Gandhi for Today: Self-Rule, Non-Violence, Struggle for Justice

A Paper by Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum, presented at a Plenary Session of the 12th Rhodes Forum on September 26, 2014

The central topic of this session is the work of Gandhi (and at least one of the thinkers who influenced him: Leon Tolstoy). Gandhi’s work is sprawling, it comprises over 100 volumes. These books deal with a great variety of themes; I want to focus here on one area of his life and work which, however, is central and overshadows the rest: the area of politics and political action. I title my talk: “Gandhi for Today”—because it is not enough just to know about Gandhi as a historical figure, but to follow Gandhi, to enact his teachings in our time.

The subtitle of my talk is “Self-Rule, Non-Violence, Struggle for Justice.” The Indian terms for these notions are: swaraj, ahimsa, and satyagraha. Swaraj tells us what is democratic government; ahimsa tells us how to achieve and practice it; satyagraha tells us about the goal of politics: pursuit of truth, justice, and the “good life.” These are the ideas we have to re-learn today. Gandhi struggled for Indian self-rule or “home rule” against the mighty British Empire (where the sun did not set). Today, many people struggle for self-rule against a mighty world-empire, and against many other forms of domination. Gandhi struggled for Indian self-rule mainly non-violently. Today, many movements aiming at independence or freedom resort to violence (virtually as the only and preferred method). Gandhi struggled for self-rule with the aim to establish a rule of justice, non-domination, and ethical rightness. Today, many movements seek self-rule only in order to establish a new form of domination and exploitation (their own domination). So, we have to re-learn a lot from Gandhi.

I shall first talk about swaraj (self-rule) and then turn to ahimsa and satyagraha.  As we know, it was over a hundred years age (in 1909), that Mohandas Gandhi penned his book Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule—a text justly famous because it has stood the test of time.  The book was Gandhi’s opening salvo in his attack on colonialism and imperialism and his first public plea for Indian independence, freedom or liberation from foreign domination.  What is urgent and imperative today is an effort to recover the guiding spirit of the text, the message pervading its pages and especially the meaning of swaraj.  In my view, the significance of swaraj can be found on two levels:  one overt and directly accessible, the other more recessed and of longue durée.  The first level has to do with India’s struggle for independence and subsequent struggles more or less directly inspired by Gandhi’s example.  It is this level which tends to capture immediate political attention.  In a sense, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj can be seen as a “classic” of anti-imperialist literature, a handbook of struggle not only for Indians but for oppressed and colonized people around the world.  The handbook has galvanized people in many continents and led ultimately to the demise of the traditional European empires.  It also became a primer in America for African-Americans involved in the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  It served as an inspiration for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as well as for several “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe against Soviet imperialism.  As one needs to add right away, this level of significance is by no means exhausted or obsolete.  In the words of the Palestinian-American Edward Said, imperialism or imperial ambitions have not come to an end, but only resurface in new guises or constellations.  What mainly characterizes such ambitions today in comparison with earlier empires, he writes, is “the quantitative leap in the reach of cultural authority” and “the unprecedented growth in the apparatus of the diffusion and control of information.”

The other level is more recessed or shielded from view, mainly because of its ethical and even ontological connotations.  In my view, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj captures the basic meaning of democracy or democratic freedom—a meaning which is not restricted to subjugated or colonized people but to friends of democracy everywhere.  Basically, his text formulates a conception of “self” and “self-rule” (swaraj) which is required for genuine democracy—in contradistinction from forms of monarchical, aristocratic or theocratic tutelage.  The conception also differs sharply from prevalent equations of democracy with individual or collective self-seeking or the unhampered pursuit of self-interest.  What surfaces behind this contrast is a different or starkly revised understanding of democratic “freedom” or the status of “being free.” 

Following a discussion of the present condition of India, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj turns immediately to the central issue of self-rule, finding it mired in confusion.  In the opinion of many people, Indian self-rule consists simply in driving the English out of India; but “it does not seem that many have properly considered why it should be so.”  For Gandhi, the goal of swaraj could not be obtained by simply replacing British rulership with Indian rulership, British power with Indian power; the problem was much deeper and more complex, involving a change in the very meaning and character of rulership.  Those people wedded to simple expulsion, he noted, seem to want “English rule without the Englishman” or “the tiger’s nature but not the tiger.”  Successful pursuit of this policy would “make India English, and when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan.  This is not the swaraj that I want.”  Well-known Indian theorist Ashis Nandy has succinctly captured this point when he writes: “The aim of the oppressed should be not to become first class citizens in the world of oppression, but to become citizens in an alternative world.”

For Gandhi, the problem with British (and American) democracy was the primacy of self-indulgence and self-centeredness, at the cost of ethical (or spiritual) civic commitments.  Gandhi was not unaware that Western modernity has brought greater freedom for many people, including political freedom for blacks and women.  This freedom, however, is tarnished by its misuse.  In his words, the gist of modern civilization lies in the fact that “people living in it make bodily [or material] welfare the sole object of life.”  What is lacking in this kind of civilization is sustained social responsibility, ethical responsiveness, and unselfish striving involving self-transformation.  In the stark language of Hind Swaraj:  “This (Western) civilization takes note of neither morality (niti) nor religion (dharma) . . . [It] seeks to increase material comforts, and fails miserably even in doing so.”  In a section titled “How can India become free?”  Gandhi proceeds to offer a concise definition of the term as he sees it:  “It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”

Swaraj as self-rule, as rule over oneself is surely the opposite of “selfish” rule or rule by the self over others, in the sense of tyranny, autocracy or domination.  To this extent, it points to the core meaning of democracy.  In my own reading, public swaraj or swarajya means self-government or genuine democracy, but democracy in turn needs people who are able to rule themselves, that is, people who are not captive to selfish addictions, to the lust for power, the greed for wealth, the impulse for destruction (all of which are forms of violence or himsa).  As one can see, we are here on a steep incline.  Swaraj, as Gandhi sees it, means basically an ethical ascent or transformation:  a willingness to shed all forms of himsa in favor of ahimsa—where the latter denotes not just abstention from overt violence but a commitment to fostering goodness or the “good life” in all dimensions.  As he wrote in 1916:  “In its negative form, ahimsa means not injuring any living being whether by body or mind. . . .  In its positive form, it means the largest love, the greatest charity.”

The route to pursue and obtain swaraj for Gandhi is reliance on “truth-doing” (satyagraha) and non-violence (ahimsa) as “the most important moral norms”—norms which are “not cloistered virtues” but to be discovered and formed through “the ordinary activities of life” in the social, economic, and political spheres.  Once these norms are widely cultivated and taken to heart, a different version of democracy comes into view, one in which freedom and ethical interdependence are closely linked under the heading of swaraj.

A few additional words about ahmisa and satyagraha.  As is well known, the idea of civil resistance first preoccupied Gandhi during his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a struggle which later morphed into the movement for national independence from British rule in India.  Despite the vastly changed location of resistance, the spirit or guiding animus of the struggle remained largely the same:  the pursuit of justice and social-political improvement.  When initiating the resistance in South Africa, Gandhi tellingly gave to his movement the name “satyagraha,” a term which literally means “truth doing,” that is, active pursuit of truth and justice.  It has also been translated as “truth-force,” “soul-force” or “love-force.”  As psychologist Erik Erikson has pointed out, in his famous study Gandhi’s Truth, it was precisely the ethical and spiritual motivation which gave to Gandhi’s independence struggle its special quality, distinguishing it from purely political rebellions. 

Erikson’s comment points to an important aspect of Gandhian truth-performance or justice-seeking:  its reliance on non-violence.  There can be little doubt that, for Gandhi, the guiding principle of political struggle and resistance was nonviolent action (ahimsa) and that, in his view, sataygraha and ahimsa were intimately linked.  As he stated in one of his writings on the topic:  “In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth does not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy.”  The main point here is that, for Gandhi, it is better to suffer injustice than to impose injustice on others.  In Erik Erikson’s interpretation, Gandhian truth performance was governed by “the readiness to get hurt and yet not to hurt”; if there was a guiding “dogma” in this approach it was the maxim that “the only test of truth or justice is action based on the refusal to do harm.”  Gandhi’s enactment of the maxim was evident throughout his life, in his willingness to accept suffering in the form of fasting, imprisonment, abuse, and ultimately death—a willingness guided by the desire to appeal to the conscience and better ethical qualities of opponents.  Here is another quotation from Gandhi’s work:  “Suffering is the law of human beings, war is the law of the jungle.  But suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason.”

Despite these and similar statements, some interpreters have raised questions about the role of ahimsa—questions which (mistakenly) seem to place on an equal footing violence and nonviolence, justice and injustice.  Admittedly, Gandhi was not an “absolutist” in this field and made room for some departures from ahimsa.  However, such departures were narrowly circumscribed and basically limited to acts of self-defense against an imminent violent attack, acts performed as a last resort and with due regard for proportionality.  Performed outside these limits, acts of violence for Gandhi are illegitimate because they negate the very spirit and goal of satyagraha.  As Gandhi persistently insisted, the means of struggle have to accord with the goal of struggle, that is, their relation is not purely instrumental but ethical.  And the goal is justice and non-domination.  This is the gist of his well-known statement (not far from biblical teachings):  “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree . . .  We reap exactly as we sow.”  This means that good ends can only be pursued and reached through good means. 

In recent times, this connection, highlighted by Gandhi, has come to be widely sidelined or entirely thrown to the winds—with predictable results.  Totally neglecting both Tolstoy’s and Gandhi’s teachings, some recent so-called “rebellions” have preferred to indulge in orgies of violence and unspeakable acts of barbarism, always eagerly employing mayhem not as a last but as the first resort.  But the consequences cannot be in doubt.  In the words of political philosopher Hannah Arendt:  “Violent acts do indeed change the world:  into a more violent world.”  Here we are back to the “culture of violence” which dominates our age.  What Gandhi admonishes us to do is to move from this culture (or non-culture) to a different “culture of non-violence” by practicing swaraj, ahimsa, and satyagraha.