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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Nations & Nationalism > The Strength of an Idea > Non Violence as a Political Strategy: Gandhi & Western Thinkers > Mahatma Gandhi

Nonviolence as a Political Strategy:
Gandhi and Western Thinkers

Professor Hugh Tinker, Department of Politics, University of Lancaster, England
in Gandhi Marg, Journal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, India
August 1980

"...The contrast between the ideal and the reality has led many to conclude that Gandhi was a 'magnificent failure'. And it is true that the Gandhian ideal is practiced in India today only by small dedicated groups of disciples. But should we judge Gandhi and nonviolence only by the test of short-term success? Do we dismiss Gandhi and Tolstoy and Thoreau because their countrymen have not followed their precepts?

In my view, politics is concerned only formally with power and government and fundamentally with the moral development of human beings. Politics is about people, and how they endeavour to face the challenge of their times. M.N. Roy... put, his beliefs this way: "When a man really wants freedom and to live in a democratic society he may not be able to free the whole world . . . but he can to a large extent at least free himself by behaving as a rational and moral being, and if he can do this, others around him can do the same, and these again will spread freedom by their example." I don't think I can put it any better. If that is the goal, then Gandhi is more relevant than ever, both in India and in the West."

We, in our time, are the first generation to live in a truly world society. Until yesterday, the world was dominated by Europe and European values. In the field of politics, the world took its ideologies, its institutions, its modes of political action almost exclusively from models provided by Britain, France and the United States. Today, the world has become the whole world, despite the continuing dominance of the superpowers. And we, the British, having for so long been the people who did things to others, find ourselves having things done to us. The politics of European dominance has largely yielded place to the politics of interaction.

This article is intended to explore and illustrate the politics of interaction by an investigation of how nonviolence has emerged in our own day as a political philosophy and a form of political action. We are going to look at three main actors or thinkers, each of them belonged to a different political culture: Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi. Each of these men drew part of his philosophy from beyond his own society. The key figure is Gandhi. We shall find that Gandhi discovered his philosophy and his technique of political action partly by following British and American models. His essentially Hindu mind was indelibly influenced by Christian beliefs. Yet the end-result was uniquely his own Gandhi was ultimately Gandhian.

Perhaps my approach may also provide a commentary on the actual working out of that concept so often emphasised in the arts and literature: the concept of "influence". I shall try to show that the overall idea of influence, of people absolutely becoming intellectual disciples of a master or wholehearted members of a movement, needs very careful revision. Often, the disciple chooses only what he wants to find in the original and omits what he does not want. This is equally true of many who call themselves either Christian or Marxists, but who are really eclectics.

Of course, it is arbitrary and artificial to look at my subject in the context of a century of experience. I would have liked to return to the great religious teachers who first comprehended nonviolence as essential to right thinking and right action. It would be delightful to try to illustrate my view of the way that "influence" actually works by considering how Jesus Christ attained his vision of nonviolence.

Because Christ so often emphasised his own continuity with the Judaic teaching of the Old Testament, we have not, perhaps, sufficiently considered how much of his thinking may have derived from non-Judaic origins. Serious scholars have suggested that there was a "remote origin" in the sources of Indian religion. Parallels between Jesus and Gautama Buddha seem to be much more than coincidences. But I cannot here embark on such a survey, and so I will begin my investigation into how nonviolence has emerged today by going to the little town of Concord, thirty miles from Boston, to find Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau

Just beyond Concord there occurred the first skirmish of the American revolution between the British redcoats and the American militiamen who in 1775 "fired the shot heard round the world". Born over forty years later, Thoreau was nevertheless a child of that revolution. He regarded almost everything that had followed in America as a decline from the heights of the revolution, which, as he believed, had demonstrated that the human spirit is greater, nobler than the power of government. Like Tolstoy and also Gandhi, Thoreau was a spiritual anarchist. "That government is best which governs feast", he asserts in his essay, Civil Disobedience, adding that best of all would be a state which governs not at all! He believed firmly in the innate capacity of men to transform their political system. In his estimation, free men were the masters of their destiny, while government was merely "a semi-human tiger or ox . . . with its heart taken out and the top of its brain shot away".

American city politics in his day had already become machine politics; this, Thoreau repudiated. It was "so superficial and inhuman that practically I have never recognised that it concerns me at all". There remained rural America, and in a gathering of farmers, Thoreau saw "the true Congress", the true will of the people. If they recognised their own power and strength they might still, like the farmer-militiamen of 1775, change the course of their country's history.

