Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

Life and Death in India

Death by starvation is not an unusual phenomenon in India, but when in the late summer of 1943, people began inconsiderately and odorously to die along the sidewalks fronting the best hotels in the Empire's second city of Calcutta, India's hunger victims began to make headlines in the world press.

It was an offensive sight to the eyes of well-fed Westerners and Indians alike, to move along Calcutta's streets, perhaps en route to select a seven course meal from a choice of fifteen or twenty dishes at the Great Eastern Hotel or Firpo's Restaurant, to contemplate scores of sprawling emaciated wrecks with empty bellies and shrunken limbs waiting for death to end their agonies. Their glazing eyes followed questioningly, hopelessly as one hurried past. They rarely spoke, seldom pushed forward an empty plate for food. They were neither beggars nor knew how to beg. They were villagers, artisans, peasants, labourers — a cross section of Bengal life, driven to Calcutta by aching stomachs.

Calcutta was the Mecca to which they had struggled because there, in the great capital, there must be stores of rice. Some were delegates from families in distant villages, entrusted with the last pieces of money that could be gathered together that they might buy rice in the city and take it back home. But prices were higher in Calcutta than in the villages, their money ran out feeding themselves. Their families waited and starved in the country; the delegates died in the city streets.

Each morning the trucks rolled round the suburbs of Calcutta, like the plague carts of seventeenth century England. Bring out your dead! By September and October they were picking them up — mainly women and children — at the rate of a hundred a day. The burning ghats at the river's edge couldn't cope with the Hindu bodies that were sent from hospital and corpse collecting squads. Muslim burial parties in the villages were too weak to dig graves, and they let the bodies float down to the sea. The air was tainted with the smell of the dying — a peculiar distinctive sourish odor which the victims gave off a few hours before the end.

By day malignant looking, bald headed vultures squatted broodingly in the tree-tops, swooping down in the evenings in search of unclaimed dead. On the roads at night, jackals did not even wait for the end to come.

Little children that seemed all heads, heads that were only two staring eyes, until you wrenched your glance from their heart-searching appeal and peered lower to see sticks of arms and legs from which flesh and rumps had disappeared, and a skin like burnt paper, through which bones and ribs could be counted, were the worst sufferers. Helplessly they sat, dazedly they regarded the strange city sights, dumbly they suffered and died. Babies sucked at breasts that were empty or already clay.

Down at the banks of the Hoogli river, a fanatic devotee of the Goddess of death, Kali, with whitened skulls dangling by chains from his wrists and neck, a crooked staff in his hands, danced in lecherous frenzies of delight as each fresh batch of bodies was carried in from the death carts. The fire-tenders did their best, but there were no natural fats left in these bodies to feed the flames. Wood fuel had gone up in price; day-old bodies were piled up awaiting their turn for cremation.

Each train that pulled into Howrah station disgorged hundreds more eventual candidates for Kali. They were packed into third-class compartments, crowded on the rooftops, squatting underneath on car axles, even standing on the buffers. Many had no strength to carry themselves out of the station, but huddled on platforms or on the sidewalks in front, vainly hoping that "government" would do something for them.

At stations ten or twenty miles from Calcutta, where freight trains with sealed trucks of bulk rice paused before being shunted to private sidings, starving people scrambled amongst the rock ballast to pick up the few precious grains that dropped from the cars. Hardly had a train stopped than it was surrounded by hundreds of people armed with pieces of thin wire or knives. They ingeniously inserted them in the cracks between the boxcar steel doors, pried and wiggled until a tiny stream of grain began trickling into waiting caps or hands. In the few hours that a train waited one could catch enough rice for a decent meal. The police rarely interfered. Who could not have sympathy for these wretched fellow humans? In any case, better the grain go straight into the mouths of the hungry than the hoards of the black marketing merchants.

Along the country roads there were lines of dusty scarecrows, predominantly women accompanied by children with bloated bellies and shrivelled limbs, moving towards the magic capital, where surely food must be abundant. Skeletons already whitening — for vultures and the Bengal sun bleach and clean a corpse within a few days — were huddled in the postures in which death had overtaken them along the roadside. Jackals and vultures obviated the need for corpse] disposal squads in the country. Sunken eyes gazed hopelessly at the flourishing crops of grain in the fields — Bengal's most bountiful winter rice harvest for half a century — but not to ripen for a couple of months yet.

