An Eyewitness Report on British “Democracy” in India-Arthur Preis (1941)
SOURCE: The Militant, Vol. V No. 18, 3 May 1941, pp. 4 & 5.
For many months, British imperialism has imposed an almost impenetrable censorship over all news from India. Occasionally some brief dispatch from India appears in the American press, with the obvious imprint of the official British propaganda ministry. “All’s well,” cries the British government. “The Indian peoples are giving loyal support to the Empire’s war efforts.”
American foreign news commentators, such as Ludwig Lore of the New York Post, have been supplying the American people with “interpretive” analyses of what goes on in India behind the black veil of British censorship. Their analyses show a striking conformity with British government press releases, whose “optimism” grows as their “facts” shrink.
What is the truth about India? The Militant herewith presents the first eye-witness account to appear in the American labor press of what has been happening since the war in the greatest colony of the British Empire, where over 350,000,000 human beings are preparing to cast off the British Imperial bondage which they have suffered for three centuries.
The giver of the interview is a young American sailor who has just returned after a five months voyage to the Far East on an American freighter delivering supplies to the Burma Road at Rangoon. He spent a month visiting the principal cities and ports in India.
He observed India with a fresh and clear eye, with class-conscious understanding. This sympathy combined with a friendly and agreeable personality enabled him to meet many Indian natives – workers, students, soldiers – and to penetrate their reticence toward all foreigners, particularly those whom they have reason to suspect might be friendly toward the British rulers.
No one observer in a month can hope to catch more than the minutest segment of India. Bearing this in mind, the reader will nevertheless appreciate his account as an authentic clue to the present mood of the Indian masses.
“If I were to give one general impression about my experiences in India, I would say: ‘This is the horrors of war, without the war.’ This thought persisted in my mind wherever I went in Karachi, Bombay, Calcutta. It was like looking at some scene of war refugees, starving, homeless, diseased. Only there Has been no war. No bombed buildings, no wreckage, no burnt homes. It’s just, how shall I explain it – as if some terrible war had passed over the country sparing everything but the people themselves.”
For a moment, the young seaman paused. A shadow seemed to pass over his face; his eyes looked off into space. He was staring back through time at unforgettable experiences.
At another point in the interview, he stated:
“You know, whenever I’d get in with one of the natives – of course, after I’d broken down his natural suspicions – and we’d get on the question of the war, sooner or later I’d have the same question popped at me: ‘How soon do you think the British will be defeated?’
Natives Anti-British but Not Pro-Hitler
“It’s not that they’re pro-Hitler, or anything like that. When I asked one friendly native soldier if they weren’t afraid of what would happen to them under Hitler, he just slowly swung his arms out and said softly, but with such bitterness … ‘Look at us …’ It was all he could say, ‘Look at us …’ What he meant was that nothing could be worse than what they were already suffering.
“I got the impression that Hitler is something too far away from their present misery. He just doesn’t concern them. I can’t say how widespread the feeling is, but I came away from India with the notion that they would welcome a military defeat of Britain for one reason – it would be an opportunity for them to drive out the British and gain their independence.”
”If We Only Had Arms …”
At a further point in his narrative, the young sailor supported his impression about the widespread desire among the people of India for a British defeat by recalling that on different occasions he had heard the wish expressed among groups of workers, “If we only had arms …”
“When I heard a worker say this in Karachi, our first stop in India, I thought it might be just an isolated sentiment. But I heard it in Bombay and again in Calcutta. And always the same words, ‘If we only had arms …’ A weakened British army and arms for themselves. That’s what many of them seem to be thinking about – and planning about.”
The speaker then told of meeting a group of workers in Bombay whose complete confidence he managed to secure. A leader of these workers in greatest secrecy drew for him a rough map of the surrounding section of the country, marking the points of British troop concentrations and arms stores. “He burned it up again on the spot. I never saw such longing in any man’s face as when he said to me, ‘If we only had arms… If we only had arms.’”
The interview with the young seaman had started in the customary fashion, with the reporter asking questions about the trip – the ship, the cargo, the length of time at sea, the ports where they stopped, how long the sailors had leave at each port, etc.
