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Gandhi’s Non Violence- Noble Principle or Smart Strategy?


The name Mahatma Gandhi invokes so much respect in peoples’ mind even today. The Nobel prize committee has said their only regret is that Gandhi was not awarded Nobel peace prize in his lifetime. He truly mobilized masses and took freedom struggle to a whole new level. This is my take on why non-violence worked.

When Gandhi slowly moved at the helm of Indian National Congress, he was occupying the place vacated by B.G. Tilak, a Charismatic leader with a multifaceted talent. Tilak was historian, mathematician, a shrewd politician and a journalist. He was the first one to proclaim the intent of complete political freedom. His famous proclamation “Swaraj is my birthright..” had the same effect on Indian freedom struggle as the slogan “No Taxation without representation” on American revolution.

Having Tilak made clear what is the final goal and set the foundation of movement in principle, the challenge for Gandhi was to mobilize the masses in the right direction. This was a difficult challenge.

To understand the difficulty, we have to understand the condition Indian masses were in at the dawn of 20th century. British had got the whole of India under their control. New education systems, universities were being built. Infrastructure was being put in place. Caste system was abolished in official matters. The horrific traditions like “Sati” (burning of the widow) were being outlawed.

For the first time the common person had access to all the knowledge, legal system, water , temples and so on, no matter what was his/her caste or social/economic status.

At the same time tremendous economic exploitation was going on. Indian industry was bleeding to slow death and huge amount of wealth was leaving India on its way to Britain.

British people lost no opportunity to tout the benefits of colonization. This created a moral dilema in common person’s mind. They could not justify a violent struggle against sombody who had done some good things to them (and promised to do more good). This moral dilema severely weakened the resolve of the masses and made unification difficult.

With Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, this moral dilemma was solved. Suddenly there was clarity. People were not attacking British government. They were just protesting to British officers about the things they did not like.

In fact the moral dilemma was now created in British minds. Should they use force against the people who broke the laws they made? That would backfire against their own propaganda of being a beneficent ruler. Or should they refrain and use a soft approach because there was no violent threat? That would only encourage more people to join the struggle.

This dilemma gave rise to a lot of debate in British parliament and British media. British tended to look at themselves are not only militarily and technologically superior, but also morally superior. Their military superiority was unchallenged, but for the first time somebody challenged their moral superiority. For the first time somebody made them look bad in the eyes of the world and possibly in the eyes of themselves. And if the situation was not handled properly, things would go out of control and eventually their control over their ‘Crown Jewel’ India would be challenged.

This giant paradigm shift led to mobilization of masses and deep and wide spread of freedom struggle.

But even though the non violence strategy was critical in taking the struggle to masses, it could not take it beyond a certain level. The final push, the Quit India movement, was mostly active violent struggle. The second world war had crippled the British Raj. Thus Quit India, combined with uprising in Indian Armed forces, delivered the critical knockout punches in the final round and sealed the deal once and for all.

Non violence did not succeed because it was noble. It succeeded because it was smart choice in the given situation.

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9 Responses

  1. I would have to say that had Gandhi not been fighting (figuratively) the British there is no way that he could of seceded with nonviolence. The British for all there faults were at least somewhat decent sort. It was Them that started the worldwide abolition of slavery via the Royal Navy’s fight against the oceanic traffic. I would not say that they are totally innocent of any wrongdoing but while flawed where a decent sort of people. as you hinted at when a people who see themselves s moral and civilized understand/see something that goes against it they do eventually attempt to rectify it.

    I do respect Gandhi but I don’t think his ideas could have worked if he hadn’t been going up against the British or a similar country. It was the same shock of the American people at Martin Luther King. Had either one gone up against some truly tyrannical government and people they would have have been slaughtered outright no matter how peaceful they had been.

    I say this only to say that non violence can only work in certain situations, sometimes and sadly violence is a necessary evil, and I would say last resort. It was good that it didn’t have to get very far in this case.

    To answer your question I think it was smart strategy but I think he really did believe what he said. A true test would have been to send him into The Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany or one of the other backward despotisms of the last century, and see what he would have advocated. That however would be impossible because he wouldn’t have lived longer then ten minutes, nor would I wish that on anyone.

    The trick now is to not disparage or overlook the good things learned or gained from the west because of the bad things and use what you can to take your rightful place among the nations of the world.

  2. Hello letters….,

    Thanks for your great comments. Appreciate you taking time for this good discussion.

