Violence and Non-violence Today : How Gandhian Principles can help in reducing violence
There are serious problems of deprivation and marginalisation being faced by millions across the world. Although people suffer silently, occaisionally they rise up in protest and commit violence on the state and the other individuals. This paper discusses the nature of different forms of violence and factors leading to it. In addition, it seeks to bring out the relevance of Gandhian principles of truth, Satyagraha, non-violence, proper educational system and religious tolerance, and argue that these principles can be applied in the contemporary situation for reduction of conflict and violence by advancing the welfare of the deprived, protection of environment, promoting peace and understanding among peoples. These principles have a universal validity and have been successfully adopted by several countries and peoples.
Violence has been with us from the beginings of life on earth and is likely to continue in one form or another. Violence is found in and used against all forms of life. Animals and fish kill other animals and fish for food- sometimes even their own species. For example, some species of fish are known to eat their own egges, and occaisionally rats are known to eat their young ones. Female honeybees instinctively kill other females so that only one queen honeybee survives in a honeycomb.
Of course, man has hunted animals both for both, fun and food. Man's cruelty and violence against fellow-man is well-known from time immemorial. The nature of violence and its meaning have ofcourse changed but the broad objectives have not. While the earlier man had stones, sticks, bows and arrows, today there are not only AK 47s and hand grenades but also warships and fighter planes for aggression against an enemy or for protecting one's country against external aggression.
Wars are an age old curse, having been fought in early Greek city-states, European nation states, and among Indian rajahs. Epics like Illiad and Mahabharata have described not only the wars but also the socio-political conditions of those times and why these wars were fought.
Today there is a constant threat of nuclear war that looms over mankind. Another feature of conflict and warfare today is the rise of terrorism as a mode of warfare. This modern form of attrition has spread its tentacles over all globe, be it Chechanya, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan or India. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish terrorism from open wars. For example, Pakistan has waged three full-scale wars against India on Kashmir, and elements in Pakistan have indulged in cross-border terrorism, including the Mumbai attack. When confronted, Pakistan has defended itself by asserting that it is non-state actors who are responsible for terrorism. Of course, Pakistan itself is suffering from the various incidents of terrorist activities that show no sign of reducing.
We also have violence committed against the weaker sections of society.- the poor, the women and the Adivasis. According to Prof. S. Tendulkar's 2009 report, the poor number about 37.2% of the Indian population (approx. 400 million). Children or those living in slums are particularly vulnerable. Reports suggest that over 50,000 children die of malnutrition every year in Indian urban slums alone.1 As a result of state policies and programs, in addition to crop failures and resultant indebtedness, more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide all over India since 1997.
Violence against environment, is an over-exploitation of nature through developmental activities like mining, setting up of industrial plants, building big dams or roads in remote areas etc. leading to degradation of hills, forests, rivers, soil and air.
There is another type of violence visible today- pelting of stones, blowing up of police-stations, schools, public vehicles by some sections of population, often done to highlight certain core problems or injustice felt by these sections against the state or it policies.
We discuss some such forms of violence, try to analyse its theory and practice. We outline possible motivation, impulses and causes of violence. Even if not all the forms of violence lead to killing, it can result in deep adverse psychological or social impairment that can be quite dangerous and traumatic.
The American civil rights leader and scholar Howard Thurman wrote in his 1963 essay (Disciplines of the Spirit) that non-violence and non-killing imply essentially the same thing, an opposite of the logic to hate, which is to kill.2 The word ahimsa, popularised by Gandhi, is more general than non-killing, which pertains more to human life. J E Pim remarks, “... In relation to psychological aggression, physical assault and torture intended to terrorize by manifest or latent threat to life, non-killing implies the removal of their psychological causes.”3
State, community, individuals and violence
By a state is meant a set of institutions like legislature, executive, judiciary, election commission, armed forces, police etc. The state provides its citizens with basic conciditions of survival and growth. It protects its citizens against external or internal aggression and violence. It is also expected to ensure arule of law and proper governance through policies and programs, and where necessary, by legitimate use of violence against its own citizens as well as home grown terrorists or communities that are prone to violence.
A community refers to people or individuals orgainsed as a social group, or a group of individuals with specific characteristics. For example, we may have a community of physicists or tribals or Buddhists etc. In this context, a community is disctinct from a state.
An individual or a group of individuals means a person or a group who act in an individual manner with limited objectives and resources. They are not acting in unision as a community does.
