Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill and Gandhi

Churchill’s disdain for, and deep suspicion of, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is well known. The two met only once, in South Africa in 1906. At the time, Churchill was undersecretary of state for the colonies and Gandhi was a lawyer who had been mobilizing Indian opposition to the ‘Black Act’ with his newly-developed tool of civil disobedience or satyagraha. They had both been active in the South African War of 1899-1902, Churchill as a war correspondent and then in the South African Light Horse regiment, and Gandhi in the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps. Churchill returned to London to join parliament in 1900, ever convinced of the greatness of the British Empire. When Gandhi returned to India in 1915 after twenty-one years in South Africa, he had developed an ethics, persona and political method that would challenge the legitimacy of British rule in India and the empire beyond.

It was the mass anticolonial campaign of 1930 that brought Gandhi directly into Churchill’s path and began their long rivalry. In 1929, the Indian National Congress with Jawaharlal Nehru as its president passed a resolution for complete independence. The more radical faction within Congress had wanted to denounce Britain for ruining India ‘economically, politically, culturally and socially’. Pressure had been mounting on Gandhi, who had great standing following his Non-Cooperation campaign in 1920, to lead another round of civil disobedience that would culminate in strikes across India. Gandhi was reluctant and his demands of the viceroy, Lord Irwin, were altogether more moderate: a release of political prisoners, lowering the rupee/sterling exchange rate and a reduction of land revenue. When Irwin refused, Gandhi consented to civil disobedience, launching the now famous salt satyagraha.

Salt was a powerful symbol around which to mobilize the campaign. Britain had a monopoly on this vital component of people’s lives and taxed it highly, to the detriment of ordinary people. The movement began in March 1930 when Gandhi and 78 members of his ashram marched to Dandi, a small village on the coast. There, Gandhi declared that the illegal manufacture of salt should begin. As this slight man in a loin cloth reached down to collect a handful of salt, he declared: ‘with this I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire!’ The march had been met along the way by tens of thousands of supporters and was followed closely by the international news media. For Gandhi, this was a ‘battle of right against might’.

The salt satyagraha grew rapidly into mass civil disobedience: people made salt, they boycotted British goods, village officials resigned their posts and peasants refused to pay tax. Thousands of protesters were imprisoned and the state brutally cracked down on even the most peaceful protests. Women joined the movement in their thousands, publicly demonstrating as never before. The British government imprisoned 60,000 satyagrahis (demonstrators), including Gandhi and Nehru. Towards the end of 1930, with thousands in jail and enthusiasm for the movement waning, Gandhi agreed to negotiate with the viceroy; the result was the Gandhi-Irwin Pact of March 1931. The government agreed to release all political prisoners if Gandhi called off the civil disobedience campaign and came to London to join the round table conferences as the Congress representative. Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister, had organised the conference with Indian representatives to address the question of how power would be shared among Indians once the British left.

Churchill wrote extensively on these events and Britain’s response to them. He was critical of the viceroy’s decision to negotiate with Indian representatives and with Gandhi in particular, believing that agreeing to a transfer of power was an act of weakness. Churchill was convinced that Indian independence was ‘a hideous act of self-mutilation’ that would permanently weaken Britain’s empire. Rather than apologizing for Britain’s presence in India, Irwin should show confidence in the ‘indispensable work which our country has done… for India’ and resolve that ‘it shall not be interrupted or destroyed’. Gandhi’s insistence that the boycott of foreign cloth, picketing of government shops and the non-payment of rents should continue was ‘lawless’ behaviour, Churchill maintained, and should be punished severely. ‘Orientals’, he argued, ‘[i]f they think they have you at a disadvantage all their moods become violent, concessions are treated as valueless and acts of civil repression often add fuel to the flame.’ Churchill was furious that Gandhi’s position among the Indian populace had been elevated through the civil disobedience campaign – he had become both ‘martyr’ and ‘national hero’ – believing him to have treated any gesture of conciliation with ‘contempt’. Incensed that he would join the round table conference in London, Churchill infamously noted that ‘it is alarming and also nauseating 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 still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor’.

