Some men changed their times...
One man changed the World for all times!

Comprehensive Website on the life and works of

Mahatma Gandhi


Gandhi and Peace Prize

- By Thomas Weber*

Introduction: The Curious Omission

Being in Oslo during the awarding of the historical 100th Nobel Peace Prize to kofi Annan and the United Nations seemed to be a good time to read a biography of the founder of the Prize, Alfred Noble. Of course Noble had died before Gandhi become known outside South Africa, where he started his public life as a nonviolent activist; however, curiosity led me to the index of the hefty biography by Swedish writer Kenne Fant to see if the Mahatma made into the tome. There was one entry. On p. 265 we read, 'like other Nobelists, such as Bertha von Suttner, Mahatma Gandhi, martin Luther King, Jr., and Bertrand Russell, Einstein was a champion of peace.'1 This is not surprising: when asked to list Noble laureates people can usually come up with the name of the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and generally Gandhi. The only problem is that Gandhi, although nominated several times, was never a recipient of the Prize.

Noble Peace Prize chronicler Gray suggests a 'curious omission' when people like Martin Luther King, Jr. (the 1964 laureate who acknowledged Gandhi as his mentor) and 1960 Noble Prize winner Albert Luthuli (who applied Gandhi's principal in South Africa) are duly honored, but Gandhi, 'the first to employ nonviolence in political context, was never awarded the peace Prize'.2 Gray adds that 'A great many people have wondered, over the year, why Gandhi was never chosen for a Nobel Peace Prize.'3

Lip sky, in his account of the history of the Peace Prize, noted that even the relatively narrow range of choice circumscribed by the noble committee was no guarantee that it would not be subjected to the criticism that 'is the lot of anyone who seeks to make a selection from among a highly qualified field'.4 The furor, he claims, result from the failure to award the prize to either Tolstoy or Gandhi. In the case of Gandhi he points to a 1934 editorial in the Christian Century as expressing widespread opinion that 'if Gandhi is not the most logical candidate for the Noble Prize, then the popular idea of the function and purpose of that prize needs to be revised.'5

In an analytical review of the prize, Abrams also marks the point that there is a conspicuous and unjustifiable absence of war-resister and non-resistant's among the concludes that 'even less defendable is the parochial neglect for so long of the non- western and non-Christian words'.6 He admits that while 'there have not been many serious does the Committee little credit to have found a place for a General Dawes7 in its rolls, and none for Mahatma Gandhi'.8

In 1999 Øyvind TØnnesson, a project consultant with the Norwegian Noble Institute, Admitted that Gandhi 'has become the strongest symbol of non-violence in the 20th century. It is widely held-in retrospect-that the Indian national leader should have been the very man to be selected for the Noble Peace Prize.'9 Even August Schou, 10 one-time director of the Noble Institute, and the current director, Geir lundestad, 11 have expressed similar views.

During this 100th anniversary of the Noble Prize, it is perhaps time, therefore, to revisit some perennial questions: Who should get the world's top peace Prize? Who does get it? And, more generally, who should be award peace prize per se?

The Awarding of Noble Prizes

The last will and testament of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, dated 27 November 1895, stipulated that the bulk of his considerable fortune was to constitute a fund known as the Noble foundation. With Noble's date, on 10 December 1896, and the making public of the will, the legal deficiencies and flaws of the document came to light. Its proclamation was greeted with criticism and protest, family members were shocked and the intended prize-givers expressed misgivings and doubt its provisions. However, due to the tireless efforts of the executors of the will, and in particular those of the young Ragnar Sohlman, Nobel's last secretary, the obstacles were overcome and the machinery for the awards was finally set up. As Schou commented, the setting up of the Foundation was generally 'received with acclamation throughout the civilized words'.12

The prize was to go to those individual who had best served humanity in the previous year. A note included with the will expressed Nobel's desire 'that in awarding the prize no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the price, weather he be a Scandinavian or not'.

Three prizes were to be awarded to researchers in physics, chemistry and medicine, a fourth was for 'ideal [did he mean idealist? 13] literary accomplishment 'and, finally, the fifth prize was to go the person 'who had worked the most or the best for the fraternity among people and the abolition or reduction of permanent armies, as well as the establishment and promotion of peace congresses'. 14

Nobel's intention to institute a peace prize had already been expressed in his earlier will of 1898 and in a letter to Baroness Bertha von Suttner.15 Further, his commitment to peace was made clear when he left one per cent of his assets to the Austrian Peace League.16 The proposed Peace prize, however, was plagued with controversy from the movement Noble's intensions become known.

