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Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Gandhi and Non-Violence

Published: 05.06.2015
Updated: 02.07.2015

Originally printed in Gandhian Thought (Gandhian and his Critics, 1985

Some commentators on Gandhi have questioned the sincerity and consistency of his belief in non-violence. 'And what of his pacifism', asks a writer in the Washington Post, 'the quality that supposedly makes him a man for our time. Gandhi was singularly bellicose until the age of 50. Not only was he eager to kill off the Zulus, but also the Boers and all Britain's World War enemies With a malicious pleasure some critics refer to the 'military record of 'Sergeant-Major Gandhi' in the Zulu Rebellion, the Boer War and the First World War. Curiously, the same critics, who accuse Gandhi of'bellicosity', cite the Quite India movement of 1942 as evidence of his purblind pacifism and pro-Fascist sympathies in the Second World War.

What is the truth in this picture of Gandhi as a war-monger, a trigger-happy Sergeant, in his youth and middle age, and as a sympathizer of the Axis Powers during the Second World War? None at all In 1906 while Gandhi was practicing as a barrister at Johannesburg, he had led - with the rank of Sergeant-Major - a group of twenty Indian stretcher-bearers to nurse Africans wounded during the operations against 'the Zulu Rebellion' in Natal; it was a mission of mercy, all the more valuable because the British soldiers and doctors were reluctant to attend on the unfortunate victims ot the military expedition. Seven years earlier, in 1899 during the Boer War, Gandhi raised a 1200 strong ambulance corps from among Indian residents of Natal. On both these occasions, he had argued that since the Indian community claimed equality in rights with the Europeans in Natal and Transvall, it must also accept equal obligations; and one of the obligations of citizenship was participation in the defence of the country.

To equate Gandhi's ambulance work with 'war-mongering' is absurd, but it must be admitted that in these early years Gandhi's views on non-violence had not yet fully crystallized. In his immediate domestic and social circles, and even in his political work, he was talking of overcoming opposition by persuasion, and hat red by love However, not until the end of 1906 and the enactment of the humiliating Asiatic Registration law, did he evolve satyagraha, his non-violent method of redressing social and political injustice. During the next eight years he tried this method with a measure of success on behalf of the hard-pressed Indian minority in South Africa. But he had not yet thought out all the implications of non-violence, especially in its application to conflicts between nation-states.

When the First World War broke out, Gandhi was on his way to India from South Africa via London. Immediately after arrival in England, he conferred with the Indian residents, most of whom were students. He gave them the same advice as he had given to his compatriots in Natal and Transvaal; if they claimed equal rights as citizens of the British empire, they must do their bit for Britain, their adopted country, in its hour of trial. He took the initiative in organizing an Indian Ambulance Corps in England, and would himself have served in it in the battle-fronts of Europe, if an attack of pleurisy had not compelled him to leave for India in December 1914.

By 1914 Gandhi's views on non-violence had reached the stage where it was unthinkable for him personally to engage in killing and war, but he recognized that most of his countrymen did not share this attitude. Indeed, Indian political leaders, 'moderate' as well as 'extremist', were unanimous that the people of India should support the British cause against the Germans, but only for a price - the promise of home rule after the war. Gandhi was almost along in rejecting the idea of a political bargain with the British; he cherished the hope that in return for unconditional support, a grateful and victorious Britain would give India her due when the war was over

The First World War created a moral dilemma for Gandhi. His own ideas on non-violence had advanced to the point that he could not personally participate in any act of violence; the utmost he could do was to nurse the wounded. While he was personally opposed to violence and to war, those who looked up to him for guidance were not. His faith in the British empire and in the possibility of India attaining within it an autonomous status similar to that ol Canada or Australia was undimmed. He argues that since the people of India claimed equal rights as citizens of the empire, they had also to accept the duties of this status in times of war. The Indians whom Gandhi led in ambulance units in the battle-fields of South Africa or whom he exhorted to join the British Indian army in the First World War did not believe in non-violence. It was not repugnance to violence but indifference or cowardice which held them back from participating in the war. And since the people of India were not ready for non-violent resistance, (Gandhi argued) it was their duty to support Britain in her war-effort. So intense, however, was Gandhi's hatred of all violence and war, that it was not without much heart-searching and inner anguish that he reached this conclusion. To a colleague who had expressed his surprise at Gandhi's offer to associate himself with the war even for ambulance work he replied: 'I myself could not shoot, but could nurse the wounded. I might even get Germans to nurse. I could nurse them without any partisan spirit. That would be no violation of the spirit of compassion then.'

During the two decades, which spanned the First and the Second World Wars, Gandhi's belief in the potentialities of non-violence grew with greater reflection and experience. Such was the emphasis which he began to place on non-violence that is seemed that the means were more important to him than the goal. In November 1931 he went so far as to say: And I would like to repeat to the world times without number, that I will not purchase my country's freedom, at the cost of non-violence. My marriage to non-violence is such an absolute thing that I would rather commit suicide than be deflected from my position'.