An implacable opponent of slavery, be declared: "If a thousand, if a hundred, if ten men whom I could name-if ten honest men only- ay, if one honest man in this state of Massachusetts. . . will withdraw from this copartnership [the slavery system] and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America". Probably nobody has ever made such a claim on behalf of men against the state. As everyone knows, he tried out his own theory by refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the invasion of Mexico by the United States and he was locked up in the Concord jail. He was released because his aunt paid the taxes without consulting him. Thoreau never tried this experiment again.

There is no evidence that Thoreau conceived of civil disobedience as a strategy of mass action. Indeed, when John Brown launched his raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Thoreau, in the newspaper The Liberator, praised his strategy of selectivity: for like Gideon, be had discarded all but the strong. Wrote Thoreau: "Few could be found worthy to pass muster". In pursuit of his quest for individuality, Thoreau erected a shack in the woods near Walden Pond, about two miles outside Concord.

In solitude, Thoreau endeavoured to discover his true self and the true meaning of life. His friend, Emerson, had introduced him to Buddhist and Hindu texts. Now he made a deep study of these writings. In his Walden journal he recorded: "I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy or the Bhagavadgita . . . in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial".

The Bhagavadgita emphasises "acting and yet not acting", that is not acting for personal gain. The Gita offers a concept of sacrifice embracing all actions done in fulfilment of svadharrna, one's duty or one's own obligations to society. This is the path of humility. The devotee is required to renounce desires, to feel no attachment to anything, to be abstinent, disciplined, not to entertain hatred for any, to be compassionate, to be free of egoism, to behave alike to friend and foe, to be "silent, content with anything whatever, of no fixed abode, steadfast in mind". It is not difficult to understand why Thoreau in his little hut, listening to the call of the birds and beasts of his solitary wood, felt that this had a message for him. Sixty years later, in jail in South Africa, Gandhi was to discover the Bhagavadgita and to find that it held the essence of truth for him also.

We may ponder whether Thoreau would have been any different if he had not felt the impact of the Bhagavadgita. Probably not; its reading only released forces within him which were latent anyway. However, his understanding of Indian philosophy was another link which connected him with Hindu-Indian nationalists seventy and eighty years later.

In his drive to discover solitude, Thoreau had not penetrated into the great American wilderness; he had merely opted out of contemporary American middle class society. Just the other side of Walden's mysterious pond lay the railroad from Boston, and every hour the whistle and clang of the trains approaching the Concord depot must have interrupted Thoreau's reverie. Thoreau was not really a pioneer; he was just a rebel against the pressures of modern industrial society, like so many today.

His writings scarcely influenced the Americans of his own time (three quarters of his books remained unsold) but insofar as he was absorbed into the American ethos it was as one who longed to take the trail, to get away from it all, like so many Americans ever since. His political ideas were ignored; and it was really only in the 1960s that young American radicals adopted aspects of his philosophy of civil disobedience. Thoreau is a kind of barometer of the current state of American society and politics. Ten years ago he was an important cult figure. Today, in the late 1970s, when young America has returned to conformity, his political message is again ignored, indeed, derided.

Leo Tolstoy

Our next subject, Leo Tolstoy, probably never heard of Thoreau. He was in touch with American pacifists and reformers, but he absorbed his main impression of the American civil disobedience movement from the internationally famous anti-slavery leader William Lloyd Garrison, and not from his little-known follower, Henry David Thoreau.

Garrison's message, in his radical newspaper The Liberator, combined militancy, anarchism, and pacifism. Like Thoreau, Garrison applauded John Brown's raid (though Brown's methods were almost identical with those of the I.R.A.). Garrison at one stage totally rejected the authority of the United States, publicly burning the Constitution. Yet his constant message was one of pacifism or "non-resistance". He was this aspect which most appealed to Tolstoy.

Tolstoy's political thought (as well as his artistic inspiration) was greatly affected by the four years in which he was an officer in the Czarist army (1852-56) which included combat experience in the Crimean war. From his observation of the ineptitude of the high command and the bravery of the common soldiers-peasants in uniform-Tolstoy drew the conclusion that the higher up the chain of command ran, to the General Staff and the Czar, the further the leaders were from any knowledge of the ordinary people, and from the truth about Russia.

