“Welcome Mr. Gandhi” —Winston Churchill

by Richard M. Langworth on 11 July 2014

This arti­cle first appeared in The Weekly Stan­dard scrap­book for 21 July 2014.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mohan­das Gandhi (1869-1948)

Every time you real­ize how badly the media man­gles some­thing you know about, you won­der how well they are report­ing every­thing else.

The announce­ment that a statue of Gandhi would be placed in Par­lia­ment Square near that of Win­ston Churchill unleashed a bar­rage of igno­rance. Would Churchill wish to share space with his “one­time nemesis”?

The Asso­ci­ated Press quoted Churchill’s famous “half-naked fakir” crack (inac­cu­rately), and said he called Gandhi a “mid­dling lawyer.” (Churchill’s term was “Mid­dle Tem­ple lawyer,” some­thing else entirely.)

The Wall Street Jour­nal wor­ried that Par­lia­ment Square also includes a statue of Jan Smuts, “a prime min­is­ter of South Africa in the early 20th cen­tury who favored segregation.”

Dear oh dear.

Smuts was prime min­is­ter in 1939-48, not early in the cen­tury. He was voted out when he cam­paigned in favor of relax­ing seg­re­ga­tion. As a junior min­is­ter in 1906 Smuts did oppose equal rights for the Indian minor­ity. But here he dis­agreed with his long­time friend Win­ston Churchill, then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Gandhi him­self remarked: “I have got a good rec­ol­lec­tion of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colo­nial Office and some­how or other since then I have held the opin­ion that I can always rely on his sym­pa­thy and goodwill.”

Gandhi said this to his chief lieu­tenant, Ghan­shyam Birla, who lunched with Churchill in 1935 fol­low­ing pas­sage of the Gov­ern­ment of India Act, a step toward inde­pen­dence. Churchill had opposed this bill, and had said some pretty rough things.

But Churchill was magnanimous—a qual­ity sadly lack­ing among politi­cians today. “Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouch­ables,” he told Birla. “I do not like the Bill but it is now on the Statute Book….So make it a success.”

Birla asked: “What is your test of suc­cess?” Churchill replied: “…improve­ment in the lot of the masses….I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain. I do not mind about edu­ca­tion, but give the masses more butter….Make every tiller of the soil his own landlord….Provide a good bull for every vil­lage…. Use the pow­ers that are offered and make the thing a success.”

Among other things, such state­ments sug­gest a bet­ter under­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary India than Churchill is said to have had by his many crit­ics, who insist that he thought of it in terms of a 19th cen­tury Victorian.

Churchill did have a tic about an Indian inde­pen­dence move­ment led by the Brah­min class. But before we pigeon­hole him as an unre­pen­tant impe­ri­al­ist, con­sider what he and Gandhi had in common.

Both viewed a break-up of the sub­con­ti­nent with regret and sad­ness. Both feared reli­gious extrem­ism, Hindu or Mus­lim. Both believed in the peace­ful set­tle­ment of bound­ary dis­putes. Both strove for lib­erty. Such pre­cepts more widely held would be wel­come today. In Par­lia­ment Square, Churchill will be fine with Gandhi.



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