For more than twelve months there had been warnings in the press that a food crisis in Bengal was imminent, but the public in India through government spokesmen, and in England by Mr. Amery, Secretary of State for India, were assured with soft, calming words, that all was well. Early in 1943 Mr. Amery assured the House of Commons that there would be no famine in India. Through July and August of that year came alarming reports of skyrocketing food prices and widespread distress, but as long as people were content to die quietly in their villages little notice was taken. By September they had the temerity to come to Calcutta to die and by October the stench of death even reached as far as the Viceroy's palace, and it was felt something ought to be done.

Back in New Delhi, Mr. Kirshner, who as Chief Press "Adviser" to the Government of India, decided what the world public should know about Indian affairs, had evolved a formula for the terms of reference a correspondent might use in cabling stories about conditions in Bengal. The macabre skeletons littering Calcutta's streets might be referred to as "sick destitutes"; the catastrophe that produced the curious and hitherto unclassified disease of "destitute sickness" might be called "food shortage." Not on any account should the words "starvation" or "famine" be used.

The Central government sitting in the circular sandstone mausoleum at New Delhi blandly absolved itself of any responsibility for happenings in Bengal, announcing that any interference from the Centre "would cut right across the principles of provincial autonomy as provided by the 1935 constitution."

The 1943 famine with its toll of unknown and unknowable millions of lives — Mr. Amery refuted local estimates of upwards of six millions by announcing that "not more than a million died" — is as good a starting point as any for a brief look at the ills of the body, political, social and economic in India. The starving Bengalese, by flocking to the streets of India's largest city to die, underlined weaknesses which had only been hinted at in the past, and at least served the purpose of turning world attention for a brief moment to some of the problems that face a sixth of the world's people. The Bengal famine contained the elements of all the troubles that vex India; communal differences, party jealousies; the cumbersome machinery of provincial relations with the Centre; pressure of population on production; corruption and indifference of government and Indians alike to the sufferings of the lower strata; inefficiency and muddleheadedness of British administration.

First of all a few elementary facts, necessary to any understanding of why the Bengal famine came about. The 1941 census alarmingly showed that India's population was increasing at a rate of five millions each year. Agricultural production is not keeping pace with population increase, and in a normal year, allowing only one pound of food grains per head of population, India is between five and ten million tons short of rice. In pre-war days one and a half million tons were imported from Burma. Sixty per cent of the people are chronically undernourished, a proportion between harvests are on the verge of starvation, a smaller proportion are on the verge all the time. It needs only a slight upset in the balance between availability and appetite to cause a catastrophe.

India has an overall population of 390,000,000, of whom 93,000,000 live in 562 feudal autocratic states, ruled over by mediaeval rajahs, maharajahs, nizams, gaikwars, et cetera. The States have separate treaties with Britain dating back to the days when they capitulated in face of the British invasion, or remained neutral during the Indian Mutiny. The rulers are assisted by British "advisers" or "agents."

The remaining 300,000,000 Indians are divided between the eleven provinces of British India. Eighty per cent. of the total population are agriculturists, nearly ninety per cent. are village dwellers. Under the 1935 constitution, provincial governments were elected on a limited franchise basis in the eleven provinces in British India, and continued in office till the outbreak of the European war. In eight of the provinces, Bihar, Bombay, Orissa, Madras, United Provinces, Central Provinces, Assam and the North West Frontier, Congress ministries were in power, in the remaining three, Bengal, Punjab and the Sind, where Muslims are in the majority, composite ministries were formed under Muslim premiers. When the Viceroy, without consent of the elected governments, committed India to support of the war against Germany, the eight Congress ministries resigned, but the composites, including Bengal, decided to carry on.

Ruling over the whole of India is the Viceroy, direct deputy of the King-Emperor, responsible through the Secretary of State for India to the British Government. Assisting the Viceroy is an Executive Council of British and Indian appointed members, corresponding in so far as they are each heads of departments, to Cabinet Ministers in England, or Secretaries in the United States. An important difference, however, is that they are responsible to the Viceroy, and not to any electors.

A two-house Central Legislature, consisting of part elected and part appointed members, meets in New Delhi to debate matters and introduce bills affecting the country as a whole. As the Viceroy has powers of veto over any laws passed by the legislature, its powers are strictly limited. The Central All-India Legislature has no relationship to the provincial governments, nor has it any real relationship to the Viceroy's Executive Council.

The real work of governing India, insofar as British administration is concerned, is in the hands of the Indian Civil Service. Originally inherited from the East India Company's officers, it was entirely British, but now comprises 573 English and 632 Indian members. Membership of the Indian Civil Service is considered a high social distinction in India, and it is subdivided into a pyramidal hierarchy, with appropriate military rank automatically accorded each grade of the service. Employees are entitled to, and do, use the letters I.C.S. after their name, and on the brass name plates fronting their residences.

