Gandhi's Wars

- George Paxton*


Gandhi participated in or expressed his opinions on six war situations from the Anglo-Boer War to the Second World War. His views were not always consistent and he was criticised for this, particularly by western pacifists, including close colleagues. This arose from his multi-viewpoint position, where he opposed war personally but justified participation in war by others who fought for a just cause. A linked influence was his intense dislike of cowardliness and admiration of courageousness. His ideal, however, was the courageous satyagrahi and his expressed opinions moved during his lifetime to a firmer non-violent antiwar position.

GANDHI WAS NOTED for his inconsistency, or at least apparent inconsistency, on some important issues. This is true of caste, race and class issues which has left him open to attack or misinterpretation by a variety of critics down to the present time. This is true also of his expressed views and actions on the matter of war. This is important because of the prominence he gave to non-violence.

Gandhi was involved, either directly or indirectly, with several war situations - the Anglo-Boer War and the Bambatha revolt in South Africa; the First World War at its beginning and then towards its end; and the Second World War in Europe and in Asia. I intend to examine Gandhi’s stance in these diverse war situations, his consistencies and inconsistencies and the evolution of his ideas which I believe are revealed.

South African Conflicts

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived at the port of Durban, Natal on 23 May 1893. The 23-year-old barrister of the Inner Temple, London, having had a slow start to his legal career in India decided to take a year’s engagement with a trading firm Dada Abdoolla & Co which operated in South Africa and India. He did not leave South Africa finally till more than 20 years later after taking up the cause of the civil rights of the Indian community there. His religious and political ideas greatly developed during this period and the concept of satyagraha as a means of transforming society is perhaps the most important of these.

South Africa was a very ethnically diverse society - Black Africans; Europeans who were themselves divided into two main groups, those of British origin and those of Dutch origin (Boers); Indians and Chinese who were largely brought in as indentured labourers although there were prosperous traders too; and also the people of mixed race. The British dominated in the colonies of Cape Town and Natal and the Boers in the republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal. After diamonds and gold were discovered in Transvaal, the British contrived to control the province and this conflict broke into an open warfare in 1899 and lasted till 1902. This conflict need not have involved Gandhi but he chose to get involved on behalf of the Indian community.

Gandhi who came to South Africa in the last decade of the 19th century was a different Gandhi from the leader of the Independence movement in India. He was much more accepting of the British Empire than he was later to become. His belief in non-violence also was at a less developed stage. Being raised in Gujarat, he was aware of the Jain belief in ahimsa or non-harm which was carried to extreme lengths by the monks, who attempted to avoid killing the smallest creature. Ahimsa was also part of his own family’s Vaishnava form of Hinduism and the family were vegetarian, which Gandhi only adopted with enthusiasm, when he discovered in his student days that vegetarianism was practised in Britain too albeit by a small minority. But the Indian traditions did not necessarily lead believers to reject completely the killing of human beings - neither the execution of criminals nor killing in war - since the traditions often confined ahimsa to the private sphere rather than extending it to the political.

Gandhi read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You not long after arriving in South Africa and this had a tremendous influence on his developing religious and ethical outlook. Although coming from the Christian tradition, Tolstoy rejected the complex theologies of Christianity, as well as the wealth and power of the churches, in favour of the ethical teachings of Jesus with its core message of love or compassion for humans (which Tolstoy extended to animals also) including an explicit acceptance of what Tolstoy called non-resistance.

The Indian ahimsa tradition and the Christian non-resistance tradition combined to lead Gandhi to reject personal violence including war for himself; however, he also accepted the right of those individuals who did not share his belief to resort to violence for a good cause. This double-perspective approach could make him appear inconsistent.

When war broke out between the Boers and the British, although being more sympathetic to the Boers, Gandhi felt that as the Indians were subjects of the British Empire, they should support the British. His stance at this time was recorded many years later (1924) in his Satyagraha in South Africa:

Our existence in South Africa is only in our capacity as British subjects. In every memorial we have presented, we have asserted our rights as such. We have been proud of our British citizenship, or have given our rulers and the world to believe that we are so proud. Our rulers profess to safeguard our rights because we are British subjects, and what little rights we still retain, we retain because we are British subjects.1

...And if we desire to win our freedom and achieve our welfare as members of the British Empire, here is a golden opportunity for us to do so by helping the British in the war by all means at our disposal.2

It is clear that at this stage of his life, Gandhi was thinking primarily of the welfare of the Indian community in South Africa - the war gave an opportunity for Indians to display their loyalty to the regime which hopefully would be rewarded post-war. But how to serve when the Indians had no experience of warfare? Gandhi and his colleagues came up with the idea of an Ambulance Corps and so the leaders undertook some nursing training of the wounded and obtained certificates of competence. A letter was sent to the Government with the proposal which was however initially rejected. But as the war intensified the Indians’ offer was taken up and a corps of 1,100 of both free and indentured men from Natal was raised with Dr. Lancelot Booth as Medical Superintendent and Gandhi leading the Indians. Most members were paid £1 per week which was only about half the amount paid to the British troops, and the 30 leaders served without remuneration.3

Throughout his life, Gandhi greatly admired bravery and here was an opportunity to practice it in the line of duty; this would show that the Indians were worthy of a status not normally granted to them by most of the Europeans. The wounded soldiers were often carried 7-8 miles to base-hospital by the Indian stretcher bearers, but on one occasion it was as much as 25 miles. After the relief of Ladysmith the Corps was disbanded and General Buller praised its efforts and awarded medals to its 37 section leaders. The son of Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, who when mortally wounded was carried off the field by the members of the Indian corps. However, in spite of appreciation of the Corps’ work expressed by the British commanders, no improvement in the Indian population’s situation materialised post-war.

