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Satyagraha: Gandhi's Approach To Peacemaking

 By Maya Chadda

As a major figure of peace in our century, Mohandas Gandhi warrants serious attention, both for his ideas of nonviolence and for his courageous translation of these ideas into action.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., so aptly said, ‘If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable—we may ignore him at our own risk.’

In this article, the Gandhian perspective on peace and the applicability of his thesis of nonviolent action to contemporary conflict situations, is examined. Fundamental concepts:

1. According to Gandhi, the supreme human endeavour should be the pursuit of Satya, Truth.  Gandhi often quoted the core philosophical assertion from the Bhagavad Gita, satyanasti paro dharma, ‘there is no higher duty than adherence to Truth.’  This was the Upanishadic concept of the ultimate, eternal Truth that is akin to self-realization, transcending barriers of history, time, and culture.  However, it was not the eternal Truth that guided Gandhi’s thought and action, but the idea of relative Truth.

2. The basic operative assumption that Gandhi makes is that nonviolence constitutes a positive procedure for promoting worthwhile social change. It is not merely that one should refrain from violence, because it is wrong; sometimes violence is not wrong. There can be conditions in which one is justified in inflicting violence—for instance, if the only other choice is acting in a cowardly manner. Violence is also justified for the protection of those under one’s care, or under the care of the larger community. In Gandhi’s view, the best response was based on nonviolence; the second best was violent defense. The worst form of response was submission to a tyrant or running away out of fear of consequences. In Gandhi’s words:

I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defer her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.

3. This, then, brings us to the central idea in his thesis, satyagraha, which literally means ‘clinging to truth’ or ‘holding fast to truth.’ The notion of satyagraha combines the ideas of truth and nonviolence.

As a concept, satyagraha gave expression to Gandhi’s religious and ethical ideas; as a technique, it put these ideas into practice; and as a philosophy, it mobilized Hindu philosophical traditions to eliminate contemporary social injustice.

Beginning in South Africa, Gandhi launched satyagraha against the laws of the Transvaal government, which required every Indian to procure a certificate of registration or face deportation. Another set of South African laws declared Hindu, Muslim, and Parsee marriages illegal. Opposition through satyagraha involved the imprisonment of thousands of Indians and eventually led to the nullification of those laws. After arriving in India, Gandhi implemented satyagraha in 1916-17 against the British indigo planters at Champaran in Bihar, where peasant cultivators were unfairly treated and taxed.  In 1918 satyagraha was also brought to bear on the dispute between the textile mill owners and labourers in Ahmedabad and involved a strike by workers.  The technique of satyagraha was subsequently practiced in 1924 on behalf of the untouchables, who had been forbidden to use the roads in the vicinity of the Vykom temple in Travancore, South India.  Having refined his strategy on relatively smaller stages, Gandhi launched a series of satyagraha campaigns, beginning in 1930, which involved mass participation in civil resistance and non-co-operation aimed at the British.  In the majority of these campaigns Gandhi achieved remarkable success, gaining ever growing popular participation and support for his declared objectives.
Implicit in satyagraha was Gandhi’s assumption that all rulers are dependent for their position and power upon the obedience and cooperation of the ruled.  Their power therefore comes from outside themselves.  If subjects withdraw cooperation and refuse to submit, a regime will become seriously weakened.

After an analysis of five major satyagraha campaigns launched by Gandhi during the struggle for national independence, Joan Bondurant concludes: ‘In examining satyagraha in action, it becomes clear that satyagraha operates as a force to effect change’. To succeed, it required ‘a comprehensive program of planning, preparation, and studied execution,’ and not simply a spontaneous upsurge of mass protest. Satyagraha failed whenever ‘one or more of the stages of the campaign was slighted.’

