Within his homeland, Winston Churchill’s colossal contribution to saving his people from Hitler eclipses all else, and he is widely regarded as the greatest Briton of all time. So it came as something of a surprise when a senior Labour Party politician recently described him as a “villain” for having ordered troops to fire on striking workers in the Welsh town of Tonypandy in 1910. The claim provoked vigorous denunciations from prominent politicians, as well as more sober reflections in op-ed pages. When the dust settles, as it soon must, Churchill will revert to being the figure of sanctity that he has always been.
Within his homeland, that is. Outside the United Kingdom, Churchill has always had a decidedly mixed reputation. This is especially so in India, my own country, where his undying opposition to freedom for Indians is both well known and widely deplored. As is his hatred for Mahatma Gandhi, a figure he repeatedly mocked, calling him (among other things) a “malignant subversive fanatic” and “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace.”
Churchill and Gandhi met once, in November 1906. The Englishman was then the undersecretary of state for the colonies; the Indian, a spokesman for the rights of his countrymen in South Africa. Back then, Gandhi wore a suit and tie, as befitting a lawyer trained in London. It is not clear whether Churchill remembered their meeting when, in the early 1930s, he began attacking Gandhi, whose Salt March had made waves around the world and established him as the preeminent leader of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule.