HL Deb 06 May 1937 vol 105 cc182-96

LORD SNELL rose to ask. His Majesty's Government if it is not their opinion that the misunderstanding which at present seems to stand in the way of the majority Party in a number of the Provinces of British India accepting office might be removed as a result of discussion between Mr. Gandhi and the Viceroy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as we have watched from day to day the news from India most of us, I believe, have wished that we could be present on the spot with the opportunity of trying to persuade the people on both sides of this controversy to do something to bridge the gulf which divides the people of India and the Government on this great question. I have ventured to put on the Paper the Question which stands in my name in the hope that the Secretary of State may be able to make some statement which would be helpful to the Indian people and to the Government at this particular time. I do not propose to enter into the details of the difficulty which confronts us. Those details are well known to all of us. They seem to me to be due for the most part to a clash in temperament rather than to substantial material barriers. On the one side we appear to have an emotional resentment against barriers which the Indian leaders think have been erected and their difficulty may be one of tone rather than of real substance. On the other hand we have the Government which, while allowing for all the difficulties which face them—some of which I can imagine—appear to have been formal and stiff in the traditional and aloof manner. I feel that a little more grace in phrasing and more sympathetic understanding of the Indian people might have, even now, an altogether different result. In any case what we have is a growing impatience in which the prospects of a real settlement are endangered. Therefore I feel that the time has come when we should ask both sides to make another effort in the task of agreement.

I especially ask His Majesty's Government to try to remove any misapprehensions that may exist. I do not personally regard Mr. Gandhi as an entirely guileless negotiator. On the other hand, he does seem to have been genuinely surprised that his words have not meant the same thing to the Government of India and the India Office as they meant in his own mind. If that is so, then both sides I think might in this crisis bend a little and try once more to secure a settlement. I especially appeal to the Government to make a gesture of willingness to remove any such misapprehension and to give to the leaders of the popular Parties in India any assurance that is possible that the reserved powers of the Governors will not be used unnecessarily, and that the will of the Legislature and the Ministers will prevail in everything that is for their rightful decision within the provisions of the Government of India Act. I especially urge this because I do not want on this occasion to let things drift until it is too late. Every week's delay sharpens tempers and increases both the dangers and the difficulties. I especially do not wish us to run the risk of having at the end of the short period still available for discussion to blame ourselves that we allowed the situation to drift into a state beyond repair.

I should like to rephrase an old text and say "Blessed are the bridge-makers" on an occasion of this kind. The most immediate need, it seems to me, is to give to the Indian people an assurance that their wishes and their work will not be continuously thwarted either by the Government of India or in the India Office. I also feel that I am entitled to make an appeal to the leaders of the Indian people to try out this great experiment and not to lead the Indian people into a mere wilderness of barren negation. Things in this world, as we well know, have a way of growing and this Constitution, which is more restricted than either I or the leaders of the popular Parties in India desired, might with a proper trial blossom like Aaron's rod in the genial soil and atmosphere of co-operative good will. I did not want so many of these restrictions but, looking at them in the light of our own experience in other parts of the Empire, they do not forbid movement or growth or some increase in self-determination.

I should like, for what it is worth, to express to the Indian people my own sincere belief that the British people would not tolerate that Governors operating under this Act should needlessly thwart their wishes or harass Ministers in their work. We still have in this country a way of raising such difficulties whenever they occur. I should like further to express my own belief to the Indian people that these Governors of Provinces are human beings like the rest of us, with the same desires as ourselves. They would desire to, win the trust and friendship of those among whom they work, and their dearest wish would be at the end of their service to return to their own country with a record of reserved powers entirely unused. I have mentioned the name of Mr. Gandhi in this Question, but that includes the desire that the Government should avail themselves of any other helpful method of contact and appeasement. I did not wish that your Lordships should separate without having another opportunity to use your influence on this great problem, and I very much hope that the Government will be able to say something that will relieve our growing anxieties and at the same time give a new start to an attempt to modify a dangerous situation. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I confess it was not without some apprehension that I noticed that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition had put down this Question to the Government to-day. For my part, I think far the wisest course for your Lordships to pursue is to try not to interfere with the administration of this Act in India. It was passed by very large majorities, and of course, though I do not pretend that I assented to it, I recognise it is necessary that it should be put into force and that we ought to hope it will have every success. In so far as the noble Lord has spoken of peace and conciliation and tolerance, I agree with him. Let both sides in India be as conciliatory as possible. When he says he hopes that the Governors' powers will not be unnecessarily used, of course we think they ought not to be unnecessarily used. The very adverb he employs implies that if they are unnecessary they ought not to be used. I should, of course, take exactly the same view as he does. But it would be a great pity if we thought that the Governors' powers are insignificant or unimportant.

