November 2009

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Richard Casey & Mahatma Gandhi

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

On 1 December 1945, as British rule of India entered its tumultuous final phase, Mohandas Gandhi arrived in Calcutta. That night, he held the first of a series of meetings with the Raj’s local representative, Richard Casey, the governor of Bengal.

Dick Casey was an Australian, a Cambridge-educated scion of the Queensland squattocracy. Treasurer in the conservative Lyons government, he’d run against Menzies for party leadership. In one of his first acts as prime minister, Menzies made Casey ambassador to Washington, effectively removing him from domestic politics for the duration of the war.

After Washington, Casey went to Cairo as British minister of state, a move that did not play well with the new Curtin government at home. When Churchill offered him the post in Calcutta, complete with a peerage, Casey accepted the job but not the title. With hopes of a political future back in Australia still alive, he thought a title would “much reduce my chances in my very democratic country”.

He found Bengal bruised by communal rioting, riven by nationalist agitation and devastated by a man-made famine that had left 3 million dead. And his nationality didn’t make his role any easier. Being ruled by a Brit was bad enough, but taking orders from a colonial Brit from a country built on racial discrimination was downright insulting.

Afflicted with boils and amoebic dysentery, and sharing his immense, run-down official residence with hundreds of servants, their extended families and various species of uninvited wildlife, Casey was appalled by the crude racism of the British elite. To the chagrin of the local memsahibs, he began entertaining on a lavish scale, with a high proportion of his guests being Indian.

By the time the mahatma arrived – just two months before Casey’s tenure expired – the imperial Australian had earned a reputation as a vigorous, pragmatic and even-handed administrator. Casey thought Gandhi “lively” for a man of 76, with “a good sense of humour”. But the future of the subcontinent was no joking matter. After a long talk, further discussions were scheduled. As Casey escorted Gandhi to his car through the long corridors of Government House, hundreds of servants emerged to watch their progress – Hindus, Muslims and others, each making “his customary salute”.

The two men continued to meet and correspond warmly, but Casey’s appointment was winding down. In January, Casey shot a tiger. In February, he headed back to Australia. Eventually, after serving as minister for external affairs throughout the 1950s, he got his peerage. In 1965, as Baron Casey of Berwick, he became governor-general. By then, many of Gandhi’s fears of a divided India had been realised.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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