To SEARCH for a word or phrase on this page, press CTRL+F and enter  the text

Non-Violent Resistance And Social Transformation: I. Satyagraha



Satyagraha and sarvodaya were Mahatma Gandhi's most significant and revolutionary contributions to contemporary political thought. The fundamental concepts of satya and ahimsa, truth and non-violence, can be found in the world's major religious and philosophical traditions; Gandhi's originality lay in the way he fused them in both theory and practice. His doctrines of satyagraha or non-violent resistance and sarvodaya or universal welfare were at once the logical corollaries of his fundamental premisses about human perfectibility, and the mature fruit of his repeated experiments with political action and social reform. If absolute values can never be upheld on utilitarian grounds, adherence to them can nonetheless lead to desirable results which may be extolled in the language of expediency. Whilst speaking of satya in the language of faith, even in terms of total conviction, Gandhi often advocated ahimsa as a creed, regardless of results, though capable at times of producing concrete advantages.

  Since the doctrine of satyagraha is a comprehensive social and political application of satya and ahimsa, it inevitably reflects the deontic logic of those metaphysical conceptions. On the one hand, satyagraha is an ethical imperative: one cannot justifiably claim to adhere to ahimsa and a fortiori to satya without making appropriate efforts to apply satyagraha to social conflicts. In this sense, satyagraha connotes "truth-force", the luminous power of truth directed towards the promotion of social welfare. At the same time, however, because it confronts injustice and its attendant hostility through an effective appeal to conscience, satyagraha is a policy for action and a stimulus for social reform. In this sense, it is "non-violent resistance". These two dimensions of satyagraha are indivisible aspects of a single standpoint, for truth-force is a ceaseless witness to justice in its transcendental and immanent implications, and it must resist injustice whenever and wherever it occurs. Just as light by its presence delimits darkness and makes it evident, so the satyagrahi by his suffering exposes injustice around him. And just as light dispels shadows, yet destroys nothing, so the satyagrahi dissolves injustice without harming its agents.

  Although Gandhi employed the phrase "passive resistance" during his earliest campaigns in South Africa, he was dissatisfied with it. The moral strength that is inherent in the immortal soul, which is essentially rooted in the Divine (sat), spontaneously released by an awakened conscience and directed by reason to reveal a persistent social grievance, is in no sense passive. The term "passive" implies impotence of spiritual will and political initiative. Passive resistance was often the last resort of those who had no power whatsoever. The combination of political weakness with psychological resentment implied in the phrase "passive resistance" was basically incompatible with Gandhi's abiding convictions. People are politically weak, he held, not because they lack weapons or votes, but because they lack ethical direction. Weapons and votes can never compensate for moral confusion. Gandhi could sympathize with the earnest revolutionary committed to the abolition of an exploitative social system, but he saw no merit in mere destruction. Nor was he concerned to replace one set of misguided rulers and coercive instruments with a rival group of power-seekers. If voluntary social workers could achieve strength through fidelity to satya and ahimsa, while innovating constructive experiments with social transformation, they would gain sufficient authority from popular support to challenge the entrenched powers.

  For Gandhi, short-term reforms bring about changes which do not necessarily elevate the ethical tone of individuals or institutions and are, therefore, doomed to fail. Satyagraha, as a method of social change, attempts to raise the welfare of all and to initiate a radical alteration in people and governments. It must be judged without narrow temporal constraints. It is better to establish the foundation for a genuine and lasting good that may not be apparent for decades than to produce some dramatic change that will be eroded or subverted within a few years. Gandhi was therefore much less concerned with the quantity of people involved in satyagraha than with their quality: he even went so far as to claim that if the masses became satyagrahis in British India, swaraj or self-rule would be attained in one year. And he was convinced that if a single individual could become an exemplary satyagrahi, subtle changes would ultimately result and be more far-reaching than massive demonstrations based on impetuous enthusiasm and latent violence. Unlike the enduring alchemy of satya and ahimsa, the outcome of hypocrisy and violence is demoralizing and short-lived.

