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In A Way, Gandhi Also Won 2014's Nobel Peace Prize

Mahatma Gandhi wasn't always a beloved figure; his defense of women and children rattled the world.
Raj Gopal
Getty Images
Mahatma Gandhi wasn't always a beloved figure; his defense of women and children rattled the world.

Mahatma Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of people who have dropped bombs, launched missiles and made war have won the Nobel, but not the man whose very silhouette — bald-headed, wrapped in cloth, and walking in sandals across a perilous world — is taken to be a symbol of peace across the globe.

Historians have suggested Gandhi's selection would have riled too many people while he was alive. Not so much British imperialists, but Muslim nationalists, who saw the Mahatma as a Hindu religious leader, and Hindu nationalists, who thought Gandhi's ecumenical religious ideas would turn India over to the Muslim League.

Before Mahatma Gandhi was a beloved symbol, he rattled the world: India and Pakistan especially.

He thought India's caste system was cruel, especially for those classified as "untouchables," and went on hunger strikes against it. He fought against what he called "communalism," which formed separate Hindu and Muslim political parties and assemblies. He called on Indians to abolish child marriage, and to keep young women in schools.

The small spinning wheel that became his symbol — it was once in the center of the flag of India — was also a sign that Gandhi wanted women to be a part of his movement. They joined him on boycotts, long marches and in the leadership of his Congress Party.

But millions of Hindus considered high-caste didn't want to surrender the benefits of that class system. Many lower-caste Hindus felt Gandhi's professed love for them was a little patronizing.

Gandhi did not celebrate when India gained independence in August 1947, because it divided the country along religious lines, Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan. Gandhi called it the "vivisection of the mother," and pointedly spent the day in prayer.

He went on a last hunger strike in January 1948, to convince the new Indian government to pay cash in the national treasury owed to Pakistan. And then he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist who felt the Mahatma had betrayed his faith.

This week Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize: a 17-year-old from Pakistan who survived the shot of an assassin to campaign for the rights of young women in her country, and an old Gandhian from India who has fought against child labor in his.

Mahatma Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize, but in a way, this week he did.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.