Mahatma Gandhi and the Jews

by Ranbir


In his book God is not Great, the late Christopher Hitchens takes issue with the prevailing view that India’s independence was the result of the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi’s use of non-violent civil disobedience. Anyone claiming to be Gandhian or setting their ethical compass by Gandhi often exudes a  self-righteous arrogance and above all moral smugness that somehow qualifies them to pontificate on every subject under the sun without hindrance. Gandhi has been all but deified to the point where he is beyond criticism. Therefore any inconvenient facts about this major figure from the twentieth century is going to shatter more than just a few assumptions, especially since his influence remains very strong, both in  India and beyond.


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The classic Richard Attenborough biopic starring Ben Kingsley

An instantly recognisable figure, Mohondas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as the Mahatma (great soul), retains iconic status in many parts of the world. In his homeland he is hailed as the unassuming gentle figure who used ahinsa (non-violence) to take on the mightiest empire that had ever existed, in order to secure independence of India from Britain. Gandhi has inspired many others in his simple yet forceful persuasion in the cause of justice. Most famous was Martin Luther King who used Gandhi’s peaceful yet effective methods in order to gain civil rights for all Americans regardless of colour and thus fulfill the ideals on which the republic had been founded. Dr. King read many books on the Indian nationalist leader which inspired him in his own quest for universal justice:

As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.


Initially he was skeptical:

As the days unfolded, however, the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.

On Gandhi, this is what Nelson Mandela had to say:

India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen. Both countries contributed to his intellectual and moral genius, and he shaped the liberatory movements in both colonial theaters…..The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless. Nonviolence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.

Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, in the garden of Birla House in Delhi. The assassin offered no resistance as he was arrested. His actions triggered a wave of violence, pogroms to be exact, against the Chitpavan Brahman caste to which Godse belonged resulting in the death of thousands. Of course what made it all the more poignant was that this was in revenge for the death of a man who had spent his life preaching about peace.

Gandhi’s odium against Zionism

Papers kept at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in Israel show include this fascinating note by Albert Einstein:

Mahatma Gandhi’s life achievement stands unique in political history. He has invented a completely new and humane means for the liberation war of an oppressed country, and practised it with greatest energy and devotion. The moral influence he had on the consciously thinking human being of the entire civilized world will probably be much more lasting than it seems in our time with its overestimation of brutal violent forces. Because lasting will only be the work of such statesmen who wake up and strengthen the moral power of their people through their example and educational works. We may all be happy and grateful that destiny gifted us with such an enlightened contemporary, a role model for the generations to come.

It is from that academic institution however that we get a  light shed on some of Gandhi’s rather more obscure and disturbing views with regards to the very community into which Einstein was born. In 1977 Gideon Shimoni wrote a fascinating book entitled Gandhi, Satyagraha and the Jews: A Formative Factor in India’s Policy Towards Israel. Shimoni graduated from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. After moving to Israel from South Africa he secured the position of lecturer at the Hebrew University from where he penned the aforementioned book. Shimoni relates how Gandhi was close to Henry Polak and Herman Kallenbach during his formative political years in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. They were Jews that were to become sympathetic and supportive of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns (satyagraha) for Indians to have equal rights in South Africa, as well as the cause of Indian independence.

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Indians brought to South Africa from 1860 as indentured plantation labour

Polak had emigrated to South Africa from Britain in 1903 and worked for The Transvaal Critic. Already influenced by Tolstoy to giving up meat, he volunteered his services for Gandhi’s own newspaper, the Indian Opinion after meeting with him. Polak was even imprisoned with Gandhi during his satyagraha campaign in 1913 protesting equal rights for Indians as against the severe discrimination they suffered from entrenched racist laws that favoured whites even before the advent of apartheid. Polak eventually moved back to Britain where he founded the Indian Overseas Association.

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Gandhi and Kallenbach sit alongside a female companion.

Also arrested with Gandhi in 1913 was Kallenbach, a Lithuanian Jew who moved to South Africa in 1896 to work as an architect. He became close friends with Gandhi in 1904 and helped him in the construction of Tolstoy Farm, a commune in Phoenix to provide for the families of satyagrahis. Kallenbach deplored the general indifference of South Africa’s Jews to the plight of Indians in their midst, which he saw as suffering similar treatment to Jews being oppressed in Eastern Europe.

