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‘Welcome, Mr. Gandhi’​—​Winston Churchill

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Scrapbook correspondent Richard M. Langworth, the author and longtime president of the Churchill Centre in Washington, D.C., weighs in on the new statue of Gandhi to be erected in London .  .  . 

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Every time you realize how badly the media mangles something you know about, you wonder how well they are interpreting what you don’t know.

The announcement last week that a statue of Gandhi would be placed in Parliament Square near that of Sir Winston Churchill occasioned a farrago of ignorance. Would Churchill wish to share space with his “onetime nemesis”?

The Associated Press misquoted Churchill’s “half-naked fakir” crack, and said he called Gandhi a “middling lawyer.” (The 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” (and, perforce, a friend of Churchill’s). 

Smuts was prime minister in 1939-48 and 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 that after receiving a report from his chief lieutenant, G. D. Birla, who visited Churchill in 1935 following passage of the India Bill, a step toward independence. Churchill had opposed this bill, and said some pretty rough things. He called 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 .  .  . to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

But Churchill was magnanimous​—​a quality sadly lacking among most modern politicians. “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. I did not meet Mr. Gandhi when he was in England. .  .  . But I should like to meet him now. I would love to go to India before I die. If I went there I would stay for six months.”

Among other things, such statements suggest a better understanding of contemporary India than Churchill is said to have had by his many critics.

Churchill did have a tic about an Indian independence movement led by the Brahmin class. But before we pigeonhole him as an unrepentant imperialist, let’s consider what he and Gandhi had in common. Both viewed a break-up of the subcontinent with regret and repugnance; both feared religious extremism, Hindu or Muslim; both believed in the peaceful settlement of boundary disputes; both fought tyranny. These precepts, more widely held, would be welcome today. In Parliament Square, Winston Churchill will be fine with Mohandas Gandhi.

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