HL Deb 06 August 1919 vol 36 cc490-504

EARL RUSSELL rose to call attention to the sentences under Martial Law in India with special reference to the case of Harkissen Lal.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, serious events have been taking place in India to which it is well that public opinion should be directed, particularly as they have been, I think, somewhat inadequately reported in the Press of this country. I refer to the various trials by Courts-martial which have been taking place in that country. There have been charges made against the accused of a serious character, and severe sentences have been passed upon them, including in many cases, I think I am right in saying, the death penalty. I should like to-day to make my remarks rather of an exploratory nature for the purpose of ascertaining what the facts are and what has happened, as I think not very much is known about them as yet, and it may be necessary to recur to the matter later in the session when we have more information before us. I would like to ask if I can be told to-day how many persons have been sentenced to death by courts-martial, in how many eases that sentence has been carried out, and whether in all cases the accused have had an opportunity of appeal to the Privy Council before the execution of sentence.

In putting this Question I ought to apologise personally to the noble Lord who I understand is to reply that I did not communicate with him more in detail beforehand, but that was solely due to my absence from London and not to any desire to embarrass him in any way in dealing with the matter. I have very little information except with regard to one case, the case of Harkissen Lal, and with regard to that I should like to put to the noble Lord the information which has been given to me and to ask him how far it agrees with his version of what has happened. We want to consider in this matter, when we have all the facts before us, whether the action that has been taken amounts to a necessary, although severe, repression of sedition and treason, or whether it amounts to a mere exhibition of autocratic power which has not been justified by the circumstances.

In this particular case I think I ant right in saving the sentence has been one of transportation for life and the offence, so I am given to understand, was that of advising people in Lahore to close their shops. If that be tree it would naturally occur to all of us that there was some disproportion between the offence and the sentence. This gentleman is a barrister-at-law of the Middle Temple. I do not say that that, in itself, is sufficient to raise a presumption. Had he been a member of Gray's Inn it might have been otherwise. He resided at Lahore and is, I am told, about fifty years of age, carrying on the business of a banker. The agitators in India, I am informed, prepared a day of humiliation, as a protest against the Rowlatt Acts, for observance by the native population, and originally appointed March 30. Although some manifestations took place on that day, the date was generally postponed to April 6, when a day of humiliation was observed at Lahore at Harkissen Lal's instigation. He issued a notice in the local papers recommending among other things the closing of shops. I do not know what the other things were. I do not know whether anything worse or more violent than the closing of shops was recommended, but there is no suggestion that it was. It appears that it is solely as a result of his action on this day, his responsibility for the holding of the day of humiliation at Lahore and, in particular, for the closing of the shops, that he now stands charged with sedition.

The legal circumstances connected with this case appear to me to want some explanation. According to my information it was not until April 13 that Martial Law was declared in the Punjab, this offence, if this was the offence, having been committed, your Lordships will remember, on April 6. The effect of the declaration of Martial Law was to bring into operation Bengal Regulation No. 10 of 1804. Some very old Regulation of a penal nature is apparently revived by the declaration of Martial Law. The effect of the declaration is to suspend the functions of the ordinary Criminal Courts of Judicature, and the Governor-General is empowered to direct the immediate trial by courts-martial of persons owing allegiance to the British Government. Then, on the day following that declaration, the Governor-General in Legislative Council promulgated Ordinance No. 1 of 1919, giving power to the Local Government to appoint Commissions to try persons charged with offences under Bengal Regulation No. 10, and to exercise all the powers of General Court Martial under the Indian Army Act. The Ordinance made provision for the trial of all persons charged with offences referred to in the Bengal Regulation, dated after April 13, while the Ordinance itself is made to come into force between May 15 and 16. On April 11 Harkissen Lal was arrested, and he was deported to a place which I pronounce with some fear, Isakhel, on the North West Frontier of the Punjab, outside the Martial Law area, where he was given his liberty. On April 21 a further Ordinance was promulgated empowering the Commission under Ordinance No. 1 to try any persons charged with any offence. After that Ordinance had been issued Harkissen Lal was arrested on May 8 where he was, outside the area of Martial Law, and brought back to Lahore to stand his trial lot an offence against Regulation No. 10. He had great difficulty in getting a pleader to act for him. The Military authorities prevented any pleader he wanted from outside coming into the Martial Law area.