When the statutes of the Norwegian Noble Committee were finally constituted they contained a number of compromises. Instead of being restricted to individuals as Noble indented, 'institutions were added in order to appease some of the Swedish opponents of the prize', and, again, on the basis that his wishes were impractical, it was determined that the prize would not be restricted to works undertaken in the previous year. 17 Further, according to Abrams, there is evidence that ' Noble wished his money to be used not so much to reward past performance as to free individuals from financial cares so that they could be of greater service in the future'. 18 This however was not made explicit in the will and consequently the Prize often went ' to persons whose contributions was far behind them '19 and those who had no need of being freed from financial cares in order to be able to continue in service. And those be end up with the list of laureates that we have, although this may not be the list Alfred Noble may have wished for.20

The questions of why Gandhi is not on this list is, however, still relevant. An attempt to determine the reasons for Gandhi's omission from the rank of laureates is plagued by procedural difficulties. The Noble statutes forbid public revelation of the deliberations of the Committee or the disclosure of the list of nominees for any given year. Although some indication of the reasons for decisions are now given, the Norwegian Committee had, before the 1960s, chosen to interpret the rules reasonably strictly .21 Norwegian Freedom of information legislation is Limited to Government agencies, and, consequently, cannot be used for the public security of the Committee's deliberations.

Gandhi's Nominations for the Noble Peace Prize

In 1934, in an editorial, the journal Christian Century suggested the nomination of Gandhi for the Nobel Prize. The note continued,

Why not award the noble Peace Prize to Gandhi? It would be no personal favour to him and he probably does not want it. The honor would not greatly impress him and he would not know what to do with so much money except given it away. These are all high qualifications for such a prize. The Noble committee could find no worthy recipient for the award in 1933. This is the seventh time in thirty-five years that the prize has been reserved. Of the twenty-five awards that have been made to eminent promoters of peace, too many have gone, as the Stockholm peace society protests, to 'presidents, ministers and other high officials' and too few to 'working friends of peace or to really radical proponents of peace and disarmament'. It is asserted that the founder's intention was to encourage bold dreamers and prophetic sprits whose ideas are too far ahead of their time to win attention without some such adventitious aid, rather than to reward practical politicians who merely negotiated another treaty or took another mile of trench in the long campaign against bloodshed.22

Gandhi and his ideas of nonviolence were well known by this time. As the leader of the famous Salt March to the seaside village of Dandi to challenges the might of the British Empire by breaking the iniquitous laws imposing a tax on salt, he had been Time magazine's 'Man of the Year for 1930; and in 1934 his nonviolent philosophy was widely publicized in America through Richard B Gregg's landmark book The Power of Non-Violence. The Christian Century suggestion of a Peace Prize nomination by anyone with the requisite standing was forthcoming.23 After assessing Gandhi's through on international affairs, political scientist Paul F Power has maintained that 'Gandhi deserved a place among the great spokesmen for peace' adding that the 1934 Christian Century proposal 'deserved considerably more serious attention than it received from world opinion' 24

The story, however, did non end there. Gandhi was officially nominated several times before the end of his life. The first nomination was by Norwegian parliamentarian Ole colbjØrnsen in 1937, and the nomination was repeated during the following two years and again a few times towards the end of Gandhi's life.25

There has been speculation that Gandhi missed out because of over British pressure on the Noble Committee not to award the prize to there main anti-imperialist enemy, or because the Norwegians did not want to antagonize the British the way they had antagonized Hitler by awarding the 1936 prize to the passionate German journalist, pacifist and opponent of German rearmament, Cart von Ossietzky. There is little creditable evidence to back up these charges.26

The 1960 Peace Prize, awarded in 1961, was a ground-breaking one. The peace laureate Albert John Luthuli, formerly President of the African national Congress, had long engaged in a peaceful struggle against apartheid. Abrams make the important point that 'it was noteworthy that the Committee had finally found a laureate outside the limits of western civilization'.27 Perhaps it was this Eurocentrism, the pre-war Norwegian international bias or, the interpretation preferred by the Norwegian Noble Committee, Gandhi's untimely death, more than any British political pressure, that defeated the honoring of the Mahatma. As Jacob Sverdrup, then director of the Norwegian Noble Institute, commented to me in 1987, I don't know why Gandhi didn't get the Prize- and nobody else does. All members of the noble Committee from those years are now dead, and no records are kept on their deliberation. I suppose he would have got the prize if he hadn't been killed been killed in the beginning of 1948, but that is just my guess.28

While some think that Gandhi received the Prize, and a great many believe that he should have received it, it seems fair to say that the laureates are not generally peace activists. This of course does not mean that the prize is not at times awarded in an uncharacteristic of course does not mean that Prize is not time awarded in an uncharacteristic manner, nor does it mean that there are not other prestigious prizes that generally do go to peace activists.

Other Prizes, the Same Approach

George Bernard Shaw reportedly remarked that the Noble Peace Prize is like a life preserver thrown to a swimmer who has already reached the shore.29 Remember that this was not Noble's intention. The money from the Prize was to make it easier from 'dreamers' so that they could more effectively continue their work.

The formalities of turning his dreams into reality meant that many compromises were entreated into and the Prizes tended to go to elderly work long before they received the prize, or to well-respected organizations. What were to be developments grants for talented individuals whose 'high promise is so often lost because they are impartial and without means'30  too often ended up as mere decorations.

Future, the Prizes have tended to be 'safe' awards. Had the Mahatma lived long enough, it seems almost certain that he would have been the laureate in 1948, but probably it was for the reasons of playing it safe that Gandhi missed out on receiving the 1947 Prize. In late 1946 and early 1947, Gandhi was on his lonely pilgrimage bringing the peace to war-ravaged rural Bengal. Following that, he toured riot-affected areas in Bihar, and almost single-handedly, through his heroic fasts, brought peace to riot-torn Calcutta and Delhi. Few have done more in such a short time to establish fraternity between warning people.

Although Gandhi had shepherded his country to independence front the British Empire through mostly nonviolence struggle in August, communal slaughter was going on and newly independent India and Pakistan were at war over Kashmir at the time of the deliberations of the Noble Committee. Further, Gandhi seemed to be condoning India's action of sending its troops to fight the Kashmir invaders and perhaps a caution Committee may have worried about the direction Gandhi might take on the as yet unresolved Kashmir issue. Gandhi's speeches may have been overly political and possibly the committee did not ant to take a risk in giving the prize to someone who might end up being overly belligerent immediately thereafter.31

But, at times, the Committee has proved adventurous. The prize to Luthuli and King were 'political' and rewarded those in situation where the solution to the problems they were confronting were not necessarily obvious. And future, these awards shows that the Noble Peace Prize Could be a way of expressing 'admiration for individual who represented values which it regarded as essential elements in the establish of a word society founded on peace and justice.'32 And recently the noble committee seem to have taken a somewhat more proactive position than the usual more reactive one.

There are now hundreds of peace and human right prizes given out around the world. Some have tried to outdo the Noble Prize. For example in 1995 India instituted the Gandhi Peace Prize with an award large than that given for the Noble Prize. The recipients have been peace workers, and a multicultural lot-but still elderly and well - known men rather than young nonviolence activists.  The first receipt was Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian presided who espoused peaceful change and social and racial equality. Other recipients have included the Sri Lankan foundation of the Sarvodaya Shramdana Movement A. T. Ariyaratna, the charitable Ramakrishna Mission, the Indian social activist Baba Amte, and, in 2000, Nelson Mandela.

Prizes such as these did not satisfy everyone. There have also always been prizes for grassroots peace activists. For example in India in 1977, in memory of Gandhi's close disciple the constructive workers Jamnalal Bajaj, a foundation was set up to foster projects for rural development. The foundation also presented awards for individuals in India who made outstanding contributions in the fields of constructive work (including Baba Amte 19yeas before he received the Gandhi Peace Prizes), the application of science and technology for rural development, and the uplift and welfare of women and children. Ten years later it institution an award for promoting Gandhian values outside India (the list of recipients includes Pierre Parodi of the Community of the Ark; Danilo Dolci, the 'Gandhi of Sicily'; and the founder of modern peace research, Johan Galtung).

The Jamnalal Bajaj Award is not as well known outside Gandhian circles as the Gandhi Peace Prize; however, if one can second guess the Mahatma, if he would champion a prize at all, it would probably be the Jamnalal Bajaj Award rather than the Gandhi peace Prize.

There is a similar dichotomy in the Scandinavian prize. Most people know about the Noble Prize, but most do not know about the Right livelihood Award (RLA) even through the RLA, now commonly known as the Alternative Noble Prize, may go to those who are doing more for peace in the broadest than the recipient of the Noble Prize.

