Sainik Samachar, a journal brought out by the Ministry of Defence, has whipped up a controversy by claiming that Mahatma Gandhi donned a British military uniform during the Second Boer War (1899–1902).
Historians, however, insist that Gandhi, the quintessential symbol of non-violent resistance against British rule, never fought alongside them in Africa.
An article published in the journal’s edition dated October 9, 1977, opens with these lines: “It might seem surprising but it is true that in the year 1899 Mahatma Gandhi donned a British military uniform.” The article headlined “When Gandhi donned soldier’s uniform” forms part of a coffee-table book being brought out by the defence ministry to mark the centenary of the defence journal on January 2, 2009.
The coffee-table book opens with congratulatory messages from the President, Prime Minister and the three service chiefs. Well-known historian Ramachandra Guha has trashed Sainik Samachar’s claim that Gandhi was a British soldier. “Gandhi was never employed by the British forces. He had only raised a voluntary ambulance corps consisting purely of non-combatants to render medical aid to British troops. It is incorrect to say he served the British army,” he told HT.
The war most commonly referred to as the Boer War is the Second Boer War.
It was a protracted conflict involving a substantial number of British troops and ended with the conversion of Boer republics into British colonies with an assurance of limited self-governance.
Gandhi’s ambulance corps, a non-military entity, was raised with some 1,100 men.
Insisting that Gandhi was a British soldier, the Sainik Samachar article says: “This was not an easy decision for Gandhi to take and it became still more difficult for the Britishers to accept Gandhi as a soldier. But the circumstances forced it.”
The article says Gandhi saw the Boer War as a golden opportunity for India to win its freedom by helping the British. It concludes saying that Gandhi never donned the military uniform after 1900 but remained a soldier in spirit.
Professor Bipan Chandra, an expert on the Indian national movement, said Gandhi was never a part of the British army and had only raised a voluntary ambulance corps. Defence ministry sources told HT the article in question would be run through a panel of historians before the issue goes into print.