Sage and the soldier

Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘General’ of India’s non-violent struggle and General Cariappa, first Chief of the Indian Army, might have differed on the role of war but they respected each other’s views. On Gandhi Jayanti, Lalit Mohan recaps the encounters.

Gandhiji collects money for Harijan welfare while travelling by train.
Gandhiji collects money for Harijan welfare while travelling by train.

Shortly after India became independent, Gen K.M. Cariappa made a statement in England that, to be counted among the great nations of the world, India needed a strong Army and that under the circumstances non-violence was of no use.

Gandhiji joined issue with him in the November 16, 1947 issue of the Harijan: "Generals greater than General Cariappa have been wise and humble enough frankly to make the admission that they can have no right to speak of the possibilities of the force of Ahimsa. I make bold to say that in this age of the atom bomb, unadulterated violence is the only force that can confound all the tricks put together of violence. We are witnessing the tragic insolvency of military science and practice in its own home. Should a bankrupt, who has been ruined by the gamble in the share market, sing the praise of that particular form of gambling?"

Cariappa used Army terminology to describe what he thought of the Mahatma’s rejoinder: "a rocket". He was slated to take over charge of the Eastern Army on return from England. Before doing that he called on the nation’s leader for their first meeting ever. "It was Gandhiji’s day of silence," writes his Secretary, Pyare Lal in Mahtma Gandhi – The Last Phase, "He was busy with his charkha. Declining to take his seat on a chair Gandhiji had offered him, the General sat respectfully on the floor."

"I have come to receive your blessings……" he said to the Mahatma.

Gandhiji scribbled on a piece of paper inquiring whether the General had come across what he had written about the latter’s statement on non-violence. Cariappa smiled, says Pyare Lal, and said that "he had seen it and had felt greatly honoured that the Mahatma should have taken the trouble to notice at length the views of a person like him whom he had never met."

Gen K.M. Cariappa
The one community which dislikes wars is the soldier community. It is because of the knowledge we have of the utter futility of wars.
— Gen K.M. Cariappa

I have always had the greatest admiration for the discipline in the Army.... I hope you will succeed in solving the Kashmir problem non-violently.
— Mahatma Gandhi

He soon came to the point and stated, "We soldiers are a much-maligned community. Even you think that we are a very violent tribe. But we are not….Of all the peoples in this world, the one community which dislikes wars is the soldier community. It is not because of dangers and horrors in the battlefield, but because of the knowledge we have of the utter futility of wars to settle international disputes. We feel one war merely leads to another. History has taught us this."

Pyare Lal writes, "This testimony as to the utter futility of war as a means of settling international disputes from such an eminent professional soldier came to Gandhiji as an agreeable surprise."

Cariappa continued, "In a democratic society soldiers do not initiate wars…..Governments, when they fail to get a satisfactory solution to international problems, declare wars…. We merely carry out the orders of the Government, and therefore, of the people. If people in a democracy do not like wars they should not blame us….but the Government they have put in power. It is quite simple for them, if they are not satisfied with the Government, to change it and put another in its place which will not resort to wars…..So you see, we are the innocent party. Why blame us?"

Gandhiji signalled to General Cariappa to return the slip of paper on which he had scribbled earlier, and wrote again on it, "When we meet again I would like to further discuss this subject with you."

And meet again they did; after just two days in fact. The General recalled, "He was looking very cheerful. I was in uniform. I stood in front of him and saluted him."

Gandhiji smiled and said, "I see you have again removed your shoes outside. You had done it when you came two days ago also."

The soldier replied, "It is but proper that I should do so when coming to see a godly man like you."

And then he continued from where he had left off, "I have come to tell you that we soldiers practise every bit of the ideologies that you practise, that is, love and loyalty to mankind, discipline, selflessness in the service of our country, dignity of labour and non-violence….. If we have to have an army at all it must be a good army. I would like to remind them in my own way of the need for and the value of non-violence. (But) I cannot do my duty well by the country if I concentrate only on telling the troops of non-violence all the time, subordinating their main task of preparing themselves efficiently to be good soldiers. So, I ask you, please give me the ‘Child’s Guide to Knowledge’. Tell me please how I can put this over, that is, the spirit of non-violence, to the troops, without endangering their sense of duty to train professionally as soldiers. I am a child in this matter. I want your guidance."

Gandhiji was still spinning his charkha and the General’s question seemed to amuse him, writes his Secretary. He said, "Yes, you are all children; I am a child too, but I happen to be a bigger child than you because I have given more thought to the question than you all have. You have asked me to tell you in a concrete form how you can put over to the troops you command the need for non-violence."

Then, half-closing his eyes, he added with a distinct emphasis, "I am still groping in the dark for the answer. I will find it and I will give it to you one day."

But he did add that Lords Wavell and Mountbatten, both eminent professional soldiers, had endorsed his faith in non-violence. "Lord Wavell was very impressed with the non-violent way in which the communal troubles have been tackled by us. They both hope that our ideologies of non-violence and pacifism would be understood by the peoples of the world and practised to solve international disputes.

As they were parting, Gandhiji said again, "I would like to see you more often so that we may further discuss this important subject. I have always had the greatest admiration for the discipline in the Army."

The two met for the last time on January 18, 1948. Cariappa had come to Delhi to take charge of the Western Command, then known as the Delhi and East Punjab Command, which had the responsibility of conducting operations in Jammu and Kashmir. "I hope you will succeed in solving the Kashmir problem non-violently. Come and see me after you return," said Gandhiji.

Future meetings between them could have opened new vistas of what Pyare Lal describes as, "The General of India’s non-violent struggle for freedom initiating the General of the Indian army in the non-violent techniques, and the two working together to discover and experiment with an effective substitute for war, which they agreed settled nothing."

A fruitful exchange of views was in the offing. But providence decreed otherwise, writes the Mahatma’s biographer. "The General returned from Kashmir on the afternoon of January 30, 1948, to see the remains of him at Rajghat the next day."