“Welcome Mr. Gandhi” —Winston Churchill

“Welcome Mr. Gandhi” —Winston Churchill

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.

 

 

2 thoughts on ““Welcome Mr. Gandhi” —Winston Churchill

  1. 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.

  2. “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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *