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ARTICLES > PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > Conflict Resolution : The Gandhian Approach

 

Conflict Resolution: The Gandhian Approach
(The Theory and Practice of Satyagraha)

By Dr. Y. P. Anand

--- An Outline Presentation ---

Contents

1. Conflicts and Conflict Resolution: Introductory Observations

2. Satyagraha, the Gandhian Philosophy and Technique of Conflict Resolution

  • Basic Principles of Satyagraha

  • Concepts fundamental to Satyagraha

  • The Role of the Individual in Satyagraha

  • Psychology of Satyagraha: Existence of Aggression (Violence)

  • Psychology of Satyagraha: Existence of Human Will

  • The Role of Patience in Satyagraha

  • Ethics of Satyagraha


3. Application of Satyagraha

  • Interpersonal Conflicts

  • Legal Disputes: the Adversary System of Resolution

  • Industrial Conflicts

  • Social Conflicts

  • Satyagraha against the State: Civil Disobedience

  • Inter-nation Conflicts

1. CONFLICTS AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION: Introductory Observations

Conflicts

Interpersonal, legal, industrial, social/national, international; Inevitable due to traditional, emerging or perceived changes, incompatibilities, antagonisms, or clash of interests, beliefs, values, egos or goals; not always 'bad', or 'destructive'; may be a symptom or letting off steam; various forms: 'manifest' or 'underlying'; a grievance, a dispute, confrontation.


Conflicts Resolved

when disputants give up any hope of further amending the situation; costs of resolution could be objective and subjective; economic, social or psychological.


Conflicts Resolved Through:

Coercion
one of the parties finds no other way, power disparities preclude reciprocity, primary concern in not yielding, or 'loss of face' an issue.

'Lumping', or Avoidance feeling of powerlessness; lack of will, ability, social sanction, alternatives


Negotiation
when there exists at least one set of terms that each party would prefer to no agreement; dialectical
offers new approaches, interactive process of dialogue, learning, growth.


Mediation
third party aids without decision-making power.


Arbitration
parties voluntarily submit to arbitrator's decision; and


Adjudication
legal intervention and decision. These involve coercive power, emphasis on norms, precedents, verdicts, zero-sum (both parties try to dominate) decisions.

Coercion, 'Lumping' or Avoidance are unilateral and competitive ways;
Negotiation is bilateral and cooperative.
Mediation involves third party and is cooperative.
Arbitration and Adjudication involve decisive control of third party and are competitive.

Conflicts may terminate in Compromise or in Forced Decisions.


'Productive' Conflicts

Opponents jointly approach a mutually satisfactory solution with openness and are satisfied with the outcomes. Cooperation, compromise, trust, persuasion, conciliation, emphasis on mutual relations, help and similarities, responsiveness, reciprocity, goodwill, credit-giving, negotiation, mediation, dialogue, understanding the opponent, stressing his valid points first, and nonviolence characterizes their resolution. Institutional and social norms and agencies may assist in resolution of competitive conflicts in a peaceful manner.


'Destructive Conflicts'

'Winner takes all' approach, opponents are unhappy with the outcomes, have a sense of loss/defeat; conflicts tend to escalate. Competition, emphasis on extracting concessions, use of threats, coercion, ambiguity, rigid positions, deception, illegitimate means, non-negotiable demands, ignoring the minimum acceptable pay-off to the opponent and norms of fairness, litigation, and violence characterize these conflicts.

2. SATYAGRAHA, the GANDHIAN PHILOSOPHY and TECHNIQUE of CONFLICT RESOLUTION

Conflict resolution through violent means

use of obvious and tangible strategies and weapons; based on denial of Truth "because man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore is not competent to punish"; opponents react with fear and mindless reflex action; self-perpetuating through vengeance; 'destructive'.


Conflict resolution through nonviolent means

involves accommodation and conversion of the opponent. Even an element of nonviolent 'coercion' may be present but this too may lead to changes in attitudes in the long run. Through 'conversion', the opponent changes inwardly through the conscience and thus tends to conciliate with the nonviolent activist, leaving no aftermath of resentment or revenge. Gandhi evolved SATYAGRAHA as the most pragmatic and potent technique of conflict resolution and as the morally correct way of life, based on the dialectics of 'conversion' through which alone can Truth, human life's ultimate mission, be approached.


SATYAGRAHA

Satya(=truth) + Graha (= insistence, firmness); Gandhi called it Truth-force or Soul-force. Its main elements, Truth and Nonviolence, are inter-related as Ends and Means. Satyagraha aims not at victory in the narrow sense but "a relentless search for Truth". A Satyagrahi is one who practices Satyagraha.

Satyagraha variously described as 'Nonviolent Resistance', 'Nonviolent Direct Action, 'Militant Nonviolence', etc. But Gandhi distinguished it from 'Passive Resistance' (weapon of the weak).

Satyagraha is applicable for all situations: from inter-personal to the group and national and international conflicts, from micro-to macro-level conflicts.

But its fundamental unit is the Individual. Ultimately, all Satyagraha is a personal matter. Even in mass Satyagraha: "If a single Satyagrahi holds out to the end, victory is certain."

Training for all kinds of Satyagraha begins with peaceful solution of small interpersonal conflicts: "Nonviolence, like charity, begins at home." Gandhi's own example is instructive: "I learnt the lesson of nonviolence from my wife, when I tried to bend her over to my will. Her determined resistance to my will, on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity. She became my teacher in nonviolence."

Gandhi's Satyagrahi is an altruistic but a practical idealist, and an irrepressible optimist, "grows from truth to truth", and believes that "The true source of right is duty." Ideally he is like Gandhi: what he "thinks, what he feels and what he says and what he does are all the same thing."

Satyagraha is ethical: "The Satyagrahi's object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrongdoer." It aims at "a restructuring of the opposing elements to achieve a situation which is satisfactory to both the original opposing antagonists"; "it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists themselves." According to Bondurant, "In Satyagraha dogma gives way to open exploration of context. The objective is not to assert propositions but to create possibilities. Satyagrahi involves himself in acts of 'ethical existence'." Nobody is out of the reach of a Satyagrahi's appeals especially if one's goodwill and willingness to suffer for truth are clearly demonstrated.

"Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice. It is never fussy, never impatient, never vociferous. It is the direct opposite of compulsion. It was conceived as a complete substitute for violence. The reformer must have consciousness of the truth of his cause. He will not be impatient with the opponent, he will be impatient with himself."


Basic Principles of Satyagraha:

Conflict resolution through Satyagraha is based on the assumptions that:

(a) some elements of common interest to the disputants always exist;
(b) disputants could be amenable to an 'appeal to the heart and mind'; and
(c) Satyagrahis are capable of carrying Satyagraha to the end.

Satyagrahi must be clear about the essential purpose and elements of his case. It is never to injure the opponent. His case and conduct must be ever transparent. He must make reparation if an error is discovered.

Essential interests in common among opponents should be emphasized and dialogue encouraged on that basis: "Three-fourths of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world disappear if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their standpoint."

"The golden rulemutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision. Conscience is not the same for all."

Trust the opponents: "Many have deceived me and many have been found wanting. But I do not repent. The most practical, the most dignified way of going on in the world is to take people at their word, when you have no reason to the contrary." But the Satyagrahi need not wait endlessly. When "the limit is reached he takes risks and conceives plans of active Satyagraha which may mean Civil Disobedience and the like."

"A Satyagrahi never misses, can never miss, a chance of compromise on honourable terms""because I can never be sure that I am right." But, "essentials" or "eternal principles" should be defended unto death. Gandhi asserted: "Human life is a series of compromises and it is not always easy to achieve in practice what one had found to be true in theory." And, "Compromise comes in every step, but one must realize that it is a compromise, and keep the final goal constantly in front of the mind's eye." He further clarified: "I could not have fought the Dutch and the English without love in my heart for them, and without a readiness for compromise. But my compromises will never be at the cost of the cause or the country." On his political differences with Subhash Bose on how to fight the British, he said: "I am not spoiling for a fight. I am trying to avoid it. I am eager to have compromise with Britain if it can be had with honour. Indeed, Satyagraha demands it. And yet, if the time comes and I had no follower, I should be able to put up a single-handed fight." Finally, "My life is made up of compromises, but they have been compromises that have brought me nearer the goal."

Do not exploit a position of an opponent's weakness. Reject intrigue, manipulation, surprise. The resultant goodwill may induce him to trust the Satyagrahi and move towards resolution. [Example: Gandhi called off Indians' mass Satyagraha in South Africa in Jan. 1914 because of the strike by European railway men. General Smuts' secretary said to Gandhi: "I do not like your people. But what I am to do? You help us in our days of need. You will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that reduces us to sheer helplessness."] Satyagrahi never humiliates or embarrasses the opponent; appeals never to his fear but always to his heart.

Conversion of the opponent is furthered by Satyagrahi's personal sincerity, which is best manifested by making sacrifices for the given cause. The process of conversion involves several steps: reasoning, persuasion and moral appeal through self-suffering in lieu of violence or coercion, and if these fail, various strategies of non co-operation and civil disobedience. It will "at least compel recognition from him [the opponent] which recognition would not humiliate but uplift him."


Concepts fundamental to Satyagraha:

(a) Truth:

Truth "in Sanskrit means SAT. Sat means IS.God is, nothing else is. Therefore, the more truthful we are, the nearer we are to God." One is a moral agent only to the extent one embraces Truth. God is the all-pervading reality, the essence of the unity of man, of all that lives, the Absolute Truth: "As long as I have not realized this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold to the relative truth as I have conceived it." As "the human mind works through innumerable mediawhat may be truth for one may be untruth for another." No one therefore "has the right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth."

Differences would be bridged through discipline and humility and the conflict resolved through nonviolence and self-suffering. Satyagraha being a quest for Truth, demands public admission of mistakes: "magnify the mole-hills of our errors into mountains and minimize the mountains of others' errors into mole-hills" and living a life of truth: "A lover of Truth will never appear different from what he is. His thoughts, words and actions will be harmonious."


(b) Nonviolence (Ahimsa):

"Ahimsa is the means, Truth is the end. If we take care of the means we are bound to reach the end sooner or later."

Violence begets violence. Violence and hatred are always linked. It is not possible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence. In a conflict situation, violence hits the sinner rather than the sin.

Gandhi could never accept violence as a 'cleansing force'. He asserted that "Individuals or nations, who practice nonviolence, must be prepared to sacrifice their all except honour." As a corollary, "where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence."

Peace is more perfect than war because the legitimate aim of war is more perfect peace. War is 'mutual violence' which must breed hatred, revenge and bitternessa poor foundation for greater peace. Nonviolent resistance brings out the issues into the open and approaches a new settlement in accord with Truth. It leaves behind no rancour or frustration and achieves greater peace.

Gandhian Ahimsa is "not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. The active state of Ahimsa requires you to resist the wrong-doer." "The very first step in nonviolence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness."

The way of violence works as a monologue but that of nonviolence is a dialogue.

"Nonviolence is never a method of coercion, it is one of conversion." However, ways of non co-operation like Boycott and Strike, or Fasts may involve an implicit moral 'coercion', a compelling element. Gandhi, therefore, insisted on the rightness of cause, right means and 'love' for the opponent.


(c) Creative Self-suffering:

"appeal of reason is more to the head but penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding of man." It "does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doerit means the putting of one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant."

"Suffering injury in one's person isof the essence of nonviolence and it is the chosen substitute of violence to othersresults in the long run is the least loss of life," and both the Satyagrahi and his opponent are transformed. Even if the opponent's conscience is not touched, he may yet be converted indirectly if the endured suffering moves the public opinion.

Even if self-suffering "is used in a course that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes." And it keeps the resistance nonviolent.


(d) Faith in Human Goodness

The basis of Satyagraha is that the opponent is open to reason and has a conscience and that human nature is bound, or at least likely, "to respond to any noble and friendly action."

"Every one of us is a mixture of good and evil." Hence, the opponent should be given the same credit that the Satyagrahi would ask for himself. "Even if the opponent plays false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed." Belief in the goodness of human nature and the operation of reason is the optimist's act of faith.


(e) Means and Ends:

"They say 'Means are after all means.' I would say, 'means are after all everything.' As the means so the endif one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself."

"I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means. The method may appear to be long, perhaps too long, but I am convinced that it is the shortest."

Gandhi, braving all criticism, had called off a major Civil Disobedience campaign in 1922 because of eruption of violence by some Satyagrahis.


(f) Fearlessness

For Gandhi, possession of arms was a sign of fear and cowardice. Cowards could never be moral. A violent person could become nonviolent someday, but never a coward: "Nonviolence and cowardice are contradictory terms." And violence "when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission."

"If you feel humiliated, the use of force would be the natural consequence if you are not a coward. But if you have assimilated the nonviolent spirit, there would be no feeling of humiliation in you."

The courage in Satyagraha "is a matter of heart" and not of physical strength.


The Role of the Individual in Satyagraha

Gandhi believed that "Ultimately it is the individual who is the unit." He believed in the perfectibility of the individual and its flow through effect to the society: "as we are so our environment becomes." He claimed: "A small body of determined spirits fixed by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history." He saw the relationship between the individual and the society as one of the parts determining the whole.

However, in the sociological tradition, the individual is mostly seen as moulded by the social forces acting on him, even though some sociologists do accept the individual-society relationship as dialectical and others do recognize the role of individual charisma. For Marxists, it is the social existence, which determines the individual's consciousness. But Marx did say in his 'Third Thesis on Feuerbach': "The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men." To Gandhi, moral development of the society stems from that of the individual. And one should remain loyal to institutions as long as they are conducive to personal growth. Where they impede it, it is the individual's "duty to be disloyal to it."

Gandhi's social philosophy encompassed both an enriched society and free and integrated individuals. Not only did people change society but they had to take an active stance to ensure its occurrence. Within Satyagraha he experimented with and explored both the individual and the social paths that were consistent with the goals sought. Under Gandhian SWARAJ (=self-rule), once one stops regarding oneself as a slave, one ceases to be one. Through non co-operation with an 'evil' system, one starts reforming the society. [The best example would be of Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat in a public bus in Montgomery, USA.]

Perhaps the real barrier to effective practice of Satyagraha would be in an increasing concentration of power in political and social structures and consequent relegation of the personal element which is essential for individual initiative and moral existence. Therefore, he also looked upon "an increase in the power of the state with greatest fear because, although while doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress."