He had shipped on a large freighter out of New York last November. It was his first trip to the Far East. They were at sea for 31 days before docking at Capetown, Union of South Africa After only 12 hours ashore, the continued their trip around the Cape of Good Hope. They ploughed through the Indian Ocean for another 22 days, hitting Karachi, India, for their next stop.
Conditions in Karachi
“Karachi was quite a shock to me. It was only after I saw Bombay and Calcutta that I realized^ that Karachi was quite a decent place by comparison.
“The first thing I noticed when we docked was the condition of the native longshoremen who came aboard the ship. They seemed so thin and scrawny that I wondered how they could lift the heavy loads they had to carry. They wore nothing but loin cloths – no shoes. I guess they have tough feet, but I couldn’t imagine an American longshoreman working around lumber and heavy steel cargo without heavy shoes and clothing for protection.
“We had two days ashore. I’ve seen some of the foulest East Side slums and been down around the Negro quarters in Baltimore and Washington. But the worst in America couldn’t equal this. The natives live in tiny shacks, some of rotted wood, others just weeds. Whole families – and several families live in a shack about ten feet square. Ten and 15 persons sleep together on the ground in one shack. Here I got my first smell of India – that mixture of dirt, dung, crowded bodies and rotted flesh, diseased or dead. And the beggars! But that was nothing in Karachi! Wait until I tell you about Bombay and Calcutta.
“I was taken through one area of a few square blocks in Karachi which I was told housed more people than the rest of the city. After one trip through that particular area, I was convinced that this was true.
“But remember that conditions in Karachi are far better than in the rest of India. It’s a comparatively new city being built up as a port. Many British officials have built palatial homes on the city outskirts.”
Bombay Crowded with Beggars
At this point, he seemed so anxious to tell about Bombay and Calcutta, the two chief cities of India, that the reporter switched the question’s over to his experiences in these two ports.
“Bombay was our next stop. Bombay! That’s where you’ll see a real example of the true conditions in India. The first thing that hit me were the large troops of beggars everywhere. They reminded me of human beings out of a nightmare. They were in every condition of disease and disfigurement. Many seemed to be in the last stages of starvation dying on their feet. Many bore the open sores of terrible contagious diseases, small pox and, especially, leprosy. You could see their bodies rotting away. The British government does nothing to help them. Human life is the cheapest thing in India. I shall never forget the feeling of horror I had the first time a pitiful leprous beggar came up begging for an anna (2 cents American) and touched me with his hand.
“Here I saw tens of thousands of people, whole families, who had no homes but the streets. They sleep in the streets, amongst incredible filth. They have no place else to go, and the British haven’t got around to giving them such benefits of civilization as street cleaning departments and sewage. They lie uncovered in the streets. I saw only a few who managed to get hold of some old rag or cloth to cover themselves with. Most of the men have only a loin cloth covering. Children up to 12 go naked. I frequently saw little infants playing in the gutters amidst mud and manure. This is typical. Tens of millions live like this throughout India. It’s the normal thing. Every other native one passes on the streets seems to have the obvious signs of disease. Nine out of ten have the physical marks of acute hunger – from the emaciation of continuous undernourishment to the last stages of outright starvation.”
It was at this point that the speaker used the expression, “like refugees in a war zone – but worse.” He broke in with an observation summing up his entire impression.
“I’ve tried to do some reading. I’ve read some of Trotsky’s writings. I remember he once wrote about fascism being an attempt to organize the misery of the people. Well, I got the feeling that the British in India can’t do even this. The poverty just spills over into the streets like pus from a running sore.”
Riots and Revolts Suppressed
Was there any resistance to the British now? Did he have a chance to talk with any industrial workers in Bombay?
“I had the luck to meet a British dock official who came aboard our ship in Bombay. I managed to get him to open up to me a little, although I had to be very cautious in asking him any questions. American sailors are watched very closely. The British know how well organized and how militant the American seamen are. He told me that just recently – that would be about three months ago now – there had been virtual civil war in a town north of Bombay, “uncontrollable riots” he called it. British Militia, which are mainly English troops – they don’t trust native soldiers for jobs like this – took four days to suppress the revolt using all the modern paraphernalia of war, including artillery. He said there were only 40,000 people involved.
“It immediately occurred to me what a job it would be for the British to suppress a revolution of 350,000,000 people, if it took four days for trained troops with machine guns and artillery to subdue 40,000 practically unarmed people. Incidentally, all news of this was suppressed within India itself. It’s hard to say how many similar incidents have occurred that we cannot learn about.
Workers Receptive to Revolutionary Ideas
“Another piece of luck I had was to get in with a group of workers employed at a big printing plant in Bombay. After we talked for a while, and they became assured of my sympathy for them and their fight against British imperialism, they eagerly asked me all sorts of questions about the American workers. I told them some of the things I knew about the labor and radical movements in America. When I mentioned, among other groups, the Trotskyites, they shot questions at me through a couple of workers who spoke English and acted as interpreters. It turned out that they were extremely receptive to revolutionary ideas, and, in fact, volunteered the information that they themselves were preparing for a revolutionary situation in India which they were certain was going to come soon.
“It was during this conversation that I again heard the question which I first heard in Karachi, ‘How soon do you think the British will be defeated?’ They hastened to assure me that this implied no sympathy with Hitler, but ‘we are unarmed …’ and they felt that a decisive military defeat for Britain would accelerate their own struggle for freedom.
Underground Movements Thrive
“It was during this conversation that I first learned of the many underground political groupings that are growing throughout India. Many of these groups believe in socialism. Most of them are becoming convinced that the British will be driven out of India only by forceful means. All of them are for national independence and. don’t want any part of the British rulers’ war.
“The printing plant workers were particularly pleased when I explained what I knew of the Trotskyist international outlook. When I mentioned the fact that I believed that if a workers revolution developed in America the American workers would do everything possible to aid their Indian brothers, their faces lighted up. They were so glad to hear about support for themselves in other countries. They are so isolated from the outside world, that they have felt all alone in their struggles. They did not even know up to then that an international revolutionary movement existed. After this, they displayed an almost touching effort to show their appreciation of my news by offering me little services, bringing me coffee, a chair, posting a look-out for the ‘dicks’ who infest the sections around plants and spy on every little grouping of workers.
“They did know a little about the Stalinists, but said the Stalinists were mainly among the students and had very little connections with the workers and the general masses. They also informed me that strikes were continuously breaking out among the various sections of the workers in Bombay, and that these strikes were bitterly fought and suppressed with much bloodshed. I was able to confirm this by a daily reading of the British papers. Every day I would see some obscure paragraph about 20 workers being killed, 30 workers being killed, in some ‘disorders.’ That’s all it would say. They don’t bother to mention the number injured.
“There was one incident in Bombay that gave me a real idea of the graft and exploitation that operates against the Indian people. Some of the sailors from our ship wanted a day’s shore leave and were permitted to hire native longshoremen in their place. The American sailors paid the longshoremen each a dollar a day. This is enormous pay in India, longshoremen usually get around 12 annas – 25 cents – for a twelve to 16 hour day. We later found out that the British port officials had grafted two-thirds of the money paid the longshoremen away from them. We were plenty burned up, but what could we do in a British port dealing with British officials whose whole system is one big graft from the ‘dirty beggars,’ which is what British officials term the natives on whose backs they live.”
Life in Calcutta
The main portion of the interview dealt with the young sailor’s two weeks in Calcutta, largest city in India.
“Calcutta was the worst city of all. As we tied up in the mouth of the Ganges River, the first thing we saw were human bodies and dead cows floating down the river. All waste – including dead human beings – is thrown into this river, it seems. The corpse of a cow caught in our anchor chain, and we had a little trouble in freeing the chain. Then there were the vultures. They fly all over the city, circling above dead bodies. All the signs of death, the very smell of death hangs over this city. It is impossible to escape the terrible foul odor.
