Gandhi and Non-Violence
Doctrines of Ahimsa and Satyagraha
by B.R. Nanda
With the genesis of the Gandhian movement for the freedom of India based on
Satyagraha or the holding on to truth, came not just India’s independence but
also emerged a personality, a point of hope for the human future in a strife torn world.
‘If we are to make progress, we must not repeat history but make new history. We must add to the
inheritance left by our ancestors. If we may make new discoveries and inventions in the phenomenal
world, must we declare our bankruptcy in the spiritual domain? Is it possible to multiply the exceptions
so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first and man after, if at all?
– Young India, May 6, 1926
Gandhi was the greatest exponent of the doctrine of ahisa or non-violence in moderm times, but he was not its author. Ahisa has
been part of the Indian religious tradition for centuries: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist. It was Gandhi’s genius that transformed, what had been an individual ethic, into a tool of social and political action. This he did in the course of his twenty-year long struggle against racialism in South Africa. Since 1894 he had been pleading with the colonial regime for the removal of iniquitous curbs and disabilities from which Indian immigrants in Natal and Transvaal suffered. He made little headway. In 1906 an exceptionally humiliating law was enacted for registration of Indians in the Transvaal; Gandhi found he had reached a dead end. The colonial government in Pretoria, supported by the dominant European community, was adamant; the Government of India was indifferent, and the imperial government in London reluctant to intervene. A stage was reached in Gandhi’s agitation when something more than reasoning and persuasion was demanded. It was at this critical juncture that he stumbled upon a new technique of fighting social and political injustice. He called it satyagraha (holding on to truth). Its principles were to gradually evolve in the ensuing years; its author was a man for whom theory was the handmaiden of action. Of one thing Gandhi had no doubt; it was to be a method without hatred and without violence. During the next eight years he used this method with a measure of success until 1914 when he reached an agreement with the South African government and left for India. It was as the author and sole practitioner of satyagraha that he entered the Indian political scene in 1919-20, which he was to dominate for the next three decades.
If the Indian National Congress had not accepted his basic tenet of non-violence in 1920, he would have had nothing to do with its struggle for liberation from British rule. ‘I would like to repeat to the world, times without number’, Gandhi said in 1931, ‘that I will not purchase my country’s freedom at the cost of non-violence.’ Nine years later, in the midst of the Second World War, when he was asked what he would do if India became independent during his lifetime, he replied: ‘If India became free in my lifetime and I have still energy left in me … I would take my due share, though outside the official world, in building up the nation strictly on non-violent lines.’ We must remember that Gandhi applied his method of non-violent resistance not only against foreign rule, but against social evils, such as racial discrimination and untouchability. Indeed, he claimed that non-violence lay at the root of every one of his activities, and his mission in life was not merely the freedom of India but the brotherhood of man. His satyagraha was designed not only for India, but for the whole world; it could transform relations between individuals as well as between communities and nations. In the early 1920s, when he had just emerged as the stoutest champion of nationalism in Asia, Gandhi unequivocally subscribed to the ideal of a world federation. ‘The better mind of the world desires today,’ he told the Belgaum Congress in 1924, ‘not absolutely independent states warring against each other but a federation of friendly independent states.’ In the late 1930s, when the forces were gathering momentum in Europe, he reaffirmed his faith in non-violence. Through the pages of his weekly paper, Harijan, he expounded his approach to political tyranny and military aggression. He advised weaker nations to defend themselves by offering non-violent resistance to the aggressor. A non-violent Abyssinian, he argued needed no arms and no succour from the League of Nations; if every Abyssinian man, woman, and child refused cooperation with the Italians, willing for force, the latter would have to walk to victory over the dead bodies of their victims and to occupy their country without the people. The motive power of Nazi and Fascist aggression was the desire to carve out new empires, and behind it all was a ruthless competition to annex new sources of raw materials and fresh markets. In Gandhi’s opinion, wars were thus rooted in the overwhelming greed of men as also in the purblind tribalism that placed nationalism above humanity. In the ultimate analysis, to shake off militarism, it was necessary to end the competitive greed, fear and hatred that fed it.
