ARTICLES : Satyagraha / Civil Disobedience

Read articles written by very well-known personalities and eminent authors about their views on Gandhi, Gandhi's works, Gandhian philosophy, Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience.

Satyagraha, Conflict-Transformation And A sustainable Culture of Peace

By Dr. Ravindra Kumar

Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a renowned Indologist, Gandhian scholar and writer; he is the Former Vice-Chancellor of the CCS University of Meerut, India

Satyagraha means pursuit of Truth. For Mahatma Gandhi it was a restless search for Truth and determination to reach Truth.1 In practice, Satyagraha is an Ahimsak—the non-violent struggle of Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most courageous and glorious experiment ever made by a person in the entire human history. Generally, it can be legitimately offered by a person, who respects rule of law and otherwise obeys law, but, in fact, a Satyagrahi refuses to obey the law, which he feels is wrong and immoral. After breaking such a law, by accepting the extreme penalty set for the so-called offence, he respects the rule of law. He respects the law, but offers non-cooperation in regard to its evil elements only.
People acquainted with the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi know that during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, he was drawn in South African struggle because the domiciled Indian immigrants there suffered from many political, economic and social drawbacks. He, therefore, engaged himself in search of a method and technique of resistance to remove those drawbacks of Indian immigrants; but, simultaneously, he wished that the technique to be employed therein must be within the domain of the fundamental moral principles.
Resultantly, the principles he first applied in South Africa in the last decade of Nineteenth Century and the first two decades of Twentieth Century, and later on wider scale in India, to end various social, political and economic wrongs and injustice, and to assert the claim of truth, justice and fairness, time-to-time, both, in South Africa, and in India between 1917 and 1942, from Champaran to Quit India [1942], were called Passive Resistance, Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience or Salt Movement etc. But, Mahatma Gandhi did not feel comfortable with those terms as they did not fully convey the ethical, moral and spiritual aspects of his struggles. He, therefore, termed them Satyagraha, which means, as I have said, the pursuit of truth.
Satyagraha incorporates sincerity, respect and restrain in it. It is utter self-effacement, greatest humiliation, greatest patience and highest faith; it is based upon some well-understood principles; and it must not be capricious. In it, there is no place for ill-will or hatred. It believes in universalism; all are brothers in it. For survival, it rejects the idea of physical struggle. Rather it believes in love, mutual cooperation and understanding, which are the principal basis of existence and progress and also to reach the goal. It should not be pre-planned, because, in view of Mahatma Gandhi, a struggle which has to be previously planned is not a righteous struggle.
Ahimsa—nonviolence, that is the opposite state of violence and the source of all human values including love and cooperation, and one of the two sides of that coin, of which Satya—truth is the other side, is the means of Satyagraha. Ahimsa—nonviolence and truth are intertwined, and in view of the Mahatma, “It is impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are…rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disk. Who can say which the obverse is and which is the reverse? Nevertheless Ahimsa is the means; truth is the end.”2
A man with Satya [truth] and Ahimsa [NonViolence] through Satyragraha can bring the world to his feet, because he accepts and adopts truth as a principle as well as a way of life. And, definitely, it was the power of Satyagraha on the basis of which Mahatma Gandhi succeeded to get the Black Act and Immigration Act abolished in South Africa; he became successful in getting removed the provision of £3 Tax imposed on each and every Indian and other Asians there. Later, he not only transformed India into a nation by uniting people and that resulted in creating a will amongst compatriots to live together, which meant sharing weal and woe, but he successfully lead his countrymen to the door of freedom from centuries old slavery.
