Gandhi: the impossible possibility of non-violence


Sudhir Chandra

date de sortie



Histoire moderne

Gandhi was arguably the best friend humankind has had in the last few centuries. Contrary to the world’s remembrance of him as a successful leader — and in consonance with the fate humankind reserves for its benefactors — he died a sorrowful, lonely man. “Yes,” he would say during his last days, “I was once a big man in India. No one listens to me today. I am a very small person… Mine is a cry in the wilderness.” He had wished to live and serve for a hundred and twenty-five years. But now he started praying for an early death. His prayers were answered, and he was assassinated. Reflecting an irony that is worth thinking about, he lived to fight the British for thirty-two years in India; he survived less than a half-year — one hundred and sixty-eight days — among his own free people.And he died a sorrowful man.


What were Gandhi’s sorrows? A poignant answer lies in his own question: “Whatever is happening in India today that could make me happy?” His sorrows were manifold. But they all revolved around his tragic discovery that the Indian freedom struggle led by him had not been the unique non-violent struggle that he and the whole world had believed it to have been. The discovery forced itself upon him when, after thirty-two years of a successful and supposedly non-violent struggle, the country erupted into savage violence. Could decades of non-violence, Gandhi wondered, have produced such savagery? The answer, clearly, was “No”.


Whence had the savagery come? Gandhi came up with an answer that has left academic wisdom and popular memory equally untouched. But it is an answer that casts serious doubts about the possibility of non-violence as an effective instrument to deal with human conflicts. This short note starkly outlines Gandhi’s answer and his tragic end. If, in the process, it induces reflection on something perversely persistent in the human condition, the note will have served its purpose.


Gandhi’s answer was that the non-violence which Indians had practiced against the British during the struggle for freedom had been the non-violence of the weak. This was not the non-violence of the brave that he had preached, but passive resistance. And passive resistance, he explained, was by its very nature “a preparation for active armed resistance”. The result was that the violence that had all the while lain suppressed in people’s hearts had — recall Freud’s “revenge of the repressed” — abruptly come out on the eve of Independence. Even that violence, he lamented, was not the violence of the brave but of cowards: “We have become such rogues that we have started fearing one another”.


Gandhi’s disillusionment with the Indian freedom movement — with his own people — carries serious implications for the acceptance or otherwise of non-violence. It means, and he said so plainly, that his people had accepted non-violence because they had realised the futility of violent resistance in the face of Britain’s inordinately superior might. “But”, he remarked, “today people say that Gandhi cannot show the way. We must assume arms for self-defence… No one had at that time taught us to manufacture the atom bomb. Had we possessed that knowledge, we would have used it to finish off the English”. Gandhi explained that ahimsa — non-violence — was his dharma, whereas the Indian National Congress had adopted it as mere policy. Freedom obtained, the Congress had decided to discard the old policy. But dharma, unlike policy, was eternal. It could not be changed.


If Gandhi’s assessment is right — as, perhaps, it is — true non-violence is one that is adopted on principle, not on account of mere pragmatic calculations. For, even if pragmatic non-violence succeeds in achieving its objective, its success will not have been the result — as the success of non-violence must necessarily be — of inviting suffering upon oneself and thereby changing the opponent’s heart. Pragmatic non-violence may not always be a preparation for violence, although in the Indian case it was. But it will always be prone to be discarded, once it has outlived its utility.


Gandhi dreamed a grand dream for mankind. It lay shattered just in the moment of its actualization. For him, however, the failure to actualize the dream was no reason to lose faith in it. He kept up his cry in the wilderness. “I may have gone bankrupt”, he said, “but ahimsa can never be bankrupt… Violence can only be effectively met by non-violence”. Retaliatory violence, he warned, can only result in an ever-renewing spiral of violence.


What Gandhi said during his last days was the same that he had said earlier. Earlier he had inspired countless ordinary men and women to heroic heights; now he appeared quixotic. He even called himself a “Shekhchilli”. A funny fictive character, Shekhchilli is the Indian equivalent of Don Quixote. During the five and a half months that Gandhi lived in free India, one unsuccessful attempt was made to kill him, and twice he volunteered to kill himself by undertaking fasts unto death. This he did to bring about peace in the midst of communal violence, first in Calcutta and then in Delhi. Both the fasts produced an immediate effect. However, violence stopped not because the fasts had cleansed people’s hearts and changed their way of thinking — the way true non-violence must operate — but because of the moral coercion that was implicit in the pain of seeing the old man starve and the dread that he might die.


The wilderness within which Gandhi’s voice got lost during his last days has since thickened the world over. Ostensibly, more than ever before, non-violence seems a quixotic option. Rarely, if ever before, has humankind needed that option more. This may sound rhetorical, but Gandhi has given us a talisman for acting in seemingly impossible situations. “Let everone see themselves”, he said.

Historien de formation, Sudhir Chandra cherche à comprendre la nature de la conscience sociale indienne moderne quand elle a commencé à se façonner comme conséquence de l’intervention coloniale. Actuellement il travaille sur l’interaction de la religion, de la culture et du nationalisme en mettant l’accent sur la caste supérieure convertie au christianisme, et sur les derniers jours de Gandhi.



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