HL Deb 27 November 1946 vol 144 cc454-61

5.4 p.m.


had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask the Secretary of State for India, without prejudice to any opportunity there may be for a debate on the situation in India, whether he will furnish to the House (as was done in another place on 4th November and 18th November) a statement as to casualties in India due to communal disturbances indicating areas affected, and with statistics up to date from the entering into office of the Interim Government to the present time, together with a statement as to the extent to which British Military Forces have been employed in the attempt to put down these disturbances.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, I have no desire to make a long speech or to lead your Lordships into a debate, at this moment, on this very serious subject. But the events which transpired yesterday, and which were referred to by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition at the beginning of business to-day, the invitation which the Government have given to the Viceroy to come to England for consultation and to bring with him—if they will agree to come—the leaders of the various Parties in India, have, I think, signalized the great gravity of the situation in which we stand. I ask my question, therefore, in the first place, for information, as to the extent of the outrages which have taken place in India—their number, their character and their extent. These figures have been given, up to a certain point, to the House of Commons, in the course of this month. They do not, however, go further than the end of October. Now we are very near the end of November, and in the interval between these two dates very grave events in Bihar and East Bengal have taken place. There is probably—indeed, quite certainly—a very large addition to be made to the statement relating to the number of riots and their consequences in view of what has taken place in that interval.

Quite recently, too, there has been considerable intensity added to the situation by the attitude which has been taken up by the leaders of the Congress Party in India. A very remarkable speech has been made by Mr. Nehru at Meerut. It is difficult for me to speak with proper care about what he said for it was of such an extreme character as to tempt one to say more than would be judicious at this moment. Not only did he not attempt to modify the attitude of his Party and the relations between him and the Moslem League, but he even went so far as to indicate that if and when he becomes all powerful in India, he will retaliate upon the loyal officials of the country, both Indian and British, for the loyal action which they took in 1942 when there was a very disloyal agitation conducted by the Congress Party against this country, in the middle of the Japanese war—at a time indeed when the Japanese were actually on the frontier. Undoubtedly, certain action was taken—it had to be taken—and now Mr. Nehru threatens to retaliate upon the officials responsible for that action when he becomes all powerful. It is difficult for an Englishman to speak of such a situation with any kind of reserve. I am quite sure that the Government will only agree with me in what I am saying, if I am correct in what I say as to the effect of Mr. Nehru's speech, but I should like to say that I have only been able, of course, to see the very brief report in the newspapers of what happened at Meerut. It would be far more satisfactory if the Government consented to lay Papers on the Table. But that, of course, they have declined to do up to now. It may be that Mr. Nehru has not been properly reported. There may be an explanation. I should be very sorry to have said anything which was untrue about him, and no doubt he will take the opportunity of repudiating the version I have ventured to put forward of what he is supposed to have said if it is not correct.

That is by the way; all that merely goes to show the extreme character of the situation in India at this moment. And the result has been, of course, that there has been every sort of demand for the assistance of the Government of India in suppressing the riots which have taken place. Up to the end of October these riots have caused just over 5,000 killed and very nearly 14,000 injured. In addition there were houses—even villages—destroyed, and there were also attacks upon women. That was up to the end of October; of course when the figures are given—as I hope they will be tonight—there will be an increase on them. That is the state of affairs in which the demand for assistance to suppress the riots has been made. They have appealed first to the police and then to the troops. My Lords, I ask, what troops? What troops have been applied for? After all, the difficulty in India, it must be admitted, is very great. Can Hindu troops be used to fire on riotous Moslems? Can Moslem troops be used to fire on riotous Hindus? That dilemma presents great difficulty, and unfortunately we are probably faced with the obvious alternative—a demand for the use of British troops.

I should like to know from the Government—and that is involved in my question—what use has been made of British troops in India in this connexion? They are called upon to suppress rioters in a quarrel with which we as British have no concern, for which we are not responsible, and of the circumstances of which we do not know. Are British troops used by the Viceroy's authority? Parliament has to settle all these things finally, and Parliament is entitled to know whether Lord Wavell has given his authority for the use of the troops. I have no doubt that he has, but I think Parliament ought to be satisfied of the fact. No doubt when Lord Wavell comes home in the course of the next week or so, the question may be put to him personally. That point, however, appears to me to be of vital importance. These are the questions I submit to the Government. I hope they will make a frank and full statement. Let thorn remember that Parliament is responsible, that they are responsible, and that we are entitled to know the facts.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I desire at the outset to express my abhorrence at these deplorable events to which the noble Marquess has drawn attention—an abhorrence which I am sure is shared by all right-thinking persons in this country and in India. In answer to the noble Marquess's question I will, with his permission, circulate detailed statistical tables with the Official Report. The figures given show that, according to the latest information available, some 6,700 deaths have occurred owing to communal rioting in India since the Interim Government took office, on September 2. Owing to the difficulty of collecting evidence in some of the remoter districts, this figure should not be taken as an accurate assessment. A large number of persons have also been injured; but, for similar reasons, no definite figure is obtainable in two of the most important cases, and I am therefore unable to give even an approximate estimate of the total.

