ONLINE BOOKS > GANDHI - His Relevance For Our Times > Gandhi's Political Significance Today
Gandhi's Political Significance Today
By Gene Sharp
On 30 January 1948 on his way to prayers Gandhi was assassinated, killed by three bullets in his abdomen and chest. The young assassin was a fanatical Hindu who among others had been inflamed by Gandhi’s efforts to bring reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims in riot-torn independent India. After a year of bloody strife, Gandhi’s fast had brought peace to Calcutta and all Bengal. Later, sensing an incendiary situation under the surface, he fasted the last time in Delhi and restored an atmosphere of peace. For these and similar acts, he was not loved by all. In Calcutta a mob attacked his residence, a brick was thrown at him, and someone swung a heavy bamboo rod (lathi) at his head, both narrowly missed. During his Delhi fast some shouted outside his quarters, “Let Gandhi die!” A week before his death, a small home-made bomb was thrown at him from a nearby garden during afternoon prayers.
With those three bullets came the bitter fruit of the murder of an important political leader. India and the world were saddened. Political leaders and ordinary people alike felt a personal loss.
In the years which have passed since that January day, many important events have taken place which have altered the world significantly: the death of Stalin, the Communist victory in China, the development of the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental missiles, the Hungarian Revolution, the trial of Eichmann, the end of the British and French colonial empires, President Kennedy’s assassination, and the “Negro Revolution” in the United States, to list only a few.
After such events in a world in which history now moves so quickly, does Gandhi still have any political significance? Now, with the passing of years and the opportunity for a more distant perspective, how is Gandhi to be evaluated? Are there points at which our earlier judgment must be revised?
For a Westerner―and perhaps particularly for an American―Gandhi poses special problems in such an evaluation. Often his eccentricities get in the way so that it is difficult to get beyond them, or to take other aspects of his life seriously. Even for religious people in the West, his constant use of religious terminology and theological language in explanation or justification of a social or political act or policy more often confuses than clarifies.
The homage which most pay to him by calling him “Mahatma”―the great-souled one―usually becomes a kind of vaccination against taking him seriously. If he was such a saint and holy man, it is thought, this is a full explanation of his accomplishments; we need investigate no further. As a Mahatma, he can be revered while being placed in that special category of saints, prophets and holy men whose lives and actions are believed to be largely irrelevant to ordinary men.
It is sometimes the case that Gandhi’s own candid evaluations of himself and his work now appear to be more accurate than the opinions of some of his followers and the homage-bearers. “I claim”, he once wrote, “to be no more than an average man with less than average ability”. Indeed, in important respects this was probably true. He only went to South Africa after having failed in his attempt to be a lawyer in India.
Nor was he pleased at the homage given him, although he cherished the affection of people where it was genuine. “My Mahatmaship is worthless”, he once wrote “I have become literally sick of the adoration of the unthinking multitude.” “I lay no claim to superhuman powers. I want none. I wear the same corruptible flesh that the weakest of my fellow-beings wears, and am, therefore, as liable to err as any.”
There are further difficulties in evaluating Gandhi. These include widespread misrepresentations of Gandhi and his political opinions. These misrepresentations are not usually deliberate, but often are made by people who have just not made a detailed study of Gandhi's views on the point in question. It is, for example, widely claimed that Gandhi approved of Indian military action in Kashmir, that he would have approved of the Indian invasion of Goa, and even that he would have supported the present nuclear weapons program.
Such misrepresentations are not only made by Westerners, but commonly by educated Indians who often assume, because they are Indians, have read newspaper reports and repeatedly discussed Gandhi, that they know what they are talking about. Gandhi’s own scepticism about the degree of understanding of his non-violence and views among Western-educated Indians continues to be verified.
Part of the difficulties in understanding Gandhi’s views on such questions as these has its roots in the attempt to fit Gandhi into our usual categories. It is, for example, assumed often that he must fit the traditional view of a pacifist or that he is a supporter of military action. When he asserts the existence of political evil which must be resisted, many people assume that he thereby “of necessity” has supported violence.
Gandhi's thinking, was constantly developing, and early in his career he did give certain qualified support to war. But at the end of his life this had altered. But this did not mean he favoured passivity. Thus, while believing the Allies to be the better side in the Second World War, he did not support the war. Similarly in Kashmir, while believing the Pakistanis to be the aggressors, and while believing that India must act, he did not favour military action.
