By Artsvi Bakhchinyan, Yerevan, 5 January 2023
[The timing of erecting Mahatma Gandhi’s monument is relevant as Armenia seeks deeper relations with India. — Eds.]
On August 16, 2021, a Mahatma Gandhi statue was installed in Buenos Aires Park in Yerevan. The consecration took place despite a number of objections from Armenian historians who insisted that Gandhi was not a person worthy of glorification in Armenia, particularly given his peculiar attitude regarding the Armenian Genocide.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that sometime later, protestors desecrated and set fire to the statue.
This article is a compilation of information on relations between Gandhi and the Armenians, as well as comments about his position on Armenian issues.
First Armenian Writings about Gandhi
In 1924, when the world had already discovered Gandhi, the Armenian daily Hairenik of Boston has published G. H. Garagulian’s series of articles, “Mahatma Gandhi: A Great Figure on the Modern Political Horizon” (June 2-18) and “The Indian Prophet” (July 26). The following year, Garagulian published the book “Mahatma Gandhi: Life and Activity” in Boston. Garagulian sent a copy of the book to Gandhi and received a reply, which he translated and published in Hairenik (May 5, 1925). Below is Garagulian’s preface to the editors followed by Gandhi’s letter, which I translated:
“To the Honorable Editorial Offices of Hairenik:
On the occasion of my study on Mahatma Gandhi, I addressed a letter to Gandhi, describing my articles presenting him to an Armenian audience. I also requested that he convey to Armenians his message about the progression of the Armenian Cause. The following is his answer. It is so characteristic of Gandhi’s soul in its sincerity. In its simplicity, it is the most accurate and fair message that can be given to Armenians.
Respectfully and lovingly yours,
I received your letter. You will forgive my ignorance when I admit that I only know as much about the Armenian Cause as an indifferent reader of a daily newspaper can know. What message can I send to Armenia, apart from the usual message that I have for my own people and all those who feel oppressed?
We are our own liberators, and this is one verse we find in the Bhagavad Gita. In the theological style, does that mean “You must fulfill your salvation?
MAHATMA K. GANDHI.”
Gandhi was also known in Armenia. It is especially noteworthy that Yeghishe Charents, the eminent poet, was also inspired by Gandhi’s image.
According to Ruben Zaryan’s memoirs: “One day, Charents asked [artist] Bazhbeuk-Melikyan to draw him in the Indian style, sitting cross-legged. During this period, he read a lot about India, talked about Gandhi, touched upon Buddhism, yogis, and spoke on their teachings. He also used to look at the Buddha’s statuette and to speak as in a trance, oblivious to the people surrounding him, as if transported to the banks of the Ganges in soul and mind. The next day I came. The painting was finished and already hanging on the wall. Underneath it was written in large letters: Mahatma Charents” (Memories on Yeghishe Charents, Yerevan, 1961, p. 368).
On the upper part of that painting, Charents wrote the following trigram, entitled “To Me”:
You are still inexperienced, you are still weak in spirit, Charents!
Train your spirit, be a magician, yogi and sun,
Like Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian genius…
25.I.1936 (Yeghishe Charents, Unpublished and Uncollected Works, Yerevan, 1983, p. 106).
“Noble Armenian Nation”
Ruben Karakhanyan, the Armenian kamancha player had met Gandhi during his concert tours in Calcutta in 1935. According to his biographer, “After the concert, we wanted to visit some places of interest and take a short rest. We received a letter from Galstaun [the Armenian philanthropist of Calcutta, Ruben’s host – A.B.], addressed to Ruben from Gandhi, with approximately the following content:
‘While going through the pages of the local press, I was pleased to read about the successful performances of your kamancha player and his wife. I would love to get to know him in person.’
We introduced ourselves to the liberator, philosopher and leader of the Indian nation. He was flipping through a history book while sitting with his glasses on the tip of his nose.
‘I have some knowledge and enough information about you, the noble Armenian nation: you are also a suffering people. When do the leaders of the world, the kings, in general, all those who take the reins of the governments in their hands—find a final solution for you? I hope that it will not stay like this. One day, everything will find its order and maturity. Yet, one should behave sensibly, not be driven by passion. Your bright morning will definitely come again. I hope so. Where is it said that the fruit tree should constantly be stoned? Well, the course of history would not be complete if such unfortunate events did not happen.
