Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns could not really be said to have brought an end to empire

from The Middle Stage by Chandrahas
A hundred years ago, civil resistance as a political force was not much more than a minor curiosity. Although it had theoretical roots in the ideas of Thoreau, Tolstoy and Ruskin, in the realm of worldly application Mohandas Gandhi’s work for the rights of Indians in South Africa was about the only feather in its cap. Today, that is no longer so. The idea of civil resistance today has a history, a dignity, an allure, a vocabulary (agitations in the Philippines in the eighties gave rise to the term “people power”; the Czech writer Vaclav Havel produced a famous essay called “The Power of the Powerless”; the peaceful transfer of power in Prague in 1989 threw up the term "velvet revolution"). […]

One of the key emphases of Civil Resistance & Power Politics is that it understands civil resistance not as an ideal of moral action and non-violent “conversion” of the adversary through “truth-force” as Gandhi saw it, but simply as a strategy of practical politics. Moral transformation of the adversary is not essential to successful civil resistance. As the second half of the book’s title indicates, civil resistance is often a response to “power politics” – the negligence, manipulation, and active oppression demonstrated by those in power. But it seeks to counter that with a power politics of its own. Its morality is restricted to non-violence; beyond that it may legitimately be all calculation and pragmatism. We should neither romanticise the idea of civil resistance, nor believe, despite some of the more stirring stories around it, that it infallibly reaches its projected ends.

Indeed, as the scholar Judith M. Brown argues in a clear-eyed review of Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns, mass action strategised by the most celebrated practitioner of the method, even though it significantly changed the terms of imperial engagement with the colonised, could not really be said to have brought an end to empire, as some hold. Other political and economic circumstances, such as the Second World War and Britain's own faltering interest in the idea of empire, were just as influential in tilting the balance of history in favour of Indian independence.

Gandhi certainly radically enlarged the terms of protest and negotiation available to the disenfranchised, and laid down a frame where any person, even a child, could join the movement as a political actor. Yet even here, Brown shows, his local campaigns directed towards a specific end, such as the farmers’ agitations in Champaran and Bardoli, were much more successful than his pan-Indian campaigns, where it became harder to exercise discipline all the way down the line. Among the lessons we learn from Gandhi’s example is that civil resistance does not usually yield instant results: it shifts the balance of power step by step. We learn also that much depends on the timing of civil protest, and on the adversary’s willingness to engage. During the Quit India campaign of 1942, for instance, the Raj’s attention was directed towards the World War, and Congress leaders engaged in programs of civil resistance were summarily rounded up and thrown into jail. The movement was not a success. So, as the career of even the most successful exponent of civil resistance shows, skilful strategy (and not just moral rigour) can immeasurably help improve the efficacy of civil resistance. […]

Most importantly, mass commitment, as Gandhi realised, makes for campaigns that cannot be crushed easily and without loss of face and authority, and provides a kind of safety in numbers. […] The merit of this anthology is in the way it takes the reader forward from civil resistance as a beautiful and moving idea to civil resistance as, if you will, prosaic practice. Even as it seeks to reshape history itself, civil resistance has much to learn from its own history, and, as this book demonstrates, much history today to learn from. […]
And here are two old posts: "On the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi" and "On Vaclav Havel's To The Castle And Back". [A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge] [Gandhi: A Sublime Failure S. S. Gill]


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