Psychology of Satyagraha: Existence of Aggression (Violence)

Aggression in its applied form of self-assertion may reflect an innate human striving for perfection and growth, but in its commonly understood purer form it becomes VIOLENCE. Taken in this sense, the biological theories concerning AGGRESSION fall under two categories. To ethologists, humans, like animals, are 'by instinct' aggressive, causing even more bloodshed than animals. Invention of weapons raises the equilibrium of killing potential and social inhibitions are further weakened by the ability to kill at a distance. According to Freud, "men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved. They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness." To behaviourists, aggressive behaviour is largely learnt and arbitrary and, hence, men and societies can change in accordance with the changing image they develop of themselves.

Gandhi, however, believed strongly in the basic goodness and nonviolent nature of human beings. As otherwise they "would have been self-destroyed long ago." Nonviolence being the routine human behaviour, "History does not and cannot take note of this fact." One forms a habit of nonviolence by simply not being violent. Gandhi said: "My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence." Human attitudes are by far the most determinant cause of violence. For Gandhi: "Man's nature is not essentially evil; brute nature has been known to yield to the influence of love." An optimistic view of human potential is the bedrock for the success of Satyagraha.

Gandhi emphasized the role of Training in nonviolence in human interactions cultivation of "truthfulness, tolerance, humility, loving kindness" even more than in violence.

Gandhi realized that if frustration is the chief trigger of aggression, then living in ways that cause less frustration among our contacts is the remedy. Violence might be avoided if the conduct of conflict does not threaten the opponent's self-esteem: "Nonviolence affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honour."


Psychology of Satyagraha: Existence of Human Will

The determinist position holds that all events follow immutable laws and, as such, an act of will too is determined by the individual's innate character and motive. Many psychologists believe that the unconscious influences/motivates action otherwise considered to be free. Voltaire remarked that liberty is "when I can do what I want to do" but that "I can't help wanting what I want to do." Thus, according to the determinists, man is a puppet, controlled by instinct or conditioning.

According to the 'causal' view, our inborn qualities and characteristics are the hand we are dealt with and the freedom of choice is the way we play it. Other libertarians maintain that free will is at least partially dependent on knowing the self through analysis of motives. Individuals have it within their power to build up habits in themselves or overcome existing habits. Sartre went to the extent that we are free but like to deny it out of dishonesty.

Gandhi believed that individuals could change themselves by force of will. Further, through self-suffering, a protagonists' conscience could be pricked to the degree that they will realize the nature of their behaviour and then be able to consciously decide to change. In the Gandhian model, the individual in a conflict situation is not innately aggressive and has the freedom of will to resolve conflicts in a nonviolent way.

Gandhi also used the tool of Vows as an aid to the will: "a vow really means unflinching determination without which progress is impossible."


The Role of Patience in Satyagraha

Human impatience chafes at Satyagraha, craving the more active and unrestricted practice of a soldier or terrorist. Impatience implies inability to tolerate waiting and a belief that all desired change can be quickly brought about. The problem of mass impatience is even more serious. Patience is vitally connected with nonviolence both in its techniques and in the wider objectives of the nonviolent.

Violence seeks quicker results and less commonly gives rise to situations having the appearance of deadlock. The usual plenty of activity helps to maintain the interest and morale of the combatants. Nonviolent methods, non co-operation in particular, seldom have a quick impact on the opponents and much of it is hardly visible to the Satyagrahis. Secondly, violence offers distractions of using complex and novel equipment and feeding the technological addiction and interest in scientific devices. Thirdly, violent encounters can make use of the savage force when patience is exhausted. Violence aims to coerce, nonviolence to convince and convert for a better and lasting relationship based on Truth and mutual concern and hence needs patience and understanding to counter unresponsiveness.

True patience, meaning fortitude, endurance and waiting, is a heroic but rare attribute. This quality made Gandhi the greatest Satyagrahi of our time. This quality may even be diminishing because of the decline in religious belief, search for fast track 'technological' remedies to the political, social and personal problems, solutions to which are inherently slow; unwillingness to persist in courses that have not met with success; a mental confusion that associates slow pace with inefficiency and seeks short-term and not lasting goals. These tendencies aggravate the difficulties of applying nonviolent methods for solving present day human problems.

The answer lies partly in developing social discipline based on self-discipline. It takes longer to produce a Satyagrahi than a soldier. But mere social discipline too would not raise a modern community to a level where it can persist in nonviolent courses in the face of long frustration and provocation to violence. Gandhi's remedy to this lies in his dictum for some kind of socially useful Constructive Programme: "Unaccompanied by the spirit of service, courting imprisonment, inviting beating and lathi charges, becomes a species of violence."

In campaigns involving large numbers of people aiming at comprehensive adjustments of class or social relations, sustenance of morale over long periods of stalemate is impossible without large-scale organization of constructive work. It provides an idealistic occupation for the supporting mass, maintains popular morale by offering progress in one direction to compensate for its lack in Satyagraha, provides Satyagrahis with opportunities to practice nonviolence in action in wider socio-economic perspectives. Such a programme would have some imaginative bearing upon the object of struggle, relieving distress and lessening injustice.


Ethics of Satyagraha

Satyagraha is a dialogue; therefore, listening to others, treating them as a reasonable and reasoning equal is essential.

