A city that nurtured a young Mahatma
Gandhi’s stay in London as a student had a big influence on him. Historians have noted his struggle with securing vegetarian food, joining the Vegetarian Society; and imbibing the value for the rule of law that laid the foundation for his later battles against segregation and discrimination.Updated: Oct 01, 2020, 19:48 IST
India’s longstanding love-hate relationship with England is best symbolised in the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, whose engagement with London first as a student of law and then as an activist and freedom fighter from South Africa and India has been chronicled in some detail. It is a measure of the distance India and Britain have travelled since de-colonisation in the mid-20th century that today Indian ministers pay tributes to Britain’s liberalism and Britons honour the man who fought doggedly against them and whom Churchill derisively called “a half-naked fakir”.
By all accounts, Gandhi’s stay in London as a student had a formative influence on him. Historians have noted his struggle with securing vegetarian food, joining the Vegetarian Society and rising to be its secretary; and imbibing the value of rule of law that laid the foundation for his later battles against segregation and discrimination.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron noted while unveiling his statue in Parliament Square in 2015, “That inspirational man worked out who he was and what he stood for right here in Britain. It was in London as a young man that Gandhi first learnt to petition, to draft letters and make speeches… in putting Gandhi in this famous square we are giving him an eternal home in our country.”
Such was London’s influence that Gandhi was to say in 1909 that “next to India, I would rather live in London than any other place in the world”.
Gandhi rarely figures in British school curriculum, but there is a distinct recall value to the name, even though many spell and pronounce his name as ‘Ghandy’. It was Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi (1982), that enhanced his popular awareness, but the first British public honour came soon after his assassination in 1948. Gandhi’s stay in a community centre in Tower Hamlets during his last visit to London in 1931 for the Second Round Table Conference was commemorated with a blue plaque in 1954 (founded in 1866, London’s blue plaques scheme, run by the charity English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked). Another blue plaque was put up in 1986 on the first house he lived in as a law student in the 1880s in Hammersmith. Gandhi’s plaque was the first in the scheme to honour an Indian figure. In recognition of “one of the greatest men of his time”, as cited by English Heritage, the London City Council decided to waive the rule that states the recipient must have been dead for 20 years before being so honoured. Neither plaque bears a descriptor, as it was felt that any attempt to describe his achievements in the usual short phrase would be superfluous. Several Gandhi statues have also been installed in London and elsewhere, including at Tavistock Square and Parliament Square. A new one will be installed in Medieval Quarter, Manchester, on November 25.
Bhikhu Parekh, member of the House of Lords and a prominent academic, says: “Gandhi was a very young man when he came to London. Even his English was inadequate. It is striking, therefore, that he became active so quickly and started organising the Vegetarian Society and meeting important public figures such as Charles Bradlaugh. He even got himself elected as a secretary to the Vegetarian Society and was able to correspond with the eminent public figures of his time”.
Closely involved in installing Gandhi’s statue in Hull’s Museum Quarter, Parekh adds: “Gandhi is relevant in today’s Britain for three reasons. First, he would prefer an open and outward looking Britain, not one that thinks only of itself. Second, he would be worried about the quality of public discourse in Britain and strongly plead for a language of inclusion and reconciliation. Third, he would expect Britain to reorganise itself from the bottom upwards and dispense with its highly centralised system. He would of course also say quite a bit about the importance of climate change”.
It was Gandhi’s engagement with the Vegetarian Society that opened doors to British society, to which few Indian students at the time had access. Meghnad Desai, also a member of the House of Lords, believes that it was in London that Gandhi grew up to be a responsible adult: “These people, being vegetarians, were highly intelligent, conscious of their duty towards nature and chose to be vegetarians. There were anarchists, socialists and of course devout Christians among them. They took Mohandas into their fold. He learned to conduct business of meetings, take notes, draft petitions. He dreaded public speaking but they were patient with him. His ideas of health were developed here. Vegetarians also gave him confidence in his own religious beliefs. The promise he had made his mother of not eating meat or drink alcohol was very much in tune with his British friends.”
Gandhi and his thoughts were often invoked by British politicians of an earlier generation. Among them was the iconic Labour politician Tony Benn (1925-2014), who shook hands with Gandhi as a boy during his 1931 visit (Benn’s father was the secretary of state for India). A cardboard cutout of Gandhi had a prominent place in Benn’s house in Holland Park. Benn remarked on Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964: “It is sometimes said that Britain liberated India. In fact the reverse is the truth. Gandhi and Nehru liberated us. By winning their freedom, they freed us from the ignorance and prejudice that lay behind the myth of Britain’s imperial destiny.”
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But in recent years, there are allegations that Gandhi is used for political purposes. When Cameron unveiled the statue in 2015 in the company of the late Arun Jaitley and Amitabh Bachchan, some saw it as a way to woo the increasingly important 1.5 million-strong Indian community’s vote ahead of that year’s general election. Says Parekh: “Frankly, I don’t think much about the statue in Parliament Square. It has no popular legitimacy and is more like an official monument built from the contributions of rich Indians.”
Gandhi is widely known as a global figure in the UK, but not much is known beyond the basic. Farrukh Dhondy, writer and playwright, says: “The notional average Briton, the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus, thinks of the Mahatma as an icon. He occupies the space in his or her consciousness that is occupied by Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, possibly the Dalai Lama and even Abraham Lincoln. Most of the bottom deck of the said omnibus would probably not be able to tell whether Gandhi came before or after the Revd. King or the others, but they all stand out as models of how to achieve political ends beneficial to humankind or to their particular constituencies and messiahs of ethical leadership. Very few, if any, even on the top deck of our omnibus, will have read My Experiments With Truth and won’t in any way associate Mohandas with the struggle within himself — the path to his convictions and the confessions of his journey”.
Dhondy makes the important point that many in British universities study Gandhi’s life, political manoeuvres, global achievements, self-confessed failures and of his time in London, but such historical analysis, ironically, is used as a template for the influence of British thought on the dissolution of the British Empire.
Sunder Katwala, director of the respected think tank, British Future, agrees that little is known about Gandhi; it would even surprise many Britons that he was an adversary, not an ally, of Churchill: “No other figure of India’s march to nationhood – including Nehru – would have anything like the recognition of Gandhi. Nor would any other figure from any other independence cause – from Ireland to Africa. Yet little is known of Gandhi. His iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism. Yet rather little is known of Gandhi – by the general public, and probably by younger British Asians too. The 1982 Oscar-winning movie, once so famous, is rather dated. The history of Empire, India and decolonisation remains too rare in our schools.”
Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, according to Katwala, is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging that Gandhi and India’s cause was just: “Gandhi’s place in Parliament Square would be welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled the statue, thinking also of the challenge for a Conservative Party that knows it wants more British Indian votes, but can sometimes seem at a loss to work out what it could do to try to win them. Putting up statues of Gandhi, while a fine gesture, may not be the answer.”