HL Deb 28 November 1922 vol 52 cc72-81

LORD SYDENHAM rose to ask the Secretary of State for India—

1. Whether the so-called O'Donnell circular which appeared to suggest the cessation of British recruitment for the Indian public services was submitted to him for approval before being issued, and

2. Whether he would consider the desirability of appointing at an early date a non-political expert Commission to report upon the present position of these public services, the prospects of obtaining recruits of the necessary high standard, and the effects of the present shortage upon the administration in India, and especially upon the maintenance of law and order.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my excuse for bringing forward this Question in this short session is its urgency owing to the very serious situation which has arisen in India. The O'Donnell circular seemed to suggest that all British recruitment for the Indian Civil Service should cease. Of course, in that circular reasons were forthcoming against this course, but I think anybody who reads it from beginning to end would be justified in coming to the conclusion that the Government of India favoured the course of complete cessation. The effect was to alarm the public services and European population in India, and still further to discourage recruiting in this country.

I am sure that the noble Viscount could not have approved of the issue of this circular, because just at this time the late Prime Minister made one of the soundest and most accurate speeches he ever delivered. These are the memorable words he used— Britain would in no circumstances relinquish her authority in India.…if we were to withdraw, it would be the greatest betrayal in the history of any country.…The British Empire must, at all costs, continue to discharge that sacred trust and fulfil that high destiny. Then he rightly described the civil servants as the "steel frame" which held the whole structure of India together—a most happy simile which extends also to other services, especially the police. He went on to declare that the services "were entitled to every word of support, they were entitled to every deed of support that this imperial Parliament could give them." The suggestion in the circular violently conflicts with that remarkable speech, and also with the Montagu-Chelmsford Report, and with the spirit of the Government of India Act.

Meanwhile, the great services of India are steadily crumbling away, and they are not being replaced as fast as is necessary. The result is that lawlessness and crime are rapidly increasing everywhere throughout India. I will give some little idea of what is happening in that direction. In the Punjab, in one month, there were as many dacoities, which are gang robberies, as there were in the whole year before the advent of Mr. Montagu. In the Central Provinces the number of riots increased from 266 in 1920 to 398 in 1921. In Bengal, in the second quarter of this year, there were 325 dacoities against 229 in the corresponding quarter last year, and 591 riots against 399. That means an increase, comparing one year with another, of 10 and 50 per cent. That explains how the situation in India is becoming very serious. The public knows nothing about these things, and the general belief is that India is now perfectly happy and tranquil. But the fact is that India is going straight back to the days of the Pindaris and to the darker days which lie still farther back, and we are not fulfilling our "sacred trust" to the people of India in maintaining law and order in that country.

In the Punjab the police force is now so depleted that out of twenty-nine districts fourteen have got not one single British officer, and the effect on themoral and the discipline of that very important force can easily be imagined. In Mooltan with 1,000,000 people, and with a city of 100,000, mostly very fanatical Moslems, of fifteen magistrates only one is now British, and in the very serious riots which broke out in Mooltan last month no British police officer was present. And the very coura- geous, ports, prompt and firm action of the single British magistrate undoubtedly saved a general massacre and looting in Mooltan. The significant thing is that when the riots were over both sides, Hindus and Mahomedans, petitioned that British officers should be brought to investigate the causes of the riots.

The humble suggestion in the second part of my Question rests upon a very good precedent. In 1913 President Wilson decided to try a great experiment of self-determination in the Philippine islands, and that was a very favourable place for his experiment, for it has only about 12,000,000 or 13,000,000 people. They are mostly homogeneous, there is no caste system, and the population generally have a much higher standard of education than the people of Julia. In accordance with this experiment the Government was handed over to the Philippine people, and only four per cent. of American officials were retained. The result was complete chaos and corruption on a large scale.

