What shall we do with Churchill and Gandhi?

LONDON, March 23, 2019 (Xinhua) -- An EU flag and the statue of Winston Churchill are seen during the "Put it to the People" march in central London, Britain, on March 23, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of people on Saturday marched through central London calling for another referendum on Brexit as the country is caught by the Brexit impasse again. (Xinhua/Han Yan/IANS) by .
Statue of Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, at Westminster in London

One generation wanting to tear down the statues of another generation is not new. This has been going since the mankind began erecting statues. The Romans were masters at this and other nations have also indulged in it. However, the #Black Lives Matter campaign, which led to the defacing of Churchill’s state in Parliament Square, raises other questions which cannot be lightly brushed aside.

In the controversy about honouring Churchill there has been comment, not for the first time, comparing him to Hitler. Let me start by making it clear that to liken Churchill to Hitler is ridiculous. Unlike Hitler, Churchill was not remotely a monster. Indeed, he had many qualities and his decision to fight the Nazis, when there was a so-called “peace movement” which would in effect have surrendered to Hitler, is something that has to be applauded.

But what is interesting is at the height of the war he was accused during a Cabinet meeting by one of his own ministers that he was no different to Hitler. The charge was made by Leo Amery. Today his name will mean little but in the first half of the 20th century he was a considerable political figure. As far as the Empire was concerned there was not much difference between him and Churchill. He was very much an imperialist who believed the British Empire was a noble, civilising, mission. He knew Churchill well. He was at Harrow with Churchill who the first time they met pushed Amery into the swimming pool. He was a great political ally of Churchill.

Amery’s speech in the Norway debate in 1940 where he made a stirring call for Neville Chamberlain to go swung the Conservatives against  Chamberlain. He was forced to resign and that brought Churchill to Downing Street. Churchill made Amery Secretary of State for India. So why did he say Churchill was like Hitler?  Amery kept a very detailed diary and his diary entry for 4 August 1944 is worth quoting at some length. The Cabinet had been discussing a letter to Gandhi:

. . . this let loose Winston in a state of great exultation . . . how once we had won the war there was no obligation to honour promises made at a time of difficulty, and not taken up by the Indians, and carry out a great regeneration of India based on extinguishing landlords and oppressive industrialists and uplift peasants and untouchable, probably by collectivisation on Russian lines.

It seems unbelievable that the man who had wanted to strangle communism at birth would now want to impose on India a policy that had killed millions in Russia. But Churchill was not finished. He went on to attack English officials in India as ‘wretched sentimentalists . . . who were more Indian than the Indians’. He then asked Amery, ‘What was all my professed patriotism worth if I did not stand up for my own countrymen against Indian money lenders?’ This was too much for Amery who says:

 by . Naturally, I lost patience and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s which annoyed him no little. I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane—–there is no relation between his manner, physical and intellectual, on this theme and the equability and dominant good sense he displays on issues directly affecting the conduct of the war.

Amery was so upset by Churchill’s remarks that, after the Cabinet meeting,  Amery typed out a three- page draft called ‘The Regeneration of India; Memorandum by the Prime Minister’. He described it as, ‘A skit by LSA after a harangue by WSC in Cabinet-only slightly exaggerated’. The Amery skit had Churchill moaning that ‘British workers swear and toil for generations in order to swell yet further the distended paunches of Hindu moneylenders.’

Churchill’s Hitler-like remarks were prompted by the fact that he hated the Hindus. Over a period of several decades, he privately and publicly made no secret of his loathing for the religion. The worst of this came on February 22, 1945 when he was having dinner with his private secretary, John Colville, and Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command at Chequers. Colville recorded. ‘The P.M. said that Hindus were a foul race “protected by their pullulation from the doom that is their due” and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.’

Gandhi statue at Parliament Square in London

I am well aware that to quote this Churchill view of the Hindus raises a lot of hackles. When, in the December 2016 issue of History Today, I made reference to it, the magazine received a letter signed by twelve well-known names, including the historian Andrew Roberts and members of the Churchill family, saying, ‘As Churchill scholars and family members, we would like to protest at your statement that Winston Churchill wanted “to destroy Hinduism”. From one admittedly intemperate remark reportedly made by Churchill at dinner in February 1945 you have constructed a completely unrecognizable theory that he wanted to “‘destroy”’ a religion followed by hundreds of millions of people, several million of whom were serving as volunteers in the armed forces of the Crown at the time.’ The letter writers  concluded by wondering how ‘as respected a journal as History Today should stoop to claiming that Churchill ever wanted to “‘destroy”’ the majority population of a country that was the jewel in the crown of an Empire to which he was so dedicated.’

