Written by Prem Kumar Vijayan & Karen Gabriel

It is widely acknowledged that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and more specifically, his political method of non-violent struggle, was one of the major reasons that the British were forced to leave India. However, it is also evident that these Gandhian methods have failed on many, many occasions, and are likely to continue to fail on many future occasions as well. To understand why, we have to recognise that, to have any effective magnitude of impact, Gandhian methods also require

(1) enough numbers to ensure that,
i. even in an extreme case, a violent repressive response would prove difficult and costly, if not impossible;

ii. any forcible removals will have little impact on the overall volume;

(2) a sympathetic, or at least neutral, media, that will amplify the dissident voices to those they (non-violently) dissent against;

(3) a civil society that is receptive to listening to those voices, and whose opinion can constitute pressure (of any kind – e.g., in the form of possible votes for a political party; a concern about public image, and the possibilities of embarrassment; etc.) on those dissented against; and

(4) a moral position robust enough to counter any possible violations of law that may be entailed in the dissent. Laws rely on Constitutional morality to justify violent repressive measures by the state. This means that the dissent must either be rooted in Constitutional morality itself, or it must be morally and ethically stronger than the Constitutional position.

These conditions are generally found more in nation-states that are constitutional democracies, than in those that are not – e.g., dictatorships, military regimes, monarchies. In such democracies, citizen-subjects putatively have rights that are inviolable, maintained as sacrosanct by both, citizen and state (mostly), in relation to the state. One of these is usually the right to dissent peacefully. In fact, one may even argue that the Gandhian idea of non-violent dissent is thus at the very heart of the shaping of such ideas of democracy and democratic rights.

This explains why Gandhian methods (especially in political movements and struggles) succeed in certain political environments; but why would they fail in other political environments? This is because, in political environments like dictatorships, etc.:

(1) The rights and powers of individual citizen-subjects are greatly reduced. If, despite having no exercisable right to dissent, dissent grows as and into a mass movement, it can, and often is, violently crushed by the repressive state apparatus.

(2) The mainstream media is almost always partial to the state.

(3) Civil society is not willing to be receptive, even it wants to be, either because of fear or indifference, and hence cannot and will not say or do anything pro-dissent and pro-dissenters.

(4) Dissent is almost always perceived (by the state, and therefore by the mainstream media, as well as by such sections of civil society as wish to speak) as anti-state, and hence the state is justified in its repressive actions. The only morality is the morality of the inviolability of whatever is and represents the state.
In other words, the favourable conditions noted earlier do not avail. Indeed, in many instances, other actually unfavourable conditions do avail – such as strong police, paramilitary and military forces, and/or a pliant judiciary, and/or the ability of the state to resist international or diplomatic pressure from other countries, and/or the economic resources to sustain sanctions – and so on.

If we agree on the above, then we are faced with what the poet called ‘an overwhelming question’: the question before us is, Is India at this moment in transition from the one to the other? And if it is, what are the options before civil society, to preserve the viability and effectiveness of non-violent political struggle?

Prem Kumar Vijayan, Asst Prof., Dept of English, Hindu College, Delhi University

Karen Gabriel, Assoc Prof., Dept of English, St Stephen’s College




  1. Bullshit. I always support Gandhi, and his practice of nonviolence…Stop making up stupid excuses, for your military exploiting. You’re Guilty, and you know it. No more Modi.

    • Avatar Prem Kumar Vijayan says:

      Your language is kind of violent for a person espousing Gandhian principles. But just to clarify, apart from the scintillating intellectual heights of your argument (“Bullshit”!!!) you seem to think this was an argument in favour of Modi; it is not. Reading it carefully, without ideological blinkers, might help matters.

  2. Avatar Dr. A. K. Biswas says:

    The credit Indians habitually and conventionally give to Gandhi may be viewed differently. The poineering instance of peaceful and nonviolent resistance was inaugurated in 1872 in East Bengal now Bangladesh. Mohanndas Karamchand Gandjhi was then mere 2+ years of age. Seven years after the peaceful resistance by Chandals in Barisal, Faridpur and Jessore districts spanning over four months the word “Boycott” entered into English vocubulary. The Chandal, a populous community who were untouchable—was compelled to work as scanvenger when in jail as prisoner and this practice was protested by them. They stopped work for all upper castes and Muslims who in those district numbered 5.5 million residents spread over 10,089 square miles area. Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1894 his philosophical work—“The Temple of God is within you” , which deeply influenced Gandhi. Of course John Raskin wrote his work, “Unto This last” in 1860(?).
    Inquiry into the nonviolent resistance, according to District Magistrate and Superintendet of Police of District Faridpur, resulted “runious” effects. ***
    This was recorded by colonial bureaucracy as “general strike” as well as novel state of affair.” Incidentally India did not have a record earlier instance of ” strike.”
    Sadly nobody has taken note of the spectacular event occuring in India’s backyard. That would deny room for Gandhi has been accorded, proving truth of the proverb, “Nearer the temple remoter the God.”

  3. Avatar T Jacob John says:

    Of course there are limits to nonviolence as a political tool. No one method of political action will fit all opponents. In Myanmar, nonviolence is met with bullets, since the opponent has burned his bridge and has no other alternative. Military junta is fighting for survival.
    Gandhian nonviolence was an ingenious design against the British, who, in spite of superiority arrogance, yet had political morality which Gandhi understood and “exploited”. Had the British not have political ethics at home, civil disobedience, nonviolence, satyagraha etc would not have worked at all.

    Every unjust situation must be faced with ingeniously designed responses that will fit the belief system of the oppressor.
    The design of such responses require leader(s) who are wise, clever, ethical, street-smart yet phiolosophical, willing for sacrifices yet unyielding.

    India lacks “cultural leaders” and “philosophical guides”.
    Democracy has degenerated to “of the leaders, by the leaders, for the leaders”
    We as a nation do not seem to understand our great culture, since we have not produced a leader to match Gandhi, since Gandhi.

  4. Avatar Shivam Goswami says:

    i’d like to quote Dr. Ambedkar’s famous grammar of anarchy speech from 1949. “…We must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us…”