A different way to fight

For Gandhi, satyagraha was the only way to stop terrorism. Even in a changed world and context, the Gandhian response is not to be taken lightly.

November 30, 2018 12:30:44 pm

Do Mahatma Gandhi and his legacy have anything to offer us in the face of attacks by terrorists? Gandhi himself was deeply concerned with the question as to how non-violence could displace violence in political life. In his own day, he was faced with revolutionary nationalists who believed that imperial rule in India could best be fought through targeted violence against British officials and institutions. Gandhi was strong in his condemnation of such a strategy.

We can see this in his reaction to the assassination by an Indian student called Madan Lal Dhingra of a retired Indian civil servant, Sir Curzon Wyllie, when he came to speak to a group of Indian students in London in 1909. Vinayak Savarkar, who was a friend of Dhingra, argued that he acted as a Hindu patriot. Gandhi was horrified by the killing. He stated that Dhingra acted in a cowardly manner, and that he had been “egged on by this ill-digested reading of worthless writing”. Wyllie had gone as a guest of the Indian students, and he had been betrayed. If the British left India because of such acts, murderers would become rulers.

Gandhi sought to provide a different way to fight British rule — namely through nonviolent satyagraha. He argued that if the established nationalist leaders failed to provide a nonviolent outlet for the nationalist fervour of young Indians, they might well be attracted to violent methods. In other words, his form of protest would provide an outlet for radicalised Indians to protest against what Gandhi projected as the “terrorism” of the state as well as provide a counter to the violence of revolutionary nationalists. In a letter of 1919, he maintained that: “The growing generation will not be satisfied with petitions etc. Satyagraha is the only way, it seems to me, to stop terrorism.”

He wrote, similarly, in the same year: “If you do not provide the rising generation with an effective remedy against the excesses of authority, you will let loose the powers of vengeance and… violence will spread with a rapidity which all will deplore… In offering the remedy of self-suffering which is one meaning of satyagraha, I follow the spirit of our civilisation and present the young portion with a remedy of which he need never despair.”

According to Gandhi, means determine ends. He held that unleashing violence was like letting a genie out of a bottle; once released, it was not easy to put back.

Revolutionaries who had learned to settle matters using violence frequently found it hard to adapt to more peaceable means after a change of power has occurred. It was also a less democratic method. Violence tended to be the method preferred by small and secretive cells that could ignore the need for mass mobilisation in their political strategy. It tended to involve mainly the able-bodied and males, with women, the elderly and children having marginal roles. The need for arms and training similarly excluded many. Almost anyone could, by contrast, participate in nonviolent protest. It was a method, moreover, that encouraged dialogue and negotiation, and did not alienate potential allies.

It was thus a far more effective force for building a future democracy. Following this, Gandhi set about organising and leading a series of satyagrahas in India from 1917 onwards in a way that attracted many erstwhile radicals. Many became convinced and principled advocates of nonviolence. Gandhi built a mass base through what he called his “constructive programme”, that is, painstaking activity in which his followers worked at the local level, helping people in their everyday needs. In this way, they gained the sympathy of the masses.

Despite this, the tradition of revolutionary nationalism survived. During the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22, many revolutionaries participated in the nonviolent campaign with enthusiasm, but once Gandhi withdrew civil disobedience in 1922, they — disillusioned with his leadership — reasserted their earlier methods, namely targeting the British to both undermine British morale as well as inspire Indians in general. Gandhi was left appealing to the British to make concessions to the mainstream Congress so as to marginalise the revolutionaries. He thus argued at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931, that if the British did not change their attitude towards the nonviolent Congress, what he called “terrorism” would come to the fore.


He noted the distrust that the British had of the Congress, and went on to say: “I invite you to trust the Congress. If you will work [with] the Congress for all it is worth you will say goodbye to terrorism.” Although the British made certain concessions to the Congress, it was done in a grudging and often half-hearted way; and the revolutionaries were not, as a result, marginalised in the way that Gandhi had hoped. Many participated in the 1942 Quit India Movement, making it the most violent of Gandhi’s major protests.

In the end, we may say that the Indian nationalist movement combined both nonviolent and violent streams, and together they worked in an uneasy symbiosis to eventually remove British rule in 1947. By itself, revolutionary nationalism could not have achieved this — mass nonviolence organised by Gandhi provided an essential element in the undermining of imperial rule over three decades.

The lesson from this is that political violence associated with small secret groups is unlikely to undermine the power of a strong state such as India under both British and independent rule. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan have provided convincing evidence in their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict that over the course of the past century, nonviolent forms of resistance to oppressive regimes have in general been more successful than violent methods. In other words, for there to be any profound change, mass nonviolent mobilisation and protest is generally essential.

This, of course, is easier said than done. As a rule, it requires long years of patient organisation in constructive work that gains mass sympathy for a cause — the protest comes only as a culmination. This is the Gandhian response to political violence, and it is not one that is undertaken lightly.

Today, of course, we are in a very different political world. Terrorist organisations are international in their reach, as we saw in Mumbai in 2008. Nonviolence in one country can hardly prevent such attacks. We don’t know how Gandhi might have reacted to such a situation. He was, however, always inventive in his responses — coming up with inspired new strategies in ever-shifting situations.

We should remember, too, that Pakistan had its own great leader in nonviolence — Abdul Ghaffar Khan — and his influence there is by no means dead today. Malala Yousafzai is in this tradition. Nonviolent resistance has been seen in Pakistani politics, as, for example, in the movements against both Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Powerful and enduring nonviolent movements in both India and Pakistan — with a feeling of fraternity between both — would almost certainly go a long way in stopping such terrorism. At present, however, we are a long way from achieving any such outcome.

Hardiman is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick and author of Gandhi, in his times and ours. 

Illustration by CR Sasikumar

Reconciliation, above all26/11 Anniversary, Stories of Strength: A night of remembrance