This is what an American wrote from the Philippines after having looked into the situation— The Islands have gone to the dogs. There is complete lapse of government; a political dictatorship holds iron rule; there is scandalous corruption; there is shocking inefficiency; there is political favouritism, nepotism, factional politics in everything; the Treasury and the Government Bank have been looted and big private fortunes made by the 'politicos' and their friends. Payrolls have been padded. The public roads are jugged with holes. Mails and telegrams are delayed, and often lost. One cannot get a building permit, or have a shipment of cargo put through the Customs without a bribe. With such a state of things as that it became necessary to do something, and what was done was this. A very small non-political expert Commission was set up under General Leonard Wood, who is one of the best and most experienced administrators that the American people possess. The result was that very quickly it issued a Report, of only twenty-five pages, and it said this— We have in many instances, by the rapidity of our procedure, overtaxed the ability of the people to absorb, digest, and make efficient practical use of what it has taken other nations centuries to absorb and apply". That is exactly what is happening in India. But the Philippine question is, of course, bagatelle compared to the enormous difficult, which we have created for ourselves in India.

The general conclusion of this Commission of General Wood's was this— Under no circumstances should the American Government permit to he established in the Philippines a situation which would leave the United Mates in a position of responsibility without authority. But that is exactly the position into which we are rapidly coming in India. It is for that reason that I hope my noble friend will follow the excellent lead of President Harding in a case in which the circumstances were almost exactly the same as the circumstances in India.

As regards the rapid Indianisation of the services which is going on, I should like to quote the opinion of an Indian pensioner at Amritsar. He says he expresses—and be probably does express—"the views of the ignorant and dumb masses of the Punjab." He wrote a letter to Mr. O'Donnell, the signatory of the circular, and said— People think that God curses where native officer holds charge of a district in capacity of Deputy Commissioner. It is an admitted fact that Indian officers have elegant and fluent tongue to convince, and facile pen to ply in writing Reports; but they lack tact to control, to be impartial to all communities, regardless of creed and caste. Prompt action among Indian officers remains still to be learned. Of the engineering service he writes— It is great misfortune to zemindars community to find native officers in the Canal Department in capacity of superintending engineer and executive officer. Zemindars beat their breasts in despair.…They say that the worst English officer is twenty times better than the best Indian officer. Indian officers, instead of doing good to poor peasants, try to squeeze their blood in various ways. There may be a good deal of oriental imagination in what I have quoted, but from my own personal knowledge I can ay that the ryots in India have very much that feeling in regard to their confidence in British officers. I earnestly hope that my noble friend will be able to say something which may reassure the services, and also tell us that he recognises the urgency of the situation, and feels that something will have to be done, and done quickly.


My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to say a few words in order to associate myself with the plea which has been made by my noble friend, and particularly to emphasise the urgency of the question to which he alluded, of which receive almost daily fresh proof. As one who has had the great privilege to serve in a high position in India I am deeply sensible of a duty which, as it seems to me, devolves upon me, and always will devolve upon me, so long as I have any opportunity—the duty of never neglecting any reasonable occasion of making myself, so far as my humble judgment permits, the spokesman of people in India, whether they be Englishmen or Indians who, in my opinion, are working for the good of India, and of supporting their reasonable claims and representing in Parliament and elsewhere their grievances, so far as they seem to me legitimate.

Most particularly do I feel that duty towards the members of the great public services in India, to whom I owe a personal debt of gratitude for the wise and able co-operation I received from them. Towards them I feel an obligation of honour not to neglect any opportunity of representing their legitimate and just grievances. I am one of those who are firmly convinced that there has been no more noble achievement in the whole history of civilisation than the work which is being accomplished by British rule in India and by those fellow-countrymen and fellow-countrywomen of ours in every branch of the service who have carried it out.

Two or three years ago a man of great eminence and undoubted authority, whose name for the moment I forget, made a yen, remarkable statement. He said that the only really dangerous unrest in India at that time was unrest among British public servants. The full meaning and significance of that statement was hardly appreciated at that time, and the existence of the danger was even denied. But now the existence of that danger is fully admitted, I think, by everybody. It is even admitted by my noble friend Lord Meston. I hope I may allude to him in his absence, because it happens that in the club last night I picked up theContemporary Review, and found there an article from his facile pen, entitled "Common Sense in India." I naturally read it with all that attention which is due to the opinions of a man of his great experience and achievement, and of one who is as responsible as anybody for the present state of affairs in India.

