“One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.”—George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi,” Partisan Review, January 1949
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” begins a seminal essay by George Orwell on Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated on this date in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist, just as the “Great Soul” entered a prayer meeting. That first line is a typically irreverent, you-don’t-fool-me comment from a writer disinclined toward accepting sweeping cosmic truths, whether given down by religions or governments. All the more remarkable, then, his equally memorable conclusion, quoted above, on “how clean a smell” Gandhi left behind in the political realm through the Indian independence movement.
The only comparable instance of a writer won over, despite his skepticism, by a religious figure or group—at least that I know of—was Francis Parkman. The epic chronicler of France and England in North America was at pains, throughout his multi-volume history, to make clear that it was a great thing that Catholic France had lost out to Protestant England in the quest to colonize North America. Yet even he had to admire the sheer physical courage displayed by French Jesuits who experienced torture and martyrdom as they struggled to convert Native Americans in the New World.
Similarly, though Orwell held no belief in an afterlife and might be best described as an atheist, he came to marvel at the Indian activist’s anti-imperialism and his refusal to make class distinctions.
While in London on a business trip last week, I learned that BBC Radio was running a series on “The Real George Orwell.” I haven’t noticed any reading in this series of this important meditation on Gandhi, perhaps because it is not as dramatic nor as autobiographical as others. But its reading of the man who influenced people the world over in the decades after his death with his philosophy of nonviolence---especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—remains scrupulously fair--pretty remarkable, considering how close to the events they were--acute and valuable. That was more than neoconservatives could summon 30 years ago when Richard Attenborough's biopic Gandhi came out, as demonstrated in Jason DeParle's fine essay in The Washington Monthly.
(Associated Press photograph of Gandhi taken in 1946, now part of the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.)