Because of his 'absolute' commitment to non-violence, the Second World War created a situation for Gandhi which was in some ways even more difficult than the one he had faced in the 1914 war. He had simultaneously to play the role of the leader of the nationalist movement in India and the prophet of non-violence in the war-torn world; this brought out two independent and occasionally contradictory strands in his position. He had publicly hailed Nehru as his 'guide' on international affairs. At Nehru's instance, the Indian National Congress had denounced every act of aggression by the fascist powers in Manchuria, Abyssinia, Spain and Czechoslovakia, and taken the Western powers to task for their policy of'appeasement' towards the dictator. Gandhi's dislike of Hitler and Mussolini was as intense as Nehru's. He defined Hitlerism as a 'naked ruthless force reduced to an exact science worked with scientific precision', and Nazism and Fascism 'as symptoms of a deep-seated disease - the cult of violence.'

As the threat of war grew in the late 1930s and the forces of violence gathered momentum, Gandhi re-asserted his faith in the efficacy of non-violence. He felt more strongly than ever that at that moment of crisis in world history he had a message for India, and that India had a message for bewildered humanity. Through the pages of his weekly paper, the Harijan, he expounded his non-violent approach to political tyranny and military aggression. He advised the weaker nations to defend themselves not by seeking protection from better armed states, nor by increasing their own fighting potential, but by non-violent resistance to the aggressor. A nonviolent Abyssinia, he argued, needed no arms and no succour from the League of Nations; if every Abyssinian man, woman and child refused cooperation with the Italians, willing or forced, the latter would have to walk to victory over the dead bodies of their victims and to occupy the country without the people.

Gandhi was obviously making a heavy overdraft upon human endurance. It required supreme courage for a whole people to die to the last man, woman and child, rather than surrender to the enemy. Non-violent resistance was, however, not a soft doctrine - a convenient refuge from a dangerous situation; nor was it an offer on a platter to the dictators of what they plotted to wrest by force.

Gandhi was aware of the apotheosis of violence which Nazi and Fascist regimes represented, but he did not accept that Hitler and Mussolini were beyond redemption. A fundamental assumption in his philosophy was that human nature in essence was one and must ultimately respond to love. 'If the enemy realized', wrote Gandhi, 'that you have not the remotest thought in your mind of raising your hand against him even for the sake of your life, he will lack the zest to kill you. Every hunter has had this experience. No one had heard of anyone hunting cows'.

Thus at an early stage in the Second World War Gandhi's own position was anchored to his pacifism. It soon became clear that few of his colleagues shared his faith in the efficacy of non-violence in armed conflicts. Nehru, Azad, Rajagopalachari, and indeed the majority of the Congress leaders, did not view the war as an occasion for testing the potentialities of non-violence; the really important point was whether the monstrous war-machine built by Hitler could be destroyed before it enslaved mankind. The Indian National Congress, as Nehru put it, 'had accepted the principle and practices of non-violence in its application to the struggle for freedom [against the British]. At no time had it gone beyond that position, or applied the principle to defence from external aggression or internal disorder'.

The differences between Gandhi and his colleagues would have sharply come into focus, if the British government had not been short-sighted enough to freeze the constitutional issue for the duration of the war. So long as there was no prospect of an effective Congress participation in the central government, the question whether India's support of the Allied cause was to be moral (as Gandhi advocated) or military (as Nehru proposed), remained purely academic. There were two occasions on which the vicissitudes of war seemed to bring a rapprochement between the Congress and the government within the realm of practical politics, in 1940 after the French collapse, and in 1941-2 after the Japanese advance in Southeast Asia. On both these occasions Gandhi found that the majority of his colleagues were ready to switch to a whole-hearted participation in the Allied war effort in return for a reciprocal gesture by the British government. It is significant that in April 1942 the Congress leaders' parleys with Sir Stafford Cripps broke down not on the issue of violence versus non-violence, but on the composition and powers of a provisional national government for the effective prosecution of war.

For nearly three years after the outbreak of the war Gandhi successfully contained the frustration of nationalist India at the lack of an adequate response from the British government. He tried hard to balance his passion for Indian freedom with his desire not to embarrass the government during the war. In 1940-1, he conducted an 'individual' civil disobedience movement, as a symbolic protest, which (despite the imprisonment of nearly 30,000 persons) was designed to cause the least dislocation to the war-effort. Paradoxically, even the 'Quit India' movement, which Gandhi contemplated after the failure of the Cripps Mission, was intended by him to strengthen the forces of resistance against the Japanese, who were advancing all along the line in Southeast Asia. Gandhi yielded to the pleas of Nehru (whose mind was full of thoughts of citizen armies, home guards and guerilla warfare to beat off the Japanese invaders) that, after the British power from India was withdrawn, Allied forces should continue to use India as a base against the Fascist powers.

