Most of us know about Winston Churchill’s heroic struggle in the 1930s to warn Britain about the dangers of Nazi tyranny. We also understand that Churchill at this time was “in the wilderness,”
Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age Arthur Herman, Bantam, $30, 736 pages
Most of us know about Winston Churchill’s heroic struggle in the 1930s to warn Britain about the dangers of Nazi tyranny. We also understand that Churchill at this time was “in the wilderness,” out of power and able to fight the appeasers with his formidable skills as a writer and orator.
But why was Churchill in the wilderness? Why wouldn’t his fellow Conservatives invite him to join the government?
The answer, according to Arthur Herman, is India. His thesis is that you can’t understand Churchill’s political career without understanding his intransigence about giving India any sort of independence. And to understand Churchill, he believes, you need to know about Churchill’s chief antagonist, Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi & Churchill presents the parallel lives of these two important politicians.
Herman is an experienced author whose previous books include a history of the British navy and a book about Scotland’s influence in the world. He explains that his interest in this subject came from his father, A. L. Herman, an author and translator who specializes in India, and who passed on to his son a love of Indian history and culture.
Gandhi & Churchill starts off too slowly, and the editors should have cut 50 pages from the early chapters. But this book was a good idea for two reasons. First, even with the truckload of books about Churchill, no one has written specifically about Churchill’s Indian policies. Second, India is an important country, and most of us know little about its history. Readers who persevere through Herman’s somewhat overlong book will learn a good deal about Churchill — and even more about India.
Herman argues that the conflict between Gandhi and Churchill was fundamentally about religion. Churchill saw the meaning of life as one “tested on secular and humanistic traditions that had been tested by history and centuries of human conflict.” Gandhi, by contrast, saw his purpose as based “on a vision of spiritual purity in which history and material things (including Gandhi’s own body) counted for nothing. Churchill valued human liberty as the product of struggle, as man’s supreme achievement. Gandhi, by contrast, valued liberty as God’s supreme achievement.”
It’s true that we in the West see Gandhi’s spirituality dimly. In part this is due to the endless parade of woozy-headed intellectuals who lost faith in God and decided to worship Gandhi instead. A typical example was French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland, who never met Gandhi or went to India. That didn’t stop him from writing an adoring biography in 1924 in which he said, “Gandhi and India have formed a pact. They understand each other without words.” Rolland also claimed Gandhi “has introduced into human politics the strongest religious impetus of the past 2,000 years” and that Gandhi “will lead a new humanity on to a new age.”
This sort of hyperbole clouds Gandhi’s true spiritual strength. His greatest accomplishment came in 1930, when he protested against the British taxing salt. He vowed to march to the sea to extract salt from the water — an illegal evasion of the salt tax. Tens of thousands of Indians joined Gandhi, and the march revealed the limits of British power.
But of course, Gandhi was also a politician, and his policies for India were simply a failure. He envisioned an independent India as a self-reliant nation that could shun both industry and capitalism. He did not understand why India’s Muslim minority would want their own country, and rejected any compromises that would lead to Hindus sharing power. Most particularly, in 1946 he personally killed a plan that would have kept India united while offering the Muslim minority substantial power. Gandhi’s rejection of this plan led to India and Pakistan separating — with a great deal of bloodshed as Hindus and Muslims fought over border disputes. (The recent attacks in Mumbai underscore the point.)
Churchill, in Herman’s view, also deserves some blame for his resistance to Indian independence. He and his fellow “diehards” blocked a bill offering limited Indian self-government for three years, and the delay further reduced the time available to Indian politicians to determine how the nations many minorities could peacefully live with the Hindu majority. In addition, the Conservatives who dismissed Churchill’s views on India were the same group who refused to listen to his prescient warnings about the Nazis.
One cannot fully understand Churchill without studying his views on India. In Gandhi & Churchill, Arthur Herman offers us a side of Churchill most of us have never seen — and in the process, enjoyably teaches us a great deal of Indian history.
Martin Morse Wooster’s reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.