Gandhi’s Non-Violence Peace Movement: Theories and Practices

Gandhi's Non-Violence Peace Movement: Theories and Practices

The growth and development of peace and conflict studies have been a slow but inevitable process. Humankind generally cherishes peace and harmony and tends to apply different methods to resolve conflicts. It is believed that movements of non-violence and pacifism led to peace movements during the Cold War period.

Non-Violence Theory of Peace

Non-violence, as author Sharp defined it, is non-injury in thought, word, and deed in all forms of life. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) described it as the law of our species, as violence is the law of the brute…. Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the tyrant.

Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire, save his honor, religion, and soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or recognition…. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”

It appears that Mahatma Gandhi described the basic elements of non-violence. According to him, if a person realizes of his/her inner strength, no one will be able to subjugate that person to injustice and he/she can face anyone calmly.

Life constitutes a perpetual challenge, and there is a battle to win – a battle in the cause of truth and justice through the weapon of self-suffering.

Theories of Non-Violence

All human beings survive with a mixture of force, minimal in some cases. Lack of self-control is the essence of violent behavior of a person. Author V. K. Kool provided the following illustration: A car driving through a parking lot splashes water on an individual.

That affected individual has two options:

  1. making the driver apologize and pay for the damages or
  2. telling the driver to be more careful in the future.

In action, self-control, forbearance, and anti-punitiveness are involved.

Author V.K. Kool argues that the psychology of non-violence is essentially based on the components of moral personality. Moral judgment and behavior are ordinarily governed by the rules based on moral reasoning.

Author Piaget made contributions to the field of moral psychology by watching children’s behavior. He suggested that young children use a wide variety of cues to judge the intention of an aggressor.

Children have a system of moral structures that evolve in a series of development stages. Piaget found that rules were the essence of morality, and the moral interpretation of events in a child’s mind is structured in rules.

Non-violence emanates from morality. Kohlberg believed that a moral person was one who reasoned with and acted on the basis of principles of justice and fairness. Kohlberg cited moral development at three levels.

The third level was the highest level of moral development. To sum up, moral concerns constitute the core of the study of the psychology of non-violence.

Author May believed that there were three conditions that set the stage for the relationship between non-violence and power:

  • Non-violent individuals would always be ready to become aware of a problem,
  • They would not hesitate to take blame and responsibility
  • Their attempt would be to help the community, not themselves.

In short, non-violent individuals, May argued, did not seek power, but power would ascend to them when they would make an effort to achieve social harmony by offering moral conduct.

This type of individual power was unique because it would operate on the conscience of the perpetrators of violence and weaken their moral defenses.

Many authors suggest that the concept of non-violence can best be understood in the nature of the interrelationship of aggression, moral concerns, and power. V. K. Kool points out a three-dimensional view of non-violence that consists of:

  • low aggression,
  • high moral concerns and
  • self-power.

Non-violent behavior refers to those acts which are knowingly and willfully used to substitute for violence. Kool contends that the core of a non-violent person “consists of

  1. using minimum physical or other types of aggression;
  2. applying practical moral considerations in the absence of a principled form of non-violence;
  3. refusing to use power for self-enhancement”.

Non-violence involves not only love and ahimsa (non-violence) but also active resistance, which can be coercive and confrontational.

Resistance involves dissent, moral shaming, large-scale mobilization, and a refusal to fight back through physical violence. If acts of non-violence (e.g. sit-ins) are perceived as “harm to others” in a given situation, they may at best constitute “peaceful coercion” instead of “aggression”.

On the other hand, most non-violent individuals may find neither “aggression” nor “coercion” suitable to describe their intentions. They are likely to prefer the word “persuasion” because they intend to solve a conflict without “harm to others.”

Practices of Non-Violence (Satyagraha)

Non-cooperation or civil disobedience is one of the methods of non-violent collective behavior of a community. Gandhi’s unique contribution was Satyagraha (passive resistance), the technique of non-violent conflict resolution.

To him, Satyagraha was literally holding on to truth (Satya), and therefore, it meant Truth-Force.

Truth was soul or spirit and therefore was known as soul-force. Gandhi believed that Satyagraha was always superior to armed resistance. It was the weapon that adorned the strong, never the weak.

By “weak,” he meant weak in mind and spirit, not in body. Satyagraha can never be used to defend a wrong cause.

Satyagraha may embrace hartal (cessation of work by workers as a protest), social and economic boycotts, and picketing.

However, hartal does not imply lawlessness. In 1920, Gandhi launched his first collective civil disobedience campaign, abruptly terminating it in 1922 when violence erupted. In 1930 the Salt Laws were violated when the Salt Satyagraha began.

Further civil disobedience campaigns were undertaken throughout the early 1930s. Gandhi’s program of civil disobedience, including individual civil disobedience, was adopted by the mainstream Congress Party in India.

Gandhi wanted to show that while his followers refused to submit to British policy, their resentment and determination by voluntarily inviting suffering for themselves to achieve their objective were not to create violent actions.

Individual civil disobedience took the form of breaking some government order or directive by an individual. The person who deliberately disobeyed the order was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment by British rulers. Some of them were in prison for fifteen years.

In the US, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted the philosophy and methods of non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations against racial discrimination policy toward Afro-Americans.

He started the civil rights movement in the 60s, and gradually, non-violent protests spread to more than 100 cities. He mobilized non-violent supporters, captured the conscience of millions of people, and achieved monumental reforms. “I have a dream,” which he made in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington before a crowd of 200,000).

Gandhian Concept of Peace

Like Russian philosopher and novelist Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) stood for non-violence.

When Western nations butchered each other during the First World War, Gandhi forged a non-violent civil disobedience movement in the 30s, which spearheaded the nationalist independence movement and ultimately helped force the British out of the Indian sub-continent in 1947.