Conversely, Tolstoy saw in the supposedly ignorant and despised rural poor the source of goodness and wisdom. It was from the horrors of the Crimean War and from the patience and capacity for suffering of the downtrodden that Tolstoy eventually worked out his philosophy of nonviolence. Change could only come as men followed Christ's teaching and example, freeing themselves from hatred, greed, and all other marks of modern, materialistic society. By their own teaching and example they might hope to persuade others. They must never employ coercion or force. They must embrace total pacificsm, which he defined as "refraining from opposing evil by violence". There could be no exceptions: the robber about to kill the innocent victim must not be prevented by force. An unknown evil, greater than the identifiable evil, might result.

Tolstoy's view of government was very similar to that of Thoreau and Garrison; governments, he declared are "in their very essence a violation ofjustiee". But unlike the American abolitionists-anarchists who imagined that men could by courage and effort overcome governments-Tolstoy (as a Russian who had experienced authoritarianism and tyranny) was under no illusion about the capacity of governments to enforce their domination. Before he could hope to change the system the protester must be prepared for persecution, defeat, destruction or death. Yet, in the infinity of God's own time, if there was a transforming change among the state's subjects, this might, slowly and stealthily, affect agents of the state, who had to enforce injustice, and might eventually lead to the disintegration of the structure of repression.

Tolstoy did not wish to substitute one system for another: to him, the British or American system was merely a less absolute alternative to the Russian or Prussian system. Men should govern themselves, by "the free expression of the people's will": "There will be no organisation to do violence," he proclaimed. For Tolstoy. the Dukhobors, or "Spirit Fighters", the Universal Brotherhood, represented the embodiment of non-resistance.

Their community rejected war and government itself. Driven out by the Czarist regime into the remote, barren Caucusus, they managed to survive and prosper by their industry and careful agricultural techniques. Then in the 1880s, when military conscription became universal in Russia, their suffering began again. Their young men were forced into the army and when they refused to obey orders they were flogged, jailed and consigned to penal battalions where cruelty was the norm. Tolstoy endeavoured to intercede on their behalf with their central government, and he appealed to the Czar's sister.

In 1899, the Dukhobors were given permission to emigrate, and with financial help from English Quakers, most of them resettled in Canada. Perhaps the Czarist regime calculated that this nonconforming, non-assimilable element might create unrest in the general population and were therefore better sent outside (like the Soviet Jews today). At any rate, this solution meant that the regime remained unaffected by their campaign of resistance to government (which was subsequently directed against the Canadian authorities).

In a sense, Tolstoy had connived at a cop-out: and perhaps this oblique response to attthoritarian repression is the reason why the Soviet dissidents in the l970s do not include him among the nineteenth century rebels to whom they look for inspiration, despite his powerful Christian philosophy, which is closely akin to their own.

Tolstoy, of course, totally rejected organised Christianity and was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. Hopefully, he looked to Asians who had adopted the Christian religion as intermediaries to show to the West the difference between established doctrine and spiritual truth, to "expose the contradictions in the midst of which we live without noting them", as he wrote. Tolstoy's writings on nonviolence, such as The Kingdom of God is Within You, made a strong appeal to many Indians. One leader of the East Indian community in British Columbia approached Tolstoy for advice on how they might combat the hostility and discrimination practiced by White Canada against them. Tolstoy replied in his Letter to a Hindu urging them to be true to themselves and to resist oppression nonviolently. This letter made an enormous impression on Gandhi, who started a correspondence with the aged Russian in 1908.

Although Tolstoy became ever more immersed in the teaching of Christ towards his life's end, there is some indication that his last dramatic action-the flight from his wife-was inspired by the example of Gautama Buddha. It will be remembered that Gautama, as a prince, with a beautiful wife and worldly riches, decided that in order to obtain enlightenment and truth he must renounce all these worldly attachments. While she lay asleep, Gautama, left behind wife and possessions for ever. So did Leo Tolstoy in 1910, though in his departure from home in search of truth he was to find the answer in death.

Mahatma Gandhi

Thus far, we have watched the two strands of nonviolent political strategy being woven-civil disobedience, or defiance of the state, and the quest for individual and social freedom or liberation. We have noticed isolated experiments in their application, but we have witnessed no systematic development of strategies, and no effort to mobilise a political movement trained in non-violent techniques. This comes with Gandhi, but it comes only after several contrasting episodes of social and political thought and action.