    I agree with you 100% that non violence would not have worked against Hitler. But that’s my whole point. If you read my concluding sentence, non violence was a smart solution for that situation.

    By the law of survival of the fittest (strategist), Gandhi would not have survived the Nazis, but in that case Gandhi’s followers would not face the moral dilemma they faced against British people either. So both sides would resort to outright violence as strategy.

    That’s exactly what happened when British people tried to crush Quit India at it’s root in 1942. Violence begot violence.

    About West disparaging. The point is not to disparage West in general. I am specifically targeting colonialism.

    The fact is that people don’t like being denied the choice of their own destiny. Period.

    We don’t even have to go advantages and disadvantages of colonialism. People like to be themselves far more than they like to be modern or developed.

    I won’t argue that individual Indians should resort to terrorism, neither would I argue that as a nation, India’s policy towards Britain should be based on the shadows of the past. But To expect people to not to feel bitter is simply not fair. It’s going to take more time to clear hearts and minds fully.

  3. Makes sense.

  4. [...] Kedar concludes that Gandhiji’s non-violent struggle succeeded not because it was noble, but because it was a smart move for the time. [...]

  5. I would go a little further and say that Gandhi really wasn’t a man of peace but instead just adopted the strategy that would be most effective.

    Perhaps that is what you are saying though I guess I am trying to make the distinction between Gandhi being lucky in that his non violent nature led him to non-violent resistance and that just happened to be the most effective strategy and Gandhi after looking at the situation saw that non violence was the most effective strategy and if it hadn’t been he would have adopted a violent approach.

    The reason why I don’t see him as a “man of peace” but instead a genius in assessing a situation and then providing the most effective strategy was his participation in the First World War.

    During the First World War, he eagerly helped Great Britain with men, money and munitions. He had hoped that by doing that England would start treating Indians as equal members of the British Empire with the same rights as other British subjects.

    It was only after he saw that this didn’t work that he became the “Half Naked Fakir” as Winston Churchill called him. Gandhi adopted this persona specifically because he understood how to use the “cult of personality” to maximum effect.

    Don’t get me wrong Gandhi was a genius. To be able to assess a situation so accurately and develop such a successful strategy and through the “cult of personality” be able to put the strategy into effect takes much intelligence and talent. He is truly deserving to be considered one of the greatest leaders of all time.

    But he wasn’t a man of peace. And there is one quote that time and time again I see taken out of context. That quote is “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”. He didn’t mean it in an absolute sense. He was referring to the situation India found itself in with England. As long as Indians responded with violence the world would just see “violence begetting violence” and not understand how England was the one responsible for the violence. The world would be blind to that.

    But if the Indians reacted non-violently then it would be quite clear who was responsible for the violence. It also made England’s greatest advantage over Indian a liability. England’s greatest advantage of course was its military strength. But if they used their military and Indians responded non-violently then it actually hurt England’s position in the world’s (and their own domestic populace’s) eyes. So they couldn’t use the military as much, which reduced the advantage they had.

    Gandhi was brilliant, no doubt one of the most brilliant leaders ever. But if non-violence would have not been effective against the British as it would have not been against the Nazis or the Soviet Union, Gandhi would have without a doubt understood that and been a strong proponent of violence.

    And he would have probably wore more clothes, like a military uniform or something like that and would have adopted a different persona.

  6. I would say while yes is was good strategy, that does not mean that he didn’t believe in peace and wasn’t 100% serious. Had the situation been different I can’t say what he would have done I am not him.

  7. [...] reforms compared to political independence. Gandhi was the main voice of this stream. Thus, as explained in my other post on Gandhi’s strategy, the Democrat equivalent voice prevailed and Republicans went into sort of [...]

  8. Non-violence, as you rightly pointed out, was the on-the-ground realpolitik that proved to be successful.

    If one goes into the rationale of the Gita for war – the right and moral thing to do in a situation is self-evident when one is uncluttered by emotion or prejudice or bad reasoning..

    To apply your game-theory approach (which was used in the Battle of Shingad eg.) – there was higher risk in fighting the Brits violently given our fragmented and divided resources than in mobilizing the masses to embarrass the Brits who had some decency and modern values. When the risk of employment of violent force reduced it became the quickest and most effective method to push the Brits out also giving them the option riding out of India on their moral high horses!

    Crafty and brilliant as it turns out – if there was no WWII – maybe Subhas Chandra Bose would have been father of the nation..

  9. That worked because for every British soldier, there was thousands of Indians, some of whom were not so peaceful.

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