HL Deb 13 March 1935 vol 96 cc45-51

VISCOUNT FITZALAN OF DERWENT had the following Question on the Paper:—To ask His Majesty's Government whether it is a fact that recently an order of the Government of the State of Travancore was promulgated by which the Indian Roman Catholics in that State were classified under the heading of "Depressed Classes"; whether this was done with the knowledge and approval of the British Resident, of the Governor of Madras and of the Viceroy representing the Paramount Power; and what action the Secretary of State has taken or intends to take in the matter.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, when I first put this Question on the Paper I was under the impression that the term "Depressed Classes" was limited to members of the Roman Catholic faith in Travancore, to the Latin Christians, but I have since been informed that the epithet applies to a considerable number of other Christians living in that State as well. The total population of Travancore is, according to the last census of 1931, about 5,000,000. The Christians among that 5,000,000 number about 1,500,000, and they include a great many different categories. There are the Syrian Catholics, about 449,000; the Latin or Roman Catholics, about 360,000; and there are the Jacobites and the Mar Thomists—I do not quite know what they are. Then there are the Protestants, put down as 139,000; the Anglicans, as 85,000; and the Salvation Army, as 59,000. For some reason I am quite unable to explain—perhaps my noble friend Viscount Halifax may have some information on the point—the Assyrian Catholics appear to be exempted from the necessity of coming under the description.

We can all understand the reluctance of the Indian Government to interfere in the internal affairs of the Native States, and it is only right and proper that they should refrain from doing so, so far as it is possible, but we all know that there are times when the Government not only do interfere, but must interfere. In the time of the late Lord Curzon, these interferences were more frequent, and the result of their being more frequent was, I understand, that the administration of the internal affairs of Native States was greatly improved, and things worked much better than they had been working. On the other hand, not unnaturally I suppose, that increase of interference produced a certain amount of friction, and in Lord Minto's time the interference considerably diminished, but at no time has it ever been questioned that the Government of India not only had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a Native State, but that it was their duty to do so. They were, and are, responsible for the happiness and welfare of the people living in those States, and therefore, on occasions, they have to intervene.

I would like for a moment to be allowed to quote to your Lordships an extract from the Treaty that was made in the year 1805 with the East India Company and the then Maharajah of Travancore. Article 9 contains the following: His Highness hereby promises to pay at all times the utmost attention to such advice as the English Government shall occasionally judge it necessary to offer to him, with a view to the economy of his finances"— then follow various other things, and the article continues— administration of justice, encouragement of trade, agriculture and industry or any other object connected with the advancement of His Highness's interests, the happiness of his people, and the mutual welfare of both States. I suggest that, at any rate, the concluding words of that Treaty bind the Government of India to take action in the particular question I am bringing before your Lordships. I must remind the House that the term "Depressed Classes" is only a more refined way of calling them "Untouchables," for that is what they are. If your Lordships wish to refresh your memories as to what an Untouchable is you will discover it by reading Volume I, pages 37 and 38, of the Simon Commission. Your Lordships will there see what the Untouchables are. Before this more or less recent Order came out in Travancore, the former classification of Christians was under the separate heading of the various denominations to which they belonged, but the new classification puts them into two classes, one called Non-depressed and the other Depressed Classes.

The Depressed Classes comprise the great number of the Christian communities who are all grouped into one community with the Hindu Untouchables—that is to say, the Christians of the different denominations I have enumerated, with the exception of the Assyrian Catholics and perhaps one or two other denominations, are all grouped together in one community and mixed up with the Hindu Untouchables. It is almost comic to think that my noble friend below me and myself and the noble Lord sitting on that Bench, belonging to various Christian communities in this country, would all be—I was going to say contaminated, but I will say, at any rate, mixed up with the Hindu Untouchables under this one heading. I can only inform your Lordships that this action on behalf of the modern Travancore Government has created a great deal of protest in Travancore itself. I understand that even the leading non-Christian papers in that State have objected strongly to this action. There have been, I am told, no less than forty mass meetings in Travancore against it, and I can only describe it as a gross piece of impertinence, an insult, not only to the various Christian communities in Travancore itself, but to Christian communities in this country, and I feel not only that I am justified, but that it is my duty to call the Government's attention to what is going on in that country.


My Lords, the noble Lord has asked me various questions, and has, in the course of asking them, given expression to the very serious anxiety that he feels; but I hope, in the short reply that it is my duty to make, I may be able to reassure him, to present the matter in a somewhat different perspective, and to satisfy him that he has not been fully informed of the facts in this case. I think the noble Lord was substantially accurate in the numbers that he gave of the various denominations in Travancore, and of the proportion that these numbers bore to the whole population of Travancore. I do not repeat his figures, except to underline, if I may, one figure which is important, and which I wish your Lordships to bear in mind. That is, that out of a total population of something like 5,000,000 in Travancore no fewer than 1,600,000—the noble Viscount said, I think, 1,500,000 but it is rather more—are Christians. That is something like one-third.