Gandhi for his part expressed sympathy for the suffering of the Jews as the underdogs of western society. But he never saw Judaism properly as a religion in its own right. Shimoni writes on pages 18 and 19:

Whereas he at least understood Christianity on its own terms, he perceived Judaism on Christian terms. The result is a distortion of considerable proportions. Thus he seems to have identified Judaism wholly with the ‘Old Testament’, a term in itself loaded with Christian bias. He had absolutely no conception of the vast Oral Law in enriching Judaism; even the Prophets, Psalms and Ecclesiastes, were barely appreciated by him. Of the many pious and mystical strains within Judaism, which surely would have struck a sympathetic chord in him, he had not the slightest notion. In contrast, he knew of and greatly admired the asceticism of Moslem fakirs and the mystical elements of Sufism.

Gandhi’s negative attitude towards Judaism could be grasped further when one realises that while he found the New Testamant enlightening – especially the Sermon on the Mount – he said that the Old Testament made him fall asleep. In 1947 he confessed to journalist Louis Fischer that “Judaism is obstinate and unenlightening”. His experience at the hands of the staunchly Calvinist Boers precluded any sympathy for Zionism, something which was only compounded by his failure to recognise that Jews were a nation and therefore the intimate relationship between Judaism and the Holy Land. Gandhi said that real Zionism should remain a spiritual aspiration alone. He made this clear when interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle in 1931 during the Round Table Conference on India in London:

By spiritual sense I mean they should want to realise that the Jerusalem that is within. Zionism meaning reoccupation of Palestine has no attraction for me……The real Zionism of which I have given you my meaning is the thing to strive for, long for and die for. Zion lies in the heart. It is the abode of God. The real Jerusalem is the spiritual Jerusalem. Thus he [the Jew] can realise this Zionism in any part of the world.

The irony was not lost on the Jewish Chronicle that as Gandhi uttered these despicable comments he was in London at talks where he was demanding self-determination for India.

This animus to Jewish aspirations had been manifest very early on. In an interview with the Daily Herald on 16 March 1921 Gandhi said this:

No influence, direct or indirect, over the Holy Places of Islam will ever be tolerated by Indian Mussulmans. It follows, therefore, that even Palestine must be under Mussulman control. So far as I am aware, there never has been any difficulty put in the way of Jews and Christians visiting Palestine and performing all their religious rites. No canon, however, of ethics or war can possibly justify the gift by the Allies of Palestine to Jews. It would be a breach of implied faith with Indian Mussulmans in particular and the whole of India in general.

In Young India 23 March 1921:

Britain has made promises to the Zionists. The latter have, naturally, a sacred sentiment about the place. The Jews, it is contended, must remain a wandering race unless they have obtained possession of Palestine. I do not propose to examine the soundness or otherwise of the doctrine underlying the proposition. All I contend is that they cannot possess Palestine through a trick or a moral breach. Palestine was not a stake in the War. The British Government could not dare have asked a single Muslim soldier to wrest control of Palestine from fellow-Muslims and give it to the Jews. Palestine, as a place of Jewish worship, is a sentiment to be respected and the Jews would have a just cause of complaint against Mussulman idealists if they were to prevent Jews from offering worship as freely as themselves. By no canon of ethics or war, therefore, can Palestine be given to the Jews as a result of the War. Either Zionists must revise their ideal about Palestine, or, if Judaism permits the arbitrament of war, engage in a “holy war” with the Muslims of the world with the Christians throwing in their influence on their side. But one may hope that the trend of world opinion will make “holy wars” impossible and religious questions or differences will tend more and more towards a peaceful adjustment based upon the strictest moral considerations. But, whether such a happy time ever comes or not, it is clear as daylight that the Khilafat terms to be just must mean the restitution of Jazirat-ul-Arab to complete Muslim control under the spiritual sovereignty of the Caliph.

