The Enemy of the British Empire

The Hari Putar Dialogues - 24

(The Times of India; 20 September; LONDON: Winston Churchill once called Mahatma Gandhi "a bad man and an enemy of the Empire" who should have been done away with. The war-time prime minister of Britain told Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa at a meeting of the war cabinet in London in the 1940s: "You are responsible for all our troubles in India - you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.")

Putar: According to a report in the Times of India today, records have emerged which quote Winston Churchill as saying that Mahatma Gandhi was a bad man and an enemy of the Empire.

Hari: Enemy of the Empire, I can understand, but 'bad man' is not a term that even Gandhi's enemies would apply to him.

Putar: But perhaps as far as Churchill was concerned anyone who was an enemy of the British Empire was ipso facto, by definition a 'bad man'.

Hari: That's likely of course. 

Putar: I think Churchill was being the bad man here when he blamed Field Marshal Smuts for not doing away with Gandhi. Smuts did not agree with Churchill. About Gandhi he is reported to have said: "When I put him in prison - three times - all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers." Do you think that's true?

Hari: Quite possible.

Putar: If this is true, why do you think Gandhi made him those slippers?

Hari: I don't think that Gandhi ji would have made slippers specifically for him. He was always experimenting with simple and intermediate technology. Take the charkha and making of khadi for instance. It's likely that he spent some of his time in jail experimenting with the use of simple technology, among his other activities. He might have made a few slippers using rope or other materials.

Putar: Gandhi ji was a great believer in the use of symbols, wasn't he?

Hari: The Dandi March and the making of salt was a great symbolic act of defiance.

Putar: So was he using the rope slippers, if they were rope slippers as a symbol to suggest to the Field Marshall that he and the British Empire should find some rope to hang themselves?

Hari: That's unlikely, putar. Don't forget Gandhi ji was a great believer in non-violence.

Putar: They were bedroom slippers, weren't they? Perhaps he was suggesting that the British Empire should go to sleep.

Hari: How is it that we are coming to know after all these years what Churchill said, and actually thought of Gandhi? 

Putar: Apparently Churchill's behind-closed-door, candid observations at cabinet meetings about people and issues during the war were recorded for posterity by one of the war cabinet minute-takers, Lawrence Burgis. 

Hari: And those notes have now been discovered?

Putar: Yes. At that time, it was the law that all notes taken at cabinet meetings should be destroyed. However, Burgis apparently failed to destroy his notes. These have only now come to light six decades later when prominent British historian Andrew Roberts was recently going through the British cabinet archives for his forthcoming book Masters and Commanders. 

Hari: What does Roberts say about the authenticity of these notes?

Putar: Oh, there is little doubt about their authenticity. Roberts came across several files of Burgis in which the then assistant to the Deputy Secretary to the War Cabinet between 1939 and 1945 kept verbatim notes of cabinet conversations. In his personalized account in The Telegraph Robert says: "It was at that moment that I realized that Lawrence Burgis had broken the 1911 Official Secrets Act, and had kept his verbatim notes of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet." 

Hari: What else did Churchill say?

Putar: When the Mahatma went on hunger strike during World War II, Churchill told the cabinet: "Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting." 

Hari: 'Mere threat'? Gandhi could have died.

Putar: British cabinet ministers were skeptical about his fast. Burgis' notes tell us of a cabinet minister who, referring to Gandhi's fast, said he was getting glucose in his orange juice. 

Hari: Were they discussing all these details in the Cabinet meetings?

Putar: So it appears. Another cabinet minister said "he had oil rubbed into him which was nutritious". 

Hari: First time I've heard that if you have an oil massage, you need to eat less.

Putar: That statement about rubbing the oil allowed Churchill to claim that: "it is apparently not a fast merely a change of diet". 

Hari: How strange.

Putar: It's an open secret that Churchill wanted the Nobel Prize for Peace. He thought he deserved it because the war effort was in a way responsible for the end of World War 2.

Putar: But was he really a man of peace?

Hari: Not in the way Gandhi was but prizes such as the Nobel Peace Prize do not really matter as far as someone like Gandhi is concerned.

Putar: Tell me something Papaji?

Hari: Bol, putar?

Putar: Wouldn't you agree that had Churchill truly been a man of peace, he would not have suggested that Gandhi be allowed to die while on fast?

Hari: I guess that is right, putar, but what would you have had him do?

Putar: He could have just placed a charpai next to where Gandhi was fast and done a counter fast.

Hari: Somehow I can't imagine Churchill doing that.

Putar: He was overweight in any case. It could have melted some of his fat.

Hari: It would have been something healthy for him, that's true.

Putar: Churchill said that Gandhi was taking nutrition through oil massage, didn't he? So if Churchill had been on fast, should he have been allowed to smoke one of his famous cigars?

Hari: Why do you ask?

Putar: If Gandhi ji could take nutrition through the rubbing of oil on his body, as has been alleged, surely you would agree that Churchill could take it by smoking cigars?

Hari: I don't know, putar.   


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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