Instead he placed his confidence in the application of an alternative non-violent means of struggle against political evil. Here he as constantly experimenting, and his advocacy of the efficacy of non-violent action in crises was not always convincing to the hard-headed realists. This sometimes meant―as at the time of Kashmir―that he was not politically “effective”. But that is quite different from claiming that he had rejected his own non-violent means.
As we shall note later in more detail, it was Gandhi's primary contribution, not only to argue for, but to develop practically non-violent means of struggle in politics for those situations in which war and other types of political violence were usually used. His work here was pioneering, and sometimes inadequate, but it was sufficient to put him outside the traditional categories. Gandhi was neither a conscientious objector nor a supporter of violence in politics. He was an experimenter in the development of “war without violence”.
A final confusion handicaps our attempt to evaluate Gandhi. His politics are sometimes assumed to be identical with those of the independent Indian Government under Nehru. Although Nehru has long had a very deep regard for Gandhi, and although Gandhi cooperated with the Indian National Congress in the long struggle for independence, the policies which Gandhi favoured are not necessarily those of the Congress government today.
Indeed, saddened by the riots between Hindus and Muslims and busy in Calcutta seeking to restore peace, Gandhi refused to attend the Independence ceremony and celebrations on 15 August 1947. The riots saddened him both for their own sake and because he believed they reflected a weakness in Indian society which could bring India again under foreign domination by one of the Big Three (which included China).
Gandhi had opposed partition into Pakistan and India. Congress leaders had accepted it. His plea for non-violent resistance in Kashmir with non-violent assistance from India was ignored. Gandhi had dreamt that a free India would be able to defend her freedom without military means. Yet in the provisional government before independence, and in the fully independent government, military expenditure and influence increased, while Gandhi warned of the danger of military rule and of India’s possible future threat to world peace. Her freedom could be defended non-violently, Gandhi insisted, just as by nonviolent means the great British Empire had been forced to withdraw.
Political independence had not brought real relief to the peasants, who Gandhi had said ought non-violently to seize and occupy the land, and even to exercise political power.
Gandhi’s picture and name are widely used by the Congress Party in election campaigns. Yet Gandhi had written: “We must recognize the fact that the social order of our dreams cannot come through the Congress Party of today......” The day before his assassination he drafted a proposal for abolishing the Congress as it had existed and suggested a constitution for converting it into an association for voluntary work to build a non-violent society and guide India's development from outside the government.
Gandhi must be evaluated on the basis of his own outlook and his own policies, not those of others. And it is also important that we re-examine some of the views about Gandhi and the non-violent struggle which he led which are widespread in the West. In large degrees these are views which have masqueraded as “realistic” assessments. I suggest, however, that as we shall see these views are often contrary to the facts and may be more akin to rationalization which help one to avoid considering Gandhi and the Indian experiments seriously. Let us look at six of these a bit more closely.
Outside of India, during and for some years after the Indian non-violent liberation struggle, it was widely said that such non-violence was simply a characteristic of Indians who were presumed to be, for various reasons, incapable of violence. The implication of this was that the Indian experiments with non-violent action deserved very little further analysis. For fairly obvious reasons this assumption that Indians were incapable of violence for political ends is almost never heard any longer. But the implications of this altered view are likewise almost never explored.
It is forgotten (except in India) that the 1857-59 Indian War of Independence―which the English called the “Mutiny”―ever occurred, and this included not only guerrilla campaigns but full scale battles. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a terrorist movement developed among Indian nationalists (especially in Maharashtra, Bengal and the Punjab) which was responsible for a number of assassinations by bombings and shootings. Even after Gandhi was actively on the scene, the terrorists continued their actions. For example, as late as 1929 bombs were thrown and shots were fired in the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi. At the end of that year a bomb exploded under the train carrying the Viceroy, Lord Irwin (later known as Lord Halifax when he was British Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the United States). And that was not the end of the terrorist movement.
Subhash Chandra Bose by 1928 had achieved an impressive following with his cry of “Give me blood and I promise you freedom”. That year both he and Jawaharlal Nehru (later a supporter of Gandhi’s methods) favoured an immediate declaration of independence to be followed by a war of independence.
