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ARTICLES > RELEVANCE OF GANDHI > The relevance of Gandhian Satyagraha in the 21st Century


The Relevance of Gandhian Satyagraha in the 21st Century

By S. Abdul Sattar

We are today passing through an extremely critical and controversial phase of terrorism. The climate of terrorist violence is explosive. Terrorism is being used every where, either with enthusiasm or with fear. In recent years, we have witnessed terrorist violence affecting almost all countries. Even the so-called advanced, affluent nations suffer from the menace of terrorist violence. There are two fundamental causes for this global phenomenon. Firstly, the tremendous advancement in science and technology has helped the arms industry to produce massive quantities of lethal weapons and the same weapons are being purchased by different terrorist organizations who are using them to execute their satanic designs.

Secondly, it is due to the lack of human relations. Today, people are divided not only on an economic basis but also on national, regional and religious basis. The development of science and technology has made it possible to unite the world through technological globalizations. But this technological globalization does not influence in any way the mental make up of the individual. As the noted Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel observed, "We use one another for the satisfaction of the need if not for the advancement of our interest in a spirit of manufactured cordiality." We do not know the difference between the need and the interest and we perceive these goals in confusion, without any sense of spontaneity in exhibiting cordiality. Man still thinks that he belongs to a particularly group, community, religion, region and nation. Precisely because of this, he confuses the manufactured cordiality for spontaneity. Present day politics has also failed to reconstruct socio-economic life and has only added to the confusion and despair. The decline of human relations or of public spirit in politics has opened ways for political degenerations. Indian proposals and organizations are working on combating terrorist violence, but the solution is not yet in sight. It has become one of the paradoxes of the 21st Century that, on the one hand, the establishment of peace has become a matter of the greatest importance for the survival of human civilization, while on the other, traditional instruments of preserving peace have become less effective.

Mahatma Gandhi was unique in this modern world to advocate non-violent methods for solving social, economic, political and religious problems. It is in this context that we have to examine the efficacy of warfare without weapons. There have been a number of times, however, when one or the other aspect of Gandhi's non-violent technique has been questioned and its validity and its practicability doubted. This essay tries to show that the technique of non-violence as advocated by Gandhi is the most effective and the least expensive method of solving social, economic, political and religious problems. Firstly, I shall detail how the strategies of violence and terrorism to bring about social, political and economic changes have now become obsolete. Secondly, I shall try to explain Satyagraha and its different forms and show how Satyagraha can be used as a powerful method of direct action in contemporary politics. This will also establish the effectiveness of Satyagraha as a device for fighting destructive ways and violent conflict.


Violence and Terrorism

Terrorism can be both individual as well as State sponsored. In recent times, religious fundamentalism has assumed dangerous proportions though it has always existed in one form or the other. Racism, which yields violence, has become a device to assume important positions in public life, not only in India and Muslim countries but even in the USA. Religious fundamentalism is one of the handiest instruments of the terrorist. The situation demands that non-violent techniques as means of social change are put into practice immediately.

Gandhi held that violence was wrong as a matter of principle. He maintained that it is the duty of every one to resist it. But the manner of resistance to violence is profoundly significant in the Gandhian technique. Resistance to violence by counter violence is obviously wrong. A wrong cannot be righted by another wrong. The addition of another wrong does not diminish but adds to the evil already in existence. So violence must first be resisted by persuasion and when persuasion fails, it must be resisted non-violently. Critics very often fail to understand that non-violent resistance of the Gandhian type is also a 'force' which is different from violence. The two words 'violence' and 'force' are often used interchangeably so that we fail to understand that force need not always be violent. To Gandhi, non-violent resistance is a force that counters the force that is violent.

Gandhi would have nothing to do with the organized violence of the Government or with the unorganized violence of the people. He would prefer to be crushed between the two. For him, popular violence is as much an obstruction in our path as state sponsored violence. Indeed, he could combat the latter more successfully than the former. He objected to violence because when it appears to do good, the good was only temporary. The evil it brought about was permanent.

Gandhi had no faith in terrorist violence. It was an unshakable faith with him that a cause suffers exactly the extent it is supported by terrorist violence. If one man kills another who obstructs him, he may experience a sense of false security. But the security will be short lived. Here the view of Gandhi is not to kill the man or men who obstruct him, but to discover the cause that implies them to obstruct him and deal with it. Gandhi did not believe in armed risings, for him they were a remedy worse than the diseases that sought to cured. They were a token of the spirit of revenge and impatience and anger. Terrorist violence could never do any good in the long run.1 Gandhi did not deny credit to revolutionary heroism and sacrifice. But heroism and sacrifice for a bad cause are so much waste of splendid energy and they hurt the good cause by drawing away attention from it.2 Gandhi said, "I am not ashamed to stand erect before the heroic and self-sacrificing revolutionary because I am able to pit an equal measure of non-violent men (Satyagrahis); heroism and sacrifice untarnished by the blood of the innocent. Self-sacrifice of one innocent man is a million times more potent than the sacrifice of a million men who die in the act of killing others."3 He also observed that "at the back of the policy of terrorism is the assumption that terrorism if applied in a sufficient measure will produce the desired result, namely, bend the adversary to the tyrant's will. But supposing people make up their mind that they will never bend to the tyrant's will, nor retaliate with the tyrant's own methods, the tyrant will not find it worth his while to go on with his terrorism."4


