United Kingdom the country the peoplePOLITICAL DOCUMENTS

INDIA (TRANSFER OF POWER)-1947

INDIA (TRANSFER OF POWER)

Parliament of UK

HC Deb 03 June 1947

vol 438 cc35-4635

The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee) I desire to make an important statement on Indian policy. A similar statement is being made at the same time in another place, and by the Viceroy in New Delhi. The statement, in the form of a White Paper, will be available this afternoon.

I am glad to inform the House that the plan contained in the announcement which I am about to make, including the offer of Dominion status to one or two successor authorities, has been favourably received by all three parties represented at the Conferences held by the Viceroy with the Indian leaders during the past two days. Before making this statement, I would like to express the gratitude and appreciation of His Majesty’s Government for the great services which the Viceroy has rendered.

On 20th February, 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 16th May, 1946, and evolve for India a constitution acceptable to all concerned. This hope has not been fulfilled.

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 Muslim 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.

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.

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 Muslim 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—

(a) in the existing Constituent Assembly; or
(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.

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 Muslim 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 Muslim 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.

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.

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 to which Constituent Assembly the Province as a whole would join if it were decided by the two parts to remain united.

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—

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

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 Muslim majority districts (as laid down in the Appendix to the White Paper) and non-Muslim 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 Muslims and non-Muslims. It will also be instructed to take into account other factors. Similar instructions will be 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.

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—

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

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—

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

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—

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

Though Assam is predominantly a non-Muslim Province, the district of Sylhet which is contiguous to Bengal is predominantly Muslim. There has been a demand that, in the event of the partition of Bengal, Sylhet should be amalgamated with the Muslim part of Bengal. Accordingly, if it is decided that Bengal should be partitioned, a referendum will be held in Sylhet district, under the aegis 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 Muslim 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.

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 16th May, 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.

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.

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

(a) Between the representatives of the respective successor authorities about all subjects now dealt with by the Central Government, including Defence, Finance and Communications.

(b) Between different successor authorities and His Majesty’s Government for treaties and regard to matters arising out of the transfer of power.

(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, the police and other services, the High Courts, provincial institutions, etc.
Agreements with tribes of the North-West Frontier of India will have to be negotiated by the appropriate successor authority.

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 12th May, 1946, remains unchanged.

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.

The major political parties have repeatedly emphasised 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.

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.

Mr. Churchill rose—

Mr. Gallacher On a point of Order. When a long statement of this kind is being made, Mr. Speaker, which it is impossible to follow, and when the Leader of the Opposition has a copy of it in his hand, is it not within the right of Members of Parliament that they, too, should have a copy so that they may follow it properly?

Mr. Speaker It has always been the custom of this House that the Leader of the Opposition should be made acquainted with such a statement, Hon. Members hear the statement read. I understand that it is now in the. Vote Office, and any hon. Member who wishes to have a copy can get one.

Mr. Churchill It is, of course, impossible for the House to weigh and measure the full meaning of the most important statement which has just been made to us by the Prime Minister. I am bound to say that it seemed very difficult to understand, but the White Paper which is in the Vote Office will have to be studied with attention and will probably carry the largest measure of proof to those who are best instructed. No doubt we shall have a Debate at a suitable moment on this question. I am not asking for any particular date to be fixed at the present moment. I am bound to say, however, that the two conditions foreseen at the time of the Cripps Mission, which was set up under my Administration—namely, first, agreement between the Indian parties and, secondly, a period of Dominion status in which India or any part of it may freely decide whether or not to remain within the association of the British Commonwealth of Nations—seem to be fulfilled.

Mr. Stokes On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask whether there is any Motion before the House? Surely, this is developing into a Debate and is out of Order.

Mr. Churchill May I respectfully say that this is a matter of considerable importance? Surely, the Opposition party should be permitted to make some passing and brief comments.

Mr. Speaker I was watching the matter. Of course, it is perfectly true that there is no Motion before the House, but I do think that at this moment there should be a slight amount of latitude. I feel sure hon. Members will not abuse it and I think it is only right.