At the time these facts were communicated to me there were grave doubts as to when he would be tried, or for what he would be tried. Telegrams were sent which no doubt the noble Lord received at the India Office, and by the way a complaint is made that a telegram sent to Messrs. Barrow, Rogers & Nevill, who would have acted for him in this country, was intercepted or stopped by the Censorship. I should be very glad to know if telegrams were sent and were stopped; they certainly were not received. These gentlemen wrote to the Secretary of State, and I think I am right in saying that they interviewed the noble Lord who is to reply. They were told about the telegram to the Secretary of State. More information has been obtained from a copy of the Leader of May 26, which published in exlenso these cables. Harkissen Lal was apparently to be tried at this date, and has been tried since. He was charged with a long set of offences which I will read to your Lordships in a moment—treason and sedition, and matters of that kind. He was charged before the Martial Law Commission for conspiracy, waging war, sedition and membership of an unlawful assembly. "Membership of an unlawful assembly" I know nothing about, but I ask whether the charge of conspiracy and waging war does really refer only to the action in recommending a day of humiliation, or whether it refers to something further. Perhaps the noble Lord will inform your Lordships on the point.

Your Lordships will also notice that be has apparently been tried under an Ordinance which was made retrospective, for doing something was was not an offence, or if an offence, was not, triable by Court-Martial at the time the offence was committed, and could not have been tried by Court Martial except by virtue of the retrospective Ordinance made afterwards. I should be glad if the noble Lord will deal generally with the offences alleged against the various leaders of the revolt, as they are regarded, and if at the same time some official statement could be made, because apparently news is not very fully published in this country on these matters. I should like to ask, in this connection, whether Press cables on these matters are censored, In setting out in any official statement the offences of these gentlemen I think it should be stated for public information not merely that the charge is sedition, conspiracy, or waging war, but that the specific acts which it is alleged they have committed should also be stated. To wage war sounds a very serious charge, but if it is merely recommending shop keepers to close their shops it sounds a very different thing. It would be well if the specific acts were given in any statement published by the India Office. It is desirable that some official statement should be issued, because there were many trials and severe sentences, and. I am convinced the public would like to be satisfied that injustice has not been done, that people have had a fair trial, that the sentences have not been disproportionate to the offence, and that the offences have been real offences of which the Government were bound to take notice.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies I should like to draw attention to one aspect of the matter to which fan noble Earl has not referred. If he had realised the situation in the Punjab I think, perhaps, he might have been less ready to assume that injustice had been done. I am sure that is not in the least his fault, but it is the fault of the reticence which we have observed in regard to matters affecting India—a reticence which, I believe, will lead to some extremely unpleasant surprises on the part of the public.

The rising in the Punjab was unlike anything which has happened since the Mutiny. It is the first time since those dark days that the cry "Kill the English" was raised. It is also the first time that mobs have been led by English-speaking Indians, dressed in European dress. I am told from a private source that an English woman belonging to the British Zenana, Mission was caught by the mob and received six great wounds on her head. She was nearly killed. A kindly Indian said, "She is only an English Mission Miss, and she does no harm," but the, mob shouted, "She is English, kill her." That was the kind of spirit which animated the mobs in Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, and other places. The unfortunate woman just escaped with her life, and she owes her life to the gallant Sikhs who saved a good many of our helpless fellow-countrymen and countrywomen.