The Muslim Brotherhood could hardly have put it any better! But this came from the hand of a now much revered and iconic Hindu ‘holy man’. I have lost count the number of times I have been told “remember what Gandhi said” as if this would somehow silence all debate. The problem is that such detractors actually need to know what Gandhi said and not just glean the ‘nice’ portions of how speeches and writings. For example the apostle of non-violence justifies denying Jewish claims to Palestine on the basis of military conquest in centuries past. Young India, 6 April 1921:

The Jews cannot receive sovereign rights in a place which has been held for centuries by Muslim powers by right of religious conquest. The Muslim soldiers did not shed their blood in the late War for the purpose of surrendering Palestine out of Muslim control. I would like my Jewish friends to impartially consider the position of the seventy million Muslims of India. As a free nation, can they tolerate what they must regard as a treacherous disposal of their sacred possession?

Does this not sound like the advice given to the modern democratic state of Israel? Are they not accused of occupying what Muslims and Arabs regard as their sacred possession?

The Indian National Congress had consistently followed a pro-Arab line denouncing Zionism yet passing resolutions in favour of independence for Iraq, Egypt, Syria and (an Arab) Palestine. The Jewish Agency in the British Mandate of Palestine set out to rectify these misunderstandings of Jewish self-determination,  Moshe Shetok Sharrett, head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency since 1933, dispatched Immanuel Olsvanger to India. Olsvanger had learnt Sanskrit and had also met with Gandhi’s close friend Kallenbach in South Africa. He arrived in Bombay on 21 August 1936 and was to be assisted in his efforts by wealthy merchant Meyer Nissim, and AE Sholet who ran the Zionist office in that city. But they made little headway. On 26 November 1938 Gandhi penned ‘The Jews’ in Harijan:

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.


I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.

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Baltimore News reports on the Hebron Massacre of Jews by Muslim Arabs in 1929

Kallenbach himself met with Gandhi on 20 May 1937 in order to convince him of the validity of Zionism. In the intervening years since Tolstoy Farm, Kallenbach had discarded his earlier humanist universalism and rediscovered his Jewish roots, precipitated largely by Hitler’s alarming rise to power. He had also rejected absolute non-violence and joined the South African Zionist Federation. However he was unable to turn Gandhi’s opinion even with the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. While Gandhi did evince some sympathy for the Jews he nevertheless insisted that Zionist efforts should rely on the good will of the Arabs and not British help. As well as denouncing the Jews for not practising satyagraha, he said this in Harijan on 17 December 1938:

Indeed it is a stigma against them that their ancestors crucified Jesus. Are they not supposed to believe in eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth? Have they no violence in their hearts for their oppressors? Do they want the so-called democratic powers to punish Germany for her persecution and to deliver them from oppression? If they do there is no non-violence in their hearts…..What I have pleaded for is the renunciation of violence of the heart and consequent active exercise of the force generated by the great renunciation.

Utterly dismayed, Polak criticised Gandhi for these remarks and demanded he retract them. Of course he did nothing of the sort and his negative attitude only got worse with the passage of time. In March 1946 he was visited by Sidney Silverman, a Labour MP and supporter of Indian independence. Born into a family of Romanian Jewish refugees, Silverman had been imprisoned for his pacifism and opposition to World War I. But he re-evaluated his beliefs as the anti-Semitic behemoth spread across Europe during the 1930s. As well as backing Britain’s entry into the next world war, Silverman was also vocal in his support for Jewish rights and for their national home in Palestine. Gandhi however told him that the Jews should stop using violence against the Arabs. Shimoni on page 58:

Silverman tried to explain that the majority of the Jews in Palestine were against the small groups of hotheads who were using violent methods there. He argued on behalf of Zionism on the basis of the existential reality of the movement: the Jews needed a national home in Palestine “because 650,000 Jews are already settled there and we cannot begin anew” and “because there is nowhere else we can go to.” “Are there not enough waste places in the world to receive you?” asked Gandhi. One may wonder at the questionable morality of Gandhi’s implied suggestion. If it was, in his view, wrong for Jews to ask for a national home in Palestine, the one place where they at least had a relevant claim, how could it be right for them to ask for any other place in the world?

