Exactly a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi began his first all-India movement against British colonial rule. Winston Churchill was, and continued to be, unimpressed by those efforts.
Within his homeland, Winston Churchill’s colossal contribution to saving his people from Hitler eclipses all else, and he is widely regarded as the greatest Briton of all time. So it came as something of a surprise when a senior Labour Party politician recently described him as a “villain” for having ordered troops to fire on striking workers in the Welsh town of Tonypandy in 1910. The claim provoked vigorous denunciations from prominent politicians, as well as more sober reflections in op-ed pages. When the dust settles, as it soon must, Churchill will revert to being the figure of sanctity that he has always been.
Within his homeland, that is. Outside the United Kingdom, Churchill has always had a decidedly mixed reputation. This is especially so in India, my own country, where his undying opposition to freedom for Indians is both well known and widely deplored. As is his hatred for Mahatma Gandhi, a figure he repeatedly mocked, callinghim (among other things) a “malignant subversive fanatic” and “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.”
Churchill and Gandhi met once, in November 1906. The Englishman was then the undersecretary of state for the colonies; the Indian, a spokesman for the rights of his countrymen in South Africa. Back then, Gandhi wore a suit and tie, as befitting a lawyer trained in London. It is not clear whether Churchill remembered their meeting when, in the early 1930s, he began attacking Gandhi, whose Salt March had made waves around the world and established him as the preeminent leader of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule.
At the time, Churchill was out of office and seeking to rebuild his political career by working up British sentiment in defense of the empire. By the time he was prime minister a decade later, leading the fight against the Nazis, he remained implacably opposed to independence for Gandhi’s people. His senior cabinet colleague Leo Amery recalled how Churchill had once referred to Indians “as a beastly people with a beastly religion.” He might have added that their leader was, in his opinion, the beastliest of them all.
In August 1942, Gandhi launched his last great popular struggle, the Quit India Movement. He was immediately arrested and taken to a prison in Poona (now known as Pune). Churchill also convinced himself that Gandhi was acting on behalf of the Axis powers. Archived British documents show that in September 1942, Churchill wrote to Amery, “Please let me have a note on Mr. Gandhi’s intrigues with Japan and the documents the Government of India published, or any other they possessed before on this topic.” Three days later, Amery replied, “The India Office has no evidence to show, or suggest, that Gandhi has intrigued with Japan.” The “only evidence of Japanese contacts [with Gandhi] during the war,” Amery continued, “relates to the presence in Wardha of two Japanese Buddhist priests who lived for part of 1940 in Gandhi’s Ashram.”
The Quit India Movement was marked by protests across the country. A British government report blamed Gandhi for the violence that followed his arrest. Gandhi was hurt by the accusations, since he had always preached and practiced nonviolence. When the Raj refused to retract the accusations, Gandhi began a three-week fast in prison. Once again, Churchill developed unfounded suspicions about Gandhi, this time convincing himself that the Indian was secretly using energy supplements, and therefore not really fasting.
On February 13, 1943, Churchill wired the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow: “I have heard that Gandhi usually has glucose in his water when doing his various fasting antics. Would it be possible to verify this.” Two days later the Viceroy responded, “This may be the case but those who have been in attendance on him doubt it, and present Surgeon-General Bombay (a European) says that on a previous fast G. was particularly careful to guard against possibility of glucose being used. I am told that his present medical attendants tried to persuade him to take glucose yesterday and again today, and that he refused absolutely.”
As Gandhi’s fast entered its third week, Churchill again wired the viceroy:
Cannot help feeling very suspicious of bona fides 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.
By this time, the viceroy was himself exasperated with Gandhi. But no evidence showed that he had actually taken any glucose. So the viceroy now replied to Churchill in a manner that stoked both men’s prejudices. “I have long known Gandhi as the world’s most successful humbug,” Linlithgow fumed, “and have not the least doubt that his physical condition and the bulletins reporting it from day to day have been deliberately cooked so as to produce the maximum effect on public opinion.” Then, going against his own previous statement, the viceroy claimed that “there would be no difficulty in his entourage administering glucose or any other food without the knowledge of the Government doctors”—this when the same government doctors had told him exactly the opposite. “If I can discover any firm of evidence of fraud I will let you hear,” Linlithgow wrote to Churchill, adding, “but I am not hopeful of this.”
This prompted an equally disappointed reply from Churchill: “It now seems certain that the old rascal will emerge all the better from his so-called fast.”
In 1943, Lord Wavell replaced Linlithgow as viceroy. The prime minister warned Wavell “that only over his [Churchill’s] dead body would any approach to Gandhi take place.” Then he joked that Wavell had “one great advantage over the last few Viceroys”: They “had to decide whether and when to lock up Gandhi,” whereas this viceroy “should find him already locked up.”
Wavell, however, stood against Linlithgow and Churchill and believed that India should become independent. He released Gandhi from prison in May 1944. When World War II ended a year later and a Labour government came to power in Britain, Churchill’s reactionary policies were set aside, and formal negotiations for a transfer of power began. The British departed the subcontinent in August 1947, dividing it as they left into the separate, sovereign nations of India and Pakistan. Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948.
These facts are well known. What is not is that Churchill’s dislike of Gandhi persisted even after British rule in India had ended and his adversary had died.
In 1951, Churchill published an installment of his war memoirs, The Hinge of Fate, and made an astonishing charge against Gandhi. The former prime minister claimed that the Indian had conducted his 1943 fast “under the most favourable conditions in a small palace” and that “the most active world-wide propaganda was set on foot that his death was approaching.” Then Churchill wrote, “It was certain, however, at an early stage that he was being fed with glucose whenever he drank water, and this, as well as his own intense vitality and lifelong austerity, enabled this frail being to maintain his prolonged abstention from any visible form of food.”
“In the end,” Churchill continued, “being quite convinced of our obduracy he abandoned his fast, and his health, though he was very weak, was not seriously affected.”
The publication of this volume of The Hinge of Fate created an uproar in India. Gandhi’s secretary, Pyarelal, and his doctor, B. C. Roy, wrote angry letters to Churchill, dismissing the Englishman’s claims as canards. Gandhi had refused to take glucose at any time during his fast—which Linlithgow had written to Churchill—even though a government doctor had warned him that he might die if he did not. Further, Gandhi had always said that his fast would last exactly three weeks.
The Indian press also responded with fury, archival materials show. The Tribune, a newspaper based in the northern-Indian city of Ambala, said Churchill’s charges had been refuted by those who had firsthand knowledge of Gandhi’s fast, and put Churchill’s baseless attacks in a broader context. “Mr. Churchill’s remarks only betray his lack of understanding of the Mahatma’s character and his general ignorance about this country,” the paper wrote. “Mr. Churchill is a great war-time leader. But no man is more insular in his outlook. He has yet to realise that the people of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are entitled to a life of their own. He still thinks in terms of the hegemony of the world by Anglo-Saxon peoples.”
Even sharper in its criticism was the now-defunct Indian News Chronicle. Its editorial on September 27, 1951, titled “Churchilliana,” said the former British leader’s memoirs were full of myths and misstatements, of which the calumnies against Gandhi were representative. Churchill’s “entire political career,” the paper thundered, “is a record of political opportunism, inconsistency, and downright wickedness.” Calling him a “friend of reaction” and “a high priest of British imperialism,” the editorial ended:
Mr. Churchill is incorrigible, hopelessly out of date, and is getting unpopular day by day. His memoirs might be read for their grandiloquent phraseology, bombast, and nineteenth century English, but no student of history will find his version of recent history a safe guide. The odds are that these memoirs, in course of time, will be rescinded to the dustbin. And as for his malicious attacks on Mahatma Gandhi, we are certain that they will deceive no one. Long after Churchill and his memoirs have been forgotten, humanity will continue to regard Gandhiji as a beacon of peace; and cherish his memory with reverence even as they cherish the memory of Jesus, Buddha and Socrates.
The Hindustan Times’ response was less polemical, but arguably more effective. The paper was then edited by Gandhi’s son Devdas, who dispatched a reporter to locate Major General R. H. Candy, the British doctor who had attended to Gandhi during his prison fast. Asked to comment on Churchill’s allegations, Candy, then living in retirement in rural Hampshire, confirmed that he had indeed advised Gandhi to take glucose, but that Gandhi had refused. “From my knowledge of Mr. Gandhi,” he said, “I am convinced that he would not willingly have taken glucose or any other form of food” during his fast. Churchill’s response to these corrections is unknown.
Recent works by Indians have blamed Churchill for the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which more than 2 million people died. As prime minister, Churchill could have done more to ensure speedy supplies of grain to the affected areas. But to call him a war criminal and a mass murderer, as some polemicists have done, is surely hyperbolic.
That said, there is no question that Churchill had an intense dislike of Indians in general, and a pathological suspicion of one Indian in particular. His venomous and long-lasting hatred of Gandhi shows that this great Briton could sometimes think and act like a small-minded parochialist.
This essay has been adapted from Ramachandra Guha’s book Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948.
RAMACHANDRA GUHA is a historian based in Bengaluru.
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