Bose was President of the Indian National Congress in 1938 and was elected at the 1939 convention though he then resigned under pressure from Gandhi. During World War II, Bose headed the “Indian National Army” and fought on the side of the Japanese capturing the imagination of a significant section of the Indian public.
The religious riots prior to and after Independence are well known. Thousands were killed. Five million migrated across the new borders of India and Pakistan. There were well-grounded fears of war―first civil war, and later between the newly independent countries. Troops faced each other in Kashmir.
During the Sino-Indian border conflict, it became unmistakably clear that when faced with a crisis affecting its frontiers the Indian Government was prepared to involve itself in large-scale military preparations. By and large the Indian people shared this reaction. Indeed, the most vocal critics of the government felt that it was not being sufficiently ready to go to war. The indications of the Indian invasion of Goa and the war in Nagaland, that the Indian government was ready to use military force, were emphatically confirmed. This was as Gandhi had expected. The Indian Government had demonstrated that when it came to military defence, it differed little in its basic approach from other governments.
Indeed, it can be expected that when China gets nuclear weapons, India will not be far behind, despite her non-alignment policy and Nehru’s aversion to such means.
All these facts should make it quite clear that the Indians have all along been quite capable of using violent means, and that there must have been something special which led them to rely on nonviolent struggle as the main strategy for achieving independence.
It is of course true that there were elements in Indian religions and traditions which were conducive to Gandhi’s approach, and that as Gandhi drew upon these and spoke in their language, the religious peasants understood him. The most important of these was probably the principle of ahimsa, which roughly meant non injury to living things in thought, word, and deed. These elements were doubtless important, but, as we shall note later, when Gandhi drew upon them, he always gave them new and vital interpretations.
But just as there are in Western civilization traditions and principles counteracting the Christian principle of love for one’s enemies, so in Indian religions and traditions there were also counteracting principles. Sikhs and Muslims, for example, believed in military prowess. And the Hindu caste system itself provided for a warrior caste. The Bhagavad-Gita―which Gandhi so revered and which he re-interpreted symbolically― related the story of physical warfare and dwelt upon the justification for fighting.
In the light of these various evidences of the Indians being willing to use violence in political struggles, the view that the Indian independence struggle was predominantly non-violent because Indians were incapable of approving of violence collapses.
While for strategic reasons a full-scale war with traditional front-lines might not have been possible, a major guerrilla war certainly would have been feasible. (Assuming that the percentage of casualties in proportion to the total population would have been about the same in such a struggle in India as later proved to be the case in Algeria, that would have meant between 3,000,000 and 3,500,000 Indian dead. The estimate of Indians killed or who died from injuries incurred while participating in the nonviolent struggle given by Richard Greg, is about 8,000. One cannot claim that the French are by nature so much more cruel than the English!)
Thus, rather than Indian non-violence being entirely natural and inevitable, it is clear that Gandhi deserves considerable credit in getting non-violent action accepted as the technique of struggle in the grand strategy for the liberation movement. It is clear that this acceptance by the Indian National Congress was not a moral or religious act. It was a political act which was possible because Gandhi offered a course of action which was non-violent but which above all was seen to be practical and effective.
It is widely believed that Gandhi was simply a personification of Indian traditions. As we have pointed out, however, and as has been amply demonstrated by Dr Joan Bondurant of the University of California, wherever Gandhi drew upon traditional Indian concepts, he gave them a fresh and vital interpretation which differed significantly from the original. At the same time, it is usually forgotten how un-Indian Gandhi was in many ways. He openly in words and actions defied widely accepted traditions and orthodoxies. His fight against untouchability which he undertook several decades ago when it was many times more entrenched than today is simply an example. His whole experimental approach to life and to politics (he called his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”) has overtones of influence by Western science.
Gandhi’s basic assumption that one must not “accept” or “understand” evil but fight it, although supported by some, also was in diametrical opposition to other schools of Hindu philosophy which held that one must not fight evil, but transcend it, seeing the conflict between good and evil as something which ultimately contributes to a higher development, and hence about which one ought not to be particularly concerned.
Gandhi’s activity and sense of struggle not only challenged (or ignored) those schools of Hindu thought. They went contrary to widely established patterns of actual behaviour. Passivity and submission were such common traits among Indians of his day that Gandhi found frequently that these qualities, not the British, were the main enemy blocking the way to independence. Gandhi is widely credited with a major influence in their reduction and replacement by action, determination and courageous self-reliance.
