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PAST & PRESENT

Churchill and Gandhi

By Ramachandra Guha


`Frankly, if you had to choose the greater man between Gandhi and Churchill, there's no contest.' A.A. GILL



UNSYMPATHETIC: Winston Churchill on Mahatma Gandhi. PHOTOS: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IN my last column, I wrote about Winston Churchill's dislike of Indians in general. Let me now turn to his dislike of one Indian in particular; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. As an Englishman opposed to Indian independence, Churchill was naturally unsympathetic to the leader of the national movement. But there was more — it was the character of Gandhi, as much as the causes he fought for, that attracted Churchill's displeasure. There was a fundamental incompatibility not just of political ideas, but of personalities as well. As his biographer Robert Rhodes-James has pointed out, "the personal qualities, political capacity and national cause of Gandhi were (all) incomprehensible to Churchill."

Churchill's most famous, and famously abusive, words about Gandhi were spoken to an association obscure in its own time and wholly forgotten now.

It was while addressing the Council of the West Essex Unionists on February 23, 1931, that Churchill remarked of how, to him and most likely to much of his audience, it "was alarming to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."

A year previously, Gandhi had launched the Salt Satyagraha, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of Indians to defy colonial laws and ask for an end to colonial rule. This emphatic demonstration of his popular appeal had persuaded the Viceroy to release the Mahatma and begin talks with him. The attempt at opening a dialogue was bitterly opposed by Churchill. He was "against this surrender to Gandhi. I am against these conversations and agreements between Lord Irwin and Mr. Gandhi. Gandhi stands for the expulsion of Britain from India. Gandhi stands for the permanent exclusion of British trade from India. Gandhi stands for the substitution of Brahmin domination for British rule in India. You will never be able to come to terms with Gandhi".

In Churchill's opinion, the Viceroy's agreeing to speak to Gandhi involved a serious loss of face for the British in India. As he put it: "It is never possible to make concessions to Orientals when they think you are weak or afraid of them." In his view, Irwin was too apologetic, too conciliatory in his manner and method, whereas British rule had always rested on assertion and the show of strong authority. And Gandhi took full advantage of this. Speaking at the Constitutional Club on March 26, 1931, Churchill observed that "Gandhi, with deep knowledge of the Indian peoples, by the dress he wore — or did not wear, by the way in which his food was brought to him at the Viceregal Palace, deliberately insulted, in a manner which he knew everyone in India would appreciate, the majesty of the King's representative. These are not trifles in the East. Thereby our power to maintain peace and order among the immense masses of India has been sensibly impaired."



UNSYMPATHETIC: Winston Churchill (left) on Mahatma Gandhi. PHOTOS: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

As an out-of-work politician in the early 1930s, Churchill believed that "Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed". A decade later, Churchill was chosen Prime Minister of England. However, he was leading a coalition government, whose Labour members felt that Gandhi had a very good case, for if the British were fighting for their own freedom they could scarcely deny freedom to their colonies. But Churchill was unmoved. Throughout the Second World War he worked hard to scuttle all attempts made in the direction of self-government for Indians. When Gandhi went on fast in 1943, Churchill hoped that he would starve to death. After Gandhi was released in 1944 and began correspondence with the Viceroy of India about a timetable for a possible British withdrawal, Churchill thought "the Viceroy had no business to correspond with a traitor who ought to be put back in prison".

In an article published in the New Statesman in December 2002, the writer A.A. Gill nominated Churchill as his "worst Briton". Apart from those six months in 1940 when he rallied a nation on the brink of defeat, said Gill, everything about Churchill's "wearyingly long public life was self-serving and disastrous". He was an inept Home Secretary, and a worse First Sea Lord. He was responsible for the Dardanelles campaign, the greatest disaster of the first World War. Above all, "he was the worst sort of empire loyalist, desperate to hold on to India, and racist about Gandhi ... ". Gill adds: "Frankly, if you had to choose the greater man between Gandhi and Churchill, there's no contest".

Winston Churchill's dislike of India and Indians is indeed a serious blot on his reputation. All one can say in favour of what he wrote on these subjects is that Churchill's prose remains masterful even in its most bilious moments. One may (and must) deplore what he wrote about Gandhi, but one can at least understand why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

E-mail: ramguha@vsnl.com

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