After his years in London, associated with vegetarianism, theosophy, and Nonconformist church-going, Gandhi arrived in South Africa, in 1895, and was drawn into agitations for the rights of the local Indians, already under attack. At first, he adopted what he was later to call the politics of "mendicancy", addressing appeals to the Colonial Secretary in London, organising petitions, and writing letters to newspapers. His appeal was almost exclusively on behalf of the middle class Indians, and his argument was that, unlike the Africans, they were civilised and, therefore, deserved to be treated as equals by the Whites. Gandhi believed that discrimination was the result of Afrikaner bigotry, especally in Kruger's Transvaal, and that he had only to convince the Imperial Government in London of the wrongs suffered by the Indians for justice to be done.

When, in 1899, the British Empire went to war with the Afrikaners, Gandhi sprang forward to do his bit. Indians were not admitted to the fighting forces, but Gandhi recruited an ambulance Unit of litter-bearers from the local Indian community and led them into battle. He was often under fire, and he rescued the son of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, as he fell, fatally wounded. Lady Roberts never forgot, and sent Mr Gandhi socks she had personally knitted every Christmas, which he always appreciated: though he was soon to give up socks for ever!

After the war ended, Gandhi returned to his law practice. Pictures taken at this time show him wearing a smart European suit and a very high stiff collar with moustache neatly trimmed and hair carefully brushed like an Edwardian English gentleman. Despite the defeat of the Boers by the British Empire, the condition of the Indians in South Africa actually deteriorated; but Gandhi still hoped. In 1906, there was a revolt among the Zulus of Natal, and once again Gandhi raised an Indian ambulance unit. However, this experience proved traumatic. It was a very minor revolt, but it brought white troops with modern weapons up against African guerrillas, and as so often in this situation the tactics of overkill were employed. Gandhi was horrified. His reaction was similar to that of Tolstoy in the Crimean war. But whereas Tolstoy took many years to reach his final renunciation, Gandhi's response had all the signs to total and almost "instant" conversion.

We may recall that in 1906 Gandhi was 37 years old: this is an age at which, psychiatrists tell us, the restless male is liable to rebel against his whole style of life, and sometimes takes a radical new direction. Never was this more true than with Gandhi. The symbol of his changed life was his adoption of a vow of brahmacharya or celibacy within marriage. This symbolised his renunciation of worldly ways, and atonement for the violence which he believed he had inflicted upon his child wife. He reduced his sparse diet even further, and went in for exercise and physical labour. He wore plain drab clothes and shaved his head. He broadened his political concept of the Indian community to embrace the poorest and the downtrodden.

Gandhi was much influenced by reading Unto This Last, by John Ruskin: "That book marked the turning point in my life" he later declared. At one stage of his argument, Ruskin asked why the profession of the soldier was more highly honoured in Victorian England than that of the merchant. He offers this answer: "The soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying but being slain". The soldier, ultimately, is prepared for sacrifice: "Truly the man who does not know when to die does not know how to live".

This accorded with Gandhi's own experience. His stretcher bearers were all unskilled labourers, brought to South Africa under the indenture system to work under conditions of exploitation and bondage. And yet, under stress, they had shown courage and nobility. Possessing little or nothing, they knew how to share life 'with and sacrifice for one another. It was from the patient capacity to endure suffering of the Indian labourers that Gandhi drew his new conception of politics, satyagraha.

The movement was sparked off by the alteration of the law in the Transvaal requiring all Indians to register and obtain a certificate in order to reside and work there. Only limited numbers would be allowed to remain, and new immigration would be severely restricted. At a mass public meeting it was agreed to defy the law and accept imprisonment as the inevitable consequence. Gandhi called upon his followers to take a sacred oath to resist. But he insisted that this must be each man's personal decision, individually arrived at, and only "if the inner voice assures him that he has the requisite strength to carry it through". As yet, the movement was called "passive resistance", and when asked what had led him to this course, Gandhi quoted the Sermon on the Mount: "resist not him that is evil". "It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance," he told an interviewer, adding "The Bhagavadgita deepened the impression and Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You gave it permanent form".