In these parameters of state, community and individuals, violence may be divided into:
Nature of Non-violence
Violence manifests itself in several different forms which may broadly be categorised as:
Institutional or Structural Violence
This is used to describe forms of institutionalised social injustice, and the violence that results because of critical social roles, values, norms and patterns. This goes beyond the commonsense understanding of violence caused by bodily force.
It also refers to violence or harm that can be caused by the state as a result of its laws, policies or programs. For example, were it true that farmers' suicide is caused as a result of government policies, we would say that it is the institutional violence that is responsible for it.
Religious institutions are also committing various acts of violence including killing people of other faiths and denominations. There have been known to be conflicts between various sects of Christianity, Shias and Sunnis etc. In addition, one hears about assassinations like those of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's federal minister of minority affairs and Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab (Pakistan), who suggested modifications in country's blasphemy laws.
I list below some common forms of structural or institutional violence inflicted on people.
Indirect or Passive Violence
Violence of this kind, does not appear to be any overt or visible form of violence caused by the state, individual or community but it is suffered by people due to indirect causes.
Some of these are:
What is passive violence? According to Gandhi, as explained by his graandson Arun, passive violence is that which disrespects other people's (and our own) lives, such as name-calling, teasing, humiliating and critticizing, even if it is just in our hearts and thoughts. These small and inconspicuous acts that we commit are actually a form of violence. What causes passive violence?
On a deeper level, many people, including great leaders of our time, have said that a lack of self-identity can lead to passive violence. Lacking a solid sense of who we are makes us feel insecure, and this can lead us to compare ourselves to others and even criticise or judge others because they are different from us. Gandhi was referring to these traits when he states that passive violence leads to physical violence.
How do we counteract violence, especially passive violence?
Psychologists believe that first of all, it is important to stop comparing ourselves to others, since it is not good for both. Second, we can embrace and accept ourselves for who we are today- not for the person we want to be in 5 years, or for the person we are glad we are not. Then we free ourselves from the shackles of comparison and allow ourselves to grow and develop from where we are now. Next, by doing our best to confront whatever task or challenge we are faced with, we develop a confidence that enables us to feel good about who we are and helps us to see our shared identity as human beings. When we start to awaken our deeper identity, we create a revolution in consciousness and begin to see our similarities, rather than our differences.
Application of violence to highlight issues
Violence in any form is bad and should be avoided. It leads to death, destruction, hatred, envy and brutality. However, in certain conditions it can be justified. Gandhi had said that if you are being attacked by an enemy force, it is your duty to defend your country through violent means, if you cannot do it non-violently. According to this view, certain situations arise when ends justifies means; in other words, violence can be justified if it leads to peace and harmony. President Bush used this justification to invade Iraq though subsequent events have shown how wrong his policies were.
Violence has other uses also. Let us here briefly consider the violence observed in the animal world. There is violence, but it is used more to control the number of animals or fish of a particular species, so that overpopulation does not occur.
There is also another application of human violence- in order to put forward a community's demands, whether legitimate or otherwise. We have seen large scale violence of this kind in stone pelting incidents in Kashmir, and in tribal or so-called Maoist or Naxal areas incidents like kidnapping or killing policemen, destroying railway tracks, buses or police stations etc. Without going into the merits of these forms of violence- whether they are justified, whether non-violent means could be adopted, one obvious result of this violence is that the demands of people committing violence comes to the centre stage. They acquire a certain degree of urgency that would otherwise not be possible. As a result, the government begins to take notice and initiates some sort of action like holding talks, taking remedial steps and diffusing violence.
An example is of an indefinite fast of Potti Sri Ramulu, who died after 58 days, demanding the creation of a separate Andhra Pradesh for Telugu speaking people. Violence spread all over the region at the news of his death. Ultimately Jawaharlal Nehru, earlier not in favour of this, conceded the demand and a separate state was formed.
Today, we see similar upsurge of such activities- going on fasts, holding rallies and demonstrations etc.
Violence against the environment
Plant, marine, animal and human life have existed for thousands of years in harmony. The natural resources have been used for survival of life for centuries, but within limits so that it was possible for them to be replenished and cleansed. However modern technology and the current developmental paradigm have led to their exploitation beyond these limits. Hills, mountains, forests, rivers, coasts have been subjected to developmental activities for decades. These include setting up or roads, railway tracks, mining and other industrial projects. The outcome has become too glaring to ignore. Hills are being denuded of trees, deforestation is taking place on a large scale, marine life is endangered, rivers and urban atmosphere have become polluted and melting of glaciers is leading to rise of ocean levels.
