HL Deb 28 March 1946 vol 140 cc446-51

4.28 p.m.

LORD RANKEILLOUR had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government whether, in the event of a provisional agreement between the British Commissioners and Indian leaders as to the composition of an Indian Constituent Assembly, they will defer their assent to such agreement until it has been approved by both Houses of Parliament; whether it is their intention to negotiate a draft Treaty or like instrument for the government of India with a Constituent Assembly or newly constituted India Government; whether the optional adhesion of the Indian States and the protection of minorities will be necessary conditions of such treaty or instrument; and whether the text thereof (with any correspondence or declarations between the Commissioners and Indian leaders) will be published at least two months before confirming legislation is brought before Parliament; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in submitting this Motion to the House I wish to say that I am doing it solely on my own responsibility and no one else's, and I also wish to say I have no intention whatever of going into any general discussion of the present Indian situation. But there are certain gaps and, indeed, discrepancies in utterances by the Government which I think should be resolved with the knowledge of Parliament. I would begin by referring to Tuesday, March 12, when in answer to a question as to whether the Declaration of 1942, which would be in your Lordships' recollection, still held with regard to the freedom of the Indian States and the protection of minorities, the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, said that while the principles underlying the 1942 Declaration relating to the Indian States and the protection of the minorities remained, the precise application of them was necessarily subject to modifications in the light of these discussions.

That appeared to be a satisfactory and reasonable answer because obviously the position was different, and the application must necessarily be somewhat different too. But I confess I cannot reconcile this statement with the later ones made by the Government in another place. On 15th March the Prime Minister said: We are very mindful of the rights of minorities and minorities should be able to live free from fear. On the other hand, we cannot allow a minority to place a veto on the advance of the majority. That, again, taken by itself, did not seem an unreasonable view, but at the same time, the minorities surely could be protected, I submit, without their being enabled to veto the progress of the majority. I think the reference really in this case was to the composition of the Constituent Assembly, and therefore I will not dwell unduly on it.

Later on there were some further statements of a much more general kind. It was said by the Foreign Minister, I believe, that new provisions would be made—that is to say, for the minority in the Constitution—and that his right honourable friends in their conversations would certainly not neglect the point. Now that is a complete departure, I submit, from the Declaration of 1942, because it there said that it was to be an essential condition of a Treaty to be negotiated between this country and a future Indian Government, that the minorities should be protected as well as that the Indian States should be guaranteed. Therefore it certainly appears on the face of it that what was once an essential condition now becomes merely an item on the agenda of the Commissioners for their consideration. To this was added a further statement that we must recognize that we cannot make Indians responsible for governing themselves and at the same time retain over here responsibility for the treatment of minorities and the power to intervene on their behalf.

But surely intervention is not the only way to protect minorities, and personally I cannot but hope and indeed believe that, however this expression may be construed, the Government must have in mind something like an organic Statute in any future Indian Constitution for the protection of the civic rights, customs, freedom and religion of the minority. I think it is consequential on that that there must be some independent tribunal, not necessarily appointed from here, to make that protection effective.

There are one or two other points, perhaps of lesser importance, but still of some importance. In the 1942 Declaration it was laid down distinctly that the duty of the then one Commissioner was to settle the composition of the Constituent Assembly and that when that had been settled and an Indian Government set up, there would be negotiations with that Government as to the exact terms, subject, of course, to the two stipulations I have already mentioned. Now I understand the main function of the three Commissioners is to arrange for the Constituent Assembly and its composition.

There have been various phrases which are used, if I remember, by the members of the Government which are open to the interpretation anyhow that in their conversations with Indian leaders unspecified they may merely forestall and prejudice any negotiations with a future Indian Government that may take place, and that a situation may be created where it would be extremely difficult either for this Parliament or for any Indian Parliament to make any material change. Therefore the first and last parts of my question draw attention to the need first for Parliamentary ratification of the composition of an Indian Constituent Assembly, and secondly, of time being given to this Parliament also for due deliberation as to whatever the result of these conversations or these negotiations may be. I have put down a time limit of two months, but I have no wish to enlarge upon that. But I do say that if we are to exercise properly our responsibility, and the responsibility is a very great one, we must have time to do it.

With regard to the present Act, I think there are many defects in it, and I took a fairly active part in opposing parts of it. At any rate, no one can say it was not the result of very ample deliberation and very free and detailed discussion. If we are to make a new and fundamental change, whatever the difficulties of the moment, we must be able to do so with a clear view before us of all the issues involved, and not allow ourselves to come to hasty decisions on the spur of a no doubt difficult and crucial moment.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps you will allow me to say one word before the reply of the noble Earl responsible for answering on behalf of the Government. I speak, of course, even more so than my noble friend who has just sat down, entirely for myself. I think he is wise to deprecate a general discussion on India at the present moment. Matters are so delicate there that it would be patriotic—if I may use such a word—to abstain from comment. I do not for a moment wish your Lordships to think that my noble friend and myself have changed fundamentally in our opinions in the years which have elapsed since the Act of 1935 was passed; but there are moments when it is wise to insist on those differences and other moments when it is wiser not to say anything about them. For my part, I should prefer not to go into those difficulties; the situation is so acute. We must all hope for the best, and though we may not agree with all the Government have done in regard to India, we may on one thing agree—on being very grateful to those Ministers for their devotion in the efforts they are making, and in wishing them every success, even though we do not always agree with them. I hope that view will be the view of your Lordships' House.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, have both suggested, your Lordships will not expect me this afternoon to make any new statement of policy on behalf of His Majesty's Government. The objects of the Cabinet Mission to India have been explained in the statements made by my noble friend the Secretary of State for India in this House, and in another place by the Prime Minister. There have been full discussions in both Houses and at the present, moment the members of the Mission are just about to start their conversations in India with the leaders of Indian opinion. I am sure your Lordships will also agree that every word spoken in public at such a moment must be carefully considered in relation to the really immeasurably important responsibility entrusted by Parliament to the Cabinet Mission. I am particularly grateful to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, for his appeal, and to several other noble Lord who have long experience and extensive knowledge of Indian affairs but who have nevertheless accepted a sell-denying ordinance this afternoon. It would be inopportune and possibly harmful to embark on any further or extended debate in your Lordships' House. I accordingly propose to deal, quite briefly, with the specific points raised in the Motion which the noble Lord has put upon the Order Paper.

The noble Lord referred first to the composition of the constitution-making body. This matter has been covered in the statements which have already been made on behalf of His Majesty's Government and there has not been any suggestion in them that the method of composing this body should be subject to previous Parliamentary approval. It is entirely a matter for the Mission to work out: in discussion with the leaders in India. The noble Lord referred later to the negotiation of the draft Treaty envisaged in the draft Declaration of 1942, to the adhesion of the Indian States to the new Constitution, and to the protection of minorities. His Majesty's Government have nothing to add to their previous statements on these subjects. As regards the Indian States, it has been made clear that it is for them to decide whether to adhere or not when the appropriate time arrives. The disposal of the other matters depends largely on the results of the forthcoming discussions in India, and it is therefore not possible to forecast at this stage the pre- cise arrangements which will be made in regard to them. Finally, the noble Lord asked whether any instrument which Parliament will eventually have to approve will be published at least two months before Parliament is asked to deal with it. On this point your Lordships, I am sure, will not expect any detailed assurance from me in advance of events. But I can assure the noble Lord that all these questions are still before the minds of His Majesty's Government, and that we are just as fully conscious as he is that a satisfactory solution of the problems which they raise is essential to the welfare of India.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, there is very little I can properly add, but I do not think that the noble Earl has answered my question as to whether the negotiations will be with a future Indian Government or with the present leaders. I do not know whether he feels he can answer that now. If not, of course, I quite understand. Can the noble Earl answer?


I should prefer not to add to anything that I have said, for the reasons given in my speech, but naturally I will make a note of the point raised by the noble Lord opposite and provide him with any information I may be able to receive later on.


I quite appreciate the noble Earl's difficulties, and in all the circumstances I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.