One who is a seeker of truth or a Satyagrahi, must be humble. Truth is not denominational. It is neither yours nor mine. It knows no frontiers. So, “A Satyagrahi”, as Mahatma Gandhi says, “exhausts all other means before he resorts to Satyagraha.”3 And, “he will, therefore, constantly and continually approach the constituted authority, he will appeal to public opinion, educate public opinion, state his case calmly and coolly before everybody who wants to listen to him and only after he has exhausted all these avenues he will resort to Satyagraha. But when he has found the impelling call of the inner voice within him and launches out upon Satyagraha he has burnt his boats and there is no receding.”4
Further, it is necessary for a Satyagrahi that in pursuit of truth he should not admit violence against his opponent, but he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy; he should be ready for self-suffering and must not wish for opponent’s suffering.
Satyragraha, according to Mahatma Gandhi himself, “is a Dharmayuddha, one of the most powerful methods of direct action5; it is a force that [though] works silently and apparently slowly [but] in reality, there is no force in the world that is so direct or so swift in working;6 it excludes every form of violence, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word of deed.”7
Transformation of Conflict Into Cooperation
In human society, like cooperation, the state of conflicts is inevitable; it is but natural in day-to-day practices. This situation has continued for thousands of years; histories of ancient, medieval and contemporary periods are before us to prove this fact. Why is it so? In fact, in spite of cooperation that is fully within the domain of Ahimsa [nonviolence], an eternal value permanently present in human nature, or of supplement to it, through the ages, due to competition and jealousy—the two temporary tendencies of man—selfishness, appetites and passions develop in him; to satisfy his desires he wishes to become master of others, which gives birth to the state of conflict at different levels in social, political or economic spheres. The same thing applies in context of a community, a society or a nation. We know a community, a society or a nation is made of men. What is true of a man is true of a community, a society or a nation.
But, it is cooperation that ultimately recorded victory over conflict not only in the life of an individual, but in the lives of communities, societies and nations. In other words, we can say that conflicts were always transformed into cooperation. If it was not so, the unprecedented growth of progress made in various walks of life by man and manmade institutions was never possible.
It is said that in his primitive age man was absolutely like a wild animal. He was completely in an underdeveloped stage. He, along with others, wandered here and there. Men killed one another to satisfy their appetite. Generally, they became the victims of wild animals. In such a state there was a question mark on their very existence. So, this state of affairs underwent a change. At the root of this change, there was the idea in man’s mind in context of safety of his existence. Instead of killing and eating one another, men, now, began to kill only animals and started eating them. Even then, their existence could not be secured with that. The ideas originating in man’s mind became matured; consequently, the spirit of collectivity developed in him. Instead of wandering here and there, people decided to inhabit together at one place. Certainly, by doing so, they could feel themselves more secure from the attacks of wild animals. If any animal or group of animals attacked a group of men, dwelling at one place, encountered the attack of animal or a group of animals collectively. It was, definitely, the spirit of cooperation that they could come ahead for their safety collectively.
For some time that state of affair continued. Later, men’s thinking developed further in this respect; it got a new dimension. Instead of killing wild animals and filling up their bellies, they started domesticating them, which lead them to achieve two chief benefits of unique nature; first: they got milk as food, and second: domestic animals proved helpful in the agricultural work and along with that many of them became the best means of transport in those days. And, it was natural that due to taming the animals and using them for agricultural and other purposes, their killing continued to decrease. Instead of meat, agricultural products became the main food for men. From time to time many other changes also took place in this regard, and if we want to be familiar with them, we can make an analysis from a long historical journey of man in this regard. But, what I can say in brief is that whatever final situation is before us today that is due to victory of cooperation over conflict.