We spent a great deal of time, when the Bill was going through, in carefully drawing what those powers ought to be. With great industry, if I may say so, your Lordships paid attention to the exact limits which ought to be assigned to the Governors' powers, which of course are not insignificant; they are of great importance. I agree with the noble Lord in hoping that they will be very sparingly used. If his aspiration is realised that at the end of his term of office a Governor may be able to say he has never used these powers, that would be a very fortunate occurrence. I agree with him on that point; but do not let us give the impression, either here or in India, that we intend these powers to be a dead letter. I do not know whether the noble Lord has refreshed his memory by reading again the Act of Parliament which he took so much part in framing. He will find that the Governors' powers—the things he has to decide in his own discretion—are very important powers; powers having to do with the rights of minorities and their interests; with law and order and the maintenance of law and order; powers, very specific powers, to refuse assent to Bills if a Governor considers it absolutely right and proper that he should refuse his assent, or to reserve such Bills for the Governor-General's assent or to reserve them for His Majesty's assent.

All these things are carefully laid down. They were put in, not out of any disrespect to the Indian nation or any desire to treat them with anything except profound regard, but because Parliament thought it right not to make what was described by noble Lords opposite, and by noble Lords on this side, as a revolution, without careful precautions. Do not let us try and rub down the precautions as if they did not exist. I believe the greatest: danger that at the present moment is to be found in the administration of the British Government both here and elsewhere is the conviction which is growing that if you press hard enough the Government are sure to give way. There has been a good deal of that in the recent history of this country. I am not speaking of His Majesty's present advisers only; I mean one British Government after another. A good deal of the experience has been that if sufficient pressure is put upon them they are sure to give way. It would be most unfortunate if that view prevailed either here or in India. We took a very grave step when we passed the Government of India Act. Let it work. Let us do our best to work it. Let us work it in the most conciliatory spirit we possibly can, but do not let us give any sort of impression that the precautions which were inserted in it were only matters of form to be tossed aside the moment there is any pressure.

I venture to say this because I consider it would be unlucky if the Government were placed in the position of having only suggestions made to them that the least possible should be made of these precautions. I hope your Lordships will believe that, since the passage of the Bill, I have not, myself, done anything to interfere, as far as my limited powers go, with the proper working of this Act. I am all for making every effort to work it properly, but, on the other hand, may I say very respectfully to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that I do not think he and his friends ought to put pressure on the Government to carry out what they themselves wanted when the Bill was passing, but which they did not succeed in achieving, any more than that we on our part should try to achieve what at that time we failed to persuade them to accept. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for making these observations. I would like to end upon the same note as the noble Lord did. We ought to be as conciliatory as possible in the administration of this Act.


My Lords, I rise to offer a few remarks on this question in view of my life-long contact with reserved powers. These points will be strictly confined to the constitutional aspects of the situation. So far as information is public there is no indication that any question of the exercise of reserved powers has yet arisen. Until a crisis has arisen on such a question and the existence thereof is admitted and its bearing on the rights of electors and duties of Governors has been considered, the position of Governors in India is exactly the same as that of Governors in constitutionally-governed democracies, such as the Federations of Australia, Canada and so on. The best hope of promoting the success of constitutional rule in India is to realise that that, so, far as we know, is exactly the present position of Governors and those with whom they have to work.

Constitutional Governors have to act in accordance with their special mandate and the rules that guide their duty according to the text books that govern constitutional evolution where real democratic institutions are established. When reserved powers give rise to a crisis the question may be otherwise than it is to-day, but I submit to your Lordships that so far the question of Imperial intervention is somewhat premature, although it is not outside what text books taught as they were understood a short time ago. It was thought that a Governor wherever he was appointed was in the first place the representative of the Crown and had to carry out instructions from the Home Government. That conception has been varied and changed fundamentally by a declaration made in another place when a question was raised in regard to Australia from the Labour Benches. It was then asked whether Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, as Governor of New South Wales, had received instructions or intimations for his guidance in his attitude with regard to a constitutional Prime Minister, whose advice he did not accept notwithstanding the critical difficulties involved, and the answer then was, that once appointed a Governor, as the representative of the King, became essentially the servant of the people over whom he was placed and the custodian of the Constitution as he understood it. He was there to exercise his own judgment, knowledge and discretion as the best friend and servant of the electors.

