MK Gandhi, the clever tactician of non violence

David Hardiman*

Mahatma Gandhi disliked the term "passive resistance" as it suggested passivity for what was in fact an active form of civil protest. He believed that they were fighting for truth and devised the term "satyagraha".


There is nothing new about resisting power without the use of physical force. Examples can be found from history stretching back thousands of years. The modern practice of non-violent resistance as a carefully thought out and theorised strategy is, however, something attributable to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Mass forms of civil protest became a feature of political life in Europe and the United States of America during the 19th century - known at that time as "passive resistance". They had been developed in largely practical ways. Gandhi took this method and made it the basis for what he styled as a "science" of resistance that could be refined through practice. He began this process during his battle against discrimination against Indians in South Africa in the period 1906-14.

Gandhi disliked the term "passive resistance" as it suggested passivity for what was in fact an active form of civil protest. He believed that they were fighting for truth and devised the term "satyagraha". This was derived from the Sanskrit words satya (truth), and agraha (seizing or laying hold of). Gandhi believed that those who waged satyagraha were linking themselves with a greater moral, even divine, force. It was thus a form of soul force. In an article of 1908, Gandhi said that a satyagrahi (a practitioner of satyragraha) rid his mind of fear and refused to be a slave to others. Satyagraha was an attitude of mind, and anyone who acted in this spirit would - he claimed - be victorious, as the person would be blessed by God. This helped to give his followers, who were both Hindus and Muslims, great confidence in the method.

It was only after his return to India in 1915 that Gandhi developed the concept of non violence. At that time, many radical nationalists in India believed that independence would be won only through violence against the British. Gandhi argued that violence by nationalists provided an excuse for the British to react in draconian ways. It was better to gain the moral high ground by refusing to react with violence, even if the imperial rulers crush protests forcibly. In fact, he held, the more the British used violence against unarmed crowds, the more Indian people in general would be outraged and throw their support behind the nationalist movement, giving it an unstoppable momentum. He took an Indian word, ahimsa - which meant 'not hurting others' or 'non-killing' - and made an ethical principle into a political concept that he translated into English as non violence. His form of protest was henceforth to be characterised by its non violence, which meant not hurting others either physically or emotionally.

This was put to the test in 1919 when Gandhi led civil disobedience against draconian legislation [the Rowlatt Acts] by the British that sought to crush the radical nationalists. In Punjab province, the British reacted to the protest with great violence, massacring unarmed crowds, particularly in Amritsar. There was a horrified reaction from all over India, which led to a mass movement that was launched in the following year with Gandhi at the helm - the Non-cooperation movement of 1920-22. In later years, this phenomenon - that of state violence against non-violent crowds causing widespread revulsion and thus generating support for a protest movement - has come to be known as the "backfire" effect.

During Non-cooperation, there was a massive upsurge of enthusiasm for Gandhi and his methods, with Indians from all political spectrum and religions joining the movement. This created great logistical challenges for Gandhi, and he failed to balance the need to escalate the campaign with his imperative of maintaining complete non violence, and he called off the movement in early 1922 after some policemen were murdered by a crowd of nationalists in the United Provinces. Many now questioned his method. Some, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, argued that a few outbreaks of violence in a country as large as India had to be tolerated if a generally non-violent movement was to succeed. Gandhi largely accepted this stance in later years. When stray outbreaks of violence by nationalists occurred in subsequent campaigns, he did not call off struggles as in 1922.

The historian Claude Markovits has argued in his book, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi, that Gandhi was a far better tactician than strategist. He had a great capacity to innovate and catch the British by surprise. He knew how to exploit a given situation, combining agitation and propaganda in a most effective way. Markovits writes: "Gandhi proved to be a genius of 'agitprop'; he was good at attracting the attention of the media upon his actions and on the movements he led." He failed, however, to secure his retreats or prepare positions of withdrawal. This judgement is borne out by the events of 1920-22, as well as at the culmination of the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-31, when he failed to win any major concessions from the British. Gandhi always claimed that he could win the sympathies of his opponents through his non-violent method. This was not realistic - almost invariably, his opponents capitulated grudgingly only when forced to do so through mass pressure and then did their best to later take back what they had conceded. Gandhi's method succeeded because of the relentless pressure it put on rulers - forcing them to give in to mass demands. This was recognised by subsequent practitioners of non-violent protest, and it formed the basis for the method as it was theorised more extensively and applied in practical and often very successful ways all over the world in the years after Gandhi's death in 1948.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times, dt. 16.9.2019

* Historian and a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, David Hardiman is based in the United Kingdom. He is the author of The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom, 1905-1919.