The British government hesitated before enforcing the new law, and this gave an opportunity for Gandhi to journey to London and argue the case with British political leaders. His visit coincided with the opening of a new development in the women's suffrage movement in England. Three days after Gandhi reached London, the suffragettes demonstrated in the lobby of the House of Commons, and eleven women were arrested. In Court, they refused to pay fines and were sentenced to three months in jail. Their action encouraged other women to demonstrate and face imprisonment.

Gandhi was outstanding among Indian leaders in respecting women as equals, and he was to choose women as some of his most trusted political comrades. Now, lie identified with the suffragettes because, although equal with men, they were treated as unequal; and also because they were not demanding privileges but were asking for their rights, wrongly withheld. Writing for his paper, Indian Opinion, Gandhi observed

"Today the country is laughing at them and they have only only a few people on their side. But undaunted these women work on, steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise for the simple reason that deeds are better than words. . . . If women display such courage will the Transvaal Indians fail in their duty and be afraid of jail? Or would they rather consider jail a palace and readily go there? When that time comes, India's bonds will snap of themselves".

When Gandhi returned to South Africa he continued to follow the suffragettes' campaign, reporting their work in his paper, in particular the "Women's Parliaments", as they were called. These took the form of rallies at Caxton Hall, London, followed by a mass match on Parliament. The women were harassed on the march by mounted police, but plodded on, and into the central lobby, where they were arrested and again went to jail instead of paying fines. Gandhi's rather endearing liking for the British upper classes emerged in his singling out Mrs Cobden Sanderson, daughter of Richard Cobden, and Mrs Despard, sister of General French, for special praise, emphasising that they were elderly and used to comfort, and yet accepted police harrasment and jail for the advancement of their cause.

There was soon an opportunity to test the ability of the Indians to equal the courage of the suffragettes. Gandhi felt that they ought to be able to express their belief in Indian terms; also he was dissatisfied with the negative connotations of "passive resistance". So he ran a competition in Indian Opinion for the best suggestion, and satyagraha was adopted as the name. The term is often translated "soul force". Satya means truth, and also sacrifice; agralia means firmness or insistence. Gandhi explained, "my aim is in doing good against evil." There has been endless argument about whether satyagraha actually embodies a traditional Indian concept from the Bhagavadgita. Here, we may briefly conclude that Gandhi took an old concept, satya, and reshaped it into something new and in a sense different. After Gandhi, it was impossible to go back to the old form.

We cannot follow events in the next two years in detail: Gandhi went to jail three times, and hundreds went with him. The congestion this caused in the Transvaal prisons embarrassed the authorities and there were negotiations. Gandhi was always ready to compromise, but he insisted that any settlement must give "honour" to the Indians, i.e., their self-respect must be recognised. Meanwhile, the British Government was actively negotiating to transfer imperial responsibilities to a self-governing white South Africa. The Indians urged Gandhi to go to London to safeguard their rights, and in 1909 he paid another visit.

During his 18 weeks in London he spent much of his time meeting suffragette leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst and attending their rallies. The women's movement was attaining a high pitch of militancy. The breaking of windows in public buildings was now a frequent tactic. Sentenced to jail, the suffragettes went on hunger strike. Gandhi reported this new development in Indian Opinion. At first he made no mention of the window breaking, of which he thoroughly disapproved, but when they invaded Mr Asquith's holiday residence he felt compelled to condemn what he saw as violence. In explanation, he suggested "Some of these women have grown impatient". But he added "There is no room for impatience in satyagraha. . . Indian satyagrahis must realise from this that the women are not satyagrahis but are resorting to physical force. For a certainty, they will suffer a setback now". He continued to praise their courage and dedication but he condemned their change of strategy, as he saw it. If women gained access to politics through violence, then their entry into the political arena would not serve to alter the old game of power politics. They would be just like those men who had repressed them.

There was a split in the women's movement over the militancy issue, and General French's sister, Mrs Despard, organised the nonviolent Women's Freedom League. They adopted the tactic of the "vigil", what would properly be called "peaceful picketIng", outside parliament, during all the hours it was in session. Gandhi praised Mrs Despard's "spiritual resistance", as he termed it.

