HL Deb 12 November 1919 vol 37 cc245-8

LORD SYDENHAM rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for India whether he is aware that it is proposed to hold a meeting of the National Congress at Amritsar next month; whether this proposal is unfavourably viewed by many people in the Punjab; and whether, having regard to the recent outbreaks and the feelings which they have engendered, it is considered advisable that this meeting should take place.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in 1907 the National Congress shed its extreme elements, led by Mr. Tilak, after a free fight at Surat. Subsequently Congress became much more moderate in tone, and the noble Lord will probably remember this, as he presided over one of the meetings at Bombay himself. Unfortunately the extremists, with the assistance of Mrs. Besant, captured the Congress completely during the war, and it remains now entirely in their hands, though there has been a schism which has led to the formation of a new party. The effect of the domination of the extremists in the Congress has naturally been to increase the bitterness and kind of language which is calculated to create race hatred in India.

There was a special Congress meeting in Bombay in August, 1918, at which very strong language was used—language which undoubtedly helped to intensify an agitation that has been such a painful feature in India since 1916. In December, 1918, another Congress met at Delhi at which also some inflammatory language was used. This meeting was described at the time as "a triumph of mobocracy and extremism." Three months later there was a dangerous rising in the Punjab and elsewhere, which was shown to have been precipitated (although well organised in advance) by the passing of the Rowlatt Act, and which was not unconnected with the Afghan invasion.

In spite of all these circumstances it is now arranged that there should be another meeting at Amritsar, and it is difficult to believe that this meeting is being held without a purpose. In June last the Amritsar branch of the Congress, which had taken alarm, cancelled the invitation to the Congress which it had previously given. Then followed what so often happens in India. Strong influences were brought to bear on the branch, and it changed its mind again and cancelled its former resolution. Agricultural classes in the Punjab have rendered magnificent service during the war. They provided more than half of the total combatants which India brought to bear on the war.

But, unfortunately, there has been another side to the picture. During the war the Punjab has passed through two distinct and very dangerous crises. In 1915 there was the most serious conspiracy that has ever been known since the Mutiny. That was discovered and very ably handled by Sir Michael O'Dwyer, and this year there was another most serious rising in many places which, if it had not been promptly suppressed, might have paralysed the campaign on the Frontier and led to a really great disaster. Amritsar was one of the scenes of violence; where the mob shouted "Kill the English"; where they destroyed Government buildings and mission buildings, and where several murders were perpetrated. The steps taken by Sir Michael O'Dwyer to restore order have been attacked in unmeasured language both here and in India, and his impeachment and that of the Viceroy has been demanded. The result of that has only been to create an atmosphere of unrest and hostility to Government and to British residents almost all over India.

In these circumstances, therefore, to allow another meeting to be held at Amritsar does seem likely to have a very disturbing effect at a time when calm is wanted for the introduction of the new reforms into India. On the third of this month the Viceroy appealed to the Princes and Chiefs, who, he said— Could lend valuable assistance by guarding their States against a lawless and malicious spirit, and by refusing to tolerate the lying stories as to the motives of the British Government.

That is significant, because these things have not taken place in the Native States where the Chiefs have taken steps to prevent them. I understand that sober opinion in the Punjab is opposed to this meeting being held—and well it may be. I think myself it is never wise to take risks in a country so inflammable as India, and I submit that in allowing this meeting to take place a risk will be run which is not justified in the circumstances I have described.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will not expect me to follow him into the history of the recent disturbances in the Punjab, or the older ones in 1915. I will try and confine myself to the immediate question as to whether or not it is desirable that this Congress should be held, or whether any information has been received by the Secretary of State here with reference to the proposed meeting at Amritsar.

I will begin by saying that the Secretary of State has received no communication whatsoever from the Government of India on the subject. The only information in the possession of the India Office is from Indian newspapers received in England. The latest information is that contained in a telegram published in the Pioneer Mail of October 17, received in London on Saturday last. It seems, my Lords, that the Indian National Congress meets annually just after Christmas, and its last sitting was held in December, as the noble Lord stated, when, in accordance with their usual practice, it was decided to hold a session this year, 1919, after Christmas, at Amritsar. This was long before the legislation known as the Rowlatt Act, and long before the disturbances referred to by the noble Lord in his speech; but it appears also that the Government of India, as well as the Local Government, have been throughout aware of the intention on the part of the Congress authorities to hold a Conference at Amritsar in December of this year, and the telegram to which I referred as having been published in the Pioneer Mail on October 17, is to the effect that a conference has been held between the Divisional Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar and the leaders of the Congress Party there; that the Reception Committee have finally decided to hold the next session of the Congress at Amritsar as originally settled; and that the question of the site for the Congress Pandal or tent will be settled later in consultation with the. Deputy Commissioner.

If these facts are correctly stated in the telegram to which I have referred, there appears reason to believe that the local authorities are fully alive to the possibilities of the situation, and it seems probable that they have come to the conclusion that the best course to adopt in the circumstances is to allow the Congress to meet as arranged nearly a year ago; and they seem to be of opinion—it is mere inference on my part—that any action on the part of the Government that might have the appearance of suppressing or even obstructing a political gathering which has an All-India character, might have consequences the reverse of those which the noble Lord desires. In those circumstances the Secretary of State does not think it is necessary for him to take any action or even to express any opinion either to the Government of India or to the Local Government.