Why you should care

The Nobel Committee has courted controversy and blundered. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Anwar el-Sadat. Jimmy Carter. Since 1901, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has picked some of the most notable names for its Nobel Peace Prize. And then there is the case of Mohandas Gandhi.

In 1948, the committee announced that it would not be awarding the Nobel Peace Prize because it could find “no suitable living candidate.” It was a poignant call, indeed: In January of that year, just days before nominations closed, Gandhi — the pioneer of nonviolent resistance in the 20th century — had been assassinated. The message was simple enough: There was “no suitable living candidate” because the suitable candidate had been killed.

Controversy has always been part of this prize, which will be awarded today. From recognizing Barack Obama just months into his presidency, to selecting Yasser Arafat when much of the world considered him a terrorist, to giving the award to the EU despite its participation in many international conflicts, the committee hasn’t been afraid to offend. Perhaps most famously, Henry Kissinger was invited to Norway as he continued covert strikes on Cambodia and Vietnam. After that, according to the comic-genius-turned-recluse Tom Lehrer, “Political satire became obsolete.”

He had been nominated for the award no fewer than five times — so why was he always the bridesmaid?

But to this day, the Gandhi decision is perhaps its most famous. Indeed, Geir Lundestad, the director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute has said as much, calling it “the greatest omission” in the institution’s history.

”The committee had intended to give Gandhi the prize for 1948,” Lundestad told OZY. “Then he was assassinated in January 1948. Posthumous prizes were possible then, but the assassination was felt to be a huge complication. The committee issued a statement that it had found no living individual worthy of the prize. So, no prize was awarded for 1948.”

The gap is glaring. Gandhi died at 78, after more than 50 years of peaceful campaigning had established him as an international icon. He had been nominated for the award no fewer than five times — so why was he always the bridesmaid?

Born in 1869, in what is now Gujarat, Gandhi was the child of a wealthy merchant family, which enjoyed far greater privileges than most Indians under the Raj. As a result, he was sent to study law in London, where, rather ironically given that religion had played little role in his life in India, he developed the deep commitment to Hinduism that underpinned his life’s work.

Gandhi with traditional white clothes between gentlemen with raincoats and umbrellas. Photography. 1931.

Mahatma Gandhi takes part in the Indian Constitutional Round Table Conferences in London in 1931.

Gandhi’s political awakening came later, in South Africa, where the widespread mistreatment of the “colored” Indian community led him to question the broader inequalities that characterized the British Empire. From then on, Gandhi developed a nonviolence toolbox, which included the use of noncooperation, civil disobedience and hunger strikes to disrupt British rule in South Africa and, from 1915 onwards, in India. While he campaigned for independence, Gandhi also worked to build a stronger India, emphasizing, for example, the importance of good sanitation and women’s empowerment — issues that continue to plague the country today.

Some attribute his failure to win the prize to the animosity of the British administration.

Not surprisingly, his mass opposition did make a few enemies in high places. Some attribute his failure to win the prize to the animosity of the British administration and, potentially, the committee’s fear that celebrating Gandhi would damage Norway’s relationship with Britain. In 1931, Winston Churchill said it was “alarming and nauseating” that “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east” could walk, half-naked, to meet the king’s representative in India.

Other criticisms were more thoroughly reasoned. Gandhi had his opponents within the international peace movement, who argued that he was dictatorial toward his followers and knowingly orchestrated campaigns that would degenerate into violence. Some biographers have pointed to his troubling attitudes toward sex and women and others to his acceptance of certain social inequalities. In 2014, for example, Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy denounced Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence, arguing that it supported the Indian caste system, which she describes as “the most brutal social hierarchy ever known.”

For his devoted fans, though, Gandhi’s shortcomings are a reminder that even idealized icons are human. He is still remembered, as one telegrammed nomination put it, as the “architect of the Indian nation, the greatest living exponent of the moral order and the most effective champion of world peace today.”

As for the omission? According to Lundestad, “Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi is the question.”

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