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Churchill was tough, even with Mahatma
H.S. Rao

London, January 1
Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II who had described Mahatma Gandhi as a “half naked fakir,” was ready to let him die in prison if he went on hunger strike, while interned during the war, archives released here today showed.

Gandhi was held for two years at the Aga Khan’s Palace in Pune, from August 1942 after slamming India’s involvement in the war and calling for the Civil Disobedience movement. Churchill thought Gandhi should be dealt with like any other detainee if he refused food.

He remarked: “I wd (would) keep him there and let him do as he likes.

“But if you are going to let him out because he strikes, then let him out now.”

Churchill’s tough line was recorded during war Cabinet meetings, which also showed his dilemma on how to handle the Mahatma, whom he described as “half naked fakir.”

His noting came soon after India’s Viceroy, Lord Victor Linlithgow, sent ministers a telegram stating he was “strongly in favour of letting Gandhi starve to death” if he went on hunger strike. However, officials in London were worried that the backlash would be too powerful.

The notes record Churchill as saying Gandhi should stay in detention and “let him do as he likes.”

Deputy Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook’s notes reveal ministers wondered whether Gandhi as a martyr would lead to a mass uprising in India, embarrassing Britain.

However, they did not want to free Gandhi and allow him to campaign against the war and British rule, while India was under the threat of Japanese invasion, during second World War.

Lord Edward Halifax, Ambassador to the USA and a former Viceroy of India told the Cabinet the day after Gandhi’s arrest on August 9 in Bombay: “Whatever the disadvantages of letting him out, his death in detention would be worse.”

Ministers decided in January 1943 that although they could not be seen to cave in to a hunger strike, they would free him on compassionate grounds were he was likely to die.

Sir Stafford Cripps, Minister for Aircraft Production who had failed to reach an agreement with Gandhi in 1942 to secure Indian loyalty to the war effort said: “He is such a semi-religious figure that his death in our hands would be a great blow and embarrassment to us.”

He also demanded that any action on Gandhi should be portrayed as a victory for the Kingdom. “Cabinet feel v (very) strongly on principle of release because of strike. “Wd (would) prefer to release as act of grace because det(ained) 6 (months) and we’ve beaten him.”

Gandhi was released in 1944 as officials feared he may die of failing health though he had not been on hunger strike.

The former Tory Prime Minister’s combative views were in sharp contrast with opinions held by David Cameron, the current leader of the Conservative party, who quoted Gandhi in his New Year message to party activists yesterday.

Cameron said he wished to usher in a “constructive, thoughtful and open-minded” politics, adding “As Gandhi said, ‘we must be the change we want to see in the world.’” — PTI

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