HL Deb 19 February 1946 vol 139 cc667-77

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, may I, by private notice, ask the Secretary of State for India whether His Majesty's Government have any statement to make on Indian affairs?


My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Viscount for the opportunity he gives me of making a statement on behalf of His Majesty's Government. Your Lordships will recall that on the 19th September, 1945, on his return to India after discussions with His Majesty's Government, the Viceroy made a statement of policy, in the course of which he outlined the positive steps to be taken, immediately after the central and provincial elections to promote, in conjunction with the leaders of Indian opinion, the early realization of full self-government in India. Those steps include:—

  1. (1) Preparatory discussions with the elected representatives of British India, and with the Indian States, in order to secure the widest measure of agreement as to the method of framing a Constitution.
  2. (2) The setting up of a constitution-making body: and
  3. (3) The bringing into being of an Executive Council having the support of the main Indian parties.
The elections at the centre were held at the end of last year and in some of the provinces they are also over and responsible Governments are in process of formation. In the other provinces polling dates are spread over the next few weeks. With the approach of the end of the electoral campaign His Majesty's Government have been considering the most fruitful method of giving effect to the programme to which I have referred.

In view of the paramount importance not only to India and to the British Commonwealth but to the peace of the world of a successful outcome of the discussions with the leaders of Indian opinion His Majesty's Government have decided, with the approval of His Majesty the King, to send out to India a special Mission of Cabinet Ministers consisting of the Secretary of State for India, the President of the Board of Trade, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, to act in association with the Viceroy in this matter. This decision has the full concurrence of Lord Wavell.

I feel sure that your Lordships will give your support and good will to the Ministers and to the Viceroy in carrying out a task in which the future of 400 million people and crucial issues both for India and the world will be at stake.

I should add that during the absence of these Ministers the Prime Minister will himself assume responsibility for Admiralty business and the Lord President will be in charge of the Board of Trade. So far as the India and Burma Offices are concerned, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will be in charge during my own absence, but he will be able to rely on the personal advice of the Prime Minister whenever it is required and he will refer important issues to him, particularly those affecting Burma, where the Governor will not, as will the Viceroy, be in personal touch with myself.

2.40 p.m.


My Lords, the Secretary of State has made a most important statement and has announced a highly novel procedure. We shall all join in the hope that this plan may bear fruit and that it may be regarded in India as a proof of the genuine desire of this country to help towards a solution of India's intractable constitutional problems. I ask leave to put to the noble Lord one or two questions about his statement, not by way of criticism—we shall need time to study the announcement—but for greater clarification. May I first ask whether I am right in understanding that the purpose of the visit of these three Cabinet Ministers is not to take part in framing a future Indian Constitution, but to take part in the preliminary work of seeking agreement as to the method of setting up a constitution-making body? The distinction is all-important, as I am sure the Secretary of State will agree.

India has already been assured that it is for Indians to devise their new Constitution and that, subject to certain necessary conditions, the British Parliament will then enact it; but the future Constitution has to be framed by a constitution-making body composed of Indians. I take it that the new announcement is not to be read as going back on that promise, but that this Mission is going to India for the purpose of helping to bring together a body of representative Indians who will then be charged with the task of fixing their own Constitution. Secondly, it is manifestly important to know what will be the extent of the authority of the three members of this Mission to speak for Britain. Sir Stafford Cripps went out with carefully framed instructions from the Cabinet, of which he was a member, and in all he did in India he carefully and loyally kept within those instructions.

What I think we should like to know from the noble Lord—I do not think it will embarrass him in the least; it is not meant to—is whether when these Ministers go out they will have plenary power to act for the Cabinet, or will they, as I should rather assume, report to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in London., which will still remain the responsible executive in the matter? Then again, and still more important, will any decisions that may be reached in the matter be subject to Parliamentary approval in the sense that Parliament will be given an opportunity to discuss them before any final decisions are taken?

