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Quaker support of Indian independence from Britain: AFSC's early history in India

Tagore (center) and Harry Timbres (3rd from left, front row) Photo: AFSC

An advocate for Indian independence

Before the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) had programs in India, it had several contacts with people in that country. None was more interesting and colorful than with the poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, first made through British Quakers.

Clarence Pickett, who became executive secretary of the AFSC in 1929, visited Quaker work in Europe in summer 1930. While in London, he attended the annual session of London Yearly Meeting, where Tagore was a speaker and appealed to Quakers to support Indian independence. Clarence Pickett described the speech as "memorable" and a session afterward as "electric." In it, Friends tried to formulate a minute to satisfy disparate ideas about Indian independence among British Quakers. It was to be forwarded to the British government.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore's visit to the United States

Clarence Pickett invited Tagore to tour the United States, presenting his concern for Indian independence to the U.S. public. Pickett describes the beginning of Tagore's visit in his book For More Than Bread: "…I met him and his party on the boat and went with them to an apartment in uptown New York where he was going to live. It was one of those exciting high points of life, and Tagore responded partly with appreciation but also with trepidation. At the apartment, we were met by newspaper reporters and photographers and movie cameramen. Tagore was rebellious and wholly unwilling to cooperate. I began to discover that, saintly as he was, he was also able to be very positive and vigorous in expressing his disapproval."

Pickett convinced Tagore that if he wanted to place his cause before the U.S. public he would have to avoid antagonizing the press. Tagore agreed, and an orderly press conference ensued. Among the many public events that followed, Tagore appeared with the interpretive dancer Ruth St. Denis in a New York City theater. He sat on a throne surrounded by children reading his poetry in Bengali and English. Pickett described this "as a sight which I am sure no one who saw it would ever forget."

The beginning of AFSC's work in India

Before leaving the United States, final arrangements were made for a young Quaker doctor, Harry Timbres, and his wife Rebecca to work with Tagore in India at Santiniketan. This was an educational institution founded by Tagore in his native Bengal.

Tagore Program

The Tagore family came into possession of the property on which the institution was established under remarkable circumstances. Tagore's father was riding in his coach near the property one day when bandits halted the coach. Unconcerned by the plundering of his personal possessions, the elder Tagore sat down under a nearby tree and was swept into a deep meditation and ecstasy in which he was so absorbed that the bandits themselves were profoundly affected. When he came out of this spell, the bandits begged him to remain and even agreed to serve him if he would stay. The elder Tagore resolved to buy the property and, after doing so, established a home and religious retreat.

Harry and Rebecca Timbres traveled to India to try to improve the health of people in the area of Santiniketan, where malaria was rampant. The young couple stayed for some years and then had to return because Timbres himself became ill from the disease. The AFSC raised money to support the Timbres in India, which was the AFSC's first involvement in India.

During World War II, the AFSC launched more formal programs in India when a famine occurred in Bengal, and it later worked with Mahatma Gandhi at the time of Indian independence. However, the AFSC's initial contact with India through the great Indian Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, is one of the endearing memories of the AFSC's contact with people in India. 

—Written by Jack Sutters, former AFSC archivist

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