The purpose of the round table conferences was to create a constitution, a crucial element of which was how to ensure representation of India’s minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, European commercial interests and the Depressed Classes (the lowest castes, also known as Untouchables). The ‘Minorities Pact’ of 1932, supported by MacDonald, outlined a representative structure in a future independent India where all minorities would be represented by separating them from the general electorate. Gandhi had supported separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs but not for Untouchables who, he argued, were part of the body of Hindus; such a separation represented a ‘vivisection of Hinduism’ which he would oppose with his life.

On his return to India from London, Gandhi had recommenced civil disobedience and was again imprisoned. When news reached him of the Minorities Pact and the government’s support for it, he began his ‘fast unto death’ in Yerwada jail in Poona (now Pune). Emotions across India ran high around Gandhi’s fast, overwhelmingly in support of saving him. B.R. Ambedkar, leader of the Untouchables, came under enormous pressure to withdraw the demand for separate electorates for his community. Ambedkar was furious at what he saw as Gandhi’s manipulative tactics but eventually was forced to agree, remarking that he had become ‘the villain of the piece. Mr. Gandhi’s life was in my hands’. Churchill, too, had little sympathy for Gandhi’s position, noting that ‘Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting…We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died’.

Churchill’s suspicions extended to the wider nationalist leadership, which he saw as a coterie of self-serving upper caste Hindus, unrepresentative of the wider Indian population:

"It is now proposed to hand over these 300 millions and all their domestic affairs to a comparatively small class of Hindu politicians, lawyers, merchants, landlords, moneylenders, religious dignitaries and fanatics…You might as well hand the Government of all of Europe over to the inhabitants of a city of the size of Rome or with as strong a religious character."

Churchill expressed concern for the minorities, whom he saw as battling against the interests of a narrow elite: ‘Princes, Europeans, Moslems [sic], Depressed Classes, Anglo-Indians, none of them know what to do, where to turn, in the face of their desertion by G.B. Can you wonder they try in desperation to make what terms possible with a triumphant Brahmin oligarchy?’ To transfer power to Congress, he believed, would be ‘an act of cowardice, desertion, dishonour’. For Churchill, Gandhi represented this ‘oligarchy’: ‘Gandhi stands for the expulsion of Britain from India…. Gandhi stands for the substitution of Brahmin domination for Britain’s rule in India. You will never be able to come to terms with Gandhi.’ Ambedkar concurred that Gandhi aligned with this upper caste political elite, calling his 1932 fast, ‘a vindication of caste’. However, Churchill’s view of Indians remained deeply paternalistic: he maintained that Britain had a responsibility ‘for giving…peaceful existence and progress to…helpless primitive people separated by an almost measureless gulf from ideas and institutions of the western world’. It is likely that his expression of sympathy with the minorities was born more out of a desire to bolster their collective opinion against the nationalist leadership than a sincere interest in their future.

In August 1942, Gandhi launched the Quit India campaign, his last civil disobedience movement where he was at his most militant: he called on the British to go and for Indians to consider themselves free. The Congress leadership, including Gandhi and Nehru, were imprisoned on the day after the campaign was announced and by the end of 1943 over 90,000 others had been arrested. There were widespread incidents of state violence, with reports of rape, police setting villages on fire, public flogging and aerial machine gunning of crowds. In February 1943, Gandhi began a 21 day fast in protest against the viceroy’s insistence that Congress was responsible for the disturbances and that Gandhi admit to it.

Churchill, ever distrustful of Gandhi, sought to show that this fast was a sham. In a telegram to the viceroy, Linlithgow, he requested that officials check if Gandhi was taking glucose: ‘I have heard that Gandhi usually has glucose in his water when doing his various fasting antics. Would it be possible to verify this?’ Linlithgow replied that while Gandhi’s medical attendants had tried to persuade him to take glucose he had ‘refused absolutely’. Tej Bahadur Sapru, the Congress president, wired the prime minister on 20 February urging him to release Gandhi ‘immediately and unconditionally’, warning of the grave situation that would arise ‘if the Government fail to take timely action and prevent a catastrophe’. In reply, Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India, stated that the government of India would ‘not be deflected from their duty’, insisting that ‘the responsibility…rests entirely with Mr. Gandhi himself’. An attempt by the Americans to intervene also prompted an irritated reply: ‘the British Government will not in any circumstances alter the course it is pursuing about Gandhi. Any American intervention would therefore cause great embarrassment between the two Governments’, Churchill wrote to Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington.

