MYSTERY: Why Gandhi missed the Nobel Peace Prize

Gandhi and Nobel Peace Prize

By Prof Hardev Singh Virk

Rajinder Singh, a well-established Historian of Science, has become a household name in the area concerning Indian Nobel Prize contestants, nominators and winners. He started his journey in this field by working on his Ph.D. thesis: “Nobel Laureate CV Raman’s work on Light Scattering”.

The book under review: “Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize” is seventh among the series on Mahatma Gandhi (four in English and three in German). The earlier one “Mahatma Gandhi – Sex Scandal and the missed Peace Prize” discussed this topic partially. The necessity of a separate volume arose to give full coverage to the theme why Gandhi, the most deserving candidate for Nobel Peace Prize (NPP) from India, missed it despite his nomination running for several years from 1924 to 1948.

The author clarifies in his introduction to this volume a sense of guilt among the members of Nobel Committee (NC) for their failure to award Nobel Prize to Mahatma Gandhi. Rajinder refers to two important documents from the Nobel Peace Prize archives in support of his contention. According to him: “Editor of the Nobel Peace Prize section of the Nobel Museum of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Øyvind Tønnesson, wrote an article on the official webpage of the Nobel Peace Prize Foundation. He stated that Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948 and that the Nobel Committee (N.C.) regretted Gandhi’s omission”. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and the Gramin Bank of Bangladesh received the Nobel Peace Prize where, once again, Gandhi became a point of discussion. Geir Lundestad, the permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee admitted “Our record is far from perfect and not giving Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Prize was the biggest omission”.

Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize
Gandhi and the Nobel Peace Prize.

What were the reasons behind this whole episode of Mahatma Gandhi missing the Nobel Peace Prize is the objective of this book by Rajinder Singh. The question has been discussed threadbare in the five Chapters of this book. In Chapter 1: “Gandhi vs. Aga Khan: The First Indian Nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize” the author discussed the rules and regulations for the NPP and narrates that Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III was the first Indian to be nominated for NPP in 1923. In 1924, Aga Khan and Mahatma Gandhi were both nominated for NPP from India. The author has found from the NPP archives: “Aga Khan was nominated for the Prize in 1924 by the Persian Prince Samad Khan and again in 1925. The documents of the Nobel Institute show a fascinating story about the role played by Indian politicians, the British Empire, and the media against Aga Khan and in favour of Gandhi”. In my view, Aga Khan was a deserving candidate who played a crucial role to avoid the war between Turkey and Europe by his sincere efforts. However, his Indian nomination became highly controversial due to communal politics of India and intrigues of political secretary of British – Indian government who opposed the move. As a matter of fact, neither Aga Khan nor Gandhi were short listed for the second round. Out of 21 persons and 8 institutions nominated for the NPP in 1924, none were seen as worthy of it.

According to author (Chapter 2): “In 1937, all in all 40 candidates (32 persons and 8 institutions) were proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize. Out of these, Nalini Kumar Mukherjee and Gandhi were from India. Gandhi was nominated by Ole Colbjrønsen, a Norwegian journalist, economist and politician on behalf of ‘Friends of India’ society. It was argued that Gandhi had advocated for racial, social and political peace in addition to being a leading figure of India’s nationalist movement with the emphasis on non-violent struggle against British rule”. Gandhi was shortlisted for NPP as one of the nine candidates. Jacob S. Worm-Müller, a historian and politician was asked by NC to prepare a report on Gandhi’s achievements. The expert scrutinised the history of Indian National Congress vis-a-vis role of Gandhi. The expert report was highly critical of Gandhi and states: “Many of his (Gandhi) actions in the politics, though religious and moral, are tactical with sly calculations. There are abrupt changes in his policies. There are also surprisingly contradictions between his statements and actions. He is a man of freedom, a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. At the same time he is a politician and not a politician. S.C. (Subash Chandra) Bose believes that he lacks political instinct”. The reporter was not convinced of Gandhi’s internationalism. He argued that in South Africa the man (Gandhi) struggled only for oppressed Indians rather than the natives who lived under worse conditions. Another point of criticism was that within India, Gandhi did not attack the indigenous princes for their brutal practices used to rule the people. On the basis of this report, Gandhi’s nomination for NPP was rejected by the NC in 1937.

