§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Mr. BROCKWAY
I put two questions to the Secretary of State for India last week, regarding the Meerut prisoners and the Garhwali riflemen who are also in prison in India, and urged that in both cases the present situation in India justified their release. To those questions the Secretary of State answered that, as far as the Meerut prisoners were concerned, the trial must proceed, and, as far as the Garhwali riflemen were concerned, reconsideration would only take place at the periods usually allowed for martial law sentences. I was not satisfied with those replies, and I gave notice to the Secretary of State that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment, at the first suitable opportunity and with his concurrence, I wish to raise it to-night. I admit at once that the terms of the agreement reached between Lord Irwin and Mr. Gandhi do not, specifically include these cases, but I urge upon the Secretary of State that it would be wise statesmanship, in the present situation, if he did not follow exactly the latter of the agreement, but sought, with generosity, to carry out its spirit. I urge, further, that on the intrinsic merits of these two cases, release is justified.
I take the case of the Meerut prisoners first. The responsibility for the arrest of these 31 men must be placed upon the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor. I hope very much that if the right hon. Gentleman had been in office at that time the arrest would not have taken place and the trial would not have begun. If that be so, I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should take the opportunity of the present truce in India to undo that work. He might have argued that the legal proceedings having begun, he could not interfere with them, but, surely, a new situation has now arisen in which the trial might be ended. I recognise that I must be careful in my references to this matter because the ease is sub judice. Therefore, about the charges I will only say that they were charges of conspiracy and waging war against the King; that even the prosecution has not made any charge of actual acts of violence 1600 and that the argument has been that the ulterior and ultimate object of the trade union and political activities in which the prisoners were engaged, was one of violent revolution. I put it to my right hon. Friend that a trial of this kind is more likely to be propaganda for those who are being tried than to limit, in any way, the effect of the things which they have been doing.
In addition to the actual nature of the charge, I suggest that the actual procedure and length of the trial demand now a reconsideration of the whole matter. In the first place, the prisoners were removed from the centres of their activities, in some instances 800 miles, to where they could be tried without jury. They have been kept in prison for nearly two years under trial, and the case for the prosecution has only recently ended. The conditions of the trial have been amazing in the slowness of its progress. There is no stenographer in the court. The evidence has actually to be taken down by the Judge himself typing out on a typewriter before him. And all this time these 31 men are retained in prison under trial. The right hon. Gentleman, whose enthusiasm for political prisoners in Ireland when he was in Opposition was so great, cannot possibly be easy in his own mind to have the responsibility, as Secretary of State for India, for a trial of that kind.
I want to put to him very strongly this further point: I do not know how much this trial must be costing, but in the long run it is the starving peasants of India who are paying for it. If these starving peasants of India are to be prevented from becoming impregnated with doctrines which the right hon. Gentleman dislikes, I cannot imagine any method more likely to impregnate them with those doctrines than by compelling them, in their condition of semi-starvation, to pay for trials of the character that is now occurring at Meerut. I ask the right hon. Gentleman as strongly as I possibly can to end this scandal. We regard it as a scandal in its initiation, we regard it as a scandal in its conduct, and we ask him to be big enough and brave enough to end it now when he has this opportunity.
I want also to refer to the Garhwali Rifles. Nearly a year ago, during the disturbances at Peshawar, a platoon of 1601 Indian soldiers, the Garhwali Rifles, were called upon to proceed against an Indian crowd. They refused to do so, and 17 of the platoon were placed under arrest. In the court-martial proceedings the officers gave evidence that the Indian soldiers used these words:We will not shoot our unarmed brethren, because India's army is to fight India's enemies without. We will not go into the city. You may blow us from the guns if you like.I put it to the right hon. Gentleman and the other Members of this House that, whatever views they may hold about India's aspirations, they cannot in their heart of hearts withhold admiration from men who were prepared to risk liberty and life rather than shoot upon their fellow countrymen engaged in a national struggle.
I want to put this directly to my right hon. Friend. It seems to me almost indecent for a Government, some of whose principal Members encouraged a number of us in the Great War to refuse to shoot upon Germans, now to retain in prison Indians because they are refusing to shoot upon their fellow-countrymen. I put the point to him again with the same strength as I have tried to put it in the Meerut case, that he ought to seize the opportunity of the truce to release these men from their sentences. One of them is undergoing transportation for life, another is undergoing 15 years' imprisonment, 15 other men are undergoing terms of imprisonment from three years to 10. It is to us a shame and a humiliation that we should be members of a party whose Government are responsible for maintaining sentences of that character upon men who will live in history as the patriots and heroes of India.
I beg the right hon. Gentleman to use the powers which he possesses, at any rate, now that we are reaching the end of one year's imprisonment of these men, when under normal circumstances a reconsideration of this case will take place, and to use his influence to see that they are released. Never in history has any Government or any statesman suffered through any action of generosity towards a people which is struggling for liberty. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think of his own record for liberty, to think of his own fight that he has made 1602 in this House for liberty, and to do his utmost, now that he is a responsible Minister of the Crown, to apply the principles of which there has been no more eloquent exponent than the Secretary of State for India himself.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for INDIA (Mr. Wedgwood Benn)
I do not complain that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. Nor do I doubt for one moment the sincerity of his motives, although I say plainly that I deplore some of the phrases which he used in the very difficult position in which we find ourselves in India. Some of the sentences which he used will do much harm, and I greatly deplore that a man of such transparent sincerity should be lacking so much judgment, as to use such sentences. My hon. Friend does not allege that these cases come within the terms of the Irwin-Gandhi Agreement, and therefore we are not discussing at all any suggested breach of that agreement, which, I may say, the Government are as earnest in trying to implement as I am convinced Mr. Gandhi is on his side. We are therefore dealing with the cases on their merits.
I will take first the hon. Gentleman's reference to the Meerut prisoners. The position of the Government is this. They found a case in progress, when charges had been laid in court, and the case was being duly tried by processes of law. The question was whether we should have interrupted the processes of law or have permitted them to proceed. As to that, we made up our minds at the beginning, and our opinions remain unaffected to-day, that it is not within the province of the executive Government to interfere with the process of law once it is set in motion. [An How. MEMBER: "You did it in the 'Herald' case!"] My hon. Friend made one or two comments on the character and length of the trial. I deplore the length of these trials in India, but I would remind him that it is not due to any action of this or any other Government; it is due to the character of the Code under which cases of this kind are tried in the courts. The practice is that the full evidence should be laid, not only before the preliminary inquiry, which then passes judgment as to whether the case must go to the Sessions, but that, again, it must be laid before the Sessions Court, 1603 and elaboration of that kind does unfortunately involve very long delays. I wish it would be otherwise, and I join with my hon. Friend in deploring in general the length of these cases. Very many witnesses, running into hundreds, and very many documents, have to be examined in the interests of the accused at the preliminary stage of the investigations as well as at the trial before the Sessions Court. The result is that the accused are fully apprised on every point of the charges made against them at the preliminary inquiry, before it comes before the higher court; but that the process is long, very long, I freely admit, and, in general terms, I deplore the length of trials of this character.
As far as the prolongation of the inquiry is concerned, the position is this at the present time. The defence has been entered upon, and if it was not possible—and, believe me, I have desired it to be possible—in the prosecution stage, to shorten the inquiry, I am sure my hon. Friend would not desire, nor would it, be fair, that special measures should be taken to shorten or hamper or curtail the proceedings when these men are conducting their own defence. Therefore, it is impossible to do otherwise than to permit the case to proceed and the accused to make their defence. The Government have every desire that they should have proper facilities for their defence, and have taken a step, which is not at all unusual, in assisting in the financial defence of the prisoners. What the issue of the trial may be I cannot say, and it would be quite improper for me to make any comment, but those are the facts; and I hope my hon. Friend will agree that while I may not have been able to satisfy him the Government are not treating the case unfairly.
As to the Garhwali Rifles, that is a ease not under trial. It is a case in which a very serious charge was made. I cannot imagine a more serious charge in the circumstances in which we find ourselves in India to-day. Very severe sentences were passed. My hon. Friend speaks as if the sentences had actually been served, but the offence is a recent offence. I gave him an answer which I had hoped would satisfy him, namely, that sentences of this kind come under periodic review at short 1604 periods, and that these sentences will be treated in that way.
§ Mr. BRACKEN
Considering the responsibilities of the Government of India I think it would be deplorable if men found guilty of these charges should be released on sentimental grounds under the Gandhi truce, which is being more honoured in the breach than in the observance. I wish to make one comment on the speech of the hon. Member for East Leyton (Mr. Brockway). He talks about the burden of financing such a prosecution in India. I would say to the hon. Member for East Leyton that the peasants of India are very greatly interested in these trials and that the poor men in India who are faced with the accounts of these awful recent atrocities at Cawnpore must greatly hope that proper justice will be done to those who attempt to break the peace.
§ Mr. BRACKEN
If the Secretary of Stat, had not been so anxious to intervene, I was referring specifically to the case of the mutineers who, the Secretary of State has said, are under sentence, and the right hon. Gentleman ought not to burke a discussion of this kind, which is of vital importance. I am talking about men who broke their oath, men who were found guilty of mutiny, and are now serving their sentence, which I hope they will serve in full. It is in the interests of the poorer peasants in India, towards whom the hon. Member for East Leyton is so sympathetic, that law and order should prevail in India. It would be inconceivably dangerous for any sentimental decision to be taken to release these men from prison. We have all read this morning the grave speech of the Governor of the Punjab, in which he referred to the appalling breaches of law and order in his Province. We should make it absolutely impossible for loyal servants of the Crown like the Governor of the Punjab to carry out their duty if this House were to interpose and free men who have been found guilty, not 1605 only of breaking their oath to their Sovereign, but of fomenting trouble all over India. I must again congratulate the Secretary of State upon his firmness in resisting this invitation from the hon. Member for East Layton. At the same time, I think he is a little too ready and anxious to prevent a fair discussion on a 1606 subject, raised from his own side, which is vital to every citizen, not only in India, but in England as well.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Eleven o'clock.