Satyagraha and its forms

The term Satyagraha was first coined by Gandhi in South Africa to express the tendency of the Indian minds and methods of meeting violence, injustice or of thwarting unjust laws of racial discrimination practiced by the white minority there. It is a method which involves a breach of the law, but without causing physical harm to the agents of the law. The purpose is to undermine the unjust system so that it gives way and reform can be achieved. It was conceived as a weapon of the strongest and excludes the use of violence and hatred in any shape or form. Satyagraha is a relentless search for truth and determination to reach truth not by inflicting of suffering on the opponent, by on one's self. It literally means holding on to truth. Gandhi called it 'soul force'. Non-violence is the basis of Satyagraha. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For, according to Gandhi, we are children of one and the same creator.

Mahatma Gandhi is famous in the history of the world as a prophet of Satyagraha, but the Gandhian Satyagraha may be launched only by people imbued with goodwill, who care for the common good, and who attempt to resist unjust laws, promulgations and ordinances solely dictated by their inner voice or inner conscience. Satyagraha, as conceived by Gandhi, is never an invitation to the disruption of society. But in India we find all types of coercive techniques being practiced and somehow or other they are justified as if they were in the line of Satyagraha. Gandhi devised the technique of Satyagraha for the specific purpose of solving conflicts through the means of non-violence. It was Gandhi's conviction that violence would aggravate the conflict out of all proportion. Therefore, non-violence was an alternative to violence in resolving conflict.

Perhaps the real significance of Gandhi lies in his method to fight evil and injustice.  His contribution lies in the novelty of his method of protest or resistance.  As a protest movement against authority or establishment, it can serve not only as a check on the abuse of power but also as a medium of educating public opinion.  According to Gandhi, it was a sin to suffer unjust behaviour at the hands of another person or organization; hence he did not hesitate to carry on tireless crusades against injustice, both in South Africa and in India.  Therefore, Gandhi's Satyagraha needs to be understood as a method for solving conflicts and a method for fighting evil.  As it has been pointed out by John V Bondurant "Satyagraha became something more than a method of resistance to particular legal norms; it became an instrument of struggle for positive objectives and for fundamental change."5  Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose defines Satyagraha "as a way of conducting 'war' by means of non-violence."6

There are different forms of Satyagraha.  Any of the several forms may be employed in a Satyagraha campaign.  Those that were most commonly employed during the freedom struggle in India under Gandhi's leadership were passive resistance, civil disobedience and non-cooperation.  Non-cooperation may include strike, boycott and resignation from offices.

Passive resistance, according to Gandhi, is an all sided sword.  It can be used in any way.  It blesses not only the one who uses it but also those against whom it is used.  It produces far-reaching results without drawing a drop of blood.7  The stoniest heart will be melted by passive resistance.  It is a sovereign and most effective remedy.  It is a weapon of the purest type.  It is not the weapon of the weak.  It needs far greater courage to be a passive resister than a physical resister.  In this regard, Gandhi simply and humbly followed in the footsteps of the great teachers of mankind.  For Gandhi, passive resistance that stands out as the greatest is the courage of Jesus, Daniel, Crammer,8 Latimer and Ridley who could go calmly to suffering and death and the courage of Tolstoy who dared to defy the Czars of Russia.  Indeed, one perfect resister is enough to win the battle of Right against Wrong.  According to Gandhi, the method of passive resistance is the clearest and the safest, because it is the resisters alone who suffer if the cause is not true.

Jesus Christ, Daniel and Socrates represented the purest form of passive resistance or soul-force.  All these teachers counted their bodies as nothing in comparison to their soul.  It is easy to see that soul force is infinitely superior to body force.  Much of the present suffering can be avoided if people in order to secure redress of wrongs resort to soul force.