But for the strong action of Sir Michael O'Dwyer there might have been no Europeans left in the Punjab, and the situation might have become desperate. We ought to remember that fact in assuming at once that injustice has been done to some of the people concerned. We ought to remember that the sentences, if they were somewhat severe, may have been justified by the great gravity of the situation at the time. The noble Earl does not seem to know that this was part of a well organised revolt just as has happened in Egypt. As to the closing of the shops, to which the noble Earl referred, I do not know whether he is aware that in India this is always a signal for riot. When shops are ordered to be closed you know riot is at hand. Therefore, while I am sure that every member of your Lordships' House would be most anxious that no injustice should be done, I ask you to remember that the situation was very critical, and if it had not been grasped by a strong hand a large number of our countrymen and countrywomen would have been killed.


My Lords, I regret that owing to the absence of the noble Earl (Lord Russell) from town he was not able to communicate with me and tell me what were the precise points upon which he desired information, with the result that some of the points put to me to-day I cannot answer, because I have no information with regard to them; but so far as I can, I shall endeavour to give what I consider to be a connected narrative of the events which resulted in these convictions, including that of Mr. Harkissen Lal, and other gentlemen mentioned. Before I go into that I should like to say that, in common with all the sentences passed by the Courts-Martial, or Special Commissions of Courts-Martial, Mr. Harkissen Lal's case has been reviewed by the Local Government, and we received a cable yesterday saying that the sentence, which seemed so severe to the noble Earl, of transportation for life and forefeiture of property, has been remitted entirely with regard to forfeiture, and with regard to transportation commuted to two years rigorous imprisonment.

Before I pass on I should like also to mention that the offence with which he was charged, amongst others, was, under Section 121A of the India Penal Code, of waging war against His Majesty, and that the only punishment provided by the law is sentence of death, or transportation for life, accompanied in either case with forfeiture of property, and that no other sentence can be awarded if the accused is found guilty of the offence with which he is charged. As I have said before, all these sentences by Courts-Martial and Special Commission are being reviewed from the very beginning by the Local Government, and in this particular case our information received yesterday is that the sentence has been commuted to two years rigorous imprisonment, and the forfeiture has in this case, as in all other cases, been remitted. I should like also to make an observation with reference to what fell from the noble Lord, Lord Sydenham, about the closing of shops being a signal for revolt. I do not know that, nor is there any information in the possession of the India Office or of the Secretary of State for India, which would enable me to say that that is a correct statement.

Now, my Lords, I can best supply the information which the noble Earl desires by giving as short a narrative as I can, in a connected form, of the events which have resulted in these and other convictions. If I omit to give any information which the noble Earl desires, I shall be glad to give it to him on his communicating with me. The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act (commonly called the Rowlatt Act) was passed by the Legislative Council of India on March 18, 1919, in spite of the opposition of the non-official members thereof, and it was preceded as well as followed by a widespread agitation in all parts of India, including the Punjab. A determined agitation, as well as resort to passive resistance, was threatened before the measure was actually passed, and became more active afterwards. It followed a double line of action—namely, direct criticism of the Act by means of public speeches and actions, and the initiation of the movement of passive resistance by a vow of satya graha (observance of truth). This latter movement in particular, to which an influential leader of Indian public opinion, Mr. Gandhi, gave his support and countenance, was ushered in by demonstrations of the observance of a day fasting and the closing of shops and places of business.

On March 30, the day originally fixed as the day of fasting, many shops were closed in Delhi in sympathy with the movement, but the efforts of the crowd to impose abstention upon the Railway refreshment contractor at the Delhi Railway Station, caused the first collision with the police. The disturbances of that day wore quelled in fact with the help of the military, and so far as can be ascertained some five or six persons amongst the rioters were killed, and fifteen or sixteen others wounded. Thereafter the promoters of the satya graha arranged that the 6th of April should be observed throughout India as a day of humiliation, the design being to cause the complete cessation of work as a sign of a protest against the obnoxious measure. On April 6 many places of business and shops were closed in various parts of India, including the Punjab. On April 9 Mr. Gandhi, who was on his way to Delhi, was turned hack to his own Province—namely, Bombay—as it was considered undesirable for him to visit the Provinces of Delhi and the Punjab, which were in a state of excitement.

On April 10 slight disturbances took place at Lahore, at which the police were called in, and a few casualties occurred. Thereafter disturbances more of less serious followed in various parts of India—for example, Bombay, Calcutta, and Ahmedabad, etc.—but the outbrak in the Punjab was inure determined and prolonged, and it may be useful to state in chronological order the events which occurred in the Punjab from April 10 onwards, and which may be directly attributed to the movements above described. Of course, with regard to disturbances of this kind no single cause can be said to be the actual cause, and there must be many more direct and indirect causes and predisposing causes. On April 10 there was serious rioting at Amritsar (Punjab) after the removal by executive order of two prominent organisers of the agitation against the Rowlatt Act—namely Dr. Kitchlew (Mohammedan) and Mr. Satys Pal (Hindoo). The Town Hall and the National and the Chartered Banks were burnt down. Five Europeans were killed, and there were about thirty deaths among the rioters. On the 12th at Kasur the Post Office and the Munsiff's Court were burnt, the Treasury was attacked, and two British warrant officers were murdered, and three other officers severely wounded. By this time the Government of India had good reason to believe that the Punjab disturbances were not sporadic riots but amounted to organised risings with definite anti-Government and still mom definite anti-British bias, and although co-ordination between different places was indifferent, simultaneous cutting of railway and telegraph lines at widely different places and deliberate destruction of Government property, and attacks upon and burning of public buildings, pointed to some common purpose. Several Europeans had been brutally murdered, and the lives of Europeans in isolated stations were in great peril.

In these circumstances the Government of India, at the instance of the Local Government (Punjab), sanctioned on April 13 last the application of the State Offences Regulation X of 1804 to the Districts of Lahore and Amritsar; or, in other words, declared Martial Law in the said districts, subject to the following modifications. First, the maintenance of ordinary Courts for ordinary offences. Notwithstanding the declaration of Martial Law in those areas the ordinary Courts were still sitting and dealing with ordinary offences. Secondly, the appointment of Special Commissions composed of men of ripe experience and judicial knowledge instead of the Courts-Martial which would otherwise have tried offences under Martial Law. These Special Commissions were composed in each instance of two Judges of experience and one Indian magistrate, so that technically a special Commission was more or less of the character of a special tribunal of great experience.


Do I understand that the effect of Regulation No. 1 (1919) was to substitute the special Commissions for an ordinary Court-Martial?


That is so. To resume the narrative of events in the Punjab. On April 14 the trouble spread to Gujranwala, where a large mob attacked the station and burnt the overbridge, destroying subsequently the church, Dak bungalow, and other Government property. It stopped and looted a passenger train and cut the wires on every side. From the 15th to the 18th riots of a similar nature took place at Wazerabad, Sangla Hill, Lyallpur, and Chukurkhana, and in Gujrat on the 19th when the railway station was sacked, records burnt, and telegraphs destroyed all along the line. Martial Law was extended to Gujranwala District on the 16th, to Gujrat on the 20th, and to Lyallpore on April 23. The proclamation of Martial Law had a beneficial effect, and the outbreak and outrages ceased soon afterwards.

I have shown already that martial law was proclaimed in only five districts—Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, Gujrat, and Lyallpore. It was abrogated in Gujrat District and most rural areas on May 28. On June 9 it was discontinued everywhere except the railways and Lahore and on June 11 it was discontinued at Lahore.

The information which the noble Earl wanted with regard to the Regulation of 1804 is this. It was an ancient law revived for a particular purpose. The impression which the noble Earl had with regard to it is hardly correct. The Regulation of 1804 merely empowers the Governor-General in Council to declare Martial Law when there is open rebellion or insurrection. That power exists by virtue of that Regulation, and was revived by legislation of the ordinary kind in 1872. That regulation therefore Means nothing more than this, that when there is insurrection or rebellion in any part of India it is competent to the Governor-General to declare Martial Law over these areas, and to continue it so long as the insurrection or rebellion exists.

