Gandhi called his overall method of non-violent action Satyagraha. This translates roughly as "Truth-force." A fuller rendering, though, would be "the force that is generated through adherence to Truth."
Nowadays, it's usually called non-violence. But for Gandhi, non-violence was the word for a different, broader concept-namely, "a way of life based on love and compassion." In Gandhi's terminology, Satyagraha-Truth-force-was an outgrowth of nonviolence.
It may also help to keep in mind that the terms Satyagraha and nonviolent action, though often used one for the other, don't actually refer to the exact same thing. Satyagraha is really one special form of
nonviolent action-Gandhi's own version of it. Much of what's called non-violent action wouldn't qualify as Satyagraha. But we'll come back to that later.
Gandhi practiced two types of Satyagraha in his mass campaigns. The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. When we today hear this term, our minds tend to stress the "disobedience" part of it. But for Gandhi, "civil" was just as important. He used "civil" here not just in its meaning of "relating to citizenship and government" but also in its meaning of "civilized" or "polite." And that's exactly what Gandhi strove for.
We also tend to lay stress differently than Gandhi on the phases of civil disobedience. We tend to think breaking the law is the core of it. But to Gandhi, the core of it was going to prison. Breaking the law was mostly just a way to get there.
Now, why was that? Was Gandhi trying to fill the jails? Overwhelm and embarrass his captors? Make them "give in" through force of numbers?
Not at all. He just wanted to make a statement. He wanted to say, "I care so deeply about this matter that I'm willing to take on the legal penalties, to sit in this prison cell, to sacrifice my freedom, in order to show you how deeply I care. Because when you see the depth of my concern, and how 'civil' I am in going about this, you're bound to change your mind about me, to abandon your rigid, unjust position, and to let me help you see the truth of my cause."
In other words, Gandhi's method aimed to win not by overwhelming but by converting his opponent - or as the Gandhian say, by bringing about a "change of heart."
Now, to many people, that sounds pretty naive. Well, I'll let you in on a secret. It was naive. The belief that civil disobedience succeeded by converting the opponent happened to be a myth held by Gandhi himself. And it's shared by most of his admirers, who take his word for it without bothering to check it out.
As far as I can tell, no civil disobedience campaign of Gandhi's ever succeeded chiefly through a change of heart in his opponents.
But this doesn't mean civil disobedience didn't work. As a matter of fact, it did work. The only thing off-kilter was Gandhi's explanation of how and why it worked.
Let me give a general description of what seems really to have happened when Gandhi and his followers committed civil disobedience:
Gandhi and followers break a law-politely. Public leader has them arrested, tried, put in prison. Gandhi and followers cheerfully accept it all. Members of the public are impressed by the protest, public sympathy is aroused for the protesters and their cause. Members of the public put pressure on public leader to negotiate with Gandhi. As cycles of civil disobedience recur, public pressure grows stronger. Finally, public leader gives in to pressure from his constituency, negotiates with Gandhi.
That's the general outline. Notice that there is a "change of heart," but it's more in the public than in the opponent. And notice too that there's an element of coercion, though it's indirect, coming from the public, rather than directly from Gandhi's camp.
Some campaigns of Gandhi's show a variation on this model. Sometimes Gandhi's opponents had superiors who wound up pressuring them or even ordering them to negotiate with Gandhi. These superiors might have been influenced by Gandhi's campaign, or by pressure from their own public-for instance, when British citizens pressured government leaders in Britain to intervene in affairs of their colonial government in India.
But the basic principle was the same: Gandhi's most decisive influence on his opponents was more indirect than direct.
Gandhi set out a number of rules for the practice of civil disobedience. These rules often baffle his critics, and often even his admirers set them aside as nonessential. But once you understand that civil disobedience, for Gandhi, was aimed at working a change of heart-whether in the opponent or the public - then it's easy to make sense of them.
One rule was that only specific, unjust laws were to be broken. Civil disobedience didn't mean flouting all law.
In fact, Gandhi said that only people with a high regard for the law were qualified for civil disobedience. Only action by such people could convey the depth of their concern and win respect. No one thinks much of it when the law is broken by those who care nothing for it anyway.
Other rules: Gandhi ruled out direct coercion, such as trying to physically block someone. Hostile language was banned. Destroying property was forbidden. Not even secrecy was allowed.
All these were ruled out because any of them would undercut the empathy and trust Gandhi was trying to build, and would hinder that "change of heart."
The second form of mass Satyagraha was non-co-operation.
This is just what it sounds like. Non-co-operation meant refusing to co-operate with the opponent, refusing to submit to the injustice being fought. It took such forms as strikes, economic boycotts, and tax refusals.
Of course, non-co-operation and civil disobedience overlapped. Non-co-operation too was to be carried out in a "civil" manner. Here too, Gandhi's followers had to cheerfully face beating, imprisonment, confiscation of their property-and it was hoped that this willing suffering would cause a "change of heart."
But non-co-operation also had a dynamic of its own, a dynamic that didn't at all depend on converting the opponent or even molding public opinion. It was a dynamic based not on appeals but on the power of the people themselves.
Gandhi saw that the power of any tyrant depends entirely on people being willing to obey. The tyrant may get people to obey by threatening to throw them in prison, or by holding guns to their heads. But the power still resides in the obedience, not in the prison or the guns.
Now, what happens if those people begin to say, "We're not afraid of prison. We're even willing to die. But we're not willing to obey you any longer."
It's very simple. The tyrant has no power. He may rant and scream and hurt and destroy-but if the people hold to it, he's finished.
Gandhi said, "I believe that no government can exist for a single moment without the co-operation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their co-operation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill."
That was Gandhi's concept of power-the one he's accused of not having. It's a hard one to grasp, for those used to seeing power in the barrel of a gun. Their filters do not pass it. And so they call Gandhi idealistic, impractical.