I have discussed above that in the process of saving their existence progressive ideas arose in men’s minds and, consequently, the spirit of collectivity emerged in them. I also talked of their dwelling together with unity at a particular place in spite of wandering here and there. Now, I want to reiterate the very subject that with the continuation of this very process of development and change due to victory of cooperation over conflicts, clans and families, villages, towns and cities and later major cities surcharged with manifold facilities became part and parcel of this very process.
The process of change in which first of all man ensured the safety of his existence, joined in friendship with many animals; later, he, passing through never ending process of development, continued to advance further for the achievement of his goal, confirms that, in spite of temporary tendencies that give birth to conflicts, cooperation under the patronage of nonviolence is permanently present in human nature, and in the absence of which man cannot live united; he cannot come within the domain of collectivity. And, if he did not have collectivity in life, his existence would not have remained intact; what to say of progress or about the achievement of goal, as Mahatma Gandhi has also rightly pointed out, “Mankind would have been self-destroyed ages ago.”8
We were talking of victory of cooperation over conflicts, or transformation of conflict into cooperation. In this context, we should keep the fact in our minds that morality, also one of the principal supplementary values of Ahimsa, and one of the three [chief] fundamentals of civilization9, has been there even in ancient times or throughout the ages in social behaviours of men; and as J B Kripalani rightly points out, in comparison to political morality, social morality has been far in advance, especially inter-group morality10, which played an important role in the process of transformation of conflict into cooperation in social life. Even today, it is seen that in social life and behaviours, which are based upon mutual trust or cooperation or nonviolence [Ahimsa], whether, we follow the moral conducts or violate them due to selfishness, passion or appetites, we, ultimately, recognize its validity and praise those who follow it.
In the political sphere the above state of affairs has been quite different. Here, due to lack of morality, selfishness [including wish of economic gains], distrusts and hatred made the situation more serious and complicated and they lead not only to conflicts, but many a times to violence of severe nature and also to war, where might alone is right, where the law of jungle rules, where groups and nations in their relations consider one another as political enemies, and none of them comes ahead to sacrifice for another as in social life individuals on many occasions become ready even to sacrifice their self-interests.
But, if, like social life, in political field, there is lack of morality, can we not transform conflicts into cooperation there? Can we not create a culture of peace there? In entire human history, time to time, great men11 have made efforts in this direction and the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who, in the Twentieth Century, called upon people to foster political and economic fields with morality, so that all conflicts, whether local, national or international, could be transformed into cooperation and a healthy atmosphere for a sustainable culture could be created. We are aware of the fact that like social life, he was firm about application of sincere cooperation and nonviolence in political and economic spheres. His views and practices can guide us even today; the unique and exemplary weapon of Satyagraha, meaning and power of which I have discussed in the beginning, provided by him, is more relevant to end any kind of injustice and create a sustainable culture of peace in these days of globalization when people of the world have come in close contact and they have common interests.
The Way to Create a Sustainable Culture Of Peace
Mahatma Gandhi, influenced by the Vedic-Hindu doctrine that “All life is one”12 and also the Christian concept that “we are members one of another”,13 believed that human life and society are in a sense organic; human life, individual and group, social, economic and political cannot be divided into separate and airtight compartments.14 He, considering all the creatures of one and the same God, made Him the basis of this oneness and said:

