Gentlemen of the Club

Posted: Aug 12, 2014 2:41 PM
Gentlemen of the Club

There are certain rivals who may differ on the issues, and in style and background and even basic attitude, yet understand and respect one other. For they belong to the same club -- the fraternity of the great.

Few historic figures would seem to have less in common than Winston Churchill, who championed the British Empire, and Mahatma Gandhi, who led India's struggle for independence from it.

But whatever their differences on that great issue, they were bound together by a mutual respect for each other, despite anything they might have said in the heat of the moment. If there is a single word to describe the quality they shared, what would it be? Excellence, principle, manners? Let's use a term whose full meaning, with all its admirable connotations, was once widely understood in our society. For each in his own distinctive way was a . . . gentleman. If anyone can still remember what a gentleman was, for it has become a vanishing breed, even in these Southern latitudes.

Each would come to symbolize their fidelity to what they believed in -- Churchill for his defiant dedication to freedom in the empire's Finest Hour, and Gandhi for his pacifist piety. They made quite a contrast in outward appearance, as visitors to Parliament Square in London will soon be able to see at a glance. That's where a statue of the Mahatma is now to join the one of the Rt. Hon. Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, scion of Dukes of Marlborough.

As might have been expected, the news that a statue of Gandhi would go up outside Parliament elicited triumphant reactions from those who think of him as Churchill's "nemesis," to quote one news story, and couldn't resist interpreting the news as a rejection of Churchill's legacy. To quote Kabir Taneja of the Guardian, "Churchill's statue may develop a frown when Gandhi's statue is placed alongside him."

It was left to Richard M. Langworth, president of the Churchill Centre in Washington, to point out what rot such breezy comments are. For they ignore all the things Churchill and Gandhi had in common.

Yes, the prime minister once -- back in 1930 -- dismissed the Mahatma with his usual eloquence at invective: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."

But by the time five years had passed, and the same Mohandas K. Gandhi, Esq., visited London for a conference on India's future, Churchill had gracefully accepted the passage of the India Bill, a step toward the subcontinent's independence as a self-governing British dominion. As he told one of the Mahatma's chief aides, "Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables. I do not like the [India] Bill . . . but it is now on the Statute Book. So make it a success."

For his part, the Mahatma could be just as magnanimous. ("I have got a good recollection of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colonial Office and somehow or other since then I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.") Eventually, whatever their differences on this or that issue, one gentleman will recognize -- and respect -- another. Each of these had a code and upheld it, which allowed them to bridge the gulf of differences that separated them with mutual respect, eventually even affection. Both understood their country had a destiny that need not conflict with the other's but might complement it.

In addition to his pre-modern sensibility, the Mahatma (which means Great Soul) also had an uncanny grasp of political strategy for a mystic, which made him an excellent judge of which adversary to choose. For the nonviolent tactics that would prove so effective in appealing to public opinion in a democracy like Britain would have amounted to mass suicide if he'd tried them against a Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan.

Much like the fabled Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, each of these modern leaders represented a different civilization, but instead of clashing, over time their basic similarity would become undeniable.

Lest we forget, however great their differences in politics and style, these two quite different leaders had broad areas of agreement. Both, for example, were profoundly opposed to the vivisection of India in 1947 and the creation of a separatist Pakistan, one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, for that division has proven a source of contagious malice and unrest ever since.

What ultimately drew such two such outwardly disparate figures together may have been nothing more complicated than a respect for simple decency that surpassed all superficial differences of class or culture, and bound the traditional Englishman and the Indian holy man.

It can happen. No one could have been more English in his manners and taste than George Orwell, but he put aside all his old suspicions of Gandhi's pious preachments in the classic essay he wrote after Gandhi's assassination in 1948, which began: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. . . . " But he would conclude that same essay by noting:

"And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way) . . . but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

How prescient, as usual, George Orwell was. As those statues of Churchill and Gandhi side by side will soon attest.