Gandhi’s Fast, February 1943
In February 1943 Mohandas Gandhi was a prisoner at the Aga Khan palace in the city of Poona (now Pune), near Bombay (now Mumbai). Having been arrested on 9th August 1942 after ratifying the ‘Quit India’ resolution, which called for the withdrawal of British rule over India, his (and his fellow members’) incarceration sparked mass demonstrations throughout India in which thousands were killed or injured. After six months of detention without charges, and in response to the British claiming that the Indian National Congress was responsible for the demonstrations of 1942, Gandhi undertook a 21-day fast.
In this featured document, a telegram, Winston Churchill informs General Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, of his suspicions and scepticism of Gandhi’s fast. Sent on 26th February, sixteen days into the 21-day fast, Churchill writes ‘it looks now highly probably that he will see his fast out’. Indeed, he accuses Gandhi of having ‘been eating better meals than I have for the last week’ and declares ‘what fools we should have been to flinch before all this bluff and sob-stuff’. Clearly viewing his fast as a stunt and a fraud, he explains that they had been told by the 11th day ‘if we did not let him out it would be too late and he would never recover’. The fact that Gandhi had survived by this, the sixteenth day, was in Churchill’s view evidence that ‘as soon as he understood there would be no weakness here he made his arrangements accordingly’. Convinced that Gandhi was calling the government’s bluff, he accused Congress Hindu doctors of slipping him ‘glucose or other nourishment’ in another letter to the Viceroy, Linlithgow. There was no evidence that this was in fact true, and in fact while Gandhi’s medical team had tried to persuade him to take glucose he had ‘refused absolutely’.
Churchill’s disdain for Mohandas Gandhi was well known and documented. Having met only once, in 1906 in South Africa when they were on opposing sides of the ‘Black Act’, throughout the rest of their lives they continued to be diametrically opposed in their efforts for and against colonialism and, in India, British rule.