Mahatma Gandhi has remained the biggest advocate of peace right from his struggle in South Africa to delivering India’s independence in 1947. In 2017, the Nobel Foundation announced its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an advocacy group that is credited for being the driving force behind the first treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.
And much like every year when the Nobel Peace Prize is announced, one wonders about Mahatma Gandhi’s absence on the list of awardees. Although Gandhi has remained the biggest advocate of peace in the Indian context – right from his struggle in South Africa to the non-violent fight for independence that finally came to fruition in 1947 – he is come to stand for the symbol of non-violence internationally as well.
Amid much debate, a clarification of sorts was first published on the Nobel Prize’s website on 1 December 1999. Authored by the then Nobelprize.org Peace Editor Oyvind Tonnesson, the article is titled “Mahatma Gandhi, the Missing Laureate”.
Tonnesson traces back to the year 1937 when Gandhi was nominated as one of the names for the Peace Prize by Ole Colbjornsen, a member of the Norwegian Parliament.
However, the committee’s advisor Jacob Worm-Muller penned a report on Gandhi, that while elucidating the admiration Gandhi drew, he also criticised Gandhi’s position as a political leader as being inconsistent.
In his report, he wrote: …sharp turns in his policies, which can hardly be satisfactorily explained by his followers. (…) He is a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. He is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.
Further, the report drew on instances where Gandhi’s stance as a pacifist had resulted in violence between the British and the Indian freedom fighters, such as the Chauri Chaura incident of 1920-21, when the freedom fighters set fire to a police station.
The India-Pakistan Tensions
Gandhi had as many critics as admirers. According to Tonnesson, idea of peace was always thought of as being too much of an “Indian nationalist”.
Further drawing to light the sour relation between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Nobel Committee also reportedly questioned awarding Gandhi the Peace Prize award, pondering upon the political ramifications of what might entail.
Pioneering this line of thought were Norwegian Labour politician Martin Tranmael and former Foreign Minister Birger Braadland, wrote Tonnesson. The two leaders were particularly against awarding Gandhi the Peace Prize when they learnt of his statement on war against Pakistan in 1947, during a prayer meeting.
A Times report dated 27 September 1947 read:
Mr Gandhi told his prayer meeting tonight that, though he had always opposed all warfare, if there was no other way of securing justice from Pakistan and if Pakistan persistently refused to see its proved error and continued to minimise it, the Indian Union Government would have to go to war against it. No one wanted war, but he could never advise anyone to put up with injustice.
However, Gandhi was quick to point out that though the report was correct, yet it was also incomplete, wrote Tonnesson . He said that while at the meeting he had said what he did, he had not changed his mind on non-violence, and will have “no place in a new order where they wanted an army, a navy, an air force and what not.”
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Assassination and Nominations
When Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, the Nobel Committee had received a total of six nomination letters in his name only two days before. However, nobody at that point of time had been bestowed the award posthumously. And though the Nobel Foundation made adequate provisions for posthumous reception of the award, Tonnesson stated the prevailing question was – without a will, or any organisational affiliation, who would receive Gandhi’s award money?
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Thus, in 1948, the Nobel Committee decided not to name anybody for the year under the grounds that “there was no suitable living candidate”. It cannot be known if Gandhi was indeed a prospective candidate, for as Tonnesson wrote, he was “ no real politician or proponent of international law, not primarily a humanitarian relief worker and not an organiser of international peace congresses. He would have belonged to a new breed of Laureates.”
However, one glaring criticism that Tonnesson levels against the Norwegian committee was their obvious preference for Europeans and Americans as Laureates till 1960, and thus naming Gandhi as one during his time would have categorised him under a new “breed of Laureates”.