When former I.C.S. members from the Burma government (originally part of the Indian administration) were taken into para-military Burma Civil Affairs administration, each was given the badges and rank equivalent to his former civil status, of assistant superintendent, district officer, district commissioner, et cetera.

The Central government, that is, the Viceroy and his Executive Council, control defence, foreign affairs, post and telegraph services, railways, income tax revenue, customs and currency. There is ample provision for intervention on provincial affairs, one reason being "in case a state of famine is declared," while the "Defence of India Act" gives the Centre unlimited powers to deal with anything that comes under the wide definition of hampering the war effort.

There is no automatic machinery by which provincial governments can get together with the Central government, or by which provincial premiers can meet together in conference. One of the subjects with which provincial governments deal is food — unless, as mentioned above, a "state of famine" is declared, and the responsibility passes to the Centre. However, late in 1942, food was already recognised by the Centre as an All-India subject, by the decision to launch a "Grow More Food" campaign.

Bengal province at the time of the 1943 famine had a population of 63,000,000, of whom 55 per cent. were Muslims, the rest Hindus, the total being added to at the rate of almost a million each year. In normal times, Bengal produced insufficient rice for its own needs. The largest rice-producing province in India, it exported high grade rice to Arabia, Ceylon and Persia, importing about 200,000 tons in excess of exports of lower quality grain from Burma. Unlike many other provinces the Bengalese are exclusively rice-eaters, refusing to use wheat, millet or maize products consumed elsewhere.

By 1942 imports from Burma had ceased, and the inevitability of food shortage in Bengal was first realised. Then occurred a succession of accessories to the fact of famine. Hundreds of thousands of Indian refugees poured into the province from Burma. Hundreds of thousands of rice-eating soldiery poured in from the rest of India, to be posted along the Bengal-Burma frontiers or installed in training camps in the province, making a total of nearly half a million extra mouths to feed.

In order to prevent Japanese infiltration through the myriad waterways along the rich Brahmaputra and Ganges delta region, thousands of boats and sampans were rounded up and either destroyed or removed. This was probably a justifiable military move, but it made inter-village distribution of rice impossible in areas where the waterways are the sole means of communication. The military act was not accompanied by a compensatory civil measure to ensure that inter-village commerce was possible.

The final crushing blow was a series of natural disasters, beginning with the terrible tidal wave in east Bengal in late 1942, which claimed fifteen thousand humans, a quarter of a million cattle and destroyed a million and a half tons of rice, ending with the enormous devastation caused by the Midnapore cyclone of early 1943. The "smart" merchants saw the writing on the wall and began quietly buying up foodstuffs wherever they could lay hands on it.

A vicious spiral of inflation and hoarding set in, and neither the provincial government in Calcutta nor the Centre in Delhi lifted a finger to stop it. The Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, partly because of extreme ill-health, took little interest in the problem. Rice began to disappear from the grain markets. The villagers, at first selling recklessly at tempting prices offered by travelling buyers, who resold in the city at fantastic profits, later hoarded for their own needs. Rice prices jumped from double to a hundred times normal within the three months July to October, eventually being pegged by the government at ten times normal — when one could buy it through official channels.

On the bottom end of the scale were the landless population of the villages — blacksmiths, cobblers, carpenters, agricultural labourers, brassworkers and other artisans, who depended on the small village surplus for their supplies. Most of the surpluses had already passed into the hands of the city speculators. In thousands of small villages people began selling their household possessions, women their little pieces of silver jewellery, just to buy a few days' food supply, until all their wealth had disappeared and they had only their empty stomachs left. Then they began their trek to the larger towns in hope of finding food and the earnings to buy it with.

At the top of the scale were the rich merchants and speculators who had cornered thousands of sacks of rice and bought and sold amongst themselves as if they were dealing in stocks and shares instead of human lives. Between the merchants and landless artisans were the small-scale farmers, lower paid white-collar workers, minor government officials and even struggling professional people who suddenly found their earnings would feed them for a couple of days in the week — and even then poorly.

That there were huge rice stocks in the hands of the Calcutta merchants everybody knew, but the Bengal government seemed to lack the energy to seize it, or even to attempt to fix food prices. The provincial government's handling of the situation was handicapped because both Hindus and Muslims were playing politics, while the Viceroy, with his tongue in his cheek,, insisted that the Central government could not interfere in Bengal affairs.