“Nonviolence”, wrote Gandhi in 1920, “does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.... And so I am not pleading for India to practise non-violence because she is weak. I want her to practise nonviolence being conscious of her strength and power.”
A third popular view of Gandhi and the Indian struggle has been especially expounded by Marxists. They have frequently argued that Gandhi’s nonviolent action had little or nothing to do with the British leaving India, but that they did so because it was no longer profitable for them to hold on to the subcontinent. These Marxists often demonstrate their ignorance of Gandhi and his nonviolent action by their assumption that these had nothing to do with reduced economic benefits to the British rulers. This assumed separation is manifestly untrue. The new spirit of resistance and independence among the Indians to which Gandhi contributed, in turn increased the difficulties and expense of maintaining the British Raj, especially during the major non-cooperation and civil disobedience campaigns.
But even in purely economic terms of trade with India, Gandhi’s program had a significant impact. This is particularly demonstrated by the impact of the boycott during the 1930-31 civil disobedience campaign. This coincided with the world depression, but as will be demonstrated, the drop in purchases of British goods by India was not solely the result of that depression but significantly also attributable to the boycott programme.
The British Secretary of State for India, in the House of Commons in late 1930 (according to J. C. Kumarappa) credited the general depression with a 25 per cent fall in the export trade to India, and credited the balance of 18 per cent in the fall directly to the boycott programme carried on by the Indian National Congress. Total British exports to India according to statistical abstracts declined (in millions of pounds sterling) from 90.6 in 1924, to 85.0 by 1927, then to 78.2 in 1929 and in the boycott year, 1930, to 52.9.
The total import of cotton piece-goods by India from all countries rose from 1.82 billion yards in 1924 to 1.94 billion yards in 1929 and declined only to 1.92 billion yards in 1930. However, the British export of the same commodity to India fell from 1.25 billion yards in 1924 to 1.08 billion yards in 1929―a decline of 14 per cent.
Then it fell to 0.72 billion yards in 1930―a decline of 42.4 per cent. Between October 1930 and April 1931, when the boycott was at its height, there was a decline of 84 per cent.
This is, of course, no attempt to evaluate the variety of specific factors influencing the achievement of political independence by India. But this should make it clear that the Marxist view that economic factors were completely separate from Gandhi’s nonviolent action is not based on facts.
A fourth view, often expressed by political “realists”, is that Gandhi’s nonviolent action is incapable of wielding effective political power, and is hence irrelevant for practical politicians. This view frequently presumes both naivete on Gandhi’s part and that the kind of action he proposed was impotent and no real threat to a political opponent. Neither of these presumptions is borne out by the facts.
Some of Gandhi’s statements at the beginning of the 1930-31 civil disobedience campaign are enlightening. “The British people must realize that the Empire is to come to an end. This they will not realize unless we in India have generated power within to enforce our will.” “It is not a matter of carrying conviction by argument. The matter resolves itself into one of matching forces. Conviction or no conviction, Great Britain would defend her Indian commerce and interests by all the forces at her command. India must consequently evolve force enough to free herself from that embrace of death.” “The English nation responds only to force.” “I was a believer in the politics of petitions, deputations and friendly negotiations. But all these have gone to dogs. I know that these are not the ways to bring this Government round. Sedition has become my religion. Ours is a nonviolent battle.”
Rather than being ignorant of the need to wield political power, Gandhi sought to exercise it in ways which maximized the Indian strength and weakened that of the British. By withdrawing the cooperation and obedience of the subjects, Gandhi sought to cut off important sources of the ruler’s power. At the same time the non-cooperation and disobedience created severe enforcement problems. And in this situation, severe repression against nonviolent people would be likely, not to strengthen the government, but to alienate still more Indians from the British Raj and at the same time create―not unity in face of an enemy but dissent and opposition at home.
This was thus a kind of political jiu jitsu which generated the maximum Indian strength while using British strength to their own disadvantage. “I believe, and everybody must grant”, wrote Gandhi, “that no Government can exist for a single moment with out the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the Government will come to a standstill.”
The view that Gandhi was ignorant of the realities of political power and that his technique of action was impotent would have been vigorously denied by every British Government and Viceroy that had to deal with him and his movement.