Buddha fearlessly carried the war into the enemy's camp and brought down to its knees an arrogant priesthood.  Christ drove out the money-changers from the temple of Jerusalem and drew curses from Heaven upon the hypocrites and Pharisees.  Both Buddha and Jesus were for intensely direct action.  They showed unmistakable gentleness and love behind every act of theirs.  They would not raise a finger against their enemies, but would gladly surrender themselves rather than the truth for which they lived.9

According to Gandhi, disobedience to be civil must be sincere, respectful, restrained and never defiant.  It must be based upon well-understood principles.  It must be capricious.  Above all it must have no ill-will or hatred behind it.10  He was of the firm opinion that civil disobedience is the purest type of constitutional agitation.  Of course, it becomes degrading and despicable, if its civil or non-violent character is a mere camouflage.  Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen.  He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man.  Civil disobedience is never followed by anarchy while criminal disobedience can lead to it.  Every state puts down criminal disobedience by force.  It perishes if it does not.11

For Gandhi, a Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own freewill, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so.  It is only when a person who obeys the laws of society scrupulously would be in a position to judge as to which particular law was good and just and which was unjust and iniquitous.  Only then does the right accrue to him of civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.

The first indispensable condition precedent to any civil resister is that there should be surety against any outbreak of violence, whether on the part of those who are identified with civil resistance or on the part of the general public.  It would be no answer in the case of any outbreak of violence that it was instigated by the state or other agencies hostile to civil resisters.  It should be obvious that civil resistance cannot flourish in an atmosphere of violence.  This does not mean that the resources of Satyagraha have come to an end.  Ways other than civil disobedience should be found.12

Satyagraha can communicate the idea that the rulers have no automatic claim to respect.  They must be able to elicit consent of those expected to obey in order to gain obedience.  Unless people can exercise their judgment, employ their reason, and sound their conscience to evaluate the government and the laws they obey, they cannot be free, and at the same time, law-abiding citizens.  Therefore, Satyagraha in its civil disobedience form is possible in any political system.  The politics of Satyagraha is to be face-to-face politics.  Participants would confront their opponents as individuals without a mediating institution.  The goal of Satyagraha is change.

Gandhi believed that a just cause if backed by moral strength couldn't be ignored by the most powerful government.  To him right means alone could lead to the right end.  But what is happening today in the context of our social, political and economic life falls far short of the Gandhian values and methods.  We find around ourselves strikes, fasts, dharnas, satyagrahas, picketings, gheraos, and many more things of the kind, all undertaken to back some demands.  What is worth noticing is that today we have accepted the forms of the Gandhian methods and thrown to the winds the spirit behind them.  Ends are more important to us than the means.

While Gandhi accepted the right of workers to go on strike for securing justice, he strongly favoured arbitration or adjudication as the method of settling industrial disputes.  He totally disapproved of strikes if they were resorted to before trying arbitration honestly.  He thought arbitration could be useful for resolving a post-strike situation also.  He further visualized that the principle of arbitration should one day replace the principle of strike so that strikes should forever become an impossibility.

When a strike is unavoidable, he prescribed the following conditions to be observed by the strikers.

  1. There should be a just or legitimate reason for a strike; a hartal or strike should not be organized for political goals, but for bettering the social and economic position of the workers, or for settling the  workers own personal grievances.  People should not support morally or otherwise strikes without legitimate cause.

  2. There should be unanimity among labourers in favour of going on a strike. 

  3. Those not participating in the strike should not be intimidated or assaulted.

  4. Usually, labourers should not take financial support from the public or other charities or alms or union funds during the strike period, they should have the capacity to support themselves.

  5. When there is greater supply of labourers than demand, the strike is unlikely to succeed; therefore labourers should resign from their jobs in such a situation.

  6. Until labourers become enlightened to a minimum degree, strikes and union activities should not be used for solving political issues.  For the same reason, there should not be any sympathetic strikes.

  7. There should be perfect correspondence and understanding between strikers and their leaders.

  8. There should be no violence.13

These conditions illustrate that Gandhi did not regard strikes merely as a weapon to be used when the employer is in his weakest moment, or for assessing the mutual strength of the two parties in an atmosphere surcharged with fear, hatred and mutual distrust.  For him, a strike could not be divested of moral content and the consideration of the balance of justice.

The frequent recourse to methods of public protest in the form of satyagraha, dharna, gherao and strikes is indicative of growing impatience.  This impatience is born of the belief that arises out of the expectation that all desired or desirable changes can be quickly and effectively brought about.

Therefore, the weapon of Satyagraha is often most loosely used and is made to cover veiled violence.  But it excludes every form of violence, direct or indirect, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word or deed.  It is a breach of Satyagraha to wish ill to an opponent or to say a harsh word to him or of him with the intention of harming him.

Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds.  It must not be the result of anger or malice.  It is never fussy, never impatient, and never vociferous.  It is the direct opposite of compulsion.  Gandhi conceived it as a complete substitute for violence.