Ultimate aim of human life is Truth or Moksha i.e. self-realization or 'maximizing one's human potential. Violence against others or oneself negates self-realization; secondly, mankind being one, violence against another is violence against oneself. Satyagraha aims at seeking Truth in any situation and uses only nonviolent means to reach the goal. This enhances the chances of 'productive' solutions.


The Gandhian individual has 'choice'.

Satyagrahi lifestyle is the life worth living. It reduces the likelihood of reaching the 'grievance' stage. It is based on humility with self-respect, patience and toleration in the face of insults. It does not threaten opponents. It insists on compromise on all but fundamental matters of principle. Satyagraha campaigns are methods of 'fighting' where conflicts have reached the grievance stage.

In Satyagraha, though the ideal may remain ever unattained, it is not unattainable and "satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory."

"It is noble voluntarily to do what is good and right." Gandhi wanted "morality should be observed as a religion." Gandhi's ethics stem not from the deductive formula "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", but from the injunction "What you do to others, you also do to yourself."

A Satyagrahi does not merely avoid causing evil, but must actively prevent evil and promote good. Moral and utilitarian ideas are different: "A votary of Ahimsa cannot subscribe to the utilitarian formula. He will strive for greatest good of all [including opponents] and die in the attempt to realize the ideal."

"Your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which can never be put out."said Gandhi. This freedom comes with the dignity of being one's own person, of making a commitment to live ethically, of standing up to the dictates and pressures to conform. Happiness in Gandhi's metaphysics is "an enlightened realization of dignity and a craving for human liberty which prizes itself above mere selfish satisfaction of personal comforts and material wants."

Gandhi sets high standards for himself and had faith in their possibility: "I am an optimist because I expect many things from myself. I have not got them, I know, as I am not yet a perfect being." Further, "All mankind in essence is alike. What is therefore possible for me, is possible for everybody." Perhaps, Louis Fischer aptly pinpointed the essence of Gandhi's greatness when he said that "it lay in doing what everyone could do but doesn't."

3. APPLICATIONS OF SATYAGRAHA

Same general principles of Satyagraha apply in various conflict situations for their resolution. However, each category of conflict has characteristics specific to it and hence may also require an approach more specific to it. Salient features of application of Satyagraha in different categories of conflicts are given below.


A. Interpersonal Conflicts

Satyagraha in such situations depends on the degree to which its values have been internalized rather than on a conscious adoption of tactics. This "presupposes great study, tremendous perseverance and thorough cleansing of one's self of all impurities" "through living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon" and through a wide and varied experience of internal conflict. For reconciling the duty of resistance to evil with that of Ahimsa, Gandhi advised that "one should ceaselessly strive to realize Ahimsa in every walk of life and in a crisis act in a manner that is most natural to him."

Nonviolence is based on the point that nobody is unjust and evil in his own eyes and hence it is unjust to hate him. He may be mistaken. The spirit of justice dwells in our opponent, a person like us, as in us.

It is in personal relationships that we can start practicing nonviolence"he who fails in the domestic sphere and seeks to apply it only in the political and social sphere will not succeed" and replace the deep-seated emotion of FEAR with TRUST. In most conflicts both parties want to dominate. Often this is born of fear or insecurity. Hence, nonviolence aims never to harm the opponent or impose a solution on him but to help both parties to a more secure, creative and truthful relationship.

Satyagrahis cannot adopt rigid attitudes but while hoping to win over the opponent should be willing to change their own attitudes as the issues and underlying causes become clearer.

When interpersonal conflicts arise, whether between parties having similar or differing levels of authority, the usual ways of resolving these are either authoritarianparties try to impose their will on each other or permissiveone of the parties gives in. The former may produce resentment and hostility in the loser, require heavy enforcement, foster dependence and submission out of fear and make the winner feel guilty. The latter may foster feeling of guilt and helplessness in the loser and lack of respect for the loser in the winner. In either case, those without power tend to cope by retaliation, dishonesty, submission, regression or rebelling. Where parties are balanced in power, stalemate is the normal result.

Only cooperative approach of Satyagraha avoids such negative outcomes. In it, one minds one's own behaviour more than the opponent's and tries to grasp the opponent's viewpoint. Where there is apparent collision of values or beliefs, one must be a model for one's own value system and try to become more accepting of the different value systems.

It is through success in interpersonal conflicts that one progresses in theory and practice of Satyagraha: "For it will be by those small things that you will be judged."


B. Legal Disputes: the Adversary System of Resolution

The legal system is the primary institutional solution to conflict resolution among individuals or groups. It generally precludes the Gandhian dialectic from coming into play because it is concerned with 'sanctions' and not with reconciliation and compromise, least of all conversion. One of the parties in conflict risks total loss and usually both incur costs. Unlike Gandhi's Satyagraha which, based on the Indian tradition, stresses dialogue, mediation and compromise and de-emphasizes overt clashes, victories and defeats, the Western approach stresses 'legal' resolution of conflicts involving articulation and confrontation of alternatives/opposites and victory of one over the other.

