International Conflict

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear and less surprise,
Look at them as they slay
Till their rage had died away.
Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.......

- Shelley (The Masque of Anarchy)


For Gandhi the rules of morality that ought to guide the lives of individuals should likewise guide the interactions between nations. The rules governing means and ends, truth and nonviolence were, for him, equally applicable in the international sphere.

Gandhi personally participated in the Boer War, Zulu "Rebellion" and the First World War as the leader of ambulance corps or as a recruiting officer. Initially such actions resulted from patriotic feelings as a citizen of the British Empire and later were justified by arguments containing touches of political pragmatism (for example, "if we would improve our status through the help and cooperation of the British, it was our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need", and "I thought that England's need should not be turned into our opportunity, and that it was more becoming and far-sighted not to press our demands while the war lasted"1). His philosophy of nonviolence in these matters firmed as his regard for British justice declined.

The second World War led to the clarification of Gandhi's ideas - not only were the Jewish people faced with Nazi genocide, but India was also facing Japanese invasion. Speaking of Nazi oppression he claimed that if ever there could be "a justifiable war in the name of humanity" then the "war against Germany . . . would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war":

While all violence is bad and must be condemned in the abstract, it is permissible for, it is even the duty of, a believer in ahimsa to distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. Having done so, he will side with the defender in a nonviolent manner.

This is because Gandhi's sympathy must not be interpreted to mean endorsement in any shape or form of the doctrine of the sword for the defence of even a proved right. Proved right should be capable of being vindicated by right means as against the rude, i.e. sanguinary means.2

Even when one's own country is threatened with invasion from the outside Gandhi warns against using violence to meet violence "for the defence has to resort to all the damnable things that the enemy does, and then with greater vigour if it has to succeed".3 This of course cannot mean pacifism in the sense of non-resistance for Gandhi. Because a satyagrahi never yields to brute force, he has a duty to defend property to which he has a just claim. This is done by "fighting" using different means, by engaging in a "war without weapons". Even this is done in a positive way, that is it aims at the conversion of the opponent, rather than the negative way of waging conventional conflict minus the violence.4

War without violence: The Nation

In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse made the pointed comment that "nonviolence is not a virtue; it is a necessity".5 Modern war technology is tending to make the concept of defence obsolete. Nuclear weapons are primarily for the destruction of enemies rather than the defence of borders. The new weaponry aims to protect a state through deterring attack from the outside, rather than repelling an attack already underway. The emphasis here is on the second of the two possible ways of preventing war as defined by Ikle. That is, war can be prevented "by rendering the use of arms so unattractive that a nation would rather tolerate existing conflicts or frustrations than start a war". The other way is to eliminate "the source of conflict that would lead a nation to resort to the use of arms".6 This second approach relies on conciliation, unilateral steps towards disarmament and a truth seeking, non-Machiavellian foreign policy backed up with a programme of civilian defence if an invasion should nevertheless occur.

Civilian defence, unlike conventional warfare, does not aim to defend particular objects such as borders and buildings, but it concerned with the defence of the whole body of society ("our way of life").7 It concedes the physical taking over of the country in practical terms (although Gandhi did propose the idea of a "living wall" at the border to stop invading armies from entering) substituting political struggle for aggressive war. The aggressor becomes akin to a domestic tyrant and civil disobedience and non-cooperation become the tactics.

The degree to which civilian defence can work in turning back and invading army before it becomes entrenched is unknown - it has never been tried; however, non-cooperation with invaders or imperialist rulers has worked in the past.8 The technology of warfare has reached the stage that civilian defence becomes progressively more attractive as a possible organised alternative to conventional war.

A theoretically nonviolent country, living by the rules applicable to the satyagrahi, cannot defend itself with arrns. Horsburgh points out that this would not only be morally wrong from the Gandhian standpoint but that it would also be ineffective because a Gandhian way of life would produce citizens who lacked the ruthlessness that is essential if armed force is to be used successfully. But it is also because such inconsistency would be impossible unless the community came to be pervaded by hypocrisy or cynicism; and these must undermine the country's attachment to Gandhian values.9

The likelihood of such a state coming into existence in the, foreseeable future is very small; in fact, although Gandhi believed "that a state can be administered on a nonviolent basis if the vast majority of the people are nonviolent", he thought that the concept contained a fundamental contradiction. For him "the State" was an unnatural and undesirable system of authority with a violence in a concentrated and organised form.10 Given this difficulty with States, and the fact the majority of people in no state have been converted to nonviolence in the Gandhian context, the tension between countries may still be reduced by tailoring foreign policy to conform with Gandhian values.

The primary method of achieving this is the adoption of civilian defence as an alternative to military defence. A country doing this is less likely to be invaded because it would no longer be seen as a threat, making the rationalisations for an attack Iess plausible.11 A move to this line of defence requires the initial step of unilateral disarmament.

