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WILPF and Mahatma Gandhi’s 1931 Trip to Europe

October 25, 2013

Mira Kamdar is a renowned author and scholar on India and international affairs. In her latest article, “Vu d’Europe: le rendezvous manqué”, Kamdar discusses WILPF’s interaction and meeting with Gandhi during his visit to Europe in 1931. Below is a short excerpt of her piece: 

Ghandi Statue in Geneva, Switzerland.

A statue to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi in Ariana Park (Avenue de la Paix), Geneva, Switzerland. Credits: Allison Meier/flickr

 When Mahatma Gandhi set sail for London on August 29, 1931 to attend the Roundtable Conference on the future of colonial India, he was probably the most famous person in the world. Time magazine had named him 1930’s “Man of the Year”. Gandhi was a star of the newsreels, and films of his salt satyagraha protesting a British-imposed tax in the spring of 1930 had made him an international media sensation.

At the end of the Roundtable meeting in London, Gandhi made a short tour of the European continent before sailing back to India.  His arrival in Europe was eagerly awaited. Italian educator Maria Montessori wrote: “Everybody knows him, even the smallest child, in every corner of Europe. Everyone, when he sees his picture, exclaims in his own language: That is Gandhi!” The continent’s leading progressive intellectuals, Christian social activists, and anti-war pacifists saw a potential savior in the man Nobel laureate Romain Rolland had dubbed the “Indian Christ.”

Most of the Europeans who took care of Gandhi in Europe were women.  Many were close to or members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Agatha Harrison was one, deeply involved both with WILPF and with India’s independence movement.  A friend of Gandhi’s host in London, Muriel Lester, and a Quaker, Agatha Harrison worked with C.F. Andrews, the Christian activist, to prepare Gandhi’s visit to London for the 1931 Roundtable Conference. Muriel Lester had other friends in the Women’s International League.  Her Parisian friend Louise Guieyesse – responsible for getting Gandhi to make a stop in Paris at the outset of his European tour – was the president of the French section of the League.  After Gandhi’s visit, she founded the Association des Amis de Gandhi and the revue Les Nouvelles de l’Inde. Camille Drevet, International Secretary of WILPF, arranged Gandhi’s lecture in Geneva and wrote a number of books about Gandhi after he left Europe. Finally, there was Madeleine Rolland, Romain Rolland’s sister and a member of WILPF, who traveled to Marseille in her brother’s stead to welcome Gandhi to Europe when he landed there on his way to London.

In late 1931, Europe was on the brink of disaster.  A worldwide depression following the 1929 stock market crash had sent currencies plummeting and tens of thousands of unemployed workers into the streets.  Political extremism was on the rise, with communist and fascist parties quickly filling the void created by weak governments.  Adolf Hitler’s progress in Germany was making daily headlines.  A new world war seemed inevitable.  But these WILPF activists believed that perhaps there was still hope: if Gandhi and his mass movement of non-violent resistance could take on the mighty British Empire, his tactics might yet be able to defuse the crisis in Europe. And if Europe could be redeemed, the world might follow.

In his address at the WILPF meeting in Geneva organized by Camille Drevet on December 10, 1931, Gandhi told the audience:

“History shows that when a people have been subjugated and desire to get rid of the subjection, they have rebelled and resorted to use of arms. In India, on the other hand, we have resorted to means that are scrupulously non-violent and peaceful and strangers have testified and I am here to give my testimony that in a great measure we seem to have succeeded in attaining our goal. I know that it is still an experiment in making. I cannot claim absolute success as yet, but I venture to suggest to you that experience has gone so far that it is worthwhile to study the experience. I further suggest that, if that experience becomes a full success, India will have made a contribution to world peace for which the world is thirsting”.

Alas, neither Gandhi nor WILPF would save Europe from the horrors that awaited it in 1931. Nor would Gandhi save India from terrible slaughter during Partition when the new nation of Pakistan was cleaved away in 1947.  A world more materialistic and militaristic than ever emerged from the bloodbath of World War II.  India would strive to take its place among the great powers of that world.  Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948 by a Hindu nationalist who saw the Mahatma not as India’s savior but as a dangerous hindrance to the new nation’s future.  By then, Gandhi had already been marginalized from the corridors of new power in Delhi. In Europe, and across the Atlantic in America, Gandhi was all but forgotten until the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement, and Europe’s own student revolt, once again gave nonviolent civil disobedience currency.

At WILPF, the spirit of Gandhi and nonviolence never wavered. Still, the close connection between WILPF and Gandhi during the Mahatma’s 1931 visit to Europe is a chapter in the organization’s history that is little known, and deserves to be remembered.

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Mira Kamdar is the author of Motiba’s Tattoos and Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy.  She is working on new book on Gandhi’s 1931 trip to Europe. Her article on Gandhi’s visit, “Vu d’Europe: le rendezvous manqué”, appeared in the November 2013 issue of L’Histoire magazine.

 

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