Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

Arthur Herman

Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal 

On 2 October 1869, in the sleepy town of Porbandar, Gujarat, a baby boy was born to Karamchand Gandhi and his wife Putlibai. This boy was named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Mohandas was his mother’s favorite and Putlibai prayed daily that Lord Krishna should make her son a “hero among heroes” (p. 14). Five years later and many miles away, on 30 November 1874, another baby boy was born in Blenheim Palace, the biggest private home in Britain. This boy’s baptized name was Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. The Churchill name was steeped in history and for Winston Churchill, “Blenheim Palace would always symbolize a heritage of glory and a family born to greatness” (p. 15). This lengthy but fascinating book tells the story of the remarkable and, in many ways, parallel lives of these two distinguished men. In the rest of this review, I shall sample selectively from the book’s contents and thereby attempt to give the reader a flavor not only for the extraordinary lives led by Gandhi and Churchill but also for the intellectual contributions of this book. 

During the time period from 1888 to 1895, Gandhi was first in London completing his legal education and then in South Africa; initially to assist a businessman in a legal matter but then, in the course of his fight for equality, to lay the groundwork for many of the techniques that he would subsequently use in India with great aplomb in his fight against the British Raj. We learn that in the early 1890s in South Africa, what bothered Gandhi most was that he was treated as if his educational accomplishments counted for nothing. At that time, Gandhi believed that loyal “Indians of ‘superior abilities’ like himself deserved to be treated like any similar white person, not like ignorant coolies, let alone like African blacks” (p. 88). In other words, Gandhi thought of himself “as a Briton first and an Indian second” (p. 88). With the unfolding of time, this line of thinking would change dramatically. 

In stark contrast, throughout his life, the Victorian era Churchill never thought of himself as anything other than a privileged member of the glorious British Empire, an Empire that he was duty bound to protect and sustain. In Churchill’s view, not only was India an integral part of this Empire but, in addition, the inferior Indians could not possibly be counted on to rule India effectively. Therefore, he believed that India must be governed on “the [undemocratic] principles of his father and men like General Roberts” (p. 99). On this basic point Churchill never yielded and to uphold it, he would “be prepared to wreck friendships and his own career” (p. 99). 

After his at best partially successful battle for equality in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India in 1915. Although he was frequently at loggerheads with the Indian National Congress, he was different from almost all Congress leaders in that he thought about the welfare of all Indians including the fifty million or so untouchables. This created an interesting state of affairs. On the one hand, Gandhi’s unconventional political agitation techniques made him a hero to some Indians. On the other hand, some Congress leaders worried “that his focus on local grievances detracted from the larger national questions of independence and self-government” (pp. 231-232). 

While Winston Churchill was successfully rallying his countrymen and women to never give in and to courageously withstand the onslaught of the Nazi war machine, in 1942, Gandhi had a novel idea. This idea “was that the British should leave India” (p. 489). The “Quit India” movement that emanated from this idea started on a promising note but soon ran out of steam. Within six weeks, the British crushed this movement and Gandhi was in jail. Although Churchill had won this round, he would soon feel growing pressure from President Roosevelt to unambiguously inform the world that “Britain was serious about giving India its independence after the [second world] war” (p.498).

This book sheds useful light on two questions that often come up in contemporary discussions of Gandhi and his methods. The first concerns the utility of nonviolent agitation techniques when confronting personalities like Hitler or Mussolini or Saddam Hussein. Here, the book notes that Gandhi’s nonviolent techniques generally succeeded only because the British in India and the whites in South Africa subscribed to a set of dependable moral principles to which he could appeal. The book then goes on to correctly point out that without “this implicit moral contract between ruler and ruled, Gandhi’s career as a nationalist leader would have been nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 447). In this regard, it is pertinent to recall Hitler’s final solution to Britain’s India problem that he communicated so succinctly and chillingly to Lord Halifax in 1938: Shoot Gandhi.

The second question concerns the reasons for Gandhi’s success in India. Churchill never quite grasped these reasons. Instead, he repeatedly and contemptuously dismissed Gandhi as “a fakir and spiritual quack” (p. 505). The South African President Jan Smuts attempted to educate Churchill on this question in 1942. Even though Smuts was unsuccessful in this attempt, his reasoning is worth noting. Smuts pointed out to Churchill that whereas he and Churchill were “mundane people,” Gandhi was a “man of God” who had successfully appealed to religious motives. As the author perspicaciously points out, “What Smuts the philosopher could see, and Churchill could not, was the Mahatma’s supreme spirituality, which had made him revered across India and even in the West” (p. 506).

Let me conclude this review with the following observations: The names of some people and places are misspelled, some explanatory footnotes are a little misleading, and there are a small number of inconsistencies in the prose. However, these are small quibbles about a book that is both thoroughly researched and extremely informative. In addition, this book is neither overly fawning nor unduly critical of Gandhi and Churchill. Therefore, I unreservedly recommend this book to all those who would like to learn about the fascinating lives led by two of the twentieth century’s most recognizable icons.