Phillips Talbot: Journalist and diplomat who became an expert on South Asian affairs

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The Independent Online

It was a measure of Phillips Talbot's understanding and knowledge of India and Pakistan that he had been acclaimed as the doyen of American experts on South Asia.

He knew Mohandas Gandhi personally and experienced first-hand the power and impact of his non-violence movement which paved the way for independence. A witness to the bloody upheaval of the Partition, he was one of the few Americans present at the formation of free India and Pakistan in 1947.

William Phillips Talbot was born in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Wisconsin and Illinois. By his own admission, he was the black sheep of a family dominated by brilliant careers in construction and engineering. Rather than mathematics and science, he was interested in social studies and journalism, and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1936 with degrees in political science and journalism before spending a year at the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London.

He had his first exposure to South Asia in 1938, as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News on a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA). His travels on the subcontinent included meetings with political and spiritual leaders like Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who became the first president of Pakistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first premier of independent India. He made the most of his two years in India, spending time at a Vedic ashram in Lahore, Rabindranath Tagore's famous Shantiniketan near Calcutta, the beautiful hill station Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu and Gandhi's Sevagram Ashram in Wardha in Maharashtra, among other places. He learnt Urdu and Hindi and practised yoga. His letters to the ICWA director Walter Rogers formed the basis of his acclaimed book, An American Witness to India's Partition (2007).

During the Second World War he served in India and China as a naval liaison officer and attaché. After, he rejoined the Chicago Daily News and returned to the subcontinent to report on India's liberation, the creation of Pakistan and the violent turmoil triggered by the Partition. Talbot marched with Gandhi, pleading for Hindu-Muslim amity, in the remote Noakhali district in East Bengal not long after thousands of Hindus were killed by Muslim mobs.

"I've been a Christian, and in particular a Presbyterian, and yet in Gandhi I saw saintliness," he wrote. "He was a 77-year-old ascetic and the physical ordeal did not worry him. Here, if I ever saw one, is a pilgrimage. Here is the Indian – and the world's – idea of sainthood: a little old man who has renounced personal possessions, walking with bare feet on cold earth in search of a great human ideal." Talbot interviewed Gandhi at length a few weeks before the leader was assassinated.

Returning to academia, he received a doctorate in international relations in 1954 from the University of Chicago. He spent much of his time in South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan between 1951 and 1961 as the executive director of the American Universities Field Staff, a programme aimed at studying developing countries as they emerged from colonialism. He played a key role as an adviser when the Asia Society was launched in 1956; he was appointed president in 1970 and served until 1981, and was emeritus thereafter.

In 1961, he was appointed by President Kennedy as assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. He played a major part in the administration's intensive but unsuccessful efforts to coax India and Pakistan to come to a settlement over Kashmir's status.

In 1964, Talbot was travelling in India and Pakistan and a rumour spread that he had come to advocate a "Talbot Plan" for resolving the Kashmir issue. But this was just the kind of conspiracy theory familiar to South Asia observers. Talbot said he "treasured" a banner screaming "Yankee Talbot Go Home. Kashmir Not For Sale". He maintained his interest in the disputed state till the end of his life; in his 90s he was a consultant to the Kashmir Study Group. He also served as ambassador to Greece from 1965-69. In 2002, the Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri, an honour usually bestowed on Indian nationals.

William Phillips Talbot, journalist and diplomat: born Pittsburgh 7 June 1915; married 1943 Mildred Fisher (deceased; two daughters, one son deceased); died Manhattan 1 October 2010.