In a most revealing address to both Houses of the Indian Legislative Assembly in July 1930, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin declared: “In my judgment and in that of my Government it [the civil disobedience movement] is a deliberate attempt to coerce established authority by mass action, and.....it must be regarded as unconstitutional and dangerously subversive. Mass action, even if it is intended by its promoters to be nonviolent, is nothing but the application of force under another form, and when it has as its avowed object the making of Government impossible, a Government is bound either to resist or abdicate.” “So long as the Civil Disobedience Movement persists, we must fight it with all our strength.” Apparently the political “realist” who has dismissed Gandhi and his technique has some re-thinking to do.
A fifth very common view, especially in Britain and among some Indians, is that Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns were only possible because the opponent was a British Government who were, of course, only very gentlemanly. While this has an element of truth in it, the degree of validity is almost always exceeded so that rather than this being a useful contribution to an analysis of the events, it becomes a means of dismissing those events without thought.
Admittedly, the British were not nearly so ruthless as Hitler or Stalin would have been, but they were far more brutal in repression than is today remembered. People not only suffered seriously in foul prisons and prison camps, but literally had their skulls cracked in beatings with steel-shod bamboo rods (lathis) and were shot while demonstrating. In a more famous and grave case, the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, unarmed Indians holding a peaceful meeting were without warning fired upon. According to the Hunter Commission 379 were killed and 1,137 wounded.
If the British exercised some restraint in dealing with the nonviolent rebellion, this may be more related to the peculiar problems posed by a nonviolent resistance movement and to the kind of forces which the nonviolence set in motion, than to the opponent being “British”. The same people showed little restraint in dealing with the Mau Mau in Kenya, or in the saturation bombings of Germans cities.
It is interesting that Hitler saw no chance of a successful nonviolent or violent revolt in India against British rule. “We Germans have learned well enough how hard it is to force England”, he wrote in Mein Kampf.
The view that nonviolent action could only be effective against the British was more credible in the days when the Indian experiments were the main example of nonviolent action for political objectives. Now that this is no longer true and the technique has spread to other parts of the world under a variety of political circumstances―as we shall shortly note―including Nazi and Communist rule, more careful examination of the circumstances for effectiveness is required.
The last popular view which we shall examine is this: Nonviolent action for political ends is only practical under the particular set of circumstances which prevailed in India during Gandhi’s time. People outside India interpret this to mean that nonviolent action is impractical for them, and Indians mean that whereas it once was practical for them, it no longer is. Sometimes, the view is even more specific: that such non-violent action is only possible for people who share the peculiar Hindu religious outlook.
This last view is repudiated by the Indian experience itself. Among the most courageous and consistent of the nonviolent Indian freedom fighters were the Muslim Pathans of the rebellious and never fully conquered North-West Frontier Province. These men, with a long tradition of military prowess and skill in war, quickly became under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan expert and brave practitioners of nonviolent struggle.
Although this is not our main concern, it should be noted that there are Indians who believe that non-violent action is still possible in India. There has been a considerable use of the technique domestically since independence, and there are exponents of its use in place of military resistance in dealing with any possible invasion, as by China or Pakistan, although it is true that detailed preparations have not been completed for meeting such an eventuality.
Nonviolence in the 20th Century
One of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century has been the development and spread of the technique of nonviolent action. Nonviolent action includes the types of behaviour known as non-violent resistance, satyagraha, nonviolent direct action, and the large variety of specific methods of action, such as strikes, boycotts, political non-cooperation, civil disobedience, non-violent obstruction, etc. This technique has a long history, but because historians have been more concerned with violent conflicts and wars than with nonviolent struggles, much information has been lost.
In modern times the technique initially received impetus from three main groups: (1) social radicals, such as trade unionists, anarchists, syndicalists and socialists, who sought a means of struggle―largely strikes, general strikes and boycotts―for use against what they regarded as an unjust social system; (2) nationalists who found the technique useful in resisting a foreign enemy (such as the Hungarian resistance versus Austria, 1850-1867, and the Chinese anti Japanese boycotts), and (3) individuals, both pacifist and non-pacifist, who were pointing a way by which a new society might be achieved (such as Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Henry David Thoreau in America, Gustav Landauer in Germany, etc.)
