A graphic claiming that the title of 'Mahatma' was bestowed on the Father of the Nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, by the British Government in 1938 is going viral on social media platforms.
Who shared the claim?: Rishi Bagree, who has been called out several times for spreading misinformation, and other social media users have shared it, mentioning that it was a memorandum by the British Government.
(Archives of similar claims can be found here, here, and here.)
Did Britishers confer the title 'Mahatma'?: No, we did not find any evidence to support the claim.
The Congress provincial government issued the memorandum, not the British Government.
Ramachandra Guha, in his book, credited Pranjivandas Mehta as the first person to refer to Gandhi as 'Mahatma' in a personal letter.
We found evidence of Rabindranath Tagore calling Gandhi a 'Mahatma' as early as in 1915 in his letter to one of his friends.
The Gujarat High Court in 2016 upheld that it was Tagore who had bestowed the said title on Gandhi.
What About the Memorandum?
At the bottom of the graphic, it says that was "an office order of the Congress government in the Central Provinces in 1938, instructing all (and especially British) officials, to henceforth refer to Gandhi as 'Mahatma'."
It should be noted that the Indian National Congress was in power in seven provinces, including Central Province and Berar, after winning the 1937 provincial elections.
These provinces were granted a degree of autonomy under the Government of India Act 1935 and divided powers between the central government and the provincial governments.
However, the Congress ministers soon resigned in September 1939 to protest against the Governor-General's declaration, which confirmed India's participation in the second World War.
Pranjivan Mehta Called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’ First: Guha
In his book Gandhi Before India, author and historian Ramachandra Guha said that the "conventional wisdom" has that the title 'Mahatma' was bestowed by Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore in 1919.
He further says that an alternate claim states it was made on behalf of the Gujarat town of Gondal in 1915. However, one of Gandhi's closest friends, Pranjivandas Mehta, called Gandhi a Mahatma in a personal letter.
According to a journal by author SR Mehrotra, Mehta wrote a letter to Gopal Krishna Gokhale on 8 November 1909 and referred to Gandhi as a Mahatma.
Team WebQoof also found evidence of Tagore calling Gandhi a 'Mahatma' in 1915, although in a personal letter to one of his friends CF Andrews.
In the letter dated 18 February 1915, Tagore said, " I hope that Mahatma and Mrs Gandhi have arrived in Bolpur, and Shantiniketan has accorded them a welcome as befits her and them."
Tagore Bestowed the Title of 'Mahatma': Gujarat High Court
While hearing a case between Sandhya Naranbhai Maru and Gujarat Panchayat in 2016, the Gujarat High Court referred to textbooks and said that Tagore bestowed the title of Mahatma on the Father of Nation.
The petitioner had appeared for an examination for the post of 'Talati cum Muntri' in 2015. It was in the multiple choice question format with one of the questions, "Who was the first person to bestow the word Mahatma for Gandhiji."
While the petitioner chose Tagore as the correct answer, the answer key suggested that an unknown journalist bestowed the title. Hearing the plea, the bench upheld that Tagore was the one who gave the said title in 1915 after Gandhi called him 'Gurudev'.
We could not find any evidence of the British government of having or conferring such a title.
Gandhi’s Great-grandson Denies the Viral Social Media Claim
The Quint spoke to Tushar Gandhi, a director of the Gandhi Research Foundation in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, and the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that the memorandum was issued by the provincial Congress government and not the British government.
"Pranjivan Mehta was the first person to refer to Bapu as 'Mahatma' in a personal letter to Gopalkrishna Gokhale in the early 1900s. It was also used by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore after Bapu returned to India."Tushar Gandhi, a director of the Gandhi Research Foundation in Jalgaon, Maharashtra
Kaiser-I-Hind and Two War Medals: British Govt's Award to Gandhi
He received the "Kaiser-I-Hind" gold medal after he was named in the King's birthday honours list of 1915.
He also received the Zulu War medal for his services as an officer in charge of the Indian volunteer ambulance corps in South Africa in 1906 and the Boer War medal for his contributions as assistant superintendent of the Indian volunteer stretcher-bearer corps during the war.
Gandhi renounced these medals in 1920 and wrote a letter to the then Viceroy conveying his displeasure with the British government.
Conclusion: We didn't find any evidence to support the claim that it was the British government that conferred the "Mahatma" title on Gandhi.
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