The Ghandian Way and its Relevance to Conflict Resolution in the Contemporary World


Violence and conflict are widespread today all over the world. Is a non-violent approach to conflict resolution and peace building as put forward by Gandhi possible today? The questioning of Gandhi’s relevance is neither novel nor striking. It was raised many times during his life time from the day he launched the first satyagraha in South Africa to the day of his assassination almost half a century later. Gandhi’s political ideas did not fit with those of the Moderates or the Extremists of the Indian National Congress. His denunciation of Western civilization, industrialization and modern education put forward in the Hind Swaraj did not appeal to the Indian intelligentsia. His method of non cooperation was not easily accepted by senior leaders of the Congress like Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das. Rabindranath Tagore criticized non cooperation “as a doctrine of negation, exclusiveness and despair which threatened to erect a Chinese wall between India and the West.” Initially many doubted whether the salt satyagraha could dislodge the British empire. His promotion of khadi, village handicrafts, sanitation, basic education was criticized on the ground that he was neglecting the issue of political freedom.

In the last phase of the Indo-British struggle, the Hindus accused him of being pro-Muslim and many Muslims called him an enemy of Islam. He was increasingly being regarded as irrelevant in the final negotiations leading to Independence and partition.

Thus Gandhi’s ideas were not readily accepted or understood during his lifetime. Not everything that he did or said is obviously relevant today. Yet many of the things he said and the method of conflict resolution he evolved are, I believe, still relevant.

It was the unique non-violent movement under Gandhi’s leadership that helped India gain its political independence from the British. In leading the campaign against colonial rule, he introduced techniques of social resistance and transformation that had several pioneering features. In his fight against a common enemy, he succeeded, to a large extent, in bringing together men and women, rich and poor, urban and rural, from different regions, religions, castes and communities. He taught us to fight oppression without hating the oppressor. The Gandhian way emphasized reconciliation and forgiveness. Satyagraha means truth force or the struggle for truth. Gandhi described it as “a force which is born of truth and love of non-violence.” It was not passive resistance but active opposition to any form of injustice. In his words, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Gandhi did not advocate surrender to oppression but neither did he support violence and war. Nor was he a simple conscientious objector. He evolved his technique of satyagraha in his resistance to racial oppression in South Africa. In India, it was used to fight for political independence from British rule.

Gandhi’s method of dealing with individual and collective violence varied from time to time. After violence broke out in Chauri Chaura (1922), he called off civil disobedience. In September 1947, he went on a fast unto death in Calcutta to make the people ‘purge themselves of the communal violence’ In Noakhali and Bihar , he put to test his ahimsa (non-violence) by providing the healing touch to the victims of Hindu-Muslim riots. In January 1948, he began a fast in Delhi “to find peace in the midst of turmoil, light in the midst of darkness, hope in despair”.

Non-violent struggles do not always succeed. Satyagraha is not an easy technique and success does not occur by chance. It requires preparation, training, discipline, choosing the right time, favorable external conditions, presence of wise strategy and the appropriate issue to fight against. It can be launched for larger political issues as well as for specific social or economic objectives.

Not everyone was convinced of the efficacy of Gandhi’s method during his lifetime. In fact it was after India gained independence through a non-violent revolution that the concept of satyagraha has gained greater respectability. Since Gandhi’s death, non violent struggle has spread and increased in potential and power.

The Gandhian technique has been successfully employed by oppressed people in several parts of the world – in USA by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, by Albert Luthali, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa, by the Solidarity Movement in Poland. Non violent struggles brought about the end of Communist dictatorships in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and in East Germany, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1991.

Most recently, we have been witnessing people’s power against dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab world. The people of Egypt led a revolution from the bottoms up, with no guns but enormous legitimacy. They have shown how fear can be overcome. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that Gandhi’s greatest contribution was not the liberation of India from the British but the liberation of India from fear. Gandhi taught Indians not to be afraid of the Raj. One heard an echo of his teaching in the video posted by Asama Mafouz, one of the protestors in Tahrir Square, of herself on the Net, with the simple message “Do not be afraid.”

There have been Gandhian movements in India after Independence such as Vinoba Bhave’s and Jai Prakash Narayan’s Bhoodan and Gramdan movements and J.P.’s Nav Nirman movement against the then corrupt government in Gujarat. There have been protests against big dams, deforestation, anti alcohol struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. The Self Employed Women’s Organization is a trade union of women in the unorganized sector based on Gandhian principles.

In the rising spectre of conflicts which face India today, communal violence, the Maoist challenge, violence in the Kashmir valley and in some of the North–Eastern states, farmers’ protests against land acquisition, movement against corruption, the threat of terrorism, how far can Gandhian methods be applied? There are nor short cuts for finding out what a Gandhian solution to a particular contemporary problem would have been, there is no ideological document to which easy reference can be made. We can go back to a particular satyagraha as an example to be emulated but each situation is different and has its own specificity. Methods used in resisting a foreign government may not be appropriate in an independent country. How do you resist injustice in a parliamentary democracy?   However, Gandhi’s concept of non-violent protest, emphasis on means as ends in themselves, the insistence on conversion of the opponent rather than coercion are recognized as valid and usable weapons in con

flict situations. According to Gandhi, debate, discussion, dialogue, persuasion, were the best ways to deal with a conflict situation. He laid stress on compromise, consensus, winning over the opponent rather than overt clashes. Avoid violent conflicts and find out areas of agreement that could lead to a settlement remained central to his technique. Opposing points of view could coexist without leading to violence. In a conflict situation, when compromise is not possible or desirable, then the task of the exponent of non-violent means is to assist the oppressed people to become empowered by learning to apply satyagraha to change their situation.

