This article was first published in issue 97 of The Gandhi Way
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi did not claim to be a prophet or even a philosopher.
“There is no such thing as Gandhism,” he warned “and I do not want to leave any sect after me.” There was only one Gandhian, he said, an imperfect one at that: himself.
The real significance of the Indian freedom movement in Gandhi’s eyes was that it was waged nonviolently. He would have had no interest in it if the Indian National Congress had not adopted satyagraha and subscribed to nonviolence. He objected to violence not only because an unarmed people had little chance of success in an armed rebellion, but because he considered violence a clumsy weapon which created more problems than it solved, and left a trail of hatred and bitterness in which genuine reconciliation was almost impossible.
This emphasis on nonviolence jarred alike on Gandhi’s British and Indian critics, though for different reasons. To the former, nonviolence was a camouflage; to the latter, it was sheer sentimentalism. To the British who tended to see the Indian struggle through the prism of European history, the professions of nonviolence rather than on the remarkably peaceful nature of Gandhi’s campaigns. To the radical Indian politicians, who had browsed on the history of the French and Russian revolutions or the Italian and Irish nationalist struggles, it was patent that force would only yield to force, and that it was foolish to miss opportunities and sacrifice tactical gains for reasons more relevant to ethics than to politics. Gandhi’s total allegiance to nonviolence created a gulf between him and the educated elite in India which was temporarily bridged only during periods of intense political excitement. Even among his closest colleagues there were few who were prepared to follow his doctrine of nonviolence to its logical conclusion: the adoption of unilateral disarmament in a world armed to the teeth, the scrapping of the police and the armed forces, and the decentralisation of administration to the point where the state would “wither away”.
Nehru, Patel and others on whom fell the task of organising the administration of independent India did not question the superiority of the principle of nonviolence as enunciated by their leader, but they did not consider it practical politics. The Indian Constituent Assembly included a majority of members owing allegiance to Gandhi or at least holding him in high esteem, but the constitution which emerged from their labours in 1949 was based more on the Western parliamentary system than on the Gandhian model. The development of the Indian economy during the last four decades cannot be said to have conformed to Gandhi’s conception of “self-reliant village republics”. On the other hand, it bears the marks of a conscious effort to launch an Indian industrial revolution. The manner in which Gandhi’s techniques have sometimes been invoked even in the land of his birth in recent years would appear to be a travesty of his principles. And the world has been in the grip of a series of crises in Korea, the Congo, Vietnam, the Middle East, and South Africa with a never-ending trail of blood and bitterness. The shadow of a nuclear war with its incalculable hazards continues to hang over humankind.
From this predicament, Gandhi’s ideas and techniques may suggest a way out. He advocated nonviolence not because it offered an easy way out, but because he considered violence a crude and in the long run, an ineffective weapon. His rejection of violence stemmed from choice, not from necessity. Horace Alexander, who knew Gandhi and saw him in action, graphically describes the attitude of the nonviolent resister to his opponent:
“On your side you have all the mighty forces of the modern State, arms, money, a controlled press, and all the rest. On my side, I have nothing but my conviction of right and truth, the unquenchable spirit of man, who is prepared to die for his convictions than submit to your brute force. I have my comrades in armlessness. Here we stand; and here if need be, we fall.”
Far from being a craven retreat from difficulty and danger, nonviolent resistance demands courage of a high order, the courage to resist injustice without rancour, to unite the utmost firmness with the utmost gentleness, to invite suffering but not to inflict it, to die but not to kill. Gandhi did not make the facile division of mankind into “good” and “bad”. He was convinced that every human being — even the “enemy” – had a kernel of decency: there were only evil acts, no wholly evil men. His technique of satyagraha was designed not to coerce the opponent, but to set into motion forces which could lead to his conversion. Relying as it did on persuasion and compromise, Gandhi’s method was not always quick in producing results, but the results were likely to be the more durable for having been brought about peacefully.
“It is my firm conviction”, Gandhi affirmed, “that nothing enduring can be built upon violence”.
The rate of social change through the nonviolent technique was not in fact likely to be much slower than that achieved by violent methods; it was definitely faster than that expected from the normal functioning of institutions which tended to fossilise and preserve the status quo. Gandhi did not think it possible to bring about radical changes in the structure of society overnight. Nor did he succumb to the illusion that the road to a new order could be paved merely with pious wishes and fine words. It was not enough to blame the opponent or bewail the times in which one’s lot was cast. However heavy the odds, it was the satyagrahi’s duty never to feel helpless. The least he could do was to make a beginning with himself. If he was crusading for a new deal for peasantry, he could go to a village and live there; if he wanted to bring peace to a disturbed district, he could walk through it, entering into the minds and hearts of those who were going through the ordeal. If an age-old evil like untouchability was to be fought, what could be a more effective symbol of defiance for a reformer than to adopt an untouchable child ? If the object was to challenge foreign rule, why not act on the assumption that the country was already free, ignore the alien government and build alternative institutions to harness the spontaneous, constructive and cooperative effort of the people ? If the goal was world peace, why not begin today by acting peacefully towards the immediate neighbour, going more than half way to understand and win him over ?
Though he may have appeared a starry-eyed idealist to so many, Gandhi’s attitude to social and political problems was severely practical. There was a deep mystical streak in him, but even his mysticism seemed to have little of the ethereal about it. He did not dream heavenly dreams nor see things unutterable in trance; when “the still small voice” spoke to him, it was often to tell how he could fight a social evil or heal a rift between two warring communities. Far from distracting him from his role in public affairs, Gandhi’s religious quest gave him the stamina to play it more effectively. To him true religion was not merely the reading of scriptures, the dissection of ancient texts, or even the practice of cloistered virtue: it had to be lived in the challenging context of political and social life.
Gandhi used his nonviolent technique on behalf of his fellow-countrymen in South Africa and India, but he did not conceive it only as a weapon in the armoury of Indian nationalism. Nonviolence, as Gandhi expounded it, has ceased to be a pious exhortation, and become a necessity. The advice he gave to the unfortunate Abyssinians and Czechs during the twilight years before the Second Word War, may have seemed utopian thirty years ago. Today, it sounds common sense. Gandhi would have been the first to deny that his method offered an instant or universal panacea for world peace. His method is capable of almost infinite evolution to suit new situations in a changing world. It is possible that “applied nonviolence” is at present having the same value to maintain “global peace” for ever.
The author is a non-teaching employee of Assam University, Silchar, India. He holds an MA (Philosophy and Religion), NET (Buddhist, Jaina, Gandhian and Peace Studies) and presently doing PhD work on Phenomenology. He is a guest Faculty of Philosophy in Sri Aurobindo Evening Degree College, Silchar, Assam.