As Gandhi’s fast entered its third week, Churchill wrote again to the viceroy to see if there was a way to expose him as a fraud:

"Cannot help feeling very suspicious of bonafides of Gandhi’s fast. We were told fourth day would be the crisis and then well staged climax was set for eleventh day onwards. Now at fifteenth day bulletins look as if he might get through. Would be most valuable if fraud could be exposed. Surely with all those Congress Hindu doctors round him it is quite easy to slip glucose or other nourishment into his food."

The prime minister was convinced that Gandhi was calling the government’s bluff. As he wrote to General Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, ‘I do not think Gandhi has the slightest intention of dying, and I imagine he has been eating better meals than I have for the last week. It now looks highly probable that he will see his fast out. What fools we should have been to flinch before all this bluff and sob stuff.’ Churchill and Linlithgow agreed that Gandhi was a ‘rascal’ and ‘the world’s greatest humbug’, the latter writing that the reports of Gandhi’s health had ‘been deliberately cooked’ for the sake of public opinion. ‘There would be no difficulty in his entourage administering glucose or any other food without the knowledge of the Government doctors’, the viceroy continued. ‘The degree of nervous tension and hysteria engendered by all this Hindu hocus pocus is beyond belief. I am suggesting slyly to American correspondents here that it has not been so much a matter of having their heartstrings plucked as their legs being pulled.’ Despite there being no evidence of Gandhi taking glucose during the 1943 fast, this assertion made it into Hinge of Fate, volume four of Churchill’s autobiography – one he was advised to amend for any subsequent edition.

Churchill and Gandhi were both powerful characters with ambitions for their countries that were diametrically opposed. Churchill went to great lengths to resist a transfer of power in India. Gandhi transformed his entire persona as he sought to embody what Indian freedom might look like. For Churchill, it was Britain’s God-given right to rule India and its responsibility to care for and guide its people. He expressed concern for the position of India’s minorities whose interests he saw being trampled by a Hindu political elite. Yet his professions of sympathy fall awkwardly flat in the face of his frequent references to the primitive state of Indian society and the tendency towards violence of ‘orientals’ who, he believed, should show more gratitude for the munificence of British rule. The contempt with which Churchill spoke of the nationalist leadership should also give us pause. On one hand, he believed it Britain’s duty to school Indians in the values and institutions so vaunted at home. On the other, when a significant population of Indians so educated argued for independence in the language of constitutionalism professed by their rulers, Churchill dismissed them as being forwarded by a bunch of manipulative upstarts interested only in themselves. For Churchill, Gandhi was the quintessential Janus faced ‘oriental’, at once a self-styled fakir and London-trained lawyer; for this, he was to be reviled.

Churchill is a towering figure of twentieth-century history, having been at the forefront of the global fight against fascism. However, it is hard not to conclude that while he defended freedom at home, Churchill did not believe in the right to freedom of people of all races. Churchill was in essence a Victorian defending an imperial age on the cusp of disintegration. Indian independence in 1947 would be a catalyst for wave upon wave of independence movements against European colonial rule in Asia, Africa and beyond. The time to defend empire had come to an end.

Guide to the Churchill Archives on sources relating to Gandhi

  • CHAR 2/180A-B: Correspondence relating to Indian affairs in 1931
  • CHAR 2/181: Press clippings relating to Indian affairs, 1931
  • CHAR 2/301: General material on Indian affairs, Jan - Nov 1931
  • CHAR 2/370: General material on Indian affairs, Dec 1938 - Aug 1939
  • CHAR 2/583 A-B: Correspondence on Indian affairs, Jan - Mar 1931
  • CHAR 20/79A-B: Prime minister’s personal telegrams, Aug - Sept 1942
  • CHAR 20/107: Prime minister’s personal telegrams, 1943
  • CHAR 9/93 A-B: House of Commons speeches, Jan - Mar 1931
  • CHAR 9/95: Non-House of Commons speeches, Jan - Jun 1931
  • CHAR 9/96: Non-House of Commons speeches, Mar - Apr 1931
  • CHAR 9/98: Speeches, ‘India’, Nov 1929 - May 1931