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The Militant, 28 February 1942

William Ellis

India, ‘Heart’ of the Empire

Visitor Reports Conditions of Oppressed Native People

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 9, 28 February 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(The following article is by an American who returned to this country from India shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific War).

The suffering masses of India are indifferent to Britain’s war. They will never willingly support it. Their chief desire it lo throw the British yoke off their backs, to be free óf all oppression.

This is the inescapable impression that anyone who visits India, even for a brief time, must receive. It is the impression that India stamped indelibly on my mind.

Centuries of British rule have brought indescribable physical devastation to the hundreds of millions of Indian native peoples. That devastation is the thing that struck me from the moment I arrived in India.

The first city I had the opportunity to visit was Calcutta. On the docks there I had my first chance to observe Indian workers, the dock workers. They presented a picture of abject poverty. They were dressed in mere tatters, shoeless. I noticed some with feet wrapped in dirty, bloody bandages.

In contrast to the usually, well-built powerful American dock worker, they appeared pretty scrawny, and I wondered how they were able to do such heavy manual labor. Later I was to learn that these dock workers are among the best-paid, highest-type workers in India, the “aristocracy” of Indian labor, so to speak. Which gives an idea of what the conditions of the lower-paid mass of Indian workers are like.

A dock worker with whom I one day struck up a conversation pointed out another worker with a bandaged head passing by. He told me that the day before the injured worker had been working on a ship and had made some protest which a stool-pigeon had overheard. He was kicked off the ship and later beaten up on the dock. Any protest is met with severe reprisal from the bosses.

Still, these workers “enjoy” better conditions than most of the Indian people. That is because they have a militant union, as I later learned, which has engaged in many bloody struggles and won many improvements for them.

Natives’ Conditions

My most vivid recollections are of the first visit I made to the native quarters of an Indian city. I went with a friend who warned me in advance of what we would see and experience.

We entered some narrow, smelly, filthy streets, more like alleys, swarming with emaciated, half-naked, ragged natives. A pitiful old woman, with a huge abdominal growth, probably a tumor, approached and begged for some money.

She followed us with continuous pleas, and finally, despite my friend’s warnings, I gave her a rupee. Instantly, we were surrounded by a mass of beggars, plucking at us, crying and howling. They were all deformed or diseased in some way. We had to literally fight our way through them and run to escape.

These beggars are the hallmark of conditions in India. They are everywhere, in vast numbers. The sick, the injured, the maimed receive little or no care from the British authorities in India. All they can do is try to drag out their existence, begging in the streets until they finally drop dead.

Along the streets, wherever I went in any Indian city, I saw many blind and crippled natives. I also observed the great number of people forced to live on the streets. Whole families, men, women and children, make their homes on the streets and sidewalks. Here, amid noise and filth, they eat, sleep and die. And such is the hunger and disease that even young men and women appear aged and bent. Actually, there are few really old people, because the death rate is so appalling.

I learned, while in Calcutta, that once a week the British authorities send a truck around the streets of the city to pick up the dead. In life, the natives are treated like dirt, and, in death, like garbage.

Enslaved Peasants

The peasant masses in India are, if anything, even worse off than the natives in the cities.

I was able on one occasion to travel a short distance into the interior. In a small village of tiny, one-room thatched huts lining a railroad track, I had the good fortune to meet and talk with a leader of a peasant group from one of the interior provinces.

We sat on the floor of one of the huts, which was about eight feet square and in which seven .people were forced to live, and he told me of the conditions of the peasants in his province.

He described to me the terrible poverty and suffering of the peasants, who are virtual slave’s of the rajah who owns all the land. The little the peasants manage to get to live, on, is almost all taken away in taxes. He recited one of the native proverbs current in the province: “If a man has his belly full three times a year, he is indeed fortunate.”

The peasants are not permitted to leave the rajah’s land. If they try to escape, they are trailed, and if they are caught, they are tortured and beaten. Besides, the peasant leader said to me, “Even if they do escape, where would they go?”

The rajah, who aids the British rulers to keep the peasants in subjection, is in turn given the full support of the British should the peasants protest or turn rebellious.

A few years previously, the peasants in this province had revolted against the tax collections and opposed the payment of the staggering taxes. The British masters promptly sent troops into the province and the peasants were mercilessly shot down.

Every Struggle a Fight Against British Rulers

Every struggle of the natives – even the smallest strike over the most elementary demands – is met with armed suppression. I was informed on more than one occasion that the native workers take it for granted that when they go on strike, the British rulers will send troops to attempt to terrorize them into submission.

One union leader told me of the experiences of the workers in the great oil-fields of Assam, who a few years ago organized and went out on strike. Thousands of workers were involved, and it appeared that they would win. But the British sent troops into- the oil-fields and literally machine-gunned the workers back to work.

A strike in India, therefore, is always viewed by the workers as more than a struggle against an individual boss. They know it is a struggle against the British government itself, which always comes promptly to the aid of the bosses.

Most of the soldiers and police in India come from a separate, small tribe, the Sikhs, who perform the same role for the British rulers as the Cossacks in Russia did for the Czars.

In all the time I was in India, I cannot recall seeing a single native soldier who was not a Sikh, who are easily distinguishable from the rest of the population by their long, black beards. Few Indian natives are willing to join the army and fight for the British; moreover, the British do not look with favor on giving military training and arms to any but the bribed and privileged Sikhs.

This is only a sketchy picture of the conditions which have bred hatred of the British ruling class into the very bones of the Indian masses and which lie at the roots of their growing fight for national independence.

My most fortunate experience in India was to meet a number of workers belonging to unions and native political organizations, from whom I secured first-hand accounts of the struggle now developing in India.

(The conclusion of this article, describing some organizations and political tendencies in India, will appear in next week’s Militant)

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