In the middle of 1906, a conflict arose in Natal between the Government and some Zulus. What became known as the Bambatha Rebellion began as a protest against taxation during which two policemen accompanying a magistrate were killed. Reprisals followed. Again Gandhi offered to form a corps of stretcher-bearers, but this time it was only some twenty strong with Gandhi given the rank of sergeant-major. His sympathies were with the Zulus and it was fortunate that most of those helped by the Corps were Zulus, many of whom had been flogged by the British soldiers and their wounds left untreated, so the Indians’ first-aid was clearly greatly appreciated even though it could not be conveyed through speech.

This small ‘war’ had a profound effect on Gandhi. In his Autobiography he wrote:

The Zulu ‘rebellion’ was full of new experiences and gave me much food for thought. The Boer War had not brought home to me the horrors of war with anything like the vividness that the ‘rebellion’ did. This was no war but a man-hunt ... To hear every morning reports of the soldiers’ rifles exploding like crackers in innocent hamlets, and to live in the midst of them was a trial.4

Rev. Joseph Doke, a supporter of the Indian cause, wrote in 1908-9 the first biography of Gandhi, in which he says: “As a man of peace, hating the very thought of war, it was almost intolerable for him to be so closely in touch with this expedition. At times, he doubted whether his position was right.”5 But he carried on for the sake of the wounded, until after a month the unit was disbanded. And so Gandhi returned to his family, and to the Indian community which he would before long lead in the direction of civil disobedience and satyagraha. 1906 also marked a change in his marriage to Kasturba as he took, at the age of 36, a vow of celibacy which he adhered to for the rest of his life.

The First World War

The resistance of the Indian community in South Africa to discrimination increased in the years following 1906 and expanded to involve more of the indentured Indians and also Indian women. By January 1914 a compromise agreement on a variety of issues had been reached with the former General and leading South African politician, Jan Christian Smuts, and Gandhi turned his mind to preparing to leave South Africa for the last time. Mohandas and Kasturba, along with close colleague Hermann Kallenbach, left Cape Town for London en route to India on 18 July and travelling third class arrived on 6 August - two days after the Great War started. Gandhi’s purpose in going by way of London was to see Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the leading liberal and academic who supported Gandhi’s work in South Africa, but found that he had been stranded in France although they did meet in London later.

Kasturba and her husband stayed in cheap lodgings while in London but a reception was organised for him at Hotel Cecil, so that Gandhi could meet Indians resident in the city, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Sarojini Naidu, as well as some British people known to him including Charlotte Despard, the leading suffragist who did not agree with the methods of the more militant suffragettes. Remarkably, neither at this reception nor during the rest of his stay in London did he speak “of the horrors of war or of the folly of the European nations in their descent into barbarism” as James Hunt expressed it.6 What Gandhi observed with admiration was the willingness of British people to give up their normal comforts and cooperate for the general good of their own citizens. This was what he wanted to see among Indian people - discipline and willingness to sacrifice. His mind turned to what he could do to help and once more he thought of first aid work.

So, Gandhi called a meeting of Indian residents in Britain, which brought a response initially of more than 50 willing to serve. “On 26 August, the first class of volunteers met at the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute for six weeks of instruction in first aid, sanitation and hygiene under Dr. James Cantlie ...”7 Seventy Indians joined the course and by the end of September, a Field Ambulance Training Corps was formed under the Red Cross Society. But now some of Gandhi’s colleagues were disturbed by his association with the military and this included Henry Polak who cabled from South Africa, and another South African colleague and satyagrahi, Pragji Desai. In a letter to Desai, Gandhi wrote: “A satyagrahi cannot support war directly or indirectly”, yet because he was not yet a perfect satyagrahi, he felt he had to help the British. The navy was used to protect supplies of food and other essentials, therefore he was implicated by living in Britain.8

In October, Indian troops started to arrive in Marseilles and proceeded to the front line in the north. The Indian Field Ambulance Training Corps under Lt-Col. Richard Baker made camp to the west of London and preparations began well. However, when Baker appointed section leaders, who were mostly Oxford students, Sorabji Adajania, a South African sent by Gandhi to London to train for the bar, complained to Gandhi about Baker’s arbitrary actions. There was also dissatisfaction over blankets and rations. Gandhi called a meeting of the Corps but his attempt to act as a mediator between the Corps members and Baker was not well received by the latter, after all this was the army. A first group of 30 trained volunteers from the Corps was sent to a hospital at Netley near Southampton.