The parties generally interact through professional lawyers. Gandhi, himself a lawyer, saw lawyers as mediators rather than mere conductors of legal proceedings. Talking of his first case which took him to South Africa and which he helped resolve out-of-court through an independent arbitrator and a time schedule for settling the agreed upon debts, he said: "I became disgusted with the profession. As lawyers, the counsels on both sides were bound to rake up points of law in support of their clients. The winning party never recovers all the costs. I felt it was my duty to befriend both parties and bring them together." He settled down into his legal practice in his singular way: "I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby, certainly not my soul."

Courts are the means of solving those conflicts that nevertheless still occur. Even so, where courts can be avoided they should be, because satisfaction of both parties cannot come from defeat of one of them. Only the antagonists themselves can be parties to the dialectic out of which Truth and justice emerge. As Gandhi said: "Truly, men became more unmanly and cowardly when they resorted to the court of law. Surely, the decision of a third party is not always right. We, in our simplicity, imagine that a stranger, by taking our money, gives us justice."

The courts may not be even doing their intended job a common perception. Hence, in the absence of alternative effective modes of resolving disputes, disputants may resort to violence, avoidance or 'lumping-it'. As it is, many traditional forms of dispute settlement mechanisms have disappeared from our urbanized society, e.g., respected elders, trusted priests, village leaders. The proposal of 'community justice centres', even though seeking accommodation rather than conversion, comes closer to the Gandhian ideal.

The case of Satyagrahis arraigned in a court arising out of civil disobedience against a law seen as immoral falls in a different category. Because of the basically law-abiding nature of Satyagrahis, they (civil resisters) as a rule, voluntarily submit to arrest, do not seek bail, avoid lawyers and willingly accept the legally laid down consequences for such a breach. Gandhi's advice was: "It is much to be wished that people would avoid litigation. But what when we are dragged to the courts? I would say, 'do not defend.' If you are in the wrong, you will deserve the sentence. If you are wrongly brought to the court and get penalized, let your innocence soothe you in your unmerited suffering."

In fact Gandhi even saw benefits in incarceration due to Satyagraha: "The discipline that they will be acquiring in prison will help the nonviolent organization of the people outside and instill fearlessness among them." His statement in the court, in his famous trial for 'seditious' writing, in March 1922 has become memorable: "Non co-operation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. Nonviolence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non co-operation with evil." He wanted civil resisters to "make no distinction between an ordinary prisoner and himself", but to "civilly resist such regulations as are not only irksome or hard to bear but are humiliating or specially designed to degrade non co-operators."


C. Industrial Conflicts

Conflicts within industry that often lead to strikes have economic or social determinants, e.g. wages, management policies, employee-employer relations and feeling of powerlessness in employees. Industrial disputes must have as their outcome a continued viable modus vivendi between management and employees. 

Gandhi believed that for avoiding industrial disputes, "labour should have the same status and dignity as capital." Employees being co-owners in industry, "should have the same access to the transaction of the mills as the shareholders." He wanted the workers to be organized: "When labour is intelligent enough to organize itself and learns to act as one man, it will have the same weight as money if not greater." Once this has come about through nonviolent means of Satyagraha, the 'owners' will not drive the labour to strike but will embrace them as partners. But this calls for patience, restraint, discipline, unity and faith in the organization.

For good relations, neither side should have the power to dominate. Gandhi believed that to a large extent, such domination rests on the acquiescence of the oppressed.

Satyagrahis must fight what they see as injustice at all costs firmly. Gandhi stressed on honesty in this context: "in Satyagraha the minimum is also the maximum and as it is the irreducible minimum, there is no question of retreat, and the only movement possible is an advance." But the Gandhian technique also provides for reconciliation and a shifting of the position as the perception of Truth alters. Mediators may help by forcing the parties, including Satyagrahis, to get a clearer realization of Truth.

If all else failed, Gandhi noted that "strikes are an inherent right of the working men but must be considered a crime immediately the capitalists accept the principle of arbitration." But STRIKES (= nonviolent non-co-operation with employers) may be resorted to only after all legitimate means of settling the disputemoral appeals to employers' conscience, offer of voluntary arbitration etc.have been tried. Gandhi warned: "Public has no means of judging the merits of a strike, unless it is backed by impartial persons enjoying public confidence."

During the 1918 Mill strike which Gandhi led, he wanted answers to the following questions for deciding the sought after wage increases: (a) Wage increase necessary for the labour to lead a simple but contented life; and (b) Can the mills give this increase? If not, how much can they afford?

He laid down following general principles for the conduct of overt disputes with the management:

  • Workers and their leaders (among whom there should be perfect understanding) should not exaggerate demands and be ready for correction if convinced by the opponent.

  • Strikes should be resorted to as the last weapon if negotiation, reconciliation and arbitration have failed. During strike, labour should remain ready for settlement or arbitration.

  • Labour must remain nonviolent even under provocation and bear no ill-will towards employers.

