soon as the news reached South Africa that I along with other Indians had offered my services in the war, I received two cables. One of these was from Mr. Polak who questioned the consistency of my action with my profession of ahimsa.
I had to a certain extent anticipated this objection, for I had
discussed the question in my Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), and
used to discuss it day in and day out with friends in South Africa.
All of us recognized the immorality of war. If I was not prepared to
prosecute my assailant, much less would I be willing to participate
in a war, especially when I knew nothing of the justice or otherwise
of the cause of the combatants. Friends of course knew that I had
previously served in the Boer War, but they assumed that my views
had since undergone a change.
As a matter of fact the very same line of argument that persuaded me
to take part in the Boer War had weighed with me on this occasion.
It was quite clear to me that participation in war could never be
consistent with ahimsa. But it is not always given to one to be
equally clear about one's duty. A votary of truth is often obliged
to grope in the dark.
Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught
in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life
has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without
consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very
fact of his living – eating, drinking and moving about – necessarily
involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A
votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring
of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his
ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it,
and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.
He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and
compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa.
Then again, because underlying ahimsa is the unity of all life, the
error of one cannot but affect all, and hence man cannot be wholly
free from himsa. So long as he continues to be a social being, he
cannot but participate in the himsa that the very existence of
society involves. When two nations are fighting, the duty of a
votary of ahimsa is to stop the war. He who is not equal to that
duty, he who has no power of resisting war, he who is not qualified
to resist war, may take part in war, and yet whole-heartedly try to
free himself, his nation and the world from war.
I had hoped to improve my status and that of my people through the
British Empire. Whilst in England I was enjoying the protection of
the British Fleet, and taking shelter as I did under its armed
might, I was directly participating in its potential violence.
Therefore, if I desired to retain my connection with the Empire and
to live under its banner, one of three courses was open to me: I
could declare open resistance to the war and, in accordance with the
law of Satyagraha, boycott the Empire until it changed its military
policy; or I could seek imprisonment by civil disobedience of such
of its laws as were fit to be disobeyed; or I could participate in
the war on the side of the Empire and thereby acquire the capacity
and fitness for resisting the violence of war. I lacked this
capacity and fitness, as I thought there was nothing for it but to
serve in the war.
I make no distinction, from the point of view of ahimsa, between
combatants and non-combatants. He who volunteers to serve a band of
dacoits, by working as their carrier, or their watchman while they
are about their business, or their nurse when they are wounded, is
as much guilty of dacoity as the dacoits themselves. In the same way
those who confine themselves to attending to the wounded in battle
cannot be absolved from the guilt of war.
I had argued the whole thing out to myself in this manner, before I received Polak's cable,
and soon after its receipt, I discussed these views with several
friends and concluded that it was my duty to offer to serve in the
war. Even today I see no flaw in that line of argument, nor am I
sorry for my action, holding, as I then did, views favourable to the
I know that even then I could not carry conviction with all my
friends about the correctness of my position. The question is
subtle. It admits of differences of opinion, and therefore I have
submitted my argument as clearly as possible to those who believe in
ahimsa and who are making serious efforts to practise it in every
walk of life. A devotee of Truth may not do anything in deference to
convention. He must always hold himself open to correction, and
whenever he discovers himself to be wrong he must confess it at all
costs and atone for it.