The noble Viscount referred to the Treaty that was made with the East India Company by the then Government of Travancore, and on a clause of the Treaty which he quoted founded an argument that it was not only within the competence but that it was the plain duty of His Majesty's Government to interfere in a matter of this kind. On that the first observation that I am constrained to make is that this Treaty dates, as he said, from the year 1805. I am quite sure that anyone who has been concerned in any degree with the administration of Indian States—I see my noble friend Lord Lloyd in his place—would agree with me in saying that it is quite impossible to accept a literal interpretation of a Treaty made 130 years ago when the whole of Indian political practice has been steadily moving and changing ever since. Although I do not wish to be drawn into the general question of the occasions or the circumstances that would be to-day regarded as necessary by the Paramount Power to justify intervention, I would most certainly ask the noble Viscount to take it from me that the literal terms of a Treaty 130 years old as interpreted by him, would not necessarily be held by the representatives of the Paramount Power to justify the kind of intervention he has in mind. Indeed, I would go rather further than that, and I would say on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that it is unusual to ask for, or for His Majesty's Government's representative to give, information concerning matters affecting the internal administration of an Indian State.

As, however, the noble Viscount was good enough to postpone his Question from the earlier date to which he had alloted it in order to give time for obtaining information from India, my right honourable friend has thought it desirable in this case to enquire in India as to what exactly the occasion was which had brought about a protest on the part of certain persons resident in the neighbouring Province of Madras. I think the reply I am in a position to read to the noble Viscount will—at least, I hope it will—largely reassure him as to the implication of that of which in his Question he complains. This is the reply just received from the Travancore Government: There is no truth in the allegation that the classification in question has been recently ordered, but according to classification now in force, Travancore Christians as a whole"— the noble Viscount, I think, excepted the Syrian Christians, but I understand they are included— are divided into five main groups of which Depressed Classes ' is the fifth, representing members of that class converted to Christianity. This classification was made on representation made by and on behalf of such converts in consultation with heads of several important Christian religious denominations in the State who still claim, as a concession, right to be considered as Depressed Classes for purpose of certain educational and other concessions. The noble Viscount will notice from that reply that it is not a question, to use the old-fashioned term, of the designation Depressed Classes being attached to all Christians—himself, and myself and the most reverend Primate indiscriminately—but that it is attached to -those Christians who were of the Depressed Classes and who were then converted to Christianity. With regard to the second observation made in the telegram, that this classification was made on representations made by and on behalf of such converts, I am able to produce a parallel instance of similar representations being made and. being recently brought to the notice of my right honourable friend. In Northern India converts to Christianity from the Depressed Classes somewhat in the same way preferred the saint, request with a view to retaining the advantages, educational and other, which appertain to the representatives of the so-called Depressed Classes. So far as I am able to understand, I believe that the designation to which my noble friend referred was largely due to the misunderstanding of a recent official circular dealing with quite another matter. For these reasons, my Lords, I would desire to point out that in the judgment of my right honourable friend the matter is one that primarily concerns the State of Travancore.

I would again point out to my noble friend, as I mentioned at the beginning, that the strength of the Christian community in that State is roughly one-third of the entire population, and having regard to that, and having regard to what is generally acknowledged to be the advanced character of administration in the State of Travancore, I do not really believe that there is any serious reason for my noble friend to be gravely perturbed that any legitimate grievance expressed on behalf of those for whom he has asked this Question this afternoon will not be adequately dealt with. I am bound to deplore—if he will allow me to do so—that he should have thought it necessary to stigmatise by such hard words as those which fell from his lips the administration of a State in India upon which those who have had the closest contact with it have always had nothing but praise and approval to bestow.


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for the trouble he has taken in making his reply, but I cannot for a moment admit that I consider it satisfactory. I can assure him that the information I received comes from various bodies in Travancore itself, and they put an entirely different interpretation upon the position from the one he has given to your Lordships as coming from the Government of Travancore. Purposely I have not alluded to the administration in Travancore and other matters, but the time may come when attention will be called to the present administration of Travancore, which is very far from being satisfactory in the minds of a great many people, not only people in that part of India but people of considerable experience and knowledge in this country. I warn my noble friend that I think it is very likely that I shall have to call attention again to this matter, because it is quite impossible for me to accept entirely the smooth words which have been put into his mouth from the Government of Travancore.