As a major figure of peace in our century, Mohandas Gandhi warrants serious attention, both for his ideas
of nonviolence and for his courageous translation of these ideas into action.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., so aptly said, ‘If humanity is to
progress, Gandhi is inescapable—we may ignore him at our own risk.’
In this article, the Gandhian perspective on peace and the applicability of his thesis of nonviolent
action to contemporary conflict situations, is examined. Fundamental concepts:
1. According to Gandhi, the supreme human endeavour should be the pursuit of Satya, Truth.
Gandhi often quoted the core philosophical assertion from the Bhagavad Gita,
satyanasti paro dharma, ‘there is no higher duty than adherence to Truth.’
This was the Upanishadic concept of the ultimate, eternal Truth that is akin to
self-realization, transcending barriers of history, time, and culture. However,
it was not the eternal Truth that guided Gandhi’s thought and action, but the
idea of relative Truth.
2. The basic operative assumption that Gandhi makes is that nonviolence constitutes a
positive procedure for promoting worthwhile social change. It is not merely
that one should refrain from violence, because it is wrong; sometimes violence
is not wrong. There can be conditions in which one is justified in inflicting
violence—for instance, if the only other choice is acting in a cowardly
manner. Violence is also justified for the protection of those under one’s
care, or under the care of the larger community. In Gandhi’s view, the best
response was based on nonviolence; the second best was violent defense. The
worst form of response was submission to a tyrant or running away out of fear of
consequences. In Gandhi’s words:
I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defer her honour than that she should, in a cowardly
manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.
3. This, then, brings us to the central idea in his thesis, satyagraha, which literally means
‘clinging to truth’ or ‘holding fast to truth.’ The notion of satyagraha
combines the ideas of truth and nonviolence.
As a concept, satyagraha gave expression
to Gandhi’s religious and ethical ideas; as a technique, it put these ideas into
practice; and as a philosophy, it mobilized Hindu philosophical traditions to
eliminate contemporary social injustice.
Beginning in South Africa, Gandhi launched satyagraha against the laws of the Transvaal government, which
required every Indian to procure a certificate of registration or face
deportation. Another set of South African laws declared Hindu, Muslim, and
Parsee marriages illegal. Opposition through satyagraha involved the
imprisonment of thousands of Indians and eventually led to the nullification of
those laws. After arriving in India, Gandhi implemented satyagraha in 1916-17
against the British indigo planters at Champaran in Bihar, where peasant
cultivators were unfairly treated and taxed. In 1918 satyagraha was also
brought to bear on the dispute between the textile mill owners and labourers in
Ahmedabad and involved a strike by workers. The technique of satyagraha was
subsequently practiced in 1924 on behalf of the untouchables, who had been
forbidden to use the roads in the vicinity of the Vykom temple in Travancore,
South India. Having refined his strategy on relatively smaller stages, Gandhi
launched a series of satyagraha campaigns, beginning in 1930, which involved mass
participation in civil resistance and non-co-operation aimed at the British. In
the majority of these campaigns Gandhi achieved remarkable success, gaining ever
growing popular participation and support for his declared objectives.
Implicit in satyagraha was Gandhi’s assumption that all rulers are dependent for their position and power upon the
obedience and cooperation of the ruled. Their power therefore comes from
outside themselves. If subjects withdraw cooperation and refuse to submit, a
regime will become seriously weakened.
After an analysis of five major satyagraha campaigns launched by Gandhi during the struggle for national
independence, Joan Bondurant concludes: ‘In examining satyagraha in action, it
becomes clear that satyagraha operates as a force to effect change’. To
succeed, it required ‘a comprehensive program of planning, preparation, and
studied execution,’ and not simply a spontaneous upsurge of mass protest.
Satyagraha failed whenever ‘one or more of the stages of the campaign was slighted.’
Joan Bondurant maintains that religious or philosophical compatibilities alone do not explain Gandhi’s
success in India. In fact, the theory of conflict underlying satyagraha and the
strategy it yields have wider applications that go well beyond India. She cites
the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement among Pathan Muslims in the
Northwest Frontier Province of British India, in which Khan Abdul Gafar Khan,
their leader, recruited thousands of Muslim supporters and carried out a
successful nonviolent struggle. The Muslim Pathans are known for their bravery,
and their general population lives by the creed of military honor and valor in
battle. Indeed, in one rather touching episode described by the author, Muslim
Pathan women, who are traditionally wont to hide behind a veil, when forced,
they lay down with copies of the Quran clutched to their hearts.