“The docks were swarming with beggars. I thought I had seen the worst in Bombay, but the human misery which crawled and dragged itself over the Calcutta docks was beyond description.
“And then I noticed that it wasn’t merely the beggars who were begging. The longshoremen who came aboard the boat also were furtively begging the American seamen for a cigarette or a spare anna. The longshoremen, mind you, are among the BETTER PAID workers of India!
“It wasn’t, lack of self-respect that drove these workers to beg even while they were working. I soon found that out. They had to work as long as 16 hours a day at inhuman physical labor for a few annas. Among these longshoremen I met educated men, white collar workers, college students. Their food was enough to make you heave up. All it was – or looked like – was a mixture of wormy rice and dirt.
“A crust of bread, I found out, was a luxury. These longshoremen used to hang around our mess-room eager for the scraps from our tables. A piece of the most rotten food dropped on the filth of a Calcutta street is snatched up in a second. The vultures haven’t a chance against human hunger.
“When we got shore leave, we began to get a real picture of Calcutta. As you head toward the. main center of town, the conditions get worse and worse. In the center of town we saw the most revolting sights. That is where they burn the dead bodies right out in public view. The burning ghats are all along the river bank. The air reeks with the smell of burning flesh.
“But then, this is the only measure of sanitation permitted the Indian people. At least cremation provides a sanitary means of disposing of the dead. And the death rate is enormous.
The Blessings of British Civilization
“British civilization – in Calcutta, a city of almost two million people – doesn’t even provide inspection of city water. Only in the few places where the British and the few native rich live is there purified water. Typhoid plagues are so common, the natives think nothing of it. Hundreds of thousands are wiped out each year in epidemics.
“There are beggars on every block, some obviously dying where they sit or lie. Mothers with infants appeal to you everywhere. I saw infants lying on the ground patting their swollen stomachs. And disease, sores, rotting flesh everywhere. Little naked children of one and two will toddle up to you and pat their stomachs and say the only words of English they have learned, ‘Me dirty beggar’. Dirty beggar! They don’t know what it means. But it’s the only English they have learned from the British.
“Everywhere we went, we were swamped by hordes of beggars, mostly women and children. They stopped our taxis and even the trolleys on which we rode. Once a group of us seamen riding in a cab were stopped for a matter of 10 minutes by about 50 to 60 hungry women and children. The ‘Bobbies’ broke it up finally – and they weren’t gentle about it.”
British Police Abuse the Natives
What was the outward attitude of the British officials and police to the natives? Was there much open, general physical cruelty?
“I just scratched the surface. But what I saw on the streets of Calcutta with my own eyes was sufficient to make me understand why the Indian people don’t jump every time the British yell, ‘Hitler!’ I saw the way the police – mainly British – customarily treat the natives.
“I remember one incident particularly. A group of us sailors were walking along a main street through the market place. A miserable old beggar came up and begged for an anna. A British officer approached and without warning slammed the old fellow across the knee-caps with a heavy club. From the crack, I am sure the knee-caps were fractured. The old beggar staggered away. At a little distance, he stopped and muttered something in Hindustani at the cop. For me, the expression of hatred on that old beggar’s face was the symbol of all the faces in India.
“I noticed that the native passers-by were looking on. Their faces bore the same look as the beggar’s.
“That is the way the British police treat the natives everywhere. Aristocrats in big cars drive through the swarming streets, never slackening pace. If some poor soul is knocked down and injured, that’s his tough luck. And besides, he knows better than to complain to the police. The British rob the natives right and left. In a shop, a British official will name his price for an article. The shop-keeper will give it to him even if he loses money on the sale. He does not dare to argue. One of our boys got run in for being drunk, and later told us about what he saw at the police court. The arrested natives were openly kicked about and clubbed in the court room.”
Universal Poverty and Filth
What else about living conditions?
“Well, as an example, the closer you get to the town center, the more people you see lying in the gutters. Tens of thousands of men, women and children have no homes but the streets. There are no sidewalks in many sections, just mud and filth, including animal and human dung. At times the streets are so packed with sleeping humans that a car cannot pass without running over them.
