On Mahatama Gandhi's 154th birthday, is non-violence still an ideal that can be followed?

Today is the International Day of Non-Violence. But how does one counter violence when reasoned dialogue fails?

A man cleans a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, at Marina beach in Chennai, India. EPA
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My family archives include a photo showing my grandfather with blood trickling down his head to his crispy white attire. Apparently, he dressed-up to go protesting against the British colonial administration.

The protests paused for lunch because, as the story went, the police who beat them were human and needed rest. So, grandfather came home too and grandmother dressed his wounds before sending him out again for the afternoon’s agitations – in a clean shirt, of course.

That was Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement of the 1940s. It was 60 years later during my own struggles with war and peace that I grasped the principles of non-violence at play. They were, as the Mahatma (meaning “Great Soul”) said, about steadfast courage against injustice. When my bloodied but unbowed grandfather overcame his fear, the policeman’s baton lost its sting. Non-violence is not a passive strategy but neither is it for cowards.

I appreciated this when I called out the Darfur genocide in 2004 only to receive abuse and threats. But with so many lives depending on my stance as UN coordinator, there was no question but to stay robust. As Gandhiji counselled, draw courage from the poor and vulnerable when yours falters.

My grandfather also asked grandmother to pack lunch for policemen who had none. The Gandhian principle here is to oppose an evil act but not its perpetrator. Distinguishing the two is difficult for lesser mortals but I found it handy when negotiating with drug-addicted boy soldiers threatening us at roadblocks in 1990s Liberia.

Non-violence is not a passive strategy but neither is it for cowards

Grandfather’s starched white shirt was more than sartorial elegance. It symbolised the purity of his generation’s greatest cause: freedom. If the policemen wore smart uniforms when beating them, it was only respectful to reciprocate.

Martin Luther King Jr, perhaps Gandhiji’s best known disciple, said that non-violence is a weapon that “cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it”. He wore his best suit on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. You cannot have civil rights without self-pride and dignity, core principles of non-violence.

Such considerations may appear quaint nowadays, and it is a pity to spoil an inspiring story. The British quit India in 1947 but left it partitioned with a violent legacy that continues. My grandparents lost everything before barely escaping with their lives. Black Americans got their civil rights but still struggle to make them real. And the tragedy is that both Gandhiji and Dr King fell to assassin bullets.

Mahatma Gandhi’s birth 154 years ago, is commemorated on October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence. What prescription would he offer today? How would he answer his critics pointing towards the record prevalence of armed conflicts? Not to speak of the existentialist threat from nuclear weapons and the pandemic of hate on social media. Does non-violence have a role?

Gandhiji would start with the fuller philosophy of non-violence in its original Sanskrit ethic of “ahimsa”: not harming other living things. Its roots go back to the 500 BCE Sage Kapila (from whom my family is allegedly descended) who preached, “fearlessness to all living beings”. He built the city of Kapilavastu where Buddha – who saw non-violence as personal liberation – was born.

Dynamic non-violence is, therefore, not pacifism but consciously pitting your eternal soul against the worldly will of a tyrant. You can be confident of prevailing because, as the Mahatma emphasised, you are armed with “satya”– truth. It is vital not to damage just causes by using unjust means, such as violence and lies.

But the full framework of non-violence envisages the right to self-defence and proportionate means to counter violence when reasoned dialogue fails. Gandhiji and the Geneva Conventions on the Rules of War matured side by side. Non-violence also recognises an obligation to punish war crimes with methods that are not cruel, previewing the International Criminal Court.

Because the Mahatma saw non-discrimination and equality as fundamental truths, his influence is seen in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On gender violence, he opined that real change would come only when women affect political deliberations. He would have applauded recent Indian legislation on women’s representation in parliament.

Gandhiji maintained lively correspondence with feminists of the age. He learnt non-violent non-cooperation from his wife who stubbornly resisted his more peculiar notions and ultimately, as he narrates, “cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her”.

As he viewed illiteracy, illness and poverty as forms of violence, he foresaw the Sustainable Development Goals and because Gandhiji’s non-violence extended to all life, he advocated vegetarianism, presaging today’s environmental and climate debates.

The Mahatma advocated living harmoniously with differences. He mobilised diverse people by appealing to their innate spirituality because non-violence is not just cardinal to Indian-origin faiths but treasured in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. He believed in internationalism but held that equal nations were its foundation, forecasting ongoing ecumenical, globalisation and multilateralism debates.

Non-violence is, therefore, a comprehensive philosophy to refute the need for force – not just a rejection of it.

But how to become non-violent? It implies extraordinary self-control. My saintly forbear, the Sage Kapila, said that “every back must carry its own rod”: not to assault others but for self-chastisement when violent thoughts intruded. Gandhiji believed that the culture of non-violence grew from within individuals, families and communities and could be learnt through practice, foreseeing the UN’s 2001-2010 International Decade for a culture of peace and non-violence for children.

The techniques of nonviolent non-cooperation have had successes in decolonisation struggles, and later pro-democracy movements in the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, Nepal and Ukraine. Nelson Mandela called Gandhiji his role model when opposing apartheid. Labour movements often use non-violent non-cooperation and even US President Joe Biden joined the picket-line of striking auto workers.

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping is an alternative to UN armed peacekeeping as I saw with intra-Kurdish conflict in Northern Iraq and in South Sudan during my time as Chair of Non-violent Peaceforce that works alongside communities to interrupt and prevent violence.

But non-violence is not a panacea. It is hard to imagine it working against the Nazis. The exceptional evil of genocide is not amenable to moral appeals when morality itself has perished. Thus, no genocides end except by use of force. Perhaps that is where non-violence faces limits and “just war” becomes necessary.

In other conflicts, could non-violence provide solutions? Could Palestinian history evolve differently if violent confrontations were abjured? Will the Taliban change heart now that violent external actors are gone? Would Ethiopia find its way if fractious communities relinquish violence? Could Africans suffering coups find non-violent routes back to democracy? Could domestic Russian resistance bring a non-violent shift to the Ukraine aggression? How is non-violence better than armed deterrence to keep peace in the Pacific?

We don’t know. But with current violent trajectories not getting anywhere, Gandhiji, who saw his life as “experiments with truth” (the title of his autobiography), would encourage giving non-violence a try. And when it fails, to try again.

Non-violence is a journey, not the destination. What is there to lose along the way, except violence itself?

Published: October 02, 2023, 4:00 AM