Gandhi appealed to the India Office through Charles Roberts MP, Undersecretary of State for India, but Lord Crewe of the Colonial Office supported Baker’s position. Gandhi took the position that the Corps had special status and was supervised by an Indian Volunteers Committee, but Baker issued new rules stating that all new applications for service come to him and not to Gandhi. In France, troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force had suffered severe casualties and Col. Baker took a second detachment of volunteers to Netley on 27 October. On the 30th, a resolution of the dispute was reached with the help of Charles Roberts: men going to Netley were to report to the Commanding Officer of the hospital rather than Baker, and Gandhi was to oversee the recruitment and Baker was to consult Gandhi in non-military matters. However, a non-stated condition was that Gandhi was not to be allowed near the hospital. Soon nearly 470 Indian casualties reached the hospital on one day alone after heavy fighting at Ypres. By December the number of volunteers had reached 150, mostly at Netley but smaller numbers were at two other hospitals.

Gokhale was in poor health, as was Gandhi who had been suffering from pleurisy, but they were able to have conversations although very little was recorded, the only significant one being that Gandhi agreed not to involve himself in Indian politics for a year, while he rediscovered the country he had been largely away from for some 20 years.

Gandhi also met with the suffragists Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, the classicist and humanist Professor Gilbert Murray, and Florence Winterbottom of the Ethical Society. Kallenbach stayed with the Gandhis studying Gujarati but did not get permission to proceed to India and in June 1915 he was interned as an alien ending up on the Isle of Man. Kasturba was also unwell during the winter and so the advice of Charles and Cecilia Roberts to return to India was taken. After a farewell reception at the Westminster Palace Hotel, they embarked at Tilbury on 19th December 1914, finally on their way home after a less than satisfactory stay in Britain.

India at Last

On the voyage, Gandhi wrote a letter to his South African colleague Albert West: “I have been so often prevented from reaching India that it seems hardly real that I am sitting in a ship bound for India. And, having reached that, what shall I do with myself?”9 The Gandhis arrived in Bombay on 9 January 1915. Gandhi and Kasturba then visited Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, but while there received the news that Gokhale had died; he was only 48.

Gandhi decided to establish an ashram in his home state of Gujarat and chose initially a small village near Ahmedabad called Kochrab, but before long it was moved a short distance to Sabarmati. Here there were to be strict rules including the absence of caste distinctions. It was named Satyagraha Ashram and was to be his centre of operation until the early 1930s. For the present purposes, the next few years can be ignored until the year 1918.

In February 1918, Gandhi became involved in a dispute at the cotton mills in Ahmedabad. Disagreement over payments led to a lockout but the workers began to weaken in their resolve even though Gandhi considered their demands to be just and at that point Gandhi decided to start a fast with the aim of stiffening their resolve. After 25 days of strike, a settlement was reached. The next month another dispute arose among peasants in Kheda, Bombay Presidency. There had been drought there and the peasants were unable to make payments and so asked for them to be suspended. However, the Government was in no mood to listen, whereupon the peasants supported by Gandhi and others refused to make any payments. Eventually, a settlement was reached though Gandhi was not entirely satisfied with it. But his political technique of satyagraha, forged in South Africa, had demonstrated its usefulness in an industrial setting as well as a rural one.

In Europe, the war was not going well and the British wanted more troops from India to strengthen their side. The Viceroy Lord Chelmsford called a War Conference at Delhi for 27 April. Gandhi allowed himself to be persuaded to attend. According to Gandhi the Viceroy had used a familiar argument:

...if you agree that the Empire has been, on the whole, a power for good, if you believe that India has, on the whole, benefitted by the British connection, would you not admit that it is the duty of every Indian citizen to help the Empire in the hour of its need?10

Gandhi was still in thrall to the idea that serving in the army would develop courageousness in the ordinary Indian and thus lead to their ability to become courageous satyagrahis.

Gandhi thus undertook to recruit for the army and this time his close friend Charles Freer Andrews was one to object to his decision; another who was sceptical was his Danish friend Esther Faering. Andrews wrote on 23 June 1918:

I do not see the analogy of the dumb man in your letter. It seems dangerously near the argument that the Indian who has forgotten altogether the blood-lust might be encouraged to learn it again first and then repudiate it afterwards of his own account ... At the same time I do agree with you entirely that it is a free India choosing her own path which can give the world the highest example of ahimsa, not the present subjected India. But even then - cannot you conceive of that very freedom being won by moral force only, not by the creation of a standing army to meet the army of occupation?11

Gandhi chose Kheda as a suitable area for recruitment and expected that his fellow workers who had assisted with the recent satyagraha there would help. He was to be disappointed, neither his colleagues nor the peasants were inclined to give support. Indeed the peasants could see clearer than Gandhi did, the contradiction in his position. The other strong factor influencing him seems to have been his hope that if Indians show their willingness to support the British rulers when they need support then this loyalty will be repaid by treating their subjects as equals after the crisis and so social and political freedom will be granted. In fact more than a million Indians served in the British army during the Great War without any help from Gandhi. Had Gandhi not noticed that his demonstration of loyalty had not worked in South Africa? And how could raising recruits whom he told to be non-violent towards the British be sent, through his actions, to Europe to kill Germans, Austrians and other enemies of the British who were nevertheless human beings like themselves? Moreover, the war was seen by many ordinary workers in Europe as a war that could not benefit them - it was instigated by the rulers of imperial powers whose ideology could bring neither justice at home nor liberation in the colonies.