Gandhi saw that for a less armed world "some nation will have to disarm herself and take large risks".12 Such unilateral action, it seems, will reduce international tensions rather than merely encourage stronger nations to strike. Osgood proposed his "Graduated and Reciprocated Initiative in Tension Reduction" as a strategy to commence the process by such unilateral means. He believes that if one side makes a small unilateral gesture of disarmament to reduce tension and the other side reciprocates a further such move should be made - thus starting a process of disarmament. If the opponent does not reciprocate after the first move, the side making the initial i gesture should wait and then make second move regardless. He claims that in this way tension would be so reduced that the other side would eventually respond.13 That this does in fact work has been validated in various simulation games.14 In the present political climate, immediate and complete unilateral disarmament, which would be Gandhi's ideal, may not be practical, but Osgood's proposals could indicate a productive start towards universal disarmament.

Because armaments are controlled by economic factors to a large degree, "real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit one another". Immediately exploitation hasceased "armaments will be felt as a positively unbearable burden".15 War does not always result from perceived external threat. Conflicts may result from a dispute over a scarce resource, or they may be used as means of solving internal problems of a country by providing employment, creating group cohesiveness by diverting aggression outwards or bolstering a self-image of honour and courage.16

Gandhi's ideal society would aim to resolve international conflicts. by helping its neighbours alleviate their economic problems and endeavouring to remain on friendly terms with them by aiding them "with superior technical knowledge, to develop their local resources to the utmost extent".17 That it would cease to exploit these neighbours is axiomatic. Gandhi's definition of exploitation is very broad, encompassing the belief that he who claims as his own "more than the minimum that is really necessary for him is guilty of theft".18 This applies to nations as it does to individuals:

If I take anything that I do not need for my immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no dying of starvation in this world. But so long as we have got this inequality, so long we are thieving.19

Gandhi was willing to push this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion (as political leaders are not words condemning in-equality are seen as being adequate). If our aid programmes are not sufficient to reduce our theft then our neighbours must be invited "to come and to share our resources, and live as we have been trying to do. If there is not enough to go around, we must all tighten our belts but yet not exclude anyone who is really in want".20

If either such a hypothetically sharing and nonviolent society or another society deciding to defend itself by peaceful means were nevertheless attacked there would, according to Gandhi, be two ways open for it to cope with the aggressor. Firstly,

to yield possession but not cooperate with the aggressor....the second way would be nonviolent resistance by the people who have been trained in the nonviolent way. They would offer themselves as fodder for the aggressor's cannon.....the unexpected spectacle of endless rows upon rows of men and women simply dying rather than surrender to the will of an aggressor must ultimately melt him and his soldiery.21

The ever practical Gandhi points out that "there will be no greater loss in men than if forcible resistance was offered; there will be no expenditure in armaments and fortifications". An army, he adds, that is brutal enough to go "over the corpses of innocent men and women would not be able to repeat that experiment".22

The second way, as elicited by Gandhi, could only be effective if undertaken by a community where everyone is a true satyagrahi. In such a case there would be no need to organise additional elaborate civilian defence programmes because the most effective nonviolent measures would occur spontaneously. This of course is an excessively utopian dream and even Gandhi points out that a country cannot adopt nonviolent alternatives to war until the hearts of the people are changed to the point where "by laying down their arms they feel courageous and brave".23

In talking of the "true art of self-defence" and arguing against the concept of justifiable violence as "unavoidable self -defence" Gandhi spelled out the psychological underpinnings of the concept of such nonviolence:

The aggressor had always a purpose behind his attack; he wanted something to be done, some object to be surrendered by the defenders. Now, if the defender steeled his heart and was determined not to surrender even one inch, and at the same time to resist the temptation of matching the violence of the aggressor by violence, the latter could be made to realize in a short while that it would not be paying to punish the other party and his will could not be imposed in that way. This would involve suffering. It was this unalloyed self-suffering which was the truest form of self-defence which knew no surrender.24

This is elaborated on in what many critics consider was the most cmtrageous request Gandhi ever made. In July 1940 he called upon the English to surrender to the Germans and adopt nonviolent means of defence, not because they could not fight on, "but because war is ad in essence". He stressed the" noble and brave way" of fighting "without arms or with nonviolent arms". He urged the English to invite Hitler into the country and take what he wanted but never to give "your soul, nor your minds". He warned:

You will never kill [Nazism] by its indifferent adoption. Your soldiers are doing the same work as the Germans. The one difference is that, perhaps, yours are not as thorough as the Germans. If that be so, yours will soon require 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.25

