Churchill and Gandhi's epic rivalry

It was inevitable that a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and a man who wanted to set his country free of its imperial shackles would never see eye-to-eye.

Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi were poles apart. Churchill was of aristocratic stock, a direct descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough born in the magnificent surroundings of Blenheim Palace. His early life was one of privilege, adventure and derring do. His days abroad in the empire as a soldier and journalist resulted in stirring tales of war and escape that endeared him to the British public. In civilian life, he would quickly rise through the ranks of British politics to occupy some of the highest positions in the land.

He was a gregarious, larger-than-life character. A hard-drinking workaholic; a cigar-chomping, outspoken member of the upper crust whose sparkling oratory appealed to all social classes. An imperialist to his bones, Churchill saw the British Empire as a force for good, ruling the waves forever more if he had anything to do with it.

Gandhi, by contrast, was a mild-mannered, shy man. If his contemporaries in his younger days had been asked to pick out who among them was most likely to take on the might of the British Empire and win, none would have picked out the reedy, scholarly boy who eschewed friendship for books.

Born into a poor family in the small princely state of Porbander, Gandhi rose above his humble origins to study law in London – the beating heart of the empire. After a brief stint back in India, he would set sail for a corner of the empire where he would see with his own eyes what his so-called fellow citizens really thought of people like him, and it was the treatment he received there that would turn from humble servant of empire to the father of his nation.

In the same year Churchill enrolled as a cadet at Sandhurst Military Academy, Gandhi set sail for South Africa after being offered a position as a lawyer for a shipping company. In 1893, Gandhi saw himself as a Briton first and an Indian second. The white South Africans, however, saw him in a rather different light.

From the moment he arrived, he was treated as a second-class citizen. On a number of occasions Gandhi was racially abused and physically attacked. He was kicked into the gutter by policemen, beaten by fellow passengers on a stagecoach and thrown off a train for refusing to leave a first-class carriage. Gandhi’s twenty-one years in South Africa made him realise that Indians were not equal citizens of the empire, and it was this far-flung outpost of the empire that his nationalism was born.

Churchill’s time in South Africa could not have been more different. Having already served as a soldier in Cuba, India and the Sudan, Churchill set sail for the colony in 1899 as a journalist to report on the Second Boer War. Churchill was captured during the war and made a daring escape from a prison camp, later joining the South African Light Horse regiment where he took part in the relief of the Siege of Ladysmith.

Returning to his homeland, Churchill was delighted to find the public had lapped up his colourful dispatches from the front. He entered parliament in 1900 a famous and celebrated man. It would be the start of a political career filled with triumphs, intrigues, failures and controversies that would ultimately lead to the door of Number 10 Downing Street and a unique place in British and world history books.

Between 1929 and 1939, Churchill’s irritation and hostility towards Gandhi grew and grew

While Churchill’s overseas adventures had left him unshaken in his belief in the greatness of the British Empire, Gandhi’s time in South Africa had shaped a very different man. By the time he left for India in 1915, gone was the mild-mannered lawyer of old. In his place was a respected political activist, avowed nationalist and seasoned campaigner. He joined the Indian National Congress, India’s leading pro-independence political party. By 1920 he was leading the party and ramping up his demands for an independent India. This culminated in the Indian National Congress declaring independence in 1930.

Unsurprisingly, this declaration was not recognised by the British authorities, but it did bring them to the negotiating table. It also brought the Congress’ leader into the firing line of Winston Churchill, who was languishing on the back benches after the Tories lost the 1929 general election.

Between 1929 and 1939, Churchill’s irritation and hostility towards Gandhi grew and grew. Believing the breakup of empire could lead to the end of civilization itself, Churchill was furious that Gandhi’s peaceful direct actions against the British authorities such as the famous ‘Salt March’ of 1929 were gaining traction with the Indian public. From the back benches of the House of Commons, Churchill began to issue dark and terrible warnings about Gandhi and those he saw as ‘appeasing’ him. As the 1930s rolled on, Churchill’s obsession with Gandhi caused many of his colleagues to wonder if he was losing his mind.

In 1931, Gandhi was among the delegates at the First Roundtable Conference to discuss a way forward for India. Churchill didn’t take the news well. 'It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor,' he thundered.

