Archive Item of the Week

Item of the week, October 7th, 2010

India and the Report of the Joint Select Committee , written by the Duchess of Atholl (M.P), and J.C French (Member of the Indian Legislative Assembly, 1929-1932).

Katherine Steward-Murray, also know as the Duchess of Atholl, is a British political figure. She became Scotland’s first elected female MP, and the first female Conservative minister in 1924. During her political career, she courted much political controversy as she began to take an interest in ‘international’ campaigns, most notably the problems facing the transfer of power in the Indian empire, and the controversial issue of African female circumcision.

This pamphlet from the GWL archive, written by the Duchess of Atholl, investigates the state of India, and the problems with governing such a large culturally and ethnically diverse ‘empire’. It looks at the size of the country itself and the relative size of the populations of peoples within India, as well as the religious tensions present within the country.

She was not content with her party’s intentions to establish Indian self-rule, as she was certain that this would cause civil unrest and eventually war, and it is this which is at the heart of her arguments in this pamphlet.

Under the proposed Constitution there must be a Hindu majority in the All India Federal Assembly, for the Hindus outnumbered the Mahomedans [Muslims], both in British India and in the States, by more than three to one. But in the north-west of India there is a great block of Mahomedans… Will these men tamely submit rule?… It is this Hindu- Mohamedan  question which brought us into India, has kept us there until now, and must continue keep us there in the interests of peace…  (p 22, India, and the Report of the Joint Select Committee)

Despite it’s justification of continued British colonial involvement in India, the pamphlet does raise important points about how Indian self-government should work, and outwardly criticises the policy of the British government. The pamphlet points out that the establishment of parliamentary government in India should not be the result of an ‘overnight’ transfer of power, but should come about through a process of change and adjustment. She argues that “prudence” is necessary when you make political and economic changes to a country as large and diverse as India. The establishment of an Act, such as the India Act, is not adequate enough to bring peaceful and lawful governance.

Her opposition to her own party’s attitude towards Indian self rule contributed to her being sidelined in British politics, and in 1935 after the India Act was passed, she resigned for several months. The act itself was for the most part disliked in Britain and in India, as it did not go far enough in giving Indian’s governance of their own country, and was perceived by colonialists as not protecting British interests.

The impact of the Duchess of Atholl in British politics should not be underestimated. Throughout her career as a politician she consistently campaigned on issues which she felt were being ignored by British parliamentary politics, and was a pioneering female political figure. This pamphlet, despite upholding imperialism, exemplifies this desire to broaden contemporary political debate, and her unwillingness to tow the party line.

For further information on the Duchess of Atholl, you can consult the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, and online biographies.

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