The annual season of the Nobel Prize has coincided with the worldwide celebration of the beginning of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary year, so it seems apt to ask, again, that old question: how is it that the Mahatma, the most powerful symbol of non-violence in the last century, was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
The Nobel website itself asks: “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?”
Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, and 1939 by Ole Colbjørnsen, a Labour member of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament). The motivation for the first nomination was written by women in the Norwegian branch of Friends of India, a network of associations in Europe and the US. The Nobel Committee’s adviser, Professor Jacob Worm-Müller, however, argued in his report that Gandhi, though “a good, noble and ascetic person”, was given to “sharp turns in his policies”, which made him both “a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist”. Worm-Müller referred to critics who alleged Gandhi was not consistently pacifist, and doubted if his ideals were universal — his “struggle in South Africa was on behalf of the Indians only, and not of the blacks…”
In 1947, Gandhi was nominated by B G Kher, G V Mavalankar and G B Pant. Pandit Pant described him as the “the greatest living exponent of the moral order and the most effective champion of world peace today”. The Committee’s adviser, historian Jens Arup Seip, wrote, according to the Nobel website, a “rather favourable, yet not explicitly supportive” report. Committee Chairman Gunnar Jahn recorded that two members, Christian conservative Herman Smitt Ingebretsen and Christian liberal Christian Oftedal, favoured Gandhi, but the other three — inclduing Labour politician Martin Tranmæl and former Foreign Minister Birger Braadland who did not want to honour Gandhi in the middle of Partition and riots — did not. The Nobel went to The Quakers.
Gandhi was assassinated two days before the 1948 Peace nominations closed. There were six nominations on his behalf, including from the 1947 and 1946 Laureates, The Quakers and Emily Greene Balch. Seip wrote that given the numbers of people on whose attitudes Gandhi had left his mark, he “can only be compared to the founders of religions”.
The Nobel Foundation’s statutes did allow a posthumous award under certain circumstances. But Gandhi did not belong to an organisation and had not left a will, so it was unclear who would receive the prize money. The Committee’s lawyer, Ole Torleif Røed, sought the opinion of prize-awarding institutions, and was advised against a posthumous award. Eventually, the Committee said “there was no suitable living candidate” that year. Chairman Jahn recorded that Oftedal dissented on this.
The Nobel Prize website observes that:
* Up to 1960, when anti-apartheid activist Albert John Lutuli was honoured, the Peace Nobel went almost exclusively to Europeans and Americans. Gandhi was a ‘different’ man — not a real politician or proponent of international law, not a humanitarian relief worker, not an organiser of global peace congresses.
* The Committee’s archives do not suggest that a possible adverse British reaction to an award to Gandhi was ever taken into account.
* In 1947, a majority in the Committee had doubts about the consistency of Gandhi’s pacifism, triggered by a misleading news report that quoted him as saying that “if there was no other way of securing justice from Pakistan… the Indian Union Government would have to go to war against it”, and “Muslims whose loyalty was with Pakistan should not stay in the Indian Union”.