  Gandhi firmly believed that satyagraha was the most powerful conceivable force for social weal. It was therefore also the most hazardous, to be used only with wise deliberation. Recognizing this need for caution, and holding that numbers are not in themselves significant, he came to stress the strict preconditions that must govern non-violent resistance.1 Thus he called off satyagraha campaigns even when successful in effect because they were impure in intention. He was also unwilling to take advantage of his antagonists in times of difficulty. Satyagraha cannot be grasped in utilitarian terms. But when rightly understood and properly executed, its effects are both predictable and precise. Duration alone remains the crucial variable; the length of time required for victory depends upon the number and quality of satyagrahis involved. For Gandhi, failure is the fault not of satyagraha, which is invincible, but of an impure motive or an inauthentic application.

  Since "the exercise of the purest soul-force, in its perfect form, brings about instantaneous relief",2 a satyagrahi needs to assimilate fully the prerequisites for its practice and develop the moral courage and political will to fulfil them. The satyagrahi does not see himself as starting from a position of inferiority or bondage; his stance is that of a free man. "A satyagrahi enjoys a degree of freedom not possible for others, for he becomes a truly fearless person."3 His fearlessness is unqualified because it has crushed the root of all irrational anxieties, the deep-seated fear of death. The satyagrahi's readiness to die – though like Socrates, he in no way desires to die – prepares him to face deprivation and suffering. Whether rich or poor, he is indifferent to wealth, since his loyalty to truth forbids any form of idolatry. Similarly, he revalues family attachments so that bonds of affection do not overshadow his commitment to truth. In renouncing tyranny he refuses to be tyrannized, and refrains from judging success and failure by the fickle declarations of others. Yet, though the freedom gained by enacting true satyagraha assures sublime contentment, it is by no means easily won. "Men of great physical strength are rare. Rarer still must be those who derive their strength from truth."4

  The inherently individual and internal roots of satyagraha led Gandhi to elaborate the image of the ideal satyagrahi and to derive from this model the characteristics of broader satyagraha movements. A person grounded in satyagraha will in any campaign master the details of moral protocol. Harsh words are inadmissible, as is rudeness. When satyagrahis oppose a specifiable set of injustices, they must resist the "intoxication of power" and not confuse it with moral authority. They must help officials perform those duties which are free from the taint of injustice. They must never revile even their antagonists and critics, and they must not accept ready compliance. They should request, or expect, only minimal assistance, and in return they should use their free time to assist the local community in ameliorating social conditions. Even while satyagrahis seek to demonstrate to the government that civil resistance arises out of respect for law and for persons and constitutes no threat to public order, they must win the goodwill of the general population by working to give more than they receive. Satyagraha as an ideal may seem almost impossibly difficult to implement, yet it is, in fact, a familiar practice in family life. Members within a family often cheerfully endure untidy and even unjust situations. Through voluntary suffering the insensitive and the selfish may, surprisingly, be converted.

  Gandhi recognized that the credibility of resistance based on declared moral principles is maintained only so long as conduct, unconditionally if imperfectly, adheres to those principles. Any gap between intention and conduct leaves the civil resister open to charges of duplicity or hypocrisy. For civil resistance to merit the title, the satyagrahi can feel no anger and no violence towards his oppressor, however much he may be assaulted. His refusal to resist arrest testifies to his loyalty to law, just as his civil disobedience bears witness to injustice. While uncompromisingly condemning injustice, he will never presume to judge the doer, for he knows that oppressor and oppressed alike are victims of an unjust system. Thus non-retaliation is the guiding principle of civil resistance. Gandhi justified non-violent resistance by appealing to an alchemical analogy:

 My non-resistance is active resistance in a different plane. Non-resistance to evil does not mean absence of any resistance whatsoever but it means not resisting evil with evil but with good. Resistance, therefore, is transferred to a higher and absolutely effective plane.5

