“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong. With the weak, it might easily be hypocrisy…,” declared Ghandi in 1891. Over the succeeding decades, Ghandi proved time and again the irrefutable truth about the efficacy and morality of nonviolent civil disobedience in resisting unjust laws and colonialism, culminating in Indian independence in 1947 in the only successful nonviolent revolution in history.
Gandhi was a lawyer whose conscience was seared by the humiliation and indignities forced upon the Indian population in
Between 1906 and 1913, the colonial government in South Africa passed laws which required fingerprinting and registration of Indians, banned Indian immigration, imposed an annual tax on former indentured Indian servants, and invalidated all but Christian marriages. Ghandi was outraged by these repressive measures, and successfully organized the Indian community to engage in acts of civil disobedience. Although he was successful in getting these laws repealed, he was jailed repeatedly for his leadership and participation in the civil disobedience campaigns.
Ghandi drew two fundamental lessons from his early experiences in civil disobedience in
Based on these two lessons, Ghandi developed a comprehensive approach to discovering and applying “truth” to the resolution of disputes. He called his approach “Satyagraha,” which he defined as “truth-force,” “love-force” or “soul-force.” The practitioner of this “force” begins with the assumption that one can only change “an opponent from error by patience and sympathy. And patience means self-suffering. So [Satyagraha] means vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s own self.” The quest for and discovery of the “truth” is not a simple task; it requires time and patience, and admits of no violence, while offering limitless capacity for love.Ghandi was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Christ, and often cited Jesus' teachings as the supreme example of his “truth/love force.” Jesus taught his followers to “to love their enemies,” and to “turn the right cheek” if struck on the left. As Christians know all too well, Jesus suffered great physical suffering culminating in his crucifixion. He also suffered spiritually by carrying the weight of the sins of mankind. At the last moment of his life, Jesus did not ask to be delivered from death, but rather asked forgiveness for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they have done.”
Ghandi found it ironic that Christian Europe should conveniently forget the essential message of Christ: “Even in Christian Europe the principle of non-violence is ridiculed. Christians do not understand the message of Jesus. It is necessary to deliver it over again in the way we can understand ... But I must say that so long as we do not accept the principle of loving the enemy, all talk of world brotherhood is an airy nothing.” In a moment of frustration, Ghandi said:“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
From 1917 until independence, Ghandi continued to use nonviolent civil disobedience to protest unjust colonial laws and actions of the British colonial government. He traveled throughout
Ghandi explained that in committing acts of civil disobedience, the person disobeying the law should be civil and not hurt or inflict suffering on the opponent. His idea of “ahimsa (non-hurting)” made a distinction between resistance of an unjust impersonal political system, and the individuals who happen to be in it and have to defend, serve and support it. He believed that persons who work in unjust systems need to be taught the “truth” so that they can correct the error of their ways, but never be targets of violence. His message to the colonial oppressors of
Gandhi continued to organize massive disobedience and non-cooperation campaigns throughout the 1920s, and was arrested and jailed numerous times. When he was put on trial for one of his civil disobedience campaigns in 1922 -- arguably the only judicial trial he ever had despite his numerous arrests and detentions -- he was unrepentant and unapologetic, and ready to practice his “Satyagraha.” He defiantly told the judge: “I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” He served 22 months in prison.
Ghandi resisted popular calls for armed struggle against the British. He believed that he would simply demand independence, and if the British did not grant it, he would declare it himself. He did just that in 1930, and asked people to celebrate independence day. He simultaneously announced an eleven-point program which included land reform, release of political prisoners, and repeal of the infamous salt tax which prohibited Indians from making salt, among others. In his inimitable way, Ghandi notified the British Viceroy that he intended to disobey the salt law, and promptly set off on a long walk to the sea where the salt was being made, joined by thousands along the way. Over 100,000 Indians were imprisoned in the uncontrollable salt law civil disobedience campaign. Unable to contain the massive numbers of protesters, and hoping to blunt the ever growing campaign, the British repealed the salt law. Ghandi’s civil disobedience campaign was triumphant once again!
Ghandi’s problems in the 1930s were not limited to the struggle for independence from colonialism. The recurrent sectarian (religious) conflict between Hindus and Muslims became a source of deep frustration and anxiety for him. His teaching of love and tolerance did not seem to resonate meaningfully among these religious communities. He went on numerous fasts protesting sectarian violence and encouraged others to follow his example. When
Ghandi’s Philosophy in a Nutshell
Ghandi never doubted that his “truth/love force” technique could serve as a tool for human freedom, and “if it became universal, would revolutionize social ideals and do away with despotisms and the ever-growing militarism.” Ghandi was so convinced of the efficacy of his nonviolent methods that he believed even
Ghandi’s ideas of “love/truth force” (Satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahisma) are at once simple and complex. The simplicity arises from the fact that the concepts are easily understandable. The complexity arises in application of these ideas to real life situations. It is for that very reason that Ghandi said nonviolence is for the strong, and not the weak. It takes great spiritual, intellectual and physical strength to renounce the use of violence against those who cause us great suffering, not to hate them as evildoers, champion a righteous cause despite adverse consequences and accept unlimited suffering, including the possibility of martyrdom, in the pursuit and defense of truth.
Gandhi’s idea of willingly accepting suffering is not some sort of benign masochism. It is based on his belief of self-purification in which the violence of the perpetrator purges the evil that resides within the victim, which in turn cleanses the conscience of the victimizer. The victim by not responding to the violence committed against him becomes the terminating point for the violence, ending the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, revenge and retaliation, reprisals and retribution. He observed: “The end of violence is always defeat, but nonviolence is endless and is never defeated.”
