October 2007

Vol 7 - No. 4
























Profile | October 2007




Image: Uday Kuckian

In Memory of His Martyrdom
Gandhi, Non-Violence and Indian Independence Movement 

Sukla Sen *

Gandhi was reportedly anointed as the ‘Father of the Nation’ by no less than Subhas Chandra Bose himself – arguably his most formidable challenger from within the Congress domain.

It was meant to underscore and highlight essentially two points: one ideological and the other political. 

One, India as a ‘nation’, as opposed to ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’, was (being) forged out of the crucible of its struggle for freedom from the British colonial rule. The origin of the idea is usually traced back to the first economic history of India by an Indian authored in the mid-nineteenth century.  


The appellation also captured in rather explicit terms the more obvious acknowledgement of Gandhi’s stellar role in that epic struggle (by one who had just parted with him after a bitter political conflict).

Gandhi also had come to be known as Mahatma, the Great Soul. The tag was presumably chosen by Rabindranath Tagore. This was to extol his presumed steadfast adherence to and application of ethical principles – truth and non-violence, in the field of politics.  

These two – Gandhi the political Leader and Gandhi as the upholder of ‘principles’, are discrete and yet closely intertwined aspects; and in his case, I’d argue, it is the latter that appears to have flowed from the former rather than the other way round, as commonly presumed.


To illustrate, in ‘practice’, Gandhi’s ‘non-violence’ effectively meant massive – mass participatory, resistance at a low/regulated level of militancy.  

The primary emphasis was not to keep the level of militancy down, as is often alleged by the Left, but to give the resistance a sustainable ‘mass’ character. In his estimation ‘violence’ would have had stripped resistance of its ‘mass’ character (and threatened its sustainability), again in his estimates so very necessary for making the resistance effective.

He had already experimented with his methods in South Africa, where the ruling order was arguably even more brutal. (The Civil Disobedience in India had also been preceded by Champaran and Kheda.)

Even the track record and experience of the outcomes of the struggles by the militant nationalist currents in India itself must have had reinforced his search for out-of-the-box alternatives.  

His early thoughts must have had been impacted by Vaishnavite and Jain traditions on account of sheer close proximity. He himself belonged to the former. At a later stage, Tolstoy, and his interpretations of Christian ethics, became a major influence.  

The Leftist critique that the road of militancy was shunned as a deliberate strategy to ensure that the leadership of the resistance does not pass into the hands of the toiling and the oppressed has a ring of truth though. Gandhi's refusal to seek clemency for Bhagat Singh, in the early thirties, points towards that. But the traditional militants themselves had by and large been much more elitist in social composition, as compared to the mass of followers of the Congress under Gandhian leadership, and more conservative in terms of social – i.e. as regards caste and gender, outlook of the leaders. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a front ranking national leader enjoying iconic status among the militants, is a graphic example.

Specifically Leftist ideas started gaining some currency in India only since early twenties, under the impact of Bolshevik revolution, though Bankimchandra – who’d later evolve as a conservative thinker, had authored radical essays like ‘Samya’ (Equality) and Bangladesher Krishak (Peasants of Bengal) about three decades back.  

Gandhi had called off the first mass struggle against the colonial rule as far back as in Feb. 1922 after a violent attack on a police station at Chauri Chaura in eastern U.P., when the radical threat/challenge must have had not appeared too intimidating.  

In stark, and interesting, contrast he tried nothing of that sort twenty years thence in the context of the ‘Quit India Movement’, which would in due course assume gigantic proportions. It is also noteworthy that with much greater ideological and political weight of the Left, notwithstanding the treacherous conduct of a significant section of its in those days, even the August Revolution did not usher in any rule of the toilers.  

At any rate, in the process we also tend to disregard that the movement was the first act of nationwide mass resistance, cutting across multiple divides, against the colonial order – very much different in character from the 1857 rebellion.

In terms of this reading, Hindu-Muslim unity was also a great practical imperative for building up a really effective mass resistance against the seemingly all-powerful colonial ruler.


In any case, Gandhi took great pains to rationalise his political strategy in philosophical terms. And his philosophy had strong religious groundings, of multiple shades.  

Again the hold of religion on Indian psyche must have had been duly factored in. He had to offer an alternate interpretation of the Bhagabad Gita, as opposed to the one given by redoubtable Tilak.


In sum, the point here is that Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence essentially played a complementary role, evolved over time, to promote the strategy of active mass resistance to colonial rule at a low/regulated level of militancy. This is, however, not to deny the complex interplay of the two or the wide scope and multi-layered character of his doctrine encompassing even (offbeat) economic models and concern for ecology.


This does not of course shut out the possibility of using Gandhi as a great resource, particularly in the fight for ‘peace’, given his iconic status in the ‘nationalist’ folklore, his unambiguous and trenchant condemnation of Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, and the salutary role played by him in trying to bring about communal amity in the midst of all-engulfing insane violence almost as a single-person army particularly since August 1946 eventually culminating in his martyrdom on this very day twentynine years bac while conducting a routine public prayer unarmed and unprotected, despite repeated threats to his life, at a public place.  

He, the widely acknowledged ‘Mahatma’, was felled by the bullet of a Hindu fanatic with RSS roots for the crime of “Muslim appeasement”.


It is only after his death, with the passage of time, Gandhi the Philosopher (of Non-Violence) has gradually overtaken Gandhi the Leader of Indian Independence Movement. And in the process, he has become more and more an international celebrity with eroding status in his own country. The original stock of his international admirers, which had included luminaries like Romain Rolland and Albert Einstein, has been further reinforced with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.


Sukla Sen is a social activist based in Mumbai. Engaged with the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament as a part of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP) and an editor of its journal, Peace Now; with media campaigning on various issues as a part of the People's Media Initiative (PMI); and for communal amity and against ideologies and politics of sectarian hatred as a part of the EKTA (Committee for Communal Amity), Mumbai.


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