In India, Gandhi was known as “Mahatma” (Great Soul) as he collided with the British colonial rulers and with orthodox Hindus over their treatment of millions of “Untouchables” whom he renamed “Harijans” or “Children of God”.

The Foundation of Gandhi’s Resistance: Pacifism and Its Impact

Gandhi’s resistance to evil was essentially based on pacifism. A story runs that he was ejected from his first-class compartment at the insistence of a white passenger from a South African train in the 1890s.

This incident led Gandhi to embark on a journey that changed the course of the 20th century’s struggles against racism, colonialism, and violence through non-violence. Contrary to the teleological view that “the end justifies the means”, Gandhi emphasized his own maxim: “as the means, so the end”.

The Philosophical Underpinnings of Gandhi’s Approach to Non-violence

The relationship between the two faces of a coin, as he described satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence), was such that in functional terms, the means should be appropriate to the goal and that it should always be within human reach though it might necessitate constant training.

He did not view the casual connection between means and end as a factual question, but as one of moral valuation. Certain actions, such as violent resistance, were morally wrong irrespective of the result they might lead to.

Satyagraha: Gandhi’s Method of Non-violent Resistance

The Gandhian technique of “Satyagraha” has been variously described as “passive resistance” or “non-violent resistance”.

Gandhi made the point: “Somehow or other the wrong belief has taken possession of us that ahimsa is pre-eminently a weapon of individuals…. It is blasphemy to say that non-violence can only be practised by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals.”

The essential ingredient for the formulation of Satyagraha was that Gandhi reverted to the ancient ethical laws and the idealistic elements in Hindu philosophy, combined them with an action-oriented concept of a karmayogi (dedication to action), and created redefined concepts and methods suitable for the solution of social and political conflict.

Challenges and Criticisms Within the Indian National Movement

No wonder that the practical-idealist as Gandhi himself, who grew into the mentor of India’s struggle for political independence, provoked criticism even among his compatriots and caused many an irritation and alienation among the activists within the Indian National Congress political party.

The dialectic nature of Satyagraha arises from Gandhi’s ontological doctrine which was once aptly defined as “being in becoming”.

The Personal and Political Impact of Satyagraha

The dialectic process starts from Gandhi’s anthropological assumption that all people, whether Satyagrahi or the opponent, will advance from relative to absolute truth in the course of self-realization. Here again the spiritual concept of self-realization (moksha) is transferred to the political sphere.

To demonstrate their emotional dimension and complete non-violence, Satyagrahis offer their own suffering. All Satyagraha is a personal matter and can be means of providing human dignity.

Gandhi’s Legacy and Influence on Global Peace Movements

The technique of Satyagraha can be used effectively with a close friend, or unjust government or invading army. Gandhi had an abiding faith in human nature and he believed that eventually good would win over evil.

To Gandhi, “Satyagrahi enjoys a degree of freedom not possible for others, for he becomes a truly fearless person. Once his mind is rid of fear, he will never agree to be another’s slave. Having achieved this state of mind, he will never submit to any arbitrary action.”

The Universal Relevance of Gandhi’s Philosophy in Contemporary Conflicts

According to Gandhi (British Prime Minister Churchill called him “naked fakir”) conflict or violence was never justified, no matter how desirable the end. According to him, love was the essence of the spirit of the universe and human society was a ceaseless growth, an unfoldment in terms of spirituality.

In conflict, he advocated that the opponent, a fellow researcher for truth (God), had to be met with reason. If it did not work, the sight of suffering would. Self-discipline, including penance and fasts, was essential for the pursuit of non-violence.

Gandhi’s Enduring Message of Peace and Non-violence

When communal violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims in India in 1947, Gandhi at the age of 78, and in failing health, announced he would fast until the bloodshed ended. Seventy-two hours later communal violence ended.

The Hindu extremist’s bullet that killed him in 1948 did not silence his doctrine. The Gandhian peacemaking philosophy had been applied rigorously to modern politics and this one of Gandhi’s contributions in peacemaking.

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet called him his mentor. So did the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. The Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 reportedly sat in Gandhi’s immense shadow.

Gandhi’s Philosophy in the Face of Modern Challenges

Everything in Gandhi’s life confirmed the depth of his commitment to the establishment of peace on earth through non-violence.

His violent death demonstrates that in an age of polarization and confrontation, the ability of anyone to address conflict through peacemaking has become severely curtailed and the more passionately one champions one’s pacifist opinion the greater the risk of arousing the passionate enmity of others.

Pope John Paul II on World Day of Peace on 1st January, 2000 said: “War is a defeat for humanity, only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”

Gandhian Methods of Conflict Resolution

“Satyagraha” (non-violence or passive resistance) is a method of conflict resolution as conceived by Gandhi. It is based on the idea that moral appeal to the heart or conscience could be more effective than an action based on threat or force. “Satyagraha” underscores the need for realizing the importance of human unity in order to solve conflicts (See Chapter 3 of the book on Gandhian philosophy of non-violence).

America’s Black Civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929-1968) adapted “Satyagraha” to American conditions as a means to end the racial conflict in the US.

King insisted, above all, on love – on the reconciliation of the blacks and their white oppressors – at a time when other civil rights leaders were being murdered by white extremists. King transported the Christian theme of love, justice, and equality into the political arena. He inspired and helped direct Freedom Rides, launch counter sit-ins, boycotts, and peaceful demonstrations.

On August 28, 1963, he opened an unforgettable speech to about 200,000 demonstrators on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, and an extract from the address is quoted below at length in which he said:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of slave owners will be able to sit together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

The civil rights movement became so powerful that by 1965, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans were passed by Congress in the US.