HL Deb 11 December 1946 vol 144 cc767-71

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I propose to make a short statement on the Indian situation. Your Lordships will have seen that the conversations with Indian leaders which took place during last week have unforunately ended without agreement being achieved. As your Lordships know, the Government issued a statement at the conclusion of the conversations but your Lordships will no doubt wish to have some account of the present situation.

It will be remembered that on May 16 last the Cabinet Mission made proposals which it was hoped would bridge the gap between the Hindu and Moslem points of view and enable Indians to frame their own Constitution by the accepted democratic method of a Constituent Assembly. In order to provide the most hopeful basis for co-operation in Constitution-making, the Cabinet Mission found it necessary to recommend both the outline of a future Constitution for India and a particular procedure whereby the details might be elaborated. The essence of their proposals was that, while there would be a Union of India limited to Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications, there would be an opportunity, by the adoption of a particular procedure in the Constituent Assembly, for Provinces to form Groups for the administration of such subjects as it was decided should be dealt with in common.

To provide this opportunity the Mission proposed that the Constituent Assembly, after a preliminary meeting to decide the order of business, should divide up into Sections, two of which cover the Provinces which the Moslem League claimed should constitute Pakistan. These Sections would settle Provincial Constitutions and decide whether a Group Constitution should be framed for the Provinces within the Section and, if so, for what subjects. Individual Provinces would be free to opt out of a Group after the first election under the new Constitution. The intention of the Mission was that the decisions of Sections should be taken by majority vote.

Subsequently a difference of opinion developed between the Congress Party and the Moslem League as to the meaning of the Cabinet Mission's Statement on the question of the procedure within the Sections of the Constituent Assembly, and it was largely because of misgivings in regard to this that the Moslem League withdrew its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission's plan at the end of July last. The Congress view is that Provinces have a right to decide both as to grouping and, as to their own Constitutions and that therefore the decisions in the Sections cannot be by simple majority vote. The Congress, however, have stated that they are prepared to accept the ruling of the Federal Court as to the proper interpretation of the Cabinet Mission's Statement. It was mainly in the hope of resolving the difference of view on this matter that His Majesty's Government invited the Indian representatives to come to London. We had very full and friendly discussions with the Indian representatives but I regret to say that up to the present we have not succeeded in resolving this difficulty. Consequently the Constituent Assembly, which was summoned to meet in India on Monday, is holding its preliminary session without representation of the Moslem League.

In the Statement which the Government issued at the conclusion of the conversations we have said that we have had legal advice which confirms that the Statement of May 16 means what the Cabinet Mission have always said was their intention—namely, that the voting in the Sections should be by majority vote. This is the view which is accepted by the Moslem League and on the basis of which they originally accepted the Cabinet Mission's proposals. From their point of view this is an essential element in the plan because, if the agreement of all the Provinces within the Section is required to the framing of a Group Constitution, it is probable that the opposition of some of the smaller Provinces will prevent Group Constitutions being framed. The intention of the Cabinet Mission was that, while an individual Province might be outvoted in the Section, its freedom would be safeguarded by the right to opt out of the Group after the Constitution had been framed.

His Majesty's Government feel that all parties in the Constituent Assembly should agree to work the scheme in the way intended by the Cabinet Mission, but if the Constituent Assembly desires that this fundamental point should be referred for the decision of the Federal Court, such reference should be made at a very early date so that the decision can be known before the meetings of the Sections of the Constituent Assembly take place.

It may seem to your Lordships that these differences as to matters of procedure are of small importance in relation to the paramount need for securing a Constitution for India which has the widest possible measure of consent. The peaceful transfer of power to an Indian Government freely set up by agreement among Indians is a matter of supreme importance, not only for India but for Asia and the world as a whole. But it must be remembered that the representatives who came to London were not in a position to commit their parties and that the issues stir deep and passionate feelings. Time must be given for the parties, after full debate, to decide their attitude. It may also be that the subject will come under consideration by the Federal Court. In these circumstances the Government feel that a general debate on Indian affairs at the present time would be inopportune and might destroy the prospect of a settlement.

I am sure I am speaking for all parties in your Lordships' House in making appeal to all communities in India to co-operate in framing a Constitution which, because it is based on consent, will be welcomed by all and worked in a co-operative spirit.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the full statement he has made, but I think it is no good disguising from ourselves the fact that an extremely serious situation has arisen and that the Government plan for advancing the constitutional future of India, to which they have devoted such efforts and have gone so far, as we would fully agree, in conciliating the two main Indian communities, has not succeeded. Whether this is a hitch, or whether it represents something in the nature of a breakdown which one hopes is temporary, is a matter of opinion on which everybody may hold their views. I think it would be wiser that none of us should make any comments today. The situation is clearly extremely delicate and the statement of the noble Lord will require very careful consideration. But I must say that in these unhappy circumstances which have arisen, I do feel—and I think I speak for other noble Lords on this side of the House—there are extremely strong arguments for a debate before the House rises for Christmas. The Government, I am sure, will agree that up to now we on this side of the House have not pressed them unduly on Indian affairs. We have indeed exercised the greatest restraint, because we have realized how difficult the situation was. But I think it is evident that much elucidation of essential facts is needed for the benefit of noble Lords in this House and also of the country. After all, one of our main functions is to inform the country, and the country is badly in need of such information.

Noble Lords for whom I speak—and I am sure I am speaking for all of them—will wish to consider further the question of a debate in the light of what the Government have said, because clearly one does not want to come to any hasty decision in a matter of this importance. I do hope the Government will understand if we consider it our duty to discuss this question before the House rises. If it is treated in a statesmanlike manner—and I am quite certain it will be so treated in this House—I feel certain that no harm will result, and, indeed, that there will be advantage for the House, the country and for India itself.

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends on these Benches desire to join in thanking the Government for the comprehensive statement which has just been made, which bring; our information up to the present date. I differ from the noble Viscount who has just spoken with regard to the desirability of an early debate in this House on Indian affairs. We on these Benches have considered the matter, and have decided not to join in pressing the Government to allocate time for this purpose. The particular point which is referred to in the statement today is itself of a somewhat legalistic character. It may indeed be referred to the Indian Federal Court for decision, and I do not presume that any of your Lordships would be prepared to express any confident opinion upon it.

As for the broad situation, by general consent the grave matters under consideration have been referred for decision to an Indian Constituent Assembly, and although it is true that various hitches have arisen with respect to the constitution and procedure of that Assembly I do not see that speeches in this Parliament are likely greatly to help these deliberations. In those circumstances, we here agree with the view expressed by the Government in their statement in doubting whether any useful public service would be rendered by a debate in this House precisely at this present juncture.

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