Several attempts have been made to meet this challenge at all levels. Avaaz.org has sent emails to thousands of its supporters informing that Grand Canyon, one of America's largest treasures, is threatened by uranium mining. A benign but determined Sunderlal Bahuguna adopted the unique practice of embracing trees to prevent their being felled in the northern hills of India. Rajendra Singh has succeeded in reversing the problems of failing agriculture and migration of farmers from the villages of Rajasthan as a result of falling water levels. Despite this, violence against nature continues, resulting in landslides, flooding at some places and lack of rainfall in other, stunted growth of children born in polluted areas etc.
The situation with tribal people is particularly alarming since they are heavily dependent on the neighbouring forests, hills, lands and water bodies for their survival. They have been living in harmony with nature, intelligently using these resources with restraint. But now with the dominance of modern economic developmental paradigm and with corporate bodies entering these areas, their very survival is at stake. As reported in an article by Abholash Babu, water has become a commodity, out of reach of millions of poor in developing countries.4 It is estimated that millions of children are falling ill from water borne diseases and about two million dying in India alone. Radhika Raheja has emphasises the human right of access to clean and to equal distribution of water and the need to conserve it. In her words, “water is a prime natural resource, basic human need and precious national need.”5
Ravi P Bhatia underlines the close relationship of the tribal population with the neighbouring hills and forests.6 Arundhati Roy evocatively describes the relationship of tribal with land in the foreword to an above cited book, Out of this Earth:
The low flat-topped mountains of Orissa contain some of the largest deposits of best quality bauxite in the world.. But these bauxite mountains have been home to the Dongria Kond tribe long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kond. The Kond watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kond it's as though God has been sold..
Development, apart from uprooting adivasis from their traditional lands, also results in destitution, despair and violence by sections of these tribals with the support of some political elements.
Maoist and Naxalite violence
People in the tribal belts of some states (Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, parts of Bihar and WB), being victims of poverty and hunger have been uprooted from their traditional homes due to gradual encroachment by state agencies and industrial houses. While majority remain peaceful, some do resort to violent means to highlight their deplorable conditions. The reaction of government has often been to suppress these elements through brute force. This brutal retaliation incites anger and frustration in the tribal population, rather than quell their violence. By and large, there is lack of dialogue and little effort at understanding the root causes of the violence and how to address them so that the Maosists or other similar elements abjure violence and join the mainstream political life. The situation has become worse by the introduction of a para-military force (Salwa Judum) created by the government to terrorize the Maoists and their sympathisers.
The Hindu in March 2011, have brought out some revealing facts through a series of articles on the plight of tribal population of Dantewada, Chhatisgarh. Three villages were torched by the police, homes and granaries were burnt, three women were sexually assaulted and villagers beaten and terrorized. It is also reported how the money meant for developmental purposes has been misused in purchasing unnecessary equipment or materials like weighing machines and ambulances when even the rudimentary medical facilities- medicines and doctors are not available in this region.7
The principal way in which this violence can be addressed is by having an extensive and sympathetic dialogue with tribal representatives to consider their demands and to find out alternative methods of development. It is important to ensure that their harmony with nature is restored and they are not forced out of their lands. The violence is basically due to faulty policies of development and absence of or delay in provision of basic requirements. It is not a problem of terrorism to be dealt with a heavy hand.
Violence and destruction caused by natural disasters
Natural disasters, in form of floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc. cause untold misery and destruction to mankind, animals and agriculture. Some argue with some justification that these are manifestation of nature's revenge on humans for damaging and devastating the environment. To what extent this is true, is a moot point, but there is little doubt that disturbing the nature by modern developmental activities have led to adverse consequences.
There are many people who do not believe in a distant God but find God in Nature- in mountains, trees, the sun, the night sky, etc. These people revere and care for Nature, and revel in its beauty and are filled with wonder at Nature's mysteries and power.
Albert Einstein was overawed by Nature's beauty and workings and proclaimed that in that sense he was a deeply religious person. Another well-known science writer Carl Sagan has this to say about Nature: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader has confessed: “I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.”
The Hindu tradition of Surya Namaskaar involves paying obeisance to the sun as God. Other religious groups also treat Nature as God. Reference has already been made to the tribals Dongria Kond in the state of Orissa who worship the hills as living deities.