In March, 1943, before the famine had really got under way, the composite Ministry of Mr. Fazlal Haq and Dr. Syam Prasad Mookerjee had resigned, its place taken by a Muslim League Ministry headed by Sir Nazimuddin and Food Minister Suhrawaddy. Fazlal Haq and Dr. Mookerjee — the latter leader of the ultra-nationalist, anti-Congress Hindu Mahassabha organisation — were at loggerheads with the new Muslim League Ministry from its inception. While thousands of people were dying in the, streets, the opposing political parties were much more concerned with laying the blame at each other's door than doing anything to rectify the situation. Haq said in effect "See what a mess you Muslim League people have made since you took over?" Nazimuddin retorted: "Impossible to correct in a few months the blunders you fellows have committed for the past years." Mookerjee howled for an inquiry into Muslim League interest in the grain trade. In press and parliament the parties tried to justify themselves and vilify their opponents, while the death toll steadily rose. Some British officials in Delhi who hadn't seen the appalling effects of the muddle, seemed secretly pleased at the spectacle of Indian politicians running their country into ruin. "How can you give independence to such people?" they demanded.

For the Muslim League ministry to appeal direct to the Central government, or to declare a "state of famine" existed, would have meant loss of face, and Jinnah's first Muslim League Ministry in Bengal couldn't afford to have that happen. Failure of the government to take action against hoarders was charged by the Hindus to the fact that the chief hoarders were the Brothers Ispahan!, largest grain dealers in Bengal, and strong supporters of the Muslim League. To make matters worse the firm of Ispahani Bros., in which Hindus charged Food Minister Suhrawaddy had financial interest, had been appointed chief grain buying agents for the government.

Correspondents were hampered by the iniquitous censorship restrictions, and were not even allowed to cable back news items published in the local papers. It was not until Lady Linlithgow, wife of the Viceroy, made a broadcast appeal for relief of famine victims that we were able to cable something approaching the truth back to our papers abroad. By merely quoting the text of her appeal we were able to convey the idea that a catastrophe had stricken Bengal. Eventually we were able to use the words "starvation" and "famine," but at no time were what the censors regarded as "horror stories" permitted to leave the country. When the Bengal famine made front-line news in England and America, questions were asked in the House of Commons, and as a result the Central government was forced into action.

Private charitable organisations had started feeding people in Calcutta with whatever they could lay hands on. The Indian Army and American Red Cross contributed canned milk, various church societies, the British Friends' Ambulance Unit, Hindu and Muslim relief organisations started distributing food in public parks and buildings. At first the government complained that this sort of thing would only attract more "sick destitutes" to the capital, but at last decided to do something itself.

The main thing was to get more grain into the province, restore people's confidence and get released those stocks still available in Bengal. The Punjab had a large grain surplus, but after a few preliminary shipments, could not be persuaded to send more because "prices were not high enough." The Central government forced compulsory conferences, and it was discovered the Punjab farmers didn't really object to the prices offered, but they did object to the large profits the Bengal government and individual dealers were making on the rice sent for relief. It was disclosed that nearly half a million rupees ($150,000) had been made on the first shipments.

It took weeks of cajoling and eventually threats to wring any more grain out of the Punjab. When grain began rolling to Calcutta it mysteriously disappeared on arrival. In Delhi you could go to the Food Ministry and look at fascinating charts showing the movements of grain by railway and ship towards Calcutta, but you could go to Calcutta and find the grain markets empty, and no trace of the rice once it was unloaded from the freight cars. That much of it disappeared into the hands of the hoarders and speculators was certain. The trade unions and Communist party in Calcutta organised vigilance committees that unearthed great stocks of rice, but during the whole course of the famine no prosecutions were launched against hoarders.

Throughout the famine rationing was not introduced in Calcutta. The wealthy could — and did — eat their fill at any of the big restaurants and hotels, choose a six or seven course meal from a twenty-dish menu — including rice curry. A tired, unimaginative Viceroy, long out of temper with Indians and their affairs, looked out from his five-and-a-half-million dollar palace, and didn't consider it worth while visiting Bengal to see conditions for himself. In any case he was only filling in time till his successor should arrive, so why add one more "unpleasant memory to the years of frustration in India?

The new Viceroy, Lord Wavell, arrived in New Delhi and left almost immediately for Calcutta. There had been a last-minute effort to clean up the city, push the human derelicts out of sight and burn up the accumulated deficit of bodies at the river's edge. But Wavell knew the ways of the bureaucrats. He made a midnight tour of the city, prodded and pried into side streets on unscheduled trips of his own, and saw sufficient in a few hours to give him some picture of the situation. He had terse words with the Bengal government, flew to one of the worst affected country districts at Contai and returned with a plan to go into operation immediately.

He had only just laid aside his Field Marshal's uniform for civilian dress, so it was natural he should look at the problem with the eye of a soldier. , His solution — call in the Army.