Little serious attention was given, however, to refining and improving the technique, to the development of its strategy, tactics and methods of action. Neither was it linked with a general programme of social change. The technique remained essentially passive, the action being in most cases a reaction to the initiative of the opponent.
While religious groups, such as the early Quakers, had practised nonviolent action as a reaction to persecution, the link between the moral qualities of nonviolence and the technique of action in social and political struggles was rarely made, except by individuals such as Tolstoy, and even then remained on the level of ideas.
It remained for Gandhi to make the most significant political experiments to that time in the use of non-cooperation, disobedience and defiance to control rulers, alter policies and undermine political systems.
With Gandhi’s experiments with the technique, its character was broadened and refinements made. Conscious efforts were now made in developing the strategy and tactics. The number of specific forms or methods of action was enlarged. He linked it with a programme of social change, and the building of new institutions.
Nonviolent action became not passive resistance, but a technique capable of taking the initiative in active struggle. A link was forged between a means of mass struggle and a moral preference for non-violent means, although for participants this preference was not necessarily absolutist in character.
This technique Gandhi called satyagraha, which is best translated as the firmness which comes from reliance on truth, and truth here has connotations of essence of being. A rather philosophical term, perhaps, but this technique was in Gandhi’s view based on firm political reality and one of the most fundamental of all insights into the nature of government―that all rulers in fact are dependent for their power on the submission, cooperation and obedience of their subjects. “In politics, its use is based upon the immutable maxim that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed.”
Following the widespread experiments under Gandhi, this technique of nonviolent action spread throughout the world at a rate previously unequalled. In some cases this was directly and indirectly stimulated by the Gandhian experiments. Where this was so, it was often modified in new cultural and political settings. In these cases, the technique has already moved beyond Gandhi.
One of the most important instances of this development is of course the adoption of nonviolent action in the American Negro struggle against racial segregation and discrimination. This was a possibility envisaged by Gandhi, as he revealed in conversations with visiting American Negroes. In 1937 Dr Charming Tobias and Dr Benjamin Mays visited Gandhi, and asked him what advice they might relay from him to the American Negroes, and what he saw as the outlook for the future of their struggle.
Gandhi called nonviolent action the way “of the strong and wise”, and added: “With right which is on their side and the choice of nonviolence as their only weapon, if they will make it such, a bright future is assured.”
Earlier, in 1936, Gandhi told Dr. and Mrs. Howard Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world”.
Contemporaneously with the spread of Gandhi-inspired nonviolent action in other parts of the world, there emerged in Communist countries and Nazi-occupied countries independent demonstrations of the technique under exceedingly difficult circumstances.
While no totalitarian system has been overthrown by nonviolent action, there has been more such resistance than is generally recognised. In these cases the fact that the resistance was nonviolent often seemed almost an accident, often without any conscious choice and certainly not the result of moral or religious qualms about violence. Often the nonviolent action even accompanied violence or was tinged with violence, but nevertheless remained basically dependent upon the nonviolent solidarity in non-co-operation and defiance of men and women acting without external arms.
The Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation is perhaps the most significant case. It was largely through such resistance that Quisling’s plans for establishing the Corporate State in Norway were thwarted. The heroism of the Norwegian teachers in refusing to indoctrinate school children with the National Socialist ideology or to become part of the fascist teachers’ “corporation” is perhaps the best known part of this resistance. But it is by no means the only one. Clergymen, sportsmen, trade unionists and others played their part too.
Other important cases include: major aspects of the Danish Resistance, 1940-45, including the successful general strike in Copenhagen in 1944; major aspects of the Dutch Resistance, 1940-45, including large-scale strikes in 1941, 1943 and 1944; the East German Rising of June 1953, in which there was massive nonviolent defiance including women in Jena sitting down in front of Russian tanks; strikes in the political prisoners’ camps (especially at Vorkma) in the Soviet Union in 1953, which are credited with being a major influence for improving the lot of the prisoners; and 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, and large-scale popular nonviolent defiance. Also, the impact of popular pressure in Poland for liberalising the regime was considerable despite the difficulties.
The degree of “success” and “failure” varies in such cases. These instances have occurred without advance preparations, with neither serious thought nor training nor preparation for such action. These cases are nevertheless significant, for they prove something that is often denied: that nonviolent action is possible under at least certain circumstances against a totalitarian system and that in certain conditions such action can force concessions and win at least partial victories.