Gandhi’s pleas for renunciation of violence and for non-violent resistance to aggressors fell on deaf ears; they were dismissed as the outpourings of a visionary. The Second World War lasted six years and took a heavy toll of human lives, but the Allied victory did not usher in the era of peace for which the world had longed. Gandhi was shocked by the use of the atom bomb by the United States of America against Japan; he described it ‘as the most diabolical use of science.’ When Jawaharlal Nehru came to see him in 1945, Gandhi closely questioned him about the atom bomb; its manufacture, its capacity to kill and poison, and its toll on the Japanese cities. Nehru recalled later that Gandhi listened to him silently, and then, ‘with deep human compassion loading his gentle eyes, remarked that this wanton destruction had confirmed his faith in God and non-violence, and that now he [Gandhi] realised the full significance of the holy mission for which God had created him and armed him with the mantra of non-violence.’ According to Nehru, as Gandhi uttered these words he ‘had a look of revelation about his eyes’ and he resolved then and there to make it his mission to fight and outlaw the bomb. Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948. The following year, when Nehru visited the United States, he related his conversation with Gandhi to Albert Einstein. With a twinkle in his eyes, the great scientist took a pad and pencil and wrote down a number of dates on one side, and events on the other, to indicate the parallel evolution of the nuclear bomb and Gandhi’s non-violent technique of satyagraha respectively, almost from decade to decade since the beginning of the twentieth century. It turned out that, by a strange coincidence, while Einstein and his fellow scientists were engaged in research that made the fission of atom possible, Gandhi was embarking on his experiments in peaceful non-violent resistance in South Africa and India; indeed, the ‘Quit India’ struggle almost coincided with the American project for the making of the atomic bomb.
A Non-Violent Alternative
Gandhi’s great achievement was to evolve and practise a non-violent method for conflict resolution at the beginning of the twentieth century, which proved to be the most violent century in the annals of mankind. In the first half of the century, which almost synchronised with Gandhi’s entire public life, there were two devastating world wars with a colossal loss of life. In the second half, we were spared the catastrophe of a Third World War, but the “cold war” between two rival ideological-cum-military blocs brought the world to the verge of an atomic holocaust; only a “balance of terror” between them kept the peace. However, their rivalry led to localised conflicts, instigated or fanned by the superpowers, largely in Third World countries. In 1995, the then Secretary General of the United Nations estimated that between 1945 and 1994 there had been 127 conflicts with 22 million casualties in comparison to 88 conflicts during the first half of the century. Gandhi offered a non-violent alternative to this recurring cycle of hatred and violence. Beginning his public life in the hostile environment of South Africa, he discovered that in an imperfect and changing world, conflicts of interests within and between countries were inevitable. His technique of satyagraha sought reconciliation through dialogue and compromise, but if justice was denied, it provided for confrontation, but it had to he a non-violent confrontation. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary aptly sums up this technique as one of ‘achieving social and political reform by means of tolerance and active goodwill coupled with firmness in one’s cause expressed through non-violence, passive resistance and non-cooperation.’
Gandhi rejected the common belief that force yields only to force. The principle of an eye for an eye, he said, ‘would end up with whole world becoming blind’. He conceded that in our present state human beings are ‘partly men and partly beasts’, but he believed that man’s nature is not essentially evil. He did not divide mankind into two opposite categories of good and bad; there were only evil acts, and even in the wickedest of men, there was a better side, a latent spark. Gandhi’s critics, however, tended to dismiss his views as the impractical idealism of a visionary which had no relevance for the moderm world. In February 1938 Frances Gunther, the wife of John Gunther, the American journalist, and author of the best-seller Inside Asia Today, wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru that she told Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India, that Gandhi had brought Indians up from the tenth to the nineteenth century but it was Nehru’s task to carry them from the nineteenth to twentieth. She was not alone in thinking that Gandhi’s ideas were antediluvian and suited to a pre-industrial and pre-moderm society. Most intellectuals not only in the West but in India would have endorsed her verdict. It does not seem to have occurred to them that Gandhi may have been thinking ahead of his time.
It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that Gandhi’s methods came to be invoked across the globe, in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) carried on non-violent agitation and passive resistance for nearly forty years. Chief Albert Luthuli, sixth president of the ANC and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, belonged to the Zulu warrior-tribe, but was inspired by Gandhi’s writings and became a champion of non-violence. The ANC was, however, unable to sustain its non-violent struggle in the fire of ruthless oppression by the apartheid regime. After the massacre of Sharpeville and until the release of Nelson Mandela, the major liberation movement in South Africa took to guerrilla warfare. However, the armed struggle would have been much more difficult and prolonged had not students, industrial workers, religious leaders, youth and women’s organisations joined in non-violent resistance to the racist regime on such issues as rent, consumer embargoes and bus boycotts. Thus, the liberators of the blacks in South Africa were not only the guerrilla fighters, but hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, shop assistants, and workers living in shanty towns who consciously or unconsciously adopted methods that Gandhi would have approved.