The news that the Army was to undertake distribution of rice to the villages was a blow to the black marketeers. Grain deliveries from the Punjab were speeded up. The sight of the first convoys of trucks manned by British and Indian soldiers, methodically pumping grain into distribution centres, plus the fact that shiploads of wheat were being rushed from Australia, frightened the hoarders into releasing their stocks. Fearing a sudden drop in prices would catch them with huge stocks of dearly-bought grain they disgorged, and there was a vast improvement in Calcutta. Within a few weeks of Wavel's visit to the capital rice re-appeared in the markets in almost normal quantities.

Military transport sufficient to shift over 2,000 tons of rice daily for three months was made available, and never has the Army in India performed an assignment better, nor enjoyed so much the doing of it. British troops and Indian sepoys rejoiced alike at the chance of carrying out a mercy task such as seldom comes in a soldier's line of duty. For once, troops moving through the Indian countryside brought life instead of death, for once a soldier's uniform was a symbol of humanity and kindliness instead of oppression and misery.

In their camps, warm-hearted soldiers had been helping unofficially long before they were ordered to the task. In many cases they had voluntarily gone on half rations and less, in order to feed the hungry from near-by communities. British troops often shared their rations with Indian comrades, so that the latter might give all their rice to the starving. Officers sometimes dipped into quartermasters' supplies to provide free handouts of grain.

During those three months of grain distribution by the army there was more goodwill created between British troops and the population than anytime since they have been stationed in India. '

Derelicts were rounded up in the Calcutta streets, sent to reception camps at the city's outskirts, fed and given medical treatment. If the army had already dumped sufficient food in their village to keep the place going until the next instalment arrived, refugees were transported back, otherwise they were looked after in the camps. Peasant carts and boats were pressed into service to keep the grain moving from the points where army transport ceased. Gradually the zone of plenty was widened until the precious grain was being fed to the furthest corners of the province.

For weeks after the army took over, however, the death rate was not reduced. Winter was coming on and people suffering from chronic malnutrition, who normally survived the crop of pulmonary epidemics which came with the winter months, had no chance, with their resistance lowered by a season of famine.

The startling discovery was made that Bengal, with its 63,000,000 population, had a total of 8,400 hospital beds. Calcutta, with its 3,000,000 population had only six small hospitals available for famine victims. Again the Army stepped in with medical aid and provision of beds in its own hospitals. Army doctors administered help in every building that could be wrested from the Bengal government and private charity. Only those, however, who were on the verge of death had the slightest chance of being hospitalised, so scarce were beds.

By the end of the year the Army had distributed relief in the form of food, clothing and medicines to more than ten million people, which gives some idea of the extent of the distress. By January, 1944, when rationing was first introduced, the bountiful "aman," or winter rice harvest, was coming on to the market, and the food shortage, if not over, at least was reduced to normal proportions.

While on the subject of the Bengal famine it is worthwhile noting some of the contributory causes to food shortage in India.

Methods of agriculture are archaic. Despite the great natural fertility of the soil, India's rice production per acre is less than half that of the United States, and only one-third that of Japan. The best natural fertiliser, the dung of more than a third of the world's cattle, is available in India, but instead of enriching the soil, it is dried and burned in the homes for cooking fuel.

Human excrement, which alone has kept China's fields producing rice for thousands of years, flows to the sea in India. The crops drag the goodness from the soil, and nothing is put back to refertilise it. Artificial manures are beyond reach of the vast majority of farmers.

Most of the ground is scratched to the depth of a few inches by ancient wooden ploughs, instead of being sliced deeply open by good steel ploughshares. The same few inches of top soil are used generation after generation, and without fertiliser, become exhausted. Small wonder that yields are low. Irrigation projects, apart from the Punjab and the State of Mysore, are few and far between. Tens of thousands of acres of land at present uncultivated, could — and must—be opened up by irrigation if India's present annual population increase of five million is maintained.

Some estimates give 50 per cent. as the proportion of available land actually cultivated. The rest lies idle because it is marginal land, unprofitable to farm by present methods.

Despite the establishment of a few agricultural colleges and research stations — the first Agricultural Research Institute incidentally was founded by a Mr. Henry Phipps of Chicago in 1904 — there has been virtually no application of modern science to India's food production. None of the fruit of India's meagre higher educational system returns to the village. The few wealthy landowners who can afford to have their children educated at all, want to see them established as professional men. In any case there are few inducements for a college student to forgo the delights of a city career in order to improve the lot of poverty-stricken peasants.

