Why did Mahatma Gandhi never win the Noble Peace Prize?
It is a question people are again asking as the Norwegian committee has just announced the prize winner this year -the International Atomic Energy agency and its chief Mohammed ElBaradei. Gandhi's omission has been widely criticised to the extent that later members of the Nobel committee publicly regretted it.
When the Dalai Lama was awarded the prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi". Gandhi, revered as the Father of the nation in India, was nominated for the prize in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948, notes Øyvind Tønnesson, a former Nobel E-Museum Peace editor. Information about the nominations, investigations and opinions concerning the coveted award is kept secret for 50 years and no records are available in public domain that could throw light on the matter.
The Nobel Foundation has recently made public some of the details surrounding Gandhi's case for a Peace Nobel. On behalf of the Friends of India Association in Norway, Ole Colbjørnsen, deputy member of the Norwegian parliament, nominated Gandhi's name thrice - 1937, 1938 and 1939. In 1937, Gandhi was duly selected as one of 13 candidates on the Norwegian committee's short list. The committee's advisor, Professor Jacob Worm-Müller, who wrote a report on Gandhi, however was very critical of the Mahatma.
"He is undoubtedly a good, noble and ascetic person - a prominent man who is deservedly honoured and loved by the masses of India...(But) sharp turns in his policies, which can hardly be satisfactorily explained by his followers. He is a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. He is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician," the evaluator noted, according to the documents made available on the foundation's website. The advisor pointed out that Gandhi was not consistently pacifist and that he should have known that some of his non-violent campaigns towards the British would degenerate into violence and terror.
Moreover, Worm-Müller expressed doubts whether Gandhi's ideals were universal or primarily Indian: "One might say that it is significant that his well-known struggle in South Africa was on behalf of the Indians only, and not of the blacks whose living conditions were even worse." In 1947, as India won independence, Gandhi was nominated again, by several Indian leaders: B.G. Kher, Govind Ballabh Pant and G.V. Mavlankar, who later became speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. His name was short-listed.
The Nobel committee's advisor, historian Jens Arup Seip, wrote the evaluation report, which was not as critical as the earlier one but focused only on the Mahatma's role in India's struggle for freedom. It was not "explicitly favourable" either. The argument that went against Gandhi in 1947 was that the Nobel Peace Prize had never been awarded for any struggle for independence. "From the diary of committee chairman Gunnar Jahn, we now know that when the members were to make their decision on Oct 30, 1947, two acting committee members, the Christian conservative Herman Smitt Ingebretsen and the Christian liberal Christian Oftedal spoke in favour of Gandhi," writes Tønnesson.
"Labour politician Martin Tranmæl was very reluctant to award the Prize to Gandhi in the midst of the India-Pakistan conflict, and former foreign minister Birger Braadland agreed with Tranmæl. Gandhi was, they thought, too strongly committed to one of the belligerents." The Nobel website quotes from Jahn's diary: "While it is true that he (Gandhi) is the greatest personality among the nominees - plenty of good things could be said about him - we should remember that he is not only an apostle for peace; he is first and foremost a patriot... Moreover, we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naive. He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer."
The due date for nominations in 1948 was only two days after Gandhi's assassination. Six letters of nomination in his favour from the Quakers, Emily Greene Balch, former Laureates and others put his name on the short list for the third time. Committee advisor Seip commented in his very favourable report that "Gandhi can only be compared to the founders of religions." While there was no precedent of awarding the Prize posthumously, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation allowed it under certain circumstances, till 1974.
"However, Gandhi did not belong to an organisation, he left no property behind and no will; who should receive the prize money? The director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, August Schou, asked another of the Committee's advisers, lawyer Ole Torleif Røed, to consider the practical consequences," writes Tønnesson. The opinion was negative and the committee decided to make no award that year on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate". The qualifying clause is the closest the committee came to honour the 'great soul'.