Mahatma Gandhi was “a seditious half-naked fakir” whose presence, Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill once claimed, was “nauseating”.
Eighty-five years after Churchill uttered those infamous remarks, Gandhi appeared to come full circle on a crisp, sunny Spring morning in London as the Indian independence icon took his rightful place among some of the most famous statesmen in history in London’s iconic parliament square.
Churchill’s present-day successor David Cameron, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan were among the dignitaries present as a permanent memorial to the Mahatma was unveiled in the famous public square in the shadow of the Palace of Westminster.
Britain, and India have moved on from a time when Churchill’s remarks were not only commonplace but were considered par for the course – Mr Cameron may have the Conservative Party leadership in common with Mr Churchill but the former’s views on India and Indians couldn’t be further removed from those of the latter.
Nevertheless, Churchill’s words appear to still rankle – not least Mr Jaitley who alluded to them twice during his speech to a disappointingly sparse crowd who came to witness the memorial unveiled.
Mr Jaitley said: “In parliament square we find a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, the one man who opposed Gandhi most resolutely. Some would detect an irony in the great Prime Minister sharing a public space with a man he once described as a half-naked fakir.
“But even Churchill would have acknowledge that the resolve, determination and even cunning he displayed against Germany was matched by Gandhi’s in standing up to the mighty British Empire.”
“What links the two is a great strength of character”.
Mr Jaitley added that it was a fine tribute to modern Britain that Gandhi had been placed in the same space as his greatest foe as well as the man who was most famously inspired by Gandhi – Nelson Mandela.
Prime Minister Cameron said he was thrilled to be providing an “eternal home” in Britain to Gandhi – a man who had turned the “politically unimaginable into the politically inevitable”.
Meanwhile Mr Bachchan lent his magnificent baritone to read out an extract from ‘Non Violent Way to World Peace’ by the Mahatma.
Whilst the senior Bachchan may have elicited the biggest cheer than anyone – or anything – else the highlight of the day was the emotional speech delivered by the erudite Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma.
The unveiling of the statue had been anything but a certainty.
First announced in August 2014 by Chancellor George Osborne during his visit to India, the trust charged with building the statue initially struggled to raise the £750,000 required.
The memorial was eventually completed with the help of wealthy Indian donors, including Infosys founder Narayan Murthy, industrialist Rahul Bajaj and steel tycoon Laxmi Mittal – thanks in no small part to the indomitable Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife Lady Kishwar Desai.
Fittingly, the 9-foot tall statue – created by acclaimed British sculptor Philip Jackson – will be the last memorial in the square.