The mental conflict of an advocate for non-violence attempting to recruit soldiers may have contributed to a breakdown in his health in August. The ending of the war in November was a great relief to him. But this was not followed by any concessions as the Government brought in the Rowlatt Acts which were restrictions on civil liberties with the intention of combating political violence. Gandhi considered that this required a strong response and he chose to start satyagraha with a hartal on 6 April 1919, a day when all businesses would stop and people would fast and pray as a protest. (Due to a misunderstanding, the hartal was observed in Delhi a week earlier.) In Bombay banned books, such as Hind Swaraj and Sarvodaya, were also sold openly, and a news-sheet Satyagraha was published in defiance of the Press Act. Unfortunately, violence occurred in several places and Gandhi decided to suspend satyagraha on 18 April, although Nehru and others did not concur. Meanwhile, although Gandhi and most of India did not learn of it for several days, a massacre of unarmed men, women and children was carried out by troops under the command of General Sir Reginald Dyer in Amritsar in the Punjab, resulting in about 400 deaths and more than 1,000 wounded. This was followed by martial law in the city and the notorious crawling orders requiring Indians to crawl on their bellies in the street where a European woman had been assaulted. Gandhi’s faith in the benign influence of British rule was finally abandoned.

Gandhi's Critics

About a decade passed between Gandhi’s unsuccessful army recruiting campaign and the next time that he was faced with the issue of war. This was in May 1928 when the leading Dutch pacifist, Bart de Ligt, wrote to Gandhi and this then developed into a dialogue which Gandhi published in the pages of Young India. De Ligt greatly admired Gandhi but he had been disappointed to learn of Gandhi’s support for war on more than one occasion. He went back to 1899 and Gandhi’s attitude to the Anglo-Boer War and his offer to the authorities to encourage Indians to enroll in the British Army. When the British forces were under pressure they accepted the formation of a stretcher- bearer corps who would bring wounded men from the front to first aid stations. De Ligt considered that this was not only support for the British side in the conflict but also support for war in general which was incompatible with his firm advocacy of non-violence. Gandhi reacted similarly to the Bambatha conflict in 1906 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.

Gandhi was aware that most people do not believe in the power of non-violence and therefore at a time of the Government’s need he believed such people should display their loyalty and their bravery by offering their services to the army. Although in all three cases their service was as non-combatants and he did not distinguish ethically between combatants and non-combatants when viewing from the perspective of ahimsa. As such, the third case - recruiting in 1918 - is not so different to the earlier three from Gandhi’s viewpoint, and probably from De Ligt’s viewpoint either, although others might see an important distinction between saving lives and taking lives. De Ligt saw all four cases as unjustifiable in the light of non-violence.

Here is part of Gandhi’s defence in his reply to De Ligt in November 1928:

Being a confirmed war resister I have never given myself training in the use of destructive weapons in spite of opportunities to take such training. It was perhaps thus that I escaped direct destruction of human life. But so long as I lived under a system of Government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that Government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war unless I non-cooperated with that Government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me.12

Yet he concludes his letter with this:

But the Light within me is steady and clear. There is no escape for any of us save through truth and non-violence. I know that war is wrong, is an unmitigated evil. I know too that it has got to go. I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom. Would that all the acts alleged against me were found to be wholly indefensible rather than that by any act of mine non-violence was held to be compromised or that I was ever thought to be in favour of violence or un-truth in any shape or form.13

De Ligt gives an answer to the point in the first paragraph above which was published in Young India on 9 May 1929:

...the present governments from time to time, maybe even as a rule, do good more or less. But that can never be for us a sufficient motive for collaborating unreservedly with them in all their enterprises. I am supposing for instance, that someone - or some government - does me a great service. Am I then obliged, from the moral point of view, to come to his assistance even when he acts badly, offends and kills, and forms schemes which are in flagrant opposition to any religious or humanitarian conceptions? No, quite the contrary. The more grateful I feel towards him, the less can I collaborate with him in evil work.14

Another individual who wrote to Gandhi in 1928 on the same subject was Vladimir Chertkov, who had been Tolstoy’s secretary. He expresses his disappointment at Gandhi’s opinion:

Gandhi: 'If there was a national Government, I can conceive occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it.' In this way you justify others who also vote for the preparation of war because they sympathise with another Government. And what a snare is placed in people's way by a man who denies war to such an extent that he refuses to serve in the army and who at the same time votes for military training? Further you say that 'all its (the Government's) members do not believe in non-violence,' and that 'it is not possible to make a person or a society non-violent by compulsion.' But by abstaining from voting for military training I compel no one to do anything...15

Chertkov continues:

You say that it would be madness for you to sever your connection with the society to which you belong, and that as long as you lived under a system of government based on force, and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for you, you were bound to help it to the extent of your ability when it was engaged in war.

Firstly, by abstaining from approving those evil deeds which men are engaged in around me I not only do not ‘sever my connection with the society to which I belong,’ but exactly the opposite. I utilise this connection for the best possible way of serving this society.