  Differences of context might require differences of expression of satyagraha, but they could in no way justify the adoption of procedures and principles opposed to truth and non- violence. Since the theoretical basis of satyagraha is universal in its application, no limits can be set in advance to its efficacy. Mature judgements are always needed to determine who is the right person in the right place to do the right thing. Though all human beings could learn satyagraha, its actual exercise in domestic or public arenas was, Gandhi knew, strictly limited by the adequate preparation and training of aspiring satyagrahis. To involve masses of individuals in fiery ordeals for which they are not prepared internally is only to tempt them to violence or duragraha, and thus to betray the cause of truth.

  Gandhi's unremitting concern with the purity and precision of every act of civil resistance occasionally frustrated his followers, for he would halt a campaign if he perceived the potential for violence. If the satyagrahis free to act because he is fearless, those against whom civil resistance is undertaken must be free to respond. If satyagraha inspires fear, its victims will react strongly to perceived threats. Only a government or institution which sees no cause for fear will respond with civility. Gandhi therefore recognized the need to remove fear from all kinds of interaction, and, since civil resisters were forcing an issue, the onus of dispelling fear lay with them. But the satyagrahi can hardly disabuse his opponent of fear, until he has purged himself of it. Gandhi felt that the surest way to banish fear was to demonstrate a greater willingness to suffer than to cause suffering. Coercion in all its forms – psychological as well as physical – had to be eliminated from the satyagrahi's strategy.

  Civil disobedience includes many forms of non-compliance, but its most significant application is the deliberate defiance, on moral grounds, of particular laws. For Gandhi, "civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen. He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man."6 This basic right of the citizen is co-extensive with the duty of an individual to resist complicity in injustice and untruth, however sanctioned by public institutions. Gandhi held that the State, unlike a human being, is soulless and unguided by conscience. At best, it represents the efforts of legal authorities to establish external compliance within a complex network of social relations. States can claim no more finality or infallibility than any individual can.

  Owing to the potent forces surrounding a public defiance of the law, Gandhi held that even individual civil disobedience in the public interest could be undertaken only after extensive preparation and as a last resort. As for mass civil disobedience, it could not, he thought, be an authentic form of satyagraha if it was engineered by only a handful of leaders. It must, rather, arise as a natural response to widespread moral distress. Even then, civil disobedience may give way to criminal disobedience and violence. Civil disobedience was for Gandhi not an exhilarating or emotive response to injustice, but a solemn undertaking only to be attempted with calm deliberation and a clear resolve to benefit others.

  The exercise of satyagraha through non-cooperation, while still requiring careful preparation, could be best practised by the masses. Non-cooperation involves the withdrawal by individuals of allegiance and support from various public institutions. This may involve such measures as repudiating titles and privileges, withdrawing children from schools sponsored by governmental agencies, declining to participate in legislatures, and substituting private arbitration of civil disputes for public legal proceedings. None of these responses involves the defiance or breaking of a specific law. For where civil disobedience implies a direct confrontation with State authority, non-cooperation involves a voluntary effort to purify the soul by disassociating it from evil. Since Gandhi equated the element of self- purification in non-cooperation with the preservation of self-respect, he held that there was nothing negative about non-cooperation. Beyond its external capacity to bring government and institutions to a halt, it was, he believed, a therapeutic means for the release of truth- force that can reform and regenerate social institutions.

  Gandhi envisaged the Constructive Programme as the indispensable positive component in the systematic practice of satyagraha. The Constructive Programme is the long-term prerequisite of a system of non-violent self-rule, without which political power or formal independence would prove to be a sham. The Constructive Programme included individual and collective efforts on behalf of unity between diverse religious communities, the removal of social abuses such as untouchability, programmes of rural education and reconstruction, the decentralization of production and distribution, schemes for the improvement of health, sanitation and diet, the promotion of local handicrafts, and, in general, concerted work by all to promote the common good.