Joan Bondurant maintains that religious or philosophical compatibilities alone do not explain Gandhi’s success in India. In fact, the theory of conflict underlying satyagraha and the strategy it yields have wider applications that go well beyond India. She cites the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement among Pathan Muslims in the Northwest Frontier Province of British India, in which Khan Abdul Gafar Khan, their leader, recruited thousands of Muslim supporters and carried out a successful nonviolent struggle.  The Muslim Pathans are known for their bravery, and their general population lives by the creed of military honor and valor in battle.  Indeed, in one rather touching episode described by the author, Muslim Pathan women, who are traditionally wont to hide behind a veil, when forced, they lay down with copies of the Quran clutched to their hearts.

Gene Sharp, in his book, Gandhi as a Political Strategist, cites several more instances of satyagraha and persuasively argues that since Gandhi’s use of it in India, the technique has been implemented far more widely than is generally believed. Among the most important instances he cites is its adoption by Martin Luther King, Jr., against racist practices in the United States.

Even in totalitarian systems, there have been instances of similar resistance, although nowhere has it led to the overthrow of such regimes. The  Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation is one of the most significant examples.  Other cases include:

Major aspects of the Danish resistance, 1940-45, including the successful general strike in Copenhagen in 1944; major parts of the Dutch resistance, 1940-45; the last German rising of June 1953, in which there was massive nonviolent defiance which included women in Jena sitting down in front of Russian tanks; strikes in political prisoners’ camps in the Soviet Union 1953, which are credited with being a major influence for improving the lot of prisoners; and the major aspects of the Hungarian revolution, 1956-57, in which in addition to the military battles there was demonstrated the power of the general strike, the large-scale popular nonviolent defiance.

Sharp further points out that the degree of ‘success and failure’ varies in each case.

None of these movements was undertaken as a conscious application of Gandhian principles of satyagraha; nevertheless, they offer ample proof that nonviolent action is possible, not only beyond a Hindu cultural context but also against totalitarian systems that pay little heed to the niceties of democratic procedures.

In conclusion, one might point out that satyagraha is not based on elements peculiar to Hindu society, but rather on insights into the psychological interdependence that is common to all human conflict. It is true that certain political cultures might be more compatible than others with the satyagraha philosophy, but such political compatibility is not limited to India.

The second question: Is satyagraha an adequate substitute for violent conflict, and under what conditions would this be true?

In the post war world, peace is threatened generally by three kinds of national or international conflict.  The first and most destructive is the arms race, carrying with it the possibility of nuclear confrontation; the second is that of conventional wars between the states for territory, resources, honor, or ideological supremacy; the third is a consequence of totalitarian or authoritarian rule resulting in oppression and denial of equality, freedom, and justice to the whole population of a state or to distinguishable groups within it.

The wars of national liberation in Latin America and Africa are instances of the third type.  The second and third kinds of threats can become intertwined, as evidenced in such wars as the one between Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1970s (in which Somalia put forward claims to the Ogaden region based on traditional movements of the tribes within its own jurisdiction), or the disputes between India and Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir. The war between Iran and Iraq is at once an ideological conflict (where the Shiah fundamentalist Islam of Iran has set itself against the more secularist, traditional Sunni Islam of the Arabs) and a dispute over boundaries separating the two states.  The conflict between Arab states and Israel is similarly multilayered. It is about territory, the rights of the Palestinians for a homeland, and Israel’s right to exist as a state.

There is very little possibility that in the foreseeable future any state will replace arms with nonviolent means to deter aggression. Indeed, all governments believe that nonviolence is irrelevant to the problem of defense, and that therefore armed force must be the ultimate arbiter in human affairs. Against this unqualified faith in the efficacy of force, one must point out that wars do not always obtain their desired ends, nor does oppression ensure true and enduring control over peoples and nations. Indeed, Adolph Hitler did not obtain his objective through force, nor did various imperial nations such as Great Britain and France gain their ends by employing force in their colonies. The wars of national independence have time and again proven the impotency of superior force when matched against massive grassroots violent and nonviolent resistance. Thus, there is no reason to believe that force and violence will invariably intimidate others and achieve the ends desired of them. By the same token, nonviolence is not applicable in every situation of potential conflict, although Gandhi and his supporters claimed that it was.

Let us take the case of ultimate violence first.

Ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, the world has lived in terror of annihilation.  The means of destruction are so lethal that they have rendered largely irrelevant the objectives for which a war could be waged.

There is no real purpose in waging a war if the conflict spells certain mutual destruction within a few minutes and if very little of either adversary’s national substance would be left to dominate the other.

Horsburg, however, argues that although satyagraha is no substitute for deterrence, the spread of nuclear weapons to a large number of states will create a situation in which nonviolent means of resolving conflict will become increasingly relevant.  He admits that disagreement and hostilities will persist: ‘There are bound to be many cases in which negotiations will end in a deadlock’. However, he claims that ‘it does not seem wildly speculative to predict that in these circumstances an increasing interest will come to be taken in the possibilities of nonviolent action.’ He defends his position:

If it is said that those optimistic speculations are absurd, I must insist that they are soundly based on the logic of deterrence. If the risks that deterrent policies involve must continue to increase, the use of armed force in the international sphere must become progressively more dangerous and hence it must eventually become too hazardous to use in the most extreme national emergencies.

Unfortunately, the logic of deterrence does not quite work in the way Horsburg describes. Nuclear states often engage in conventional wars and by a tacit agreement refrain from using their most lethal weapons.  For instance, in the conflict over the Falkland Islands between England and Argentina, England certainly had the capacity to wage a nuclear war. Similarly, in the 1979 conflict between China and Vietnam, China had an independent nuclear capacity and Vietnam was under the Soviet nuclear umbrella.  Indeed, one might point out that the rough parity in nuclear weapons has aggravated the competition for the Third World between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.

Satyagraha and Nuclear Disarmament

If satyagraha is impractical in a situation of nuclear war, does it have any relevance in negotiations for nuclear disarmament? In other words, can it act as a preventive? Can the Gandhian principles of steps and stages, sympathetic understanding for one’s adversary, formulation of minimal demands consistent with truth, refusal to threaten or intimidate the enemy, and open diplomacy be meaningfully applied to fashion a strategy for gradual nuclear disarmament?

In principle, the Gandhian framework can be an important guide for negotiations on disarmament.  Indeed, even conventional diplomacy recognizes the need for confidence building measures and reciprocity.  Nor can negotiations be successful unless both sides are convinced of the sincerity of their opponents.

However, today such settlements are seldom arrived at by open diplomacy or via adherence to the idea that mutual demands should be consistent with truth. More often than not, open diplomacy is used to score points with critics at home, to pressure the adversary, or worse still, to camouflage reluctance to negotiate. The usual practice in arms negotiations is to demand the maximum, in the hope that the final agreement will ensure more than what is required for defense.

It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a nuclear power would unilaterally disarm without an effective substitute strategically equivalent to armed strength. Although some scholars have postulated the adoption of nonviolence and gradual phasing out of dependence on arms, it is clear that a nation would have to undergo fundamental structural changes in its society and politics to accept the Gandhian view of human nature and forego the sense of security offered by weapons.

There are, however, elements in satyagraha that have an important bearing on the question of how to engage constructively in bargaining for disarmament. Let us look at some of the causes of the arms race between superpowers. According to several scholars, the arms race is a result of certain attitudes common to both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.  Each country has dehumanized the other, discounting the fears and concerns of the other’s population and characterizing the other’s leaders as war mongers. This attitude was evident in Dulles’s characterization of the Soviet Union as the ‘diabolical enemy,’ as it is in the Reagan administration’s view of the U.S.S.R. as the ‘evil empire’.  And yet, scholars and practitioners of international diplomacy have pointed out that the situation leading to war or peace is one of mutual dependencies.  For instance, analyzing U.S.—Soviet relationships, Henry Kissinger contended that ‘both sides had to be aware of this dependency if mutually damaging wars and costly arms were to be avoided.’  SALT I was based on a successful identification of such dependencies.

The theory of power and politics implicit in Gandhian thought rejects this separation and stresses instead a fundamental continuity between two seemingly opposite entities.