Gandhi therefore believed that nonviolent defence is ideologically correct as well as a practical measure. Although the discipline for the living wall approach to the defence of borders may be unlikely, he believed that "our way of life" could be so defended and the aggressor either converted or forced to give up the quest. He firmly believed that given proper training and proper generalship, nonviolence in this sense "can be practised by masses of mankind".26 An even more fundamental precedent than training and leadership for success is for the mass of citizens to believe emotionally in the validity of "our way of life"; and as Horsburgh points out this will depend upon the level of social justice reached within the state. The community must also have achieved an "extremely high level of social discipline" that is voluntarily accepted by the populace, which "must depend in any large measure upon the use of traditional methods of law enforcement".27

The Gandhian approach to war and, national defence has, obviously, been criticised - often, vehemently. Raman, a former follower, for instance, was outraged that, while India was threatened by the danger of Japanese invasion, Gandhi could advocate a completely nonviolent approach. At this stage Gandhi was claiming that "men can slaughter one another for years in the heat of battle, for them it seems a case of kill or be killed. But if there is no danger of being killed yourself by those you slay, you cannot go on killing defenceless and unprotesting people endlessly. You must put down your gun in self-disgust."28 Raman argued that this would manoeuvre the country "into a state of helplessness [that] will and does lead to bitterness and to frustration, not to the sublime adoption of a great new method of warfare of which Gandhi dreams".29

The sceptic Orwell also questioned the validity of civilian defence in certain circumstances. In his essay "Reflections on Gandhi" he says:

It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.30

Whether severe repression of a civilian resistance non-cooperation movement is enough to break the morale of the population, and bring an end to such resistance, seems to depend less on the level of repression than upon the degree of the political unity of the population. In fact Boserup and Mack claim that While civilian resistance "does not seem very likely to hold out for long against massive repression" such repression also works against the oppressors themselves. They claim that it is unlikely that such repression would go on for any length of time if opposed by nonviolent means only. In the long run the liabilities of such a policy are too great".31

There obviously are problems with, and danger involved in, civilian defence, but when viewed alongside the risks afforded by the theory of nuclear deterrence it becomes relatively tolerable. Gandhi himself answers the critics by pointing out the paradoxical view generally taken of war and nonviolence: "in the case of nonviolence, everybody seems to start with the assumption that the nonviolent method must be set down as a failure unless he lives to " enjoy the success thereof" while this is not said of preparation for war - of rushing "into a hailstorm of bullets to be mown down".

Gandhi concludes: "In Satyagraha more than in armed warfare, it may be said that we find life by losing it.32

A step by step systematisation of actions and their consequences in cases of the invasion of a nation has been set out by N. K. Bose, who was Gandhi's personal secretary for a time in 1946-7. These steps can be summarised as:33

(1) First a band of satyagrahis (the Shanti Sena, or Peace Army in Gandhi's terminology) is sent to confront the aggressors and talk to them if possible, tell them that they are wrong in their actions, "even while they are prepared to be mowed down, yet not lift a finger in order to hurt the 'enemy' in so-called self-defence"

(2) If the "enemy moves on to occupy the land, no scorched earth policy is to be resorted to. Gandhi was quite adamant on this point:

There is no bravery in my poisoning my well or filling it in so that my brother who is at war with me may not use the water . . there are bravery and sacrifice in my leaving my wells, crops and homestead intact, bravery in that I deliberately run the risk of the enemy feeding himself at my expense and pursuing me, and sacrifice in that the sentiment of leaving something for the enemy purifies and ennobles me.34

This is not to be done out of fear but because I refuse to regard anyone as my enemy - that is, out of a humanitarian motive. The invaders are to be lived with peacefully, but on the satyagrahi's terms. "The latter must be made to feel that they are welcome to live as workers and equals sharing in the toil and upkeep of the satyagrahi's social system."

(3) Apart from this there is no submission on the part of the satyagrahis, they refuse to obey orders but not in such a way as to "make the occupational force feel that their lives are threatened . Here the full force of complete non-cooperation is brought to bear including refusal to work in administration, refusal to accept honours from the regime, refusal to pay fines and taxes, a boycott of courts, schools and products manufactured by the oppressor; strikes and the deliberate breaking of unjust or symbolic laws.

