Orders of the Day — India.

– in the House of Commons on 11th March 1924.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. F. Hall.]

Photo of Mr George Lansbury Mr George Lansbury , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I do not apologise to the House, except to those Members who are very tired, for bringing forward the questions that I propose to bring forward during the period that is allowed to Members at this stage. They are all in connection with India, and I would like to point out that the people of India consist of some 300,000,000 persons, who are more or less under the charge of this House. At any rate, this House is responsible in the last resort for the administration of affaire in that great country. There are three matters to which I wish to call the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for India, and each of them arises out of the answers given to questions yesterday. One concerns the disturbances at Jaito, another is in connection with the Bombay strike, and the last is the refusal to alter the decision that no round table conference shall be held between those representing the British Government and the nationalists of India.

I would like to say to my hon. Friends on these benches that we have a particular responsibility to our Indian fellow subjects in the matter of trade unionism, and also in the matter of freedom of speech, freedom of procession, and so on. We have welcomed Indians over here to the Trade Union Congress and to the national Labour party conferences, and again and again we have pledged them our support, not to independence apart from the British Empire or Dominions, but as a free partner with ourselves in a federation of free people. It seems to me that with a Labour Government in office we have a bigger responsibility than if we were sitting on the other side of the House. I am not one of those who think that everything can be done in a moment, or in six or seven weeks, but it seems to me that the new spirit that the Labour Government is supposed to represent should express itself in its relationship with the people of India.

A few weeks ago a disturbance took place in connection, I am told, with some religious observances, and some people in this country, and, I dare say, in this House, will think it is impossible in a country like India to keep the various sects at peace with one another. I would remind all self-righteous Christians on this subject that there is such a place as Belfast in the North of Ireland, and that in other parts of Ireland, and in our own country, very often in Liverpool and other parts, there are religious disturbances, and that it is not only in India where religious bigotry and intolerance are to be found. In the case that I want to bring to the notice of the House, the disturbances took place, the Under-Secretary told me yesterday, because the people who had gathered together to perform a religious observance carried arms. As a result, 21 of them were killed, 33 were wounded, and, I believe, 700 of them are in prison at the present moment. But the extraordinary thing is that we are told there were great crowds of people, and the police were hemmed in, but not a single policeman or soldier was injured. The Under-Secretary himself, in his answer yesterday, told me that nobody on our side was injured at all, and yet there were 21 people killed and 33 wounded. The whole benefit of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms was vitiated by the Amritsar massacre, and because of the failure of the Home Government to take proper measures in dealing with those responsible. I hold in my hand a telegram, of which, I am told by an hon. Member who is an authority on India, I ought not to take any notice, but I am going to read part of it to the House, because I feel that it does explain to some extent why no one was injured on the side of the authorities, and these people, who were supposed to be violent, and taking violent action against the authorities, were killed. The telegram has come to me from Mr. D. Chaman Lall, Secretary of the Indian Trade Union Congress. I am sure we on these benches must be very glad to know that they have advanced so far in India that they have a trade union congress now. He is also a member of the Legislative Assembly. I hope the Labour Government will help the trade union cause in India to the very utmost extent. But this is what he says: The Jatha was pledged to nonviolence. Not a single individual belonging to the Jatha or any follower carried any firearms. The false report in this connection originated from the fact that the procession of Alkalis was accompanied by exhibition fireworks, as is the case with all such processions. The noise of the fireworks was construed by the authorities to have been rifle or gun fire. Although the crowd and the Jatha was absolutely unarmed, yet a senseless butchery of innocent men and spectators took place, and the Secretary of State was furnished with fake information. Further, the Government never alleged that a single firearm was captured from the Jatha or the crowd, conclusively proving the falsity of the information furnished. If a great crowd carry firearms, surely the authorities would be able to pick up some of them, especially when they took 700 people prisoners and managed to kill the number I have stated. In that connection I want to ask the Under-Secretary to ask the Secretary of State to request the Viceroy to order a full and impartial inquiry into this matter, so as to get it out of the minds of Indians that the life of an Indian, especially an Indian agitator, is very cheap. I think yon must establish somehow in the mind of the Indian a feeling that at least the British Parliament do value the life even of the poorest Indian.

Coming to the Bombay strikes, we on these benches know, and so do hon. and right hon. Gentlemen everywhere know, that when there is a strike or lock-out—and I understand this is a lock-out—when men are hungry, and when there is to be an attempt to get the men back by the employers offering some inducement, there are nearly always crowds doing mass picketing. My information is that mass picketing was taking place in exactly the same manner that it would in this country in order to induce the men not to go back to work. It is said the police were stoned, and that there was an enormous number of men. There were 150,000 on strike or lock-out. It is said they hemmed the police in, and yet that tremendous mass of people stone-throwing only injured one policeman. That was the answer of the Under-Secretary yesterday. No one knows who were injured or who got away. It seems to me that there is not the slightest evidence of much stone-throwing or that police or soldiers were in any danger, but it does prove that, as in the case of the other disturbances, the authorities were not eager but quite ready to fire on unarmed people. There is no question of anyone being armed there. It is a question of stone-throwing, and we reply to that by shooting them down. The Under-Secretary yesterday could not tell me what was the cause of the strike, but I should think that, especially Lancashire Members here, who depend very largely for their business on India, would want a full inquiry as to the cause that drives 150,000 men to throw up their work. I am told from trade union sources that the men were being expected to live on a 40 per cent. reduction in wages, that the bonus so-called was a grant-in-aid of their wages to make up for depreciation in currency. Whether this was so or not, we want to know what are the bad conditions of labour that drive 150,000 men out into the streets and keeps them there—because this has been going on for weeks. I think we are entitled to ask the Under Secretary to give the House full particulars. I repeat again, in this connection, that we ought to insist on a full and impartial inquiry into the firing on crowds. That seems to be quite the usual thing. I know that there are some people who think that the proper way to keep crowds in order is to overawe them. That is the wrong way. The right way to deal with any people who have grievances is to remove the grievances. There ought to be some effort made to get this dispute settled on decent terms.

The last point is that these people of whom I am talking are really and literally starving. I would call the attention of everybody in this House to the fact that the "Times of India," which is not a Nationalist or Socialistic journal, but a sober organ of sober opinion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Yes. I am using your own language. This journal has put it on record that the people are definitely starving to-day in connection with this dispute. This is a matter for the House to consider, as to whether that condition of things ought to remain or whether the Secretary of State ought not to cable out at once, and for this reason—that the "Times of India" says, what our newspapers very often say, that because the men are locked out, or because they are on strike, the Government cannot do anything for them. In this country we would not allow people to starve to death under any circumstances, and I do not think that we ought to do it in India. Why I am so expressive in this matter is because friends who have come back from India—who are going backwards and forwards—some have arrived within the last few weeks—are impressing upon everybody they come in contact with that the situation in India is very grave, and that unless something is done, and that quickly, we shall probably have the sort of upheaval that we had at the Mutiny.

It happens that Mr. Sastri, one of the most moderate men that I have ever met from India, has also not only written, but telegraphed to me that the appeal of the Indian Legislative Assembly for a round-table conference between some of the representatives of the British Council should be acceded to, for the reasons I have given. I heard somebody laugh just now! But I sat up in that Gallery and heard many Members laugh when Mr. Gladstone said that "the sands were running out" in connection with Ireland. Many Members who laugh to-day know how true were Mr. Gladstone's words, and know what a bitter running out it meant. Justice was not done while there was yet time. It is because I feel that India is in the same position that I am raising this question here to-night. I am not one of those who want to spread what is called self-determination for every nation. We have sent Europe to the devil in following that policy. I believe in the unification of the nations, one with another. I believe in each nation finding its own self-expression in the community of other nations, and the Indian people are willing to join with us in building up civilisation, but you must treat them as equal partners. You cannot go on treating them as a dependent nation. My point is that on Monday the Budget was refused in the Legislative Assembly, and an Indian said to me: Your people may shoot us down and bring machine guns and aeroplanes. They can run their machine guns through the streets, but they cannot kill us because they can never kill our spirits. They have recognised and had a discussion with the leader of the Nationalist party, and they have made their protest hoping that the people of Britain will respond to it, because they want to remain constitutionally part of the British Dominions. They ask us to meet them around a table to discuss how we can give them a little more self-government. I want the Government to change their disposition, and to meet these people in order that peace may be preserved in India, and that India may in that way become a real gem in the Dominions of this great Empire.

