August 21, 2013

Finest Hour 110, Spring 2001

Page 12


I recently had discussion with a senior state leader of Rajasthan, an old veteran who happens also to be a friend. A staunch Gandhian, he has been thrice Member of Parliament, twice a member of his state legislature, and a respected minister at both state and centre (federal) levels.

When I apprised him of my campaign of speeches about Churchill at educational institutions, a sarcastic smile crossed his face: “You must know that Churchill was the foremost enemy of India; yet you are devoted to him. Why?” I replied,”If Churchill had not defended democracy, we wouldn’t have it here; people like me could never have the kind of life I am having, nor could you have become the leader you are.” He denied this, saying, “Churchill’s war with Hitler had nothing to do with that.”

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For a moment I wondered if I should invite him to one of my lectures on Churchill and Freedom, since a rebuttal right on the stage could be embarrassing, and confusing for the students. But Churchill never avoided political arguments so, gathering courage, I asked if he would attend one of my appearances. “I am asking particularly because the gulf between your ideas and mine is substantial,” I said. “Why not?” he replied, “differences are a part of democracy. If you invite me I shall come.”

I asked the editor of Finest Hour why he thought Churchill had been so silent on the question of India during his wartime premiership. He first directed me to Sir Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Volume V, pages 617-19, on Churchill’s overtures to Gandhi after the India Bill had passed in 1935. Sir Martin also reports a friendly exchange between Churchill and Gandhi in 1908, when Churchill supported Gandhi’s campaign for equal rights for Indians in South Africa. Churchill was totally absorbed by the war; also, Churchill had sent the Cripps Mission to India, although some scholars think he made its work difficult. In the 1950s, Churchill became very fond of Nehru, with whom he got on famously as a fellow old Harrovian. All this could be the subject of an interesting article.

Such facts underscore Churchill’s basic magnanimity, even in defeat, and suggest a more open-minded attitude toward India than critics claim. Churchill’s public refusal to oppose independence after the war endorses his commitment to the Atlantic Charter, which had been a bold step forward for an Imperial prime minister in 1941, despite what he said about it not applying to the Empire.

Such facts encourage my effort to get people to think. The real lesson is the preciousness of democracy: precious enough for a small island nation to sacrifice everything for it. Democracy uplifts us all, as reiterated by Churchill in his October 1940 broadcast to France: “Long live also the forward march of the common people in all the lands towards their just and true inheritance, and towards the broader and fuller age.”

Equally important in die life of democracies is the maintenance of decorum among elected officials. I like to emphasize how Churchill respected democracy by gracefully accepting electoral defeat so many times, particularly in 1945 when he wanted so badly to win. In India this can serve as a great lesson. Young people are our inheritors, and will need to practice similar democratic decorum.

There is, finally, a need to understand the distinction between independence and freedom. Even if we in India had attained independence, which was die aim of Gandhi, the common citizen would not necessarily have had freedom with it. Democracy had never existed in this country. It was introduced, rather imposed, by die British. Had it been destroyed in Britain, we would never have had it here. And Hitler had quite something else in mind for India and the rest of Asia.

Recently I spoke with Indian military officers who may organise one of my talks. There I am likely to mention another cornerstone
of democracy which Churchill practiced: the subordination of the military to civilian authority. The violation of this basic principle has led to derailment of democracies in India’s neighbourhood, and the disturbance of peace and prosperity. Thus I alter my messages based on the audiences involved. Of course, recitation of the war speeches is likely to be most interesting to the officer class, which has changed dramatically from its outlook ten years ago. 

Mr. Ratnu is anxious to hear from readers who wish to “talk Churchill.” He particularly seeks advice on how he might lecture abroad. Write him at C-7, Vaishali Nagar, Jaipur, India, PIN 302-021. E-mail: [email protected]

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