According to Gandhi, nobody had the monopoly of truth. Much of the suffering endured by humanity during successive epochs of history has been the result of bigotry. The world has never been lacking in persons who were convinced not only that they were right but that everybody else was wrong. From this, it is but a short step to believe that all countervailing ideologies or value systems are must be destroyed by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. This was the belief that inspired the Crusades and the religious wars in the middle ages, the Spanish Inquisition and terrorism today.

We find in India today considerable intolerance of beliefs. There are periodic attempts to ban books, prevent artists from exhibiting their paintings or allow dissidents to express their views. It was this interpretation of truth which Gandhi rejected with all the vehemence of sincerity at this command. He held that each of us may catch a glimpse of some aspect of truth but it is not possible for anyone to grasp the totality. Gandhi saw the clash of civilizations in terms of contrasting views of truth, insisting that his approach to human relationships “excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore, not competent to punish.” Karl Popper, author of 0pen Society and Its Enemies, said that there was only one way to get towards truth-every argument must begin with the two contestants declaring, “I may be wrong and you may be right.” Gandhi believed that no religion teaches intolerance. His prayers every morning and evening consisted of hymns from Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian and other religious scriptures. He said that we must always be ready to appreciate and try and see the validity in the opponent’s point of view. We must respect the value of dissent. From this sprang his belief in tolerance.

Gandhi held that Indian society was pluralistic, that Indian civilization was not only plural but pluralistic, i.e. committed to pluralism as a desirable value; not just a collection of different ethnic, religious and cultural groups but unity in diversity. It was an open civilization with permeable boundaries allowing new influences to flow in and vitalize the old. Over the centuries, “Indians blended with one another with the utmost freedom and made India a microcosm of the world.” “Our civilization”, he said, “is a synthesis of different cultures. It is neither Hindu, Muslim or Christian but a fusion of all of them.” All his life he worked for communal peace and harmony and against religious hatred. Towards the end, this became his mission and a cause for which he finally laid down his life. He went from village to village in Noakhali, from there to Bihar, then to Kolkata and from there to Delhi trying to extinguish the flames of communal hatred. He firmly believed that India was a land where people of all religions, all languages, all colours and creeds could leave peacefully. Credit must be given to Gandhi and Nehru for the fact that after Independence, despite the communal carnage, India remained a secular state.

In 1947, Gandhi said, “If India takes up the doctrine of the sword, she may gain momentary victory. But then India will cease to be the pride of my heart. What policy the national government will adopt, I cannot say. I may not even survive it, much as I would love to.” This was about nine months before he was assassinated. “If I do, I would advise the adoption of non-violence to the utmost extent possible, and that will be India’s great contribution to the peace of the world and the establishment of the new world order.” While he opposed government violence, he was equally against unorganized popular violence. “For me, popular violence is as much an obstruction in our path as government violence. Indeed, I can combat government violence more successfully than popular violence. For one thing, in combating the latter, I will not have the same support as the former.”

If violence starts, violence will follow. Regarding terrorism, he said, “I do jot regard killing or assassination or terrorism as good in any circumstances whatsoever. This includes revolutionary terrorism. I do not believe that ideas ripen quickly when nourished by the blood of martyrs…The only way to deal with violence is to understand the root cause of that violence. Trying to cut the hands that strike me is not going to help. It may only postpone violence to another day. But if I cannot understand why in the first place he was motivated or propelled to violence and I can deal with the causes, then perhaps, I can indeed work towards a non-violent form of peace building and, of course, ultimately a democratic society.”

There are political, economic, social and religious and historical reasons for violence. A violent conflict may be the result of one or a combination of many of these. It was important for Gandhi to go to the roots and understand the reasons for the conflict and find out the grievances of the people. Only then was it possible to find a solution. The purpose of a peace process is not to terminate the enemy but to terminate the conflict.  Resolution of conflict requires understanding, tenacity, courage and strategic skill. It means a dialogue and talking with your opponent. This method may not always succeed but nor does violence.

Gandhi did more than anyone else in advancing the development of a non-violent struggle in the twentieth century. He and the movement in which he was involved contributed to a world-wide recognition of the existence of the potential of nonviolence as a means of solving conflicts. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said some years ago, there is no handy roadmap for reconciliation. There is no simple or easy way of healing the wounds of society in the aftermath of sustained violence. It is important to examine the painful past, acknowledge it and understand it, in order to move forward. We must create trust and understanding between people. This is the Gandhian method for solving conflicts and building peace.  ■

Dr. Aparna Basu, Ph.D., formerly Professor of History at the University of Delhi is currently Patron of the All India Women’s Conference.