If a Governor exercised that discretion unwisely or wrongly, it was not unusual that he should soon be succeeded by somebody else, so that the Constitution could continue to work on without friction according to the rules, and according to the traditions and practice of Parliamentary government. I submit that the position of personal responsibility of Governors represents the present stage of constitutional development in India; and that therefore, if the Secretary of State were now to intervene—and he alone can be the responsible judge as to when and how he should intervene, and whether it be yet time to intervene—he may have knowledge which may not or cannot be public property, or knowledge which later on might usefully be made known to the Press. Until that time comes, if the Secretary of State were to intervene prematurely, it would be said that the India Constitution was Crown Colony Government in disguise. It is not meant to be that. It is meant to be a genuine effort to give the electors of India a chance to accept and work to the full extent constitutional government as it is written and as it is in force in democratic States like Australia which have these reserved matters. Until Provincial Government is brought to a deadlock it may be well to mark time. It has not yet been tried up to the stage where the Federal Authority functions.

I have only to add that there have been precedents in various parts of the Empire where, as the first stage of the introduction of constitutional government that was to be fully responsible, there have in some cases been great difficulties. These were sometimes psychological difficulties. It took time to get people to realise what it means to put the Parliamentary machine in motion. The reading up of text books and the acquiring of knowledge of precedents can best be assimilated by practice, and it will be found in practice that if the leaders of Parliamentary majorities happen to appear to the electors to become dictators, and to forget that they are constitutionally not the masters but the servants of the electors, it is only a question of time when the electors will seek and find other leaders. It is a duty of the Governors, as the umpires between the Parties, to decide when the attitude of any Party leaders should again and again be put to the test by an appeal to the electors. There can constitutionally be no appeal to a Secretary of State before every effort has been made to work democratic government in India, according to the letter of the rules which the people who voted accepted, as democracy is worked in Australia, where it has been developed in a manner that never has had a more brilliant precedent in the recorded pages of history.


My Lords, I find myself so much in accord with what the noble Marquess who spoke in this debate has said, that I would not have intervened even for a moment were it not for a few words that fell from the noble Lord who raised this question at the outset of his speech. He seemed to think that the difficulties which have unfor- tunately emerged are due mainly to some clash of temperaments—I think the word he used was "emotionalism"—rather than to any deep-seated differences between Congress and the Act. I think he must have forgotten—so remote is that, as I think it, from the real fact of the case, that I ought to remind him if I may—what is the basic assumption which preceded this Act and on which the Government acted. In a White Paper, of which I have not the date at the moment, that opened the whole of these discussions and gave a presentation of the case for the Act, the Government used these words: The present proposals in general necessarily proceed on the basic assumption that every endeavour will be made by those responsible for working the Constitution to approach the administrative problems which will present themselves in the spirit of partners in a common enterprise. When Congress had seen this Act come into force they gave a clear and definite and, as I think, unmistakable reply to that basic assumption, and I think noble Lords on the Labour Benches, and some others, if I may venture to say so, sometimes do not pay enough attention to the repeated declarations of Congress as to what the real attitude is. Congress have never disguised their attitude. They have been perfectly clear and, I think, perfectly honest in what their attitude is to the Act, at any rate that is so in the case of the present leaders. What did they say? They said at their annual meeting in December: The Congress reiterates its entire rejection of the Government of India Act, 1935, and the Constitution that has been imposed on India against the declared will of the people and the country. They said a great deal more, and made very definite declarations of resolute hostility to the whole spirit and conception of the Act.

I think that must not be forgotten when we are considering whether there can be any useful approach to a resolution of the difficulties that now confront us by the method suggested by the noble Lord who initiated this debate. I hope that the Government will not be tempted by what I am certain are the very well-intentioned arguments of the noble Lord in that direction. After all, we have had experience. I do not want to say anything derogatory of Mr. Gandhi, whom I know personally very well, and with whom I have had many dealings, but we have had experience of Viceregal interviews in the past with Mr. Gandhi, and they have not been conducive to good relations or good results. When the noble Lord referred to the safeguards which the Governors have to employ in case of need in terms which he interpreted as "thwarting" or "harassing," I would prefer to use words like "protecting the feeble against the strong," and "defending minorities," because it is only in very grave circumstances of emergency, when interests such as those are threatened, that any one of us conceives it as possible that the Governors would be likely to use their powers.