There is one other point which must be in everybody's mind, so I venture to ask finally whether the Secretary of State will tell us how long these three Cabinet Ministers are expected to be out of the country engaged on this important Mission. I quite appreciate that their Departments are going to be looked after by others while they are necessarily away, but still, important as this matter is, the absence, for example, of the President of the Board of Trade, in the light of domestic difficulties as to the distribution of supply, might become a matter of serious concern. Your Lordships will, I hope, think that these questions are reasonable. They are not intended in the least to be critical; they are asking for enlightenment. I would at the same time repeat that in the light of the decision which is now announced the Government may be assured of the good will and good wishes of those on these Benches in this bold effort to help to bring about a happier state of things in India.

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will welcome the announcement of this fresh effort to break the persistent deadlock which has so long prevailed in India. In earlier days we on these Benches felt compelled to exercise our right of criticism of the course which had been pursued in several particulars by the Government here at home in relation to Indian affairs, but the difficulties that have arisen in recent months, and ever since what has been known as the Cripps offer, cannot in any degree in my opinion be attributed to the course adopted by the previous Government or by the present Government; they arise from conditions in India. I hope that the strong initiative that is now being taken by His Majesty's Government will elicit some helpful response from the contending interests in India. The present Viceroy commands a very general measure of confidence both in India and in this country. We may hope that he will find his hands strengthened by the delegation from the Cabinet which is about to go to India and that the objects which he has long had in view will be forwarded by their assistance.

I would mention only one specific point arising out of the Government statement. One of the three purposes which were announced last September as being pursued by His Majesty's Government was to secure that the Viceroy's Executive Council should be transformed into a fully representative body. That is one of the objects of this new Mission, but from the statement that was made then, and which has been made to-day, it is quite clear—and I hope it will be appreciated by the Indian political bodies—that any such transformation of the Viceroy's Council now does not prejudice in any degree the preparation of the ultimate Constitution of India, and will not prejudge at all any conclusions which may be reached by the constitution-making body. For the sake of preventing any misunderstanding by Indian public opinion I think it should be emphasized that these new arrangements which are being sought in the Viceroy's Executive Council are transitional and provisional and are open, of course, to full review by the constitution-making body when it is brought into being.

The noble and learned Viscount who has just spoken has mentioned that the absence of the President of the Board of Trade may give rise to considerable difficulties here. In his hands is a very large part of the whole work of post-war reconstruction in this country, and the functions he is performing in relation to industry and to foreign trade are of urgent and fundamental importance; yet Sir Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade, has rendered such signal services in India and is so fully acquainted with all the necessities of the case that it is clear that if three Cabinet Ministers are to go to India he should properly be one. I hope the Indian people will appreciate that the British public, in giving him leave of absence, are accepting a very considerable sacrifice of their own immediate interests.


My Lords, I would ask your leave to put just one question, arising out of his statement, to the Secretary of State. That question is whether, when he replies to my noble and learned friend Viscount Simon, he will make quite clear the precise relation which these Cabinet Ministers will have to the Viceroy. Will they be purely advisory or will they be, so to speak, colleagues of the Viceroy? Or will they represent the authority of His Majesty's Government—that is to say, all the authority of the Cabinet? I do not wish to make an argumentative speech, for I do not think that it would be very much in place at this moment. I have put my question merely for the purpose of eliciting clearly what the statement of the Secretary of State amounts to.

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, before the Secretary of State replies, per- haps I might address one or two questions to him. There are one or two points which, as a member of the Parliamentary Delegation to India, which has lately returned to this country, I think it behoves me to mention and I hope the noble Lord will be able to give me some reply upon them. The first thing I desire to ask is this. While I re-echo every word that the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, has said, I would like to inquire further whether the Viceroy will remain as His Majesty's representative in India, in spite of the fact that three Cabinet Ministers are proceeding there from this country, including the Secretary of State for India. The second point upon which I would like to ask for information is whether, in view of the strategic importance that India holds, and must hold now and in the future, the decision of His Majesty's Government has been communicated to the Dominions chiefly concerned—to Australia, to South Africa, to New Zealand.

