George Orwell’s father Richard was a high-ranking official in the Indian Civil Service. Born in Bengal, India, young George Orwell would follow in his father’s footsteps into the Indian Civil Service as a police officer in Burma/Myanmar for five years during the 1920s. In this job, Orwell was upholding British imperialism with the barrel of his gun.
It was in Burma, doing the tough, day-to-day dirty work of colonial rule, where Orwell developed both his understanding and deep loathing of British colonialism. Orwell would become emotionally distraught trying to uphold a system he increasingly found impossible to justify.
In “Shooting an Elephant,” perhaps the most famous essay Orwell ever wrote about his years in the Burmese colonial police force, he describes how the pressures of colonial rule forced him to do something he neither wanted nor needed to do: shoot a rogue elephant running loose in a Burmese village. Orwell admits, “I did not want to shoot the elephant,” but he recognized that the villagers had come to watch the young British police officer “handle the situation” and uphold British prestige on the ground. Orwell’s essay meticulous describes the intense pressure he felt from those Burmese eyes looking upon him as the symbol of British rule: he knew he’d need to shoot the elephant simply to show the villagers who was in control – no matter the gratuitous nature of doing so and how much the killing violated his conscience.
“A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives,’” writes Orwell, explaining that he merely did what the villagers and his British colonial bosses expected. At the moment Orwell shoots the elephant, simply as a needless show of force for the observing villagers, he fully realizes the impossibility of sustaining British colonial rule. In 1927, Orwell resigned his police job due to a troubled conscience, returned to England, and turned to a writing career that would make him a legend.
Orwell was pulled in two directions as India sought to become independent of British colonial rule in the 1930s and 40s. On the one hand, he understood the stupidity and corrupting nature of British rule (“Shooting an Elephant” described that perfectly); on the other, he was a patriotic Englishman whose own family had helped maintain the empire for generations. About a year after Indian independence, in 1949, Orwell wrote an essay, “Reflections on [Mahatma] Gandhi” that showed his profound ambiguity about the recently assassinated Gandhi and India in general. We hear Orwell’s ambivalence from the start: “The things that one associated with [Gandhi] – home-spun cloth, ‘soul forces’ and vegetarianism were unappealing and his medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, overcrowded country,” he writes. The practical-minded Orwell doesn’t much like Gandhi’s focus on spiritual things, especially when millions of Indians went starving every day.
Orwell also describes the opinions he’d heard among British colonial officials about Gandhi – that he was preferred to other anti-colonial leaders because of his embrace of non-violence. The pacifist Gandhi could be manipulated and controlled, the British initially believed. Yet Orwell also describes being highly impressed by Gandhi’s physical courage and personal commitment to his pacifist beliefs. Orwell respects Gandhi’s willingness, early in his life, to assimilate European culture from the inside – “he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, [and] studied French and Latin,” he writes of the young Gandhi. Orwell’s essay also lauds Gandhi’s blending of East and West, the diversity of his intellectual interests: “he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive,” writes Orwell.
Yet Orwell ultimately believes that Gandhi took his religious beliefs too far, choosing to reject the material world in order to pursue an unrealistic and inhuman goal of spiritual perfection. “The essence of being human,” writes Orwell, “is that one does not seek perfection”: to be human is to understand that life is about compromise and accepting the weakness of the flesh. As a passionate writer on politics and culture, the activist Orwell vehemently rejects Gandhi’s faith in “non-attachment” to the flesh. Orwell also questions the power of non-violence, believing that Gandhi would have received much worse treatment from the Nazis or Soviets if he’d attempted non-violent protest against them.
Orwell himself was no pacifist. He had, for example, believed in the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, becoming an officer on the front lines in Spain fighting against the fascists, and their leader General Francisco Franco. In the end, Orwell only left the fighting because he’d been shot in the throat and nearly died on the front lines. This was never Gandhi’s way.
In the end, Orwell recognizes Gandhi’s success in achieving his lifelong goal: ending British colonial rule in India in a peaceful way. Orwell ends up admiring the man for his ability to organize a political movement that galvanized anti-imperialist sentiment in a fractious India. Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi” probably says more about the ambivalent feelings of George Orwell (especially about pacifism) than about Mahatma Gandhi as a pacifist leader, but both men ultimately shared a profound opposition to colonial oppression, and both lived their lives seeking to undermine it.