Churchill and Gandhi~I

The maintenance of the British empire was the objective of Sir Winston Churchill (1870-1965) while ending it was the mission of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948).

Churchill and Gandhi~I

Representation image (photo:SNS)

The maintenance of the British empire was the objective of Sir Winston Churchill (1870-1965) while ending it was the mission of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Churchill’s belief in the desirability of the Empire crystallized in his association with the India office and trips to India and South Africa in different positions including active service in the army.

Churchill had an illustrious pedigree hailing from a powerful aristocratic family. He was born at the height of consensual politics in Britain following the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, acceptance of free trade as the foundation of the economy and an unmatched naval power to man the largest empire ever conceived. Mahatma Gandhi grew to political maturity in the West and South Africa.

His evolution was more extraordinary as he started off as a believer in the Empire but then emerged as its greatest and strongest opponent, a catalyst for ending colonialism with all its brutalities and inhumanness not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in Asia and Africa which Harold Macmillan referred, in his historic address in Pretoria in 1960, as the “winds of change.”


Churchill’s views about India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ were influenced by his father Lord Randolph (1845-95), the most important Conservative party spokesman on India and the Secretary of State for India from 1884. Randolph realized that India was the key to the glory of British nationhood. His endorsement of brutal imperialist control left an indelible imprint on his son Winston who imbibed virtually everything that his father believed in, like opposing any advancement towards Home Rule in India, a deep suspicion and hatred of Russia and the doctrine of free trade.

Winston believed sincerely, like his father, that the British rule of India was both essential and beneficial as it rescued India from “ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war.” He was convinced that India because of the prevailing superstitions and barbarism would never imbibe emancipatory ideas required for attaining dominion status. Ignoring the pernicious guild system of medieval Europe, he attacked the caste system and pointed out the degradation that justified permanent deprivation of justice to many Hindus.

He was equally critical of Islam but expunged those comments when he tilted towards Jinnah. Like his father, he too accepted in totality that Britain had a specific mission to use its knowledge, law, and higher civilization to elevate and unite 230 million Indians. He also remembered his father’s other important observation ~ that India’s importance to Britain was as much as Britain’s to India. He was aware that without India the empire would begin to collapse and Britain would suffer terrible loss.

He did everything and with all means in his capacity to retain the Empire, when he was a cabinet minister and when he became prime minister. His faith in the British sense of justice and fair play remained intact. However, he never could grasp the degrading approach and inhumanness of colonialism nor the brute force often used by the colonial administration in India to retain power. He was afraid of losing the Empire and the great power status of Britain, a small island nation. He stated categorically that loss of India would reduce Britain to the status of Portugal.

Churchill divided the empire into two, the white colonies like Canada and Australia that were part of an imperial federation with joint security and second, East of Suez where democratic reins were impossible. This framework remained with him throughout his life. He unhesitatingly proclaimed the superiority of Anglo-Saxons as compared to other Europeans. Except regarding India, he was remarkably flexible in his ideas. He was categorical that for coloured people there would be no self-government. He rejected the idea of a transfer of power to India even when he was personally involved in such acts in South Africa and Ireland.

Churchill preferred Muslims over Hindus, the two communities in India, because of their monotheism and martial qualities. He did not question the inherent partiality in recruiting more Muslims than Hindus in the armed forces. He was not bothered that a community which was just 27 per cent of the population had a strength of 65 per cent in the army but the primary focal point was to use the Hindu-Muslim division for perpetuating British rule in India.

He considered Muslim leaders as an effective barrier to the Congress demand of self-rule. He was friendly to several Muslims from Aga Khan to Jinnah. He was sanguine that Muslims would remain loyal to the Raj as they fought Turkey under the British flag during the First World War. Churchill regarded Gandhi and the Congress Party with contempt and fear, describing Gandhi as dangerous, a fanatic and an ascetic. He and Gandhi first met on 28 November 1906 when he was the Under Secretary of state for the colonies and Gandhi was the spokesman for the rights of Indians in South Africa.

Gandhi along with his Muslim companion made it clear that they were loyal subjects of the British government and felt they were entitled to all the basic rights as British subjects. As early as 1909, Churchill realised that a visionary like Gandhi had to be halted to save the British empire in India. His mission was to preserve the empire as a blueprint for a future universal community while Gandhi regarded the empire as the biggest obstacle to the creation of such a community. Gandhi could see that the reforms were about consolidating British power in India rather than work towards self-government.

The promulgation of the Rowlatt Act and the massacre at Amritsar convinced Gandhi even more about the British intentions. Indians were disappointed with both the Montague Chelmsford Reforms and the Rowlatt Act as many felt that their contribution during the War went unrewarded. This disappointment coincided with the rise of Gandhi with his novel and innovative method of satyagraha, which he used to mobilise people bringing him to the centre stage of Indian politics lasting till the end of the Raj.

Churchill called Lord Irwin’s declaration to grant India eventual dominion status a crime. His opinion of Indian leaders was extremely poor describing them as men of straw. He regarded the concessions made by a Labour government as a colossal mistake and premature. Irwin clarified Churchill’s misgivings about granting India dominion status by reminding him that he had followed the commitment that Montague had made. It was a desirable and practical proposal and if it hadn’t been followed it would have led to violent repression.

Churchill was unconvinced and angry at Irwin for making such concessions. He contended that the civil disobedience movement happened because Britain was losing its will to govern India. Paradoxically he rejected the idea of transfer of power to India at a time when he personally supported such initiatives in South Africa and Ireland. On another occasion Churchill directly attacked Gandhi describing him as a “seditious Middle Temple lawyer, posing as a fakir, of a type well-known in the East, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor. Such a spectacle can only increase the unrest in India and the danger to which white people there are exposed.”

Gandhi was amused when he came to know about Churchill’s venom against him. The invitation to Gandhi to attend the Second Round Table Conference led Churchill to mount another attack as he took exception to the fact that Gandhi had not called off the Civil disobedience movement but merely suspended it. He blamed Irwin again and described the Gandhi-Irwin pact as the “victory of lawbreakers”.

The writers are, respectively, a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi and Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delh