During years 1938-39 (Chapter 3), Gandhi received more than 40 nominations for NPP, a record number by any standards. He was nominated by both ‘Friends of India’ Denmark and UK societies, Nobel Laureates Romain Rolland and Henrik Pontoopidan, priests CF Andrews and Albert D. Belden, who were sympathisers of Indian freedom movement, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Zurich. Despite these nominations, Gandhi failed in the first round and was not short listed for NPP. Eventually, the prize would be awarded to ‘The Nansen International Office for Refugees’, which was founded by Fridtjof Nansen in 1921. The idea of the NC was to attract the attention of the people to the refugees problems.

Gandhi was nominated in 1947 (Chapter 4), the year India got her freedom, by at least six persons from India, including three members of the Congress party (BG Kher, GV Mavalankar and GB Pant). The author writes: “15 persons and 5 institutions were nominated for the NPP during the year 1947. Out of them six were short-listed. Gandhi was among them at last. The historian and consultant of the Nobel Institute, Jens A. Seip, was tasked with preparation of a new report. He complimented the old reports by writing on Gandhi’s contribution in Indian politics after 1937”. The report of Jens Seip reveals the power yielded by Gandhi in Congress and Indian politics: “There is no doubt that Gandhi is considered as spokesman for violence-free resistance; a pacifist in the most radical sense, who influenced his country’s politics and his people’s minds”. Further, the report refers to the dominant character of Gandhi and states that when Subhas Chandra Bose became the president of the Congress party in 1939, Gandhi hinted that he would retire [as Gandhi’s candidate had lost against Bose]. This subtle threat alone was enough to remove Bose from the president’s position.

I wonder how wisely Rajinder has used the archival material at his disposal to establish the failure of Gandhi to get the NPP in 1947. He writes under the sub-heading “Opinion of the Nobel Committee” as follows: There were 5 members of NC, two supporting Gandhi and three opposing him on the ground that (i) No one nominated Gandhi on international level, (ii) Chairman of NC, G. Jahn, was highly critical of Gandhi’s personality who failed to resolve the Pakistan issue,  (iii) Two other members, M. Tranmæl and B. Braadland, opined that Gandhi’s ideology was not suitable for downtrodden peoples. They thought Gandhi was pretending to be for poor, while his true motivation was to protect the interests of the capitalists. Hence, Gandhi nomination for NPP was rejected by split decision based on majority vote.

In the last Chapter: “Gandhi on the Verge of Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize: The Failure of Mahatma’s Followers“, the author has tried to bail out the NC and holds Indian authorities responsible for not offering sponsorship to receive the prize money of NPP for Gandhi. In 1948, Gandhi received a record number of nominations from USA (>20 nominations), France, UK, Norway, and just 2 from India. A large number of nominations came from women who mattered a lot in Europe and America and held Gandhi in high esteem as a messenger of Peace.

The author has established by citing documents which reveal the positive mindset of members of NC and politics of Indian authorities, which failed to come up to the expectations of NC. He writes: “The NC was ready to award a posthumous prize. It would not be an exaggeration to assume that it was partially due to international pressure after the assassination of Gandhi. Special positive report was written by its expert; showing Gandhi the man who deserves posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. The first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, the NC asked its jurist to interpret the law to find out the possibilities for the posthumous Nobel Prize. The NC could not have done more than this. Evidently—it is wrong to blame the NC for not awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Mahatma Gandhi”. It is a mystery why Mahatma Gandhi failed to get this coveted award when he was amply qualified for Peace Prize.

(Hardev Singh is Prof. of Eminence, Punjabi University, Patiala)

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