Most of the crops that have benefited by the research institutes have been those in which foreign capital has been interested, and which, capturing a competitive export market, depended on the quality of the products — for instance, tea, jute, tobacco and cotton. Rice — that's only coolie food! In a country where the peasantry is about ninety per cent. illiterate, there is no way in which ideas of new technique can reach the people. Even could they learn the new ways, most of them can't afford fertilisers or new implements, or take the risk of trying out new seeds and methods. One season's failure and a peasant is ruined. It seems that nothing less than an agricultural revolution on the Soviet scale can put India beyond reach of recurring famines.

One interesting point in connection with the Bengal famine was that the victims protested they could eat nothing but rice, and it was actually found in many cases that their stomachs had been so used to handling rice, and rice alone, that they rejected anything prepared from millet, wheat or maize. Many times I filled my pockets with bread rolls from the dining room at the Great Eastern Hotel and gave them to the emaciated unfortunates who camped on the sidewalks nearby. Some would slowly chew them, others would still be clutching them, uneaten, in their hands when I passed by hours later.

The Japanese made a bad blunder, from their own point of view, by bombing Chittagong and other Bengal areas during the height of the famine, adding the horror of fire and destruction to the misery of starvation. One British officer spoke truly when he told me:

"If the Japs had come over and bombed the villages with sacks of rice, they'd have had better results amongst the Indians in a few days than in months of propaganda pounded out over the radio. Fancy if they'd dropped leaflets with the rice, saying they were pushing in from Burma to save their Asiatic brothers, bringing rice with them. They had millions of tons of the stuff they didn't know what to do with in Burma. They could have put us in a lovely spot."

Fortunately for the Allied cause, the Japs didn't have enough imagination to carry out such a program, and they earned the undying hatred of thousands of Bengalese, who saw relief work being held up by Jap bombing raids.

If one wished to indulge in casuistry one could easily find half a dozen credible scape-goats responsible for the Bengal famine. One could blame the "force majeure" that caused the floods and cyclones; the peasants who in the first place did not grow enough rice; in the second place sold too much to the speculators; the speculators who tempted ignorant peasants with high prices; the merchants who kept the grain off the markets and sold it at enormous profits "under the lap"; the provincial government that refused to take swift action against black marketeers, and was slow in pressing for help from the Central government; the neighbouring provincial governments that refused to rush grain to stricken Bengal. There were many apologists for the Central Government in New Delhi who were eager to blame the catastrophe on one or a combination of these causes..

Without wishing to absolve merchants, speculators or the provincial governments for their contributions to the tragedy, we must look for the chief culprit elsewhere.

The British Government has assumed responsibility for administration in India, and cannot consider that responsibility discharged because a provincial assembly elected (under terms imposed by Britain in the 1935 constitution) by nine per cent of the people, falls down on the job. Until the Indian people have full charge of their own affairs the British Government must accept the ultimate responsibility for what happens in any part of India.

From the first moment that potential famine in Bengal was apparent the Central government had power to intervene. It was not slow to interfere in provincial matters in the past — to suppress newspapers, for instance, whose views were considered harmful. There are no words too harsh to condemn the inhuman conduct of the Indian speculators who traded in the flesh and blood of their fellow nationals; but sometimes sins of omission are as great as sins of commission. The Central government, from Lord Linlithgow down, were guilty of sins of omission, and must be considered primarily responsible for India's greatest tragedy for nearly half a century.

Part of the trouble was due to the same tendency that we had noted in the previous chapter, the well-known game played by both military and civil officials in India, known as "passing the buck."

The famine-stricken villages of Bengal were hardly fair examples on which to base an impression of Indian village life, so I made a brief tour with an intelligent Indian interpreter, of a group of five Indian villages, all within seven miles of New Delhi, to see how peasants lived under normal conditions.

In each of the villages visited the routine was roughly the same. A group of dirt-encrusted children would run away at our approach, then reappear peeping behind mother's skirts as the women folk came out to the low doorways of the mud hovels that formed solid walls to the dirt trails intersecting the village. The interpreter would hail the first men he saw and start talking with them. Within a few minutes peasants would leave their fields, artisans emerge from the houses to stroll across until we had gathered a large group. Then we would gravitate towards a shady tree with the women hovering in the background.

One scene particularly sticks in my mind. As we completed a mile walk along a terrible mud track, at the beginning of which we had had to park our car, two old greybeards, squatting in the dirt under a great spreading banyan tree, hurried to their feet, whipped off their close-fitting caps and salaamed us. One used his cap to wipe the dust off a rough stone seat, and they begged -us to be seated. A group of women in the background were moistening heaps of cow dung, patting handfuls into little cakes, then slapping them on the windowless mud walls of the houses to dry for future fuel. Between the village and the road, on each side of the mud trail, men and oxen were at work in the fields, ploughing and weeding.

