Vinay Lal

Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, “the Great Soul”, was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  This has been a perennial source of unhappiness for those Indians inclined to view Gandhi as by far the most deserving candidate of the twentieth century, and the hand of Britain, and the imperial West more generally, is seen as having been instrumental in depriving Gandhi of this “great honor”.  Many Nobel Laureates in Peace are themselves agreed that Gandhi should have been honored before they were honored.  The Dalai Lama, in his acceptance speech in Oslo on 10 December 1989, described himself as accepting the award “as a tribute to the man who founded the modern tradition of non-violent action for change, Mahatma Gandhi, whose life taught and inspired me.”  [See]  Many others besides Indians have pondered over Gandhi’s omission from the list of winners, and as Gwladys Fouché and Sally Bolton wrote in the Guardian not long ago, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been “criticised for failing to honour Mahatma Gandhi” (“The Nobel Prize”, 11 October 2002).  (The Peace Prize alone is conferred by a committee of the Norwegian Parliament; the other awards are handed out by a Swedish committee.)  Some Indians imagine that racist sentiments prevented Gandhi from receiving this signal honor, and they are doubtless right — to a degree.  The feeling persists that this omission mars the history of the Nobel Peace Prize.  When, in 2001, V S Naipaul received the Nobel Prize in literature, and Kofi Annan and the UN were conferred the peace prize, even a critic of the entire institution of the Nobel prizes such as the journalist Amit Gupta, who was correct to criticize both Naipaul and Annan, could not cease to mention the omission of Gandhi as one of the reasons why the Nobel Prizes stand discredited.  [See Amit Sengupta, “Grateful Alive”, Hindustan Times (16 October 2001).]

When all is said and done, most middle-class Indians, the Indians who are keen on such forms of adulation from the West and believe that score-keeping in these arenas is a worthy way of measuring the progress made by nations and individuals alike, would be delighted to see Gandhi being awarded the peace prize posthumously.  That would chalk up the number of Indians who have been conferred the Nobel Prize in any area.  However, as I shall suggest, we should be relieved that Gandhi was not given the Nobel Peace Prize.  Considering that its recipients have included naked imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt, a self-avowed terrorist such as Menachem Begin, and Henry Kissinger, the architect of the secret bombing of Cambodia, a war-monger and war criminal for whose arrest a warrant should be put out if there was any respect for the tens of thousands of the victims of Kissinger’s policies in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, and elsewhere, it would be doing Gandhi a discredit to place him in that company.   There are, as we shall see, other compelling reasons why Gandhi is much nobler without a Nobel.

A little history on Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize is in order.  Gandhi was nominated for the award five times — in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948.  Under the rules governing the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, there was nothing to preclude the posthumous conferral of the award, though the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s own deliberations appear to have muddled the issue.   On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse; that year, six nominations were received on Gandhi’s behalf.  On November 18th, the committee, in a public pronouncement, declared that it had found “no suitable living candidate” for the award, thereby implying that that it was not empowered to confer posthumous awards.  To be sure, there were practical questions as to who — one or more of his sons, and their families; or Navajivan Publishing House, which was charged with publishing Gandhi’s writings; or any of the numerous institutions which received Gandhi’s blessings — would inherit the award if it were given to Gandhi, who was on the shortlist in 1948; but this cannot have been a principal consideration in denying Gandhi the award.   If, as is true, a posthumous award had never been conferred previously, here was certainly more than good cause to create a new precedent.  There hadn’t been anyone quite of the stature of Gandhi before the committee’s considerations either, so in every respect the committee was called upon to be thoughtful and creative.  That was, evidently, asking too much of the committee.

The first nomination of Gandhi for the Nobel Peace Prize took place in 1937.  The nomination originated from among Europeans, a testament not merely to the fact that Gandhi had countless number of admirers outside India, but also to his belief that allies would never be found wanting in India’s endeavor to gain independence. Notwithstanding his critique of the modern West, Gandhi always recognized the “other” West, the marginalized, dissenting West within the West.  Though Gandhi made it to the shortlist, the Committee’s advisor, a professor (now obscure) by the name of Jacob Worm-Muller, wrote of Gandhi that he is “frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.”  Gandhi’s critics, among them British officials, held him responsible for the bouts of violence into which the nonviolent movement was thought to degenerate from time to time.  A feeling persisted among some of his critics that Gandhi was preeminently an Indian nationalist, and that Gandhi himself was inclined to put the welfare of Indians before the good of humankind as a whole.  As Worm-Muller observed, in obvious criticism of Gandhi, “One might say that it is significant that his well-known struggle in South Africa was on behalf of the Indians only, and not of the blacks whose living conditions were even worse.”  Ten years later, it was still held against him that he was a “patriot” before being an advocate of peace.  In 1947, in any case, the conferral of the award upon Gandhi would have been nearly inconceivable.  Mountbatten knew enough of what was transpiring in India to understand that Gandhi was the single largest force for peace in strife-ridden Calcutta, and like many others he waxed eloquent about the miracle of Calcutta.  As he wrote in appreciation to Gandhi, “In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large scale rioting is on our hands.  In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting.”  But many outside India, aware of the widespread killings that were taking place as India got partitioned and the new state of Pakistan came into being, might have been wondering whether India had been led astray under Gandhi’s leadership.  Within India, of course, Gandhi had more than his share of detractors, and some of his opponents, not only among the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, even held him responsible for the partition and its bloodshed.

And so it is that Gandhi was never conferred the Nobel Peace Prize.  But why should this be a matter of misgiving and regret, and why should we strive for such accolades?  Anyone familiar with Gandhi’s life would at once recognize that Gandhi scarcely cared a jot for such forms of recognition, and it is in the fitness of thinking that Gandhi, who left this world with very little on him, and almost made a virtue of nakedness, should have been unadorned by any titles, awards, formal designations, and the like.  The Nobel Prize would have made Gandhi small:  as the historian Jens Arup Seip, acting as the committee’s advisor in 1947 and 1948, divined Gandhi had left such an immense ethical mark on the world that he could “only be compared to the founders of religions.”  Moreover, even a cursory familiarity with Gandhi’s writings suggest that he understood that colonization of the mind is in many respects more far-reaching than economic colonialism and political domination, and one insidious and pervasive form of such colonization is the fact that Indians, as well as other people in the “developing” world, continue to look to the West to validate their lives and make them meaningful.  Our obsession with the Nobel Peace Prize that was never conferred on Gandhi is not so much inspired by indignation that he was overlooked as by the feeling that we think of our lives as incomplete until we have been given proper recognition by the West.  Above all, it behooves us to recall that Gandhi was deeply immersed in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, and the Gita offers no more supreme teaching than the injunction that just duties must be pursued with detachment, without any expectation of compensation or rewards.  It does Gandhi enormous discredit to continue to be agitated by an omission of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for which we should be grateful.