In the United States Gandhi’s teachings and example inspired Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, who was able, in the words of an American writer, to ‘meld the image of Gandhi and the image of the Negro preacher, and to use biblical symbols that bypassed cerebral centres and exploded in the well of the Negro psyche’. King championed the non-violent method as a practical alternative not only to armed conflicts within a country but between countries. ‘The choice’, he wrote in his Stride Towards Freedom (1958) ‘is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.’
The last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed some spectacular demonstrations of “peoples power” to non-violently resist colonial rule, foreign domination, racial discrimination, and tyrannical regimes. In the Czech Republic and Poland, the Baltic States, the Philippines, and several other countries, unarmed men and women collectively dared to defy the might of the modern state. In Poland, Lech Walesa, the leader of the “Solidarity” movement, acknowledged that he derived his insights from his study of Gandhi’s campaigns. He skilfully alternated disciplined and peaceful strikes with negotiations. He was one of the first to be clapped into prison from where he sent out earnest appeals to his countrymen to refrain from violence. His struggle had its vicissitudes, but by 1989 Poland became the first country in eastern Europe to free itself from Soviet domination.
In Czechoslovakia a massive non-violent protest in 1968 fizzled out, but twenty-one years later, on November 17, 1989, a spontaneous upsurge against Soviet occupation turned into the largest demonstration in the history of the country. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured when the security forces charged the crowd. Over a hundred thousand marchers gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague, sat down on the road, and sung nursery rhymes. They held candles and waved flags. Their leader Vaclav Havel, speaking in virtually the Gandhian idiom, exhorted them to refrain from violence. A “Civic Forum” emerged, which incorporated all opposition groups and avowed its commitment to non-violence. Havel paid a tribute to the students of Czechoslovakia who had thrown themselves into ‘the non-violent struggle for giving this revolution a beautiful, peaceful, dignified, gentle, and I would say, loving face, which is admired by the whole world’. This was, he declared, ‘a rebellion of truth against lies, of purities against impurities, of the human heart against violence’. The Prague demonstration had a chain reaction across the country. Protests and participants grew daily. Thousands of strike committes were formed. Peaceful crowds, holding nothing but candies and flowers, were beaten up by truncheon-wielding police. In the words of Mary E King, the author of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (UNESCO, 1999), the people of Czechoslovakia enacted ‘the power of Truth, as Gandhi had defined it, as Havel interpreted it.’ On December 7, the Prime Minister of the Communist government resigned. On December 10, a government of ‘national understanding’ was announced. By the end of December 1989, the Soviet-dominated regime had surrendered and the Federal Assembly had elected Havel, as the president of Czechoslovakia.
Another striking victory of non-violence was witnessed in Philippines as a result of which the despotic and corrupt regime of President Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown. Marcos threw into prison one of the protagonists of democracy and his chief rival Senator Beniquo Acquino. In prison Acquino pored over the Bible and the writings of Gandhi and was converted to the creed of non-violence. When he returned home after three years of self-exile, he was assassinated. His death galvanised the country and paved the way for a non-violent struggle. The crisis came in 1986 in the wake of a fraudulent election conducted by the Ferdinand Marcos’ government, which enraged the people. On February 22, two army generals with their troops defected. This was followed by an amazing scene. Three million men, women and children, many of them praying poured into the streets to protect the defecting soldiers from the advancing tanks and troops sent by Marcos. The atmosphere became so electric that some of Marcos’ soldiers joined the rebellious troops. This confrontation between the armed forces and unarmed people lasted for 77 hours till the Marcos regime crumbled.
Evolving a Peaceful and Humane World
Gandhi’s ideas have fuelled not only struggles against foreign domination and tyrannical rule, but also crusades against the piling up of nuclear weapons and the havoc being wrought by developed countries through wanton and wasteful use of the resources of the planet. Petra Kelly, a leader of the Green Peace movement in Germany who was influenced by the ideas of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, denounced methods of production which depended upon a ceaseless supply of raw materials and were leading to the exhaustion of natural resources and threatening ecological devastation. Speaking almost in the Gandhian idiom, she said, ‘We cannot solve any political problem without also addressing spiritual ones.’
Despite these examples of non-violent struggles over the past two decades, which have highlighted the power potential of the oppressed, it must be admitted that Gandhi’s ideas and methods are still appreciated by only a small enlightened minority in the world. Gandhi himself had no illusions about their ready acceptance. He did not claim finality for his views, which he regarded within a broad ethical framework as aids for bettering the lives of his fellow men; they could be altered if they did not work. Though he expounded his philosophy of life in hundreds of articles and letters, he never tried to build it into a system. Nevertheless, the truth is that more than fifty years after his death, his deepest concerns have become the concerns of thinking men and institutions working for a peaceful and humane world.
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