Secondly, if living as I live I am obliged to assist the State in waging war, then I ought at all costs to cease to live as I live, even if I had in doing so to sacrifice my life, and in no wise to help people in the slaughter of their brothers. Besides it is quite possible to make use of certain facilities afforded by the State, which could be obtained without violence, and at the same time to abstain from supporting the evil deeds of the State.16

At the Second Round Table Conference held in London in 1931 Gandhi declared: “... I am here very respectfully to claim, on behalf of the Congress, complete control over the army, over the defence forces and over external affairs.”17 Here he was speaking on behalf of Congress but nevertheless the words were his.

On his way home he stopped in Paris, in Lausanne and Geneva, and in Rome. In Lausanne De Ligt asked him:

What would you do if an eventually free India were to enter into a war? 'Gandhi replied that he was convinced that, if India freed itself by non- violent means, she would never more go to war. If however, contrary to all his dreams, an eventually free India should go to war, he hoped - with divine assistance - to have the strength to rise up against his government and to stand in the way of violent resistance.18

It is necessary in order to make sense of Gandhi’s positions to see that there are two perspectives used by him. His personal perspective is clear and strongly anti-violence. But he had the habit of seeing from another’s perspective too, one that was very different from his own and yet expressing this publicly. This certainly makes it difficult for an outsider to see what he really believes as his perspective shifts. However, the statements and writings of the last decade or so of Gandhi’s life show at the very least a change of emphasis with his own belief in the power of non-violence being expressed more strongly.

Gandhi Confronts Fascism

In late 1935 Italy, with Mussolini as head of the Fascist Government, invaded Abyssinia. Villages were bombed with poison gas and after seven months an Italian Empire was declared. The Italian Empire was however short lived as British Empire troops ejected the Italian forces in 1941. Early in 1937 Gandhi had stated:

If the Abyssinians had retired from the field and allowed themselves to be slaughtered, their seeming inactivity would have been much more effective though not for the moment visible.19

He further reflected on the invasion in Harijan in 1938:

...if the Abyssinians had adopted the attitude of non-violence of the strong, i.e., the non-violence which breaks to pieces but never bends, Mussolini would have had no interest in Abyssinia. Thus if they had simply said: ‘You are welcome to reduce us to dust and ashes, but you will not find one Abyssinian ready to co-operate with you,’ what would Mussolini have done? He did not want a desert.20

The Czech crisis of 1938 brought a similar response from Gandhi:

It was necessary to give this introduction to what I want to say to the Czechs and through them to all those nationalities which are called ‘small’ or ‘weak.’ I want to speak to the Czechs because their plight moved me to the point of physical and mental distress, and I felt that it would be cowardice on my part not to share with them the thoughts that were welling up within me. It is clear that the small nations must either come or be ready to come under the protection of the dictators or be a constant menace to the peace of Europe. In spite of all the good will in the world England and France cannot save them. Their intervention can only mean bloodshed and destruction such as has never been seen before. If I were a Czech, therefore, I would free these two nations from the obligation to defend my country. And yet I must live. I would not be a vassal to any nation or body. I must have absolute independence or perish. To seek to win in a clash of arms would be pure bravado. Not so, if in defying the might of one who would deprive me of my independence I refuse to obey his will and perish unarmed in the attempt. In so doing, though I lose the body, I save my soul, i.e. my honour.

...Hitherto he [Hitler] and his like have built upon their invariable experience that men yield to force. Unarmed men, women and children offering non-violent resistance without any bitterness in them will be a novel experience for them. Who can dare say it is not in their nature to respond to the higher and finer forces? They have the same soul that I have.21

In October 1938 he wrote an article in Harijan called ‘If I were a Czech’ in which included:

I present Dr Benes [President of Czechoslovakia] with a weapon not of the weak but of the brave. There is no bravery greater than a resolute refusal to bend the knee to an earthly power, no matter how great, and that without bitterness of spirit and in the fullness of faith that the spirit alone lives, nothing else does.22

The Second World War began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. That month Gandhi wrote on board a train to Simla:

Though I have failed with the Working Committee in persuading them, at this supreme moment, to declare their undying faith in non-violence as the only sovereign remedy for saving mankind from destruction, I have not lost the hope that the masses will refuse to bow to the Moloch of war but will rely upon their capacity for suffering to save the country’s honour. How has the undoubted military valour of Poland served her against the superior forces of Germany and Russia? Would Poland unarmed have fared worse if it had met the challenge of these combined forces with the resolution to face death without retaliation? Would the invading forces have taken a heavier toll from an infinitely more valorous Poland? It is highly probable that their essential nature would have made them desist from a wholesale slaughter of innocents.23

In early July 1940 when the Battle of Britain between the German and British air forces was about to begin, Gandhi published a message ‘To Every Britton’:

I appeal for cessation of hostilities, not because you are too exhausted to fight, but because war is bad in essence. You want to kill Nazism. You will never kill it by its indifferent adoption. Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans. The only difference in that perhaps yours are not as thorough as the Germans. If that be so, yours will soon acquire the same thoroughness as theirs, if not much greater. On no other condition can you win the war. In other words, you will have to be more ruthless than the Nazis. No cause, however just, can warrant the indiscriminate slaughter that is going on minute by minute. I suggest that a cause that demands the inhumanities that are being perpetrated today cannot be called just.

