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Gandhi and Churchill: parallel lives, divergent world views

How two very different world leaders were shaped.

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Certainly, this describes the first half. Here, Herman treats us to lengthy discussions of Gandhi’s first encounters with vegetarianism, various theosophists, and spiritualists, as well as Gandhi’s evolving ideas which fused elements of Hindu spiritualism, a rejection of Western modernity and industrialization (with an emphasis on the universal use of the spinning wheel), with his nascent political aims and his ideas for nonviolent civil disobedience. The latter he tried to implement on behalf of his fellow Indians in South Africa, but with limited success. Actually he failed to achieve any of his objectives.

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Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and channeled all his energies into the causes of Indian nationalism and independence. Yet his plans for independence were based upon his own utopian dream of Indian history, unrelated to the facts of religious, political, or tribal history. For a brief spell, this dream captivated his fellow countrymen, unifying them.

Initially, Churchill emerges as engaging, energetic, and intellectually vibrant, although Herman understands little of the nuances of British education, class and political divides, or the subtleties of British patriotism as engendered by a public school education, which was central to Churchill’s character.

Churchill, wholly alive to the discrepancies between Gandhi’s beliefs and reality, vigorously opposed Indian independence, seeing it as a blueprint for bloodshed and chaos on an unimagined scale. Churchill is vilified as a hateful, bombastic, belligerent, reactionary racist, prone to pursuing disastrous political and military policies and deranged on Indian matters. Rarely missing an opportunity to quote from a Churchill detractor, Herman lays the blame for whatever went wrong in two World Wars squarely on his shoulders. He views the attempted British evacuations of Malaysia and Burma in 1941-42 as cowardice.

Herman depicts Gandhi as a 20th-century Francis of Assisi, yet as the fight for independence advanced, and especially during World War II, he appears increasingly willful and manipulative. Though constantly stressing the difference between Gandhi’s “spirituality” and Churchill’s faith in the betterment of humanity through civilization, Herman writes of the bloodbath that preceded full independence: “[Gandhi’s] decade and a half of defiance of the law through civil disobedience had bred an atmosphere of contempt for social order, a celebration of recklessness and militancy ... by encouraging others to see themselves in his exalted image, Gandhi helped to spread the dangerous fiction that all street action was soul force and vice versa.”

Finally, in no sense were Churchill and Gandhi rivals, despite Herman’s suggestive title. But their legacies are plain to see. Churchill’s is a stable, prosperous, Europe, while Gandhi’s dream of a primitive utopia has given way to an Indian subcontinent whose quest for international technological status and democratic principles would make Churchill beam from ear to ear.

M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer in Hampshire, England.

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