious to give, would strike an unfortunate and discordant note in the midst of the energetic and loyal war effort in which the Government of India had invited the people of that country to take part, and to which they are responding with so much alacrity and success. These were the reasons, my Lords, that led the Viceroy and his colleagues in India to stop short at the action which I have already described. It is regarded as adequate by the Secretary of State for India. In a matter of this sort, knowing both ends of the scale, I should be very reluctant to interfere with the discretion of the Viceroy or his colleagues, and I am disposed to concur with the Secretary of State in thinking that the action which has been taken is, in all the circumstances of the case, sufficient and adequate.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harris always takes so moderate, and, if he will allow me to say so, so reasonable a view of Indian administration that a Motion of this kind, brought forward by him, must necessarily engage the attention of your Lordships' House, but I am bound to say that in this instance the answer which the noble Earl the Leader of the House has given does satisfy the reason of those who consider the question. There can, of course, be only one opinion about the language used by this old ex-Judge, whom I remember, in my time as Secretary of State for India, as having a high reputation as a member of the Madras Bench, and as being regarded as a distinguished local figure, what we should call in this country a somewhat extreme politician, although not extreme in the Indian sense where the term is used somewhat differently from what it is here.

I am not quite sure that I agree with my noble and learned friend behind me that at a time when a great policy of the amendment of the Constitution is impending you ought therefore to pass over language or actions with which at any other time you might deal severely. I confess that this particular argument never appealed to me in connection with India or with Ireland. But I do think that in dealing with utterances of this kind the one main point which the Government has to bear in mind is what the effect of the language is likely to be in view of the state of the country and of the authority of the person who uses it. In this instance, having regard to all the conditions, and to the fact that the old ex-Judge is of an age which would be regarded as advanced here but is in India very advanced indeed, I can not believe it can be supposed that any real encouragement is given to sedition by such language as this. It can, I think, be passed over with something of a shrug of regret that a public servant of some distinction, possibly suffering from some decay of mind, has become imbued with these ideas, which, we know, are the commonplaces of ordinary Indian disaffection, and I think probably that the Government of India and the Secretary of State are wise to leave the matter there.

I do not believe that either by attaching part of the pension of Sir S. Subramaniya Aiyar, or by removing him from the Order, any genuine purpose would be served. As the noble Earl the Lord President of the Council has said, some people might be tempted to regard him as a martyr to liberal ideas; and I cannot think that those who belong to that high and esteemed Order can feel that the Order is seriously affected by the presence of the ex-Judge in its ranks. In all the circumstances I am therefore disposed to believe that the Government of India and the Secretary of State have taken the more sensible course.