Mahatma Gandhi and General Cariappa: Sage and the soldier

Shortly after India became independent, General K.M. Cariappa made a statement in England that, to be counted among the great nations of the world, India needed a strong Army and that under the circumstances non-violence was of no use.

Mahatma Gandhi JiGandhi Ji joined issue with him in the November 16, 1947 issue of the Harijan: “Generals greater than General Cariappa have been wise and humble enough frankly to make the admission that they can have no right to speak of the possibilities of the force of Ahimsa. I make bold to say that in this age of the atom bomb, unadulterated violence is the only force that can confound all the tricks put together of violence. We are witnessing the tragic insolvency of military science and practice in its own home. Should a bankrupt, who has been ruined by the gamble in the share market, sing the praise of that particular form of gambling?”

Cariappa used Army terminology to describe what he thought of the Mahatma’s rejoinder: “a rocket”. He was slated to take over charge of the Eastern Army on return from England. Before doing that he called on the nation’s leader for their first meeting ever. “It was Gandhiji’s day of silence,” writes his Secretary, Pyare Lal in Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, “He was busy with his charkha. Declining to take his seat on a chair Gandhiji had offered him, the General sat respectfully on the floor.”

“I have come to receive your blessings…” he said to the Mahatma.

Gandhiji scribbled on a piece of paper inquiring whether the General had come across what he had written about the latter’s statement on non-violence. Cariappa smiled, says Pyare Lal, and said that “he had seen it and had felt greatly honoured that the Mahatma should have taken the trouble to notice at length the views of a person like him whom he had never met.”

He soon came to the point and stated, “We soldiers are a much-maligned community. Even you think that we are a very violent tribe. But we are not…. of all the peoples in this world, the one community which dislikes wars is the soldier community. It is not because of dangers and horrors in the battlefield, but because of the knowledge we have of the utter futility of wars to settle international disputes. We feel one war merely leads to another. History has taught us this.”

Pyare Lal writes, “This testimony as to the utter futility of war as a means of settling international disputes from such an eminent professional soldier came to Gandhiji as an agreeable surprise.”

Cariappa continued, “In a democratic society soldiers do not initiate wars… Governments, when they fail to get a satisfactory solution to international problems, declare wars… We merely carry out the orders of the Government, and therefore, of the people. If people in a democracy do not like wars they should not blame us… but the Government they have put in power. It is quite simple for them, if they are not satisfied with the Government, to change it and put another in its place which will not resort to wars… So you see, we are the innocent party. Why blame us?”

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