Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill

London:Arrow Books, 2009 

Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill

London:Arrow Books, 2009

In setting up Gandhi and Churchill in parallel, even the photographs in the book are in parallel, Arthur Herman builds the history of the conflict between Gandhi and Churchill like a novelist.  Though it is history, the book is as interesting and intriguing as a novel, even more so because it is fact not fiction and there is no glossing over the fallibilities of either prominent figure.  Not genuflecting before saint or hero, Herman gives them to us in all their humanness. They are both presented as men, with strong beliefs intolerant of differing points of view.  Each has a mission based on beliefs that he fully endorses even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  Each is blind to the impracticalities and adverse consequences of his vision and imposes it, sometimes at the cost of thousands of lives. 

Gandhi            Churchill

Childhood in a poor            Childhood in a rich

village home            noble family


       Neither interested in reading

       Each wanting to impress his father


Gandhi a young adult in England            Churchill a young adult in India

Law student devouring law books            Subaltern devouring Gibbons’

              and the work of New Age Liberal    Decline and Fall


Belief in brotherhood of man                  affirms belief in Imperialism

Gandhi a man of peace                       Churchill a man of war


                                     Both interested in journalism and writing


In South Africa devising Satyagraha                   In Gallipoli devising battle plans


                                                 Satyagraha ineffective

                                                Gallipoli a disaster


G in Boer War serving the British               C in Boer War brave actions

with an ambulance brigade             in the face of danger


                                                    Heroic acclaim


G in India struggling to create a mass             C in England struggling to win

non-violent movement            political acclaim





Gandhi for Swaraj (Indian                         Churchill for civilizing British

          Independence based on morality)                    Imperialism




                                    Adversaries in India’s Independence Movement

                                    Each fighting on two fronts

Gandhi fightingagainst              Churchill fighting to save the

Imperialism and for Indian unity.        Raj on which England’s fortunes

                                                              depended and British politicians ready

                                       to grant Indian self-rule   

These are some of the many parallels presented in the book.


The following quotations give an idea of the intensive research upon which the book is based and a little indication of the author's pursuit of the real men under the myths that surround them.

Churchill's Mission

How the British built an empire in India, conquering one of the most ancient and powerful civilizations in the world, is an epic of heroism, sacrifice, ruthlessness and greed.  But it is also the story of a growing sense of mission, even destiny: the growing conviction that the British were meant to rule India not only for their own interests but for the sake of the Indians as well.  That belief would decisively shape the character not only of the British Empire in India but also of Randolph's son Winston Churchill-the man into whose hands the destiny of the Raj would ultimately fall. (20)

Gandhi's Mission

By January 1925 Gandhi could say, "The key to Swaraj lies in fulfilling three conditions alone-the charkha, Hindu-Moslem unity, and in the removal of untouchability. (291)

For all his talk about religious reconciliation, Ghandhi could not ignore the fact that like everyone else, he was sitting on a sectarian powder keg.  In September 1924 Muslims in Kohat on the Northwest Frontier ran riot, murdering Hindus who fled for their lives until troops arrived.  At Sabarmati Gandhi held a five-day fast in protest.  But the sporadic outbursts of communal violence never stopped.  In the United Provinces alone there were more than 88 serious outbreaks in four years, killing 81 and injuring 2,300 more.  By 1927 Gandhi was admitting, "I dare not touch the problem of Hindu-Moslem unity.  Is has passed out of human hands and has been transferred to God's hands alone." (291/2)


Gandhi fervently believed that by spinning their own cotton and making their own clothes, Indians would not only free themselves from the "evils" of market capitalism; they would also experience the spiritual regeneration that was essential to Swaraj.  "It is my certain conviction," he once told an audience, " that with every thread I draw, I am spinning the destiny of India.  Behind his back Congress politicians laughed or became impatient when he sang the charkha's praises.  They had walked out on him when he had brought it up at the Ahmedabad meeting.  Some of them knew, even if Gandhi did not, that far from being a symbol of contented village life, the charkha had always been an unheard of luxury to India's rural masses. (290/1)

Public Image


Romain Rolland created the public myth of Mahatma Gandhi that the Western world has admired ever since... It is the myth of Gandhi the universal saint, the gentle apostle on nonviolence and humanitarian goodness who gladly turned his cheek to his enemies and won out by sheer moral example.  Rolland's mythmaking deliberately ignored the other sides of Gandhi.  It ignored the tough-minded warrior who read Kipling with pleasure and who would write, "You cannot teach non-violence to a man who cannot kill."  It omitted the Victorian patriarch who set impossible standards for his children and refused to allow his son Devadas to marry a girl from a different caste.  It left out the shrewd organiser and hard bargainer, and the stern uncomprehending moralist.  Instead, it projected only a soft New Age glow. (298)

Winston Churchill

His public image had also changed in the 1920s, but not in a saintly direction.

At first the newspapers called him the "smiling Chancellor."  Ebullient, bubbling with charm and charisma, Churchill made his annual speech on the budget into a major media event-just as it is today.  His first budget speech in 1925 was a rhetorical tour de force, as he kept the House of Commons enthralled for two hours and forty minutes, switching from broad humor that had members rocking with laughter, to emotionally gripping descriptions of the need for pensions for widows and mothers that held them in spellbound silence.

Yet Baldwin's secretary P.J. Griggs predicted sourly, " Within a year Winston will have committed some irretrievable blunder which, if he does not imperil the government will bring Winston down."  Grigg knew his Winston, and his prediction proved correct.  Behind the media publicity and hype, and the parties at Chartwell with the rich, smart, and famous, came a series of decisions that can only be described as reckless.  Churchill's five years as Exchequer were disastrous for Britain and sowed much of the trouble that lay ahead. (298/9)

When one reads a book like Gandhi & Churchill, one realises that all efforts, from Plato to the present, to find an ideal form of government is really a vain effort.  No political theory can encompass all the diversity of being human.  But politicians spend their careers forcing people to conform to their idea of liberty, equality and fraternity.  And that leads to too much government, which is bad government.  In a country like India, with its great diversity and untold millions, during the struggle for independence there were many conflicting views of what self-rule meant.  Gandhi's vision of swaraj was based on dharma, individual self-rule that leads to national self-rule.  For Nehru, independence meant a form of socialism, for Jinnah, empowerment of the Muslim community, for Subhash Chandra Bose, freedom from the yoke of Britain, for Vinayak Savarkar, Hindu dominance, for Winston Churchill, British control, for Baldwin and Chamberlain, Indian self-rule.

Theories of government emerge from the ruling classes and are imposed on those who are ruled. The theorists, excited by their utopian dreams, cannot see flaws in their reductionist propositions. In implementing their theories, they become engaged in large experiments involving the governed as guinea pigs. Their experiments often do not work. Politicians, however, stick to their theories regardless. In Gandhi & Churchill, Arthur Herman presents us with Gandhi's satyagraha campaigns and Churchill's war strategies and shows how often they failed; that both men had to keep a keen eye on circumstances and adapt their plans accordingly.  It is a pity that politicians believe that they are gods with perfect solutions rather than human beings involved in a heuristic process,  a work-in-progress that must evolve towards democracy. 

 Arthur Herman's book is more than a book about India and the British Empire.  It is strongly reminiscent of conditions relating to present day Iraq and to governance in African countries.