Mr. Churchill As I was saying, the two principles on which the Cripps Mission stood—namely, agreement and a period of Dominion status with perfect freedom to choose—appear to be fulfilled, as far as I can see from the copy of the White Paper which is now in the Vote Office and which, through the courtesy of the Prime Minister, I received an hour ago.

Mr. Gallacher Why have we all not had a copy?

Mr. Churchill Even in Russia there are distinctions between the grades which different people occupy. If it should prove to be the case that these two conditions have been maintained in fact and in form, then I say that all parties in this House are equally pledged by the offer and the declaration that we have made, and on these points we can only be well assured by the course of events in the next few weeks and months. It is quite true that the agreement of the various parties in India has only been achieved on the basis of partition. I gather that is the foundation. Nevertheless, after a reasonable period of deliberation and responsibility, should all these parties decide to remain within the British Commonwealth of Nations, the theme of the unity of India will be preserved, and the many nations and States of India may find their unity within the mysterious circle of the British Crown, just as the self-governing Dominions have done for so many years after all other links with the Mother Country, save those of sentiment, have been dissolved. It may, therefore, be that through a form of partition, the unity of India may, none the less, be preserved.

I do not wish to trespass upon the indulgence of the House but, finally, we must ask ourselves even at this early moment whether, after matters have proceeded thus far—and my opinions about them are well known—any better way can be found of saving India from the blood bath which may stand so near. I cannot doubt that, at first sight, and subject to the unknown factors working out in a favourable manner, it would seem that a settlement on these lines may offer to India some prospect of escape from one of the most hideous calamities which has ever ravaged the vast expanses of Asia. Naturally, we cannot form opinions upon the very great outlines and the complicated details that have been given; nor can we form decided opinions without knowing what will be the correspondence of the actual facts with what is hoped for from them, by the Government, the Viceroy and others responsible for India. However, I will say at once, with regard to the right hon. Gentleman’s statement about impending legislation, that if the facts correspond to the outlines with which we have been presented this afternoon, and if it is necessary, as I gather it is, that legislation should be introduced to implement speedily the transference of power, on Dominion status terms, to the various parts of India so that they can decide their future for themselves at leisure, it would not be right that such legislation should be deemed contentious, or that any long delays should elapse after it is introduced before it is passed into law. Therefore, while reserving our full freedom to discuss points of detail, we shall not oppose any Bills to confer Dominion status on the various parts of India, which may be presented to us on the basis of the statement made this afternoon by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister said that great credit was due to the Viceroy. These are matters about which it is extremely difficult to form decided opinions now, but if the hopes which are enshrined in this Declaration should be borne out, great credit will indeed be due, not only to the Viceroy but to the Prime Minister who advised His Majesty to appoint him.

Mr. Clement Davies I wish to associate myself with the tributes which have been paid by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). In the first place, one would like to point out at once that the Viceroy has shown great gifts of statesmanship and a combination of patience, initiative and energy which is indeed rare. Throughout the whole British Commonwealth, we have all been waiting for the statement which the Prime Minister has just made, and we are gratified that all three major parties in India have acquiesced in the Plan. Ever since this country announced its intention of handing over to the Indians the government of India, and the conduct of Indian affairs, we have been anxious about three things: first, that there should be a responsible authority to whom the power and duty of government can be handed over; secondly, that the authority should be such as the Indians themselves would desire, and of their own design and choosing; and, thirdly, that there should be an avoidance of turmoil. Today, the less said about details of the statement that has just been made by the Prime Minister, the better. We are anxious to hear Indian opinions and views, and we should say nothing that might cause any disruption. We only hope that all will he settled amicably for the benefit of Indians of all classes, without distinction. One would only add that time is running on, and the sooner steps are taken to enable the transition to take place effectively, the better.

Mr. Blackburn In view of the tremendously important votes which will be taken as the result of the welcome announcement which my right hon. Friend has made today, may I ask whether the Government will support the Viceroy and the authorities in India in all the steps they may take to ensure that the communities in India are able to exercise their rights without fear of violence and intimidation?