How to explain these double standards on Palestine with regards to Jews and Arabs? Privately Gandhi conceded to Kallenbach that he would be willing to help Jews and Arabs in negotiating towards a peaceful settlement. But he could not make this public for fear of alienating Muslim opinion in India. That is the most important element in understanding Gandhi’s unwavering negative attitude towards Zionism. Shimoni on page 60:

It is evident that, notwithstanding his sympathy for the Jews, “the untouchables of Christianity”, Gandhi was functioning within a field of political forces which constrained him in respect of the Jewish Question. His overriding concern for Hindu-Moslem amity precluded any expression of support for Zionism. Indicative of this bias is the discrepancy between his intimations private and no statements in public. To be sure, as the question of means, he was consistent throughout in condemning reliance on British imperialism and resort to violence and also in insisting on Arab goodwill as a prerequisite. But on the principle itself, of the Jewish claim to a homeland in Palestine, he fluctuated; in private he was inclined, to recognise its validity, in public he rejected it together with the means used in its pursuit. Moreover, he persisted in his presumptuous interpretation of Judaism’s relation to the idea of Zion, in the face of repeated attempts by Jews to correct the distortions in his view. In sharp contrast, he was always willing to recognise Moslem-Arab self-definitions in relation to Palestine.

In India Gandhi tried to use the same tactics of Hindu-Muslim unity which he had pioneered to such effect in South Africa. But that was in a country where Indians of various backgrounds were a recently settled minority among a larger white community which looked down upon them and even larger black population that was rapidly being pauperised and pushed to the bottom of the racial ladder. But in India he hankered after Hindu-Muslim unity at all costs, constantly threatening to fast unto death in order to blackmail the largely Hindu component in the Indian National Congress. For example he praised the Moplahs as his brave brothers after they massacred, raped and forcibly converted their Hindu neighbours. He backed the Khilafat movement which was unashamedly anti-national and pan-Islamic. Gandhi invited the Amir of Afghanistan to invade India in 1919. Most disturbing of all he praised Muslim fanatic Abdul Rashid as his brother after he murdered Swami Shraddhananda for reverting thousands of Muslims back to the Hindu fold, and pleaded that he be shown clemency. No such magnanimity existed for others. Gandhi condemned revolutionary nationalist freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev for a bomb attack  for which they faced the gallows in 1931. Similarly he called Rana Pratap, Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh “misguided patriots” for defending India against the Islamic onslaught in the past. Gandhi urged the Hindu prince Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir to abdicate and retire to Banaras so that the state’s Muslim majority could form a popular government under Sheikh Abdullah. Yet he gave no such advice to the corrupt and autocratic Osman Ali, Nizam of Hyderabad, the largest princely state which was overwhelmingly Hindu. To cap it all he agreed to India being partitioned to appease the separatism of Jinnah and the Muslim League very early on. In Harijan dated 6 April 1940 he wrote:

I know of no non-violent method of compelling the obedience of eight crores of Muslims to the will of the rest of India, however powerful a majority the rest may represent. The Muslims must have the right of self-determination that the rest of India has. We are at present a joint family. Any member may claim a division.

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Shahid Bhagat Singh waiting to be taken to the gallows

In the same paper on 18 April 1942 he went further:

If the vast majority of Muslims regard themselves as a separate nation having nothing in common with the Hindus and others, no power on earth can compel them to think otherwise. And if they want to partition India on that basis, they must have the partition unless Hindus want to fight against such a division.

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Gandhi with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Father of Pakistan, the state which ethnically cleansed its Hindu, Sikh and Jewish inhabitants

Substitute ‘Hindus’ with ‘Jews’ and Gandhi’s sinister politics become clear. In fact update the situation to the modern democratic state of Israel and we see history repeat itself. As we know those who refuse to learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes. Hence under pressure from peaceniks and other sorts of ‘useful idiots’ Israel was told to barter land for peace. Obviously this is a rhetorical question but did it work? Even when the enemy is emboldened Israel is castigated for mere self-defence, and even that under severe restraint so as to avoid civilian casualties. Notice how the Gandhian morality is only enforced upon democratic nations such as Israel, USA, India and Britain. Why don’t modern Gandhians meet with the Iranians campaigning for their country do undergo unilateral nuclear disarmament? Again rhetorical question because there is more chance of having a package holiday on Mars. However it exposes the absurdity of the peaceniks, many of whom look up to Gandhi. It should become understandable why not only India has lost its moral moorings, spirituality and sense of purpose, but why the Hindu masses have been indoctrinated with decades of anti-Zionism. No surprise then that as the oppressive circumstances faced by both Jews and Hindus deteriorated even further during the 1930s and 40s, so did any semblance of Gandhi’s morality.