In the summer of 1942 Gandhi's hand was on the pulse of the people. He had observed that their mood in the face of the Japanese peril was not one of resolute defiance, but of panic, frustration and helplessness. Gandhi felt that if India was not to go the way of Malaya and Burma, where the people had put up little resistance and the British forces had withdrawn or been annihilated, something had to be done and done quickly. He declared that only an immediate declaration of Indian independence by the British government could give the people of India a stake in the defence of their country. As he told Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the British had effected

Withdrawals from Malaya, Singapore and Burma... we must learn the lesson from these tragic events and prevent by all means at our disposal a repetition of what befell these unfortunate countries. But unless we are free we can do nothing to prevent it, and the same process might well occur again, crippling India and China disastrously. I do not want a repetition of this tragic tale of woe.

In this line of thinking Gandhi had been influenced by the feeling that the British in India were losing their nerve. He had seen reports of a broadcast over the All India Radio by Major-General Molesworth in February 1942, in which he had said that India's eastern coastline was some two thousand miles in length, and it was not easy to locate a raider on so vast a sea board. Speaking to the Rotary Club of Delhi the General said:

Everybody in India is asking what are we going to do to keep the Japanese out. From the point of view of the army, in this enormous battle front we shall hold vital places which it is necessary to hold in order to make India safe, but we cannot hold every one. Therefore what is to be done for the rest of India where we are unable to put troops or air or naval air forces?We cannot arm all. On the other hand, we can do a great deal to educate the masses to give the Japanese a great deal of trouble. This must be done by the civil people like you. The army cannot do it. The people can work in bands and give trouble and delay and destroy invasion. It may be there is no proper lead from the top and no proper leadership down below. Still, I feel the Japanese invasion can be beaten, if we educate the people on the lines of'they shall not pass'. Psychologically it can only be done by the intelligentsia, working definitely shoulder to shoulder to work up the peasant.

This indeed was Gandhi's aim in the summer of 1942, when he asked the British to transfer power to Indian hands to let the people defend their own country. Some months earlier, he had sent his English disciple, Mirabehn (Miss Slade), to Orissa to prepare the people for a non-violent resistance to the Japanese if they managed to land on the eastern coast.

Remember, [he told her] that our attitude is that of complete non-cooperation with the Japanese army, therefore, we may not help them in any way nor may we profit by any dealings with them....If, however, the people have not the courage to resist... One thing they [the people] should never do-to yield willing submission to the Japanese. That will be a cowardly act, and unworthy offreedom-loving people. They must not escape from one fire to fall into another and probably more terrible.

Clearly, if the Axis Powers had any collaborators in India, actual or potential, Gandhi was not one of them. There is no doubt that if in August 1942 he had not been arrested, his weigh would have been thrown against violent outbreaks. He knew how to bring unruly mobs to order; when appeals failed, he could bring them back to sanity by undertaking a fast.

The Government of India headed by Linlithgow, and backed by Prime Minister Churchill, acted in accordance with the view common among British administrators, that the best way of crushing Gandhi's movements was to deliver telling blows at the initial stage. In 1942 the government struck before Gandhi had a chance to launch his movement. For a few months India was caught in the vicious circle of popular terrorism and official counter-terrorism. Linlithgow, the Viceroy, who had conducted the sternest repression against the nationalist movement in Indian history, persuaded himself that he had won a decisive victory over Gandhi. And yet two years later, his successor, Lord Wavell, wrote to Prime Minister Churchill:

There remains a deep sense of frustration and discontent amongst practically all educated Indians, which renders the present arrangement for government insecure and impermanent... The present Government of India cannot continue indefinitely, or even for long. If our aim is to retain India as a willing member of the British Commonwealth, we must make some imaginative and constructive move without delay.

The British government and the Government of India used the massive resources of their war publicity machines to paint Gandhi and the Congress as 'Quislings' and saboteurs of the Allied struggle against the Axis Powers. This propaganda held the field for some time, but not for long. 'It is sheer nonsense,' Field Marshal Smuts told a press conference in London in November 1942, 'to talk of Mahatma Gandhi as a fifth columnist. He is a great man. He is one of the great men of the world'.

Forty years after Smuts spoke and with the enormous documentation of that period which is available in official and non-official sources, the reiteration of the charge that Gandhi was pro-Axis, or pro-Japanese during the Second World War can only be attributed to ignorance of the facts or an unreasoning prejudice.


Title: Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order
Publisher: Jain Vishwa Bharati University, Ladnun, India
Editors: Prof. B.R. Dugar, Dr. Samani Satya Prajna, Dr. Samani Ritu Prajna
Edition: First Edition, 2008

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