Remembering Conscientious Objectors Day in Leicester

Today is International Conscientious Objectors Day, and so it was fitting that — as a result of the longstanding organising efforts undertaken by Leicester CND — a memorial stone was unveiled on Peace Walk with the inscription: “The right to conscientious objection was hard won. We honour the 250 known and many unknown from Leicester and Leicestershire who refused to fight in WW1.”

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The only downside to the event was the revelation by local CND member, Penny Walker, that Council officials had censored the wording on the memorial stone that peace activists had paid for. “We had wanted to write ‘for refusing to fight and kill in WW1’,” Penny explained, “but we weren’t allowed to have the ‘to kill’ bit, and that’s a really important thing to remember.”

On the issue of remembering the commitment of peace activists to resisting war, many people may remember or at least be more familiar with famous disciples of nonviolence like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, but, as ever, it is crucial to celebrate the fact that it is normal people like ourselves, who, on a daily basis engage in the fight against oppression and wars in our own significant ways.

So while conscientious objectors here in Leicestershire fought valiantly against the needless slaughter of the working-class during World War One, others, who should have known better, spent their time acting as recruiters for the military. One good example in this regard was Gandhi himself, who attempted to raise an army of 12,000 men for “armed combat” from one district in India alone — although thankfully his “failure was spectacular” and by the end of May 1918 he was only able to gather together “less than a hundred volunteers.”

This sorrowful tale of needless sacrifice for empire was laid bare in Kathyryn Tidrick’s important book Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life (2006). So, in order to better explain Gandhi’s confused relationship to the powers that be, I will honour International Conscientious Objectors Day in my own way with some explanatory words from Kathyryn’s award winning study:

“In April 1918, after some hesitation, Gandhi attended the war conference convened by the viceroy in Delhi, the government having taken him up on his lamentation that, being engaged in agitation in Kheda and elsewhere, he had not pulled his weight in the war. The conference’s purpose was to get support from prominent men for the government’s plan to raise 500,000 more Indian troops.

“Almost a million and a half Indians served in the Great War, of whom over half were combatants; 36,000 died and 11 were awarded the Victoria Cross. The Indian Army fought in all the theatres of battle from France to East Africa; and it was Indian regiments which were annihilated in the botched Mesopotamia campaign of 1915–16 – one of the most shameful failures of British generalship in the entire war.

“No one could have argued in 1918 that India – a subject nation! – was not doing its bit. And no one would have been surprised if India’s foremost exponent of non-violence had found some way not to associate himself with the government’s appeal for more live bodies. On the eve of the conference the Bolsheviks disclosed the existence of the secret treaties Britain had made with its allies agreeing to divide up the Middle East after the war. Charlie Andrews begged Gandhi not to go. But he accepted the viceroy’s assurance that he himself knew of no such treaties, and hastened to Delhi, where he gave his unconditional assent to the government’s resolution on recruiting.

“Gandhi’s action enraged the Home Rule League, whose members were then helping him in Kheda. League representatives at the conference demanded early responsible government in India in return for supporting recruiting, and Gandhi fought this proposal in committee. His own position, as he explained to the viceroy in writing immediately after the conference, was that he assumed India’s ungrudging sacrifice would be rewarded by the grant of responsible government without delay. It was anathema to Gandhi to demand a quid pro quo; for action to bear fruit it had to be disinterested.

“The viceroy (Lord Chelmsford) must have smiled when he read this letter, as also the one with which Gandhi followed up, in which he made efforts to link an offer to go about recruiting – which he would do regardless – to demands for the release of the Ali brothers, and a request for government cooperation in reaching a settlement in Kheda…” (pp.128-9)

Note

Peter Brock, in his article, ‘Gandhi’s Nonviolence and His War Service’ has compared Gandhi’s spiritual crisis of 1918 with that of the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, in the year 1659. Like George Fox, Gandhi renewed and revitalized his philosophy of nonviolence during and after this crisis.” That may be, but there can be little doubt that Gandhi rejected class politics in favour of his problematic idea of trusteeship (for more on this read Tidrick’s excellent book, or for an useful online resource, see “Gandhi: the man behind the myths”).

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