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Gandhi’s apathy in the face of Physical, Spiritual and Moral Genocide

In his 2001 book Gandhi and Godse, Koenraad Elst writes that Gandhi would not have been Gandhi if he had not written a much ridiculed letter to Hitler trying to change his conscience. Throughout the 1930s and he thought war could be averted and once it got underway he tried to convince the Fuhrer to achieve the Reich’s ambitions through non-violent means. More disturbing was his advice to the Jews of Germany in Harijan dated 26 November 1938:

Can the Jews resist this organised and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. No person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. Jehovah of the Jews is a God more personal than the God of the Christians, the Mussalmans or the Hindus, though as a matter of fact in essence, He is common to all and one without a second and beyond description. But as the Jews attribute personality to God and believe that He rules every action of theirs, they ought not to feel helpless. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.


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2011 Hindi film starring Avjit Dutt as Mahatma Gandhi, Raghubir Yadav playing Hitler, and Neha Dhupia plays Eva Braun.

While he admitted that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was without precedent in history, he then said any discussion of a just war on behalf of the oppressed was outside his ambit. Using the example of how Indians in Transvaal had resisted the inferiority status thrust upon them by President Paul Kruger, and that their status was similar to that faced now by Jews in Germany, he unsurprisingly aid that using ahinsa and satyagraha would arouse world opinion on their side just as it had done with the Indians of South Africa.

But the Jews of Germany can offer satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa. The Jews are a compact, homogeneous community in Germany. They are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organised world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in non-violent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. It will be then a truly religious resistance offered against the godless fury of dehumanised man. The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity. They will have rendered service to fellow-Germans and proved their title to be the real Germans as against those who are today dragging, however unknowingly, the German name into the mire.

Prominent Jews Martin Buber, JL Magnes and Hayim Greenberg protested that the situation between South Africa’s Indians and the Jews in Germany was not analogous. Non-violent action in the latter would achieve nothing. Yet even the Holocaust had no impact on Gandhi’s thinking. In a notorious interview with his biographer Louis Fischer, Gandhi had this to say in 1946:

Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.

Again there is the parallel with Hindus and Sikhs whom he told to remain in Pakistan when they found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the border after partition in 1947. He also advised them to offer their heads to the butcher’s knife. Meeting Hindu refugees he made these dark and unsympathetic comments as he urged them to return to their birthplace in what was now Pakistan even if it meant certain death:

If all the Punjabis were to die to the last man without killing, the Punjab will become immortal. Offer yourselves as nonviolent , willing sacrifices.


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During his prayer meeting on 1 May 1947, he had actually prepared the Hindus and Sikhs for the forthcoming massacres with these words:

I would tell the Hindus to face death cheerfully if the Muslims are out to kill them. I would be a real sinner if after being stabbed I wished in my last moment that my son should seek revenge. I must die without rancour. You may turn round and ask whether all Hindus and all Sikhs should die. Yes, I would say. Such martyrdom will not be in vain.


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2001 Hindi film starring Sunny Deol, about the tragedy of partition in 1947

A few weeks earlier on 6 April he had visited a refugee camp near Delhi and remonstrated:

Hindus should never be angry against the Muslims even if the latter might make up their minds to undo their existence. If they put all of us to the sword, we should court death bravely. … We are destined to be born and die, then why need we feel gloomy over it?

When the mass slaughter had started, Gandhi refused to show any sympathy for the Hindus and Sikhs. Neither did he offer them practical non-violent means to resists the Muslim League onslaught in Pakistan. Instead he condemned them as cowards.  On 6 August 1947, Gandhi commented:

I am grieved to learn that people are running away from the West Punjab and I am told that Lahore is being evacuated by the non-Muslims. I must say that this is what it should not be. If you think Lahore is dead or is dying, do not run away from it, but die with what you think is the dying Lahore. When you suffer from fear you die before death comes to you. That is not glorious. I will not feel sorry if I hear that people in the Punjab have died not as cowards but as brave men.  I cannot be forced to salute any flag. If in that act I am murdered I would bear no ill will against anyone and would rather pray for better sense for the person or persons who murder me.

Indeed Gandhi went even further. In Harijan of 22 June 1940 he wrote:

Hitler is not a bad man.


The Germans of future generations….will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, as a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more.