Back in South Africa, the Indian campaign now approached its climax. Gandhi broadened the issues in the struggle from these affecting only the Transvaal, demanding especially abolition of the £ 3 tax which all the Indian labourers had to pay for each member of their family when they were released from the restrictions of indenture. Gandhi now confronted the South African politicians given power by the British Government, in particular, Jan Christian Smuts. Both men were a strange mixture of the seer and the prophet and the shrewd political fixer, though I would argue that the "mix" was in strikingly different proportions in each. The imperial rulers in London anxiously awaited the outcome of this encounter between the representatives of the white people of the British Empire with the non-white, hitherto regarded as the helots of the imperial system.

Gandhi's headquarters were at Tolstoy Farm, a cooperative settlement which he organised outside Johannesburg on the lines of Ruskin's challenge: "How much use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put?" At Tolstoy Farm, he trained a group of volunteers in nonviolent methods. Most were Indians, but one or two were Chinese and some were Europeans. Many were women. All were dedicated to the cause putting whatever material assets they possessed into the common stock.

Declared Gandhi: "Tolstoy Farm proved to be a centre of spiritual purification and penance for the final campaign". From 1910, the struggle intensified. By now, Gandhi had familiarised himself with the writings of Thoreau and found himself very much in sympathy with his robust rejection of over-powerful government: "The State represents violence in a concentrated and organised form", he wrote. "The individual has a soul, but the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence". The only way to create change was to change the attitude of white South Africans towards their Indian compatriots. This might be done by demonstrating that the Indians had as much of bravery, dignity, solidarity, as the whites.

By now, the eyes of the world had turned towards the struggle in South Africa. Liberal opinion in Britain and America was critical of the powers assumed by the new white government. Opinion in India, from the most conservative to the most radical, was vociferous in condemning the humiliations inflicted on their compatriots. In 1913, Gandhi resolved to launch a full-scale satyagraha campaign. It would take the form of a march from Natal into the Transvaal, an action that broke South African law.

At first, a party of sixteen, including Gandhi's wife, Kasturbai, made the march. They were arrested and jailed. He then called upon the Indians working under indenture in the Natal coal mines to go on strike in protest against the discriminatory laws. Three thousand came out, and were soon joined by 1,500 Indian railway workers. The managers ejected the strikers from their quarters. Gandhi found himself with thousands of half-starved supporters, camping out, awaiting his orders. He called upon them to follow him in a mass march to the Transvaal border. Symbolically, he cast aside western clothes and donned the coarse garments of an Indian industrial worker. He never wore European dress again. Then, taking a staff in his hand, he led them on their way.

The march was covered by reporters from many countries and the authorities hesitated to take drastic action. Messages were sent to Gandhi, urging him to call it off. Still, the motley army marched on, and only when they were well inside the Transvaal border were they all arrested.

There were far too many prisoners to lock up in the Transvaal jails, but Smuts thought of a way to deal with the Indians. They were taken back to the mine compounds, which were turned into jails. The white mining supervisors were enrolled as warders and the prisoners were ordered underground. The orders were defied, and the Indians were subjected to increasingly severe penalties. Some died from their treatment. It was noticeable that one or two of the middle-class satyagrahis appealed against these privations, and asked for special treatment. But indentured labourers silently endured: for them, suffering was a way of life.

Gandhi was sentenced to one year's rigorous imprisonment. Thereupon, the entire Indian labour force in the Durban area went on strike, bringing city life to a standstill. Protest in India was led by the British Viceroy. In perhaps the most remarkable speech ever delivered by a Viceroy, Lord Hardinge congratulated the sat~agrahis who "have violated, as they have intended to violate, those laws with full knowledge of the penalties involved . . . In all this they have the sympathies of India-deep and burning-and not only of India but of those like myself".

This could not go on: the Viceroy of India was endorsing civil disobedience in a British Dominion. Smuts called for Hardinge's removal, but the British government declined to act. Smuts had to do something: the world was turning against white South Africa. He appointed a commission of inquiry into the Indian's grievances and he let Gandhi and the other satyagrahis out of jail. Kasturbai was so ill she had become an old woman overnight. The commission recommended the abolition of the £ 3 tax and other concessions. Gandhi hesitated: should he lead another campaign to secure everything the Indians demanded? Smuts offered a compromise formula which recognised the Indians' "honour," and Gandhi signed an agreement. He left for London to consult his friends and allies. In his farewell to South Africa he called for equality for the Indians, and added: "We can gain everything without hurting anybody and through soulforce or satyagraha alone." Typically, Smuts commented: "The saint has departed from our shores. I trust he will never return."

