HL Deb 03 June 1947 vol 148 cc19-28

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to your Lordships for permission to interrupt the business of the House in order to make an important statement on Indian policy. A similar statement is being made at the same time by the Prime Minister in another place, and by the Viceroy in New Delhi. I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that the plan contained in the announcement which I am about to make has been favourably received by all three Parties represented at the Conferences held by the Viceroy with Indian leaders during the past two days.

The announcement is as follows:

1. On February 20, 1947, His Majesty's Government announced their intention of transferring power in British India to Indian hands by June, 1948. His Majesty's Government had hoped that it would be possible for the major Parties to co-operate in the working-out of the Cabinet Mission's Plan of May 16, 1946, and evolve for India a Constitution acceptable to all concerned. This hope has not been fulfilled.

2. The majority of the representatives of the Provinces of Madras, Bombay, the United Provinces, Bihar, Central Provinces and Berar, Assam, Orissa and the North-West Frontier Province, and the representatives of Delhi, Ajmer-Merwara and Coorg have already made progress in the task of evolving a new Constitution. On the other hand, the Moslem League Party, including in it a majority of the representatives of Bengal, the Punjab and Sind, as also the representative of British Baluchistan, has decided not to participate in the Constituent Assembly.

3. It has always been the desire of. His Majesty's Government that power should be transferred in accordance with the wishes of the Indian people themselves. This task would have been greatly facilitated if there had been agreement among the Indian political Parties. In the absence of such an agreement, the task of devising a method by which the wishes of the Indian people can be ascertained has devolved on His Majesty's Government. After full consultation with political leaders in India, His Majesty's Government have decided to adopt for this purpose the plan contained in this announcement. His Majesty's Government wish to make it clear that they have no intention of attempting to frame any ultimate Constitution for India; this is a matter for the Indians themselves. Nor is there anything in this plan to preclude negotiations between communities for an united India.

4. It is not the intention of His Majesty's Government to interrupt the work of the existing Constituent Assembly. Now that provision is made for certain Provinces which I will specify, His Majesty's Government trust that, as a consequence of this announcement, the Moslem League representatives of those Provinces, a majority of whose representatives are already participating in it, will now take their due share in its labours. At the same time, it is clear that any Constitution framed by this Assembly cannot apply to those parts of the country which are unwilling to accept it. His Majesty's Government are satisfied that the procedure which I will outline embodies the best practical method of ascertaining the wishes of the people of such areas on the issue whether their Constitution is to be framed—

  1. (a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
  2. (b) in a new and separate Constituent Assembly consisting of the representatives of those areas which decide not to participate in the existing Constituent Assembly.
When this has been done, it will be possible to determine the authority or authorities to whom power should be transferred.

5. The Provincial Legislative Assemblies of Bengal and the Punjab (excluding the European members) will therefore each be asked to meet in two parts, one representing the Moslem majority districts and the other the rest of the Province. For the purpose of determining the population of districts, the 1941 census figures will be taken as authoritative. The Moslem majority districts in these two Provinces are set out in the Appendix to the White Paper of which copies will be available when I sit down.

6. The members of the two parts of each Legislative Assembly sitting separately will be empowered to vote whether or not the Province should be partitioned. If a simple majority of either part decides in favour of partition, division will take place and arrangements will be made accordingly.

7. Before the question as to the partition is decided, it is desirable that the representatives of each part should know in advance which Constituent Assembly the Province as a whole would join in the event of the two parts subsequently deciding to remain united. Therefore, if any member of either Legislative Assembly so demands, there shall be held a meeting of all members of the Legislative Assembly (other than Europeans) at which a decision will be taken on the issue as to which Constituent Assembly the Province as a whole would join if it were decided by the two parts to remain united.

8. In the event of partition being decided upon, each part of the Legislative Assembly will, on behalf of the areas they represent, decide whether their Constitution is to be framed—

  1. (a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
  2. (b) in a new and separate Constituent Assembly.

