Richard Symonds

Witness to the Partition of India who after a long UN career returned to Oxford and academic life


John Richard Charters Symonds, writer and international administrator: born Oxford 2 October 1918; staff, UN Technical Assistance Board 1950-65; Senior Research Officer, Oxford University Institute of Commonwealth Studies 1962-65; Professorial Fellow, IDS, Sussex University 1966-69; Consultant, UN Population Division 1968-69; Representative in Europe, UN Institute of Training and Research 1969-71; Resident Representative in Greece, UN Development Programme 1972-75, Resident Representative in Tunisia 1975-78, Senior Adviser (and Senior Adviser, UN Fund for Population Activities), New York 1978-79; Senior Associate Member, St Antony's College, Oxford 1979-82; Senior Research Associate, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford 1979-2006; Honorary Director, UN Career Records Project 1989-92; married 1940 Anne Harrisson (marriage dissolved 1948), 1949 Juanita Ellington (died 1979; one son, and one son deceased), 1980 Ann Spokes; died Oxford 15 July 2006.

Richard Symonds packed several careers into a long life, but will perhaps be best remembered for his writings on the Partition of India, based largely on his personal experience in those critical years, and his monograph Oxford and Empire, written in the less stressful environment of his later life at Oxford.

As a young man he had been absorbed into the colonial bureaucracy in Bengal with responsibilities for civil defence and rehabilitation after the great famine of 1943 which took some three million lives. He worked with the United Nations in the early years of the organisation - as area welfare officer of Unrra (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association) in Vienna just after the Second World War, as observer accepted by the two new dominions in South Asia during the Partition riots and the initial stages of the Kashmir crisis and then as Resident Representative of Untab (the UN Technical Assistance Board) in countries as varied as Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Tunis, Greece and South Africa.

His initial training as a historian - he was a scholar in Modern History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford - and his experience of both decolonisation and internationally sponsored developmental initiatives in the Third World led to the next phase in his career, as an academic in the twin fields of Commonwealth studies and economic development, especially population studies. He held variously a professorial fellowship (and later a visiting professorship) at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, the post of Senior Research Officer at the Oxford University Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Senior Associate Membership of St Antony's College.

Born in Oxford, the second son of Sir Charles Symonds, a neurologist, and his wife Janet (daughter of the zoologist Sir Edward Poulton; she died in a bicycle accident the year after her younger son was born), Richard Symonds was in some ways an unusual product of public school education. At Rugby, he informs us in his draft memoirs, he always found the idea of imperialism ridiculous, especially when defeat at football meant "no jam" because the team had "let down the Empire".

Such deprivation did not turn him into a rebel, however, only a somewhat bemused spectator of the imperial and international scene. The latter concern took him to Spain in 1937, as a member of a British student delegation invited to see how things were going under the Republic, threatened by Franco's Nationalists. Another participant in the five-member team was Edward Heath.

After Oxford, as a member of the Society of Friends he joined their ambulance unit and was driving vans in London at the beginning of the Second World War. When his friend Horace Alexander, trusted by the Indian National Congress, went to India to help and advise during the Cripps Mission, Symonds accompanied him as his deputy. Important roles awaited him at his destination. Working with the Bengal Civil Protection Committee, he had to organise relief squads for bombed areas including slums. In some areas, the only women workers he could find were the prostitutes - who hailed him as their captain.

Then he was asked to join the colonial bureaucracy as Deputy Director, Relief and Rehabilitation: his prescribed task was to help a return to status quo ante after the most devastating famine in the history of the region. He explains at some length the many hindrances to bureaucratic initiative in such matters. Chief among these was the filing system described by Lord Curzon as a "gigantic quagmire or bog into which every question that comes along either sinks or is sucked down". Inter-departmental correspondence "dealing with life and death" took six weeks to six months to reach its destination in the next room.

Symonds unhappily concedes that his role in the rehabilitation directorate was not a success. But, at this point, he had a pioneering role in something which was to have worldwide importance later. In the post-war plans under discussion, his contribution was the emphasis on family planning. The suggestion was treated with disfavour because the mandarins thought that interference in social matters might lead to another Indian Mutiny.

Introduced to Gandhi by Horace Alexander, he now got to know Nehru and the Mountbattens as well. When the Partition riots in the Punjab and the tribal invasion in Jammu-Kashmir created an unprecedented number of refugees, Alexander and Symonds, at their own suggestion , were appointed observers in both Pakistan and India to report on the condition of the minorities sheltering in camps. They worked closely with Lady Mountbatten, who was the head of the Red Cross in India.

His monograph based on these experiences, In the Margins of Independence: a relief worker in India and Pakistan (1942-1949) (2001), and his The Making of Pakistan (1950) are classic contributions to the literature on Partition. His account of the massacres at Poonch which partly explain the tenacity of the Azad Kashmir movement has the tone of authenticity not matched by any other material known to me. Written without sentimentality and accessible to the lay reader, his description of the fate of the refugees is chilling in its restrained understatement.

Symonds's Indian experience included a fascinating interlude when he contacted typhoid and Gandhi nursed him to health at his Delhi residence in Birla House. Symonds records without comment the Mahatma's quaint ideas on medicine. Severely opposed to drinking in any form, the saint had some use for brandy because he had once used it successfully in a case of snakebite. But he was also curious about the utility of stout, which had been recommended by his landlady in London. Symonds sums up as follows his impression of his days with Gandhi:

Having shared even briefly his way of life, I was never able afterwards to take the protocol and the trappings of diplomatic life quite seriously.

Next Symonds appears as an employee of the newly established UN. His recruitment, he explained, was facilitated by the ignorance of his American selectors, who set great store by his Oxford MA (bought, in those days, for £5: a mere BA would not have done the trick). His unpublished memoirs, submitted for the UN Career Records Project of which he was the Honorary Director, contain amusing insights into the absurdities of international diplomacy. His first appointment was as Resident Representative, Untab, to Ceylon. The new dominion's first President was Sir John Kotelawala, who ruled effectively, if somewhat unintelligently, with the help of the old anglicised élite. His successor, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, opted for a more popular Sinhalised regime but in the process started the lethal ethnic conflict. Symonds commented, "Thus an intelligent graduate of Oxford caused more harm than an unintelligent graduate of Cambridge." An intelligent man himself, Symonds I think shared the strong-minded Englishman's suspicion of unnecessary cleverness.

Another nugget from his experiences, this time in Africa: the French had left behind so much champagne in one Francophone country that the UN delegation had to clean their teeth with the stuff. One product of his encounter with the recently decolonised countries was his book The British and their Successors (1966). It deserves more attention.

On his return to academia, Symonds continued to be productive. His work on the population problem, The United Nations and the Population Question (co-written with Michael Carder, 1973), is a major contribution to the subject. Perhaps he is at his best in his monograph Oxford and Empire: the last lost cause? (1986), remarkable for its unobtrusive literary quality. His two volumes on the "worthies and noteworthies" of his Oxford college, The Fox, the Bees and the Pelican (2002) and Daring to be Wise (2004), have the same stamp of bemused elegance.

His understanding of Oxford's relationship to the Empire is structured around a number of themes - industry and commerce, race, critics of empire, women and the impact of public schools. His conclusion about the lasting impact is profound and subtle. First, most was achieved by "what Oxford did not seek to do", namely, impose ideas and/or restrict freedom of thought. Secondly, in his view, it was "still too early to assess Oxford's influence on Empire".

In our discussions, when I was uncompromising in my criticism of the imperial record, he would react and say, very gently, "It is too early to assess the British Empire." This despite his aversion to imperialism.

Tapan Raychaudhuri

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