Deben Bhattacharya interviewed by Kevin - Part 2: War Years

In India, in general, the old colonial system was still very strong. The values of independence and freedom of speech and thought that were taken for granted in Britain didn’t exist. What used to happen is that Ghandi and Nehru would come to Britain, speak freely, and the moment they arrived back in Bombay, would get arrested for what they’d said in London! That was normal. I was seventeen when the war broke out. Most of the population were indifferent, it didn’t affect their lives at all. 

There was no conscription in India, but you got involved – the war created jobs. I could then just about speak English, and I got a job as a clerk in the Indian army. I didn’t get on with army people, I had trouble with both the Indian and British officers. Actually, I was almost court-martialled, because I slapped a British officer. One day on parade, he called me a ‘black son of a bitch.’ The moment he said it, my hand just sprang; I had no control over the hand! He fell, and the nearby Indian soldiers doing fatigue duty laughed and giggled as they’d never seen anything like that. I was taken under escort to the Field Artillery Training Centre. After a few days, I got a note saying the charge had been withdrawn. I found out later that some civilian lawyer had made a noise about it, that I was a civilian and not subject to military law. 

After this, I was sent to up to the North West Frontier, to Campbellphur, now in Pakistan. It was very desert-like, very desolate. I was feeling very lonely there, but on the second or third day I met another young Bengali, called Nipend Roy. We became friendly, and one evening went to the cinema. An English film was being shown, I remember. As we went in, there was a shower of shouting at me, all sorts of insults and abuse. Before I knew it I was kicked by half a dozen people, kicked, pushed out and beaten up outside. I think it was this that made me sure I had had enough of British Army Life and I decided to leave. Even though I was not a combatant, it took months before I could get out. 

It was now 1942, and India was raging. There was this ‘quit India’ movement, and a lot of trouble and violence. My father was by now working at Muzasserpur, in Bihar. When I left the army, I went there to join him. Bihar was on fire at that time – massacres, looting of police stations, murders – although the fury of the peasant population was aimed mainly at Indians who were working for the British, and were regarded as collaborators. This meant the ICS – the Indian Civil Service, and the civil police. I did not get involved in the riots. There were also groups of young intellectuals whose only dream was to get the British out. It was decided that Ghandi’s peaceful methods were not going to get Churchill out. Churchill would hang onto India until it dropped dead! And Ghandi was no match for him in that field. So what was the answer? Guns! Guns! Guns!

They were made in secret by village blacksmiths. They were not well made, and were always bursting in people’s hands. But they were beginning to learn, you see. My people were buying these guns, and I looked so young and innocent (I was twenty) that my duty was to find these guns from the blacksmiths and bring them over. There were two of us working together; I was just one link in the whole chain. One day, one of my father’s patients came to see him (he adored my father because he’d cured one of his sons from a serious illness) and told him what I was up to. And I had four or five guns hidden! My father, a very quiet, simple person was very upset. I was sent back to the family home in Benares.

Read Part 3: Abroad at last »

Text taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly
© 2010 Michael Daly