In some circumstances such action may lead―and has led in Denmark, East Germany and Hungary, for example―to increasing unreliability of the regime’s own troops, administration and other agents. Mutiny is simply the extreme form of this.
Other significant developments of nonviolent action have taken place in various parts of Africa, Japan, South Vietnam and elsewhere. The process is continuing.
Already this technique has moved very far from its role in politics when Gandhi first began his experiments with it in South Africa, and later in India. Contrary to the former situation, now for the first time people and some social scientists operating as yet with the most meagre resources are attempting to study this technique, and to learn of its nature, its dynamics, the requirements for success with it against various types of opponents, and to examine its future potentialities.
The view that this technique can only be used in the peculiar Indian circumstances at the time of Gandhi is thus seen also to be one which has little basis in fact. Indeed, it was argued a long time ago by an Indian sociologist, Krishnalal Shridharani, in his doctoral thesis at Columbia University (and later in his book, War Without Violence) that the West was more suitable than India for the technique: “My contact with the Western world has led me to think that, contrary to popular belief, satyagraha, once consciously and deliberately adopted, has more fertile fields in which to grow and flourish in the West than in the Orient. Like war, satyagraha demands public spirit, self-sacrifice, organization, endurance and discipline for its successful operation, and I have found these qualities displayed in Western communities more than my own. Perhaps the best craftsmen in the art of violence may still be the most effective wielders of non- violent direct action.”
This view has in the intervening years become not only more credible but one for which there is increasing supporting evidence. This is supported by an elementary examination of a large number of cases of non-violent action which reveals that, contrary to popular belief and the rather conceited assumption of pacifists, in an overwhelming number of such cases leaders and followers have both been non-pacifists who have followed the nonviolent means for some limited social, economic or political objective. This has profound implications.
Thus Gandhi emerges, along with the technique of action, to the development of which he contributed so significantly, as being important for the world as a whole. Gandhi and nonviolent action clearly can no longer be pigeon-holed and dismissed without serious consideration by informed people.
Gandhi’s role in politics was rather peculiar. He was not a student of politics, as we would think of one. He was not a political theoretician or analyst. Nor was he inclined to write, and perhaps was not capable of writing, a systematic treatise on his approach to politics. These were serious weaknesses and have continued to have important consequences. Indeed, he admitted that he could not lay claim to "much book knowledge".
Yet, despite this Gandhi was an innovator in politics. He often demonstrated that despite his lack of political "book knowledge" he had a very considerable understanding of political realities. He relied upon this and his intuition, as well as his constant "experiments". He had a capacity to sense the feelings and capacities of ordinary people about political issues, clearly understanding the peasants better than his more intellectual fellow nationalists.
His capacity to inspire people to act bravely and to gain a new sense of their capacities was combined with great organizational ability and attention to details. The combination of these various factors resulted in his important contributions to the development of "the politics of non-violent action". Dr S. Radhakrishnan, now President of India, wrote in his introduction to the Unesco edition of Gandhi's writings that "Gandhi was the first in human history to extend the principle of nonviolence from the individual to the social and political plane".
This development which has taken place side by side with the most extreme forms of political violence― typified by the Hitler and Stalin regimes and by nuclear weapons―has led some people to ask whether the solution to such violence is developing while the problem is becoming more acute.
After the achievement of political independence, the new Indian Government did not―as Gandhi had hoped―assert its confidence in nonviolent means to defend the newly won freedom. The assumption of some pacifists that after experience with nonviolent action people would rather easily adopt the whole "gospel" was not borne out. Although Gandhi had hoped to the contrary he had expected independent India to have its army.
The Indian nationalists were willing to adopt the nonviolent course of action which Gandhi proposed to achieve political freedom, but when the struggle was won, they did not automatically continue their adherence to nonviolent means. This was a somewhat natural and predictable development.
This is because the adoption by India of the nonviolent struggle to deal with British imperialism was not a doctrinal or a moralistic act. It was a political act in response to a political programme of action proposed to deal with a particular kind of situation and crisis. A distinguished Muslim President of the Indian National Congress, Maulana Azad, once said: “The Indian National Congress is not a moral organization to achieve world peace but a political body to acquire freedom from the foreign yoke.”