The Prime Minister My hon. Friend may rest assured that every endeavour will be made to get a true reflection of the views of India.

Sir Waldron Smithers On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that the reprints of the White Paper referred to by the Prime Minister are not in the Vote Office?

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions. The first is about the Anglo-Indian community. A great many of these people wish to retain British nationality for 10 years until they see how these new Governments progress. The second question is about the district of Cachar, which adjoins Sylhet in Assam. It also wishes to be included in Bengal. The third point is about the tribes on the North-East frontier of India. The Prime Minister mentioned the tribes of the North-West frontier. He did not mention the tribes on the North-East frontier.

The Prime Minister With regard to the first point, I think it hardly arises. That is a matter that will obviously come up under the Constitution. With regard to the second point, I did say there would have to be a boundary commission with regard to Sylhet, and I would take it–I am not acquainted with that particular district intimately—that, if there is any district adjoining that might be brought into Bengal suitably, that would be a matter for consideration. With regard to the tribes on the North-East frontier, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows so well, they come into the Province of Assam; and that will fall to be dealt with by the Constituent Assembly of which Assam forms a part.

Mr. Gallacher I want to address a couple of remarks to the Prime Minister.  see in one of the national papers that the Indian leaders agree to the carve-up. I do not think it is a very desirable solution of the problem of India. I think our deliberately coming out of India would be a complete solution. I am very suspicious because of the fact that the Leader of the Tory Opposition gives the Plan support, because, after all—

Mr. Churchill What of the leaders of the Russian opposition?

Mr. Gallacher That is an old and worn record that is sadly played out. The Leader of the Opposition has a long record in connection with India, and it is a very bad one.

Mr. Speaker This has nothing to do with the statement that the Prime Minister made.

Mr. Gallacher On a point of Order. How is it that the Leader of the Opposition can make a statement of the character he did without my making a reply, and pointing out my objection? I have not got the document, but my objection to the document—whose contents I heard only today—is strengthened very much by the fact that it is so wholeheartedly supported by the Leader of the Opposition, who has a very bad record in connection with India. What is wrong with that?

Mr. Wyatt Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that he and his immediate advisers and Lord Mountbatten have earned the thanks of the people of this country and of India for generations to come, by the brilliance with which they have borne this present phase of our relations with India?

Mr. Sorensen Can the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the plebiscite to be taken in North-West India —of the conditions and circumstances in which it is to be taken?

The Prune Minister It will be under the of the Viceroy. I may explain that the position of the North-West frontier is rather different, because in the Legislature there is a weighting of various minority communities’ views, and it is proposed to take a plebiscite in order to find out what is the view of the total number of actual voters. Obviously, that will have to be done with very great care, with the local Government and Central Government taking part.

Colonel Gomme-Dunean Is it possible for the right hon. Gentleman, at this stage, to say something about what is causing tremendous anxiety, and that is the position of the Indian Army? I do think that at this stage we ought to be told something, so that those people may know where they are in relation to the proposed changes.

The Prime Minister I should rather not make a statement without considering the whole matter very closely. It is one, of course, that is under very close observation. But I should be ill-advised to make a statement now.

Mr. Peter Freeman In the event of the political parties in India showing greater unity in the near future than they do at present, is there any arrangement or proposal to call a Conference of the political parties in, say, the next four or five years, with a view to taking up a united Constitution then, although they are not agreed at the moment?

The Prime Minister I think that is looking rather far ahead. One cannot look too far ahead. There has to be consultation.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson May I ask the Prime Minister if there is to be an opportunity for a Debate; and, if there is not, if he will try to keep the House constantly informed with authoritative information?

The Prime Minister I certainly will. I should rather deprecate a Debate at the present time, because the affair is now in the hands of the Indian leaders. But I will certainly do my best to keep the House informed.


Key words:

  1. Dominion Status

  2. British Commonwealth of Nations

  3. Mysterious circle of the British Crown

  4. His Majesty’s Government