HL Deb 14 November 1918 vol 32 cc114-24

LORD SYDENHAM rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for India (1) whether he can give any information as to the rioting in Calcutta and Madras in September; (2) whether the Report of Sir Narayan Chandavarkar and Mr. Justice Beechcroft will be published with that of the Rowlatt Committee.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, throughout the war the Censor has been very active, and our news from India, generally speaking, has been much too scanty. Meanwhile the strain upon us all has been intense, and we have not had, and we have not even now, time to give to consider the affairs of India and to watch events in that country. But, my Lords, the questions of India are of supreme importance to the whole Empire, and if we continue to ignore them we shall before long be faced with the most unpleasant surprises. In September last there were prolonged riots in Calcutta and in Madras, and in the former place there was considerable loss of life. It seems to have been arranged by someone that large public meetings should be simultaneously held at Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon. Those meetings were all prohibited by the respective Governments, and in Rangoon happily nothing untoward happened, but in Calcutta a meeting was called by certain Mahomedan leaders who disagree with the policy of the Moslem League which, as we all know, was captured by the Hindu extremists.

All over India there is a certain amount of Moslem unrest due to the Report of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State. That Report is regarded by Mahomedans generally as having dealt too lightly with their interests. I am bound to say that I think that complaint is not altogether an unreasonable one. If the proposals of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State are adopted, Moslem interests, which the Government—at present all powerful—is able to safeguard, would most certainly suffer in the future, and we should have the Government practically controlled by Hindus.

The Calcutta meeting was prohibited, and, then the dangerous elements of the population took the chances of rioting that were offered to them. The disorder several days, and I am informed that about 300 people were killed, and in addition to that there was much looting and much destruction of property. It is significant that the sufferers were mainly Marwaris, and up-country Hindus and Bengalis really suffered little or nothing. That arose from the fact that the Bengalis generally are not the small shop-keeping class of Calcutta. In Madras there was no loss of life; but a great deal of damage was done, and one large market was burnt down. The rioting occurred at several centres some considerable distance apart. My information as regards Madras is that the rioting was undoudbtedly instigated by some persons operating from a safe position, but that the instigation was made effective by the high prices which were prevailing in Madras at the time—of course, as always, the danger in India—and the shortage which must now exist in many parts of the country gives cause for great watchfulness and for every measure of remedy which it is possible to apply. I hope my noble friend will be able to say that such measures are being applied at the present time. It is interesting to note that, while this serious rioting was going on, the Extremists in the Viceroy's Council were pressing for great modifications in the Arms Act which, if they were carried, would have the effect of allowing a very great part of the population of India to obtain and to carry arms. If that is ever done I can only say that the small disturbances between sects and religions to which one is accustomed in India may in many cases lead to massacre.

My second Question falls to the ground because the Report of this important Committee has, I understand, been laid on the Table of the House since my Question was put on the Paper. This Report supplements to a remarkable extent that of the Rowlatt Committee which I hope your Lordships will most carefully study. The Rowlatt Report throws a lurid light upon the revolutionary proceedings in India during the war, and it shows that a disaster was only avoided by the diligence and efficiency of the Indian police, with the co-operation of some of the loyal Indians in Bengal especially. The Rowlatt Committee was appointed, as your Lordships are aware, because the Indian intelligentsia declared that the Defence of India Acts were uncalled for and oppressive, and the supplementary inquiry was demanded by the same persons because they said that innocent people were being interned, or were being left to rot in gaols—which is one of the favourite expressions of Indian journalism. I hope my noble friend will point out how extremely satisfactory that Report is. It is the Report of two learned judges, one Indian and one British, and it proves to the hilt the extreme care that was exercised by the Bengal Government in administering the Defence of India Act.

