Richard Gardiner Casey is well known in Australia as one of its most eminent postwar statesmen. He served as its External Affairs Minister from 1951-60, forging Australia’s foreign policy. and later, at the end of his career, as its Governor-General. Little is known, however, about his role as Governor of Bengal from 1944-46. Indeed the announcement of his appointment as Governor of Bengal in January 1944 was unexpected, for no Australian had been appointed to such high office in India. It was arguably the most difficult time to be appointed as Governor of Bengal: the province was in crisis, deeply unsettled at several levels. After the fall of Burma in 1941, Bengal lay exposed to the frontline of war; in late 1943 Calcutta and its docks were bombed; and many feared a Japanese invasion. More significantly, the province was still in the grip of a devastating famine that had hit in 1943, that would kill an estimated three million people.
Casey’s initial appointment created some controversy too, for the "White Australia" policy was widely known and detested in India. Yet Casey weathered the initial controversy around his appointment, and by the end of his tenure it was clear that it was his subjectivity as an Australian – not a Briton – that rendered him a vital player in the endgame of empire. During his time in India, Casey repeatedly projected himself – to Indians and Britons alike – as an Australian; in doing so situating himself as an engaged intermediary in the face of an increasingly febrile, and fractured, nationalist movement facing impending decolonisation. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in his informal meetings with Mahatma Gandhi in late 1945 and early 1946, in which Casey acted as a proxy for Gandhi to communicate to the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, flying in the face of protocol.
Gandhi first made contact with Casey in April 1945 through his emissary, Sudhir Ghosh. Gandhi arrived in Calcutta on December 1, 1945, immediately initiating a series of evening meetings with Casey that would last some six weeks. This was, technically, a breach of protocol, for the matters under discussion – especially those dealing with the rapidly impending transfer of power – did not fall under the purview of the Governor of a single province, but under that of the Viceroy. Given this, Casey was curious that the Mahatma had chosen to approach him, and not approach Wavell directly. Casey consciously styled himself in India as an Australian, especially in speeches. His reflections on his time as Governor, partly based on his diaries and published in 1947, were tellingly entitled "An Australian in India". In short, Casey’s Australianness gave him the aura of an intermediary, at a time when relations between the Congress leaders and the Viceroy had broken down.
Gandhi was keen to communicate his constructive program to Casey, providing him with a scarce draft copy of his recently published pamphlet, "Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place". Gandhi quickly began to prevail on Casey, writing to him on December 8 to assist in immediately procuring seed potatoes for Bengal's distressed farmers for growers had none, and the seasonal window for planting them was about to close; given the ongoing food crisis, this was indeed an emergency. Casey had invoked the Defence of India Rules to seize 250 maunds of seed potatoes, which had been withheld from the market in an attempt to profiteer at the expense of the potato growers. Gandhi was overjoyed at the result and for weeks, Ghosh writes, "every distinguished visitor who came to see the Mahatma, including the great Nehru, had to hear first the story of the seed potatoes!"
Gandhi and Casey’s discussions increasingly became concerned with the politics of the transfer of power and the degeneration in political negotiations between the British, Muslim League and the Congress. Gandhi said that he was “utterly distrustful” of British promises, rattling off a list of British perfidy, which concluded with the Viceroy’s to proceed at Simla without the participation of the Muslim League, leading to the collapse of the negotiations.
On one occasion, on December 3, Gandhi came to see Casey at Government House while he was observing a day of silence, leaving the conversation rather one-sided. In his diary, Casey listed the topics he discussed with his silent interlocutor: the release of political prisoners in Bengal, the recent violence in Calcutta as students protested the trial of the Indian National Army in Delhi, the food situation, and the drastic shortages of cloth in the province, which, as winter set in, would compound the misery of those already weakened by food deprivation. Casey wrote in his diaries that Gandhi ‘followed carefully … nodding, smiling etc. at appropriate intervals’, in an exchange that lasted an hour and a quarter. The following day, on December 4, Gandhi suggested that Casey meet Azad, Nehru and Patel when they arrived in Calcutta for the meetings of the Congress Working Committee, to which Casey readily agreed.
