Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics


By : Thomas Weber

Table of Contents

About This Book

By : Thomas Weber
Published by : Gandhi Peace Foundation,
221/223, Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg,
New Delhi - 11002

An Introduction

A recent review of the latest offering in Gandhiana described the Gandhi book business as a veritable "cottage industry". Although throughout his life the Mahatma encouraged the foundation of cottage industries, this is one of which he would most certainly not have approved. The literature on Gandhi, aside from original works by him or compilations of his works (the Collected Works, for example, has recently grown to ninety weighty volumes), is so vast that it fills several large bibliographies.
It appears that anyone who had any dealings at all with Gandhi felt compelled to record the incidents - the biographies alone number some 250 volumes. A great many of these books and articles (Gandhi Marg, a journal of Gandhian thought, published quarterly since 1957, then monthly from 1979 to 1989, and now again quarterly, being the chief concentrated source) cover and re-cover already familiar ground, are occasionally sycophantic or offer shallow analyses of Gandhi's thought or techniques, or, at times, even miss the real point in Gandhi's message.
Gandhi himself was skeptical about the value of such writings, even about his own, maintaining that his writings should be destroyed after his death.1 It is his active achievement that would, he believed, live after him and his example, as it touched those around him, that would effect a change in society rather than his words: "My life," he claimed, "is my message."2 Although he wrote forewords to over forty books, most of them dealing with various aspects of his philosophy, in an interview with Joan Bondurant he went as far as to say that "satyagraha is not a subject for research - you must experience it, use it, live by it."3 The Mahatma, however, did add: "I flatter myself with the belief that some of my writings will survive me and will be of service to the causes for which they have been written."4 Gandhi is now part of history and his words belong to humanity. These words, it is to be hoped, can instill in those who have not yet been touched by his example, or by the example of those following him, a sense of the idea of Gandhi's philosophy of conflict, a realisation of the possibility that inter-personal and other relations can be conducted in a more effective manner, and a desire experiment with, experience and live by a code of dignified idealism.
The Gandhian technique of conflict resolution is known by its Gujarati name of satyagraha which has variously been interpreted as "passive resistance", "nonviolent resistance", "nonviolent direct action", and even as "militant nonviolence". "Satyagraha", Gandhi explained, is "literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is therefore known as soul-force."5 The word was coined out of felt necessity. The technique of nonviolent struggle that Gandhi had evolved in South Africa for the conduct of the Indian indentured labourers' disputes with the government was originally described by the English phrase "passive resistance". Gandhi, however, found that the term "was too narrowly constructed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterised by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence."6
He decided that a new word had to be coined for the struggle:
But I could not for the life of me find out a new name, and therefore offered a nominal prize through Indian Opinion to the reader who made the best suggestion on the subject. As a result Maganlal Gandhi coined the word Sadagraha (sat: truth; Agraha: firmness) and won the prize. But in order to make it clearer I changed the word to Satyagraha.7
Satyagraha means, in effect, the discovery of truth and working steadily towards it, thus converting the opponent into a friend. In other words, satyagraha is not used against anybody but is done with somebody. "It is based on the idea that the moral appeal to the heart or conscience is... more effective than an appeal based on threat or bodily pain or violence."8
Over the years an enormous body of literature concerning satyagraha has developed. Generally the writings concern themselves with an examination of the various campaigns led either by Gandhi or his disciples, and, in the main, these writings clearly identify the main elements of the technique as truth (satya), nonviolence (ahimsa) and the relationship of ends to means. Most have realised that the use of the techniques of satyagraha as a policy, that is, a method to be brought into play in a given situation where it is considered effective in securing a victory, is contrary to its primary teaching. It must be a creed, a way of life, to be truly effective.9
Gandhi has made the point: "Somehow or other the wrong belief has taken possession of us that ahimsa is pre-eminently a weapon for individuals and its use therefore should be limited to that sphere. In fact that is not the case. Ahimsa is definitely an attitude of society." He added: "It is blasphemy to say that nonviolence can only be practised by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals."10 Martin Luther King was enlightened by the realisation that satyagraha could in fact be used in conflicts larger than interpersonal conflicts.11 Most of the literature on Gandhi's nonviolence is concerned with demonstrating just this point. The refutation of the premise that satyagraha is limited in effectiveness to use by individuals has produced voluminous literature - to the exclusion of analyses of the relationship of satyagraha to the individual. The forest has been carefully studied, the trees overlooked.