  • Strikers should, out of self-respect, not rely on alms, public funds or union funds but find any available alternative work to maintain them.

  • Strikers, as Satyagrahis, must not submit before force or hardship.

  • Strikers should be truthful, courageous, just, free from hatred or malice and ready for voluntary work with faith in God.

In group conflict, action to be taken before adoption of Satyagraha includes impartial analysis of the conflict and of essential interests common between the opponents, definition of reasonable long-range aims which the opponents could agree to and their precise understanding by them, and in case of one party refusing to accept the so defined aims, an attempt at compromise by accepting non-essential changes.

Gandhi claimed that Civil Disobedience could be used as a technique for the redress of local wrongs or to rouse local consciousness or conscience but alone it could never be used in a general cause, such as for 'independence'. For Civil Disobedience, "the issue must be definite and capable of being clearly understood and within the power of the opponent to yield." For general and large nonviolent causes or campaigns, Constructive Programme/Work becomes a key weapon, and perhaps such campaigns are not fully nonviolent unless accompanied by some constructive activity. Constructive work is only the other side of mass Satyagraha and essential to its conduct. Nonviolence, to be creative, can never express itself in mere resistance. Satyagrahi is at least a reformer and potentially a revolutionary who presses every conflict into the service of humanity.

In campaign against war or nuclear armament, the constructive work could take the form of education of public opinion and building up of cadres for a movement.

Gandhi saw that any oppression or exploitationpolitical, economic, racial or sexistrests to a large extent on the acquiescence of the exploited. For example, "exploitation of the poor can be extinguished not by effecting the destruction of a few millionaires but by removing the ignorance of the poor and teaching them to non cooperate with the exploiters".

Gandhi's theory of Trusteeship is another major element in his view of the way social conflicts should be resolved: we must seek to "destroy capitalism, not the capitalist", i.e., to convert and not to coerce. 'Trusteeship' depends on a realization of the oneness of humanity and on the belief in the moral correctness of non-possession and voluntary poverty, and, hence, may be rather difficult to get across in an industrialized consumerist society. But there would be no other way to build a nonviolent social order. If the rich refused to become 'trustees' of the poor, Gandhi endorsed nonviolent non co-operation and civil disobedience as the "right and infallible" solution. "Rich cannot accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the poor in society". And, "No one is bound to cooperate in one's own undoing or slavery." Of course, Gandhi did see the difficulty of making Trusteeship a practical reality: "I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it. It is true that it is difficult to reach. So is nonviolence."


E. Satyagraha against the State: Civil Disobedience

In the political field, nonviolent social struggles generally consist in opposing 'evil' in the shape of unjust laws, i.e., Satyagraha takes the form of Civil Disobedience (or Resistance). Gandhi believed that the seeming breaking of a law is really not so, provided that (a) a higher law, that of the conscience, is followed; (b) the law is broken nonviolently; and (c) the violator is happily prepared to pay full penalty for violation. Gandhi emphasized that to be 'civil', disobedience "must be sincere, respectful, restrained, never defiant, must be based on some well-understood principle, must not be capricious and above all must have no ill-will or hatred behind it."

Here too, "a Satyagrahi exhausts all other means before he resorts to Satyagraha." He remains ready for negotiations, which may, however, never come about for no fault of the Satyagrahi. He will then "appeal to public opinion, educate public opinion, state his case calmly and coolly before everybody who wants to listen to him." And only then resort to Satyagraha. The moral pressure and public opinion paves the way for the possibility of conversion.

Gandhi believed in the state authority in a democratic society. Here, Civil Disobedience is Satyagraha only if carried out openly. One had a duty to obey laws except those which are contrary to the conscience or cause tangible harm to people's welfare: "It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous." Further, "Civil Disobedience is not a state of lawless ness but presupposes a law-abiding spirit, combined with a self-restraint."

Under Satyagraha, changes of unacceptable laws should be aimed at through conversion of the majority of the people and the lawmakers. The state too has a right to stand by its laws and to punish the civil resisters.

Every law gives the subject two alternativesto obey the law itself ('primary' sanction) or accept the ordained penalty ('secondary' sanction). Hence, Gandhi said: "Civil Disobedience is the purest form of constitutional agitation." Obviously, 'criminal' disobedience has no place in Satyagraha.

In a democratic state, only 'defensive' civil disobedience"involuntary or reluctant nonviolent disobedience of such laws as are in themselves bad and obedience to which would be inconsistent with one's self-respect or human dignity"may be resorted to. "Aggressive, assertive or offensive civil disobedience", i.e., "nonviolent, willful disobedience of laws of the state, whose breach does not involve moral turpitude and which is undertaken as a revolt against state", is resorted to where the state is corrupt, repressive or dominated by an imperialist power.

Summing up, progressive steps in a civil disobedience Satyagraha could be: negotiation, arbitration and exhaustion of all established channels, preparation for group action, agitation such as propaganda, marches, etc, an ultimatum to the opponent if no agreement is reached, economic boycott and strikes, non co-operation, non-payment of taxes, boycott of public institutions, civil disobedience, usurping the government's functions, and parallel government.