This was the highest point reached by Gandhian Satyagraha in South Africa. Not because the campaign was a success: in the years that followed, the rights of the Indians were again whittled away. It was because downtrodden South African Indians had fully grasped the meaning of nonviolence. Whatever gains they had achieved, or failed to achieve, they had realised their full potential as men and women, capable of behaving as superior beings, and they had challenged white South Africa without raising the level of hatred in that hate-ridden country. While in prison, Gandhi made a pair of sandals which he gave to General Smuts. Smuts wore them for the rest of his life, for Gandhi had made them well. Their personal relationship was strained many times. But Smuts, so calculating and ruthless with other political foes, always felt compelled to respond to a call from Gandhi.

Returning to India in 1915, Gandhi began to apply nonviolence to social and industrial problems. When the Ahmedabad millworkers went on strike, Gandhi investigated their grievances. As it happened, the leader of the millowners was one of his friends and supporters. Nevertheless, Gandhi pronounced that a 35 per cent increase in wages ought to be conceded. The bosses stood firm; the workers began to give up. Seeing that they were too cowardly to implement satyagraha themselves, Gandhi announced that he would fast until his claim was accepted. The political fast is frequently employed as a means of defiance or coercion. Gandhi said that one must fast as towards a lover; to persuade, not to overcome. Quite rapidly, a formula was found which both sides could accept. Gandhi broke his fast, declaring that the millowners' leader had captured his heart: "It was a pleasure to be pitched against him."

Next followed a complete reversal of roles by Gandhi. During the summer of 1918, he became a recruiting officer for the British-Indian army: "No stone will be left unturned by me to offer recruits in their thousands", he told the Viceroy. When his puzzled friends demanded an explanation, Gandhi replied that the people of the area where he was recruiting-Gujarat-had become cowardly and spiritless (as witness the Ahmedabad example). They must learn bravery and discipline. The first stage towards becoming a satyagrahi was to be a himsak or warrior. Even in South Africa, Gandhi told Charlie Andrews, who had been at his side, some had accepted his methods only because "they were too weak to undertake methods of violence". India had no real tradition of pacifism; moral force "is not in us". Hence physical courage must first be acquired before spiritual courage was possible.

Gandhi undertook the recruiting drive because in 1918 he still believed in the British Empire. Next year, the Government of India introduced a code of repression, designed to combat Bolshevik revolution. Gandhi decided to lead a nation-wide protest. His first intention was to call a national day of prayer, but events got out of hand. There were violent clashes in which British and Indians were killed. Gandhi announced that he had committed a "Himalayan Blunder". He called upon his followers to discontinue the campaign, adding, "The time may come for me to offer satyagraha against ourselves". Most Indian politicians regarded Gandhi's reversal as a sign of weakness. It was left to Rabindranath Tagore-who at this time hailed Gandhi as Mahatma, to see his action as "fearlessness": he had lifted "moral power above brute forces," said the Poet.

Two years later, Gandhi directed another nationwide campaign against British rule. This time the strategy carefully worked out, the people of India would disassociate themselves from everything that was British. They would not attend schools, colleges, or the law courts. They would not buy Lancashire cloth. But there was a positive aspect to the campaign also. Gandhi wished to create solidarity between Hindus and Muslims and to heal the divisions within the Hindu caste system: "The instant India is purified, India becomes free, and not a moment earlier", he told Andrews.

The opening of the campaign was signalled by reproducing slogans from Thoreau's writings on city walls throughout India. Thousands of idealistic students quit their studies. Plans to mobilise them for work among the rural poor were less successful: most were "simply slacking" Charlie Andrews decided.

There was increasing emphasis on the boycott of foreign cloth, and shopkeepers were forced to burn bales imported from Lancashire. There was ~'a subtle appeal to racial feeling in that word foreign", Andrews told Gandhi, ". . . the picture of you lighting that great pile shocked me intensely . . . and seemed to me a form almost of violence". Gandhi justified these acts by arguing that it was better for hatred to be purged by action against things, rather than against men. Even this argument failed when twenty-two Indian constables were deliberately burned to death at Chauri Chaura police station. Once again, Gandhi castigated his followers and suspended civil disobedience. The young JawaharIal Nehru asked why a national campaign must stop because of one untoward incident. To Nehru, freedom for India was more important than the realisation of freedom within Indians. He had no real use for Gandhi's dictum: "Self-government is self-knowledge which is self-control".