Gandhian thought has been spelled out and analysed by many. The best books on satyagraha have done an admirable job explaining its precepts, and in part they all do touch on the relevance of these for individuals. None of them, however, analyse satyagraha primarily from the viewpoint of the individual. Dhawan, Shridharani, and Naess examine satyagraha from the perspective of the political scientist, their primary concern being social conflict. Some of them, for example, Iyer, include the individual to the point of concentrating on the central philosophy of Gandhi's political action as a variant of worship, while others, such as Gregg, emphasise the need for realising the importance of human unity in order to solve conflicts effectively. Gregg further looks at the applicability of satyagraha to a Western setting, while Bondurant aims to demonstrate that it is valid in a secularised form.
Although the analyses and insights of these authors will be relied upon at times, the aims of this work will be to bring the various points that they make of direct relevance to the individual in conflict situations together, and then bring satyagraha back specifically to the micro level, that is, back to the individual. Rather than reiterating the already excellent work done on the applicability of satyagraha to the dynamics of group conflict, interpersonal conflict and the position of the individual within larger conflicts will be examined from the Gandhian perspective.
The question of why these smaller and far more common conflicts have been ignored by Gandhian scholars is an interesting one. It appears that the social scientists tackling questions of conflict desired to deal either with more glamorous issues or with issues that appeared more immediately important. After the Second World War (which spurred an academic interest in Gandhi's ideas of nonviolence), the problem of preventing the Cold War from becoming a "hot war" was of primary concern. With the advent of the American Blacks' civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, some of the attention shifted to social conflicts. Gandhi's writings were examined in detail from both these perspectives.
If the world is going to be destroyed by war, then a study of a Gandhian mode of conducting interpersonal conflict is irrelevant. Perhaps, however, a change of attitude at the individual level can go part of the way towards changing society from the bottom up so that the danger of larger conflicts is either reduced, or, where they do occur, they can be resolved more constructively. While the world lives in relative peace, life for the vast majority of people goes on day to day with its innumerable conflicts. Attention should not be diverted away from the exploration of the resolution of conflicts at the macro level, nor should studies of micro conflicts be neglected. This area may be somewhat less glamorous. But for an average person leading a "normal" life, it is important to have insights into ways of solving conflicts which occur regularly and in which he or she is directly involved so that the quality of life at the individual level may improve.
The conflict resolution literature focuses on strategic and tactical considerations, generally leaving aside psychological, and especially ethical, ones. Rapoport's Fights, Games and Debates is the notable exception and will be used to introduce satyagraha as a method of conflict resolution. The literature on law and society and the Gandhian literature are generally interlinked in political theory concerning civil disobedience but not in other areas such as interpersonal conflicts or the role of the legal system as a general mechanism of conflict resolution. This study aims at exploring these areas specifically and to look at the phenomenon of conflict and conflict resolution in the light of Gandhi's moral and ethical thought.
This book comprises three parts. The initial two chapters (the first part) deal with an analysis of conflict and its resolution generally and satyagraha specifically. Chapter One defines conflict and examines its causes and the way it is generally handled. It illustrates the behaviour that leads conflict onto either productive or destructive paths as defined.
Chapter Two examines satyagraha as a productive method of conflict resolution. Satyagraha is distinguished from other methods of nonviolent action and its main precepts are examined from the standpoint of the individual.
The second part, comprising four chapters, examines the practical application of satyagraha in the light of the first two chapters. Chapter Three briefly elucidates Gandhi's philosophy in action in the realm of interpersonal conflict, while Chapter Four examines in some depth the possible practical application of satyagraha within our main institutionalised method of conflict resolution, namely the adversary legal system. It also examines industrial conflicts from the perspective of satyagraha. Chapters Five and Six deal with Gandhi's thoughts on larger conflicts, social and international respectively, and the position of the individual satyagrahi (one practicing satyagraha) within these group conflicts.
Part three is an analysis of where the Gandhian tradition fits within the relevant areas of contemporary thought on sociology (Chapter Seven), psychology (Chapter Eight), and ethics (Chapter Nine), and discusses its feasibility in the light of this thought. The concluding chapter (Chapter Nine) further looks at Gandhi's answer to the question of the why (as opposed to the how) of satyagraha.
