'A little old man who has renounced personal possessions, walking with bare
feet on the cold earth in search of a great human ideal'
Phillips Talbot, South Asia correspondent of the Chicago Daily during Independence, was an eyewitness to history. He traveled to Noakhali, West Bengal, and spent time with Mahatma Gandhi during the communal violence there.
In a fascinating letter to a friend in New York, he conveyed his impressions of his encounter with Gandhi. Currently president emeritus at the Asia Society, New York, Mr Talbot granted Rediff On The NeT permission to use this letter from his archives in the Freedom section.
22 Ferozshah Road
New Delhi, India
February 16, 1947
Mr Walter S Rogers
Institute of Current World Affairs
522 Fifth Avenue
New York 18, New York
Dear Mr Rogers,
Two weeks ago I traveled for five days in order to walk for an
hour with Gandhi.
The journey was worth the effort. It was revealing to watch Gandhi
throwing himself during this critical season into the remoteness
of East Bengal's Noakhali district for a barefooted village-to-village
pilgrimage in search of Hindu-Muslim amity. Here was a 77-year-old
ascetic, rising above the physical ordeal, immersed in a peculiarly
Indian approach to the cleavage that threatens the country.
The region in which Gandhi has secluded himself is deep in the
Ganges-Brahmaputra delta; one of the least accessible flat lands
of India. To reach his party, I traveled by air, rail, steamer,
bicycle, and on foot.
Hardly a wheel turns in this teeming, jute-and-rice-growing delta.
I saw no motorable road. The bullock cart, one of India's truest
symbols, does not exist here. The civilisation is amphibious,
as fields are always flooded between April and October. In the
wet season little remains above water except occasional ribbons
of bund and isolated village clumps marked by coconut
palms, bamboos, and betel trees. People stay at home or, at best,
move about in hand-hewn skiffs. Though some of their crops grow
under water, they farm mostly in the winter dry season.
Here, in an entirely rural area about forty miles square, are
jammed nearly two and half million people: 1,400 per square mile
or more than two per acre. Eighty per cent of these peasants are
Muslims. Apart from a few wealthy families they "have nothing
but their numbers", in the words of one senior Muslim official.
Impoverished cultivators racially indistinguishable from their
Hindu neighbors, they suffered severely in the 1943 Bengal famine.
The tiny Hindu minority in this region is divided into two groups,
of whom the more numerous are also peasants and low caste village
artisans. With the upper crust of landlords, moneylenders, grain
merchants, and lawyers, peasants of both communities had shared
little sympathy for many years past, I judged.
In this closely-packed, rupee-starved, isolated district, terror
struck last fall in the wake of vicious riots in Calcutta and
other Indian cities. It was the first real flare-up in a rural
area. Roving bands paddled over the flooded fields from village
to village, killing Hindus, looting and burning their property,
abducting some women, and registering conversions from Hinduism
to Islam. Many of those murdered and robbed were the wealthy who
had incurred the peasants's ire in 1943. The movement took a communal
twist, however, from politicians (since disowned by the Muslim
League) who led the village crowds with the cry of Pakistan. In
some villages mobs burned huts even of outcastes.
The upheaval swept over about half the district. Perhaps a million
people were caught up in the turmoil, and refugees eventually
were counted in tens of thousands. This was bad enough. But the
effect was multiplied a thousand-fold across the breadth of Hindu
India by exaggerated, inflammatory reports of what had occurred.
This was the pitch of feeling in India when Gandhi decided to
go to East Bengal himself. A few days before he left Delhi, Mildred
and I walked with him for half an hour in the sweepers' settlement
where he stayed and talked of the wave of mass fratricide which
was then rolling over the country. Although he denied letting
emotions affect his judgement, we sensed a feeling of frustration,
if not of failure. This had nothing to do with the validity of
the creed of non-violence itself. Its truth, he repeated, could
never be challenged. But he could not be happy with the way in
which his teachings were being flouted.
To test the applicability of his faith, therefore, he went to
the heart of the trouble. He chose East Bengal, and when people
asked why he had not gone to Bihar province where the damage was
greater and the culprits were Hindus, he replied that the people
of Bihar had repented. Besides, he said, he could control the
government and people of Bihar from Noakhali, but had no special
powers over the people of Noakhali.
In a tiny village that suddenly
acquired fame, bustling visitors, police attendants, press observers
and even telegraph facilities, the old man settled into a hut
and began meeting people, hearing their stories and assessing
the task ahead of him. Finally, early in January, he began the
trek that will take its place in the Gandhi epic as the East Bengal
Kind courtesy: New India Digest, a journal to promote a better understanding of modern India. Readers who wish to subscribe to New India Digest may write to India Digest Foundation, Sahaydri Sadan, Tilak Road, Pune 411030.