9. For the immediate purpose of deciding on the issue of partition, the members of the Legislative Assemblies of Bengal and the Punjab will sit in two parts according to Moslem majority districts (as laid down in the Appendix to the White Paper) and non-Moslem majority districts. This is only a preliminary step of a purely temporary nature as it is evident that for the purposes of final partition of these Provinces a detailed investigation of boundary questions will be needed; and, as soon as a decision involving partition has been taken for either Province, a Boundary Commission will be set up by the Governor-General, the membership and terms of reference of which will be settled in consultation with those concerned. It will be instructed to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Moslems and non-Moslems. It will also be instructed to take into account other factors. Similar instructions will he given to the Bengal Boundary Commission. Until the report of a Boundary Commission has been put into effect, the provisional boundaries indicated in the Appendix to the White Paper will be used.

10. The Legislative Assembly of Sind (excluding the European members) will at a special meeting also take its own decision whether the Constitution of Sind is to be framed—

  1. (a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
  2. (b) in a new and separate Constituent Assembly.

11. The position of the 'North-West Frontier Province is exceptional. Two of the three representatives of this Province are already participating in the existing Constituent Assembly. But it is clear, in view of its geographical situation, and other considerations, that, if the whole or any part of the Punjab decides not to join the existing Constituent Assembly, it will be necessary to give the North-West Frontier Province an opportunity to reconsider its position. Accordingly, in such an event, a referendum will be made to the electors of the present Legislative Assembly in the North-West Frontier Province to choose whether the Constitution of the Province is to be framed—

  1. (a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
  2. (b) in a new and separate Constituent Assembly.

12. British Baluchistan has elected a member but he has not taken his seat in the existing Constituent Assembly. In view of its geographical situation, this Province will also be given an opportunity to reconsider its decision and to choose whether its constitution is to be framed—

  1. (a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
  2. (b) in a new and separate Constituent Assembly.

13. Though Assam is predominantly a non-Moslem Province, the district of Sylhet which is contiguous to Bengal is predominantly Moslem. There has been a demand that, in the event of the partition of Bengal, Sylhet should be amalgamated with the Moslem part of Bengal. Accordingly, if it is decided that Bengal should be partitioned, a referendum will be held in Sylhet district, under the ægis of the Governor-General and in consultation with the Assam Provincial Government, to decide whether the district of Sylhet should continue to form part of the Assam Province or should be amalgamated with the new Province of Eastern Bengal, if that Province agrees. If the referendum results in favour of amalgamation with Eastern Bengal, a Boundary Commission with terms of reference similar to those for the Punjab and Bengal will be set up to demarcate the Moslem majority areas of adjoining districts, which will then be transferred to Eastern Bengal. The rest of the Assam Province will in any case continue to participate in the proceedings of the existing Constituent Assembly.

14. If it is decided that Bengal and the Punjab should be partitioned, it will be necessary to hold fresh elections to choose their representatives on the scale of one for every million of population according to the principle contained in the Cabinet Mission's Plan of May 16, 1946. Similar elections will also have to be held for Sylhet in the event of its being decided that this district should form part of East Bengal. The number of representatives to which each area would be entitled is set out in full in the White Paper.

15. In accordance with the mandates given to them, the representatives of the various areas will either join the existing Constituent Assembly or form the new Constituent Assembly.

16. Negotiations will have to be initiated as soon as possible on administrative consequences of any partition that may have been decided upon:

  1. (a) Between the representatives of the respective successor authorities about all subjects now dealt with by the Central Government, including Defence, Finance and Communications.
  2. (b) Between different successor authorities and His Majesty's Government for treaties in regard to matters arising out of the transfer of power.
  3. (c) In the case of Provinces that may be partitioned as to administration of all provincial subjects such as the division of assets and liabilities, 25 the police and ether services, the High Courts, provincial institutions, and so on.

17. Agreements with tribes of the North-West Frontier of India will have to be negotiated by the appropriate successor authority.

18. His Majesty's Government wish to make it clear that the decisions which I have announced relate only to British India and that their policy towards Indian States contained in the Cabinet Mission Memorandum of May 16, 1946 remains unchanged.

19. In order that the successor authorities may have time to prepare themselves to take over power, it is important that all the above processes should be completed as quickly as possible, To avoid delay, the different Provinces or parts of Provinces will proceed independently as far as practicable within the conditions of this Plan, the existing Constituent Assembly and the new Constituent Assembly (if formed) will proceed to frame Constitutions for their respective territories: they will of course be free to frame their own rules.