The technique of satyagraha is essentially founded on an individual attitude towards life. It can, according to Gandhi, be used by nations, communities and individuals, used equally by men, women and children.12 It is a method that can be used effectively with a close friend or loved one, belligerent stranger, unjust government, or invading army. The training for all kinds of satyagraha, however, begins with the peaceful resolution of small interpersonal conflicts: "If one does not practise nonviolence in one's personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home."13
Gandhi illustrated the contagious nature of interpersonal satyagraha with an example from his own life:
I learnt the lesson of nonviolence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will, on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity...14 If I wanted her obedience, I had first to persuade her by patient argument. She thus became my teacher in nonviolence.15
He concluded: "You can... utilise trifling little occasions in everyday life to cultivate nonviolence in your own person and teach it to your children."16
Even in social and national satyagraha, Gandhi places a heavy emphasis on the individual. The logistics and organisation of large-scale campaigns are important, but, in the final analysis, even these campaigns depend on individual suffering, rather than on the inflicting of pain, and thereby touching the heart of opposing individuals. In fact, according to Gandhi, even in a mass struggle the satyagraha of a committed individual can be such that "If a single satyagrahi holds out to the end, victory is certain." "If there is one individual who is almost completely nonviolent, he can put out the conflagration," and if a lone individual cannot neutralise violence, "you must take it that he is not a true representative of ahimsa".17
Many writers have taken this line and, like Gandhi, have made exhortations to heroism, condemned personal cowardice, and extolled the value of self-suffering. But far more than this is involved as we see when we examine the position of the individual in Gandhian philosophy.
Ultimately all satyagraha is a personal matter. Not only is this - the Gandhian way of solving conflicts - more efficient in the long term and more objectively profitable to an individual than being engaged in zero-sum conflicts, but there are also subjective benefits which are difficult to measure. The Gandhian way of conflict resolution should relieve the individual of feelings of helplessness in conflict situations. But, more than that, Gandhi clearly states that living within rules required for successful satyagraha is the type of life that is worth living. Satyagraha can be a means of providing human dignity and, in the existential sense, give more "realness" to life:
A 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.18
Satyagraha is therefore more than a method of conflict resolution that lends itself easily to scientific analysis. It is in fact an ethical system that places heavy emphasis on the quality of the relationship between individuals
Throughout this book the fficiency of the Gandhian approach to the resolution of conflicts, in the sense of mutual satisfaction with the outcome, will be stressed. The elements that make up this technique-cum-lifestyle will be identified and defined, and the way it can be or has been used by individuals in the complete range of conflict situations will be illustrated. The primacy of the individual in both the subjective and objective sense will be explored. The way in which the Gandhian dialectic offers an opportunity for the achievement of human dignity, which is the cornerstone of human wholeness, by providing a framework in which perceived moral choices can be made and actions taken in the face of inherent dangers, will also be examined.
The successful application of satyagraha in conflict situations is based on a positive belief as to the possibilities for the future and on personal idealism. Gandhi himself claimed that satyagraha was more than idealistic, it was also practical. "I am not a visionary," he stated, "I claim to be a practical idealist." Gandhi was also, as he often liked to say, an irrepressible optimist. He believed in his ability consciously to change himself for the better, he believed that having "faith in one's ideals constitutes true life, in fact, it is man's all in all", he had an abiding faith in human nature, and without the possession of any tangible proof, he believed that eventually good would win over evil.19
With all this emphasis on the individual, one point must clearly be made however. There is a vast difference between Gandhi's concept of the importance of the individual and of what is generally thought of as individualism. The individual as Gandhi desired him to be was an altruistic idealist rather than a hedonist:
Every, individual must have the fullest liberty to use his talent consistently with equal use by his neighbours, but no one is entitled to the arbitrary use of the gains from the talents. He is part of the nation or, say the social structure surrounding him. Therefore, he can use his talent not for self only but for the social structure of which he is but a part and on whose sufferance he lives.20
The satyagrahi is more concerned with his duties to the world than with the rights he claims for himself, because, as Gandhi notes: "The true source of right is duty. If we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek. If leaving duties unperformed we run after rights, they will escape us like a will-o'-the-wisp."21
As the quotations from Gandhi are selected from a vast body of material, a note needs to be added on Gandhian consistency.
