Would Gandhi’s Ahimsa, Satyagraha Triumph in Our Post-Truth World?

Shashi Tharoor reflects on the Mahatma, the universal appeal of his principles, and the lack of it today.

5 min read

(This article was originally published on 2 October 2018. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.)

The most striking feature of the first 75 years of Indian independence has, in fact, been an absence – that of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

In his immortal ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech to the nation on the midnight of 15 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru had spoken of the Mahatma as “embodying the old spirit of India” whose message would be remembered by “succeeding generations.”

Just five months later, on 30 January 1948, the torch of this spirit was tragically snuffed out by a Hindu fanatic, in the capital of the new state – he had done more for than anyone else – to establish.


Of Ahimsa and Satya

Today, in the post-truth era, it is fair to ask how much that old spirit survives. Gandhi ji was profoundly influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. But though publicity posters for the Oscar-winning 1982 film Gandhi proclaimed that “Gandhi's triumph changed the world forever”, I am far from convinced it did.

The Mahatma was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement for independence from colonial rule.

At the same time, he was a philosopher who was constantly seeking to live out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change: his autobiography was typically subtitled ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’.

No dictionary imbues “truth” with the depth of meaning Gandhi gave it. His truth emerged from his convictions: it meant not only what was accurate, but what was just and therefore, right. Truth could not be obtained by untruthful or unjust means, which included inflicting violence upon one's opponent.

To describe his method, Gandhi coined the expression satyagraha – literally “holding on to truth” or, as he variously described it, truth-force, love-force or soul-force. He disliked the English term ‘passive resistance’ because satyagraha required activism, not passivity. If you believed in truth and cared enough to obtain it, Gandhi felt, you could not afford to be passive: you had to be prepared actively to suffer.

Why Gandhi’s Non-Violence Worked

So non-violence, like many later concepts labelled with a negation, from non-cooperation to non-alignment, meant much more than the denial of an opposite; it did not merely imply the absence of violence. Non-violence was the way to vindicate the truth not by the infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one's self. It was essential to willingly accept punishment in order to demonstrate the strength of one's convictions.

This was the approach Gandhi brought to the movement for India’s independence –and it worked.

Where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both proved ineffective, Gandhi took the issue of freedom to the masses as one of simple right and wrong, and gave them a technique to which the British had no response.

By abstaining from violence, Gandhi wrested the moral advantage. By breaking the law non-violently, he exposed the injustice of law. By accepting the punishments imposed on him, he confronted his captors with their own brutalization. By voluntarily imposing suffering upon himself in his hunger-strikes, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defence of what he considered to be right. In the end, he made the perpetuation of British rule an impossibility.


Universal Appeal of Gandhism

The US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr attended a lecture on Gandhi, bought half a dozen books on him and adopted satyagraha as both precept and method. King, more than anyone else, used non-violence most effectively outside India in breaking down segregation in the southern states of the USA. “Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence,” King memorably declared, going on to say, “We must meet the forces of hate with soul force.”

King later avowed that “the Gandhian method of non-violent resistance... became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.” In 2011, the then US President Barack Obama told India’s parliament that were it not for Gandhi, he would not be standing there as President.

Gandhism helped change America forever. But it is difficult to find many other instances of its success today.

India's independence marked the dawn of the era of decolonisation, but many nations still came to freedom only after bloody and violent struggles.

Other peoples have fallen under the boots of invading armies, been dispossessed of their lands or forced to flee in terror from their homes. Non-violence has offered no solution to them. It could only work against opponents vulnerable to a loss of moral authority – governments responsive to domestic and international public opinion, capable of being shamed into conceding defeat. In Gandhi's own day, non-violence could have done nothing for the Jews of Hitler's Germany, who disappeared tragically into gas-chambers far from the flashbulbs of the press.


Gandhi’s Idea of Truth

The power of Gandhian non-violence rests in being able to say, “to show you that you are wrong, I punish myself.” But that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you for your disagreements with them. For them, your willingness to undergo punishment is the most convenient means of victory. No wonder Nelson Mandela, who told me that Gandhi had “always” been “a great source of inspiration”, explicitly disavowed non-violence as ineffective in his struggle against apartheid.

The sad truth today is that the staying-power of organised violence is almost always greater than that of non-violence. Some twenty million lives have been lost in wars and insurrections since Gandhi’s passing. In a dismaying number of countries including his own, governments spend more for military purposes than for education and health care combined.

The current stockpile of nuclear weapons represents over a million times the explosive power of the atom bomb, whose destruction of Hiroshima so grieved Gandhi.

As the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11 demonstrated, India faces the threat of cross-border terrorism to which the Mahatma’s only answer – a fast in protest – would have left its perpetrators unmoved.

Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat. Yet, few who have tried his methods worldwide have his personal integrity or moral stature. The coercive hartal, the hypocritical “relay fast”, the theatrical misuse of dharnas, only show how far the world has fallen from Gandhi’s ideas of truth.


An Unparalleled Leader

None of this dilutes Gandhi's greatness, or the extraordinary resonance of his life and his message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war, the Mahatma taught the virtues of truth, non-violence and peace. He destroyed the credibility of colonialism by opposing brute force. And he set and attained personal standards of conviction and courage which few will ever match. He was that rare kind of leader who was not confined by the inadequacies of his followers.

Yet, Gandhi’s truth was essentially his own.

He formulated its unique content and determined its application in a specific historical context. The originality of his thought and the example of his life inspires people around the world today, but Gandhi's triumph did not “change the world forever”. In the post-truth world we live in, I wonder if the Mahatma would feel he had triumphed at all.

(Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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