Gene Sharp, in his book, Gandhi as a Political Strategist, cites several more instances of satyagraha and
persuasively argues that since Gandhi’s use of it in India, the
technique has been implemented far more widely than is generally believed. Among
the most important instances he cites is its adoption by Martin Luther King,
Jr., against racist practices in the United States.
Even in totalitarian systems, there have been instances of similar resistance, although nowhere has
it led to the overthrow of such regimes. The Norwegian resistance during the
Nazi occupation is one of the most significant examples. Other cases include:
Major aspects of the Danish resistance, 1940-45, including the successful general strike in Copenhagen in
1944; major parts of the Dutch resistance, 1940-45; the last German rising of
June 1953, in which there was massive nonviolent defiance which included women
in Jena sitting down in front of Russian tanks; strikes in political prisoners’
camps in the Soviet Union 1953, which are credited with being a major
influence for improving the lot of prisoners; and the major aspects of the
Hungarian revolution, 1956-57, in which in addition to the military battles
there was demonstrated the power of the general strike, the large-scale popular nonviolent defiance.
Sharp further points out that the degree of ‘success and failure’ varies in each case.
None of these movements was undertaken as a conscious application of Gandhian principles of satyagraha;
nevertheless, they offer ample proof that nonviolent action is possible, not
only beyond a Hindu cultural context but also against totalitarian systems that
pay little heed to the niceties of democratic procedures.
In conclusion, one might point out that satyagraha is not based on elements peculiar to Hindu society,
but rather on insights into the psychological interdependence that is common to
all human conflict. It is true that certain political cultures might be more
compatible than others with the satyagraha philosophy, but such political
compatibility is not limited to India.
The second question: Is satyagraha an adequate substitute for violent conflict, and under what
conditions would this be true?
In the post war world, peace is threatened generally by three kinds of national or international
conflict. The first and most destructive is the arms race, carrying with it the
possibility of nuclear confrontation; the second is that of conventional wars
between the states for territory, resources, honor, or ideological supremacy;
the third is a consequence of totalitarian or authoritarian rule resulting in
oppression and denial of equality, freedom, and justice to the whole population
of a state or to distinguishable groups within it.
The wars of national liberation in Latin America and Africa are instances of the third type. The
second and third kinds of threats can become intertwined, as evidenced in such
wars as the one between Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1970s (in which Somalia
put forward claims to the Ogaden region based on traditional movements of the
tribes within its own jurisdiction), or the disputes between India and Pakistan
over the territory of Kashmir. The war between Iran and Iraq is at once an
ideological conflict (where the Shiah fundamentalist Islam of Iran has set
itself against the more secularist, traditional Sunni Islam of the Arabs) and a
dispute over boundaries separating the two states. The conflict between Arab
states and Israel is similarly multilayered. It is about territory, the rights
of the Palestinians for a homeland, and Israel’s right to exist as a state.
There is very little possibility that in the foreseeable future any state will replace arms with
nonviolent means to deter aggression. Indeed, all governments believe that
nonviolence is irrelevant to the problem of defense, and that therefore armed
force must be the ultimate arbiter in human affairs. Against this unqualified
faith in the efficacy of force, one must point out that wars do not always
obtain their desired ends, nor does oppression ensure true and enduring control
over peoples and nations. Indeed, Adolph Hitler did not obtain his objective
through force, nor did various imperial nations such as Great Britain and France
gain their ends by employing force in their colonies. The wars of national
independence have time and again proven the impotency of superior force when
matched against massive grassroots violent and nonviolent resistance. Thus,
there is no reason to believe that force and violence will invariably intimidate
others and achieve the ends desired of them. By the same token, nonviolence is
not applicable in every situation of potential conflict, although Gandhi and his
supporters claimed that it was.
Let us take the case of ultimate violence first.
Ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, the world has lived in terror of annihilation. The means
of destruction are so lethal that they have rendered largely irrelevant the
objectives for which a war could be waged.
There is no real purpose in waging a war if the conflict spells certain mutual destruction within a few
minutes and if very little of either adversary’s national substance would be
left to dominate the other.
Horsburg, however, argues that although satyagraha is no substitute for deterrence, the spread of nuclear
weapons to a large number of states will create a situation in which nonviolent
means of resolving conflict will become increasingly relevant. He admits that
disagreement and hostilities will persist: ‘There are bound to be many cases in
which negotiations will end in a deadlock’. However, he claims that ‘it does
not seem wildly speculative to predict that in these circumstances an increasing
interest will come to be taken in the possibilities of nonviolent action.’ He
defends his position:
If it is said that those optimistic speculations are absurd, I must insist that they are soundly based on
the logic of deterrence. If the risks that deterrent policies involve must
continue to increase, the use of armed force in the international sphere must
become progressively more dangerous and hence it must eventually become too
hazardous to use in the most extreme national emergencies.
Unfortunately, the logic of deterrence does not quite work in the way Horsburg describes. Nuclear states
often engage in conventional wars and by a tacit agreement refrain from using
their most lethal weapons. For instance, in the conflict over the Falkland
Islands between England and Argentina, England certainly had the capacity to
wage a nuclear war. Similarly, in the 1979 conflict between China and Vietnam,
China had an independent nuclear capacity and Vietnam was under the Soviet
nuclear umbrella. Indeed, one might point out that the rough parity in nuclear
weapons has aggravated the competition for the Third World between the U.S.A.
and the U.S.S.R.
Satyagraha and Nuclear Disarmament
If satyagraha is
impractical in a situation of nuclear war, does it have any relevance in
negotiations for nuclear disarmament? In other words, can it act as a
preventive? Can the Gandhian principles of steps and stages, sympathetic
understanding for one’s adversary, formulation of minimal demands consistent
with truth, refusal to threaten or intimidate the enemy, and open diplomacy be
meaningfully applied to fashion a strategy for gradual nuclear disarmament?
In principle, the Gandhian framework can be an important guide for negotiations on disarmament.
Indeed, even conventional diplomacy recognizes the need for confidence building
measures and reciprocity. Nor can negotiations be successful unless both
sides are convinced of the sincerity of their opponents.
However, today such settlements are seldom arrived at by open diplomacy or via adherence to the idea
that mutual demands should be consistent with truth. More often than not, open
diplomacy is used to score points with critics at home, to pressure the
adversary, or worse still, to camouflage reluctance to negotiate. The usual
practice in arms negotiations is to demand the maximum, in the hope that the
final agreement will ensure more than what is required for defense.
It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a nuclear power would unilaterally disarm without an
effective substitute strategically equivalent to armed strength. Although some
scholars have postulated the adoption of nonviolence and gradual phasing out of
dependence on arms, it is clear that a nation would have to undergo fundamental
structural changes in its society and politics to accept the Gandhian view of
human nature and forego the sense of security offered by weapons.
There are, however, elements in satyagraha that have an important bearing on the question of how to
engage constructively in bargaining for disarmament. Let us look at some of the
causes of the arms race between superpowers. According to several scholars, the
arms race is a result of certain attitudes common to both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.
Each country has dehumanized the other, discounting the fears and
concerns of the other’s population and characterizing the other’s leaders as war
mongers. This attitude was evident in Dulles’s characterization of the Soviet
Union as the ‘diabolical enemy,’ as it is in the Reagan administration’s view of
the U.S.S.R. as the ‘evil empire’. And yet, scholars and practitioners of
international diplomacy have pointed out that the situation leading to war or
peace is one of mutual dependencies. For instance, analyzing U.S.—Soviet
relationships, Henry Kissinger contended that ‘both sides had to be aware of
this dependency if mutually damaging wars and costly arms were to be avoided.’
SALT I was based on a successful identification of such dependencies.
The theory of power and politics implicit in Gandhian thought rejects this separation and stresses
instead a fundamental continuity between two seemingly opposite entities.
