Gandhi versus the Nobel peace prize

Rajesh Kochhar

There are two annual exercises associated with Nobel peace prize. While Norway announces the winner in October, India bemoans why Mahatma Gandhi did not win the prize.

If Gandhi’s assassination had been delayed by nine months he might have died a Nobel laureate. Would this have elevated his place in history? It would have been ironical if Gandhi had got as prize money that was earned by selling dynamite.

Gandhi was nominated five times. There were three consecutive nominations in 1937, 1938 and 1939 filed by Western peace groups and Norwegian parliamentarians. The process stood interrupted during 1939-1943 because of the war. Gandhi was again nominated in 1947, this time by Indians including Gobind Ballabh Pant, and finally in 1948 just a few days before his murder.

In 1937 when Gandhi’s name was first proposed, the prize went to an individual, Lord Cecil, founder of International Peace Campaign. After this whenever Gandhi was in the reckoning, the prize was either not given or given to an organization. For a long time the peace prize was a club badge rather than a world honour. The first time it went out of Europe and North America was in 1960 when the president of African National Congress, Albert John Lutuli, was declared the winner. Gandhi would have approved of that.

Sir Winston Churchill who won the Nobel literature prize in 1953 gave a glimpse of his powerful prose in 1930 while describing Gandhi: “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 viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”

In London, Gandhi is said to have been asked what he thought of the Western civilization. Gandhi’s reply was: I think it would be a good idea. The implication was that as things stood the West was not civilized. The story is apocryphal; the said encounter never actually took place. But it is significant that the story gained wide currency and was considered believable.

South Africa-based Mohandas Gandhi, even as late as 1894, was a typical product of English education system haplessly appealing  to the colonial sense of noblesse oblige. Finally he chose to squarely placing the West on the defensive on ethical grounds and for all times to come. (In fact, Mohandas Gandhi became Mahatma Gandhi precisely when he accomplished this.)

Europe of Churchill’s time could not have honoured Gandhi. The West has had to come a long way to recognize Gandhi as the author of Gandhian philosophy. By this time Gandhi was dead.

Gandhi was and is bigger than the Nobel peace prize. If he had been linked with it, the prize would have been enhanced. India has no franchise over Gandhi. India should not regret that Gandhi was not Nobelled. Rather, the West should introspect on its blindness of yesteryears when it was unable to recognize Gandhism.

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