Gandhi hosted us for three days. He presented us many gifts and souvenirs.”(Hovhannes Manukian, “Memoirs of Ruben, Kamancha Player,” Beirut, 1989, p. 57).
Of course, these testimonies—and particularly Gandhi’s words, taken from indirect sources—should not be accepted unambiguously. These include details about being hosted for three days and presented many gifts.
Gandhi’s Direct Mentions of Armenians
Most important is what Gandhi has written about Armenia and Armenians. After WWI Gandhi supported the Caliphate movement—the Pan-Islamist political campaign from 1919 to 1924—carried out by the Muslims of British India. One of their aims was putting pressure on the British government regarding the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Gandhi refers on this issue in his book “Freedom’s Battle: Being a Comprehensive Collection of Writings and Speeches on the Present Situation” (first published in 1922), where he mentioned the Armenians several times. In the chapter “Mr. Candler’s Open Letter,” Gandhi expressed his objection to the partition of the Ottoman Empire. He also expressed his disapproval of the creation of new states by the peoples under Ottoman rule stipulated by the Treaty of Sèvres. Yet Gandhi specifically wrote, “If Armenia or Arabia desired independence from Turkey they should have it.….nobody has ever ascertained that either the Arabs or the Armenians desire to do away with all connection, even nominal, with Turkey. Apart therefore from the questions of Armenia and Arabia, the dishonesty and hypocrisy that pollute these peace terms require instantaneous removal. This paves the way to an equitable solution of the question of Armenian and Arabian independence which in theory no one denies and which in practice may be easily guaranteed if only the wishes of the people concerned could with any degree of certainty be ascertained.” (See the whole chapter https://www.gutenberg.org/files/10366/10366-h/10366-h.htm#II.%20THE )
As we can see, Gandhi, being against the Treaty of Sèvres, did not oppose Armenia’s independence (at least, “in theory”). In other writings of this period, he expressed similar opinions: “I have said always that absolute guarantees may be taken from the [Turkish] Sultan about non-interference with the internal administration of Armenia, similar for Arabia” (Rajmohan Gandhi, “Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire,” 2008, p. 225). “I have said nothing about Armenia because I know nothing about it and because I do not want the Sultan or any other power to rob Armenia of its independent existence. It can have autonomy as well under the Turk as any other power” (“The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,” vol. 20, 2000, p. 359). And yet, Gandhi was doubtful about the Armenian Cause, as he has mentioned: “Somehow or other I distrust the Armenian case as I distrust the Arabian case and I am so prejudiced against the present British diplomacy that I smell the foul hand of the deceitful diplomat in Armenia, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria” (Ibid, p. 410).
Surely, Gandhi would defend the interests of his nation, all eager for liberty and independence. How could a person like Gandhi, known for his humanism, ignore and diminish similar aspirations of other peoples?
Later, some researchers trying to dethrone Gandhi, mentioned that he ignored the national rights of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire, especially the Armenians. According to them, Gandhi, who opposes violence and enjoys the reputation of a great philanthropist, supported a movement that encouraged the massacres of Armenians.
G.B. Singh, author of “Gandhi; Behind the Mask of Divinity,” writes, “He was saying in effect that mass murder did not bother him. Genocide, he implied, was OK. I should add that the Armenian massacres were not unknown events. In fact, they have attracted worldwide attention. Surely, Gandhi was aware of them from the British newspapers.” (p. 294).
Kathryn Tidrick, author of “Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life” writes, “[Gandhi] carried his identification with the Khilafat movement to the point of talking against the Armenians, expressing reluctance to believe reports of the Armenian massacres and referring disparagingly to ‘Armenian-financed propaganda’” (p. 147).
The subject Gandhi and the Armenians needs to be studied more thoroughly by historians. Researchers should re-evaluate his character and check the credibility of some facts attributed to him. Did he really say that “Genocide… was OK?”
In any case, in the opinion of this writer, there are many more eminent people, Armenian and non-Armenian, worthy of being memorialized with a monument in Yerevan than Gandhi.
Mahatma Charents by Alexander Bazhbeuk-Melikyan (1936)