Gandhi wrote voluminously and he echoed Emerson's dictum that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".22 Although attacked for his inconsistency several times, Gandhi never considered consistency to be a paramount virtue:
At the time of writing I never think of what I have said before. My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth; I have saved my memory an undue strain ....But friends who observe inconsistency will do well to take the meaning that my latest writings may yield unless, of course, they prefer the old. But before making any choice they should try to see if there is not an underlying abiding consistency between the two seeming inconsistencies.23
As a great many of the arguments presented here are based on Gandhi's own writings, the potential difficulties are obvious. They are, fortunately, not impossible to overcome. As a person grows from truth to truth, his words and actions are bound to be, indeed must be, inconsistent with his own past conduct. With careful selection, the occasionally contradictory quotations can be used in such a way that the spirit of Gandhi's method of conflict resolution is maintained or, at worst, the author's subjective interpretation of that spirit can be systematically argued.
The question of whether all of Gandhi's writings or utterances should be given equal weight is a vexed one. Should extracts from letters, for instance, be taken as seriously as those from his weekly papers, autobiography,24 or major public speeches? K. M. Munshi, who believed that Gandhi's letters were written specifically with the recipient in mind, said that
the author adjusts his tone, the language and the perspective of every letter with uncanny precision so as to have the desired effect on the addressee. These letters have provided him with the greatest instrument of controlling the conscience of his friends and adherents ....25
It should be remembered, however, that Gandhi was a voluminous letter-writer and often his notes were replies to strangers. A great many of these letters found their way into his weeklies for general consumption, as did copies of almost everything else that he said or wrote (thanks to the exhaustive efforts of his secretaries).
These newspapers, Gandhi claimed, were not newspapers at all but "views-papers" representing his own views on his personal growth in the knowledge of satyagraha.26 These and all his other words, written or spoken, he himself maintained, should be given the same weight: "I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing."27
This is entirely consistent with the premium Gandhi placed on truth. As A. W. Rao notes, his motto when it came to writing was "think before you ink".28 In 1925 Gandhi made this even more explicit:
To be true to my faith... I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary... Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds. The reader sees the pages of Young India fairly well dressed up ....29
If Gandhi was as careful as he claimed with the offerings that appeared in his papers, it seems hardly possible that he took less care over major speeches of national importance. Yet it appears hat he neither wrote nor rehearsed them beforehand, nor did he consult notes. Even at the all-important Round Table Conference on the future of British India, in London in 1931, at which he was the sole representative of the All-India National Congress, Gandhi spoke extemporaneously. It would appear, therefore, that he placed equal Importance on all his utterances regardless of the audience and that his lapses into rhetoric also occurred with scant regard to the audience. Gandhi's secretary, Mahadev Desai, attempted to explain Gandhi's ability to do this by claiming that "what Gandhi thinks, what he feels and what he says, and what he does are all the same thing. He does not need notes. You and I, we think one thing, feel another, say a third, and do a fourth, so we need notes and files to keep track."30
Finally, a further note should be made of the terminology used extensively by Gandhi in his speeches and writings. The dual subjects of God and continence (brahmacharya) loom large. Generally the reliance on these topics can be explained in terms of Gandhi's social and cultural heritage, events of deep psychological significance in his life, and by the dictates of the political need to communicate with his main audience, the Indian masses.
