The Difficulty of Gandhi’s Non-Violence

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Mahatma Gandhi lived in a violent time. He dealt with this by living a philosophy of non-violence. But was his non-violence brutal?

Picture the scene. Hundreds of raging mobs have set Calcutta on fire. The Partition of India and Pakistan has resulted in largescale rioting and violence – hundreds of thousands have died. You are part of the government, which until then believed India could achieve her independence without bloodshed.

Government buildings are barricaded and well protected. The crowds are roaring outside, the skies filled with smoke and cries of death. And then, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ‘Mahatma’ and father of the newly formed nation, turns to you and says:

Go in the midst of rioters and prevent them from indulging in madness or get killed in the attempt. But do not come back alive to report failure. The situation calls for sacrifice on the part of top-rankers.

The pursuit of non-violence is not for the weak. A Satyagrahi, or truth-force seeker, must be willing to suffer the greatest violence for his cause, but cannot inflict the same back at the perpetrator. Gandhi dealt with the concept of violence – the ‘himsa’ in ‘ahimsa’ – by inviting it, embracing it and ultimately defeating it through the example of non-violence. But for those who followed his every word (or had to), was he the source of violence?


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Gandhi is often compared to a general; his Satyagrahis to his troops. This is no coincidence – he frequently invoked military analogies and concepts of discipline to keep the non-violent army in life. Non-violent movements, when unrestrained, can be terribly violent – as happened in the burning down the police station at Chaura Chaura. As Gandhi would say, “It is the training that a nation receives which characterizes the nature of its demonstrations,” and so, kept a tight ship.

The practice of non-violence is where it gets bloody. Satyagrahis were frequently beaten, lathi-charged and trampled. They were imprisoned en masse, and always told to respond to violence with fearlessness. They were never exhorted towards violence, but they were ordered against cowardice. For Gandhi, cowardice is the ultimate sin, worse even than violence. As he wrote in ‘Young India’, 1924:

My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.

Few had to follow his word as religiously as his family. His frequent experiments with truth – from his many changes of outfit to his beliefs in alternative medicines (like mud baths or enemas) to stitching his own clothes – all were enforced in his household. While his followers had no problem with Gandhi’s commandment, a son can be rebellious. In the film, “Gandhi, my Father” we see the Mahatma through the lens of his eldest son, Harilal. It’s a father figure who would tolerate no rebellion, but Harilal only wanted what Gandhi had – a lawyer’s education, and some degree of freedom.

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For a while, his wife Kasturbai silently suffered his many flights of fancy. But when she refused to clean the toilet of an untouchable, Gandhi is said to have snapped and attempted to throw her out of their house. Where he loved his enemy’s disrespect, he could not abide that of his own family. In being the law of his household, Gandhi could be accused of the violence of authority.

Why fight violence with non-violence?

Scholars argue that non-violence itself was posited to exist only because of the presence of violence. The state employed violence to get its way, and Satyagrahis used non-violence as its foil – a way of making the violence seem worse by comparison. Gandhi was not blind to this yin and yan relationship. In ‘The Impossible India: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence’, Faisal Devji argues that non-violence “could only prove its claim to moral superiority by being tested against violence.”

Suffering the enemy’s blows with quiet dignity was Gandhi’s approach. In his time, the spiral towards violence had become a global norm with two world wars less than thirty years apart. What Gandhi proposed was an abnormality – a different way of living in a violent world. He saw violence as having run out of ideas with the atom bomb. His solution was that the oppressed people should face violence rather than incite it – shifting the target from the ‘other’ to the ‘self’.

His death at the assassin’s bullet saw him die, knowing such a death was predictable. He knew it, perhaps inwardly revelled in it – and ultimately, do we see the assassin as having succeeded? Between Gandhi and Godse’s experiments, whose will stand the test of time?

India’s nation builders struggled with this very question, and in ‘Gandhi is Gone: Who Will Guide Us Now?’, there is a fascinating account of a series of meetings held by senior freedom fighters after Gandhi’s assassination. Asked Vinoba Acharya, then considered one of Gandhi’s spiritual successors:

Do we believe in non-violence or not? And if we do, then to what extent?

In many ways, independent India embraced the myriad violent paths that Gandhi abhorred – piling them up over the years. The existence of the state (Gandhi saw the nature of government as a violence in itself), building of a modern army and the many wars India was to fight in 1948, 1962, 1965 and 1971, the bursting of the atom bomb in 1974. By the time his face was on a pink 2000 rupee note, the debate he fostered had long been forgotten.

Returning to the horrors of the Calcutta riots, though Gandhi asked his followers to die facing the mobs in the pursuit of peace, the violence continued unabated. His only bargaining chip was his own life – so he announced what would be his final fast. At 78, his body could not handle the strain – the final in a series of fasts that had already taken their toll. His health slipped by each day, and a collective national conscience was triggered. Hindus and Muslims came together to urge the Mahatma to stop. Those who had killed dozens begged Gandhi not to kill himself.

The worst acts of violence India had seen this century were stopped by a single act of self-violence. Perhaps a Mahatma’s life was found more valuable than the average Satyagrahi. When faced with violence, is it still feasible to offer oneself up for sacrifice today – in the hope that the perpetrator can change?


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