Before this meeting could take place, however, dynamics between the Government and Congress were strained when the Secretary of State for India, Pethick-Lawrence, threatened to arrest the Congress leaders if they continued to make ‘violent speeches’. It was therefore in "a rather gloomy and stolid silence" that Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad arrived at Governor’s House in Calcutta on December 7, to meet Casey. Casey believed that these meetings were crucial in establishing trust: Congress leaders, he wrote to Stafford Cripps, meet “the British” on formal occasions when some high-level stuff is being discussed, but they never meet us to “have a chat”. As a result, they arrived "suspicious and bristling", but after discussion, "went away relaxed and more or less friendly", despite the fact that Casey had conceded nothing to them – for he was not empowered to speak on the behalf of the Viceroy. The act of informal talking and active listening, Casey believed, was in and of itself significant.
Casey’s willingness to meet with Gandhi and members of the Congress Working Committee was significant, in that it opened the path for a recalibration of the construction of the Congress leaders as ‘rebels’ after their release from prison. As a recently arrived administrator in India, Casey did not bring with him the entrenched imperial habitus of so many of his peers. The talks raised great expectations in the Indian public sphere, and by December 3, journalists had begun referring to ‘The Gandhi-Casey Talks’, although little was reported in terms of the substance of their discussions, a great deal of weight was placed on the fact of their occurrence.
Public speculation about Casey’s regular meetings with Gandhi and the Congress High Command ultimately pressured Wavell to meet Gandhi too. Such a meeting had been mooted for some time, but Wavell had resisted it, after a failed meeting in Simla in mid 1945. Casey’s meetings in December made it difficult for Wavell to continue to refuse to reopen talks. Unsurprisingly, the meeting between Wavell and Gandhi - in his secretary Pyarelal’s words - was a "flop". Wavell took the opportunity to re-state that the British were unwilling to leave India until all parties – meaning the Congress and the Muslim League - were in agreement. This smacked of the old 'divide and rule’ policy, and as Pyarelal wrote, "Casey’s well-meaning effort [to reopen dialogue between the Congress and the government] left him with burnt fingers".
At a more fundamental level, though, Casey maintained that merely meeting with the leaders was productive: the medium was the message. A private photograph of their meeting on December 3, 1945, most likely taken by Pat Jarrett and kept in Casey’s personal papers in Melbourne, is revealing. The Governor sits next to the Mahatma, inclined toward him. Significantly, at a later visit on December 6, Gandhi was asked to autograph the photograph, and he obliged.
Casey was frequently struck by imperial posturing of the Britons around him, remarking on the adverse effects of this on those they purported to rule. When Casey met Gandhi, relations between the Government of India and the leaders of the Congress were embittered. Sudhir Ghosh concluded that "Casey, being an Australian and a politician with a very wide international political experience, was very different from the usual rigid British Governor in India", and as such was able to inject a fresh, if short-lived, dynamic into preliminary discussions leading into the high politics of decolonisation. Casey had his eye on the Australian prime ministership, and resigned his Governorship to return to Australia, in February 1946, to contest the elections. His future was pegged to politics in Australia, where he would serve not as Prime Minister, but as Robert Menzies’ External Affairs Minister; he is credited with opening Australia’s relations with Asia even as the White Australia Policy remained in place.
British functionaries in the Government of India, by contrast, were facing immanent redundancy, after decades of cultivating an imperial habitus that rested on inflated notions of prestige and dominance. Casey would later reflect in his book Personal Experience that in India as "an Australian [he] had no 'Imperial' past", lending him a degree of license to speak freely, and offer a fresh perspective on Indian affairs beyond his provincial responsibilities. His time in India was not without controversy, and he left Bengal before many of his plans, including those to ameliorate the famine, could be fully implemented. Casey was, ultimately, a part of the British Government of India, but his self-projection as an Australian gave him the ability to style himself as a neutral mediator in the vexed high politics of India, on the cusp of independence.
(Kama Maclean is Associate Professor of South Asian and World History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. This is an edited excerpt from her article, ‘A Colonial in the Colonies: Governor Casey, Mahatma Gandhi and the Endgame of Empire’ https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/39591. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)