Satyagraha for fighting wars and violent conflicts

Gandhian Satyagraha means truth-force, love-force or soul-force.  It means to correct the opponent's error by self-suffering.  Satyagraha depends for its success on the capacity of the Satyagrahi to suffer until the opponent comes round, but not on the mildness of the adversary.  It is a device to educate public opinion in the higher values in life.  An honest effort is made to impress the opponent with a sense of justice without harbouring feelings of ill-will towards him.  Resort to physical or military force is out of the question. It provides humanity with a technique to conquer untruth by truth and violence by non-violence.  Even if the Satyagrahi dies in the process of converting the oppressor, he should not mind it.  Sometimes Satyagraha is a substitute for actual warfare but with a slight difference because war does not do away with injustice while Satyagraha tries to remove it completely. To Gandhi, Satyagraha is time-honoured.

To the question, what is the cause of war, Gandhi's unambiguous answer is exploitation.  He points out that all activity for stopping war must prove futile so long as the causes of war are not understood and readily dealt with.  According to his analysis, the prime cause of modern wars is the inhuman race for exploitation of the so-called weaker people of the earth.  He thinks that the motive of exploitation accounts not only for the outbreak of war between two States but also generally for the chaotic situation that prevails at the national and international levels.

War is a visible symbol of physical force and violence, which the individual believes to be an effective instrument for settling disputes and controversies that he thinks cannot be solved otherwise.  Whether it is a physical fight between two individuals or groups of individuals, or whether it is a large-scale war involving nations, war must be traced to the individual who alone is responsible for it.  Gandhi attributes war to the brute in man, the lower nature that for the time being overwhelms the spirit that constitutes his higher nature and serves to distinguish him from animals.  According to Gandhi, the essential difference between man and the brute is that man can rise above the passions that he owns in common with the brute, and therefore, is superior to the selfishness and violence that belongs to the brute nature of man and not to the immortal spirit of man.  He says, "non-violence is the law of our species as violence the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might.  The dignity of man requires obedience to the strength of the spirit."14  Satyagraha is visualized by Gandhi as a more fundamental and perennial means of social transformation than war.

When the legal and judicial alternatives to war were being tried, Gandhi in his own way was trying a technique of warfare without weapons; he accepted the fact of differences of conflicts.  He also saw the need to fight or resist evil.  The only change he effected was to meet violence and hatred not on their own level but at a different level.  He wanted that violence should be met by non-violence and hatred by love and kindness.  He used soul-force against brute force.  Gandhi had sufficient experience of the effectiveness of Satyagraha in solving conflicts without taking recourse to the spilling of blood and wrote in 1914 regarding the efficacy of Satyagraha in the following words:

Satyagraha is a force, which if it becomes universal, would revolutionize social ideas and do away with despotism and the ever growing militarism under which nations of the west are growing and are being almost crushed to death, and which fairly promise to overwhelm even the nations of the east.15

Gandhi had applied this technique for over fifty years in every walk of lifedomestic, institutional, economic, and political.  But it is true that he did not have the occasion to try it in a war like situation of aggression and other international conflicts.  Though resistance on a large scale is necessary in order to meet aggression or to overthrow foreign domination, mere numbers do not add strength to the movement.  Satyagraha is a clean fight and so it requires clean fighters.  "In Satyagraha it is never the numbers that count; it is always the quality, more so when the forces of violence are uppermost."16  Numbers are bound to be a decisive factor in achieving the goal, care is to be taken at the same time that the quality of the fighters is of a very high order."

The rapidity with which Satyagraha succeeded is amply demonstrated by sheer personal deeds of Gandhi during the period of communal disturbances that took place in the country during 1946 and 1947.  On the eve of independence, the country faced communal carnage.  But Gandhi was able to stop this communal carnage from engulfing the whole sub-continent.  At Calcutta, he fasted and the result was peace.  The same results followed his last fast in Delhi; Gandhi realized what the military failed to achieve.  Lord Mountbatten described him as a 'one man force'.  One can venture to suggest that the efforts of Gandhi which resulted in his assassination saved the country from communal trouble for a number of years after 1948.  The communal monster is raising its head once again largely because we have abandoned the path shown by Mahatma Gandhi.

Examples of effectiveness of non-violent techniques can also be had from countries other than India.  The Pathans under the able guidance of their leader Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan were able to imbibe the spirit of non-violence.  The Khudai Khidmatgar movement had tremendous effect on the Pathan society.  The movement not only introduced women into political actiona far cry form the seclusion of purdahbut it posed a challenge to other social and economic institutions.  The Norwegians organized an effective non-violent resistance against authorities during the German occupation in the Second World War.  The Czechs organized protest against the Russian army for a couple of days.  The example of Martin Luther King and other Black leaders in their struggle for civil rights has once again demonstrated the effectiveness of Satyagraha in solving social problems.

Source: Anasakti Darshan; Volume 2 No. 1; January June 2006