Magazine article The Spectator

Even His Fasts Were a Fraud

Magazine article The Spectator

Even His Fasts Were a Fraud

Article excerpt

I FIRST met Gandhi in January 1946, when I was one of the ten members of the All Party Delegation of MPs sent to India to sound out the mood. He asked how old I was. The answer, 27, provoked one of his high-pitched giggles: `Hee, hee, hee! Younger than my grandsons but old enough to be one of the rulers of India.'

I instantly recognised Gandhi as a great humorous character whom P.G. Wodehouse would have been delighted to develop in the genre of Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle. His interview with the ten MPs lasted two-and-a-half hours, during which they asked serious questions and he gave no serious answers, other than to repeat, `Get off our backs. We can't walk.' At the end I asked Agatha Harrison, an English Quaker member of Gandhi's court, why all Gandhi's answers to sensible questions had been nonsense. The answer she gave was that Gandhi had been testing our sincerity. Gandhi was always testing other people's sincerity but was indignant if anyone tried to test his.

I was told to come back by myself at 6 a.m. the next morning. We walked up and down the flat-roof top of the sweepers' quarters from which the Untouchables had been removed by Gandhi's great friend, the multimillionaire G.D. Birla, who had rendered the premises spotlessly clean. Mrs Naidu, who became a provincial governor after independence, remarked, `It costs a great deal of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.'

In our early morning talk he made more sense. The time for further discussions and conferences was over. It was too late for Dominion status with full self-government - only complete separation and full independence with no special links would do: 'A slave clings to his chains and he must have them struck from him.' If we did not want to hand over to Indian National Congress we must hand over to Jinnah and his Muslim League. Britain was not to divide India. It must be handed over intact.

When I returned to India in March, as Stafford Cripps's personal assistant in the Cabinet Mission which he led, I was to have many more meetings with Gandhi. I liked him enormously and he must have liked me because I would often get messages such as: `Don't you like me any more? You haven't been to see me lately.' He believed in cottage industries, though his friend Birla thought that they were tosh. Once Gandhi said to me that the famines had all been our fault. The British had built the railway system but, before they did so, each locality had granaries with reserves of food. They were abandoned because food could always be rushed in by train. `But then there were times when there was not enough food anywhere to be rushed in and the people starved.'

When I told him that if we just disappeared the Muslims would march through the land destroying the Hindus because he would enjoin on them the policy of nonviolence, he replied, 'I would certainly tell Congress to adopt non-violence.' His eyes twinkled mischievously. `But I would expect them to take one eye for one eye and one tooth for one tooth. Not like the British, who take one hundred eyes for one eye and one hundred teeth for one tooth.'

Gandhi was part fraud and part saint, as I daresay many Roman Catholic saints have been. His worst sin was unquenchable vanity. There had to be a struggle for independence with him as its great leader. This was absurd. No struggle was ever required, as Professor Coupland points out in his masterly threepart work on the Indian constitution with particular reference to the 1936 Government of India Act. This provided for elections in all the provinces and for the government at the centre. To begin with Gandhi let the elected Congress govern in eight out of the 11 provinces. When he saw that self-government without his making was so close, he made Congress withdraw from governing where they had been elected, using our 'imperialist' war as an excuse.

Stafford was sent by the War Cabinet to India to tell Congress that if they stopped frustrating the war effort with their nonviolent obstruction, India would have full independence de facto now and by statute at the end of the war. …

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