To describe the remark as ‘reportedly’, when the evening in question takes up two pages of both Colville’s diaries and Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Churchill, shows the sensitivity of these Churchill admirers. Curious how, in that sense, the Churchill lobby is very similar to the Gandhi lobby, who react just as defensively when confronted with less than acceptable remarks made by their great hero. And, as for this being ‘one intemperate remark’, all I can say is ‘Churchill scholars and family members’ have not glanced at the war-time diaries of Churchill’s colleagues. They provide many examples of such ‘intemperate remarks’. This was not the first time he Churchill had spoken about how awful the Hindu religion was or the breeding habits of the Hindus. During the war he told Amery that ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’  And later he talked of ‘Indians breeding like rabbits’ . The fact is, Churchill’s hatred for the Hindus is too well documented to be brushed aside as an after- dinner remark.

On 16 March, 1942 Churchill had told Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, that, should the British be forced to leave India:

Eventually, the Moslems will become master, because they are warriors, while the Hindus are windbags. Yes, windbags! Oh, of course, when it comes to fine speeches, skillfully balanced resolutions and legalistic castles in the air, the Hindus are real experts! They’re in their element! When it comes to business, when something must be decided on quickly, implemented, executed—-here the Hindus say ‘“pass’”. Here they immediately reveal their internal flabbiness.

Modi and Cameron at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, outside the UK Parliament, in Westminster, London

Even before the war, Churchill in his public speeches had warned that, should the British withdraw from India, it could lead to ‘a Hindu despotism’.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Churchill, while making passionate speeches against any move for giving India even some form of dominion status, would often contrast the Hindus unfavourably with the Muslims, and in a speech in the Albert Hall on 18 March 1931 warned, ‘there can be no doubt . . . that the departure of the British from India,’ would lead to a conquest ‘of the Hindus by the Muslims’.  His reason for saying that was that he did not consider the Hindus to be capable of fighting the Muslims, a natural warrior race, and therefore of defending themselves.

Even Churchill admirers like Roberts do not deny that while ‘. . . although racist views were almost universally held [in Britain] until around the 1950s,Churchill was more profoundly racist than most . . . Churchill’s racial assumption occupied a prime place both in his political philosophy and in his views on international relations. He was a convinced white—not to say Anglo-Saxon—supremacist and thought in terms of race to a degree that was remarkable even by the standards of his own time.’

But, despite being an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, there were certain races he liked which included the Jews, he was a great champion of a homeland for them, the Greeks and the Muslims. His family feared he might convert to Islam and during the war he gave the land for building the Regents park Mosque. During the war he also compared Greeks to Bengalis and Bengalis did not come off well. War saw famine both in Greece and India. T

he 1943 Bengal famine killed three- and- a- half million Bengalis, the worse famine in 20th century south Asian history. The Greek famine caused by the Nazi occupation killed an estimated 300,000. But despite the fact that the British government bore responsibility for the Bengal famine Churchill resisted diverting shipping to feed Bengal. However, he was keen to get food to Greece and, at the Cabinet meeting of 24 September 1943, Churchill made it clear that, as Amery records, ‘the starvation of the anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks.’

Gandhi also had his faults. Like Churchill he also made remarks that do not read well now. Writers like Arundhati Roy have pointed out that in South Africa, while Gandhi campaigned for Indians, he “feared and despised Africans” and that in asking for the Hindu caste system to be maintained he was  the “Saint of the Status Quo”. Gandhi’s biographer Ramchandra Guha has argued that while Gandhi was a racist in his twenties he was not by the time he reached his forties and that Gandhi campaigned long and hard against untouchability, the great evil of the Hindu caste system. Churchill in contrast never expressed any liking for Hindus although after Indian independence he did shower praise on Jawaharlal Nehru, his fellow Harrowian.

Flowers at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Westminster

But I agree with the London Mayor Sadiq Khan who in setting up a review to look into statues in London said that statues of the likes of Churchill were not included in the review but that pupils need to be educated about famous figures “warts and all” and that “nobody was perfect” including the likes of Churchill, Gandhi and Malcolm X. Statues honouring Gandhi and Churchill do not compare with that for Edward Colston, now removed or Robert Clive. Colston profited from the slave trade while Clive looted India on such a scale that the word loot, which is Indian in origin, came into the English language. I could not honour such men or support having their statues in public places. If we need their statues they should be in museums.

I must say that Gandhi in making Indians stand tall in an age when every European was considered superior to a brown or black man did something nobody could have imagined possible then. However, given the choice of dinner with Gandhi or Churchill I would choose Churchill. I know the food with Churchill would be excellent and there would be champagne and wine. Gandhi’s food would be no match to that and there would be no drink as he considered drink haram, evil.