Upon returning to India after a second roundtable conference in Britain, Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned after beginning a second Salt March. While he was in prison, the British government announced its intention to introduce a new electoral reform law that would have created separate electorates based on their religion and class. Incensed at this attempt to change the secular nature of the Indian election system, Gandhi announced he would fast until he died in protest at the law. 'Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting,' was Churchill’s response. 'We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.' Luckily for Gandhi, the law was never enacted.

Churchill’s frequent denunciations of Gandhi led him to become popular with the far right of British politics, which did him no favours with his more liberal-minded colleagues. Indeed, it has been argued that Churchill and the far right’s attacks on Gandhi blinded moderate MPs to Churchill’s other obsession – the threat posed to Britain by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. 'People sometimes question why on Earth did people not listen to Churchill's warnings about Hitler in the late 1930s,' noted John Charmley, the author of Churchill: The End of Glory speaking to the BBC in 2015, 'to which the short answer is that he'd used exactly the same language about Gandhi in the early 1930s.'

Churchill’s obsession didn’t come to an end when he became prime minister in 1940. Gandhi opposed sending troops to fight for the empire, which was another blot on his copybook as far as Churchill was concerned. This time, Gandhi did not enjoy his fellow countrymen’s support. When it came to waging war against the Axis powers, the Indians for once sided with Churchill. 2.5 million of them would fight bravely alongside their empire comrades in campaigns throughout the war.

Another flashpoint erupted between the two men in 1942 when Gandhi launched his ‘Quit India’ campaign. In an impassioned speech in Bombay, Gandhi reasoned that India should not be fighting a war for freedom when the nation was not free itself. He demanded immediate independence and called on all Indians to stop cooperating with their British rulers.

Churchill was incensed, and Gandhi was again thrown in prison along with the other members of the Congress Working Committee who had organised the Quit India rally. The blame for the violence that erupted after Gandhi’s arrest was placed firmly on his shoulders by the British.

Gandhi was affronted by this suggestion and began another fast in protest. Churchill didn’t believe he was fasting at all and roped in India’s viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, to try and prove it. Convinced Gandhi was secretly taking glucose tablets to keep himself alive, he egged on Linlithgow to spy on Gandhi to catch him out. No evidence of secret glucose consumption was ever unearthed, but Churchill was having none of it. In 1951, three years after Gandhi’s death, he was still pushing the lie, this time in print. 'It was certain, however, at an early stage that he was being fed with glucose whenever he drank water, and this, as well as his own intense vitality and lifelong austerity, enabled this frail being to maintain his prolonged abstention from any visible form of food,' Churchill wrote in the third volume of his war memoirs, The Hinge of Fate. The Indian authorities were outraged at this unfounded allegation.

To Churchill’s dismay, Britain committed to granting full independence to the subcontinent by 1947

Gandhi was released in 1944, mainly on health grounds. The last thing the British authorities wanted was for the seventy-four-year-old to die in custody and spark riots throughout the country. A year later, Churchill was shown the door at the 1945 general election despite the Allies’ recent victory in Europe. The new Labour government and a nation exhausted after nearly six years of war had better things to think about than keeping hold of India. To Churchill’s dismay, Britain committed to granting full independence to the subcontinent by 1947. Despite Churchill’s best efforts, Gandhi had won.

Or had he?

Gandhi’s dream was for a united, independent India run along secular lines where the country’s predominantly Hindu and Muslim population would live side by side as they had for centuries. Unfortunately, the balance of power during the independence negotiations had shifted in favour of the pro-partition Muslim League, headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah wanted to see India divided along religious lines, and he got his wish when the British partitioned the country into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan on August the 15th 1947, much to Gandhi’s dismay. He would spend independence day calling for peace.

His pleas fell on deaf ears as bloody religious violence erupted across the country. India was free, but it was not the independent India of Gandhi’s dreams. Five months after independence, he was assassinated while walking with his grandnieces in his garden on the 30th of January 1948. As tributes poured in from across the world, one man kept silent – Winston Churchill.

In the end, neither man got his wish. Gandhi’s dream of a united, secular, independent India never came to pass. By the time Churchill died on the 24th of January 1965, almost seventeen years to the day after his nemesis, the sun had already set on large swathes of his beloved British Empire.