I will deal next with the tribunals which administered the law during the time that Martial Law was in operation. They were of the following kind. First there was the special Commission, to which I referred just now, composed of two experienced Judges and one Indian magistrate which dealt with offences under Regulation 10 of 1804—that is to say, offences committed by people Who had been taken, so to speak, flagranti deliclo Later on, by another Regulation which the noble Earl mentioned, all other offences of a serious nature which the Local Government directed them to try or committed to them for the purpose of trying, were dealt with by them. That is the highest kind of tribunal that, existed during this time. Then there were Courts-martial which summarily disposed of offences against Martial Law—for example, Orders issued by the General Officer commanding, Curfew Orders ordering people not to go out at night after a certain time, Orders controlling the price of commodities such as foodstuffs, Orders to open shops, and so on. These were minor offences—breaches of rules and regulations made by the military authorities—and were punished by Regulations made by them which also defined the penalties. The offences were summarily tried and are in any case not punishable with higher punishments than two years imprisonment. There were also in operation the ordinary Criminal Courts which dealt with ordinary offences as well as offences arising out of these disturbances. Just as Martial Law has been altogether abrogated in the whole of the area since June, so all Martial Law tribunals have now been dissolved, and there is only one tribunal under the Defence of India Act still sitting and it has one or two more cases to try.

I will now give your Lordships the number of persons convicted by these different tribunals, the nature of the sentences, and what has been done by way of commutation. The most serious cases were all tried by the special Commissions. They tried 852 persons altogether, and 582 of them were convicted and 270 were acquitted. Offences against Martial Law Orders disposed of summarily, so far as figures are available up to now, were altogether about 1,500 cases. These were disposed of either by the summary Courts-Martial or by the ordinary Courts. I have already mentioned in connection with the sentences inflicted that it must be borne in mind that the special Commissions only tried cases of the most serious nature in which people were charged either with waging war, or with sedition, or with something of that kind, and under the law most of the offences were punishable, without alternative, either with death or with transportation for life. But sentences have from the beginning been subject to revision by the Local Government and the Government of India. Reductions and commutations have been decided on by the Local Government, and in nearly 500 cases large reductions have been granted. Apart from the above, all sentences by forfeiture are, without exception, being remitted by the Local Government.


I do not know if the noble Lord gave the sentences actually imposed in the first instance. I do not think I caught them.


I have mentioned the number of persons convicted. With regard to the sentences, I have not yet given the details.


Having got the number convicted, I wanted to know what the original sentences were in those cases.


The original sentences were, in 108 cases the death sentence. Of these, 18 have been executed, not having appealed; 28 out of the 108 have been reduced to transportation for life, 23 to imprisonment for 10 years, 13 to imprisonment for 7 years, 21 to shorter terms of imprisonment, and there are 5 cases now to be dealt with by the Privy Council. The rest of the cases are also pending, inasmuch as the same point that had arisen in the case now under appeal also arises in them. But out of the 108 sentences awarded, only 18 were executed. And, as the Government of India informed us, the principle upon which the commutations have been granted is this—whenever there has been no factor of actual murder they have commuted the capital sentences either to imprisonment or transportation. As regards convictions by the inferior Summary Courts, there are about 1,500 of them. They are being separately reviewed case by case by the local Governments, which will doubtless grant reductions on a generous scale as they have done in the other cases.

With regard to the specific case of Mr. Harkissen Lal and those who were tried with him, I have already said that the offence with regard to which they were charged and of which they have been found guilty by the Special Commission, composed as I have already stated, was an offence under Section 121A—namely, of waging war, or conspiracy to wage war. The only sentence possible for the Court to award was that which it did award, namely transportation for life and forfeiture. That has been commuted. These cases are all now under appeal to the Privy Council, and therefore I consider that it would not be right and proper for me to deal with the facts of the case, or to deal with the question how far the facts of the case justified the verdict of the Court which tried them. Nor have I got the judgments with me even to place the findings in extenso before your Lordships. But from the short telegraphic summary that we have received in the India Office I can only say that it is stated that the findings of the Commissions are that the mob was incited to violence by their inflammatory speeches and that in effect they were the chief local organisers of the risings—not that they had been convicted as the noble Earl's information seemed [...] suggest, of waging war because they advised people to close shops. However that may be, their sentences have been reviewed and revised by the local Government, and reduced, as I have already said, in Mr. Harkissen Lal's case to two years' rigorous imprisonment, and to other terms of imprisonment for the others who were co-accused with him and convicted with him.