The Gandhian strategy of action requires that the protagonist attribute an irreducible minimum humanity
to the enemy; to do otherwise is to betray one’s own humanity. The
significance of this premise for reconciliation of conflict and for the process
of negotiations can hardly be over-stressed.
There is one more possibility of applying the Gandhian technique to the problem of disarmament.
This is in mobilizing mass movement against the arms race and building
grassroots support for negotiations. The methodology of mass mobilization in
this situation, however, would be no different from that of other issues.
Critics might argue, and with justification, that peaceful protest would not
solve the basic strategic dilemma and might in fact threaten national security
by forcing democratic societies to negotiate away their advantages. Against
this argument, one may point out that acquisition of arms beyond a certain point
is useless, and a peace movement can raise awareness among the masses as well as
generate pressures on governments to devote more money to social advancement
rather than to defence.
Satyagraha and Non-Nuclear Defence
This brings us to our
question under consideration. Can massive nonviolent resistance be an adequate
means of non-nuclear defense? Several scholars have examined the nonviolent
method of defense and concluded that, at least theoretically, it is a plausible
alternative, although widespread ignorance and prejudice against it’s
methodology have often prevented its being considered seriously.
One supporter on nonviolence, Gene Sharp, points out that military power today does not have the
real capacity to defend in conflict the people and society relying upon it.
Often it only threatens mutual annihilation. He goes on to say that although
nonviolent civilian defense will not stop the aggressor at the borders, military
aggression does not give the invader political control of the country. He
suggests that in civilian defense, military aggression can be resisted by the
population as a whole, making it impossible for the enemy to establish and
maintain political control. Enemy control can be prevented by massive and
selective refusal to cooperate.
For instance, police would refuse to locate and arrest patriotic opponents of the invader. Teachers would
refuse to introduce this propaganda into the schools, as happened in Norway
under the Nazis. Workers and managers would use strikes, delays, and
obstructionism to impede exploitation of the country.....Politicians, civil
servants, and judges, by ignoring or defying the enemy’s illegal orders, would
keep the normal machinery of government and courts out of his control……as
happened in the German resistance to the Kapp Putseh in 1920….. Newspapers could
refuse to submit to censorship….as it happened in the Russian 1905 revolution
and several Nazi-occupied countries.
Gandhi’s solution to external invasion would be to convert the conflict from one at the borders to one against
occupation within the country.
A struggle against occupation, rather than defense at the borders, will shift the conflict to the
turf where satyagraha has a decided advantage and where the enemy must depend on
popular cooperation. However, there are cases where satyagraha will not be
feasible. For instance, the enemy may be interested merely in inflicting
military humiliation and may withdraw promptly after armed intervention. In
some situations, the national population maybe too small in numbers to mount
effective nonviolent resistance. In other situations, the invader may be
interested merely in extracting raw materials, and may not require cooperation
of the civilian population to do so. In most other instances, however, the
Gandhian theory of power will become operational and give civilian defense a
powerful means to foil the ambitions of an aggressor.
The Norwegian resistance to Nazi rule, the Indian community satyagraha against the Transvaal government,
the Chinese boycotts of 1905, and the revolutionary change in Russia were not
conducted in a liberal socio-political environment. Draconian laws were in
effect, and in each case the government had the means to stamp out opposition
promptly. It must be pointed out that with the exception of South African
involvement, protestors resorted to satyagraha without fully understanding its
principles or techniques, mainly because arms were not available. Even in South
Africa, Gandhi was still experimenting with satyagraha, and it had not as yet
attained the fullness of a strategy for conflict resolution. This was to happen much later.
In India, satyagraha succeeded, not because British rule was democratic and liberal—the massacre of
innocent women and men at Jalianwala Bagh pointed to the opposite—but because
the British had ignored Gandhi’s early calls for satyagraha, thinking it to be
an entirely eccentric and unworkable idea. The movement gathered force in
the meantime, until it became too late to control the nationalists’ fervor or
the moral élan among the masses.
