§ LORD SYDENHAM rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for India whether an imitation postage stamp has been issued by Mrs. Besant bearing her effigy, with the legend "Interned for God and Country"; and whether letters and papers on which this stamp has been placed for propaganda purposes are allowed to be transmitted by post in India.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in recent years a custom has grown up of attaching stamps with various devices, more or less beautiful, to envelopes passing through the post. That plan serves three purposes. In the first place, the sale of the stamps helps the funds of the public bodies which the device represents. In the second place, the object is very widely advertised; and in the third place the recipient of the letter receives the information that the sender approves and is supporting the particular object. I have seen one of Mrs. Besant's stamps. They are extraordinarily well executed, and at a short distance they are practically indistinguishable from an ordinary postage stamp. To people in India they would seem almost exactly like the stamps of the Government. This stamp bears Mrs. Besant's image, and round it the words "Interned for God and Country." I need hardly say that those words are not true. Mrs. Besant, who had grievously offended against the law, was interned for a brief period in her own comfortable bungalow at Ootacamund by the order of the Madras Government, and was then quickly released by order of the Viceroy in order that a favourable atmosphere for the visit of Mr. Montagu might be arrived at.
§ Now, the effect of selling and circulating this stamp in India must be this. It would help the funds of the Home Rule League; it would suggest that the President of the Home Rule League was the rival or the equal of the Sovereign, to whose effigy the masses of India have grown accustomed on their stamps; it would intimate that Mrs. Besant was a martyr to what she has called the "brutal bureaucracy"; and, lastly, it would inform every recipient that the sender was a supporter of the Home Rule League. It is impossible for any one 986 who has not lived is India to realise the extraordinary credulity of the people, and also the amazing quickness with which they attach meaning to symbols of all kinds. That stamp could be made to serve exactly the same purpose as the mysterious chupatties which were circulated just before the time of the Great Mutiny. It would signify to the people who saw it, who are very ignorant and cannot read or write, that some great change was impending, and it would increase the unrest which I am sorry to say is developing too rapidly in India at the present time.
§ As an instance of a trivial and silly suggestion, I may recall the first rupee coined in India after the Coronation of His Majesty. It bore the King's head and shoulders, wearing the collar of the Order of the Indian Empire. That collar has elephants on it at proper intervals. The design of the stamp was made by an Austrian of the name of Sachs, and one of the elephants looked exceedingly like a pig, especially when the coin became a little bit worn. That rupee was at once regarded with intense dislike and suspicion by all the Mahomedans, and a new design had to be prepared for another coin.
§ The Indian post is a wonderful institution. It is probably one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, in the whole world. All over India a closed letter goes for a halfpenny, a card is sent for a farthing, and the newspaper rates are extraordinarily low. One result of those low rates in India is to facilitate the distribution of seditious matter, and any one who has read the Report of the Rowlatt Committee will understand that the amount of that kind of matter in circulation must be considerable. For advertising purposes, therefore, the Indian post must be a most convenient medium, and it is impossible to exaggerate the harm which this stamp might do if it is allowed to circulate. Your Lordships are doubtless aware that Mrs. Besant's dupes in India have been led to believe that she is a supernatural being, connected in some remote way with the Indian Pantheon and sent to this world with a mission to release the people from the chains of British rule, and it is her artful application of Hinduism to politics which has made her influence in India so extremely pernicious. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say that this stamp is not now allowed to be circulated through the post of India.987
§ May I be permitted to take this opportunity of saying one thing more? The Secretary of State has personally informed me that he did not permit Mrs. Besant to see any early draft of his Report. She did apparently go to Delhi from Calcutta after the tour had ended, and this fact no doubt gave rise to a certain amount of doubt. She saw the Secretary of State at a garden party, but at that interview nothing transpired with regard to the matter in the Report. I was misled by the categorical and direct statement in New India that she had been allowed to discuss an "earlydraft" of this Report. That statement in her paper must have been quite inaccurate, and my conclusion that she was permitted to have some special negotiations with the Secretary of State was therefore unjustified, and I most gladly withdraw it.
§ THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (LORD ISLINGTON)
My Lords, I regret that I shall not be able to give any very wide reply to the Question that has been put by my noble friend. I will tell the noble Lord all the facts in my possession. The Secretary of State learnt in November, 1917, that this Home Rule stamp was being sold at 1-pie, bearing the effigy of Mrs. Besant surrounded by the words, as I understand, "For God, Crown and country" Interned June 16, 1917." And on three sides of the stamp the words "Home Rule" appeared in five languages. We also had information a short time afterwards that these stamps had found their way to Singapore on newspapers posted from India. Since that date—November, 1917, and possibly the subsequent month, no further information regarding this stamp has come to our notice in this country.
The noble Lord explained to the House the harmful effect that a wide circulation of stamps bearing this effigy and with this inscription upon it would have, especially in a country like India. No doubt, if there was such wide circulation, I think the noble Lord would be correct in the inference that he would draw from such circulation. But I have tried to become further informed since the Question was put down by my noble friend in regard to what notice might have been taken of it in the Indian Press, with which we are furnished in the India Office, during the period that has elapsed since November, 988 1917. I have not been able to discover any allusion to it in the Press. I have also inquired of some of those who formed the Secretary of State's Mission to India last year, and who travelled all through India, whether they heard anything of this stamp or of the effect that it might be having in the country; and in every instance where I have made the inquiry I have been told that they have heard nothing about it. Neither I nor they have had the advantage that my noble friend has had of seeing one of these stamps.
I think your Lordships will agree, and I am sure the noble Lord will agree, that a matter of this character is one that lies within the competence of the Government of India to deal with itself. It is a matter in regard to which the Secretary of State would not exercise any intervention, and one which he would feel satisfied could be left to be dealt with adequately and efficiently by the Government of India, if that Government felt that the circulation was widespread, or if they felt that the circulation was doing harm to law and order and to government in India. Therefore, that being the case, the Secretary of State did not feel that the matter was one in which he need intervene, so no inquiry as to what action had been taken was made from this country.
I may add in conclusion—because this is really all I can tell the noble Lord at present—that directly this Question was put on the Paper I had a telegram of inquiry sent to India, and I shall be very glad to give the noble Lord such information as may be possible on the receipt of the reply to that telegram. If there is any further information as to what course has been taken, as to what effect the stamp has had, I hope to receive that information by telegram in the course of the next few days, and will certainly impart the contents of it to the noble Lord. I think that this will be in his judgment a satisfactory answer to the Question that he has put.
§ LORD SYDENHAM
I have to thank my noble friend for the answer he has made. I am very glad to hear that he has made this inquiry, because it is clear from what he said that, at least in 1917, this stamp must have had a pretty wide circulation. It would be quite impossible for the Government of India to estimate the harm 989 that stamp was doing—nobody could do that—and certainly the Indian papers would be the most unlikely to draw attention to it. But if the fact is that this circulation has been large, then the harm has been done; and though it will not show at the present moment, you cannot tell in a country like India how far it has gone, and what results may not show themselves.