What Won Us Independence: Gandhi’s Non-Violence Or Armed Struggle?
(Photo: iStockphoto)
(Photo: iStockphoto)

What Won Us Independence: Gandhi’s Non-Violence Or Armed Struggle?

There’s no event in history that’s more grim and regretful than the death of Mahatma Gandhi by a fanatic’s bullet. It was the triumph of Godse and the RSS’s philosophy of violence over Bapu’s ahimsa; the defeat of a belief in every human’s goodness.

It is completely legitimate that we doubt the effectiveness of a man’s non-violent methods and teachings when he was himself assassinated. Was it Bapu’s ahimsa or Bose’s call for a military struggle that liberated India? Did the British flee out of fear of violence or was it because of a sustained non-violent struggle? These questions are particularly important in a world that is already bleeding due to unprecedented crises and conflicts.

This, though, is not about questioning the two giants, but understanding whom the tide favoured.

The Political Power of Gandhi

The fact that he was a "half-naked fakir", as Churchill said, enabled Gandhi to achieve the impossible task of mobilising the anger of the people and turning it into a constructive force.

For the hill tribes in Awadh, his call for non-cooperation meant a refusal to pay taxes; for peasants in Kumaon, it meant a refusal to carry the loads of British officers. 

The meaning of his calls was very localised and thus resonated with the oppressed. Gandhi knew well how to shake the core of the British Empire.

Snow falls on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on a winter morning in Geneva. (Photo: Reuters)
Snow falls on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on a winter morning in Geneva. (Photo: Reuters)

Bhagat Singh and Netaji: Localised Heroes

This, though, can’t be said of Bhagat Singh and Netaji, whose influence was limited to northern India. Moreover, it was highly unlikely that the Shaheed-e-Azam’s small revolutionary group could ever become a force that could reckon with the empire.

There are multiple problems with revolutionary violence. It cannot be openly pursued and made into a mass force, as is evident with the Azad Hind Fauj, which was constituted not in India but in Southeast Asia. Violent means are unprincipled and rarely disciplined. Their effect is both spontaneous and short-lived.

Non-Violence a Strategic Tool

It is a huge mistake to disregard non-violence as a naive tool. Ahminsa as a method is just as strategic in nature as military warfare, if not more. Violent uprisings could have never managed to generate the international pressure that non-violence did.

Gandhi was a prudent saint, and resorting to violent means would have resulted in his legal persecution, like that of many other freedom fighters.

The British government found itself unable to act against a man brazenly conspiring against the empire, yet doing nothing illegal. Bullets were no remedy for a fasting fakir.

Non-Violence as Soft Power

Shashi Tharoor’s comments about soft power fit in extremely well for Gandhi, it was his “ability to tell better stories” that was most effective.

British harassment of satyagrahis certainly made a better headline in the international media than the hanging of a person accused of attempts to murder or destruction. The influence Gandhi had on the world is illustrated in Einstein’s remarks, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” 

Further being Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1930 despite being a resident of a colony was in no measure a small demonstration of India’s ability to rule itself with able men and women.

Those who say independence was an immediate outcome of British economic destruction during the World War II or the realisation that they couldn’t continue because India had grown violently rebellious, usually forget that independence was a culmination of a series of events rather than an event in itself.

Beginning from the Government of India Act,1919, to the Government of India Act, 1935, the British had already begun giving adequate representation to Indians in provincial assemblies and other administration levels. A sudden transfer of power, Gandhi knew, would be chaotic and even lead to disintegration. The patience, however painful, was necessary, an idea that revolutionaries couldn’t reconcile with.

Gandhi understood that the mightiest empire couldn’t be defeated by a mightier force but by rendering it unsustainable. In Hind Swaraj, he clearly identifies the cause of enslavement as cooperation and not dictatorial oppression, something Bose would argue against.

Lastly, even if one assumes that it was Bose and not Bapu who earned India independence, it is crucial to give Gandhi the benefit of doubt. If all power came from the barrel of a gun, as Mao Zedong believed, our war-plagued world will take humanity to hell. Military and lethal weapons have failed to produce peace.

Gandhi’s Relevance in the Age of ISIS

 (Photo: iStockphoto)
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Would Gandhi’s tools work with the ISIS? Maybe, if we could start investing more of our energies in developing means of creative resistance. Jamila Raqib, a non-violence activist, speaks of how people in Mosul refused to send their children to school when ISIS captured the town and instituted an extremist curriculum. She says: Imagine if this was a part of a larger strategy of people, where they refused to be engineers at refineries, operators of telecom services, transporters of weapon trucks.”

Gandhi’s methods worked in Tunisia, Egypt, Guatemala, Uganda and even in areas of the Israel and Palestine border. Are we ready to lend our ears to these struggles? Non-violence is. after all, a theatre that needs an audience.

(Akshat Tyagi is the author of 'Naked Emperor of Education', India's first young voice against the dehumanising schooling model. He regularly writes on education, society, and politics. He can be reached at akshattyagi.com. 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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