The most serious clashes have occurred in Bihar, Bombay, the United Provinces and Eastern Bengal. I am glad to be able to report that during the last few days the number of incidents has greatly decreased. This has undoubtedly been due to the fact that leaders of both communities in the Interim Government went to Calcutta and to the affected area in Bihar and used their influence as all-India leaders in support of law and order. The Home and Information Minister in the Interim Government has also used his influence to restrain Press comment on the communal situation.

As regards the use of British military forces, the table shows that since September 2, 15 major British units, each 500–700 strong, have been located in disturbed areas throughout India. In many cases they have not been actively employed in restoring order, but have been standing by. Both British and Indian troops have been used for the suppression of communal disorders at the request of the competent authority of the Provincial Government concerned. These disorders have originated in the actions of hooligan elements and have been publicly and severely denounced by the leaders of both major Parties. The employment of troops in such circumstances has the approval of the Government of India and of the Viceroy.

So much for the written question. The noble Marquess also raised the question of a certain speech made by Pandit Nehru. I have no authentic record of the speech in question but I have seen Press reports, which are no doubt those referred to by the noble Marquess—although my interpretation of those reports does not coincide with that of the noble Marquess. In these circumstances, I prefer not to comment on the speech. I will say this, however; it would be quite wrong that Government servants who have acted in accordance with their duty and the law should be punished for what they have done.

I will just acid, in regard to a remark of the noble Marquess in regard to Indian troops, that there are no Hindu troops as such; and there are no Moslem troops as such. Both Hindus and Moslems serve in the Indian Army. They are not separate bodies of troop known as Hindu and Moslem troops, as noble Lords will appreciate when they hear my next sentence. There is no evidence reaching me and I believe I can rely on this picture of the situation, of Indian troops (who have behaved splendidly in suppressing these disturbances) refusing to act in the preservation of law and order, and in the protection of persons, because of their communal or personal views. I think that is an important fact to be borne in mind. I have done my best to answer the questions raised by the noble Marquess. I can only repeat what I said at the beginning, that these communal riots are matters of deep concern not only to the Government but to all right-thinking people in all countries.

Following are the statements referred to by Lord Pethick-Lawrence:

Statement of casualties in communal disturbances in India, September 2–November 18, 1946.
Deaths. Injuries.
Bengal—Calcutta 218 677
Noakhali and Tippera Districts 133 verified so far. Final figure is not expected to exceed 200. No figure available, but it has been observed that practically none of the refugees or of those who remained in their villages shows marks of injury.
Dacca 127 289
Rest of Bengal 33 255
Bihar 5,000 (very rough estimate) No figure available
Bombay 622 1,896
Madras 9 63
United Provinces 445 66
Punjab 20 61
Central Provinces 3 13
Sind 0 4
Assam 4 8
Delhi 26 55
Baluchistan 0 1
Statement as to the extent to which British Military Forces have been employed in the suppression of communal disturbances in India, September 2–November 26, 1946.

Since September 2, 15 major British units (strength 500 to 700 all ranks) have been located in disturbed areas throughout India. In many cases they have not been actively employed in restoring order, but have been standing by. Their distribution has been as follows:
Bengal (including Calcutta) 7 units
Bihar 1 unit
United Provinces 1 unit
Bombay 5 units
Delhi 1 unit

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for India, for the full statement which he has given to the House. I do not this evening want to make any comment on it, except for one point relating to the speech of Pandit Nehru. The noble Lord said, as I understood him, that, in the view of the Government, it would be quite wrong that officials should be punished for doing their duty. I would have preferred that he had put it rather more strongly. I hope that the Government will do everything possible to make it absolutely crystal clear to all concerned that His Majesty's Government will not tolerate that men should be punished for doing their duty.


My Lords, may I ask a similar question of the Secretary of State for India on the same point? If I understood him rightly, I understood him to say that he had not got a verbatim report of the speech in question, and therefore could not precisely answer the questions which the noble Marquess asked him. May I ask His Majesty's Government if they will take steps to procure an authentic report of that speech because, clearly, in the circumstances under which it was delivered, it is a speech of the very greatest importance. I think that the least His Majesty's Government can do in the matter is to acquaint themselves with what was actually said. That is my first question. My second question is: If the speech has been accurately reported, will the noble Lord tell us what steps His Majesty's Government propose to take to prevent such a policy of victimization being carried out?


My Lords, with regard to the first point, I will certainly endeavour to get an authentic report of the speech. It was, however, a speech made in a gathering of Congress, and I do not know whether any authentic report can be obtained. On the second point, quite clearly I cannot say in advance, with regard to some hypothetical case which has not yet arisen, what action the Government will take. I will, of course, say that appropriate action, suitable to the facts, on anything done in consequence of the speech, will certainly be taken.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, may I ask the noble Lord if he realizes the impression that must be produced on the minds of soldiers and officials now being asked to maintain order and to suppress disorder, if they are told that those who did similar work in 1942 are going to be punished for what they then did?


My Lords, I desire, of course, to thank the noble Lord, the Secretary of State, for answering my question. I am sure that he will understand that we cannot allow the subject of this crisis to stand where it is. We shall take what consideration is necessary before we proceed further in the matter.