In this connexion, I would ask further whether any decision at which these three Ministers may arrive will be communicated—with a view to obtaining their views—to the Dominions concerned. Thirdly, may I ask the noble Lord this I understand that one of the steps which is contemplated is to bring into being an Executive Council having the support of the main Indian political parties. That is somewhat different from the proposal which was made by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel. It will not be a representative body, as I understand it, but a body which has the sole and whole support of the chief Indian political parties. I should like to have that point made clear before the delegation departs on its journey. May I add that I feel sure that the whole House will wish it: "God speed and good luck."

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank your Lordships for the exceedingly friendly spirit in which, on all sides, the announcement which I have had the honour to make has been received, and I will do my best to be lucid and frank with your Lordships in answering all the questions that have been put to me. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, asked me four questions. First he asked was it clear that this Mission of the Cabinet was not going out to frame a Constitution for India but was merely going out with the intention of setting up a constitution-making body.


To assist in setting up such a body.


To assist in the setting up of a constitution-making body. That is the answer, of course. This announcement that I have made to-day does not alter in any way the statement that was made by the Viceroy on his return to India in September. The only change is—and I will come to the question by the noble Marquess later on—that the Viceroy's hands will be strengthened by the presence with him of members of His Majesty's Government. As the noble and learned Viscount correctly said, it is for Indians to decide the basis of their own constitutional structure. That has been the avowed intention of, I think, all Parties in this House for a considerable number of years, and that remains the intention of His Majesty's Government at the present time.

Then the noble and learned Viscount asked me—and I will take his fourth question next—how long it was proposed that the Mission should stay in India. He rightly stressed the importance to this country of having the authorized heads of the Ministries concerned present in this country; and I would emphasize the point that I think he made, that it is an indication of the extreme importance which His Majesty's Government attach to a successful solution of the problems of India that His Majesty's Government have made this proposal. I, of course, appreciate that it is desirable that members of the Mission should not stay longer in India than is vitally necessary. At the same time, I am sure that your Lordships would not have any desire that the Mission should return with its work only half done, that is, not having laid a firm foundation but having laid one which might afterwards prove insufficient to carry the vast consequences which are necessary.

Beyond that, it is not very easy for me to go at the present time. I do not think that I can be very specific as to the length of time we shall stay. Your Lordships may be assured that we shall not stay longer than we consider abso- lutely necessary. But we shall certainly stay as long as we find necessary in order to bring about the objects of our visit. That, as I say, was the fourth question which the noble and learned Viscount asked. He further asked me what was the position of the Mission in relation to the Cabinet. This Mission is a representation of the Cabinet in India. It will carry with it in India the authority of the Cabinet, subject to what I am going to say just now.

Of course we have already had, and shall continue to have before we leave for India, very careful discussions with the whole Cabinet, and, no doubt, when we go we shall be given certain specific instructions on the direction and general purposes of our procedure. Within these instructions we shall, of course, have power to take such decisions as may be necessary at the time, and we shall be able to have contact with His Majesty's Government at home. On major issues that do not fall within the instructions already given to us, we shall, no doubt, wish to consult with our colleagues in this country. I think that that answers as fully as I am able the questions put by the noble Viscount.

Then he asked me a further question on how far we would be in a position to commit Parliament. I am not saying anything which arises out of this special Mission. To the best of my knowledge and belief I am interpreting what is the Constitution of this country. Neither a part of the Cabinet nor the Cabinet itself can commit Parliament to certain actions as far as I am aware, and it must be perfectly evident that any fundamental alteration in the relationship between this country and India will have at some stage or other to come before Parliament. I imagine, in fact I think it was stated in the Cripps Declaration, that in some matters there will be a definite treaty between this country and India. Quite clearly, in some shape or form that must be brought before Parliament.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for answering fully and candidly, and I thank him. The question I put, which I agree is sometimes a difficult one to answer, was this: Will Parliament be given the opportunity to discuss this before any official decision is reached? I am perfectly aware that Parliamentary authority is needed before a great change can be effected, but it is one thing to discuss it after it has been agreed and it is quite a different thing to discuss it before any executive decision has been reached.


