A viral message on social media, claiming that the title of 'Mahatma' was given to Mahatma Gandhi by the British, is false. This message accompanies a letter, purportedly by the British from 1938, that directs all references to Gandhi be made as 'Mahatma Gandhi'.
BOOM found that the letter was not issued by the British government led by the then Viceroy at the central-level. Rather, the notification was issued by the provincial government of Central Provinces and Berar, a sub-regional government led by the Congress.
Further, in 2016, the Gujarat High Court as part of a larger judgement upheld that the title of 'Mahatma' was used for Gandhi by Rabindranath Tagore, reinforcing this information taught as part of school and college history textbooks.
The message on WhatsApp states:
It's interesting to see the memorandum of English/British Government through which Mr. Gandhi became Mahatma Gandhi Officially! And we thought the public gave him the title!.
Mahatma was a British title not Indian
The accompanying picture of the letter can be found below. BOOM recived it on its WhatsApp tipline (7700906588).
The letterhead says, 'Government of the Central Provinces and Berar' and is dated September 2, 1938.
It is also viral on social media.
This notification of 1938 was issued by the Provincial Government of the Central Provinces and Berar and not by the British government administering the overall Raj. After independence, parts of the province would amalgamate into modern-day Madhya Pradesh.
The notification, as shared on WhatsApp, has a note on that too. The provincial governments were led by Indian political parties, and this notification was issued by a provincial government led by the Congress.
The notification at the bottom can be read below.
In the provincial elections of 1937, the Congress won the provincial assembly elections with 70 of 113 seats in the Central Provinces and Berar and in several other provinces. In 1939, these Congress ministries at the provincial level resigned to protest against the unilateral declaration of war on Germany by the British Raj without consulting Indian leaders.
This can be read in this 1971 research paper (pages 100 and 354) here.
These provincial governments were given a degree of autonomy after the British government introduced a series of reforms in 1935 towards local administration within the Raj. The provincial government was headed by a premier and ministers heading relevant ministries. Other major provincial governments during the Raj included Assam, Bombay, Madras, Bengal and Punjab.
Title used by Tagore: Gujarat High Court
The epithet of 'Mahatma' can be first traced back to 1908 when Dr. Pranjivan Mehta - a London-based doctor - used the term to refer to Gandhi in a letter to Gopalkrishna Gokhale in 1908. It was later popularised by poet Rabindranath Tagore.
BOOM spoke to Tushar Gandhi, a director of the Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon; President of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. "The title of 'Mahatma' was not a sanctioned one. It was first used by Dr. Pranjivan Mehta in a letter to Gopalkrishna Gokhale to refer to Gandhiji. It was also used by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to refer to Gandhiji once he returned to India, which eventually caught on", he told us.
Referring to the viral social media message, Mr. Gandhi also said, "The notification was issued by the provincial government of the Central Provinces and Berar that was led by the Congress after the provincial elections. It directed all official references to Bapu be referred to as Mahatma Gandhi. This notification was not issued by the British government in India."
Further, on February 19, 2016, the Gujarat High Court upheld that Tagore had christened Gandhi with the title 'Mahatma' as part of a larger case.
The petitioner for the case was Sandhya Maru, who appeared for an examination for the post of 'Talati-cum-Mantri', as advertised by the District Panchayat Service Selection Committee, Rajkot. The examination had an objective multiple-choice format, with one of the questions being, "Who was the first person to bestow the word Mahatma for Gandhiji?"
The options were (in order): Rabindranath Tagore, Vinobha Bhave, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, 'Unknown Journalist' and 'Not attempted'. Maru answered the question by choosing Tagore, but the answer key to the exam said that the answer was 'unknown journalist'. Maru challenged the provided answer to this question, along with two other questions in the Gujarat High Court.
The Gujarat High Court ruled that Maru's answer was correct. The other two answers provided by the key to the other two questions were also wrong, the Court added.
"Coming to the second question about who bestowed the title "Mahatma" on Gandhiji is concerned, I (judge) may take note of the fact that in the textbooks published by the Gujarat Secondary Education Board, more particularly, Standard 9, it has been stated therein that it was "Ravindranath Tagore", who bestowed the same. What is taught to the students in the State of Gujarat is that the Poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore bestowed the title "Mahatma" on Gandhi in 1915 while writing his autobiography after the latter called him Gurudev."
Gujarat High Court in its judgment
It added that the onus was on the examination authorities to add questions that were not debatable. The Court added that even if they were open to debate, the petitioner (Maru) gave the answer as approved by the educational curriculum. Therefore, Tagore was the correct answer.
The Court directed that the mistakes be rectified, the marks provided in the exam be retallied and the merit list changed, if applicable. The judgement can be found here.
However, while Tagore is supposed to have referred to Gandhi as 'Mahatma' in March 1915, Nautamlal Kamdar of Jetpur is also said to have used the word 'Mahatma' for Gandhi before that in January 1915. The title can be traced back to 'maanpatras' or courtesy letters - originally in Gujarati - that were addressed to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba when they visited Jetpur in 1915.
Regardless of the original source, the publicly available information show that the term 'Mahatma' does not have British origins.
Did the British give Gandhi any titles?
Yes. That of 'Kaisar-e-Hind'.
Gandhi was bestowed with the 'Kaisar-e-Hind' gold medal in 1915 as part of the King's birthday celebrations for his contributions to humanitarian efforts during the Boer War and the Zulu War in Africa.
But he renounced it in 1920 just before the Khilafat Movement.
On August 4, 1920, he wrote to the Viceroy (as reported by the newspaper Young India),
It is not without a pang that I return the Kaisar-i-Hind gold medal granted to me by your predecessor for my humanitarian work in South Africa, the Zulu War medal granted in South Africa for my services as officer in charge of the Indian volunteer ambulance corps in 1906 and the Boer War medal for my services as assistant superintendent of the Indian volunteer stretcher-bearer corps during the Boer War of 1899-1900. I venture to return these medals in pursuance of the scheme of non-cooperation inaugurated today in connection with the Khilafat movement.
Just before that, Tagore also renounced his knighthood in 1919 to protest against the Jallianwala Baug massacre.
There is no record of the British giving him the title of 'Mahatma'.