The right Livelihood Award and the noble Peace Prize

In 1979 the Swedish-German philatelist Jakob von Uexkull, who through that the Noble Prize ignored too much work and knowledge that was vital for the future of the planet, asked Noble Foundation to consider the creation of a new award aimed at meeting the needs of the Third World and the planet. There is after all a precedent for instituting prize not mentioned in Noble's will-the prize for economics (or 'Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Noble') was set up in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden. However, perhaps not surprisingly, von Uexkull's proposal was not accepted so he sold his stamp collection and endowed the award himself. Since 1980, the RLA has gone annually to several recipient fortunes in their projects or people who may not need money but who could benefit from the publicity. In the world of Tom Woodhouse, the editor of the books detailing the RLA recipients, the Awards 'aims to stimulate a denoted about the values underlying our society and goals. Before we ask "How to?" we must ask "What for?"... The Award aims to seek out those whose knowledge leads ti self-realization, and the realization of values.'34 The Award recognized those who work for peace and disarmament, human fights and social justice, sustainable economic development, environment regeneration, and human development (through improvement in health, housing, education, and cultural and spiritual renewal; or appropriate technologies).35. Over a third of the recipients have been women and almost half have come from the Third world. The RLA ceremony is held on the day before the Noble Prize presentation in the Swedish parliament.

While many on the Noble Peace Prize still go to respected institution and elderly male diplomats, in recent decades there has been something of a shift in the awarding of the Noble Prize. While caution has not entirely been through to the wind, there a discernible tendency that they are becoming more political in the narrow defined sense of the word, more proactive, and making up for previous omission.

Occasionally Noble Peace Prize have gone to youthful activists, and this is perhaps especially evidence in the 1977 award to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, the co- founder of the Peace People of Northern Ireland. Not only were they in their early thirties, but they were women. Since then the relatively youthful Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the indigenous human rights campaigner from Guatemala was honoured in 1992; and in 1997 Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was also honoured.

In the last few decades there also seems to have been less concern for the possible political consequences of presenting awards. In 1975 the Soviet government was angered by the honoring of human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, China was angered by the honoring of Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta for their work aimed at a peaceful resolution of the East Timorese conflict.

There awards can be seen as being overly political, and this does not seem to have greatly worried the Committee. They have also been proactive-conflicts had not ended, and the Prize, probably by design, put pressure on the party the recipients were challenging, and reminded them that the world was watching. In a similar vein, the 1991 Prize went to arrested Burmese opposition leader Aung san Suu Kui, and the 1993 Prize went to Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk of South Africa after the new constitution enfranchising non- whites had been written but before the all-race election that were to produce a black majority government and legalized apartheid. Further, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, and the 1998 Prize to John Hume and David Trimble of Northern Ireland seemed to be calculated to help processes that were in train, rather than await a successful outcome and then honour the architects.

Whether this is merely a new sprit of adventurousness born from a critical examination of the list of past laureates, or whether it has something to do with the pressure from the growing prestige of other prize such as the RLA is difficult to determine. However, if we second guess Noble, the way I did Gandhi above, would it be fair to say that even with these developments he would be more in favour of the RLA than the world's most prestigious prize that is handed out in his name?

It now seems fairly certain that Gandhi was going to get the Noble Peace Prize in 1948 but he was killed just a little too soon. But by then he would have been another elderly statesman, albeit not a Westerner this time, who did nit need the life preserver. I would like to think that, if Uexkull had done his visionary work by the time, Gandhi would have received the RLA. However, rather than the almost octogenarian Gandhi, perhaps the most famous person in the world, the recipient would have been Gandhi the young political activist in his thirties fighting foot the rights of indentured Indian labourers in South Africa-the kind of person Alfred Noble had in mind when he conceived of his prize.


