HL Deb 15 October 1918 vol 31 cc694-702

LORD SYDENHAM had the following Questions on the Paper—

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for India—

  1. 1. Whether the terms of reference to, and the full composition of, the two Committees proceeding to India will be made public.
  2. 2. Whether Mrs. Besant's statement that she was permitted to see and discuss an early draft of the Report of the Viceroy and Secretary of State is correct; and, if so, to what other persons similar privileges were accorded.
  3. 3. At what date the Report of the Rowlatt Committee was printed, and when it will be made available for the information of Parliament and the public.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very glad that the Secretary of State has anticipated my first Question by publishing this morning the composition and the powers of the two Committees which are about to proceed to India. In these circumstances I should not be in order in putting my first Question. I will only say that I propose on some future occasion to draw attention to these matters, and also to the very strong protests which I have received from non-Brahmins in many parts of India, both as regards the composition of the Committee and as regards the decision of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State to reject communal representation, which I believe to be the only method by which the great mass of the people can ever obtain any real representation or real protection. It is quite clear from my correspondence that a feeling of resentment and alarm has been created among large classes of the most important and most loyal elements in the population of India.

As regards my second Question, I need say only a few words. In a signed article the other day in her most mischievous paper New India, Mrs. Besant writes this— It is with the profoundest regret that I find myself unable to change the view I formed on an earlier draft— that is, a draft of the Report— on which I had the honour, as had many others of taking part in some discussions many months ago. I trust that this statement is not correct, because it seems peculiarly undesirable that Mrs. Besant, in view of her past record, should have been selected for special privileges in the matter of private negotiations such as site appears to indicate. If true, it must create an impression that efforts were made to placate extremists, unless my noble friend is able to tell us that the same privileges were accorded to leaders of the Moderate Party.


My Lords, my noble friend has told your Lordships that there is now no necessity for putting the first Question that he had placed upon the Paper. That, as your Lordships are aware, is owing to the announcement in to-day's Press both on the constitution of the two Committees that are now proceeding, and are well on their way, to India, and the References upon which those Committees are to work. Before I pass from that subject I would like to allude to one remark made by my noble friend in regard to the method of the electorate. I am sure that if he will read the Reference as it now stands upon which the Franchise Committee has been instructed to work, he will find that the widest and most comprehensive scope is left for them in their deliberations, in their discussions, and in their final decisions, as regards the methods by which a representative assembly may be procured for the Legislative Councils in India.

In regard to the second Question which my noble friend has asked, I am requested by the Secretary of State to say that he did not afford Mrs. Besant the opportunity of seeing a draft Report of the proceedings of the Secretary of State and the Viceroy, as is suggested in the Question. Neither am I able to see in the material that I have had an opportunity of perusing—namely, the article in New India to which my noble friend refers—nor have I been able to detect that a statement was made by Mrs. Besant herself, that she saw a draft Report. What she said in New India on July 8 was this— It is with the profoundest regret that I find myself unable to change the view I formed on an earlier draft, on which I had the honour, as had many others, of taking part in some discussions months ago. I have not had an opportunity of a close and intimate conversation with the Secretary of State in regard to the exact proceedings that took place, because unfortunately the Secretary of State has been indisposed during the past week, and has been away from London. But I should like to point this out to my noble friend and to the House—I am sure I am correct from all I have been able to gather in regard to the proceedings—that, in the first place, the Secretary of State and the Viceroy visited the various Provinces in India together. The Commission went out to India on the direct instructions of the War Cabinet to obtain informally and confidentially as much information as they could front all possible sources as to the proposals that might be made which should give effect to the announcement of August 20 last year. There is no doubt that the Secretary of State and the Viceroy took every opportunity to interview informally and confidentially all classes of the community in India. They saw scores of people representing those different interests; and doubtless in the course of those interviews they submitted proposals which would give effect to the announcement of August 20 with a view to eliciting from those with whom they were having discussion their views on that subject. That, as I understand, is entirely the extent to which Mrs. Besant had access to any proposals in regard to what is now embodied in the main Report of the Secretary of State and the Viceroy; and that discussion, and that throwing out of suggestion followed by discussion, which took place between the Secretary of State, the Viceroy, and Mrs. Besant, also took place with scores of other people representing other interests in India.

One other point—to which the noble Lord did not allude in his speech, but on which he asks for information in his written Questions—namely, "At what date the Report of the Rowlatt Committee was printed, and when it will be made available for the information of Parliament and the public."


Might I point out to the noble Lord that I have not yet put that Question? I wish to make a few remarks upon it later.


Then, my Lords, that is all I have to say with regard to the Hither Question put by my noble friend; and I hope it will satisfy him that the Secretary of State and the Viceroy, in their innumerable interviews with various people throughout India, offered to Mrs. Besant no privileged position beyond that which they offered to other representatives of time community.


From what my noble friend has said I hope I may take it; that Mrs. Besant's statement that she saw an early draft of this Report is incorrect?


Yes. As I said just now, no written statement has come before me which indicates that Mrs. Besant said that she saw a Report. All that I saw was what I read out just now— I had the honour, as had many others, of taking some part in some discussion months ago.


"On an earlier draft."




Those were her words.


But she does not say that she saw it. I allude to that merely because I have not seen any statement on the part of Mrs. Besant that she actually saw it; and I am authorised categorically to deny, on behalf of the Secretary of State, that he showed Mrs. Besant a draft of the Report.


I am very glad to hear that the statement of Mrs. Besant, which is explicit in a signed article in her own paper, is not correct; and I understand from what my noble friend has said that. Mrs. Besant received no special privileges in regard to the Report, but was treated merely in the same way, naturally, as all other people were treated by the Viceroy and the Secretary of State.

With regard to my third Question, I wish to point out that the Rowlatt Report is a State Paper of extreme importance which everybody ought to read in connection with the Report of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State—everybody, that is to say, who really wishes to arrive at an accurate estimate of the present condition of affairs in India. Every one who has been in India in recent years must have known perfectly well that there was a far-reaching revolutionary movement designed to destroy our rule in India; that it was started with funds from unknown sources, and was under some secret control. Many of us have narrowly escaped assassination, and it is probably true that I am here to-day only because a bomb, which was being made by some students, was not ready for the occasion for which it was being thoughtfully prepared.

When war broke out, and possibly before, though I am not sure of that, the Germans took an active part, very naturally, in this revolutionary movement, and the story told by the Rowlatt Committee is really one of the most amazing criminal complexity. The conspiracy had ramifications which stretched all over the world. Tremendous attempts were made to import arms into India, and a very serious plot in the Punjab was discovered happily just in time. If it had not been—and I think it was discovered largely thanks to the help of loyal Indians in the Punjab—and if it had not been effectively handled by Sir Michael O'Dwyer, some of the scenes of the Great Mutiny would have been repeated. The machinery for corrupting young schoolboys, University students, and native regiments was singularly elaborate and complete. How far it has been successful, of course, we can never know.

Through the pages of the Rowlatt Report flit the names of several prominent Indian politicians whose speeches and writings undoubtedly gave encouragement to or helped to condone murder and outrage. The revelations which have been made in this Report have been derided by a section of the Indian Press as merely the inventions of the Police, and a great deal of sympathy has been shown, espcially in Bengal, for the interned conspirators. All this is strikingly similar to what has occurred in Ireland. Surely it is essential that Parliament and the public should not be left dependent upon extracts from Indian newspapers for the findings of the Rowlatt Committee. I understand that the Report was received by the Government of India in April, and was not published until July. The Secretary of State said in another place that simultaneous publication would have delayed publication in India. I do not quite understand this point, but I have no doubt my noble friend will be able to explain it. There does, however, seem to have been some reluctance in publishing these revelations here and in India, and as by this time ample space has elapsed I hope my noble friend will say that this grave State Paper will be made available without any further delay.


I am sure my noble friend will exonerate me from any discourtesy if I do not attempt, this afternoon, to follow him into any of the questions which have arisen in the Rowlatt Report. Ample opportunity will be given, I hope at no distant date, for the fullest discussion in regard to what I agree with him is a must important State document. I may say that the Rowlatt Report was presented to the Government of India, and was issued in India on July 19 last, and instructions were given by the Secretary of State at that time to send 2,000 copies as quickly as possible to this country. Unfortunately, owing to a misunderstanding that arose in the offices in India, the copies of the Report intended for issue in this country have only been despatched quite recently—namely, on October 9—and I am afraid that the ship upon which they have been despatched will not reach this country for some considerable time. The Secretary of State, therefore, realising the importance of the Report and the public interest that is naturally aroused in this country by it, and that it has already been published for some months in India, has given instruc- tions for the Report to be reprinted in this country, and has also asked that every possible step may be taken to speed up its printing. It is hoped that it may be laid before Parliament in the course of a fort-night, or at the latest three weeks.


My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt be gratified to know that the Report is to be laid, but I think it is a matter of considerable regret that the Secretary of State did not realise the vital importance of this document a little earlier. It is common knowledge, for it was announced before the close of the last sittings, that there would probably be an important debate in this House on the Secretary of State's Report immediately upon the re-assembling of Parliament. No doubt that debate will take place in the course of a few days; and with the knowledge before them I think it is a matter of regret that the Government did not see the importance of this essential document being in the possession of noble Lords before that discussion took place. As I understand, owing to the regrettable occurrences to which the noble Lord has just referred, it will take three weeks more before copies of the Report will be available, and we shall therefore not have it in our hands till after the debate has taken place. That is Unfortunate but I have no doubt that my noble friend, who watches very closely the publications in India, will be able to confide to your Lordships the sum and substance of the Report when the matter comes to be discussed. I cannot exaggerate the importance of this document w hen we come to discuss affairs in India.


My Lords, I may, perhaps, be allowed to say that, like the noble Lord opposite, I think that any attempt to discuss the contents of the Report, the extreme gravity of which it is hardly possible to exaggerate, ought to be postponed until we are in a fuller position to do so. I merely rose to call attention to the very remarkable lapse of duty which seems to have taken place in India in connection with this matter. The noble Lord opposite did not pass over it lightly, but I hope he will be able to tell us that serious notice has been taken of what he described as a misunderstanding, but which I think must be a gross blunder on the part of somebody in not having paid attention to the demand of the Secretary of State for the 2,000 copies of the Report. I quite appreciated at the time the argument which the noble Lord used, that if 2,000 copies could be obtained from India, where printing easy and cheap, there was good reason for not going to the expense of reprinting here, where, as we know, both printing and paper are matters of serious consideration for the Government. But that fact, I think, only makes the lapse more grave, and I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us that some definite notice of it has been taken by the India Office.

House adjourned at half-past five o'clock.