I would remind the noble Viscount that under the conditions of the Cripps Declaration a perfectly definite promise was made and we go to India with that as a background. The Cabinet has always the right to take certain decisions and to undertake in certain contingencies to present its proposals to Parliament. I do not think His Majesty's Government in what they are proposing, are going in any way out of the normal constitutional procedure. If necessary, that can be dealt with later, but that is as far as I should like to commit myself at the moment, although I think it meets the point which the noble and learned Viscount was making. I should now like to deal with a point raised by the noble Marquess, and which was also referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel. They both wanted to be assured that we were not overriding, or going to override, the Viceroy, but that we were going with him to attempt to obtain a settlement of this problem. I can certainly give them the assurance that it is our intention to be associated with the Viceroy and for the Viceroy to be associated with us—as I have already said, with his full concurrence—in trying to reach a solution. Our presence in India will not alter the substantive relationship between the Cabinet and the Viceroy which remains in precisely the same form as it is at the present time. I have no doubt that we shall pursue such conversations, in mutual agreement between ourselves and the Viceroy, that we may arrive at the best solution.

Perhaps I may answer the question of the noble Earl, Lord Munster, which he put to me at the same time. I speak on the spur of the moment, and subject to a review of the strict legal constitutional position, but I think the noble Earl is quite right in saying that the Viceroy does remain as His Majesty's representative in India and the fact that the Secretary of State is in India does not alter that fundamental fact. Naturally, before giving a final and categoric answer, I should like to verify my view on the matter. The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, also asked me whether the reference in the earlier part of my statement to the formation and the nature of the Viceroy's Executive Council in any way prejudged the nature of the ultimate constitutional machinery. The answer to that is, of course, No. In fact, this part of my announcement was really a recital in an abridged form of the statement that was made in September last by the Viceroy himself, and there is obviously no intention conveyed in it that we are prejudging the final constitutional machinery which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has already pointed out, is, and must be, and should be, the work of India itself.

That only leaves, I think, the two other questions which were put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Munster. He asked me whether the Dominions had been informed. My noble friend Viscount Addison assures me that that is the case. The other question was, as I understood it, what precisely was to be the nature of the Executive Council which is referred to in the announcement. I should not like to be too specific with regard to that. It is hoped to base the Viceroy's Executive, during the period while the constitution-making body is proceeding with its labours, on the main Indian Parties. It cannot be representative in the sense that it will rest on precisely some representative body, because there is no precise body A which it is representative. I cannot say the precise way in which the transformation that it is hoped may be expected will take place, and I must leave it in the somewhat vague terms which were used in September last and which have been abridged in the recital of the statement. I think that answers all the questions which were put to me.


My Lords, may I worry the noble Lord with one further question? When this Committee of Ministers who go out to India arrive at a decision will they communicate it to the Dominion Governments before any public announcement is made in this country? I attach very great importance to that.


That is a question which is a matter more for the Cabinet, but I have no doubt that it will be the business of my noble friend, the Secretary of State for the Dominions, to keep the Dominions informed, and if he thinks it desirable, to inform them beforehand. But I should not like to pledge myself on that.


My Lords, may we take it that this announcement implies no abrogation of what is known as the Cripps Declaration, the President of the Board of Trade's own Declaration, with regard to the relation with the Indian States and the protection of minorities?


In my announcement to-day I repeated the point about the Indian States, in the recital: Preparatory discussions with the elected representatives of British India, and with the Indian States, in order to secure the widest measure of agreement as to the methods of framing a Constitution. Therefore, so far as that is concerned, this is merely the repetition of what was said in September, and bears out what was also said in a slightly different form in what was known as the Cripps proposals.


I do not think there has been any repetition of the statement with regard to the protection of minorities.


I think that is another point. I do not fully understand the noble Lord's question. I have answered so many questions that perhaps it is not necessary to go any further, because it is not always easy to follow the gist of questions put orally, but I have done my best to meet those which have been put.

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