“Without an adequate water supply, no cleaning materials, the British being too cheap to provide even a semblance of municipal sanitation, the dirt and dust almost blinds and chokes you on certain streets. In the market places the food is handled with hands covered with filth. Food will pass through 20 different hands before it is finally bought. Cleanliness is secondary when poverty is so acute that the masses will shop around in a dozen places to get the best bargain for an anna.”
On one occasion, during his stay in Calcutta, he had the opportunity to speak to a group of 12 to 15 longshoremen on board the ship. This was while there was an absence of officers about. He discovered a couple of the workers who could understand English, and translated for the rest.
“After I had won their confidence, I asked them what they thought about unions. ‘Very good,’ I was told. They wanted to know about American unions, because their wages were so miserable compared to that of the lowest paid American seamen. When I described something of the American labor movement, they crowded around with eager attention. One of those who spoke English expressed the keen desire of the India workers to attain to some of the conditions of the American sailors. They look up to the American workers, with much respect.
“They then told me something of the workers organizations in India. Organization among certain groups of workers, including-the longshoremen, is illegal. Nevertheless, the workers maintain an illegal organization. The longshoremen have a tradition of militancy in struggle, and are particularly suppressed by the British authorities, lest their struggles give an impulse to other workers.
“Among the jute and textile workers, there are legal unions, of rather semi-legal unions. Strikes are always breaking out. In Calcutta, as in Bombay, I was able to note in the British papers a hint of the continuous struggles taking place, despite the fact, as the longshoremen informed me, that strikes were very difficult to conduct at this time. All strikes are immediately physically suppressed. The strikers are shot down without mercy. Thousands are thrown into jail, from which they are lucky ever to come out alive. The British authorities impose 10 to 20 years at hard labor just for striking.
“A few lines at the bottom of a Calcutta, newspaper will tell that so many and so many were killed in a strike yesterday. One day I read in such a brief and casual item, of over 100 workers being killed. But the papers never mentioned anything about unions or give details.
“When I told the longshoremen that the time would come when the American workers would be able to help them in their struggles, they became very excited and enthusiastic. They stated that they were very anxious to get the aid of the American sailors and hoped that we would bring back to the American workers word of their conditions and struggles.
“They were all bitterly opposed to the war and to aiding the British government’s war efforts. I found this same sentiment everywhere I went, incidentally. All the enthusiasm for the war was in the controlled press. But nowhere else. The papers were carrying big ads for recruits to the army, but I heard that the results were very meager. Among all types of native peoples whom I met, from many different stations of life, I got the same response on my questions about the war. They didn’t want any part of it. I wouldn’t want to be a British official in India when the natives start demonstrating in earnest their ‘loyalty’ to the government.
Opposed to War
“From these same longshoremen I heard some significant political remarks. They seemed to feel that there was a tremendous, leftward tendency taking place in India. They stated flatly that only force would drive the British out. I asked about Ghandi. They declared, that he was losing much support among his followers. They said he was getting rich in the pay of the British. I cannot tell how widespread this idea is, but other workers I spoke to had the same viewpoint.
“In reference to Ghandi and the native capitalists he represents, who have aided the British in maintaining their rule, one of the longshoremen said, ‘You American workers have only one club to dodge. We have two.’ By that he meant the native and foreign exploiters combined.”
Talks with Army Officer
The, young sailor then related a conversation that he had accidentally struck up with a native dock official. The official was a Mohammedan and a lieutenant in the army. He was well-dressed, but was paid only one-third as much as ordinary American seamen, although he held the highest army post open to natives of India.
“I soon discovered that he was an ardent nationalist and hated the British. When I told him of my own international outlook and my sympathies with the Indian independence movement, he expressed deep appreciation.
“Then he told me his ideas, which amazed me, coming as they did from an army officer in the pay of the British. ‘There is no reason for this, appalling misery,’ he told me. ‘We have all the natural resources to become a great industrial country. But India can only develop after she has won her independence. In the last few years in particular, there has been little industrial development. The British have strangled it. The British say that if they left the country the Mohammedans and Hindus would turn the country into a shambles in a religious war. This is an outright lie. The British themselves are deliberately stirring up conflict between the two native groups. But we should unite. That is our only solution. Why – when we are all one in this filth and misery – should we not unite against those who strangle us both?’”
“I don’t imagine the British regard the native soldier-recruits with too much trust. I’ve told you about this high-ranking native officer. I occasionally witnessed native soldiers marching by. They were invariably led by British officers on horseback. I managed a brief conversation with a couple of native soldiers on guard near the docks. I found out they were very dissatisfied with their pay – $4 or $5 a month.”
Feelings of British Seamen
He recalled an interesting meeting with some British seamen off a captured French freighter.
“They had been having a pretty tough time of it. They asked us for hand-outs and spare cigarettes. I saw them pick up our discarded cigarette butts. They have been receiving as little as $20 a month pay. Although many of them are married, they get scarcely any news from home, and some of them have been away from their homes for three and four years. They have to send every penny of their pittance home, and have nothing for themselves.
“These British seamen told us that, there have been strikes on a number of British boats. In at least one instance, the government sent out a battleship which took over an entire ship. The leaders or ‘trouble-makers’ were shot. Other seamen were given 10 year prison sentences at hard labor.
“They were eager to trade ideas with us. They wanted to know all about the war bonuses which the American union seamen are getting for travelling in the war zone. They were astounded to learn that we were getting three times as much regular pay sis they. They wanted to see Hitter defeated, but they expressed quite bitter hatred for their own capitalists. They mentioned the huge profits the British corporations were making out of the war sacrifices of the common people. They were particularly angry about the taxes, and spoke of the 101 different taxes on food, etc. …”
Trotskyism in India
Did he come across any evidences of an international revolutionary sentiment in India?
“My impression was that there was no centralized or leading revolutionary organization at present in India. But there was a general revolutionary sentiment which would enable such an organization to grow very quickly.
“I did manage to meet several professed Trotskyists, but under circumstances which do not permit me to disclose any details. Suffice to say, there are Fourth Internationalists in India.
“I did notice, both in Bombay and Calcutta, that Trotsky’s works, particularly his History of the Russian Revolution were widely displayed in the book shops. I went into one Calcutta book-shop and asked the dealer if he had any other Trotsky works beside the History. He showed met a couple of others. Then he said that he had heard that Trotsky’s last book, on Stalin, was coming out soon, and that he had received many inquiries about it. While he was telling me this, several others in the store gathered around us and began asking when the Stalin book would be available.”
Attitude Toward Indian National Congress
What had he been able to learn about the Indian National Congress?
“The Congress now represents; the small group of native bourgeoisie almost exclusively. And these feel more in a blind alley than during the last war. All their old privileges are being taken away, because the British no longer have any confidence in the native bourgeois leader’s ability to stem the tide of revolt. I did not come across any signs of enthusiasm for this group. Their only sign of protest at the treatment they are now being given by the British rulers is to resign, from the National Congress. But they are a miserable lot. Even when they resign, they take pains to make it clear to the masses that their actions are not to be misunderstood as suggestions for mass revolt. No one has confidence in the British promises any longer. In fact, I learned that, the papers which used to play up the British promises, don’t bother to mention them any more. The British no longer make promises anyway.
“I’ll tell you one thing about the people of India, though. They hate the British rule with an everlasting hate. You can feel it like a live thing in the air. I felt it by indirection, just as a foreigner, even when I was buying something at some small street store. Until I let my sympathies be known, that is.
“Everywhere you go, you hear the British referred to as ‘gonametika’ – that’s as close as I can get to the Hindu word. It means ‘bastard’, – with special trimmings. I hear shop-keepers, workers, beggars refer to the British as ‘British pigs.’ I didn’t hear anything about ‘loyalty’ to the British Empire. But I did hear, wherever I went, such sentiments as these: ‘Now is the time’, and ‘How soon do you think the British will be defeated’, and ‘If we only had arms …’”