Indeed, even in the late 1980s there is a persuasive evidence that satyagraha would be an appropriate
alternative for conflict as a means of change. As one looks at Central American
upheavals, such as those in Nicaragua and El Salvador, a certain similarity of
underlying causes becomes apparent. There is not much dispute even among
policy-makers in Washington that in each case the conflict is a result of long
years of oppression, misery, and denial of freedom to the majority. However, in
an oppressive environment, tightly-knit violent revolutionary movements spring
up, plunging the country into civil war. The masses want neither communism not
the semi-feudal oligarchies that have been the rule in Central America, and
certainly they do not want civil war. In fact, when the revolutionaries
succeed, as they did in Nicaragua in 1979, the results may be different only in
degree from the oppression of the past. Born in violence, and threatened by
great powers like the United States and its surrogates, a revolutionary
government has no choice but to enforce austerity and strict rule.
However, in each case the guerilla movement could not have succeeded without mass support. Indeed, in the
classic strategy enacted in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, the guerrillas
first fight for control of the countryside and slowly tighten the noose around
the capital. As a final blow, the capital or major metropolis then goes on
strike, and the government comes to a halt. In other words, non-cooperation and
mass support could not be obtained without organization and publicity. And in
every successful case these are quite effectively employed, even when
clandestine operations are necessary.
Satyagraha is a better functional alternative to guerilla warfare in the classic strategy scenario,
because here Gandhi’s theory of power can be operationalised with stunning effect.
The ruling oligarchies
cannot remain in power unless they deliver a large portion of the wealth of the
county to external powers on whose support they depend for their own survival.
In other words, such regimes represent the interests, not of the masses within,
but of exploiting forces outside their country. This is the regimes strength;
however, if viewed from the perspective of satyagraha strategy, it is also its major weakness.
A great power like America may intervene on behalf of ruling interests on the pretext that the
revolutionary movement is aided and abetted by America’s enemies. Because
self-reliance and nonviolent persuasion are the cardinal rules in satyagraha,
there would be no need for arms from abroad; thus, the United States would look
foolish sending an army against unarmed citizens who were simply agitating for
human rights, and demanding liberty and democracy. What is more, if satyagraha
were to succeed and political change be brought about, the resulting government
founded as it would be on peace and popular legitimacy without ill will, should
be able to maintain internal as well as external peace.
Indeed, one of the most critical revolutions of recent times, the revolution in Iran, has many lessons
for us in this respect. Admittedly, Islamic fundamentalism has nothing in
common with Gandhian satyagraha; however, we should note several elements that
this movement holds in common with other revolutions.
First the masses in Iran were imbued with moral and religious fervor; secondly, they were willing to
accept enormous suffering, punishment and even death for the success of their
cause; and thirdly, they bravely faced the Shah’s troops, displayed enormous
courage in the face of superior arms (often only meagerly armed themselves), and
staged massive demonstrations, strikes, and rallies despite express warning not
to do so. The Islamic Revolutionary Party that came to power was certainly not
imbued with ahimsa; indeed, it proceeded to eliminate all opposition. Nevertheless,
it is significant that it had used non-cooperation and civil
resistance to topple the Shah. It should be noted that the Shah saw only two
choices before him: to plunge the country into a bloodbath or to abdicate. He
chose the second, not because he was particularly compassionate and liberal, but
because he saw little purpose in pursuing the path of civil war.
Gandhi would have abhorred the goals and methods of the Islamic revolution, but that is not the point
here. The point is that moral determination, willingness to sacrifice, and mass
resistance can succeed, even in an environment where there is no liberty to
organize and no freedom to rally enthusiasts openly around a cause. The Islamic
revolutionary used the mosques just as the Solidarity movement in Poland has
used the Catholic Church. ‘People power’ succeeded in the Philippines.
Gandhi advocated satyagraha not as a new religion but as a superior means for attaining social
harmony and human advancement for peace. This alliance of a pragmatic quest for
solutions and a deep spiritual conviction also point to the way in which future
generations may be educated in the task of struggling for peace.
Source: Darshan, New York, Oct 1987
Note: Condensed for the article of
the same title published in Education for Peace; Testimonies From World
Religion, edited by Haim Gordon & Leonard Grob, published by Orbis Books, New
1987. Mrs. Maya Chaddha is Professor of Political Science, William
Patterson College, Wayne, New Jersey. She is the author of 'Paradox of
Power; The United States in South West Asia 1973-84.'