HL Deb 31 October 1984 vol 456 cc531-5

3.33 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister about Mrs. Gandhi. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House will be aware, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi today. I am sure that honourable Members on all sides of the House will be equally appalled at this tragic news. I am sure too that the whole House will wish to join in expressing to Mrs. Gandhi's family, and to the Government and people of India our profound grief and our sympathy.

"This despicable act has robbed India of a great and courageous leader. Daughter of Pandit Nehru, one of the pioneers of India's independence, she led her country for a total of 16 years as Prime Minister, a period which saw India's emergence as an industrial power as well as a major influence in world affairs. Her death has also robbed the Commonwealth of a statesman of outstanding stature and experience. She chaired the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November last year with dignity, authority and charm.

"We shall all feel the loss of her wise counsel and her deep humanity—the more so because we knew her not only as a statesman but as a friend of this country. I understand, although it is not yet confirmed officially, that Mrs. Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi, whom we know well and for whom we have both affection and respect, has been sworn in as the new Indian Prime Minister. We wish him well at this difficult hour in his country's history.

"Only a few days ago, Mrs. Gandhi sent me a message in which she said, 'All terrorism and violence are condemnable and contemptible'. The murder of a democratic leader is an attack on democracy itself. We utterly condemn this savage and treacherous crime. Let there be no doubt that acts of terrorism will only strengthen the resolve of free peoples that those who resort to violence shall never prevail".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Prime Minister's admirable Statement. We join him in sending our greatest sympathy to Mrs. Gandhi's family and to the Government and people of India on their great and terrible loss. Those of us who have known Mrs. Gandhi will have felt a sense of personal loss today. All of us will have felt diminished by her death. She was dedicated, unostentatious, and a lady of great courage. She strove to hold the Indian subcontinent together and to weld it into a single nation—and she sustained it as the world's largest parliamentary democracy.

As the Prime Minister's Statement said, Mrs. Gandhi was a friend of this country. Her chairmanship over the Commonwealth conference last year was a measure of her support of the Commonwealth, where she was held in the highest esteem. She was also leader of the third force in the world. Her death is indeed a world tragedy.

We join with the Prime Minister in wishing Mrs. Gandhi's son and her successor well. No country has more historic links with India than our own and we feel a deep sense of sympathy and understanding with its people today. We, too, join with the Prime Minister in condemning the savage and treacherous crime which killed Mrs. Gandhi. Our resolve to combat terrorism and violence will be strengthened by this dreadful experience.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I shall try—though I know I will fail—to express something of the deep sadness and shock that overwhelms every one of us on these Benches. This act of blind violence has come at a time when we need no reminding in this country that this madness is abroad and that no free society can defend itself completely against it. This act of violence has happened in a country of deep and ancient civilisation, where every man and woman has before them the knowledge that whereas violence has never persuaded anybody, determined non-violence has succeeded in moving mountains.

We send to the family of this great leader and great lady our deepest sympathy. We send to her son not only our sympathy but also our profound wishes that he will be successful in the onerous task that he is now undertaking, and—above all—that the violence which has taken place will not generate further violence. We thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister's Statement, with every word of which we agree—and we echo its sentiments completely. But the noble Viscount must know that this Statement is one which we all deeply desired never—but never—to hear.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, for what they have said. They have expressed most eloquently the feelings of, I believe, the whole House and the unity of the whole House at this moment. There is nothing that can add to their words and it would be wrong of me to attempt to do it better than they have because they have done it so magnificently for all of us.

Perhaps I may just say that I agreed so much with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, when he referred to the personal loss that many of us who knew Mrs. Gandhi feel at this time. There are many noble Lords in this House who knew Mrs. Gandhi better than I did, but from my knowledge of her I certainly feel that loss myself.

The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury

My Lords, I should like to add my voice in support of the whole of what has been said by the Leader of the House in repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister. I should like to record from these Benches my horror and dismay at the assassination of a much respected Commonwealth Prime Minister.

While herself leading one of the world's largest nations, Mrs. Gandhi also campaigned ceaselessly for the security and development of many smaller and less powerful nations. As chairman of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Delhi last winter, she gave the lead in drafting the Goa declaration, which calls for action to reduce tension in the world. Mrs. Gandhi's stature in the Commonwealth was matched only by the regard felt for her by the people of her country. Her place will not easily be filled.

I know that Christians everywhere will join with me not just in expressing respect for a great and humane stateswoman and not just in expressing outrage at the apparent triumph of violence for the moment, but also in offering sympathy and prayers for the family, for all the people of India at this time, and for all the Indian communities in this country.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am most grateful to the most reverend Primate for what he has said and I am sure it will be felt in all parts of the House that he has given expression from those Benches in a way that is most fitting for this particular occasion. Perhaps I may say to him personally that it is much to his credit that he has managed, among many engagements, to fit in time to come and pay that tribute in the House today.

Lord Sherfield

My Lords, on behalf of all noble Lords on these Benches I should like to add my thanks to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and to associate ourselves with the sentiments of shock and disgust at this dastardly act which has deprived India of its leader at a critical time. We, too, express our deep sympathy with Mrs. Gandhi's family and with the Indian Government and people at this fateful moment in their history.

Like many other noble Lords, I have indelible memories of meeting this courageous and indomitable woman. I met her for the first time 25 years ago in New Delhi when she was supporting, and acting as hostess for, her father. So I, too, like so many noble Lords, have a sense of personal loss. We can only hope that the shock of this disaster will help to bring the peoples of India closer together and that the ranks will close to preserve and strengthen the democratic institutions of that great nation.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for adding his voice on behalf of the Cross-Benches, thereby indicating the complete unity of this House in what has been said today.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, having worked over many years with the Indian Prime Minister I find it difficult to speak, but I feel I must. I had known Indira Gandhi since she was a university student in this country. I had close association with her father, the first Prime Minister of India. I was critical of her, during her first period of office, for her repression of the opposition, but since then I have had unbounded admiration for the service which she has rendered to world harmony and peace.

I regard the series of speeches which she delivered on international affairs as the noblest made by any statesman in the world. It was a marvellous achievement that at the meeting of the non-aligned conference, representing more than half the population of the world, her leadership got them to adopt disarmament and development as their first two objectives.

Last August Mrs. Gandhi invited me to India to attend the anniversary celebrations of Indian independence and we had one hour's talk about the problems of peace in the world. She was thought to be hard and she could be tough, but during that hour there was in her personality a concern for human beings, and a compassion. I admit that my admiration for her grew into affection. It is not only India which has lost a great leader; the world has lost a great leader who was striving for a world order in which there will be harmony and peace.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it is almost impertinent for someone such as myself to refer to anything that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, says on this subject. We all in this House recognise him as one who over many years has been a great friend of India, a great friend of her people and a great friend of her various leaders, including Mrs. Gandhi. That adds great weight to his words today and I am sure that we are all extremely grateful to have heard from him on this occasion.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, having worked over many years in Commonwealth circles with Mr. Nehru and then with Mrs. Gandhi, I should like to add my own words of revulsion at this horrible crime which, as the Prime Minister said, has deprived India of its great leader and the Commonwealth of an outstanding personality.

I should like to join also in the messages of sympathy and understanding that go from this House to the Indian people and the Indian Government; in particular, to Mrs. Gandhi's son who assumes enormous responsibilities at this tragic time. We must pray for peace in that great country.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I know that his words, coming from one who has done so much for the affairs of this country, for the world, and so much for the Commonwealth, will be heard with very great pleasure and understanding in India. I am extremely grateful to him for having come here this afternoon to add them to what has been said.

Baroness White

My Lords, I should like to add a brief word. Mrs. Gandhi was an undergraduate and, subsequently, with our own Prime Minister, an honorary fellow of Somvervile College, Oxford. I think one of her moments of great pride was when the University of Oxford conferred upon her an honorary doctorate of civil law. I remember distinctly the ceremony in the Sheldonian and the feminine touch which was there, in spite of the statesmanlike poise with which she greeted the occasion. She had inquired most carefully as to the precise shade of scarlet of the doctors' gowns so that her beautiful sari should match exactly.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who speaks of another aspect of Mrs. Gandhi's life which again adds to our occasion.