...I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves man, woman and child to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.24

It is clear from the advice to the Czechs, to the Poles and to the British - unwelcome as it no doubt was to most - that Gandhi’s belief in the power of nonviolence had solidified. Although none of the governments that were to be invaded by the German forces considered non-violent methods of resistance nevertheless certain sections of the occupied populations took up non-violent resistance as pragmatic responses to occupation.

The plight of the German Jews also prompted Gandhi to give similar advice in 1938, which in general was not welcomed by the world Jewish community who considered him naive:

But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. ... If ever there could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war.25

To see what the Jews did in the way of non-violent resistance and what more they might have done - also what other groups did to resist the Nazis consult my book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis and Jaques Sémelin’s Unarmed Against Hitler.

India at War

On 3 September 1939 the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow announced that India was at war with Germany. Although most of the leaders of Congress were supporters of Britain rather than Germany they were offended by the absence of consultation. At the Congress Working Committee, Gandhi advocated unconditional non-violent support for Britain but he was isolated because most of the CWC members did not hold to non-violence as a fundamental belief but only an experience and thus were prepared to offer military support in return for concessions. The Committee stated that they could only give support to Britain on the basis of equality between India and Britain. The Raj however would only offer constitutional talks after the end of the war. In 1940 with Western Europe overrun by German forces the Congress Working Committee made another offer that if the British Government made an unequivocal declaration of Indian independence after the war Congress would join with the Raj to defend the country. Jawaharlal Nehru however dissented as he felt it went too far. At this point Gandhi and the Congress Working Committee parted company. This separation did not last long and he was asked by some to launch a mass satyagraha but instead he decided to confine it to individuals chosen by himself. The satyagrahis were to use the slogan: “It is wrong to help the British war-effort with men or money. The only worthy effort is to resist all war with non-violent resistance.”26 Individual satyagraha was begun by Vinoba Bhave on 17 October 1940 and he was arrested four days later. By 25 May 1941 25,000 convictions had been made by the courts.

In March 1942 a mission headed by Stafford Cripps was sent to India to discuss with Congress leaders the latest proposals of the British Government. Once more there was no agreement. Meanwhile the threat to India from the Japanese advance grew and Gandhi wrote in April 1942:

... non-violent resistance could commence the moment they effected a landing. Thus non-violent resisters would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help anyone to steal their country. But if a Japanese had missed his way and was dying of thirst and sought help as a human being, a non-violent resister, who may not regard anyone as his enemy, would give water to the thirsty one. Suppose the Japanese compel resisters to give them water, the resisters must die in the act of resisting. It is conceivable that they will exterminate all resisters. The underlying belief in such non-violent resistance is that the aggressor will, in time, be mentally and even physically tired of killing non-violent resisters. He will begin to search what this new (for him) force is which refuses cooperation without seeking to hurt, and will probably desist from further slaughter. But the resisters may find that the Japanese are utterly heartless and that they do not care how many they kill. The non-violent resisters will have won the day inasmuch as they will have preferred extermination to submission.27

Mirabehn had at this time been asked by Gandhi to go to Orissa to prepare the population for non-violent resistance in the event of Japanese troops landing on the east coast. But probably realising how unprepared the Indian population was for non-violent defence he changed his position and accepted that Congress could support military defence of India in alliance with Britain if India was given its freedom. The All-India Congress Committee decided that if Britain did not accept this then Congress would advocate civil disobedience led by Gandhi which they did on 8 August 1942, although Rajagopalachari strongly dissented as he believed it would lead to anarchy.

‘Quit India’ as it became to be known was met by preventative action by the Government including the arrest during the early hours of 9 August of Gandhi, Nehru, Azad and other Congress leaders. But the Government action provoked violent reaction in several parts of the country including police stations and courts being set on fire and telephone and telegraph lines cut. Government security forces responded by force including firing to disperse crowds. Gandhi’s plans for non-violent resistance did not have the opportunity even to be discussed by Congress leaders let alone acted upon but the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, accused Gandhi and Congress of being responsible for the outbreak of violence by Indians. Gandhi in turn accused the Government of provoking violence by the imprisonment of the Congress leaders. Gandhi was not released from prison until May 1944 and on grounds of ill health. His principal secretary Mahadev Desai and Kasturba had both died during their imprisonment.

The last few years of Gandhi’s life were much occupied not with threats of violence from invading armies but with violence internal to India itself. As he had done all his life he urged the use of non-violence or satyagraha to deal with the conflicts. During this period of communal fueled violence, it is often considered that Gandhi was seen at his greatest as he travelled to areas of conflict and walked through areas where terrible crimes had been committed. One final event needs to be examined as India split and Pakistan came into existence.

