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Mahatma Gandhi's friend passes away

Richard Symonds, who died at 87, was a UN worker and one of the finest representatives of colonial Britain.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2006 11:32 IST

Richard Symonds, a UN development worker and friend of Mahatma Gandhi, who once insisted on providing Symonds medical treatment at the Birla House in New Delhi, has died at the age of 87.

Described as one of the finest representatives of colonial Britain, Symonds was seen as a friend of the newly decolonised countries such as India, and rendered diverse humanitarian services to a variety of such countries.

Educated at Oxford, Symonds joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in 1939. During World War II the FAU offered its services to the government of Bengal to help in the civil defence of Calcutta when Japan's air force was expected to attack eastern India.

According to Symonds' obituary in The Times, he was later invited to join the Bengal ministry of relief and rehabilitation. "Gandhi warned him that he would not find it easy to be an official person, and he was right. Yet Symonds found it a useful experience", the obituary says.

When Symonds heard about the violence that had flared up with the partition of India in 1947 he offered his services to what had now become the Friends Service Unit in the sub-continent. He and his colleagues acted as observers of the treatment of minorities, who found themselves on either side of the newly created frontier.

Symonds went to Pakistan, his final inspection being in western Kashmir, a hazardous and exhausting trek, which ended with him being prostrated by typhoid fever.

The obituary states that Gandhi insisted on him being cared for at his base in Birla House in New Delhi, where Symonds remained for a month.

Symonds has left an engaging account of how he was visited by politicians of all kinds, all of them expressing the deepest sympathy. He remarked to Gandhi: "Now is surely the appropriate time for me to expire, for I shall never be so well regarded again."

In the spring of 1948 Symonds was recruited to the UN Commission for India and Pakistan, which sought to find a settlement over Kashmir.

He assisted Sir Owen Dixon of Australia and used his return to the sub-continent to collect material for his first book, The Making of Pakistan (1950).

Symonds also served in Sri Lanka and wrote books of his experiences in the Indian sub-continent.

In his retirement he wrote Oxford and Empire -the Last Lost Cause? His memories of relief work in the sub-continent were recorded as 'In the Margins of Independence' (2001).