Photo of Mr Robert Richards Mr Robert Richards , Wrexham

In the very few minutes at my disposal, the House will not expect me to cover the whole of the ground covered by my hon. Friend. I cannot help recalling the words of Macaulay, that an injustice, whether done in this country or in India, is the same. Here the case is exactly the same, and no one rejoices more than myself in that spirit. I sympathise entirely with what he said regarding the attitude of the Government towards the very difficult question of the government of India. I am sure the Government is full of sympathy with the ultimate ideal placed before this House by successive Governments for the last 40 years, that eventually it is the intention of this country to give full and complete self-government to what we hope will be the great Dominion of India.

To come to some of the points referred to by my hon. Friend, he mentioned, in the first place, the Bombay strike. I am able to add a little to the information which I was able to give to the House yesterday. I am quoting not from any telegram that the Government has received from the Government of India, but I am quoting the words of the leader of the strike. He is a man named Joseph Baptisti. He was in this case a voice crying in the wilderness, because the men have struck against his advice. The strike really arose over the question of the mill-owners declining to consent to a bonus to the operatives this year. They I gave notice apparently that this year they would discontinue the bonus which had been paid for the last three years. That meant a reduction in wages of something like 8.3 per cent. These are figures given by Baptisti himself, and his argument against a strike was this: He pointed out to the men that these mill-owners are manufacturers and merchants, and not philanthropists, and that clearly it was not the right time to strike.

Against the opinion of their leader, however, the strike began, apparently at one mill, on 17th January, when 2,500 men came out on strike. The result was, as has been already mentioned, that the mill-owners decided to close the rest of the mills for a certain period, and by 28th January 73 of the 76 mills in Bombay were closed and, as I said yesterday, 150,000 people were thrown out of employment. The Governor of Bombay immediately prepared to nominate a committee to arbitrate, and this position was brought to the notice of the men. I ought to say that at first the millowners were unwilling, but by the end of February apparently they were willing to arbitrate By that time, however, there had been some change in the position, and the riot, of which I gave a full account yesterday, was the direct result of an offer on the part of some of the men to go back without any conditions at all. I am sorry that I cannot add anything to the details I gave yesterday, because, by reading a telegram, I then put the House in possession of all the information that we have at the moment.

To turn to the other regrettable incident, the firing at Jaito, this is really a very intricate and a very difficult situation, a combination, that is to say, of religious fanaticism and political intrigue. We all know and have cause to respect the Sikhs because of their intense loyalty for a great number of years to this country, and the Sikhs are certainly one of the proudest nations which are associated with our great Empire. It is difficult from the little experience I have had, as far as I can see, to distinguish exactly between their religion and that of the Hindoos generally, but they emphasise certain points, and they are particularly prone perhaps to carry these points to extremes. During the last 20 or 30 years the spirit of religion in the Sikh community has seriously declined, and about 1920 there was an honest attempt made to recover the position and to revive the Sikh religion once again. During that period, when religion had fallen behindhand rather among the Sikhs, it so happened that the sacred places had become the property of other people of whom they disapproved, and one thing that they determined upon was to recover these sacred shrines once again. That meant, of course, coming into conflict with the people who were in possession of the shrines at the time.

The real difficulty of the Government of India, as far as I understand it, is to keep the peace between these two antagonistic elements among the Sikhs themselves. It is an exceedingly difficult position for a foreign Government to try and keep the peace between two wrangling religious bodies. The Government has attempted again and again to get an agreement between them by setting up a board which would in some way adjust the differences, but hitherto without success. The result of that was the passing of the Shrines Act, as it is called, in 1922, setting up a board consisting of the two sections of the Sikh community in order to deal with this particular question, but that has not been operative.

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.