As the partition lines were drawn and the different states had to choose to opt for Pakistan or India a particular problem arose with regard to Kashmir. Kashmir had a Hindu Maharajah, Hari Singh, but the majority population was Muslim and Singh hesitated. Influential figures in Pakistan were determined that the state should not accede to India and so they sponsored a raid by thousands of Afridi tribesmen on 22 October 1947. As the raiders neared Srinagar, Hari Singh and Sheikh Abdullah, who was previously imprisoned by Singh but now released, asked for India’s help and after discussions with Nehru and others Singh acceded the state to India and consequently Indian troops were flown to Srinagar. Abdullah was declared premier of Kashmir with the intention of a plebiscite being held to decide the state’s future. In the meantime the Pakistani-backed invaders had been pushed back but retained part of the state.28 Gandhi had given his ‘tacit consent’ to the use of Indian troops and in response to a letter he received he explained his position in Harijan on 16 November 1947:

A correspondent rebuked Gandhiji for having dared to advise Mr Winston Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese when they were about to lose their all, that they should adopt his technique of non- violence. The writer of the letter then went on to say that if he could give that advice when it was safe for him to do so, why did he abandon his non-violence when his own friends in the Congress Government had forsaken it and even sent armed assistance to Kashmir? The letter concluded by inviting Gandhiji to point out definitely how the raiders were to be opposed non-violently by the Kashmiris.

Replying Gandhiji said that he was sorry for the ignorance betrayed by the writer. The audience would remember that he had repeatedly said that he had no influence in the matter over his friends in the Union Cabinet. He held on to his views on non-violence as firmly as ever, but he could not impose his views on his best friends, as they were, in the Cabinet. He could not expect them to act against their convictions and everybody should be satisfied with his confession that he had lost his original hold upon his friends. The question put by the writer was quite apposite. Gandhiji’s answer was simple. His ahimsa forbade him from denying credit, where it was due, even though the creditor was a believer in violence. Thus, though he did not accept Subhas Bose’s belief in violence and his consequent action, he had not refrained from giving unstinted praise to him for his patriotism, resourcefulness and bravery. Similarly, though he did not approve of the use of arms by the Union Government for aiding the Kashmiris and though he could not approve of Sheikh Abdulla’s resort to arms, he could not possibly withhold admiration for either for their resourceful and praiseworthy conduct, especially, if both the relieving troops and the Kashmiri defenders died heroically to a man. He knew that if they could do so, they would perhaps change the face of India. But if the defence was purely non-violent in intention and action, he would not use the word ‘perhaps’ for, he would be sure of change in the face of India even to the extent of converting to the defender's view the Union Cabinet, if not even the Pakistan Cabinet. The non-violent technique, he would suggest, would be no armed assistance to the defenders. Non-violent assistance could be sent from the Union without stint. But the defenders, whether they got such assistance or not, would defy the might of the raiders or even a disciplined army in overwhelming numbers. And defenders dying at their post of duty without malice and without anger in their hearts against their assailants, and without the use of any arms including even their fists would mean an exhibition of heroism as yet unknown to history. Kashmir would then become a holy land shedding its fragrance not only throughout India, but the world.29

Gandhi, Violence and War

It is frequently stated that Gandhi was not a pacifist but his fluctuating statements make it difficult to be sure one way or the other. A pacifist today is normally defined as someone who directed by ethical or religious beliefs will not participate in war or support war directly or indirectly. Since Gandhi participated in the South African wars albeit as a non-combatant he admits himself to have supported war. Even more directly by attempting to raise troops in 1918 to fight in the British army in the Great War he did help the war effort.

Up till 1914 Gandhi seems to have been concerned mainly with the civil liberties of the Indian community in South Africa and later in freeing Indians from the Raj. Part of this process he believed required Indians to become courageous and he saw the discipline of serving in the armed forces as a help in this. Therefore for those, unlike himself, who believed in the rightness of the use of violence in a good cause they should volunteer.

However, the recruiting episode which caused him mental anguish may have been responsible for a change which occurred in the following years. In 1927 he printed extracts from two journals in Young India which enumerated many of the negative aspects of war and added “And yet there are intelligent men who talk, and gullible men who subscribe to the talk, of the ‘humanising influence’ of war!” In Young India the following year he responded to a correspondent in regards to the Great War:

The war certainly did not do good to the so-called victors.

The pacifist resisters who suffered imprisonment certainly served the cause of peace.

If another war were declared tomorrow, I could not, with my present views about the existing government, assist in any shape or form; on the contrary I should exert myself to the utmost to induce others to withhold their assistance and to do everything possible and consistent with Ahimsa to bring about its defeat.30

By the later 1930s a further shift had occurred in Gandhi’s thinking as he was now advocating non-violent resistance to the Abyssinians, the Czechs, the Poles, the French, the British, as well as the Jews in spite of the obvious totalitarian nature of the German regime which most people thought necessitated a military response. He also recommended non-violence to the Indian people and the Chinese in the face of Japanese aggression.

Moving to a consideration of Gandhi’s attitude to violence in a wider sense he did not believe that all violence could be avoided by human beings. The very matter of acquiring food inevitably results in destruction of some animal life (e.g. insects, worms) even when one is a vegan - not even ultra-strict Jains can avoid that and if they avoid all agricultural occupations they are simply depending on others committing the acts on their behalf. But he also considered that killing an incurably ill or injured animal to put it out of its misery was justified on compassionate grounds, although ultra-orthodox Hindus did not agree. Although unhappy with the idea he considered killing animals who were destroying vital human crops to be justified if no other way was effective in saving the crops. But the use of animals in medical teaching and research was in his eyes unjustified.