The interpreter had some trouble in convincing the grey-beards that I was not a high government official - although strangely enough neither they nor anyone else from the other villages ever remembered a Westerner visiting them before. The interpreter explained to their mystified satisfaction that I was a visitor to the country, had been a farmer in Australia and wanted to know something about the lives of Indian farmers.

Soon we were joined by half a dozen men from the houses, and when those in the fields saw a crowd collecting they left their work and in twos or threes came over to us. Some brought with them their gentle-eyed oxen, pink skin showing through their soft white hairs, either hitching the cattle to the rambling roots of the banyan tree or else throwing the tether to semi-naked children, who peeped in through their elders' legs. Round the outer circle stood little girls, mostly with babies astride their hips, legs almost dragging in the dirt.

From time to time women with brass or earthenware pots on their heads would come towards the communal well at the side of the banyan tree, ostensibly to draw water, but really to listen in to the conversation. Flocks of socially conscious Indian minah birds hopped about chuckling over fat grubs picked out of the damp earth near the edge of the well. A smell of cow dung mixed with cheap cooking oil drifted over towards us, light blue smoke from the houses drifted lazily skywards. Along the highway a couple of miles distant a convoy of camel carts went past, the ungainly looking carts piled high with sugar cane, the camels' heads darting forward like snakes at each step.

At first it was difficult to get any replies to questions. Mostly the men just grinned until they nudged someone into unwilling spokesmanship. Then when he got stuck for words, they would shyly prompt him with the right answers. The question about the outlook for next harvest will produce a reaction from a farmer anywhere in the world, and it doesn't fail in India.

"Sahib. Our crops grow well so far. But if rain doesn't come soon, they will all be ruined. Already they show yellow at the roots." (It had been a particularly dry season in the Delhi area).

"Yes, sahib. Prices are good now, but then everything we buy is very high too. The war has made all prices go up. We can't afford to buy cloth any more, and we run short of cooking fat and oil for our lamps."

Most of the questions produced similar answers in all villages. The nearest school was from two to five miles away, and no children went to school because their labour was needed on the farms or to look after the babies, and in any case parents couldn't afford to pay school fees. Medical service was restricted to "dispensers" who made periodic visits to the villages, and gave injections in case of epidemics.

From all the villages, I only found one person who had seen a cinema show, although Delhi, with plenty of English and Indian language movie houses, was within walking distance. The cinema attender was a bright young fellow and was the best informed person we met. He was the only one who had heard of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League. He knew a little about the war, knew that Italy had capitulated, but was very surprised to know that China was also in the war.

On the whole, ignorance about the war and the outside world was fantastic, although the government had made some attempt to inform people by placing loudspeakers in two of the five villages, and broadcasting an evening news summary. No one admitted to knowing anything about Congress, although several said they had heard people speak of Gandhi, and said it was related of him that he was a good man, "friendly to the poor people."

In the village described above I asked the spokesman what I thought was a leading question:

"Tell me. If the government after the war would grant you just one request, what would you want most?" I expected the immediate retort that the British should leave India to the Indians. There was much shuffling of feet and scratching of toes in sand, however, and then a little old man with a stubbly white beard, red-rimmed eyes and a greying dhoti dangling about his legs, pushed his way forward and spoke, earnestly watching my reactions:

"Sahib, we want our land back again. Let the government give the village back its land."

I queried what he meant by the government giving land back.

"When I was a young man, sahib, the village owned the land. We all had land, worked together and there was rice for all. Then in the last war, because we didn't send our sons to the battle fronts the government gave away our land. Now we each have small plots for which we must pay much money each year to the landlord. Our land never increases, but our families do. Our daughters grow up and we have nothing to give them for marriage dowry, so they must stay with us and not marry. Our sons grow up and still we have only the one small plot of land for all to live in. Our families grow big but only the same amount of rice, and most of it going to the landlord. Let the government give land back to the village and we can work and share our rice as in the old days."

While the old man was still speaking, and in a mood to say much more, there was a movement amongst the crowd, and with a startled look in his rheumy old eyes, the patriarch slipped away as agilely as the children that popped in and out between the grownups' legs. A big fellow, barefooted like most of the others, but carrying a heavy stick as symbol of higher social position, came striding over towards us. A few muttered words and one of the men slipped out of his leather sandals and pushed them across to the newcomer, who had evidently come straight from the fields.

