“Rascals, Rogues and Freebooters”
“Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre & men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.”
The statement above is attributed to Churchill. I cannot find it, as a speech or in a book. Although it is widely and increasingly quoted in the Indian press and, given what is happening, he seems to have been prophetic! —K.P., India
This post has the distinction of engendering the most comment among the 500 on my website. I found no references in his 20 million word canon to “rascals, rogues or freebooters” or “low calibre.” However, he did refer to the Congress leaders as “men of straw” on 6 March 1947, in condemning their rush toward independence before borders of a subdivided subcontinent were resolved. (See my quotations book, Churchill by Himself, Chapter 11, Nations…India.)
Churchill was more nuanced about India than is commonly understood. For instance, he defended the Indian minority in South Africa when he was at the Colonial Office in 1906. This left Gandhi quite favorably disposed toward him. In 1935, Churchill, who had softened his view of the Mahatma, sent this message to Gandhi:
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…. Tell Mr. Gandhi to use the powers that are offered and make the thing a success…. I am genuinely sympathetic towards India. I have got real fears about the future… But you have got the things now; make a success and if you do I will advocate your getting much more.
Gandhi, Birla, Nehru
Churchill wrote this to Ghanshyam Das Birla, a Gandhi supporter who had lunched with Churchill at Chartwell. Birla repeated the conversation. Gandhi replied: “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.” A Hindu nationalist assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948. Churchill issued a statement the same day, expressing his shock at “this wicked crime.”
Part of Churchill’s changing views toward Gandhi in 1935 was prompted by Gandhi’s (and Birla’s) defense of the Dalit, or Untouchables. Remember also that twenty years later, Churchill became quite friendly with Nehru, whom he thought no rascal, partly because they were both Harrow Old Boys. To Eden’s private secretary Evelyn Shuckburgh, WSC wrote in 1955:
I have worked very hard with Nehru. I told him he should be the light of Asia, to show all those millions how they can shine out, instead of accepting the darkness of Communism.
Arthur Herman’s 2008 book Gandhi and Churchill is a brilliant piece of writing that is fair and balanced toward both leaders, and effectively captures their mutual generosity of soul. The sins of politicians aside, Churchill would be as proud as Gandhi over the democracy that is modern India.
Republished with reader comments, below. This post has drawn the most comments of any on this website.