It appeared from this article that Lord Meston thinks that common sense is the remedy for those troubles of which nobody denies the existence. And the first thing that occurs to me is this. Is it quite kind or polite to suggest that common sense is lacking among those capable and courageous fellow countrymen of ours who are complaining that their present position is intolerable? My noble friend, Lord Meston, himself seemed to have some doubt on that point, because there is in his article a passage which I copied, and in which he says this— Common sense must come to the rescue; for India has plenty of it and she will not consent to be made ridiculous in the eyes of her comrade nations by a succession of foolish failures. But is common sense the remedy? How can common sense help men who have to choose between the two alternalives—I am not putting it too strongly—of starvation at home and humiliation in India? Which choice of those two is indicated by common sense? There are such things as manly pride and a sense of honour.

My meaning may, perhaps, become clearer if I suggest to your Lordships an example, with which every one of us must have been familiar at one time or another, from one of the public services at home. Supposing an officer of the Royal Navy or of the Army finds himself in circumstances in which his authority is not upheld or in which he is superseded, perhaps unjustly, perhaps for reasons which are not for the good of the Service, by an incompetent subordinate; is that officer to pocket his pride and to stay in the Service? What advice would your Lordships give to such a man? Would you not rather commend him, if he showed a sufficient sense of dignity and pride, to say: "No, I will face retirement, with all its poverty, its inconvenience and disappointment, rather than submit to treatment of this kind." British public servants in India are just as much Englishmen as public servants in this country. Their feelings, their sentiments, and their rights are exactly the same.

In reading that article, which suggested that all that was wanted was just a little common sense, I could not help remembering one of the proverbial utterances of the great Anglo-Indian poet, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, which are full of pregnant significance for most circumstances of Indian life. It was this— The toad beneath the harrow knows Exactly where each toothpoint goes. The butterfly above the road Preaches contentment to that toad. It is too late for common sense in this particular matter. Had we had a little common sense sooner this particular trouble might have been avoided. And it is a common saying that prevention is always better than cure.

I could multiply instances in exemplification and illustration of what my noble friend Lord Sydenham has said, but I do not want to take up your Lordships' time or to confuse a perfectly simple issue. The noble Viscount the Secretary of State for India has before him a Question which is very much to the point, and a suggestion which I venture to think is, on the face of it, perfectly reasonable. The Question is whether the O'Donnell circular, inconsistent as it is with the utterances of the late Prime Minister and the other spokesmen of the late Government, represents the attitude and indicates the policy of the Imperial Government, or whether British public servants in India may derive encouragement, the encouragement they need, from the wholly admirable utterances of the late Prime Minister which were quoted by my noble friend. I have not got them by me, but I refer to those speeches in which the late Prime Minister spoke of the public servants of India as the "steel framework," and said in the most emphatic terms that we must support and uphold our fellow countrymen who are public servants in India.

It seems to me that the Question admits of an easy and unequivocal reply, that part of the urgency is that that reply should be given and that those who are now affrighted and disappointed—which is not too strong a way of putting it—may get a little encouragement and may be told that the attitude of the Imperial Government is not that which they were led to suppose by the issue of the O'Donnell circular. I said that there was a Question asked and a suggestion made by my noble friend. The suggestion is that an impartial non-political inquiry should be made into the nature and extent of the grievances. Surely it is in that direction that common sense lies. In medicine diagnosis must invariably precede remedial treatment, and a similar principle naturally applies to the body politic.

May I once more, in spite of his absence, quote from the article of my noble friend Lord Meston, because, taking a totally different view from that of Lord Sydenham and myself, he may carry weight if I say what he said on this particular point. He writes as follows— Above all there must be no relaxation of our efforts to induce young Englishmen of the best type to enter the Civil Service and to take a hand in building up an honest and healthy system of self-government and in teaching the electorate how to use their powers. I agree most heartily; but what is the best way of making those efforts? Surely, it is by convincing young Englishmen that they are still wanted in India; that the time has not come when they will be told: "We want you no more"; that there is still good and great work for them to do in India that they will be supported and upheld in the rightful exercise of the authority entrusted to them, which is not the case at the present time; and that they will be fairly treated not only in matters of pay and pension, but in what is more important, in those matters which touch their personal honour.


My Lords, my noble friend, Lord Sydenham, has asked me two specific Questions, to which I shall he very glad to give him a definite answer. But he has also raised a very large question of policy connected with India; that is to say, the whole question of Indianisation and the extent to which Indians shall cooperate with us and we with them in the government of their country. That is a question with very wide implications, and I am sure he will not ask me to deal with that very large question this evening, which, in fact, embraces the whole question of the policy to be adopted by His Majesty's Government under the new system set up under the powers granted by the Act of 1919. He has, moreover, raised generally, as I think my noble friend, Lord Ampthill, has also done, the whole question of the position of the services and the attitude of the Government towards the services. That, again, is a very wide question, and I should not be justified in dealing with it generally on so comparatively narrow an issue as has been raised by my noble friend this evening. In fact, I was rather surprised that Lord Sydenham did not deal at all with the Question he raised; it was Lord Ampthill, I think, who put it in a rather more pointed way, as to the effect which the O'Donnell circular might have on the minds of civilians in India, already disturbed by circumstances with which we are only too familiar.

I would like, if I may, to give your Lordships very shortly the history of this par- ticular circular because, in view of the importance of the question of recruitment for the services and the fact that a debate was expected to take place in the Legislative Assembly in regard to it, the Government of India made a preliminary inquiry by telegraph from my predecessor, and the Government of India were expressly authorised to consult Local Governments on this general issue of the position of the services. Obviously, it was a topic on which it was necessary for the Government of India to obtain the opinions of the Local Governments. I never saw this circular until it was published, nor was it submitted to me. I do not think that the Government of India were under the necessity of submitting it to the Secretary of State, because they had already obtained general authority to act in that way. I do not think there was any obligation upon them to submit to the Secretary of State over here a circular document trying to get information from the Local Governments, which was issued as the result of an authority obtained from the Secretary of State over here.

I should like to give in a few words my own view upon this circular. I think that this letter might have been put in a somewhat different form, and in terms less likely to cause anxiety to members of the services to whom its contents might become known. But I wish to say this—and really my reservation is of great importance. This circular was a Government document. It was not intended for publication; it was intended primarily to test the opinions of the Local Governments. Its publication was a breach of faith. Its unauthorised publication gave it the character of a declaration of policy, and thereby entirely altered its application. I feel bound to express the very strongest disapproval of the course taken by those who were responsible for publishing the circular, and consequently for creating a false impression of the Government's intentions. I need hardly say—and I repeat it as emphatically as I can—that there was no question of a declaration of policy. However it was worded, the circular was only intended to obtain information from the Local Governments.

I should like to say another word as to the position of the Government of India upon the subject. With reference to my noble friend's description of the circular as appearing "to suggest the cessation of British recruitment for the Indian public services," may I say that the Government of India have since explained to me that they had reason to believe that a feeling in favour of the stoppage of European recruitment was prevalent among members of the services themselves? Those feelings, according to their information, had existed for a considerable time prior to the issue of their circular letter, and had been brought to the notice of the Viceroy within a few weeks of his assumption of Office. The Government of India regarded it as essential that the extent to which this view obtained among the services, and the grounds underlying it, should be ascertained and considered, and it was this that prompted their reference to it in the circular. I would add, in face of what was stated by my noble friend, Lord Ampthill, that there is no difference of opinion, and can be no difference of opinion, as to the great importance of getting the best type of young man from this country to enter the Indian Civil Service, and of the great importance, at this time of change and transition in India, of securing those young men who are able to assist Indians and train them in the best possible way in developing this very difficult Constitution which has been granted to India by the Act of 1919.

A further point was put to me by my friend as to the desirability of appointing, at an early date, a non-political expert Commission to report on the present position of these public services. I am rather sorry that my noble friend is so anxious to exclude politicians from any inquiries of this kind, but I should like to assure him that I have been for many months past very anxiously considering the whole situation of the public services in India, and have a very full appreciation indeed of the very serious issues involved. I am not at present in a position to make a full statement upon the subject, but I should like to say that the suggestion as to the appointment of a Commission is an alternative which has been, and still is, engaging my attention.