Non-Violent Resistance: The Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
There is nothing new about resisting power without the use of physical force. Examples can be found from history stretching back thousands of years. From the disobedience of Moses and the Israelites against the Pharaohs of Egypt to the peaceful protests of Martin Luther King Jr. against racial discrimination, the power of non-violent resistance has been demonstrated time and time again. The modern practice of non-violent resistance as a carefully thought-out and theorized strategy, however, is something attributable to Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi was a remarkable leader and one of the most prominent figures in India’s struggle for independence from British rule. He was born in 1869 in Porbandar, a coastal town in present-day Gujarat, India. He studied law in England and went on to practice law in South Africa, where he witnessed firsthand the effects of colonialism and racial discrimination. It was in South Africa that Gandhi first developed his ideas of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.
Mass forms of civil protest became a feature of political life in Europe and the United States of America during the 19th century – known at that time as “passive resistance”. They had been developed in largely practical ways. Gandhi took this method and made it the basis for what he styled as a “science” of resistance that could be refined through practice. He began this process during his battle against discrimination against Indians in South Africa in the period 1906-14.
Gandhi disliked the term “passive resistance” as it suggested passivity for what was in fact an active form of civil protest. He believed that those who waged satyagraha (a practitioner of satyagraha) were linking themselves with a greater moral, even divine, force. It was thus a form of soul force. In an article of 1908, Gandhi said that a satyagrahi rid his mind of fear and refused to be a slave to others. Satyagraha was an attitude of mind, and anyone who acted in this spirit would be victorious, as the person would be blessed by God. This helped to give his followers, who were both Hindus and Muslims, great confidence in the method.
It was only after his return to India in 1915 that Gandhi developed the concept of non-violence. At that time, many radical nationalists in India believed that independence would be won only through violence against the British. Gandhi argued that violence by nationalists provided an excuse for the British to react in draconian ways. It was better to gain the moral high ground by refusing to react with violence, even if the imperial rulers crush protests forcibly. In fact, he held, the more the British used violence against unarmed crowds, the more Indian people in general would be outraged and throw their support behind the nationalist movement, giving it an unstoppable momentum. He took an Indian word, ahimsa, which meant ‘not hurting others’ or ‘non-killing’ and made an ethical principle into a political concept that he translated into English as non-violence. His form of protest was henceforth to be characterized by its non-violence, which meant not hurting others either physically or emotionally.
This was put to the test in 1919 when Gandhi led civil disobedience against draconian legislation [the Rowlatt Acts] by the British that sought to crush the radical nationalists. In Punjab province, the British reacted to the protest with great violence, massacring unarmed crowds, particularly in Amritsar. There was a horrified reaction from all over India, which led to a mass movement that was launched in the following year with Gandhi at the helm — the Non-cooperation movement of 1920-22.
In later years, this phenomenon — that of state violence against non-violent protestors — became known as “passive resistance” or “satyagraha.” Satyagraha, a term coined by Gandhi, means “truth force” or “love force” and refers to the nonviolent resistance movement that he developed and used throughout his life.
Gandhi believed in the power of nonviolent resistance to effect change, even against the most oppressive regimes. He demonstrated this belief in his own life and through his leadership of the Indian independence movement. His approach was based on a combination of moral and political power. He encouraged his followers to refuse to cooperate with unjust laws and to demonstrate their opposition through peaceful protest.
The Non-cooperation movement of 1920-22 was a major turning point in the Indian independence movement. It demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance and gave voice to the growing demand for Indian self-rule. It also helped to mobilize the Indian masses, who were previously disengaged from politics, and gave them a sense of purpose and agency.
Over the following years, Gandhi and his followers continued to use satyagraha to challenge British rule in India. The Salt March of 1930, in which Gandhi led a group of protesters on a 240-mile march to the Arabian Sea to make their own salt in defiance of British law, was another iconic moment in the Indian independence movement.
Despite the success of the nonviolent resistance movement in India, it is important to note that this approach is not always effective. It requires a certain level of moral authority and a willingness on the part of the oppressor to recognize the legitimacy of the protest. In cases where the oppressor is unwilling to listen, nonviolent resistance may not be enough.
However, the legacy of Gandhi and the Indian independence movement lives on as a testament to the power of nonviolent resistance. It has inspired countless other movements around the world, from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The principles of satyagraha continue to be studied and practiced today, as people seek to create a more just and peaceful world.