Sharp points out that Gandhi's eccentricities often get in the way of Western understanding of him and of satyagraha. Even for religious people, "his constant use of religious terminology and theological language in explanation or justification of a social or political act or policy more often confuses than clarifies".31 Although Gandhi often speaks of the necessity of a belief in God for the practice of satyagraha (e.g. "Satyagraha is... based on an unquestionable faith in God and His justice," a satyagrahi's "strength comes from within, from his reliance on God", "Satyagrahis must cultivate a living faith in God", and "Satyagraha presupposes the living presence and guidance of God"32), on a closer examination of his writings, even taking into account his many references to God as a person, it can be seen that in reality for him God is "an undefinable and universal Power that cannot be conceived apart from humanity or from the whole of nature".33 On many occasions, Gandhi even repudiated the notion of a personal God ("God is not a human being... God is the force. He is the essence of life. He is pure consciousness", and "I don't believe God to be a personal being in the sense that we are personal beings"), noting that our concept of God is limited and subjective and suggesting that each person should "think of Him as He best appears to him, provided that the conception is pure and uplifting".34 For Gandhi, then, God can be viewed in many ways. His own words provide the best summary:
.....God is Truth and Love, God is ethics and morality. God is fearlessness, God is the source of light and life and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. He transcends speech and reason. He is a personal God to those who need his touch.35
Although religion was supposed to have played a major part in his life, it appears that Gandhi's attachment to religion as a theological and metaphysical doctrine was limited. What at first appears to be a religious system can quite accurately be analysed in secular terms and where in his thought religion is identified with theology, rather than ethical teaching, it "occupies the place of a preface to be hurriedly passed over".36  As Gandhi aged he refined his personal definition of God from "Love" to "Truth" and eventually reversed this formula to read "Truth is God". In fact, all of Gandhi's socio-political ideas can logically be derived from truth without the necessity of referring them to any other conception of God.37
Gandhi's insistence on sexual continence may also confuse many.  He asserts that without the conquest of lust "man cannot hope to rule over self" and that the quot;Realization of God is impossible without complete renunciation of the sexual desire".38
Gandhi believed that "All power comes from the preservation and sublimation of the vitality that is responsible for creation of life" and that "If the vitality is husbanded instead of being dissipated, it is transmuted into creative energy of the highest order."39 Wilhelm Reich, on the other hand, contends that such repression can manifest itself in pleasurable aggression and possibly even sadism. "Every kind of destructive action", he says, "by itself is the reaction of the organism to the denial of the gratification of a vital need, especially the sexual." He even claims that the "cruel character traits of people with chronic lack of sexual satisfaction" can be understood in this way. He cites "ascetic moralists" (and some have included Gandhi in this category) as examples of such people.40
Gandhi's views on sexuality come partly from his social background41 and partly from such traumatic experiences in his childhood as his marriage at the age of thirteen, the death of his father soon after the young Gandhi had abandoned his duty of massaging the old man's legs for the bed of his wife, his mind "in the grip of lust", and the death after three days of the first child his wife delivered him when he was sixteen.42 It is not difficult to understand how such episodes could colour an individual's views on sexuality.
However, brahmacharya for Gandhi was meant to be non-attachment rather than repression and he went as far as to point out: "It may be harmful to suppress the body, if the mind is at the same time allowed to go astray." He even warned a young woman who proclaimed an aim of life-long virginity of the difficulty and told her that if she found it impossible to stick to it, she should act as others did. He warned her to "attempt nothing beyond your capacity". The key to brahmacharya is the control of the mind so that the body can be controlled. The difficulty of this, according to Gandhi, stems from a narrow interpretation of the term as the control of "animal passion" rather than control of all the "organs of sense". He added that "he who attempts to control only one organ, and allows all the others free play, is bound to find his effort futile". Further, he noted that with "simultaneous self-control in all directions the attempt will be scientific and possible of success".43
As a result of Gandhi's pronouncements on the need for continence, Erikson wondered "whether Satyagraha will remain irretrievably tied to such ascetic idiosyncrasies" as Gandhi's followers cultivate, or whether "it will prove valid anew in a future in which a better knowledge of the role of sexuality in the sensual pleasure in the energy household of men and women . . . will, maybe, move people to true peacefulness".44
Along with vegetarianism and non-possession, two other qualities very dear to Gandhi's heart, Gandhi's very subjective brand of sexual morality is not necessary for satyagraha as “an ethic principle, the essence of which is a social technique of action".45 It is submitted that just as Gandhi's philosophy can to a large degree be secularised without doing it grave injury, it can also be stripped of much of its anti-sexual overtones. If however one wanted to devote his or her life completely to the service of humanity and shared Gandhi's metaphysical beliefs, the concept of brahmacharya as he expounded it might become more relevant. He claimed that if a person devotes himself or herself to a life's partner “a boundary wall" will be created "around their love" which prevents them from looking "upon all mankind as kith and kin".46 At any rate a non-exploitative sexual morality does, and the other factors may, play a part in what Gandhi considered right living - the satyagrahi lifestyle. Without a lifestyle in which truth and nonviolence are of paramount importance, social campaigns of satyagraha may be undertaken. But the solution to interpersonal conflicts, which occur daily, will prove impossible to resolve in the Gandhian spirit.
The symbols used by Gandhi were often useful in the context of his time and place but could also, often, be divorced from the essential core of his philosophy. "As with all symbols", notes Cenker, "they should be either renewed or discarded when they lose meaning or significance".47 Where necessary to avoid confusion the subjects of God and brahmacharya have, therefore, largely been omitted from this work.