“Man should earnestly desire well-being of all God’s creation and pray that he might have the strength to do so. In desiring the well-being of all lies his own welfare; he who desires only his own or his community’s welfare is selfish and it can never be well with him.”15

What is good in social behaviours is also good in political and economic relations; if morality and ethics are welfaristic in the social field then they are equally welfaristic in other fields also. Problem is that we adopt double standards when we apply nonviolence or other values supplementary to it especially in the political field. At that time we forget the concept of oneness; we forget the message of Mahatma Gandhi in which he said:

“You cannot divide life, social, economic, political and purely religious, into watertight compartments. I do not know of any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis of all other activities, which they would otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing.”16

We try to solve problems related to social life through nonviolence and activities related to it; we try to take the course of morality there, come ahead to cooperate, but if there are other fields, especially if it is political field then we talk in different way. The situation becomes more complicated and serious when a problem relates to international politics. Then parties involved talk to resolve it through the use of violence or even to indulge in a warlike conflict and by doing so they forget that a conflict or war has never accorded a permanent and peaceful solution to the problem. Rather, many a times, previous conflicts, if tried to solve by use of violence, created other conflicts of complicated nature. The example of the World War II is before us to prove this fact.
As I have said earlier, in day-to-day behaviours or practices, conflicts are inevitable in human society or in different walks of life at different levels, no matter if they are temporary in nature. But, side-by-side, they demand resolution, or in other words, they demand for cooperation. Taking it as necessity of human life, we should accord them solution in a noble way, and as I believe, the way of Satyagraha shown by Mahatma Gandhi due to its unique character is the best one, the application of which in political and economic fields cannot be underestimated. As this very way is based upon principles, it involves larger interest of people; it can be a moral substitute to war.
For the restoration of freedom and to seek justice at local and national level; in social, political and economic spheres, Satyagraha, as one of the most powerful method of direct action, is fully capable even in democratic set up. In democracy people have full right to go for Satyagraha if justice is denied, or individual as well as the community freedom are snatched. And steps like Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience can be taken according to circumstances and time and space.
But as far as the question of application of Satyagraha in the international sphere is concerned, in my opinion it is possible through its certain steps, and especially Non-Cooperation, Boycott or Restriction with extra care, sincerity and honesty. Further, these type of steps call for bigger responsibilities. For example, if there emerges a situation like that in Kuwait in which some years ago Iraq tried to destroy the sovereignty of it, the responsibility of international community becomes important. And it becomes more important when a group of compatriots is bent on snatching away the people of their democratic rights.
Today, not a single country of the world is in a position to maintain its existence or to function in isolation, no matter how mighty it is. Countries are so much interdependent, that, to act united has become a compulsion. In such a state it is not possible even for a country, where a particular group of dictators snatches the freedom of the people, to ignore international call. Through a collective decision in the UNO the dictators of such a country may be first warned for a NonViolent Non-Cooperation and Boycott including Restrictions, and if there is no success in it then under the leadership of UNO further steps can be taken according to conditions of time and space, keeping in mind the safety and difficulties of innocent people. Such types of actions are, in fact, under the domain of nonviolence. They are forward steps of Satyagraha, because there is no ill-will in it. After all Satyagraha means pursuit of truth; it is a search for truth and determination to reach truth, its means is nonviolence, which is the only means to create a sustainable culture of peace; so, if it is applied in international sphere, its outcome will, definitely, be benevolent and welfaristic.

  1. Young India, 19 March 1925
  2. Gandhi. MK, In Search of the Supreme, page 27
  3. Young India, 10 October 1927
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid, 10 October 1927
  6. Ibid, 4 June 1925
  7. Harijan, 15 April 1933
  8. Young India, 2 January 1930
  9. The other two fundamental of civilization: are Non-violence and Freedom
  10. Gandhi: His Life and Thoughts, page 346
  11. Like Gautama the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Tolstoy etc.
  12. To say the Vedantic view
  13. Gandhi: His Life and Thoughts, page 345
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid, page 346
  16. Ibid
  1. Gandhi, MK, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, Gujarat [India], 1957
  2. Gandhi, MK, Harijan Weekly, Published Under the Auspices of Harijan Sewak Sangh [1933-41]; by Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad [India], Between 1942-48
  3. Gandhi, MK, India of My Dreams, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, Gujarat [India], 1957 and Seventh Reprint, 1999
  4. Gandhi, MK, Young India Weekly [1919-1931], Republished in 13 Volumes by Navajivan, Ahmedabad [India], 1984
  5. Kripalani, JB, Gandhi: His Life and Thought, Publications Division, New Delhi [India], 1991
  6. Kumar, Ravindra, Champaran to Quit India Movement, Mittal Publications, New Delhi [India], 2002
  7. Kumar, Ravindra, Essays on Gandhism and Peace, Krishna Publications, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh [India], 1999
  8. Kumar, Ravindra, Theory and Practice of Gandhian Non-Violence, Mittal Publications, New Delhi [India], 2002
  9. Prabhu, RK, & Rao UR, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, Gujarat [India], 1967
  10. Sharp Gene, The Politics of Non-violent Action, Part 1-3, Boston [U. S. A.], 1973
  11. Tendulkar, DG, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 8 Volumes, V K Jhaveri and DG Tendulkar, Bombay [India], 1951-54
  12. Tolstoy, Leo, On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, A Signet Books, The American Library [U. S. A.], 1968