Mon, Jan 02, 2006 - Page 5 News List

UK archives reveal Churchill's wartime hard line on Gandhi


Winston Churchill, Britain's World War II prime minister, was prepared to let Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi starve to death if he went on hunger strike while interned during the war, archives released in London showed yesterday.

He thought Gandhi should be dealt with like any other detainee if he refused food.

Churchill's tough line was recorded during War Cabinet meetings, which also showed Britain's confusion over how to handle the charismatic Indian leader's stance of peaceful opposition.

The notes record Churchill as saying Gandhi should stay in detention and "let him do as he likes."

Deputy Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook's notes reveal ministers wondered whether Gandhi as a martyr would lead to a mass uprising in India -- and embarrassment for Britain.

However, they did not want to free Gandhi and allow him to campaign against the war and British rule while the crown colony was under the threat of Japanese invasion.

Gandhi was held for two years in Pune, western India, from August 1942 after slamming India's involvement in the war and calling for civil disobedience.

India's viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, sent ministers a telegram stating he was "strongly in favour of letting [Gandhi] starve to death" if he went on hunger strike.

However, officials in London worried that the backlash would be too powerful.

Lord Halifax, ambassador to the US and a former viceroy of India and foreign secretary, told cabinet the day after Gandhi's arrest on Aug. 9: "Whatever the disadvantages of letting him out, his death in detention would be worse."

Ministers decided in January 1943 that although they could not be seen to cave in to a hunger strike, they would free him on compassionate grounds were he likely to die.

However, Churchill, annoyed by the prospect of Gandhi claiming a moral victory, said: "I wd [would] keep him there and let him do as he likes," according to the notes. "But if you are going to let him out because he strikes, then let him out now."

Churchill also demanded that any action on Gandhi should be portrayed as a victory for the authorities.

"Cab[inet] feel v [very] strongly on principle of release because of strike.

"Wd prefer to release as act of grace because det[ained] 6 [months] and we've beaten him."

Gandhi was released in 1944 amid fears his poor health could see him die in custody although he had not been on hunger strike.

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