 Thirty-four years of continuous experience in experimenting in truth and non-violence have convinced me that non-violence cannot be sustained unless it is linked to conscious body-labour and finds expression in our daily contact with our neighbours. This is the Constructive Programme.7

 Gandhi held that the Constructive Programme could not only generate a vast reservoir of non-violent energy, but could also serve as the basis of moral authority and even political power. He thought that much of the energy expended on behalf of external political ends was in fact wasted, and would be far better used by earnest satyagrahis in the immense project of social reform and public service. Whilst civil disobedience and other forms of resistance could advance social amelioration, they could not establish the firm foundation for a general and continuous improvement of society or for the full realization of economic social and moral freedom. While acknowledging the possibility of a division of labour for the sake of efficiency, Gandhi rejected any sharp separation between so-called political programmes and the Constructive Programme. It is, he thought, the judicious combination of constructive work and effective resistance that makes satyagraha radically subversive of all forms of elitist politics. He urged volunteers in the Constructive Programme to occupy themselves with that neglected work which brings neither fame nor power. Those resisters who courted imprisonment he valued less highly than those who simply surrendered themselves to constructive work. All political work fell for him within the Constructive Programme and its merit could be judged only in terms of lasting social transformation.

 Freedom for Gandhi was neither a condition granted by some social contract nor a gratuitous privilege; freedom was grounded in the moral autonomy of the individual and was thus inalienable. Furthermore, freedom he saw as a social necessity which cannot be severed from its roots in the individual psyche; only a society based on some minimal degree of awakened individual conscience can sustain itself for long. Freedom as an inherent characteristic of human nature is true swaraj or self-rule. The social and institutional dimensions of swaraj are enormously dependent upon the individual dimension. Thus, while swaraj is open equally to individuals and to groups, its first step lies in individual consciousness. National self-rule has the same exacting requirements for its nurture and sustenance as individual self-rule. "The outward freedom therefore that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment."8 In the intermediate structures between the village and all humanity, Gandhi perceived a variety of possible patterns of voluntary association. He could not, however, view the nation-state as a necessary member of the series. While nation-states have come to claim sovereignty and a special status, they are in no way sacrosanct.

 At any level of collective action, the degree of freedom realized is a function both of confident self-rule and non-violent cooperation with other communities and associations. Gandhi held that there was a subtle interconnection between the swaraj or self-government realized by any political community and the swaraj of the individuals who emerge as moral leaders and social reformers. Since individual human beings alone are moral agents capable of exercising truth-force, all notions of collective swaraj are derivative and reflect the sum totals of individual growth. Collective authorities and agencies can neither confer swaraj upon awakened individuals, nor withhold it from them. Nor can they legitimately claim to dictate its meaning and content. Yet social and political institutions can create a climate within which individuals may promote their own realization of swaraj.

Hermes, April 1988
by Raghavan Iyer


1 For a detailed consideration, see by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press (New York, 1973, 1978); second edition, Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1983), ch. 11.

2 M.K. Gandhi, "The Theory and Practice of Passive Resistance", Indian Opinion, Golden Number, December 1, 1914; reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Clarendon (Oxford, 1986-1987), vol. 3, p. 22 (hereafter cited as MPWMG).

3 M.K. Gandhi, "Secret of Satyagraha" Indian Opinion, Feb. 22, 1908; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 31.

4 M.K. Gandhi, "Who Can Offer Satyagraha?" Indian Opinion, May 29, 1909; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 39.

5 M.K. Gandhi, Letter to Wilhelm Wartenberg, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, K. Swaminathan, ed., Navajivan (Ahmedabad, 1958-1984), vol. 30, p. 513; MPWMG, Vol. 3, p. 69.

6 M.K. Gandhi, "The Immediate Issue", Young India, Jan. 5, 1922; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 99.

7 M.K. Gandhi, "Ahimsa in Practice", Harijan, Jan. 27, 1940; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 219.

8 M.K. Gandhi, "Notes", Young India, Nov. 1, 1928; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 227.

Normal View