Your Lordships may have seen the very threatening language which was used by Mr. Surendranath Banerjee on November 1, which was reported in The Times of yesterday. He said among other things that— The attitude of the British Government in regard to the reform proposals is, so far as one can judge, unsatisfactory and even ominous. There is really no justification for that very wild statement. So far as I can judge, the attitude of His Majesty's Government is not to commit itself until it has much fuller information at its disposal. The noble Earl the Leader of the House has, I think, undertaken that there shall be some inquiry into the proposals of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State, as the noble Viscount, Lord Midleton, so strongly urged upon us the other day. That seems to me to be the most reasonable course, really the only right course, and it is ominous that Mr. Surandranath Banerjee should attack and threaten the Government at a juneture like this. This ex-Civil Servant, whose speeches and writings have certainly gone far to encourage the revolutionary movement in India, has been selected recently by the Secretary of State to serve on one of his Committees. That Committee is one which requires calm judgment and an unbiased mind, and in spite of the trust which has thus been reposed in Mr. Surandranath Banerjee he has not hesitated to use the language which I have quoted, and to say a good deal more. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that it is high time that full attention was given to what is going on in India.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not enter into the point which he has just raised in regard to a speech delivered by Mr. Surandranath Banerjea. The speech in question has not come under my notice, and I think he will agree with me that, whatever remarks that gentleman may have made, they really have no bearing upon the particular question which he has placed upon the Paper. Neither can I be induced to enter into a discussion as to the relationship of these riots to the proposals that have recently been made by the Secretary of Sate for India and. the Viceroy. When these proposals come seriously to be considered of course questions of this character, with which I shall have to deal in reply to my noble friend's Question, will have to be taken into very serious consideration.

Very full reports of the riots in Calcutta and Madras have appeared in the Indian Press, and I would refer any noble Lord who wishes any information to the Press. The reply to the noble Lord's Question which I will now endeavour to give is in the form of a brief narrative of the main features connected with these untoward incidents, showing the extent to which rioting took place and the manner in which it was dealt with by the authorities. Following upon meetings of Mahomedans at Calcutta, at which highly objectionable speeches were made, mass meetings were arranged for September 8,9,10, and leaflets in inflammatory language were circulated in Calcutta calling Mahomedans to attend for discussing Mahomedan grievances—such grievances as the internment of Mahomedan leaders, a recent foolish and thoughtless article in the Indian Daily News which has given offence to the Mahomedan community, and various incidents between Hindu and Mahomedan schoolboys. After a conference with local Mahomedans, and having regard to the approaching Bakr-id festival, the Government of India apprehended incitement to a breach of the peace, and they accordingly prohibited meetings under the Police Act, and under the Defence of India Rules directed persons—and there were several—who had come to Calcutta for the purpose of attending these meetings to return quietly to their homes. On the morning of September 9 several hundred persons had assembled wishing to know the decision as to the meeting. The Governor, Load Ronaldshay, received a deputation and explained that the meeting should be postponed till after the approaching Mahomedan and Hindu festivals, and this was accepted.

Meanwhile, however, serious disturbances occurred at the very time when the deputation was being received at Government House. They were confined to an area in the centre of the northern part of Calcutta, and the trouble began shortly after midday when a mob of Mahomedans, which in its impatience had set out to meet the Deputation returning from Government House, was intercepted by the police, The crowd attacked the police with bricks and stones, and in some cases with knives; while scattered police officers in other parts of the city were assaulted in a similar manner. The tramcars which were passing through the streets where the crowd was collected were pelted with bricks. It was, therefore, found necessary in the course of the afternoon to summon military assistance, and shortly afterwards the police were compelled to fire to repel the attacks of the crowd. The mob dispersed after this, but there was some further trouble in the evening in the south of Calcutta near the docks, and some scattered looting in parts of the city. A large number of arrests was made, the rioters being composed entirely of men of the lower classes, while those engaged in the looting were Hindus. Members of the Indian Defence Force were used for patrol duty during the night of the ninth and on the tenth.

On Tuesday, September 10, in Calcutta itself there was a certain recrudescence of serious rioting in the morning, and some scattered looting by bad characters, both Hindu and Mahomedan, in which some police constables were attacked. Near the Nakhoda Mosque a patrol of three British privates was attacked by a large mob. One soldier fired in self-defence, and some troops in the street then fired also. A Military Court of Inquiry found that the men of the patrol were justified in firing, but that the other troops should have waited orders. Nine persons are said to have been wounded here. But the most serious danger that day arose when 10,000 mill hands from Garden Reach, just outside Calcutta, struck work, and a mob of 2,000 from the mills at the south of Calcutta beyond the docks attempted to march into the city to hold a meeting. These were stopped on the road by the police and a military detachment. They attacked the police and soldiers, and it was necessary to disperse them by firing. Fourteen of the rioters were killed at this place and about thirty wounded, of whom ten subsequently died. Further arrests were made also on this day, and the total number arrested in the course of the disturbances is reported to be about 400. If a large fanatical mob had succeeded in crossing the Maidan and entered the city, a most dangerous situation would have arisen.

