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A novel form of political protest

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi widened the meaning of satyagraha to indicate an ethical attitude to the business of life. He even set the criteria for self evaluation for those who wished to follow this path. But the Mahatma’s true genius lay in the way he projected values like truth and non violence to the realm of mass politics.

india Updated: Sep 27, 2019 05:54 IST
Venu Madhav Govindu
Venu Madhav Govindu
Days after breaking the Salt law on April 6, 1930, Gandhi toured the villages around Dandi and addressed gatherings, speaking about the importance of satyagraha, and the need for civil disobedience.
Days after breaking the Salt law on April 6, 1930, Gandhi toured the villages around Dandi and addressed gatherings, speaking about the importance of satyagraha, and the need for civil disobedience.(Alamy stock photo)

On September 11, 1906, many Indians assembled in Johannesburg to protest a proposed ordinance which required Asians to carry an identification card with fingerprints. Determined to resist such humiliating discrimination, the speakers declared their solemn pledge to resist the order. The idea of satyagraha was born.

In its early days, the protests led by MK Gandhi were described in the press as passive resistance. Gandhi found this description unsatisfactory for its negative connotations of passivity. As a later exponent, the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., put it, Satyagraha “is not non-resistance to evil, but non violent resistance to evil”.

To distinguish his method from passive resistance, Gandhi cast around for a better word. His nephew Maganlal Gandhi suggested a coinage sadagraha made by compounding sad meaning good, and agraha meaning firmness or insistence. Gandhi adapted it by using satya denoting truth with agraha. Thus, satyagraha denotes firm insistence of the truth. While the term was coined to describe a novel form of political protest, Gandhi widened its meaning to a deep and abiding commitment to satya and ahimsa or non violence. In other words, satyagraha indicated an ethical attitude and approach to the business of life itself.

Gandhi recognises that violence and injustice exist in individual relationships and society at large. While this needs to be challenged and countered, he is categorically against a violent response. Its moral burden apart, Gandhi argues that violence is no solution as it only begets more violence. Thus, if one wielded the gun to win freedom, apart from the bloodshed involved, there was nothing to prevent its misuse in oppressing fellow Indians. Gandhi is not persuaded by the overwhelming historical evidence that humans have always taken recourse to violence to settle differences. The fact that others had not attempted his approach in the past is no reason for Gandhi not to act on his beliefs.

In his approach to the problem of injustice, Gandhi introduces many innovations. First, he distinguishes an act of evil from the evil-doer. Second, he lays out stringent criteria and tests of self-evaluation that a satyagrahi needs to meet in his or her quest for justice. Third, while all religions provide ethical prescriptions for individuals, Gandhi’s genius lay in projecting them on to the realm of mass politics.

Without the power of physical force, satyagraha hinges on an appeal to the conscience of the opponent. But a vital dialogic aspect of satyagraha lies in invoking the ethical response of witnesses. When a satyagrahi remains non violent in the face of a violent attack, it undermines the legitimacy of the perpetrator. This was indeed the case with police brutalities against satyagrahis raiding the salt works in Dharasana after the march to Dandi. The American activist and scholar, Richard Gregg, likened this approach to moral jujitsu.

Gandhi recognises that the appeal of satyagraha could be used for dishonourable ends — this was duragraha (here the prefix dur means bad or improper). But the possibility of misuse of satyagraha does not fundamentally undermine its worth or efficacy. Satyagraha, like all virtues, is an attitude that needs to be cultivated by training. For Gandhi, his ashram was the laboratory to develop the individual capacities of a satyagrahi. A singular aspect of the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s in the United States was the training of lunch-counter sit-in volunteers to remain calm in the face of provocation and physical assault.

Along with its success, satyagraha has had its critics of various hues. Some decried Gandhi for breaking the law. While Gandhi argued for the supremacy of individual conscience, he advocated breaking temporal law only when other avenues of redress were exhausted. Apart from protesting in a transparent, public manner, Gandhi enjoined a satyagrahi to own responsibility for her actions and submit to the attendant punishment. We may recall here that Gandhi abruptly halted the Non Cooperation movement in the 1920s when a mob burnt to death a number of policemen in Chauri Chaura.

Others believe that non violence was ineffective and only acted as a means of perpetuating the status quo. It has also been argued that Gandhi would not have lasted for a minute under Hitler. While this may have been true, such an argument tells us nothing about how one should act in most situations which are not as extreme and brutal as Nazi Germany. Also the Raj was hardly a benign imperial project. Rather, there is a persuasive argument that the series of satyagraha campaigns in India played an important role in limiting repression in India and slowly but perceptibly transforming global public opinion on India’s desire for freedom.

Non violence was, and remains, deeply unsettling for people committed to a range of ideologies. However, we may note that recent studies have shown that in the Twentieth century, non violent civil resistance has been significantly more successful than armed campaigns. The efficacy and moral suasion of satyagraha has led to its successful adoption across the globe, notably in the southern United States and eastern Europe. Ironically, despite its success, the Gandhian ideology of satyagraha has only a feeble presence in India today.

We cannot talk of satyagraha in today’s context without addressing the elephant in the room: Kashmir. Recent measures by the Indian government constitute grave provocation to the identity and dignity of a people already caught up in a tortured geopolitical context. Undoubtedly the political situation in Kashmir will evolve in significant ways in the years to come. Improbable as it may seem, Gandhi would unequivocally commend satyagraha as the only moral and strategic response.

In a world suffused with violence and strife, satyagraha is often the only just and true way forward. But it does presuppose the availability of men and women with an indomitable will and strength of character.

(Venu Madhav Govindu is writing a thematic history of Gandhi in the 1930s. He is an associate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.)

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