Friday, May 30, 2008

Gandhi, Churchill and Hitler

It is fashionable among some in Britain to poke fun at Gandhi. If they are to be believed, Gandhi was weak, simple, foolishly idealistic, and it was Churchill who really saved Gandhi's India by successfully leading a defence against Hitler.

It is well known that Churchill looked upon Gandhi with great distaste. Some Brits who love Churchill like to paint Gandhi as naive, repeatedly publishing articles stating that the world needs more Churchills and less Gandhis. The tone of some of these articles is derisive towards Gandhi; the author of one article even refers to him using Churchill's infamous epithet. Many of these articles are linked to the Churchill Center's struggle to have Churchill declared the Man of the Century by Time Magazine. This center goes so far as to hint that Gandhi was an admirer of Hitler, using this quote from Gandhi: "I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed." One question that is asked repeatedly is how Gandhi would have managed against Hitler.

Now, I think this is a ridiculous question to begin with, one that is intended to confuse rather than elucidate. One might as well ask whether one would choose Einstein or Gandhi to delve into the laws of the universe. Different people choose different roles; it is stupid to compare the historical roles of Gandhi and Churchill. What is being compared is their impact and their strength of character. And when it comes to character, Churchill's mean-minded pettiness vis-a-vis Gandhi is well documented. Apart from his public distaste for Gandhi as a person, Churchill has made some truly ugly comments, such as the time when, asked what he wanted to do about the millions of Indians who were dying in the Bengal famine, wished aloud that Gandhi was one of them.

Nevertheless, this entire mess of unlogic does give rise to an interesting question. What would Gandhi do if he was faced with Hitler? Gandhi was non-violent in the British context because he saw this as a good solution to the colonization. Non-violent methods were sufficient to restrain the British, who had based the entire colonization on arguments of inherent moral superiority over Indians and who were worried about this international image. Some think that Gandhi would still have chosen non-violence against the Nazis. But I think that if he realized the Nazis had no interest in being perceived as benign, his methods would have changed too. I think Gandhi would (with heavy heart) have gone to war.

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