On the 11th the city was quiet except for a few scattered cases of looting by bad characters, and an official report just received records for the whole three days the death of forty-three persons—thirty-six Mahomedans and seven Hindus—while it is thought probable that other dead Mahomedans were removed by their friends. About 400 wounded persons were treated at the various hospitals, but most of these were cases of slight hurt, the number detained in hospital being 174. On subsequent days there was no disturbance of any importance, and the celebration of the Bakr Id festival on the 17th of the month passed off without any unusual incident. This is the festival which a year ago had been the cause of the very serious riots in the neighbouring province of Bihar.

The trial of the persons arrested began on Tuesday the 10th, a special magistrate being appointed for the purpose. It is clear that, although the original causes of the rioting were the feeling roused among Mahomedans to which I have already referred, and the action taken by the local leaders of that community to hold meetings of protest, yet when the disturbance began opportunity was taken by the lawless characters, Hindus as well as Mahomedans, of attacking shops—particularly cloth shops—and no doubt the high prices and scarcity of cloth contributed to the extent of the looting. The shops that were looted appear to have belonged principally to Marwaris, a class of traders from Western India, and some members of this class were also seriously assaulted by the rioters in some places, and one or two deaths among them are reported. There was no indication of sectarian feeling as between Hindu residents and Muslim residents of Bengal; but Bengali Hindus were among those injured by the rioters.

One other incident may be mentioned which occurred on September 10, in the morning. At one point the rioters made a barricade of municipal dustcarts and other vehicles and placed on the top of it a bamboo flying a red flag. There is nothing in the reports to indicate that any special importance was attached to the colour of the flag, and the other occurrences at the time in the vicinity were confined to the looting of shops. It will be realised that the Bengal Government were suddenly faced by a situation containing the elements of serious danger, and that Lord Ronaldshay and his colleagues showed marked qualities of tact in dealing with the excited condition of Mahomedan feeling; combined with resolute firmness towards the rioters; and I think that a tribute is due to the Governor and to his colleagues for the admirable manner in which what might have been a very serious incident was handled. The thanks of the Government have been expressed to the troops, to the Indian Defence Force, to the police, to the fire brigade, and to the ambulances, and well-deserved acknowledgments have been made of the conduct of General Strange and. his staff and of Mr. Clarke, the Commissioner of Police.

The tension of feeling was reflected among Mahomedans at Rangoon where meetings were called for the same dates as at Calcutta. These meetings were forbidden under the Defence of India rules by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Reginald Craddock, who received loyal support from local Mahomedan leaders, and no disturbances took place.

I turn now to the second part of the first, section of the noble Lord's Question—the Madras riots. In Madras the disturbances were purely economic in origin, no sectarian element being reported. It may be true what the noble Lord has stated in his speech, that in all these cases of disturbance there, may be underneath political fermentation supplementing the ostensible reason. The disturbances began on the afternoon of September 8, and were confined to attacks on shops containing rice, groceries, and cloth. There does not appear to have been any serious disturbance of public order, though the looting was renewed on the 9th, and the police in places were assaulted. It was, however, found necessary to call out troops, and with their assistance the looting was completely stopped, none being reported after the 11th. A portion of a market was burnt but it is not certain what the cause of the fire was. One effect of the riots in Madras itself was a reduction in the price of rice. The trial of the arrested persons commenced on September 12.

There were also disturbances, and anticipated disturbances, in a few other parts of the Madras Presidency, but the only place in which serious trouble occurred was Conjeeveram, a place about forty miles south-west of Madras, where the police, and the Indian Defence Force detachment which was assisting them to guard the railway station against rioters intending to loot the goods there, were compelled to fire, and about a dozen rioters were injured.

I will now say a word in regard to the second paragraph of the noble Lord's Question—the Report of Sir Narayan Chandavarkar, who is a retired Judge of the Bombay High Court, and Mr. Justice Beechcroft, of the Calcutta High Court, on the persons placed under restraint in Bengal. This Report has now been presented to Parliament, and I need not say very much, therefore, in exposition of a Paper which will be at once in your Lordships' hands. It was inevitable that the restriction of personal liberty by purely executive order in hundreds of cases, under the Regulation of 1918 or the special temporary war enactments, should have excited suspicion that the authorities, armed with extraordinary powers, might have made numerous mistakes. Such suspicions were not confined to persons capable of asserting—as did one influential Bengali newspaper that the whole story of the German-Indian conspiracy was a bad joke.

The Government of India announced last March in their Legislative Council that they would ask the Bengal Government to appoint a Committee of one Indian and one Englishman, with judicial experience, again to make careful enquiry into each individual case, to sift the materials on which each order for restraint was based, to consider any memorials put in on behalf of the détenus, and to enquire, so far as possible, in each case whether a détenu confined on reasonable grounds might safely be released. With regard, to the, last point I should make it clear that the Bengal Government and the Government of India have steadily borne in mind and acted upon any evidence of genuine repentance in the case of these young Men involved in seditious plots.

The Committee, which was appointed in June, necessarily held its sittings in camera. It investigated 806 cases. In six of these 806 cases the Committee advised that they had not found sufficient grounds for believing that the persons had acted, or were about to act, to the public danger, and these six persons were released. In 800 cases they found that the reasons for detention were sufficient. It is to be regretted that the six persons were confined on evidence that did not satisfy the Committee, but when the difficulties of the authorities are considered—the tortuous webs of intrigue that had to be unravelled, the nature of the evidence to be obtained when dealing with widespread conspiracy in time of war—I think it is not too much to claim that the Report furnishes a really remarkable vindication of the action of the Bengal Government in a time of serious peril, and disposes of the aspersions upon the good faith of the police.

How the Judges arrived at their conclusions is made clear in the text of the Report, but I may mention the very interesting pronouncement that really dangerous plotters came to realise their position, and honestly determined to make a clean breast of their misdeeds. Statements made received most striking corroboration—as to which there could be no possibility of collusion—in ways fully described in the Report. The Judges are satisfied that the police had taken care to see that the confessions obtained were true, and had indeed been over-cautious sometimes. They make this very significant statement— Before the Defence of India Act was brought into force, the fair trial of a person accused of revolutionary crime had been rendered practically impossible by the murders of approvers, witnesses, police officers, and law abiding citizens, suspected by revolutionaries of … having assisted the police. The Emergency Powers enabled the Bengal Government to overcome a most dangerous conspiracy, and effectually to protect the people of Bengal from a campaign of murderous outrage and robbery. The Special Branch of the Bengal Government that dealt with these matters has succeeded beyond all expectation, and the success of the very able officers at the head is largely due to the courage and ability displayed by Indian police officers and constables. The latter have paid a heavy toll of lives, and I do not think that full justice has been done by public opinion to the loyalty and devotion of these subordinate servants of the Crown, who have had to face not only the activities of assassins, but insidious and persistent attempt at social intimidation on the part of persons of their own race not openly identified with the forces of disorder.

In conclusion, I should like to impress on noble Lords three important points which merge from a consideration of the recent disturbances in India, and the political detentions examined in the Chandavarkar-Beechcroft Report, of which I have given an account this afternoon in reply to the noble Lord's question. The first is that in Bengal there is an undercurrent of lawlessness and hostility which, unless carefully watched and checked by all means in our power, is liable to break out and involve all classes of the population in anarchy and bloodshed. The second is that the Government of Bengal, faced with most difficult conditions, have shown and are showing foresight, promptitude, and firmness in dealing with the manifestations of disorder or disloyalty, while at the same time paying scrupulous attention to the opinions and feelings of the various sections of the community. The third is that it is abundantly clear that Government cannot be deprived of the special powers necessary to deal effectively with violence and disaffection.

I do not say that it will necessarily be desirable to retain unchanged the existing measures introduced under war conditions. Most careful consideration must obviously be given to the question of the precise form of the special powers with which Government should be equipped, and I have no desire to prejudge the decision; but it is imperative that the authorities should retain at their disposal means adequate to cope with a situation which presents unusual features, which the ordinary law is not framed to meet, and one that will ensure reasonable security and safety to the people entrusted to their care.


I beg to thank the noble Lord for his very full and interesting speech. I think the facts which he has stated ought to be much more widely known than they are. They show clearly how easily grave danger may arise in the great cities of India; and the moral which I draw is that he thoroughly understands that a strong Government must be maintained in India, otherwise we are certain to have disaster.


May I ask when we may expect to have the Rowlatt Report in our hands? I think the noble Lord promised it, on the last occasion, in about three weeks.


I will make inquiries to-morrow. I had been in hopes that it would be circulated by now. It should come out any day, and I will inform the noble Marquess directly I hear.