The killing of humans could be justified in certain circumstances: the acts of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide to end suffering; another is a murderer out of control who cannot be stopped in any other way. This would be undesirable but the lesser evil. Other even more difficult choices may have to be made, for example, the situation where the victim cannot be saved and killing the defenceless victim is the lesser evil to avoid rape or torture to death; cases such as these occurred during the Indian partition, madness by male relatives to prevent rape of daughters and wives (however the belief that protection of chastity was the supreme virtue might be questioned).

What then of war? Gandhi would not himself consider participation in killing in war. What makes his position confusing to admirers and sympathisers is his defence of others’ participation in war if they believe in the just aim of the war. Perhaps this derives from the influence of Jainism’s multi-viewpoint, or anekantavada. This multifaceted understanding of truth could lead to an admirable attitude of tolerance of differences in religion and democratic politics - but is there not a limit to tolerance when it comes to behaviour? Mass killing, including of civilians, is absolutely normal in war and is, I suggest, beyond that acceptable limit. It is true that Gandhi had to accept that most people including the majority of his colleagues did not have a principled belief in non-violence and therefore the state established at independence would be conventional in most respects and would include armed forces. But by explicitly accepting this, most publicly in the case of military defence of Kashmir, did he not weaken the case for satyagraha which he had been advocating?

Scott Daniel Dunbar has examined a related issue, that of Gandhi’s abhorrence of cowardice. He traces this to traditional Indian cultural values of the warrior found, for example in ancient literature such as the Mahabharata where cowardice is a dereliction of duty and a sin. Fighting and killing is to be preferred. Dunbar regards Gandhi’s attitude here as an expression of intolerance.31

Another weakness of Gandhi’s position is that he seemed to assume that the most likely outcome of resistance to invaders was slaughter and it was only the willingness to die and the undeserved suffering of the victims that would, or at least might, affect the invader and weaken their determination to achieve their goal. Gandhi placed too much emphasis on the suffering of the resisters as a mechanism of change. He in fact underestimated the extent of non-violent resistance to bring about change through exercise of power. One can see that in some of his own campaigns which involved an element of non-violent coercion. There are now many case studies of large-scale political change being brought about through non-violent direct action and Chenoweth and Stephan have demonstrated that it is generally a more effective method than using violence and leads to a more desirable outcome.32

Gandhi’s critics of his contradictory stances on war had the better arguments yet he demonstrated better than any the power of non-violence through his various campaigns covering the last 40 years of his life.

Notes and Reference:

  1. M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, Revised 1950), p.66.
  2. Ibid. p.67.
  3. CWMG Vol 3, p.193.
  4. M. K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1940), p.233.
  5. Joseph J. Doke, Gandhi: A Patriot in South Africa (New Delhi: Government of India, 1994), p.86.
  6. James D. Hunt, Gandhi in London, revised edition (New Delhi: Promila, 1993), p.164.
  7. Ibid, p.166.
  8. CWMG Vol.12, pp.554-55.
  9. James D. Hunt, Gandhi in London, revised edition (New Delhi: Promila 1993) p.174.
  10. M. K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1940), p.327.
  11. Benarsidas Chaturvedi & Marjorie Sykes, Charles Freer Andrews (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949), pp.132-3.
  12. Christian Bartolf, editor, The Breath of My Life, the correspondence of Gandhi and Bart de Ligt (Berlin: Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum, 2000), p.31.
  13. Ibid. p.33.
  14. Ibid. p.44.
  15. Ibid. p.35.
  16. Ibid. p.36.
  17. Ibid. p.73.
  18. Ibid. p.71.
  19. M. K. Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War (NVPW) Vol. I (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House 1942, 1949), p.138.
  20. CWMG Vol. 67, p.76.
  21. CWMG Vol. 67, pp.404-5.
  22. NVPW Vol. I, p.164.
  23. NVPW Vol. I, p.241.
  24. NVWP Vol.I, p.297.
  25. NVPW Vol.I, p.171.
  26. B. R. Nanda, Mahatma Gandhi (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958), p.443.
  27. NVPW Vol.1, p.417.
  28. Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi, the Man, his People and the Empire (London: Haus Publishing, 2007), p.627.
  29. NVPW Vol II, pp. 320-1.
  30. CWMG Vol.36, p. 86.
  31. Scott Daniel Dunbar, ‘A Dent in His Saintly Halo? Mahatma Gandhi’s Intolerance Against Cowards,’ Gandhi in a Canadian Context, ed. Alex Damm (Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2017), pp. 29-45.
  32. Erica Chenoweth & Maria J Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Courtesy: This article has been reproduced from Gandhi Marg, Vol. 39, No. 2&3, July-December 2017.

*GEORGE PAXTON is the editor of The Gandhi Way, the quarterly journal of the Gandhi Foundation which is based in the UK. He is the author of Sonja Schlesin: Gandhi’s South African Secretary (Pax Books 2006) and Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton Publications 2016). Address: 2/1, 87 Barrington Drive, Glasgow G4 9ES, Scotland, UK. Email: