Indian Independence Bill
HLRO Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons,
Fifth Series, vol. 439, cols. 2441-2446

Indian Independence Bill
10 JULY 1947
- Second Reading


Order for Second Reading read.

3.51 p.m.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee):
I have it in Command from His Majesty to acquaint the House that he places his Prerogative and interests, so far as concerns the matters dealt with by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am afraid I shall have to ask the indulgence of the House for taking up more of its time than is my custom, but the theme is a great one. There will also be passages which I am afraid I shall have to read, as verbal accuracy in dealing with some high matters is important. This Bill brings to an end one chapter in the long connection between Britain and India, but it opens another. British rule which has endured so long is now, at the instance of this country, coming to an end.

There have been many instances in history when States at the point of the sword have been forced to surrender government over another people. It is very rare for a people that have long enjoyed power over another nation to surrender it voluntarily. My mind recalls as the nearest parallel the action of the Liberal Government of Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, in 1906, when he gave back to the Dutch in South Africa the freedom to manage their own affairs which they had lost in the South African war. That was a great act of faith, an act of faith which bore fruit both in 1914 and 1939. I have often heard that great South African statesman, General Smuts, describing it as marking the end of imperialism. I regret, and I am sure the House will regret, that the statesman, who was then a young Under-Secretary, who had the honour of announcing the decision of the Government to extend responsible government to the Transvaal 41 years ago - the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Opposition - is not, for reasons which we all know, able to be present at our Debate today.

One would be tempted to speak at length on the history of the British in

India, but that would take up far too much time. I would only allude to a few points. The history of our connection in India begins with our trading ventures, the story of the East India Company. It goes on with the contest with the French for the mastery of the peninsula, the gradual extension of British power, partly by conquest but still more by voluntary cession of authority to the British by those who sought, under our aegis, the peace and security often denied to them during the anarchic period that followed the breakdown of the Mogul Empire.

We can recall how, 90 years ago, the Government of the East India Company came to an end when Parliament assumed responsibility for Indian affairs. During those long years there has been a change in the spirit of British administration. In the earlier days we were concerned mainly with trade providing opportunities for making fortunes. In the eighteenth century British citizens returning from India had often made fortunes and were known as nabobs. But, as time went on, there was an increasing appreciation of the responsibility which fell to the government of the East India Company, a responsibility for the lives of many millions who sought justice and a quiet life. The British administrator in India became more and more deeply concerned with the well-being of the people of India, the well-being of that great congeries of people divided by race, by caste, language and religion in this sub-continent.

To this change of spirit the House of Commons, in many famous Debates from the time of Burke onwards, made a most notable contribution. Perhaps it is not always realised how early that change took place. It was long before the transfer of sovereignty to the Crown. In the early days of the nineteenth century, great men, such as Sir Thomas Munro in Madras, set the standards which have since been followed by so many who have served India. Looking back today over the years, we may well be proud of the work which our fellow citizens have done in India. There have, of course, been mistakes, there have been failures, but we can assert that our rule in India will stand comparison with that of any other nation which has been charged with the ruling of a people so different from themselves.There has been a great succession of Viceroys who have made their particular

Indian Independence Bill
- Second Reading

[The Prime Minister.]  

contributions and sought to serve India faithfully. I think not least among them would be accounted the present Viceroy. There is a roll of names of eminent Governors of Provinces, high among which is that of the right hon. Gentleman The Member for Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson). There has been a multitude of administrators, soldiers, missionaries and others who have served India with great devotion and have loved the Indian people. In every part of India are the graves of those who died in her service. Not least among those who have served India are the men who in the difficult and exacting times of the last four decades, under the stress of two great wars with all their repercussions on Indian life, have worked in the changing conditions that have resulted from the rise of Indian nationalism and the development of self-government.

May I recall here a thing that is not always remembered, that just as India owes her unity and freedom from external aggression to the British, so the Indian National Congress itself was founded and inspired by men of our own race, and further, that any judgment passed on our rule in India by Indians is passed on the basis, not of what obtained in the past in India, but on the principles which we have ourselves instilled into them. I am well aware that many of those who have been closely associated with India are anxious about the future of the millions for whom we are now relinquishing responsibility. I can understand their anxiety. They fear that the work to which they have devoted themselves for so many years may be brought to nought. They are anxious for those who would suffer most from a breakdown of administration - the poorest sections of the community.

We must all be anxious, but I think everybody realises that the service of Britain to India must now take another form. The constitutional change, vital as it is, does not, of course, mean the disappearance of the civilian European community in India. Not a few of those of the British race who have been in the Services in India will, we confidently expect, be willing, at the invitation of the two new Governments, to continue in official service in India and Pakistan. The business community in India has still, I am confident, a role to play in main-

taining, between the populations in India and this country, trade and commerce, to the great benefit of both. To all those men and women, who, although domiciled in the United Kingdom, are intending to remain in India after Pakistan, I would say: "You have a great task in front of you, namely, to cement the bonds of friendship between this country, India and Pakistan. You can accomplish as least as much in achieving this end as can the British Government."