(4) If the satyagrahis are firm enough, clung to truth and are nonviolent enough (so as not to leave the occupiers afraid or on the defensive) "members of the enemy camp will start thinking.....the effects of indoctrination to which they have hitherto been subjected to will begin to wear out". Bertrand Russell notes that war is brutal and horrible, but seems to ennoble by the fact that the warrior risks his life. If no one resists, the heroism is gone; if the brutality survives, it can no longer command admiration, while all the fine talk becomes laughable.35

(5) The aim is to convert the general and soldiers of the opposing army. If the general proves intractable, then by converting the common soldier "the evil represented by the general would become isolated" and he "would find it increasingly difficult to maintain his authority".36

The problems of being confronted by nonviolent non-cooperation, as seen from the aggressor's point of view, were explained by Galtung as the following: territorial control is gained without difficulty, but as the local population would not cooperate their facilities could not be used effectively, their solidarity would make a divide and rule policy impossible, their non-cooperation will lead them to reject economic, social, cultural and political imports. The conquered country becomes "a millstone around our necks". The alternative of bombing them into submission means exposure "to criticism and dissent from within and without". All that is left is to ignore the non-cooperating locals and stick to the bases.37

If the non-cooperation is complete enough so that the administration ceases to function or crumbles, it is "theoretically possible" that into the resulting vacuum would step the "people's representatives."38 Gandhi, however did not elaborate on the steps in this process.

Gandhi also had the complete answer for critics who doubted the efficacy of his methods against the likes of Hitler, who know no pity. "As a believer in nonviolence" he could not, he said, "limit its possibilities":

Hitherto he and his likes have built upon their invariable experience that men yield to force. Unarmed men, women and children offering nonviolent 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 as I have.

Gandhi also added:

If Hitler is unaffected by my suffering, it does not matter. For I have lost nothing worth. My honour is the only thing worth preserving. That is independent of Hitler's pity.39

War without violence

The individual Douglass, an academic theologian; implores us not to overlook the true position of the individual in war. "At the centre of war", he notes, "is killing and being killed." The secondary aspect of war, the possibility of being killed, may have occurred to a soldier and stricken him with fear, but the primary aspect, that of killing, too often remains overlooked "beneath layers of socially assumed indifference towards the life of the enemy".40 The essential character of war is the killing of people. Gandhi further reminds us that war "demoralizes those who are trained for it. It brutalizes men of naturally gentle character".41

What then should the individual, a satyagrahi, do if their country is at war? If the nonviolent of a country remain a "hopeless minority" and cannot change the hearts of the masses and so wean them from war, they themselves must nevertheless "live nonviolence in all its completeness and refuse to participate in war".42

There are some apparent discrepancies over time in Gandhi's writings on this point. At one point he claims that when two nations are fighting, the duty of a votary of ahimsa is to stop the war. He who is not equal to that duty, he who has no power of resisting war, he who is not qualified to resist war, may take part in war, and yet wholeheartedly try to free himself, his nation and the world from war.43

Some of his later far more hard-line pacifist writings seem to contradict this, and to a degree indicate the trend of Gandhi's thoughts as he aged. The above quotation, from his Autobiography, and later writings, however, are less dissimilar when the important Gandhian proviso that violence is preferable to cowardice, is taken account of.

For Gandhi the individual had a role to play at two levels. First, they had to be actively non-cooperative with the warring nation, whether their own or an outside aggressor. They could not consider passive resistance to be enough:

Merely to refuse military service is not enough. To refuse to render military service when the particular time arrives is to do the thing after all the time for combating the evil is practically gone. Military service is only a symptom of the disease which is deeper. I suggest to you that those who are not on the register of military service are equally participating in the crime if they support the state otherwise. He or she who supports a state organized in the military way - whether directly or indirectly - participates in the sin.44

Secondly, the hard core with a higher awareness, training and commitment to nonviolence, had the duty of leading the masses in non -cooperation programmes in such a way as to ensure that they do not stray onto the path of violence, so that eventually "even common people would ultimately begin to subscribe inwardly to nonviolence as a faith".45

The relationship the satyagrahi has with the "enemy" was illustrated by Gandhi when he alluded to the possible Japanese invasion of India:

Nonviolent 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 nonviolent resister who may not regard anyone as his enemy, would give water to the thirsty one.46


Gandhi had not solved the problem of "civilian defence", but he did sketch a broad outline of policy for action which is left for others to fill out. He claimed that his methods of waging war are at least as, or probably more, effective than violent methods. Although many would argue against this proposition it seems that Gandhi's claim at the least is not disprovable. Boulding's First Law states that what exists, is possible. Frank quite correctly points out, therefore, that because "nonviolent action exists and has succeeded under some circumstances...this alone destroys the contention that nonviolent methods of conflict are hopelessly at variance with human nature".47

There are, however, other factors beside effectiveness to be taken into account when assessing the usefulness of Gandhi's alternatives to war as a means of solving international conflicts. These factors weigh heavily on the side of Gandhi's methods. (This is especially important from the Gandhian standpoint which refuses to put ends above means). The most important of these is that nonviolent equivalents to war suffer fewer of the moral deficiencies that war suffers from.

Finally, Horsburgh makes the point that, although "the achievements of nonviolence in India owe as much to Gandhi's moral greatness as to the techniques of satyagraha themselves", "the right method, if persisted in, can do much to produce the right man".48 Gandhi emphasised that this is something that training for violence cannot do.