I think the course proposed would be a particularly doubtful one even if a Governor were wise to intervene at all. I think there is quite hope that there may be some very able leaders in Congress who, if Government did not interfere, may yet split from the extremists in Congress, and that there may be an easier resolution of the difficulty than some people suppose. It is generally understood that Mr. Gandhi's activities at the present time are trying to prevent any split in Congress. If the extremist section of Congress adheres to the views which it expressed at the annual meeting of Congress, and there is found, by method of a split, some more moderate and not less intelligent men—and I could mention the names of one or two of them who might be quite willing in certain circumstances to operate the reforms—I cannot think that a discussion initiated by the Viceroy with Mr. Gandhi would do anything but grave harm at the present time. I would prefer to base myself on the declaration made by the Secretary of State, when I believe he said—I myself was away abroad at the time—that nobody would think it improbable, if Mr. Gandhi sought an interview with the Viceroy for specific reasons, that that might occur. But that is not the situation at all. As I understand, the noble Lord wishes the Governor to take some initiative in that matter. I can only hope that the Government will pursue the course which they are pursuing now, which I am sure is likely to lead to a good understanding and a better working of the reforms than any intervention now.


My Lords, I am sorry that longer notice was not given of this Question. I also regret very much that the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, who has taken a very considerable part in your Lordships' discussion of this subject, happens to be abroad at the present time and therefore is not able to be here. But I am quite sure that he and those of us who work with him in connection with India welcome very much the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Snell, in initiating this debate. I hope that the noble Marquess the Secretary of State is able to make some statement which at any rate will indicate to the Indian population the conciliatory attitude of the Government in trying to effect a settlement.


My Lords, we have listened this afternoon to speeches by noble Lords in various quarters of the House upon a question which two years ago profoundly divided them. This afternoon I am in the happy and somewhat unusual position of being able to say that there is nothing I think in the speeches of any of the noble Lords who have spoken with which I disagree. That being so, that in itself seems to be a tremendous tribute to the determination of all Parties in this country, now that the Act which was the subject of so much controversy during its passage has reached the Statute Book, to provide the most favourable atmosphere for its successful functioning.

The noble Lord who put his Question on the Paper has embodied in it a suggestion which has been made from various quarters and which has recently been pressed upon my notice. The Question seems to rest upon the assumption that as a result of discussion between the Viceroy and Mr. Gandhi it might be found possible to devise a clear and simple formula—in fact an alternative to the formula which Mr. Gandhi himself devised—to regulate the exercise by the Governors of their reserved powers. I need not now repeat what I said a short time ago in reply to a Question which was addressed to me in your Lordships' House by the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, as to the impossibility of the Governors divesting themselves of the obligations which have been imposed upon them by Parliament. But I feel bound to call attention to a further difficulty which I should see in the way of the giving of any such general assurance by the Governors as has been sometimes suggested, and that is that it would inevitably lead to differences of interpretation in particular cases, and consequently to charges of breach of faith.

If it had been possible to devise a quasi-legal formula for regulating the many and varied relationships between the Governors and the Ministries, such a formula would undoubtedly have been embodied in the Act itself. But it was precisely because it was found impossible to reach any such formula that emphasis was laid over and over again, in the discussions which preceded the Bill, upon this fact, that the spirit in which the Constitution was worked would be of the highest importance in connection with its successful functioning. And it is in this connection as it appears to me—the spirit of the working of the Constitution—that so many unfortunate misunderstandings have arisen. I agree, of course, with the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, who stressed the importance of the special responsibilities which were specifically vested in the Governors by Parliament. At the same time, I think there has been a tendency in India itself in certain quarters for a great deal more to be read into that part of the Act which imposes these special responsibilities upon Governors than is really contained in it.

In their most recent announcement, for example, the Congress declared that the past record and the present attitude of the British Government showed that, without the assurances demanded, a popular Ministry would be exposed to constant and irritating interference. My Lords, this differs so profoundly from the picture of a popular Ministry functioning under the Act as I have always seen it myself, that it seems to me to be desirable that I should describe the working of the Constitution in the Indian Provinces as I have always contemplated it. Since I was a member, not only of the joint Select Committee upon whose recommendations the Act was mainly based, but also of the Round-Table Conferences which preceded the Joint Select Committee, I think I may at least claim that I have some knowledge of the intentions of those who were responsible for the framing of the measure and for the spirit in which it was conceived.