The Gandhian strategy of action requires that the protagonist attribute an irreducible minimum humanity to the enemy; to do otherwise is to betray one’s own humanity.  The significance of this premise for reconciliation of conflict and for the process of negotiations can hardly be over-stressed.

There is  one more possibility of applying the Gandhian technique to the problem of disarmament. This is in mobilizing mass movement against the arms race and building grassroots support for negotiations. The methodology of mass mobilization in this situation, however, would be no different from that of other issues.  Critics might argue, and with justification, that peaceful protest would not solve the basic strategic dilemma and might in fact threaten national security by forcing democratic societies to negotiate away their advantages. Against this argument, one may point out that acquisition of arms beyond a certain point is useless, and a peace movement can raise awareness among the masses as well as generate pressures on governments to devote more money to social advancement rather than to defence.  

Satyagraha and Non-Nuclear Defence

This brings us to our question under consideration. Can massive nonviolent resistance be an adequate means of non-nuclear defense? Several scholars have examined the nonviolent method of defense and concluded that, at least theoretically, it is a plausible alternative, although widespread ignorance and prejudice against it’s methodology have often prevented its being considered seriously. 

One supporter on nonviolence, Gene Sharp, points out that military power today does not have the real capacity to defend in conflict the people and society relying upon it. Often it only threatens mutual annihilation. He goes on to say that although nonviolent civilian defense will not stop the aggressor at the borders, military aggression does not give the invader political control of the country. He suggests that in civilian defense, military aggression can be resisted by the population as a whole, making it impossible for the enemy to establish and maintain political control. Enemy control can be prevented by massive and selective refusal to cooperate.

For instance, police would refuse to locate and arrest patriotic opponents of the invader. Teachers would refuse to introduce this propaganda into the schools, as happened in Norway under the Nazis.  Workers and managers would use strikes, delays, and obstructionism to impede exploitation of the country.....Politicians, civil servants, and judges, by ignoring or defying the enemy’s illegal orders, would keep the normal machinery of government and courts out of his control……as happened in the German resistance to the Kapp Putseh in 1920….. Newspapers could refuse to submit to censorship….as it happened in the Russian 1905 revolution and several Nazi-occupied countries.

Gandhi’s solution to external invasion would be to convert the conflict from one at the borders to one against occupation within the country.

A struggle against occupation, rather than defense at the borders, will shift the conflict to the turf where satyagraha has a decided advantage and where the enemy must depend on popular cooperation.  However, there are cases where satyagraha will not be feasible. For instance, the enemy may be interested merely in inflicting military humiliation and may withdraw promptly after armed intervention. In some situations, the national population maybe too small in numbers to mount effective nonviolent resistance.  In other situations, the invader may be interested merely in extracting raw materials, and may not require cooperation of the civilian population to do so.  In most other instances, however, the Gandhian theory of power will become operational and give civilian defense a powerful means to foil the ambitions of an aggressor.

The Norwegian resistance to Nazi rule, the Indian community satyagraha against the Transvaal government, the Chinese boycotts of 1905, and the revolutionary change in Russia were not conducted in a liberal socio-political environment. Draconian laws were in effect, and in each case the government had the means to stamp out opposition promptly. It must be pointed out that with the exception of South African involvement, protestors resorted to satyagraha without fully understanding its principles or techniques, mainly because arms were not available. Even in South Africa, Gandhi was still experimenting with satyagraha, and it had not as yet attained the fullness of a strategy for conflict resolution. This was to happen much later.

In India, satyagraha succeeded, not because British rule was democratic and liberal—the massacre of innocent women and men at Jalianwala Bagh pointed to the opposite—but because the British had ignored Gandhi’s early calls for satyagraha, thinking it to be an entirely eccentric and unworkable idea.  The movement gathered force in the meantime, until it became too late to control the nationalists’ fervor or the moral élan among the masses.

Indeed, even in the late 1980s there is a persuasive evidence that satyagraha would be an appropriate alternative for conflict as a means of change. As one looks at Central American upheavals, such as those in Nicaragua and El Salvador, a certain similarity of underlying causes becomes apparent. There is not much dispute even among policy-makers in Washington that in each case the conflict is a result of long years of oppression, misery, and denial of freedom to the majority. However, in an oppressive environment, tightly-knit violent revolutionary movements spring up, plunging the country into civil war. The masses want neither communism not the semi-feudal oligarchies that have been the rule in Central America, and certainly they do not want civil war. In fact, when the revolutionaries succeed, as they did in Nicaragua in 1979, the results may be different only in degree from the oppression of the past.  Born in violence, and threatened by great powers like the United States and its surrogates, a revolutionary government has no choice but to enforce austerity and strict rule.

However, in each case the guerilla movement could not have succeeded without mass support.  Indeed, in the classic strategy enacted in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, the guerrillas first fight for control of the countryside and slowly tighten the noose around the capital. As a final blow, the capital or major metropolis then goes on strike, and the government comes to a halt.  In other words, non-cooperation and mass support could not be obtained without organization and publicity. And in every successful case these are quite effectively employed, even when clandestine operations are necessary.

Satyagraha is a better functional alternative to guerilla warfare in the classic strategy scenario, because here Gandhi’s theory of power can be operationalised with stunning effect.

The ruling oligarchies cannot remain in power unless they deliver a large portion of the wealth of the county to external powers on whose support they depend for their own survival. In other words, such regimes represent the interests, not of the masses within, but of exploiting forces outside their country. This is the regimes strength; however, if viewed from the perspective of satyagraha strategy, it is also its major weakness.

A great power like America may intervene on behalf of ruling interests on the pretext that the revolutionary movement is aided and abetted by America’s enemies. Because self-reliance and nonviolent persuasion are the cardinal rules in satyagraha, there would be no need for arms from abroad; thus, the United States would look foolish sending an army against unarmed citizens who were simply agitating for human rights, and demanding liberty and democracy. What is more, if satyagraha were to succeed and political change be brought about, the resulting government founded as it would be on peace and popular legitimacy without ill will, should be able to maintain internal as well as external peace.

Indeed, one of the most critical revolutions of recent times, the revolution in Iran, has many lessons for us in this respect.  Admittedly, Islamic fundamentalism has nothing in common with Gandhian satyagraha; however, we should note several elements that this movement holds in common with other revolutions.

First the masses in Iran were imbued with moral and religious fervor; secondly, they were willing to accept enormous suffering, punishment and even death for the success of their cause; and thirdly, they bravely faced the Shah’s troops, displayed enormous courage in the face of superior arms (often only meagerly armed themselves), and staged massive demonstrations, strikes, and rallies despite express warning not to do so.  The Islamic Revolutionary Party that came to power was certainly not imbued with ahimsa; indeed, it proceeded to eliminate all opposition. Nevertheless, it is significant that it had used non-cooperation and civil resistance to topple the Shah.  It should be noted that the Shah saw only two choices before him: to plunge the country into a bloodbath or to abdicate. He chose the second, not because he was particularly compassionate and liberal, but because he saw little purpose in pursuing the path of civil war.

Gandhi would have abhorred the goals and methods of the Islamic revolution, but that is not the point here.  The point is that moral determination, willingness to sacrifice, and mass resistance can succeed, even in an environment where there is no liberty to organize and no freedom to rally enthusiasts openly around a cause. The Islamic revolutionary used the mosques just as the Solidarity movement in Poland has used the Catholic Church.  ‘People power’ succeeded in the Philippines.

Gandhi advocated satyagraha not as a new religion but as a superior means for attaining social harmony and human advancement for peace. This alliance of a pragmatic quest for solutions and a deep spiritual conviction also point to the way in which future generations may be educated in the task of struggling for peace.

Note: Condensed for the article of the same title published in Education for Peace; Testimonies From World Religion, edited by Haim Gordon & Leonard Grob, published by Orbis Books, New 1987.  Mrs. Maya Chaddha is Professor of Political Science, William Patterson College, Wayne, New Jersey.  She is the author of ‘Paradox of Power; The United States in South West Asia 1973-84.’

Source: Darshan, New York, Oct 1987