Gandhis' concept of truth and non-violence
People all over the world, despite the diversities of religion, language, culture and race, desire to live in peace and harmony in their daily lives. They need basic requirements of a decent human life- food, shelter, education, employment, freedom to practice their religion and culture. Most religions have established programs for the welfare of their followers including providing food, shelter and education.8
How would Gandhian principles of truth, peace, amity, religious tolerance, a part of out heritage, help in addressing the problems of the poor and the vulnerable today? How would these principles help to reduce conflict and violence?
Gandhi felt that economic and spiritual swaraj (self governance)- not just India's political freedom ¨C would only reduce this violence. A just and equitable economic system with equal opportunities for all and individuals having the freedom of working honestly in their local communities would constitute the essentials of economic swaraj.
Spiritual swaraj, on the other hand, signified morality, truth and discipline. According to Anthony Parel, by spiritual swaraj Gandhi meant the inner discipline of a citizen that was marked by purity of intention and control over base tendencies like dishonesty, greed, aggression and violence. This entailed practice of several moral values and virtues like truth, non-violence, detachment, manual labour, prayer, compassion and a deep spiritual life.9
This places the duty on the state, requiring it to treat all sections of its people with jutice and without discrimination. It also places a responsibility on a community to limit its wants and not to exploit resources beyond a reasonable limit and not to indulge in violence against other communities or individuals. It requires individuals to temper their needs to protect the environment and to live with other individuals with amity and co-operation. It also requires them to cultivate non-violence and non-killing in thought, belief and action.
These aspects come out unambiguously from what Gandhi wrote and the manner he lived, advocating a simple, moral, truthful, non-violent life for the state and the individual.
Gandhi was an embodiment of spirituality, truth and non-violence. His use of Satyagraha (truthful and passive resistance) in his struggle against the might of British Empire is well known. When he was leading an agitation and a certain situation arose where people resorted to violence, he would withdraw the agitation or go on a fast in order to stop the violence that seemed to be engulfing the situation.
Fasting for Gandhi was a very effective means of seeking justice. He went on public fasts against British when he felt that normal means of dialogue and persuasion had failed. He also went on fasts to stop large scale violence of one community against another. History informs us that he was largely successful in his objectives. However he imposed strict conditions for going on a fast. According to Bhikhu Parekh: “It must have a concrete and clearly specified purpose... it should not in any way be designed to serve one's own interests... and finally it should only be undertaken by one who is an acknowledged moral leader of his people.”10
How to achieve non-violence? According to Gandhi, all humans have a body and an atman (soul). The former is subject to many desires and passions like ego, greed, lust, envy, attachment etc. When any of these desires is not fulfilled, it leads to unhappiness resentment and ultimately to violence against society, another individual or even oneself. Thus we see violence all around us.
He felt that only an atman can be free from desires and passions and thus become free from becoming violent. The atman is a source and embodiment of virtues like love, harmony and compassion, among other qualities. But as soon as it takes on a body, it becomes subject to passions and violence. He wrote, “Just as violence is the law of the jungle, ahimsa is the law of humanity. The spiritual mind is dormant in animals. The dignity of man comes from higher spirituality.”11
Gandhi insisted on the right means for all his actions. For Gandhi, non-violence was the cornerstone for truth. “Truth is its own proof and non-violence was its supreme fruit.”12 Refraining from violence or killings is not an easy task or passive concept. It requires morality, courage and a high degree of morality.