20. The major political Parties have repeatedly emphasized their desire that there should be the earliest possible transfer of power in India. With this desire His Majesty's Government are in full sympathy, and they are willing to anticipate the date of June, 1948. for the handing over of power by the setting up of an independent Indian Government or Governments at an even earlier date. Accordingly, as the most expeditious, and indeed the only practicable, way of meeting this desire, His Majesty's Government propose to introduce legislation during the current session for the transfer of power this year on a Dominion status basis to one or two successor authorities according to the decisions taken as a result of this announcement. This will be without prejudice to the right of Indian Constituent Assemblies to decide in due course whether or not the part of India in respect of which they have authority will remain within the British Commonwealth.

21. His Excellency the Governor-General will from time to time make such further announcements as may be necessary in regard to procedure or any other matters for carrying out the above arrangements.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships have listened with the most intense interest to the extremely full and important statement that has been male by the Secretary of State for India. Clearly this moment is a crucial one both for India and for the world. If these new Government proposals are accepted by the Hindus and by the Moslems it seems that there is not only a hope that a horrible disaster may be avoided, but there may be a possibility that the fruitful collaboration of the Indian and the British peoples will continue within the community of the free nations of the British Commonwealth, to the advantage of all concerned. I am quite certain that I am speaking for all noble Lords on this side of the House when I say that that would be an evolution which we would warmly welcome and, indeed, I think it would be warmly welcomed by noble Lords in every quarter of the House. On the other hand, if these proposals are unhappily rejected, there is nothing that I can see before India but bloodshed and ruin on a vast scale.

In these circumstances, it is certainly not for any one of us, in whatever part of the House we sit, to say anything today that may make a delicate situation more difficult. We all honour the gallant courage and the pertinacity which has been shown by the Viceroy in tackling his formidable task, and we wish him, and the Government, good luck in their future negotiations. But, as I am sure the Government will understand, we wish to study this document further. It is extremely complicated and, after all, it is one thing to offer Dominion status and quite another to achieve it in a practical form. As I think is perfectly clear from the statement, the problem of handing over powers to several distinct authorities, with areas quite different from any combination of provincial boundaries at present existing, is bound to involve questions of very great complexity.

Moreover, we do not yet know what will be the final views of the leaders of the Indian communities themselves, although I understand from what was said by the Secretary of State (and we warmly welcome the news) that the initial reactions have been favourable. While, therefore, we on this side of the House will do nothing to-day, or, I hope, ever, to hamper the efforts of the Government to produce so favourable a solution of the difficulties as that which has been adumbrated, we must reserve our position until we know more clearly how the situation develops. For that reason, I do not ask the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, for a debate today. But I am quite certain that if an appropriate moment arrives the Government will agree to the House discussing the matter further.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, before saying anything more, I would like, on behalf of the noble Lords who sit on these Benches, to associate ourselves with the tribute which the noble Marquess, the Leader of the Opposition, has just paid to the Viceroy, who has certainly done magnificent work in a very short time. We, on these Benches, certainly agree that any discussion or even comment on the important statement that has been made would be premature, and might even be dangerous. We feel that the issues involved no longer lie with the people of this country, although, of course, they are deeply concerned about them, they lie with the populations of India. If the results of the plan put forward in the statement prove acceptable to these populations, and thus avoid civil war—the most terrible scourge that can ever fall upon the peoples of any country, especially if that country be a subcontinent—then we will welcome it. We can assure the Government that we will give them any help that may lie in our power to expedite legislation if they feel it is required for this particular purpose. We can only pray that the leaders and the peoples of India may he guided aright in facing these grave problems and responsibilities, and that what happens may lead to peace and to order in India, and thus conduce to peace throughout the world.

3.49 P.m.


My Lords. may I thank both the noble Marquess and the noble Earl for their expressions of good will, for their willingness to wait for a further statement from the Government and until events have taken us a little further, and for their kind references to the work that has been done by the Viceroy. I think we all appreciate that whatever degree of success has been achieved is due in large measure to the tireless and selfless devotion of the Viceroy since he went out to India.