First, then, let it not be supposed for one moment that the field of government under the Act in the Indian Provinces is to be divided into two parts in which the Governor and the Ministry operate separately at the risk of constant clashes between them. Thai division of the field of government was; a feature of the old Constitution known as diarchy, but it is precisely that feature of the old Constitution which is done away with by the existing Act. The essence of the new Constitution is that the initiative and the responsibility for the whole of the government of a Province, though in form certainly vesting in The Governor, pass to the Ministry the moment the Ministry takes office. It will, of course, be the Governor's duty to help his Ministers in every way that he can, and more particularly, of course, by his political knowledge and his administrative experience. The reserved powers, of which the Congress make so much, will not normally be in operation at all. Indeed, they can only come into the picture if the Governor considers that the carefully limited special responsibilities laid upon him by the Act, and impressed upon him by the Instrument of Instructions which Parliament approved, become involved.

But even if a question of the use of the reserved powers docs arise—and it is here that I would lay particular stress upon the spirit in which it is intended that the Constitution should be worked—it would be altogether wrong to assume that the Governor will immediately place himself in open opposition to his Ministry. That is the very last thing in the world that I should either expect or desire. A Governor, whose advice and support have been valuable to a Ministry in the conduct of its affairs, will surely be able to lay his own difficulties before them the moment that he sees a risk that he and his Ministers may not see eye to eye in connection with a. matter which touches one of his special responsibilities. And I should have thought that, just as the Ministers can count upon the assistance of the Governor in their difficulties, so could the Governor in his turn rely upon receiving the sympathetic consideration of his Ministers for the difficulty of his own position. It may well be that his difficulty, if it arises, can be met by some modifications of the Ministerial proposals which would not materially affect their programme. In any case, however, the discussion of the matter between men working together for a common purpose is likely at least to secure that the points of difference between them are narrowed. It will then be for each, having regard to the interest of the Province as a whole, to consider whether the points of difference, thus narrowed and denned as a result of discussion, justify a break in what otherwise has been a fruitful relationship.

It would doubtless be too much to hope that occasions will never arise in which neither side can with good conscience give way; but if my picture of the working of the Constitution is a true one, and if the relations between the Governor and his Ministry are those of partners in a common enterprise—as was recalled by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, in the course of his speech as being the object, which those who framed this Constitution had in view, and as of course they must be, for on no other basis could the Constitution be expected to work—there can be no possible question of the Governors interfering constantly and irritatingly in the responsibilities and work of their Ministries.

Finally, let me repeat the assurance which was given by my honourable friend the Under-Secretary in reply to a Question in another place, when he said that: His Majesty's Government have no intention (of countenancing a use of the special powers for other than the purposes for which Parliament intended them. And further, when he added: It is certainly not the intention that Governors, by narrow or legalistic interpretation of their own responsibilities, should trench upon the wide powers which it was the purpose of Parliament to place in the hands of Ministries and which it is our desire that they should use, in furtherance of the programmes which they have advocated. And let me add that in the working of the Constitution, so far as it is at present possible to judge, I see happy confirmation of the picture which I have drawn of its working.

Both in those Provinces in which Ministries are working with a majority in the Legislatures and in those Provinces in which minority Ministries are functioning, bold programmes of work have been drawn up, and, so far as I know, without the smallest attempt on the part of a single Governor to interfere with them. Is it too much to hope that those who have so far hesitated to assume the responsibilities of office from what I be- lieve to be a mistaken sense of fear lest they will be unduly interfered with in the discharge of their task, will derive reassurance and encouragement from the actual working of the Constitution in their midst? For my own part I need hardly say that I hope devoutly, and in all sincerity, that that will prove to be the case. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Snell, for the speech which he made in introducing this Motion, couched as it was, if I may say so, in that usual charm of language of which he has so great a command, and displaying also, if I may say so without incurring a charge of disrespect, a very finely balanced judgment on a problem of great delicacy and difficulty. Finally, may I say once more with what satisfaction I have observed the desire, which has been expressed from all angles, that everything possible should be done to enable the Constitution which has so recently come into operation in the British Provinces in India to function with success.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Marquess for the speech which he has made, which I think does carry us further than we were when this debate began. I hope your Lordships will believe, notwithstanding the condemnations I received from the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, that the Question which I put on the Order Paper was neither inopportune nor one that proved embarrassing to the Secretary of State. I only wish to say that in my speech I did not suggest—no one did—to the noble Marquess the casting aside of the reserved powers of the Governors. All I asked was that if there were misapprehensions that a word of good will would remove, opportunity should be taken of removing them. It was to provide that opportunity that I put this Question upon the Order Paper of your Lordship's House, and in so doing I was speaking not only for myself but also for the whole of the Labour Party, to which I have the honour to belong. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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