On Gandhi – Part 2

Written by  //  September 4, 2010  //  National Politics  //  7 Comments

This is the second part of my series on Gandhi. The first post can be found here.

In this post, I will focus specifically on the idea of civil disobedience as the major tool that Gandhi used for political protest against the British empire, and try to argue how it was a unique creation and as time and history has proven, it would stand as one of the most formidable, resilient, effective, efficient and above all humane tool for political opposition in almost all human history.

For creation of such a uniquely brilliant and remarkable tool of protest, Gandhi stands as one of the greatest political thinkers of all time.

It is interesting to note, that although civil disobedience has been used successfully both in Martin Luther King’s race struggle in United States and Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid in South Africa, both of which stand as two pioneering movements of the 20th century in their own right, in no other nation has the tool been used to such unprecedented degree and won such widespread acclaim and usage, other than India.

This fact itself is a centrally important fact, and as I would argue in some later posts, the fact that Gandhi was able to use civil disobedience to such an extreme degree of success reflects as much about the people of India, as it does about the man, and the very humanity and uniqueness of the idea of a non violent civil protest can help us in discerning important aspects of the Indian society, most of which continue to hold even today, after more than 60 years of independence.

In retrospect, civil disobedience was primarily a combination of Ahimsa, respect for civil society, and the moral counterweight of a non violent protest against a violent opposition. All these three tenets are important and distinct from each other, so an accurate understanding of how as a combination they result in a potent and lethal political tool is a crucial to understand the great power of the tool of disobedience.

Firstly, anyone who doubts the power of civil disobedience should read some history. I am not going to spend time here repeating how civil disobedience gave vigor, strength and character to the nationalistic movement and was the most major political tool that was widely respected across the spectrum of Indian politics in the early and late independence, and led the British Empire to reconsider their policies and offer much more liberties (in terms of electorates/ legal apparatus) to the Indian colony, that played a major role in strengthening the cause of independence. Whether India would have got independent in 1947, irrespective of Gandhi are not significant observations, in my opinion, because the critical point is  that only a strong nationalistic movement first gave the idea of India to the large number of ethnically, religiously, politically and culturally divided group that lived in the landmass on the east of Indus river and west of China. So the major fundamental  role that the nationalistic movement played in arriving at the very notion of ‘India‘ should not be ignored or downplayed, and only a person of Gandhi’s strength, character, ability and moral courage could have led such a movement, and faced the immense barriers that could have derailed this process, considering ‘India’ was such a materially and politically minor political entity on the world stage, when Gandhi started his struggle.

Coming back to the three components that form the basis of civil disobedience. First is of course, Ahimsa, a concept that was pioneered by Buddha and features prominently in all Dharmic religions. The second and third combined (and so difficult and subtle in my opinion, that it can only take an incredible leap of faith to pull it off) are protest without disrupting the tenets of a civil society by using violent methods. Most crucially the protest has to be so silent and subtle that even if your opponent commits violence, you have to tolerate it and not leave your faith in non-violence. Needless to say, such immense faith takes a lot of courage, and its immense moral counterweight against a violent oppression is hard to undermine. However, importantly, the moral counterweight collapses, as soon as you commit violence, thus straightaway devaluing the whole concept! Therefore, to maintain the strength of this moral counterweight, it is essential and binding that there has to be no violence in the opposition, whatsoever!

Like most simple but profound ideas, this idea is itself extremely counter-intuitive. One can imagine a whole bunch of oppositions straight away. But how can this work? If your opponent keeps hitting and violently beating you, won’t you be ultimately weakened to a point that you actually lose your struggle? How can you not commit violence when being faced by brutal and hefty violence staring in your face? How can such a mass struggle ever succeed, without taking a violent form at some point and losing the moral strength which is the very basis of it?

All these are difficult and important questions. I will discuss and delineate aspects of this in my future posts.

About the Author

Sumeet has a degree in computer science and engineering from Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi. He enjoys studying science and technology both from an abstract perspective and the applications they can have in solving some compelling real world problems. He also frequently writes on some socio - political issues and enjoys working and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and interests.

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7 Comments on "On Gandhi – Part 2"

  1. Vipul September 5, 2010 at 1:29 am ·

    Sumeet, you say “Whether India would have got independent in 1947, irrespective of Gandhi are largely inane observations in my opinion, because they miss the critical point that only a strong nationalistic movement first gave the idea of India to the large number of ethnically, religiously, politically and culturally divided group that lived in the landmass on the east of Indus river and west of China.”

    I guess that addresses some concerns I raised in a comment on your previous post. I am less inclined than you are to classify the question of whether the British would have left India anyway as “inane” — since one of the staples of Indian-angle history is that Gandhi gave India freedom from the British.

    If what you’re saying is true — namely that the idea of India was invented by Gandhi (based perhaps on his experience of being classified as an Indian while in South Africa?) — this is a very different point. For what it counts, I mostly agree that the idea of India was an elite invention that was then sold to the masses on an installment plan (and I don’t think the selling is completely done yet).

  2. Vipul September 5, 2010 at 1:43 am ·

    I’ll pose some more questions for you, so that you can address them in your next post.

    All the examples you have given of civil disobedience are examples in the context of a reasonably stable and orderly society where one group is oppressed by another, but even those in the oppressor group have internal democracy and notions of equal legal rights among themselves. The British were a pioneer in inventing systems of democracy as well as the rule of codified law that was not subject to the whims of a ruler. The American Declaration of Independence and Constitution are considered even today to be great documents outlining the case for a government that rules only by the consent of the governed, and the fundamental principles of equality before the law. South Africa is a murkier case, but in comparison to most African countries (including those run by blacks) South Africa’s general record on human rights has been (relatively) good even during the time of apartheid.

    So my position here is: civil disobedience works against a target that accepts or agrees with some of the principles that you are using but is hypocritical in their application, and who is unwilling to incur too much violence and too much cost to suppress you. My question for you: does it work elsewhere?

    Would it work against Hitler? Would it work against the Taliban? For that matter, could it work against the corrupt dictatorial regimes across the world in the unfreeest of countries today, such as Burma and North Korea?

  3. Sumeet September 5, 2010 at 2:50 am ·

    I agree with your point in entirety.

    Infact, this is one fundamental crux against Gandhi’s methods of non-violence which have been raised at a lot of places.

    I am myself convinced that Gandhi’s methods would never work against a largely autocratic system of governance, and can only work when the opressors are ‘less evil’. Eg. Gandhi’s methods can only achieve a moderate degree of success against an autocratic empire, where enemies of state are removed and there are no civil liberties whatsoever.

    The question of Gandhi’s methods against Hitler etc. are more troubling (albeit largely hypothetical, but they still make for a good starting point in a debate).

    I will take them in some of the next posts. Just to indicate, at a personal level, I am convinced that there are a great many menaces that need a dedicated military and police force to counter, however Gandhi’s greatest achievements lie in proving there are a great many that can also be countered without resorting to any form of violence (emphasis on any here). This can help us probably concur that violence needed in countering other forms of ‘evil’ or ‘terrorism’ can also be significantly reduced or minimized.

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