F. Inter-nation Conflicts

In relation to World War II, Gandhi said: "While all violence is bad and must be condemned in the abstract, it is permissible for, it is even the duty of, a believer in Ahimsa to distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. Side with the defender in a nonviolent manner' because, "the [violent] defence has to resort to all the damnable things that the enemy does, and then with greater vigour if it has to succeed." A Satyagrahi "fights" by engaging in a "war without weapons", aiming at the conversion of the opponent.

Modern War technology, particularly nuclear weapons, tends to make the concept of 'defence' obsolete. The only remedy is to eliminate the source of conflicts that would lead a nation to the use of arms. This approach relies on conciliation, unilateral steps towards disarmament and a truth-seeking foreign policy backed up with 'civilian defence' if an invasion should nevertheless occur.

Gandhi saw that for a less armed world "some nation will have to disarm herself and take large risks." In the present political state, complete unilateral disarmament, Gandhi's ideal, may not be practical but a 'graduated and reciprocated' initiative could give a productive start.

Since armaments are largely controlled by economic factors, Gandhi said: "real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit one another." Gandhi's ideal society would aim to resolve international conflicts by helping its neighbours alleviate their economic problems and try to remain friendly with them. It would not exploit any other nation. Gandhi's definition of exploitation encompasses the belief that he who claims as his own "more than the minimum that is really necessary for him is guilty of theft." If simple help is not adequate, we must invite our neighbours "to come and share our resources."

Civilian defence concedes the physical taking over of the country (though Gandhi also did not oppose the idea of a 'living wall' at the border to stop the invading army) substituting political struggle for aggressive war. The aggressor becomes akin to a domestic tyrant and civil disobedience and non co-operation become the methods of fight.

Gandhi clarified "that a state can be administered on a nonviolent basis if the vast majority of the people are nonviolent." If a nonviolent society were attacked, according to Gandhi it has two options: "to yield possession but not cooperate with the aggressor by the people who have been trained in the nonviolent way. They would offer themselves as fodder for the aggressor's cannon." The second way could be effective only if undertaken by a community of true Satyagrahis who "by laying down their arms they feel courageous and brave" and "It was this unalloyed self-suffering which was the truest form of self-defence which knows no surrender." The aggressor would soon realize "that it would not be paying to punish the other party and his will could not be imposed in that way." He claimed: "if there is no danger of being killed yourself by those you slay, you cannot go on killing defenceless and unprotesting people endlessly. You must down your gun in self-disgust."

Answering his critics, Gandhi said: "Everybody seems to start with the assumption that the nonviolent method must be set down a failure unless he lives to enjoy the success thereof." while this is not said of war. "In Satyagraha more than in armed warfare, it may be said that we find life by losing it."

N.K.Bose, Gandhi's secretary during 1946-47, had thus described the Gandhian approach in case of invasion of a nation. First, a band of Satyagrahis (the Peace Army) confronts and tells the aggressors of wrongness of their action. They can even die in the process. If the enemy moves on to occupy the land, no scorched earth policy may be followed. But "Nonviolent resisters would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help anyone to steal their country." Further, full force of non co-operation is brought to bear. If non co-operation is complete enough, the administration would cease to function and people's representatives could step in.

The essential nature in war is killing. Gandhi reminds all that war "demoralizes those who are trained for it. It brutalizes men of naturally gentle nature." Even if the nonviolent of a country remain a "hopeless minority" and cannot wean masses from war, they must still "live nonviolence in all its completeness and refuse to participate in war." Gandhi wanted the individual to play the role at two levels. First, to actively non cooperate with the warring state, whether own or an outside aggressor: "Merely to refuse military service is not enough. Those who are not on the register of military service are equally participating in the crime if they support the state otherwise." Second, the hardcore Satyagrahis should lead the masses so that "even common people would ultimately begin to subscribe inwardly to nonviolence as a faith."

As Horsburgh said, though "the achievements of nonviolence in India owe as much to Gandhi's moral greatness as to the techniques of Satyagraha, the right method, if persisted in, can do much to produce the right man." As Gandhi said, training for violence could never do so.

These notes are based on the following texts:

  1. 'Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics', by Thomas Weber, The Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1991.

  2. Notes on 'Compromise' taken from "MAHATMA", Vols. 4 and 5, D G Tendulkar, Publications Division, New Delhi, New Revised edition 1961 and 1962.

  3. 'Nonviolence and Impatience', an article by H J N Horsburgh, Gandhi Marg, Vol. 12, 1968, p.355-361.

  4. 'Nonviolence as a Political Strategy: Gandhi and Western Thinkers', an article by Hugh Tinker, Gandhi Marg, Vol. 2, 1980, p.241-255.


Unless otherwise indicated, the quotes are all from Mahatma Gandhi and these are in bold letters.

These notes have been compiled by Dr Y P Anand, Director, National Gandhi Museum, Rajghat, New Delhi-2