  1. Kenne Fant, Alfred Noble: A Biography (New York: Arcade, 1993).
  2. Tony Gray, Champions of Peace: The Story of Alfred Noble, the Peace Prize and the laureates ( New York: Paddington Press, 1976), p.11.
  3. Gray, champions of Peace, p. 205.
  4. Mortimer Lipsky, Question for peace: The Story of the Noble Award (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1966), p.260
  5. Lipsky, Quest for Peace, p.260. The Christian Century editorial appeared on 14 March 1934; see below.
  6. Irwin Abrams, 'The Noble prize-A balance Sheet', American Journal Of Economics and Sociology, 21, 3 (1962), pp. 225-243 at p. 241. Falnes, in a major study of the Peace prize, notes that first 30 years of the award, out of 332 proposed candidates, 37 were Americans, 35 British, 30 French, 24 Germans and 24 Italians, 16 Swedes, six Danes, five Dutch, five Poles, Four Australian and four Czechs. Oscar Julius falnes, Norway the Noble Peace Prize, (New York: AMS, 1967), p. 232
  7. With Austen Chamberlain, the joint winner in 1925. US Vice- president and Chairman of the Allied Reparation Commission, Dawes was the originator of the 'Dawes Plan', a report on German economic problems arising out of Germany's post-war treaty obligations.
  8. Abrams, 'The Noble Prize ', p.241.
  9. Øyvind TØnnesson, 'Mahatma Gandhi, The Missing Laureate'
  10. Noble Foundation (ed.), Noble: The Man and His Prizes, 3rd edn (New York: American Elsevier, 1972), p.606.
  11. Geri Lundestad, 'The Meaning of the Noble Peace Prize ?', in Karl Holl and Anne C. Kjelling (eds), The Noble Peace Prize and the Laureates ( Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1994), p.8.
  12. August Schou, The Noble Peace Prize', American - Scandinavian Revew, 46,3 (1958), pp. 221-228 at p.221.
  13. See Fant, Alfred noble, p.332.
  14. A reproduction of Nobel's last will and testament can be found in fant, Alfred Noble, p.329.
  15. That letter shied away from specifics. He wrote simply that prize 'would be awarded to him or her who has made the greatest step in bringing Europe nearer to the ideas of general peace', quoted in T.W. MacCallum and S. Taylor, The Noble Prize - Winners and the Noble foundation 1901 - 1937 (Zurich: Central European Times, 1938), p.330
  16. Ragnar Sohlman, The Legacy of Alfred Noble: the Story Behind the Noble Prize (London: Bodley Head, 1983), pp. 73-74
  17. Abrams, 'The Noble Prize', p.226
  18. Abrams, 'The Noble Prize', p.226
  19. Abrams, 'The Noble Prize', p.227
  20. See Irwin Abrams 'The Transformation of the Noble Peace Prize', Peace and Change, 10, 3-4 (1984), pp 1-25; and Irwin Abrams, 'The Many Meaning of the Noble Peace Prize', in Holl and kjelling (eds), The Nobel Peace Prize and the laureates, pp. 13-33.
  21. Lipsky, Quest for Peace, p. xx; and Abrams, 'The Noble Prize', p.228. reward practical politicians who merely negotiated another treaty or took another mile of trench in the long campaign against bloodshed.22
  22. The Christian Century (14 March 1934).
  23. The 1934 Prize went to former British Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson. Faithful to the intent of Nobel's will to reward those who had worked to reduce standing armies and promote peace congresses, few could have been more appropriate as candidates than Henderson: he was President of the World Disarmament Conference at Geneva from 1923 to 1924.
  24. Paul F. Power, Gandhi on World Affairs (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), p. 132.
  25. For Gandhi's nominations see Thomas Weber, 'Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize', South Asia, 12,1 (1989), pp. 29-47; and TØnnesson, "Mahatma Gandhi".
  26. See Weber, 'Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize'.
  27. Abram, 'The Nobel Peace Prize', p. 240.
  28. Personal communication from Jakob Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (18 January 1987).
  29. Abrams, 'The Transformation of the Noble Peace Prize', p.20.
  30. Abrams, 'The Transformation of the Noble Peace Prize', p.19.
  31. See Irwin Abrams, The Noble Peace Prize and the laureates: An Illustrated biographical History, 1901-1987 (Boston: G. K. Hall,) o.137.
  32. See Jakob Sverdrup, 'Norway and the Peace Prize', Peace and change, 10, 3-4 (1984), p.36.
  33. See Jacob von Uexkull, 'Introduction', in tom woodhouse (ed.), people and planet: Alternative Noble Prize Speeches (London: Green Books, 1987).
  34. Tom woodhouse, 'Introduction', in woodhouse (ed.). Replenishing the Earth: The Right livelihood Awards 1986 - 89 (London: Green Books, 1990). p.11
  35. Woodhouse,' Introduction'. pp. 11-12
  36. There is currently debated in some Norwegian circles over a proposal to strip Arafat of his award because of continuing Palestinian terrorism targeting innocent citizens.

Pacifica Review, Volume 14, Number 2, June 2002

*Thomas Weber, School of Social Science, LaTrobe University, Victoria, Australia. Fax: +61 3 9479 1997. Email: