Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill

- Vishwanath Tondon*


Most students of India’s fight for independence may only be aware of Churchill’s famous 1931 remarks on Gandhi, when he went to meet the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in his usual dress. Churchill had said: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle [Inner] 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 he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”1

One may also be aware that while in London to attend the Round Table Conference, Gandhi wanted to meet Churchill but the latter had refused to see him, though his son Randolph met Gandhi. And then later in July 1944, Gandhi had written to Churchill a letter saying, “Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple 'naked fakir' as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a fakir and that [too] naked - a more difficult task. I, therefore, regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.”2

An American scholar, Arthur Herman, who had recently tried to trace quite candidly the period-wise relation between the two in his book ‘Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed the Empire and Forged Our Age’, says about this letter: “This strange, jocular note was classic Gandhi. It was his effort to reach out to Churchill in the aftermath of their epic battle.” But Churchill never received it and even if he had received it, he could not have done anything, “because to the astonishment of the world, on July 26, 1945, the British voters turned Churchill out of office.”3

In this connection, two later episodes may be mentioned which reveal a commendable aspect of Churchill’s nature which had remained undeveloped in him. The first one relates to Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, well-known sister of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. She was attending, in 1945, the first session of the United Nations Assembly as the Head of the Indian delegation in London. Churchill, who was sitting by her side, suddenly remarked to her, “Did we not kill your husband? Didn’t we?” He was referring to the death of her husband Ranjit Pandit who had died while in jail. Mrs. Pandit was taken aback and took some time to find words to reply, when she said, “No. everyone lives only up to his appointed hour.” This made the two friends and he said to her that her brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, “has conquered men’s two worst enemies, hate and fear, which is supremely civilized approach between men but missing from today’s climate.”

Later he said the same to Pt. Nehru himself. Pt. Nehru was in London attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. He and Churchill were left together, perchance after the ceremony when all others had gone. Churchill then turned to Nehru and said: “Isn’t it strange, Prime Minister, that two people who so hated each other should be thrown together like this?” Nehru replied, “But, Prime Minister, we never hated you.” Then Churchill said, “I did, I did.” Later, the same evening at the dinner, Churchill said, “Here is a man who has conquered both hate and fear.”4

It may appear to some with reason that the admiration for Nehru in Churchill was due to their both being Harroweans and that when in 1940 Nehru was given by the District Judge a sentence of four years’ imprisonment which even surprised Sir Maurice Hallet, the State Governor who, however, vetoed any change, but Churchill directed the India Office to telegraph at once to the Viceroy expressing the hope that the actual rigour of the sentence should be modified and Jawaharlal not treated like a common criminal.5 However, what is more significant is the use of ‘we’ by Nehru. It stood for all freedom fighters under Gandhi, who had taught them “to hate the sin and not the sinner”.

Unknown, however, to scholars, there are a few occasions when Churchill’s opposition to Gandhi got mellowed and he even expresses his regret that he did not meet him during the Round Table Conference. This, however, happened when he was out of power in the later thirties and all his opposition to Government of India Act of 1935 had come to naught. Herman has done a great service in bringing it out into the open on the basis of both Indian and Churchillian sources. It began in 1934 with Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) whose father, Admiral Slade, was known to Churchill. While she was in England at that time, she wrote a letter to Churchill, “You will wonder who this is writing to you”, and she then explained that she had spent the last nine years with Gandhi and “I should like to share that experience with you . . . .you may say, ‘Why - our points of view are poles asunder!’ That may be so but we have one great thing in common, a deep interest in India.” Churchill agreed to meet her in the Commons on November 2, 1934. He was moved to see her and greeted her very affably. Talking of India, he said to her, “The Indian nation does not exist. There is no such thing.” Mirabehn laughed and said that there was a more unifying culture throughout the land than appeared from outside and that “from North to South and East to West, wherever you go, you find the yearning for freedom.”

Then they spoke of Gandhi. Churchill told her that he admired Gandhi for his “work for the moral and social uplift” but he “would not choose him for flying the latest airship”, meaning thereby that he doubted his political leadership. Mira then told him that, on the contrary, “Bapu was one of the most practical people in the world, and loved to call himself a practical idealist”, and was “unfettered by any political ism”. According to her, Churchill “caught on to this thought rather keenly”.6

Then followed a discussion on the Constitution. Churchill called it “a ridiculous, useless thing”, which “neither pleases us nor you”. He said that he would have liked something different, “a kind of fellowship of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, with a strong rule to hold it together. The Orient needs a different kind of government”, and then added, “you need a strong rule for the good of the people.” But when pressed for details, he had nothing to give. When she left, he asked her to convey his regards to Gandhi and to say that he was sorry that he did not meet him in London (at the time of the Round Table Conference).7

According to Mira, a phrase which Churchill had repeated several times was, “I believe in truth, pure truth”. This sounded to her like what Gandhi would also say, but one may point out here that what Churchill meant was ‘frankness’ and not the ‘Truth’ of Gandhi with its capital letter.

This conversation with Mirabehn induced Churchill to invite G.D. Birla a few months later to a lunch. Birla often visited England, stayed there, met and corresponded with other prominent British politicians concerned with or interested in India. But he had never met or written to Churchill, and was somewhat surprised to receive from him a lunch invitation. He visited him and was there for two hours.8 He later reported his talk with him to Gandhi and details are available in both English and Hindi, along with those of his letters and talks with other British statesmen.

In his meeting with Churchill, most of the talking was done by Churchill. According to Herman, almost all of it was about India and Gandhi. Birla found Churchill with poor knowledge about India, not even knowing about the rail networks and believing that villages were still isolated from the towns. As Birla says, he also thought that motor cars had not reached the villages and he had to correct him.

Churchill asked about Gandhi and Birla told him about his Harijan campaign, which impressed Churchill, who said that “Mr. Gandhi has gone up very high in my esteem since he stood up for the untouchables”. He also asked about Gandhi’s village work and if Gandhi was inclined to wreck the constitution. Birla’s reply was that he was indifferent to the constitution. What mattered to him was liberty and that he firmly believed that India’s future had to depend upon Indians themselves. Churchill finally agreed and said: “My test is improvement in the lot of the masses, morally as well as materially.”And he added: “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. I stand for butter.” At the end, he said: “Tell Mr. Gandhi to use the powers that are offered and make the things a success.” He also repeated his regret for not meeting Gandhi when he was in London and that he would like to meet him now and that he would like to visit India before he died. His last words, which were full of foreboding for Britain, were: “India, I fear, is a burden to us. We have to maintain an army and for the sake of India we have to maintain Singapore and Near East strength. If India could look after herself, we would be delighted.” He even assured Birla that if reforms were made a success, he would be giving much more. This was what he said when the general impression about him was that politically ‘he is finished’.9

Birla had a second meeting with him in 1937. It too lasted for two hours. It was a time when he had a feeling of troubles ahead from Germany and Japan and he thought that it was a powerful cause for Indians to stick close to Britain, which alone preserved democracy. If India would make a success of democracy, it would have no difficulty in advancing further. On Birla urging him to come to India and see things for himself, Churchill told him that Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, had invited him and if Gandhi desired it, he would go. He had asked Birla to convey to Gandhi his wishes for all success.10

Herman misses an important sentence of Churchill in the above conversation. It is that, “if India plays the game by observing its rules, we would do the same.” This had led Birla to ask him for clarification as to what he meant by “playing the game by rules”. He then clarified: “Make the provinces prosperous, satisfied and peaceful. Let there be no violence and murder of Englishmen.” At this Birla felt stunned and said: “Do you really believe that we would kill Englishmen?” He was surprised at what Birla said but accepted the assurance that India did not believe in killing. Birla had then informed him that even extremist Congressmen were not anti-Englishmen. “They do want liberty but it is not anti-British.”11 It may also be stated here that Churchill’s fear about the murdering of Englishmen had reminded Mahadev Desai of all the anti-Gandhi statements of Churchill which pricked him.12

Under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Congress governments in the seven Hindu majority provinces were doing well for the uplift of the (agricultural) tenants, when the war intervened and the Viceroy declared India to be a party to the war without any consultation with Indian political leaders. All later efforts at compromise failed though the Congress leaders were prepared to help the British, absolving Gandhi of their leadership, provided some specified conditions were satisfied. Churchill, who had later come into power, declared India as being beyond the purview of the Atlantic Charter and declared in 1942 that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside at the liquidation of the British Empire.” However, the trend of the war compelled him to listen to the U.S.A. under Roosevelt and to send Sir Strafford Cripps to New Delhi with a proposal. Gandhi did not want to meet Cripps but he did it later because of Cripps’ insistence.13 Cripps’ talks with others had led him to suggest to Churchill for some modifications and they were agreed to. But Lord Linlithgow was opposed to them and they were withdrawn. This naturally led to the failure of the talks and Cripps returned to England, wrongly attributing the failure to Gandhi.

However, the danger of Japan’s invasion of India, allied with the Indian National Army (INA) of Subhash Chandra Bose, was increasing. The Government followed the scorched-earth policy in Bengal, which led to some two to three million starvation deaths there. Lord Linlithgow’s appeal to Churchill to permit sending of food there from other places was rejected. In the context of these developments, Gandhi had his own plan of preparing the people for a nonviolent resistance to Japanese invasion and it all ultimately led to the Quit India resolution of 1942, incarceration of important Congressmen and leaders throughout the country, leading to violence because of the wrong understanding of the words ‘Do or Die!’ of Gandhi and because not all the Congressmen and leaders were wedded to nonviolence, resulting in the Government attributing the violence to Gandhi, which led him to his 21-day fast in February, 1943, and ultimately his release in 1944 after the death of Kasturba Gandhi in the jail because of his deteriorating health and the war practically ending in favour of the Allies. One thing, however, deserves mention, and it is that when Gandhi was on fast, his death was taken by the Government as certain and all arrangements had been made for his cremation in the Aga Khan Palace jail itself, with the ashes to be handed over to his sons.

The British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ had led to the demand for Pakistan and Churchill had imparted fillip to it when Jinnah met him in London in 1946 by giving him a private postal address for communication with him, though next year on being assured by Mountbatten that Nehru had assured him of remaining in the Commonwealth and that if anybody could present difficulties in it, it was Jinnah, Churchill gave him a letter for Jinnah that he should either accept Pakistan in the form it was being offered or give up the idea of it altogether.14 Thus Jinnah was left with no choice but to accept the division of Punjab and Bengal, with Hindu majority areas going out of them. The assurance of Mountbatten was not correct and Nehru did not accept the Commonwealth idea with British sovereign as its Head like other dominions. He, however, accepted the King as the symbol of the free association of the independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.”15

After India becoming independent, there were several occasions when Churchill lamented over it and it naturally forced Gandhi to refer to him. Churchill never forgave the Labour for granting India independence and the communal riots following it provided strength to justify his own attitude. On one such occasion in June 1947, Gandhi reminded the people of their own power and said that the great Mr. Churchill had won the last war for England. He was a scholar and a fine orator. But public opinion had dethroned him. In India, too, if the public opinion was awake and strong, no one could do anything in opposition to it.16 Another occasion of this nature when Gandhi had to refer or reply to Churchill deserves special mention since it was a retort to Churchill, who had said on September 17, 1947, reminding his British audience of what he had been saying between 1931 to 1934, “The fearful massacres which are occurring in India are no surprise to me.” His predictions then of terrible carnage and chaos were being fulfilled. Gandhi’s reaction to it expressed in his evening prayer meeting was: “You are all aware that Mr. Churchill is a great man. He belongs to the blue blood of England. Marlborough family is very famous in British history. He says it is a folly that Britain should have lost India, and warns the same will now happen to Burma.” Gandhi conceded the importance of his leadership in the war but said that the British people chose a Labour government which was ruling there and not Churchill and thus the British people decided to end the Empire and establish instead an unseen and more glorious empire of hearts. He also felt that Churchill was more interested in regaining power in the Westminster than in saving lives in the Punjab.17

The death of Gandhi was condoled by many eminent persons but Churchill was not among them. However, the praises he lavished on Nehru were probably genuine and also probably out of a desire to make the best bargain of what was left. S. Gopal’s biography of Jawaharlal Nehru mentions one or two occasions on which Churchill thanked him for his help. At one place he says: At Cairo, on his way back from London, Nehru advised Nasser and his colleagues not to use harsh language against Britain even while standing firm on the issue of sovereignty. The tone of their speeches became milder making discussions with Britain easier, and Churchill acknowledged Nehru’s assistance: “Thank you so much for your message and for the help you gave us over Egypt and Israel — Churchill.”18

There is no doubt that both Gandhi and Churchill were great but the nature of their greatness varied. Churchill’s was like that of his forebear, the first Duke of Marlborough, confined to the textbooks of English history. Louis Fischer says about them: “Churchill and Gandhi were alike in that each gave his life for a single cause. A great man is all of one piece like good sculpture. Churchill’s absorbing purpose was the preservation of Britain as a first-class power. . . . He was bound to the past. He was a product of the nineteenth century and he loved it. He loved Empire, royalty and caste. . . . Britain’s past glory was Churchill’s god... Churchill was in conflict with Gandhi. It was a contest between the past of England and the future of India.” Fischer closes it by saying: “As he grew older Churchill became more Tory, Gandhi more revolutionary. Churchill loved social traditions, Gandhi smashed social barriers. Churchill mixed with every class, but lived in his own. Gandhi lived with everybody. To Gandhi, the lowliest Indian was a child of God. To Churchill, all Indians were the pedestal for a throne. He would have died to keep England free, but was against those who wanted India free.”19

On his death, as observed above, Gandhi was paid tributes by many from all walks of life, including Lord Halifax and S. Amery, but none by Churchill, who because of the narrowness of his mind or for lack of liberal education, failed to measure the importance of Gandhi whose thinking tells us how we can safeguard the future of the world from self-annihilation. Gandhi belongs to the category of the all-time spiritually and politically Greats, for to him Truth was God.

Notes and References

  1. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma (New Delhi: Publications Division, 1951), vol. 3, p.53.
  2. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Publications Division), Vol.77, pp.391-92.
  3. Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill (New York : Bantam books, 2008), pp.538-39.
  4. Rajiv Gandhi, ‘The Vision of Jawaharlal Nehru’ , Gandhi Marg, Nov-Dec 1988, p.457.
  5. Sarvapalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (London: Oxford, 2000), p.135.
  6. Arthur Herman, op cit, pp.395-96.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Neither Herman nor G.D. Birla’s Mere Jivan mein Gandhi (New Delhi: Sasta Sahitya Mandal, , 1978) give the date of the meeting; however, it was 9 August, 1935 . See G.D. Birla, Gandhi ki Prem Prasadi, vol. 2, (Mumbai: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1977), p.159.
  9. Arthur Herman, op cit, pp.400-01. The remark by Churchill that “I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain”, seem s not to have been said by him. Birla himself had doubts about it (Mere Jivan mein Gandhi, p.375) and Churchill refuted it in his letter to Birla dated April 30, 1937 (Mere Jivan mein Gandhi, p.375)
  10. Arthur Herman, op cit, pp.424-25.
  11. G.D. Birla, op cit, pp.342-43. His second meeting with Churchill was on July 22, 1937.
  12. Ibid, p.358.
  13. D.G. Tendulkar, op cit, vol.6, p.75 (Letter to H. Alexander and A. Harrison). Gandhi had said in this letter, among other things: “I had not wanted to go (to meet him). I had nothing to say being ‘antiall wars’. I went because he was anxious to see me.”
  14. Arthur Herman, op cit, pp.567.
  15. S. Gopal, op cit, pp.203-04.
  16. D.G. Tendulkar, op cit, Vol. VIII, p.11.
  17. Arthur Herman, op cit, pp.576-77.
  18. S. Gopal, op cit, p.252.
  19. Louis Fisher, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 1965), Part II, pp. 113-14


I am highly grateful to Dr. Y.P. Anand for the encouragement to write this article in my extreme old age and then for correcting, editing and typing it.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 35, No. 2, July-Sept. 2014

* VISWANATH TANDON is a retired Reader in History and the author of a number of books on Gandhi and Vinoba. He lives at 1159, Ratanlal Nagar, Kanpur- 208022; Email: