Orders of the Day — India.

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

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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.