Thus, for most Indian nationalists, it happened, almost parenthetically, that this nonviolent programme offered by Gandhi was morally preferable to violent revolutionary war.
In addition to strategic and tactical advantages, this choice of nonviolent means in some ways increased the strength of the movement by giving it an aura of moral superiority. It was also probably psychologically and morally more uplifting to the society as a whole and to individual participants. But these were certainly not the prime factors determining its acceptance.
In this new situation in which independent India no longer followed his nonviolence, Gandhi was unsure about the best way to proceed, except that he was convinced of the importance of having people who believed in “the nonviolence of the brave and the strong” out of moral convictions. He was so busy with the riots and other problems that he did not work out a satisfactory solution to the new problem before his assassination.
In the years after, the Gandhians were for some time uncertain as to how to proceed. When they gained a strong sense of direction it was to follow the initiatives of Vinoba Bhave and the land-gift and associated movements for social and economic reform which he launched. Vinoba, however, is a very different person from Gandhi and is often content with broad generalizations where detailed policies are needed.
When he launched the Shanti Sena, or Peace Army, of a core of volunteers committed to the development of alternative nonviolent ways of dealing with the tasks normally assigned to the police and soldiers, the programme was not worked out in such a way (as Gandhi had done) to appeal to the hard-headed realist and the political leaders. There are now―with the shock of the Indian Government's actions in Goa and the Chinese border―signs of new life within it, but the Shanti Sena still is far from adequately developed.
Meanwhile, the Indian Government sought to pursue a “neutralist” foreign policy while continuing a conventional military defence policy. Inevitably this meant that if confronted with international dangers the Indian Government would demonstrate in action the same faith in military defence as other countries.
If this was not to be, someone would have had to formulate at least the framework for a consciously adopted, carefully prepared, systematically trained programme for the nonviolent defence of India’s newly gained freedom. No one did this.
In this situation it is significant that now Jayaprakash Narayan―who left politics to work in the nonviolent movement, although many expected him to be the next Prime Minister after Nehru―has come to a new awareness of the importance of this task.
In a speech in May 1963, Jayaprakash declared that he rejected both “meek submission to the Chinese injustice to us” and “compromise with cowardice”. “There is no failure in a nonviolent war and we cannot forget all that Gandhi taught us. The alternative to violent war is total disarmament and nonviolent rearmament. If we actually demobilize the army, what would this mean? It would mean that we had shed all our fear of the Chinese, Russians and others and were determined not to bow our head before any aggressor; we will offer nonviolent resistance to them.”
This was probably the first time such words had been heard from the lips of so prominent an Indian since that fateful afternoon of 30 January 1948. Obviously, however, the extraordinarily vast and difficult problems which are involved in the preparations for and execution of such an undertaking require the most serious programme of research and planning. There are not yet signs that this is being undertaken. The financial requirements of such a programme of investigation are large: £1,000,000 a year could be spent very usefully, given the right projects and personnel. Is the Indian Government likely to help? It is doubtful, although it is widely recognised that the present military programme is going to increase seriously India’s economic problems, and hence may help indirectly to increase the strength of the Communists within India. Yet Nehru recognised the importance of further investigation of the nonviolent technique. He told Joan Bondurant: “I do not pretend to understand fully the significance of that technique of action, in which I myself took part. But I feel more and more convinced that it offers us some key to understanding and to the proper resolution of conflict.” Gandhi’s way showed achievement, Nehru said. “That surely should at least make us try to understand what this new way was and how far it is possible for us to shape our thoughts and actions in accordance with it.”
However, the problem of tyranny and the problem of war are the problems not only of India, but of the whole world. Even if one thinks the chances of nonviolent action turning out to be an effective substitute for war are very small, the desperate nature of our situation is such that even such a small chance deserves full investigation.
This is the kind of tribute and remembrance which Gandhi would have appreciated. He was never one to claim he had all the answers or the final truth. He did not want people to be thinking always of him, but of the task which he had undertaken.
“I am fully aware that my mission cannot be fulfilled in India alone”, Gandhi once wrote to an American correspondent. “I am pining for the assistance of the whole world..... But I know that we shall have to deserve it before it comes.”
The quest for an alternative to war is now our common task in which Gandhi pioneered so significantly. Is it not now time that a full investigation into the potentialities of nonviolent action is both deserved and required?