History has known no greater champion of peace other than Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who inspired the people of India to rise up against colonial rule through non-violence. It is, therefore, one of those quirks of history that Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a decision that is debated to this day.
However, being denied one of the world’s most coveted honours was not for any lack of trying. Gandhi was nominated for the prize no less than five times. The first time his name was proposed, there was scathing criticism.
“He is, undoubtedly, a good, noble and ascetic person – a prominent man who is deservedly honoured and loved by the masses of India.” But, “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.”
These words form part of a report written by Prof Jacob Worm-Müller, adviser to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which had considered Gandhi’s first nomination, in 1937.
This was a time when India’s independence movement was at its peak and gaining supporters worldwide. Among Gandhi’s supporters was a network called the ‘Friends of India Association’, which had been established in Europe and the US in the early 1930s. The association aimed to mobilise public opinion overseas in favour of India’s right to self-determination and Gandhi’s non-violent movement. It was the leading women of its Norwegian branch who wrote the motivation note for Gandhi when he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Ole Colbjørnsen, a Norwegian politician of the Labour Party.
The motivation note must have been powerful as Gandhi’s name appeared among the 13 shortlisted candidates. But with the followers also came people who were skeptical, for Prof Jacob Worm-Müller’s report also doubted the personal nature of Gandhi’s principles. It said, “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.” The prize that year went to Lord Robert Cecil of Cherwood for his service to the League of Nations.
Ole Colbjørnsen re-nominated Gandhi in 1938 and in 1939 but a decade was to pass before Gandhi was considered again, and this time the nominators were close to home. In 1947, B G Kher, Govind B Pant and Ganesh V Mavalankar, all leaders of modern India, sent in their recommendations for Gandhi via telegram.
The Nobel Committee’s adviser, historian Jens Arup Seip, wrote a new report, which stated how Gandhi had remained true to his ideals of non-violence during the three major conflicts that had affected India – the freedom struggle, India’s participation in World War II and Hindu-Muslim communal clashes. However, it was not completely approving, “The following ten years, from 1937 up to 1947, led to the event which for Gandhi and his movement was at the same time the greatest victory and the worst defeat – India’s independence and India’s partition.” The last event was specifically taken into consideration. Should the Father of the Nation be awarded a peace prize when the country was in the midst of one of the bloodiest upheavals in human history?
Also, an account printed in The Times on 27th September 1947, just a month before a decision on the prize was to be made, may have adversely influenced a few committee members. The account, which was about Gandhi’s views on war with Pakistan, said:
“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. If all Hindus were annihilated for a just cause, he would not mind. If there was war, the Hindus in Pakistan could not be fifth columnists. If their loyalty lay not with Pakistan, they should leave it. Similarly, Muslims whose loyalty was with Pakistan should not stay in the Indian Union.”
Gandhi had stated that the report was correct but incomplete. At the meeting, he had added that he himself had not changed his mind and that “he had no place in a new order where they wanted an army, a navy, an air force and what not”.
But the damage had been done. Gandhi’s consistent pacifism was questioned and Committee Chairman Gunnar Jahn, in his diary, quoted himself as saying, “While it is true that he 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.” Of the six shortlisted candidates, the prize that year went to the Quakers, a Christian religious group, for their service and humanitarian aid.
In 1948, six letters of nomination were sent in favour of Gandhi, including those from former laureates – the Quakers and Emily Greene Balch – and one from professors of philosophy at Columbia University. His name figured with only two other candidates in the shortlist.
Committee Adviser Seip wrote a report concluding that Gandhi had left a profound mark on an ethical and political attitude that 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.” There couldn’t have been a more emphatic endorsement for Gandhi.
But Gandhi was assassinated on 30th January 1948, just two days before the deadline for that year’s Peace Prize nominations, and the Nobel Peace Prize had never been awarded posthumously. The Nobel Committee, which discussed and debated the issue intensely, decided in the negative but with one important query – even if Gandhi was to be awarded, who would receive the prize money as he had left no will?
On 18th November 1948, the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided not to award the prize that year on grounds that ‘there was no suitable living candidate.’ But was that the real reason? Until 1960, the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded almost exclusively to Europeans and Americans, begging the assumption that Gandhi’s omission may have had something to do with politics. In 1999, then Peace Editor Oyvind Tonnesson in his article Mahatma Gandhi, The Missing Laureate remarked -
“Gandhi was very different from earlier Laureates. 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.”
Over the years, the Nobel Committee has received a lot of flak for denying Gandhi the prize and some later members have also publicly regretted this decision. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.
In 2006, Geir Lundestad, then secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, lamented, “Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi, is the question.”
The Nobel Peace Prize has been the subject of controversy for most of its history, the most noted being the conferments on Mikhail Gorbachev, Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama, and the omissions of Eleanor Roosevelt, Fazle Hasan Abed and, of course, the biggest, Mahatma Gandhi.
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