Having regard to what has fallen from the noble Earl, as well as from Lord Sydenham, I should like to repeat what the Secretary of State said with the concurrence of the Viceroy in another place on May 22 last—namely, that you cannot have disturbances of this kind and of this magnitude without an Inquiry into the causes and into the measures taken to cope with these disturbances. In circumstances of this kind time immediate and paramount duty (I think your Lordships will agree with me) of the Government of India was to protect life and to restore order; and at the same time it must use, as it was bound to use, the exceptional powers at its disposal only so far as was necessary for the immediate purpose; actions necessarily prompt, probably hasty, have to be reviewed and revised when order has once more been restored with a view to ensuring the confidence of the well-disposed that the action had been adequate and not merciless, sufficient but not excessive. The time has now arrived for this stage, and the Secretary of State and the Viceroy have been in constant communication by cable and I have every hope that a definite announcement with regard to the promised Inquiry will be duly made, and within a short time.


The noble Earl has not answered one point. Is there any censorship of free communication by Press cables between India and this country at the present time?


I am afraid I am not able to answer that to-day.


I am loth to intrude with a trivial criticism while a subject so grave as this is is being discussed, but there is one thing I should like to ask the noble Lord, who sought to inflict a severe snub on Lord Sydenham by flatly contradicting his statement that the closing of shops was the signal for revolt. He went further and said there was no information in the India Office which would confirm that opinion. How on earth did the noble Lord the Under-Secretary know that my noble friend was going to make that particular statement, and how in the brief period, less than two minutes, which elapsed between his remarks and the Under-Secretary's reply was it possible for hint to make a search in the archives of the India Office which would justify so sweeping a statement as that? Unless the noble Lord has got the gift of second sight I cannot imagine anything that could have justified a statement of that kind. There are many things in India which are well known to those who have been there for which. I daresay, it would not be possible to find documentary evidence in the India Office, and the fact that my noble friend has not seen anything in the India Office to confirm his view is no proof that such a thing does not exist in India.


I must have made myself very much misunderstood if the noble Lord thought that I was administering a snub to Lord Sydenham when I made that statement. All I meant to say was this that, so far as I was concerned, I had no knowledge than it was a fact that the closing of shops was a signal of revolt. I have never heard it, I have never read it, I have not seen it stated either by any persons or in any book. I will also say this, that in connection with these disturbances and all the reports made front the Government of India to the India Office with which I have endeavoured to make myself familiar, I have not come across any statement to that effect by any person of authority or otherwise. And therefore, if I may humbly venture to say so, it did not require any foresight on toy part to know, or any second sight on my part to be able to answer, the statement which was made by the noble Lord when he said that was his impression—because I take it it is nothing more than that, for the noble Lord did not himself say that to his knowledge the closing of shops was a signal for revolt. It must be something which he has heard or read, and all I intended to say was that my knowledge and my information did not support that, and, so far as the reports in connection with these disturb ances are concerned, all of which I have read, there is nothing to support the idea that the closing of shops was a signal for revolt. On the contrary, the reports show that the closing of shops was nothing more than a protest against the passing of obnoxious legislation.


May I correct the noble Lord on one point. I did not say the closing of shops was a signal for "revolt"; I said for "riot," which is a very different matter. In the Punjab it was revolt, but in Bombay we know perfectly well if there is going to be a riot by the fact that the shops are being closed.


I mis-heard the noble Lord, and that is why I said that that was not my information.