Nobelprize.org Peace Editor, 1998-2000 Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) has become the strongest symbol of non-violence in the 20th century. It is widely held – in retrospect – that the Indian national leader should have been the very man to be selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was nominated several times, but was never awarded the prize. Why?
These questions have been asked frequently: Was the horizon of the Norwegian Nobel Committee too narrow? Were the committee members unable to appreciate the struggle for freedom among non-European peoples?" Or were the Norwegian committee members perhaps afraid to make a prize award which might be detrimental to the relationship between their own country and Great Britain?
When still alive, Mohandas Gandhi had many admirers, both in India and abroad. But his martyrdom in 1948 made him an even greater symbol of peace. Twenty-one years later, he was commemorated on this double-sized United Kingdom postage stamp.
Mohandas Karamchand – known as Mahatma or "Great-Souled" – Gandhi was born in Porbandar, the capital of a small principality in what is today the state of Gujarat in Western India, where his father was prime minister. His mother was a profoundly religious Hindu. She and the rest of the Gandhi family belonged to a branch of Hinduism in which non-violence and tolerance between religious groups were considered very important. His family background has later been seen as a very important explanation of why Mohandas Gandhi was able to achieve the position he held in Indian society. In the second half of the 1880s, Mohandas went to London where he studied law. After having finished his studies, he first went back to India to work as a barrister, and then, in 1893, to Natal in South Africa, where he was employed by an Indian trading company.
In South Africa Gandhi worked to improve living conditions for the Indian minority. This work, which was especially directed against increasingly racist legislation, made him develop a strong Indian and religious commitment, and a will to self-sacrifice. With a great deal of success he introduced a method of non-violence in the Indian struggle for basic human rights. The method, satyagraha – "truth force" – was highly idealistic; without rejecting the rule of law as a principle, the Indians should break those laws which were unreasonable or suppressive. Each individual would have to accept punishment for having violated the law. However, he should, calmly, yet with determination, reject the legitimacy of the law in question. This would, hopefully, make the adversaries – first the South African authorities, later the British in India – recognise the unlawfulness of their legislation.
When Gandhi came back to India in 1915, news of his achievements in South Africa had already spread to his home country. In only a few years, during the First World War, he became a leading figure in the Indian National Congress. Through the interwar period he initiated a series of non-violent campaigns against the British authorities. At the same time he made strong efforts to unite the Indian Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and struggled for the emancipation of the 'untouchables' in Hindu society. While many of his fellow Indian nationalists preferred the use of non-violent methods against the British primarily for tactical reasons, Gandhi's non-violence was a matter of principle. His firmness on that point made people respect him regardless of their attitude towards Indian nationalism or religion. Even the British judges who sentenced him to imprisonment recognised Gandhi as an exceptional personality.
The First Nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize
Among those who strongly admired Gandhi were the members of a network of pro-Gandhi "Friends of India" associations which had been established in Europe and the USA in the early 1930s. The Friends of India represented different lines of thought. The religious among them admired Gandhi for his piety. Others, anti-militarists and political radicals, were sympathetic to his philosophy of non-violence and supported him as an opponent of imperialism.
In 1937 a member of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament), Ole Colbjørnsen (Labour Party), nominated Gandhi for that year's Nobel Peace Prize, and he was duly selected as one of thirteen candidates on the Norwegian Nobel Committee's short list. Colbjørnsen did not himself write the motivation for Gandhi’s nomination; it was written by leading women of the Norwegian branch of "Friends of India", and its wording was of course as positive as could be expected.
An ordinary politician or a Christ? In this photo Gandhi listens to Muslims during the height of the warfare which followed the partition of India in 1947.
In 1947 the nominations of Gandhi came by telegram from India, via the Norwegian Foreign Office. The nominators were B.G. Kher, Prime Minister of Bombay, Govindh Bhallabh Panth, Premier of United Provinces, and Mavalankar, the President of the Indian Legislative Assembly. Their arguments in support of his candidacy were written in telegram style, like the one from Govind Bhallabh Panth: "Recommend for this year Nobel Prize Mahatma Gandhi architect of the Indian nation the greatest living exponent of the moral order and the most effective champion of world peace today." There were to be six names on the Nobel Committee's short list, Mohandas Gandhi was one of them.
The Nobel Committee's adviser, the historian Jens Arup Seip, wrote a new report which is primarily an account of Gandhi's role in Indian political history after 1937. "The following ten years," Seip wrote, "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 report describes how Gandhi acted in the three different, but mutually related conflicts which the Indian National Congress had to handle in the last decade before independence: the struggle between the Indians and the British; the question of India's participation in the Second World War; and, finally, the conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities. In all these matters, Gandhi had consistently followed his own principles of non-violence.
The Seip report was not critical towards Gandhi in the same way as the report written by Worm-Müller ten years earlier. It was rather favourable, yet not explicitly supportive. Seip also wrote briefly on the ongoing separation of India and the new Muslim state, Pakistan, and concluded – rather prematurely it would seem today: "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."
The partition of India in 1947 led to a process which we today probably would describe as "ethnic cleansing". Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred and millions had to move; Muslims from India to Pakistan, Hindus in the opposite direction. Photo shows part of the crowds of refugees which poured into the city of New Delhi.
Gandhi saw "no place for him in a new order where they wanted an army, a navy, an air force and what not". In the picture, Gandhi's spiritual heir, Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, Defense Minister Sardar Baldev Singh, and the Commanders-in-Chief of the three Services, are inspecting a Guard of Honour at the Red Fort, Delhi, in August, 1948. Fifty years later, both India and Pakistan had developed and tested their own nuclear weapons.
Why Was Gandhi Never Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
Up to 1960, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded almost exclusively to Europeans and Americans. In retrospect, the horizon of the Norwegian Nobel Committee may seem too narrow. 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.
There is no hint in the archives that the Norwegian Nobel Committee ever took into consideration the possibility of an adverse British reaction to an award to Gandhi. Thus it seems that the hypothesis that the Committee's omission of Gandhi was due to its members' not wanting to provoke British authorities, may be rejected.
In 1947 the conflict between India and Pakistan and Gandhi's prayer-meeting statement, which made people wonder whether he was about to abandon his consistent pacifism, seem to have been the primary reasons why he was not selected by the committee's majority. Unlike the situation today, there was no tradition for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to try to use the Peace Prize as a stimulus for peaceful settlement of regional conflicts.
During the last months of his life, Gandhi worked hard to end the violence between Hindus and Muslims which followed the partition of India. We know little about the Norwegian Nobel Committee's discussions on Gandhi's candidature in 1948 – other than the above quoted entry of November 18 in Gunnar Jahn's diary – but it seems clear that they seriously considered a posthumous award. When the committee, for formal reasons, ended up not making such an award, they decided to reserve the prize, and then, one year later, not to spend the prize money for 1948 at all. What many thought should have been Mahatma Gandhi's place on the list of Laureates was silently but respectfully left open.