Revisiting Gandhi’s ahimsa/non-violence as a force and means for emancipation

Revisiting Gandhi’s ahimsa/non-violence as a force and means for emancipation

Today, on MK Gandhi’s birthday, I analyse his greatest contribution to the Indian nation and its polity – his understanding and practise of the ultimate political weapon that shaped the Indian independence movement and continues to shape the political discourse today – ahimsa or non-violence. Gandhi redefined non-violence not only to mean negation of violence – something passive or signifying an absence – but something with positive presence and unbounded energy. He spoke of non-violence often as “love-force” or “soul-force”, and more popularly but less accurately as passive resistance. He was extremely conscious of its practical/instrumental application in political protests as a more effective alternative to violence. His vocabulary for ahimsa was often couched in metaphors of warfare. It was a “weapon” not “merely for the weak”, an “all sided sword” capable of “far reaching results”.

However, ahimsa was more than a political weapon and before it could be used for such it had to be used for mental and moral rejuvenation of man. Accordingly the central argument of Hind Swaraj is that the non-violent methods, before being used for the struggle, have to be applied for transforming the individual, only then can an effective liberation be brought about. Gandhi stated, “Apply everything to yourself… In your emancipation is the emancipation of India.” In other words, internalising the philosophy of non-violence by individuals translated into its effective application in the independence struggle. Thus non-violence transcended from being merely a means of achieving a practical goal, to a means of being or living one’s life. Gandhi conceived of ahimsa (non-violence) not merely as a weapon for political freedom but also a path for human salvation (‘moksha’). Ahimsa was “equivalent to dharma [moral duty]” and “vital part of spiritual discipline”. Gandhi explained, “This [Hind Swaraj] is not a mere political book… I have used the language of politics, but I have really tried to offer a glimpse of dharma… or Ramarajya. [Kingdom of Ram, or an ideal, ethical and just socio-political order].”

Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) was like “Tapasya [penance] – purification through suffering” or “surgery of the soul”. A Satyagrahi, person employing non-violent modes of struggle, had two interlinked priorities- political and religious. He had to awaken in his opponent the latent value system aiming at his transformation – ‘Hridaya-Parivartan’ (change of heart), and not his destruction or eviction.  He stated, “It is not necessary… to have as our goal the expulsion of the English. If the English become Indianised, we can accommodate them.”

Even though he maintained that ahimsa was for him his “mission of… life”, yet its instrumental use in Satyagraha (passive resistance or truth force) and in specific national agitations, like Non-cooperation (1920-22), Civil Disobedience (1930-34), and later Quit-India Movement (1942-45), made it into a means, strategy or a technique, to be followed according to a prescribed set of regulations, (for example, his rules for Satyagrahis). Furthermore, as a political weapon, ahimsa required a judicious use, constant practice for improvement, and ultimately attainment of a political goal (repealing of a law or a court judgement), and this was to provide a testimony to its success.

Gandhi’s ideas shaped the subsequent movements after India’s independence. It is the idea of Satyagraha which has been mostly used, ranging from women activists protesting against liquor or child marriages, to the prominent movement for environmental conservation- Chipko Andolan in north India. Gandhi’s idea of ‘change of heart’ was used against landlords in the Bhoodan Movement by Bhave, to persuade landlords to give up their land for the use of the poor. ‘Non-violent army’ formed the mainstay of lot of youth activism and student politics in independent India such as the Chattra Yuva Sangaharsh Vahini (1975).

His ideas hold relevance even today. Recently Rahul Gandhi also spoke about Gandhian understanding of non-violence as an effective tool for protest and transformation when he said, “The idea of non-violence or ‘ahimsa’ as we call it in India is what allows this huge mass of people to rise up together. Uniting India’s religion, castes and languages would simply be impossible without it. It is this idea that Mahatma Gandhi fashioned into a powerful but beautiful political weapon.”

Today we are living in times where the success of democracy necessitates that all voices be heard and dissent registered. Real freedom will entail freedom from hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance. As we remember the ‘father of the nation’, let us not forget his words, “Non-violence for me is not a mere experiment. It is part of my life… is the law of life for human beings. For me it is both a means and an end and I am more than ever convinced that in the complex situation that faces India, there is no other way of gaining real freedom.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Swati Saxena

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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