Why did the Nobel Peace Prize ignore the ‘Apostle of Peace’ himself?
This is a question that has been asked since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or the Mahatma, was assassinated 72 years ago on 30 January 1948.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s archives show he was nominated five times and was on the shortlist thrice. But a misleading news report of a prayer meeting in which he seemingly advocated a war with Pakistan denied him the chance once. Later in 1948, he was sure to be invited to Oslo, but for Nathuram Godse.
Supporters had nominated Gandhi for the big honour in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948. Each time, the committee looked elsewhere. Over the years, less famous (and sometimes outright infamous) people have walked home with the prize, but the glaring omission has always been troubling — even to the committee.
Those who accompany Gandhi in the omission register form a trivia-quiz champion’s dream list: Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. Two more persons feature in the list — one Gandhi was inspired by and one he inspired — Leo Tolstoy and Jawaharlal Nehru.
In the decades since the Mahatma’s assassination, an embarrassed Nobel committee (elected by the Norwegian parliament) has tried to make up by honouring several ‘Gandhians’, including Martin Luther King Jr (1964), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), Nelson Mandela (along with Frederik Willem de Klerk, 1993) and Kailash Satyarthi (along with Malala Yousafzai, 2014).
In honouring the 14th Dalai Lama (1989), there was even formal admission, when the committee chairman said it was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.
Why the Nobel Prize ignored him
Critics have alleged that the Nobel committee had a Eurocentric worldview, and it was afraid of rubbing Great Britain the wrong way when it chose not to award Gandhi. (The latter claim, it is believed, is not justified by anything in the archives.)
The committee itself did not comment on speculations, but documents and correspondence that came to light later, and more public access to the Nobel archives shed some light.
Prompted by the “Friends of India” associations, it was Ole Colbjørnsen, a Labour Party member of the Norwegian parliament, who first nominated Mahatma Gandhi in 1937 (and then in 1938 and 1939). Gandhi’s name was shortlisted.
The committee took advice of historian Jacob Worm-Müller, writes Øyvind Tønnesson, a former peace editor at the prize website. Worm-Müller praised Gandhi as “undoubtedly, a good, noble and ascetic person — a prominent man who is deservedly honoured and loved by the masses of India”. However, he added that there are “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”.
Moreover, he pointed out, “One might say that it is significant that his well-known struggle in South Africa was on behalf of the Indians only, and not of the blacks whose living conditions were even worse.”
What happened after Independence
Mahatma Gandhi found himself in the shortlist for a second time in 1947, just before India’s independence — credited to the non-violent struggle led by Gandhi — when three leaders from the country sent telegrams nominating him for the prize. They were B.G. Kher, prime minister of Bombay province, G.B. Pant, premier of United Provinces, and G.V. Mavalankar, president of the national legislative assembly.
The committee then turned to another historian, Jens Arup Seip, for advice. His report, unlike Worm-Müller’s, was “rather favourable, yet not explicitly supportive”, writes Tønnesson. Among other things, Seip wrote: “It is generally considered, as expressed for example in The Times of 15 August 1947, that if ‘the gigantic surgical operation’ constituted by the partition of India, has not led to bloodshed of much larger dimensions, Gandhi’s teachings, the efforts of his followers and his own presence, should get a substantial part of the credit.”
Yet, the praise failed to persuade the committee members. Tønnesson offers a glimpse of what some of them thought.
“From the diary of committee chairman Gunnar Jahn, we now know that when the members were to make their decision on October 30, 1947, two acting committee members, the Christian conservative Herman Smitt Ingebretsen and the Christian liberal Christian Oftedal spoke in favour of Gandhi… However, in 1947 they were not able to convince the three other members. The Labour politician Martin Tranmæl was very reluctant to award the Prize to Gandhi in the midst of the Indian-Pakistani conflict, and former Foreign Minister Birger Braadland agreed with Tranmæl.”
They were also influenced by a Reuters report, published in The Times on 27 September 1947, which quoted Gandhi as supporting a war with Pakistan.
The report said: “Mr. Gandhi told his prayer meeting to-night 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. If all Hindus were annihilated for a just cause he would not mind.”
Gandhi was quick to state that the report was correct, but incomplete. He had also said he “had no place in a new order where they wanted an army, a navy, an air force and what not”.
Committee chairman Jahn wrote in his diary, “While it is true that he (Gandhi) is the greatest personality among the nominees – plenty of good things could be said about him – we should remember that he is not only an apostle for peace; he is first and foremost a patriot. (…) Moreover, we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naive. He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer.”
The last time
In 1948, the nomination deadline was two days after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated.
The committee received six nominations for the Mahatma — from Emily Greene Balch (Peace Prize winner of 1946), the Quakers (Peace Prize winner of 1947), Christian Stephansen Oftedal (committee member), five professors of philosophy at Columbia University, six professors of law at the University of Bordeaux, and Frede Castberg, a Norwegian jurist and former committee adviser.
Gandhi’s name made it to the shortlist for the third time.
Seip updated his report and concluded that Gandhi had put his profound mark on an ethical and political attitude which would prevail as a norm for a large number of people both inside and outside India. “In this respect Gandhi can only be compared to the founders of religions,” he noted.
Nobody had been awarded the Peace Prize posthumously till then, though the Nobel Foundation statutes did allow it under certain circumstances. (Dag Hammarskjöld was named for the prize in 1961 posthumously. A rule against posthumous honour came in 1974.)
The Nobel Prize website admits that it was possible to honour Gandhi in 1948. Trouble was, “Gandhi did not belong to an organisation, he left no property behind and no will; who should receive the Prize money?”
After much internal discussion on the advisability of a posthumous prize, the best they could manage was the 18 November 1948 announcement that there would be no Nobel Peace Prize that year because “there was no suitable living candidate”.
Ashish Mehta is a Delhi-based independent journalist.