Many years ago, when we began the association of Indians in the responsibility of Government and set ourselves to train them in the methods of democracy, it was obvious that the time would come, sooner or later, when Indians would seek to secure the entire management of their own affairs. This was clear many years ago to some of our wisest administrators, and I quote from a letter of Mountstuart Elphinstone as long ago as 1854:
"The moral is that we must not dream of perpetual possession, but must apply ourselves to bring the natives into a state that will admit of their governing themselves in a a manner that may be beneficial to our interests as well as their own, and that of the rest of the world; and to take the glory of the achievement and the sense of having done our duty for the chief reward of our exertions."
It has been the settled policy of all parties in this country for many years that Indians, in course of time, should manage their own affairs. The question has always been how and when? It would, I think, be unprofitable today to go back into the past and to question whether, if some particular action had been taken by a British Government earlier, or if a different line of conduct had been taken by the Indian political leaders on certain occasions, a more satisfactory solution might have been found than that which I am commending to the House today.

There are hon. Members of this House, such as the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Reed), whose connection with the Indian problem goes back far beyond mine. Some 20 years ago, I was first brought into contact with it by being placed on the Simon Commission, and I think they would agree with me that the major difficulty that has faced all of us in considering the best way of achieving

Indian Independence Bill
10 JULY 1947
- Second Reading

Indian self-government has been the absence of mutual trust and toleration between the communities. It has sometimes been said by our enemies that this was a difficulty created by ourselves in order to perpetuate our own rule. Nothing could be more untrue. This same difficulty, which faced Mr. Edwin Montagu and the Simon Commission, faced the President of the Board of Trade in his Mission and my three Cabinet colleagues in theirs, and it was still the outstanding difficulty of the present Viceroy when he took office. Everyone who has touched the Indian problem has been brought up against this stumbling-block. They have all wanted to maintain the unity of India, to give India complete self-government and to preserve the rights of minorities. Every one of them has hoped that a solution might be found without resorting to partition. I know that many Indians of all communities passionately desire this, but it has not been found to be practicable.

We and the Indian statesmen have had to accept the only alternative - partition. For myself, I earnestly hope that this severance may not endure, and that the two new Dominions which we now propose to set up may, in course of time, come together again to form one great member State of the British Commonwealth of Nations. But this is entirely a matter for the Indians themselves. The demand for self-government has been insistently pressed for many years by the leaders of political thought in India, and has been stimulated by the external situation, and particularly by those great waves of nationalist feeling that accompanied both the great wars. This demand is not peculiar to India, but has spread throughout Asia. It is the natural result of contact by dwellers in other continents with European political thought. The chief question has been as to how this desire could be gratified. Delay in granting it has always led to more and more extreme demands.

There has been a tendency to consider that nothing short of complete and absolute severance would satisfy this urge. There is a desire by some to cut every tie which connects them with their former rulers. On the other hand, in the age in which we live, there are very strong reasons which militate against the complete isolation which some demand. Many
countries that long enjoyed their freedom and independence have lost it either permanently or temporarily, and some form of association with others for security and greater prosperity is the desire of many peoples. The League of Nations and the United Nations organisation express this desire, but the one great practical example of how complete freedom and independence can be combined with inclusion in a greater whole is the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The British Commonwealth of Nations is so unique that its nature is still not fully comprehended, and even many of our American friends do not understand that the Dominions are as free as Great Britain. They do not appreciate that membership of the British Commonwealth, in the words of the Prime Minister of New Zealand is, "independence with something added, not independence with something taken away." In this Bill, we set up two independent Dominions, free and equal, of no less status than the United Kingdom or the Dominion of Canada, completely free in all respects from any control by this country, but united by a common allegiance to the Sovereign and by a community of ideas, receiving from their membership of the Commonwealth great advantages, but in no way suffering any restriction. The Title of this Bill expresses this fact that the independence which has been the goal for so long of many Indians can be, and I believe will be realised within the British Commonwealth of Nations. It is my hope that these two new Dominions may continue in this great association, giving and receiving benefits.

I saw with great regret in one paper, and I think in one paper only, that the action which we are now taking was described as abdication. It is not abdication, but the fulfilment of Britain's mission in India. It is the culminating point in a long course of events. The Morley-Minto proposals, the Montagu-Chelmsford proposals, the Simon Commission Report, the Round Table Conferences, the Act of 1935, the Declaration at the time of the Cripps Mission, the visit of my right hon. Friends to India last year, are all steps in the road that led up eventually to the proposals that I announced to the House on 3rd June last. This Bill is designed to implement those proposals, which met, I think, with general acceptance in this House and in the country.

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