“Welcome Mr. Gandhi” —Winston Churchill

by Richard 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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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard M. Langworth July 25, 2014 at 13:52

Mr. Gandhi was a clever man and it’s possible to believe he said that tongue-in-cheek. But what about this? “I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.”
—Gandhi, May 1940, the month Churchill became prime minister.

Neither man was without faults. But their relations have been misrepresented by ignorant media and headline seekers.

Godfrey Barker July 13, 2014 at 18:36

“Churchill was ruthlessly dismissive of Indian political aspirations… He could scarcely be expected to forget that the Mahatma had offered to mediate Britain’s surrender to Hitler, whom the standard-bearer of non-violence and Indian freedom described as “not a bad man”. Gandhi in 1940 wrote an open letter to the British people, urging them to ‘lay down arms and accept whatever fate Hitler decided. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all of these, but neither your souls nor your minds’.”
– Max Hastings, Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord (London 2009) p.255; Gandhi’s remark is quoted from D G Tendulkar, Mahatma (New Delhi 1969) V.291

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