In subsequent years Gandhi hesitated before attempting another nationwide campaign. He returned to individual satyagraha and fasting, in order to attain Hindu-Muslim unity and to abolish Untouchability. Not until 1930 did he launch another national campaign, and this was even more carefully orchestrated. Gandhi decided to frame the campaign around the government monopoly of salt manufacture. Government levied a minute tax, calculated by one Indian historian to to cost lcss than three annas (now 20 paise) per head per annum. This rather strange grievance was chosen by Gandhi because it symbolised the artificial western grip on India's "natural" or "traditional" economy. Gandhi announced that he would lead a march from Ahmedabad to to Dandi on the seacoast, two hundred miles away, where he would break the law by making salt from saline crystals.

Gandhi was now 61 years old. The pace he set on the march tired out men half his age. Many compared this journey to the final journey by Jesus to Jerusalm. Gandhi was accompanied by a donkey, symbol of humility and patience. Some thought he believed he was going to his death. Police agents reported a remarkable rise in the sale of Bibles on the route to Dandi. The march lasted from 12 March to 6 April.

Gandhi expected to be arrested any moment, but the Viceroy, Lord Irwin (later Halifax) stayed his hand. The arrival at Dandi could have been an absurd anticlimax, for the beach was a bank of mud. There was no salt anywhere. Undeterred, Gandhi solemnly shovelled the wet mud into a bucket and boiled up a nasty brew, pronouncing that he had produced salt. All over India, satyagrahis joined him in making salt.

The government still waited, and only after the campaign had taken the usual turn towards violence, with bomb throwing and assassination weapons, did the authorities arrest Gandhi and the other leaders.

Irwin had been perplexed about how to handle the nonviolent protest. He did not hesitate to clamp down ruthlessly after the eruption of violence, Gandhi was in jail once more, but this was no solution. As he told Charlie Andrews, in jail, he was "as happy as a bird". Irwin, like Harding, was an unusual Viceroy: he knew that Gandhi could not be handled like any ordinary politician. He asked for cooperation, inviting him "to place the seal of friendship once again upon the relations of two peoples whom unhappy circumstances have latterly estranged".

Gandhi responded. He joined the search for a settlement, and after much hesitation (he was waiting for a call from the "inner voice") he agreed to come to London for a conference. The conference was a failure, but the visit was by no means a failure. Gandhi captured the imagination of the British people. He took time off to visit Lancashire in order to explain to unemployed mill hands why India was boycotting their product. The evidence suggests that the workers responded to him though the manufacturers did not.

Gandhi always believed that it was possible to convince the British people that they had no moral right to govern India as an imperial possession. He told Andrews: "You have to convince the religious people of Great Britain that the moral character of British rule in India is now called in question. You have to bring back to us the sense that the British really desire to do justice in India". For India he insisted: "If we do the right thing we shall come out right". Honesty compelled him to add: "Many bad men have crept into the Congress" though "there are some who are 24 carats gold".

Independence brought disillusionment. Congress was power-hungry. Gandhi announced that "the scales have fallen from my eyes". He added, "The one great problem . . . is the moral degradation into which the men in Congress circles have fallen . . . The taste for political power has turned their heads . . . Now that the goal has been reached, all moral restrictions have lost their power on most of the fighters in the great struggle".


The contrast between the ideal and the reality has led many to conclude that Gandhi was a "magnificent failure". And it is true that the Gandhian ideal is practiced in India today only by small dedicated groups of disciples. But should we judge Gandhi and nonviolence only by the test of short-term success? Do we dismiss Gandhi and Tolstoy and Thoreau because their countrymen have not followed their precepts?

In my view, politics is concerned only formally with power and government and fundamentally with the moral development of human beings. Politics is about people, and how they endeavour to face the challenge of their times. M.N. Roy, the international communist who founded Radical Humanism, put, his beliefs this way: "When a man really wants freedom and to live in a democratic society he may not be able to free the whole world . . . but he can to a large extent at least free himself by behaving as a rational and moral being, and if he can do this, others around him can do the same, and these again will spread freedom by their example." I don't think I can put it any better. If that is the goal, then Gandhi is more relevant than ever, both in India and in the West.

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