According to John Kavanagh, the principle of non-killing is not a recommendation for passivity since 'commitment to the inherent dignity of personal life requires us to intervene on behalf of the defenceless or the victim'.13 Glen Paige adds that non-killing is not only rejection of killing, but also implies constructive engagement in societal transformation.14
Other religious leaders in history- Asoka, Christ, Mahavira (whose followers called Jains believe in non-violence towards all forms of life), Mohammed, Guru Nanak Dev, Swami Vivekananda, had all practised and preached peace, non-violence and non-killings. Marvin Harris writes that Zoroastrianism, perhaps the oldest recorded religion, also preached non-killing, these religions could all be described as non-killing religions in theory although in practice many religions have fought religious and other wars.15
Despite being a man of peace, Gandhi was a pragmatist and could see the need for taking up arms for defensive purposes. He states, “I would rather have India to resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.”16
The well-known pacifist and scholar Gene Sharp has suggested various types’ of non-violent strategies to combat injustice and repression.17 However the use of violence continues unabated, endemic in some regions of the world and has become more brutal and lethal with the use of technology. The causes of violence and justification given by states in inflicting violence are diverse but the frequent and widespread use of violence and ensuing death and destruction is undeniable. While discussing the role of violence and passive resistance in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote:
“Passive resistance (soul-force) is a method of securing rights by personal suffering: it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance the government of the day has passed a law, which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If, by using violence I force the government to repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.”18
He also adds in the same chapter, that despite there being so violence and killings, “the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love.”19
In the conclusion of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi reinforces the idea of non-killing in the following words: “Like others, he (a moral person) will know that no nation has risen without suffering, that even in warfare, the true test is suffering and not killing others, much more so in the warfare of passive resistance.”20
What would be the Gandhian way to mitigate the violence we see around us today? Would Gandhi have accepted the pelting of stones in Kashmir valley? The Gandhian approach would have been to mobilise people and demonstrate non-violently against the state, or to have strikes, or boycott of classes or not to pay taxes etc. But this would be a long and arduous path, which in the present day, most communities are reluctant to adopt. They want quick results.
Violence generated, as a result of forgoing the non-violent means, brings into focus the urgency of the problem. Seeing the aftermath of the violence in Kashmir and that in Maoist regions, one can indeed find this. A long and tortuous path lies ahead of us to restore trust and peace.
Gandhi's concept of Education
Most governments and scholars agree that education is a desirable means for inculcating right attitudes and morality among people. It is also important for material development of the society by reducing poverty and want, and is empowering. Countries with high achievement levels in the field of education also have high indices in areas like food availability, health, longevity, and general welfare. It contributes to reducing infant mortality rates and curbing population growth. It also helps us in understanding concepts of violence and peace. Peace is not just absence of violence but also indicates absence of confliction situations.
Can education help us to avoid or reduce conflict and promote peace? It is an uphill task, but not an impossible one to redesign educational objectives to highlight the evils of violence and offer non-violent means to communicate conflict and avoid violence. Before delineating this, let us briefly recapitulate some principal objectives of education:
More than 80 years ago, Gandhi propagated simple and far-reaching objectives in his concept of Nai Taleem (New Education). He felt that a proper educational system would help in creating right attitudes of love, truth and non-violence. He spoke of education for all. His concept of education stressed the integration of 'the world of knowledge' with 'the world of work'. He felt that this was essential for the poor of India who would not only get some basic knowledge but also acquire useful skills to be utilised throughout life. These skills, in Gandhi's time, included weaving, pottery, stitching, etc. but in today's time would also include repair of radios and electronic devices, maintenance of tractors, cars, bicycles, and tube wells, first aid, nursing, computer and entrepreneur skills, etc.
The fundamental premise of Nai Taleem was that it would teach simple skills to the people and help them remain in villages as useful citizens and not be forced to leave for cities for unskilled, poorly paid, and degrading jobs and be exposed to urban violence of one form or another. What was true in Gandhi’s time is still relevant today where we see highly educated people without jobs and villagers migrating to octose to search for any odd job such as rickshaw puller or rag picker.
A right type of education will make people more self-reliant, bridge socio-economic disparities and the rural-urban divide, and generally help in the society becoming more egalitarian, harmonmious and contented. Prof Krishna Kumar, former director of NCERT argues, “The teaching of reading during early childhood- when attitudes, habits and skills acquire life-long foundations- assumes crucial significance for the effective functioning of democracy.”22 These aspects would help in the creation of a just social order where there is a reduction of conflict and violence caused by socio-economic and other disparities.
For Gandhi, education had to be relevant. In what way is the education being imparted to the children especially in rural areas relevant to their needs and physical, mental and moral development? For him, universal and relevant education was the essential, spiritual building block of man and his actions.
Gandhi's emphasis was on simple living and limiting one's wants, and avoiding excessive consumerism that is present today in most societies. This has the positive effect of proper utilisation of material resources, leading to protection of the environment and sustainable development.
These thoughts and practices of simple living, belief in non-violence and truth and amity between different religious groups combined with right and just policies, would help in reducing injustices, disparities, and terrorism in today's complex world.
This article is a minor adaptation of the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Vol. 33, No.4, January-March 2012, pp. 441-463
*Ravi P Bhatia is a former faculty member of Delhi University and a Peace Researcher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org