Mr. William Phillips, Personal Representative of President Roosevelt in India, to the President 15

Dear Mr. President: The complex political situation here has become aggravated by Gandhi’s “fast to capacity”, whatever this new phrase indicates. Evidently he does not intend to commit suicide but he is over seventy and is said to be frail and there is danger that he may not survive the strain; at least, that is the Viceroy’s fear.

[Page 189]

After my return from a visit to the Punjab where I met and talked with Muslims of all types,—with members of the Union Government, Pakistan enthusiasts, Hindus and Communists, I felt that I could not properly carry out my mission unless I had an opportunity to talk with Congress leaders, all of whom are now in detention. Since my arrival, now five weeks ago, I have had to parry the question as to whether I was planning to see Gandhi and if so, when. It has been an awkward question, for if I had said anything which could have been interpreted as a yes or no, I would have been in serious trouble either with the Government or with the Congress Party.

I am planning to spend a few days in Bombay on my way to Hyderabad and Madras, and Poona, where Gandhi is confined, is only a short distance from Bombay and almost on the route to Hyderabad. I felt that if I passed Poona without even an effort to see the Congress leader who, as you know, is not in prison but is confined in the palatial residence of the Aga Khan, I would run the risk of alienating the Congress Party and press, which is already beginning to show some critical tendencies. And so I decided to approach the Viceroy and ask for permission to call on Gandhi.

Accordingly I called by appointment at seven o’clock on the eighth and stated the reasons for my request. I explained that my duty was to keep you informed of the situation here and that I could not do this without at least a call upon the leader of the principal party,—that I was to see Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League, in Bombay, and Rajagopalachari16 in Madras, and that a call upon Gandhi as I was passing by would have the advantage of a visit in the ordinary routine.

Linlithgow did not give me a straight answer but instead told me of the serious situation which was then developing in view of Gandhi’s threat to fast. He explained that Gandhi was to be freed for the duration of the fast and that as no member of the Government would see him he had to request me not to make the visit. In the circumstances, I could only acquiesce.

I detected for the first time a suspicion on the Viceroy’s part with regard to my motives. He asked me directly what were my intentions, a question which I did not welcome, but when I explained again that I was here to keep you fully informed and not to “intervene”, he said, “I see that we understand each other.” He became very friendly, called for drinks, and since then has kept me by personal letters in close touch with developments.

It is too early yet to know whether we are facing a serious situation or not. A rather general but perhaps British view in Delhi today is that there will be no serious complications, that Gandhi’s stock has [Page 190] fallen of late, that other Congress leaders are all in detention and that while there may be a few strikes and local disturbances, there can be no widespread trouble, nothing in fact comparable to last summer’s disturbances. On the other hand, Linlithgow, I know, is deeply concerned.

In the circumstances, I have decided to postpone my departure for Calcutta, Bombay and the South until the atmosphere is somewhat clarified.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to receive visits from all manner of people. Unhappily for me, more and more attention seems to be centered upon this Mission and upon me personally. Every Indian who comes to see me feels that through my influence the present deadlock with the British can be solved. Naturally I am in the picture only because of the popular feeling that the President of the United States alone can bring any influence to bear upon the British Government. I find it very difficult to know what to suggest. I do feel that the Gandhi fast has complicated the situation and made it even more difficult for the British to move, if they had any intention of doing so. But as long as he has no intention of “fasting unto death” he may come out of it without having caused any material change in the situation.

As I have indicated to the Department, the key to the present problem is in the hands of the British Government. It would seem wise for Churchill to “unlock the door” which he could do by convincing the Indian people that the promise of their complete independence after the war is an iron-bound promise. New words and phrases will not, I fear, carry enough weight, and therefore a new approach must be made in order to accomplish results. It must be a willingness on the part of the British Government to transfer as much civil power as possible now, on the understanding that the complete transfer will be made after the war. This would be the invitation to the leaders of the opposing parties to get together, which they cannot do now, not only because the leaders of one party are under arrest but because there is no inducement for them to make the necessary concessions to one another, and in view of the general distrust of British promises.

I have not touched upon the problem of the Princes, which is also a part of the picture. I have discussed it with the ruler of Nawanagar, who is the Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes and appears to be their spokesman. His idea is that when an Indian Government has been arrived at, the Princes will transfer to that Government rights and ownership of all transportation, mails, telegraphs, et cetera, et cetera, which are now for the most part the property of the Princes. The representatives of the people of the States whom I have also met will not be satisfied with this. They maintain that the old treaties between the Princes and the British Government are obsolete, that the Princes should not expect to have any greater powers in their [Page 191] respective States than the King of England himself, that hereafter they should occupy the same position as that of Governors of Provinces, although they would still be “hereditary” and not subject to a five year limitation of office. The powers formerly exercised by them should be in the hands of the State Legislatures. There are 562 of such princelings and it is held that the great majority of their States, many of which are only estates, should be merged into larger units.

The entire picture of States and Provinces and the unanimous demand for a new approach on the part of the British Government is a matter of extraordinary interest which I only wish I could convey to you far more satisfactorily than I am doing, but which is almost impossible to present by letter. I feel acutely the fact that public attention is centered upon me in the hope and even expectation that I can do something constructive, and yet here I am, quite unable to do anything but listen to appeals, realizing as I do the importance of not prejudicing my position with the British authorities.

At the same time I want to avoid any impression on the part of the Indians that the presence of United States forces and my own presence here indicate that we Americans are strengthening the British hold over India.

With all good wishes,

Sincerely yours,

William Phillips
  1. Copy transmitted to the Department by Ambassador Phillips on February 11; received February 23.
  2. C. Rajagopalachari, leading Indian Nationalist, former Premier of Madras Province; in 1942 he had resigned from the Party Executive of the Indian National Congress Party in order to pursue a more independent policy.