It is important to understand that Ghandi’s idea of nonviolence does not only refer to the absence physical violence; it also embraces other more spiritual and psychological manifestations of harm (violence) that arise from such behavior as lying and deceitfulness, hatred, jealousy, greed, anger and impatience.
Ghandi believed that it is futile to try and convert a person to a just cause by violence and coercion; rather one must use persuasion and genuine dialogue to communicate with one’s opponent and reach the humanity buried deep in his heart. Once the truth is awakened in the conscience of the victimizer, the irresistible force of truth will transform and guide him to do the right thing. One must therefore be very careful in using the great spiritual power of nonviolence, and the “slightest use of violence can taint a just cause.”
Ghandi believed that hatred, anger, greed and other negative forces that dwell in the individual are destructive and must be harnessed and transformed into positive energy of love, patience and compassion. If they are not, the individual who responds to evil in anger or hatred becomes consumed by the anger and hatred he bears towards his victimizer losing his spiritual balance and strength. It is only through self-discipline and self-control that the individual accepts the abuse and suffering of his victimizer, and manages to remain above the hatred while developing the capacity for boundless love of his enemy and convert him to the truth.
Gandhi saw the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience as “the inherent right of a citizen. He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man.” Indeed, the citizen not only has the natural right to civil disobedience but is also under a moral imperative to defy unjust laws, which are in themselves a form of “error” (untruths) requiring correction. When peaceful demands for removal of unjust laws fall on deaf ears, and all peaceful methods have been exhausted, the person at that point acquires the moral right to “break an unjust law and willingly suffer the penalty in order to call attention to the injustice.” However, in breaking the unjust laws, one must avoid all use of violence.
Ghandi always stressed that acts of civil disobedience are not things to be done impulsively. Rather they should “be undertaken only after extensive preparation and as a last resort.” It is not something that is “engineered by only a handful of leaders. It must, rather, arise as a natural response to widespread moral distress,” and should “be attempted with calm deliberation and a clear resolve to benefit others.” The ultimate aim of civil disobedience should be “overcoming evil with good, hatred with love, anger with patience, falsehood with truth, and violence with ahimsa (nonhurting).” In short, nonviolent civil disobedience does not seek the destruction of the opponent, but rather seeks to convert him to truth and the ways of justice.
Ghandi understood that the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience is extremely challenging since one has to undergo intense internal struggle to overcome the negative energies of anger, hatred, greed and so on, and attain a “power which can move the world.” The internal struggle requires not only great spiritual strength, but also training, education and personal development through self-discipline and self-purification. But it is not difficult to pursue: “The beauty and efficacy of Satyagraha are so great and the doctrine so simple that it can be preached even to children.”
Ghandi makes a distinction between civil disobedience and non-cooperation which “involves the withdrawal by individuals of allegiance and support from various public institutions.” Ghandi believed that if people could “no longer in good conscience participate in or support a government that has become oppressive, unjust, and violent,” they have the right not to participate in it or support it. The may demonstrate their non-cooperation by “refusing to pay taxes, participating in government programs, and even refusing to participate in the legislatures. Non-cooperation is less about disobeying the law as much as it is an “effort to purify the soul by disassociating it from evil.”
Ghandi always taught that nonviolent civil disobedience was for the strong and not the weak. A person practicing nonviolent civil disobedience must be “fearless.” He must not be afraid to be arrested, jailed, beaten, tortured or even die for the cause of truth. But fearlessness in the physical sense is not enough. The persons must also have spiritual fearlessness. He must never show anger, animosity, hatred, hostility or disrespect towards an opponent. Ghandi went as far as prescribing against the use of offensive language and curse words against opponents, and protecting them from mob violence if the occasion arose.
Ghandi reminded his followers that the nonviolent civil resister must not only be fearless, he must also not inspire fear in the opponent. If the opponent perceives a threat, not only will he be unable to see and experience the truth that is before him, but he will instinctively react from a position fear, often violently. Therefore, in nonviolent civil disobedience, it is important to avoid arousing fear and striving to reassure the opponent.
Ghandi believed people “are politically weak not because they lack weapons or votes, but because they lack moral and ethical direction.” Satyagraha empowers them to make choices based on morally and ethically defensible truths, and help them nurture leaders and institutions that promote justice, equality and fairness.
Although Ghandi was fully committed to nonviolence, he did believe that in certain extremely narrow circumstances, it may be justified. He explained that “nonviolence is superior to violence, violence, in turn, is superior to passivity in the face of injustice.” Moreover, if the “only choice is between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence....I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence...”
In practice, Ghandi often notified the colonial authorities that he intended to violate a certain law and fully expected to suffer the consequences of his actions, a fact that was a source of great confusion and frustration for the authorities. He did so because he felt that engaging in civil disobedience by hiding his identity or actions would make him indistinguishable from a common criminal. He would equally frustrate his followers by canceling a civil disobedience campaign because he felt there was potential for violence or the motive for the campaign was not pure.
Gandhi believed in the singular importance of the individual in nonviolent civil disobedience. He explained that in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, what mattered the most was not the “quantity of people involved” but the quality. He believed a single satyagrahi (civil resister) could serve as an exemplar to the masses and move them to great action. Of course, he was the paragon of the nonviolent civil resister.
Ghandian principles have been applied in diverse societies throughout the world. The most notable recent examples include
One wonders if Ghandi would have counseled nonviolent civil disobedience to contemporary Ethiopians as he did to the Abyssinians during the Italian occupation. I should like to think, at least, he would say: “May the (Truth) Force be with you!”