He started talking to the interpreter, twisting his heavy black moustaches, looking like a stage villain of the Victorian era, and obviously trying to impress us that he was a big shot. We discovered in him, the only person from all five villages who could read and write. More important, he was a "zemindar," or landlord, and owned three villages. During the last war his father, as special reward for recruiting other fathers' sons for the army, had been given title over the people's land by a grateful British government. Neither father nor son went to the war themselves, but son inherited the British "gift."

His arrival put a quick finish to our discussion. He resented our speaking to his "serfs," and probably suspected they had been complaining of his over lordship. At the sight of his surly, scowling face, most of the men began to drift back to the fields, the women picked up their pots, and with many a backward glance returned to their houses.

The landlord told us he had been sent to school because his father had performed good services for the government. He could read, had a daily paper delivered from Delhi and gravely assured us he told the people all that was good for them to know about the war.

It can't be pretended that these five villages are typical of Indian peasant life, except for their poverty and illiteracy. In each province conditions vary, there are greater and lesser degrees of social organisation, literacy and political consciousness. The interesting point in these Delhi villages was that such appalling ignorance and poverty should exist almost within the shadow of the Viceroy's palace. The United Provinces (actually a single province in which Delhi is situated) has a population of 50,000,000, of whom 85 per cent. are Hindus, although in the villages I visited there were as many Muslims as Hindus, living side by side, and, according to my informants, without friction.

It was a depressing experience to peer even for a short time into the lives of the peasants that make up eighty per cent. of the country's population. Dirt, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, lack of organisation and a fatalistic acceptance of their lowly status of life seem insuperable barriers to any real progress in the country. One began to think that until the roots of India's philosophic and religious systems, with their emphasis on humble resignation, were torn up, there was no chance of mass organisation for the better life. In the cities perhaps, where a wartime boom in industrialisation had proletarianised a section of the population there was a chance of people banding together and improving their living standards. They at least had a chance of vocational training there, but on the land where there has been no real change of life for a thousand years, the position seemed desperate.

But there were some grounds for hope. First of all, agriculture in Russia had been on a similar low level, with illiteracy and poverty abounding, land broken up into wasteful handkerchief plots and tilled in the most primitive fashion, with, as often as not, wife and draft animal yoked side by side, pulling plough or harrow. In a few short years Russia had broken down the family and village boundary ridges, thrown plots into fields, fields into great communal farms. By a stupendous agricultural revolution, in less than 20 years, her backward peasants had become as forward looking as any farmers in the world.

New seeds and fertilisers revitalised the fields; tractors and combines multiplied acreage and harvests; electricity, sanitation and literacy brought culture and light to the villages. Conservative agricultural experts in India and England shake their heads and say that similar methods would bring "disaster" to India; but would they not have said the same thing about Russia twenty years ago?

A start has been made in India by the farmers to raise their living and cultural standards. It was at the beginning of this century that the first peasants' co-operatives were, formed, and to-day they have six million members, with a paid-up capital of $30,000,000. The movement for cooperative cultivation, ironing out divisions between the tiny plots and making larger scale farming possible is strongest in the Punjab. More than a million acres of strip cultivation have been converted there, and the movement is still slowly progressing.

Best of all, from the viewpoint of progress, peasants — again particularly in the Punjab — have banded together to resist unjust taxes and exorbitant rents. They have protected neighbours about to be thrown off their properties through inability to meet their taxes, or rents. Their organisations, originally purely economic in basis, founded on questions of immediate self-interest, have now taken political form. Under the aegis of the small but powerful Communist Party of India, a Peasants' Union, or Kisan Sabbha as it is called, has been formed from individual committees, and now numbers over a million active members. I saw their delegates in April, 1943, flocking from all parts of India, 20,000 strong, for their eighth annual conference at a village near Amritsar in the Punjab.

The Kisan Sabbha may well be a starting point for a great peasant emancipation movement in India. It has not been indoctrinated with the semi-mystical ideas of Gandhiism. It is international as well as national in outlook. Amongst its 1943 resolutions, in addition to demanding the release of the Congress leaders, the Conference urged fullest support for the war against Fascism. It also had some pertinent things to say about hoarders and black marketers. In the beginning, composed of small village committees fighting purely local problems, it has now been raised to a higher level, demanding national changes, purely because of its active organisers and intelligent leadership. It is still close enough to earth to devote its main energies to fighting the day to day issues in the villages.

As British financial interests, as far as they are centred at all in Indian agriculture, are concerned only with non-staple crops like tea, tobacco, cotton, jute, there is not much possibility of improvement in food cultivation except by activity from the farmers themselves.

Short of actual revolution on the Russian scale, the best answer to peasants' problems seems to be the extension of the Kisan Sabbha and co-operative movements. These alone have the power of injecting new life into rural India.