HC Deb 15 March 1949 vol 462 cc175-9W
82. Mr. Symonds

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations whether arrangements have now been completed for the future maintenance of British military and civil cemeteries in India and Pakistan.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Yes. Arrangements have now been made for the care of European cemeteries in India and Pakistan. As a result of the transfer of power, European cemeteries maintained in the past by the Government of India have become since April last the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. Since that date they have been maintained largely at the expense of United Kingdom revenues. The following outlines briefly the arrangements proposed for their future maintenance.

Before 1948 the maintenance of these cemeteries was supervised by the Government of India through the Public Works Department, the Military Engineering Service, or the Railway Board, as appropriate. For this purpose Indian expenditure amounted to £45,000 a year apart from the proceeds of income from private endowments. The cemeteries numbered over 1,350, of which about 350 are open for further burials. A considerable number of the remainder are not cemeteries in the strict sense, but merely groups of graves, often by the roadside, in remote places. Many of the cemeteries date from a distant past and have had no burials in them for generations.

A full-scale maintenance of all these cemeteries would be a formidable commitment, and the United Kingdom Government are bound quite frankly to admit that they will not be able to continue to maintain some of the cemeteries on the old standard; indeed, there are certain cemeteries that they will not be able to maintain to any extent. Nevertheless the Government are doing what they can to secure that, where cemeteries cannot be maintained, their preservation will be safeguarded so far as local circumstances permit. In such cases the aim of His Majesty's Government would be to secure that they should revert to nature in a dignified and decent manner. In respect of the rest they believe that the proposals are as reasonable and appropriate as can be expected.

Manifestly the High Commissioners are unable to maintain an organisation for the care of these graves comparable with that of the old style Government of India. It is on members of the Christian congregations resident in India and Pakistan that the local task of caring for Christian graveyards must now primarily devolve. In many places the Christian churches now find their European congregations depleted or nonexistent. Thanks, however, to the authorities of the Christian churches, and to many members of both the European and local communities, a number of voluntary bodies have been formed who have undertaken to care for the graves. Members will desire to be associated with His Majesty's Government in commending those who have undertaken this invaluable and generously given help.

So far some 312 voluntary local cemetery committees have been formed. They include representatives of the clergy, local industry or business, the United Kingdom Citizens' Association, and the Anglo-Indian Association, and they will undertake local supervision of the work of maintaining the cemeteries. In certain areas, however, the local body will consist, through force of circumstances, of only a solitary missionary or local Christian. Hitherto the Committees have been in direct correspondence with the High Commissions, but this is not a practicable long-term arrangement, and it is intended to set up, generally on a Provincial basis, a number of Trustee Boards to act as a link between the committees and the High Commissions. The Trustee Boards will generally co-ordinate and supervise the work of the committees. They will be composed of senior representatives of the religious denominations concerned, prominent local members of the Province and, wherever possible, the Deputy United Kingdom High Commissioner in the area.

Turning now to the future method of upkeep of the cemeteries, these have been considered broadly under two heads, namely—open cemeteries, which are those still used for burials, and closed cemeteries. Since 1st April, the United Kingdom High Commissioners have been in the closest consultation with the various Church authorities in India and Pakistan, whose attitude has been both realistic and helpful. The United Kingdom Government have also been fortunate in obtaining the views of a number of former Secretaries of State, Viceroys, Commanders-in-Chief, Provincial Governors and others, as well as of the Ecclesiastical authorities mainly concerned. They wish to take this opportunity of thanking all these eminent persons for so readily assisting with their counsel. It is not claimed that the proposals herein described received their unanimous approval, but a substantial majority of those consulted, including the representatives of the Churches, are generally in favour of proceeding on the lines which the Government have now decided to follow.

As regards the open cemeteries, the Church authorities have said that it is their avowed object, with the help of income from endowments and burial fees, to maintain them in a suitable manner. It may well be that at the outset Church funds will not be wholly sufficient for the purpose, and that they will have to rely on the High Commissioners for small subventions. It has also been decided that the more important historically of the closed cemeteries should be cared for in the same way. These include, for example, the cemeteries at the Kashmere Gate in Delhi and St. John's in Calcutta.

It is with regard to the thousand or so closed cemeteries that different considerations arise. They are, of course, of all sizes and they are to be found all over the sub-continent, from Gilgit in the far north of Kashmir, to the Andamans. A number of them, perhaps about 100, lie in areas where it has not been possible to form committees, for example, in certain of the Tribal Territories, remote districts and ancient camping grounds. These, with however great reluctance, the Government feel compelled to leave to revert to nature, along with certain isolated groups of graves.

Assurances, however, have been received, for which the United Kingdom Government are grateful to the Governments of India and Pakistan and to the Provincial Governments concerned. The Government of India say they will protect cemeteries from destruction and desecration in the same way as property belonging to the Government themselves. The Government of Pakistan have also issued instructions that the cemeteries in Pakistan are to be protected from encroachment and desecration. As to the majority of the closed cemeteries, it has been decided, after mature consideration, that they should be attended to at intervals, as distinct from constant maintenance, and that this attention will continue for as long as funds will last. This is expected to be for at least ten years and perhaps for an appreciable time longer.

To meet the cost of attending periodically to closed cemeteries, and to provide some initial assistance to the Churches in caring for the open cemeteries, Parliament will in due course be asked to provide a lump sum, to be placed in trust, to be drawn on as required by the trustees who will include the High Commissioners. Provision on maintenance for the interim period has been made in the 1949–50 Estimates for the Commonwealth Services. The capital sum, is of course, quite separate from the private endowment funds in the hands of the two Governments which are shortly to be transferred to the United Kingdom High Commissioners. The interest from these endowment funds, in so far as it pertains to the open cemeteries and to the closed cemeteries of historical importance, will, of course, continue to be applied in the manner intended.

But in the case of the majority of the closed cemeteries it will not be practicable, under the arrangements contemplated, to apply the interest on endowment funds precisely in accordance with the original intentions. Where the money cannot be used for the upkeep of these cemeteries the most equitable course, subject to the express wish of any individual who has endowed a grave located in a closed cemetery to have a local record of the grave maintained, will probably be found to lie in its use for the assistance of the Churches in the maintenance of the open cemeteries.

It has not, of course, been possible in a brief statement such as this, to cover all the points that arise, but on one specific matter of wide interest it should be added that war graves continue, as in the past, to be the responsibility of the Imperial War Graves Commission.