Gandhi’s celebrated strategy of non-violent protest was not responsible for winning Indian independence, and actually held back the struggle, explains Lucy Honan As the police gathered forces and began violently attacking protesters at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, activists on the streets argued in meetings over how violent or non-violent their defence of themselves and the environment could be.
Author and anti-capitalist activist Naomi Klein pleaded with a crowd to refrain from “escalating” the tense situation: “We can’t control the cops but we can control our own behaviour. Anybody who escalates is not with us.” Her moral appeal was met with both cheers and “shames”.
This will be a familiar scene to left wing activists the world over. At high points in the campaigns, climate camps, education rallies and anti-war actions this very debate is regularly rehearsed. Is insisting on the right to protest itself violent? How, when we have the opportunity, do we actually confront oppressive forces?
For many activists, Klein’s non-violent line seems to be a principled, proven strategy of collectively exposing hypocrisy and injustice. Gandhi’s non-violent independence movement in India, and Martin Luther King’s non-violent desegregation movement in the US appear to be the historical proofs for the strategy.
On the 70th anniversary of Gandhi’s famous Salt March it is worth looking at the real history of the independence movement and investigating just how sound is the non-violent strategy, and where the non-violent logic will take a movement.
On the eve of Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 India was, and had been, the most valuable of all Britain’s colonies since its conquest in the late 18th century.
The East India Company and then Britain itself used India and Indian troops to conquer more East Asian territory. They created monopolies and taxes on necessities like salt to finance their military activities and to send profits home.
And finally, in order to truly bleed India (as Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State for India put it in 1875) Britain imposed an agricultural cash economy that resulted in mass dispossession, enormous profits for British traders and a steep drop in the standard of living for most Indians.
Gandhi was a vocal opponent of British rule in India, and saw the importance of a united Indian national independence movement to oust the imperial force. To this end, in March 1930 Gandhi led a march of 78 Satyagrahis (activists trained in Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence) to the coastal town of Dandi.
In an act of civil disobedience, Gandhi broke the law that prohibited individuals making their own salt and in doing so evaded the British monopoly and tax on salt. He encouraged others to do the same in a mass “Salt Satyagraha”.
The image of a humbly clad Gandhi holding a fistful of muddy salt up after the 23 day Salt March and declaring to a crowd and the world media, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire,” inspired hundreds of thousands of Indians then, and many people world wide today, to confront oppression.
Yet Gandhi called off the mass movement that grew out of the Salt Satyagraha well before it could bring India closer to independence.
Two questions arise out of the Salt Satyagraha: What about Gandhi’s strategy was so successful for mobilising masses for the independence movement? And why did Gandhi call off the movement at its height?
In the first place, Gandhi could effectively mobilise the masses because, quite outside of the non-violent strategy, he gave expression to an already existing outrage with British rule.
During the 19th century the hated monopolies, land taxes and renting systems had dispossessed large numbers of peasants. England flooded the Indian markets with factory goods, so handicraft industries were crushed. The dispossessed peasants and unemployed weavers and spinners became exploited agricultural day labourers, producing cotton, food grains and indigo for foreign markets. The surplus that peasants stored in case of bad crops, droughts or floods had to be sold to pay new taxes and rent.
The result was more frequent and more widespread famines. Gandhi’s declarations about the injustice of British rule and insistence that the British “had a policy of heartless exploitation of India… to be persisted at any cost” struck a chord with the workers and peasants who suffered under British rule.
Gandhi was not the first to demand political and economic justice for Indians, but he was the first to engage the vast majority of the population, the peasants and to some extent the workers, in the struggle to achieve it.
The Indian National Congress Party, made up of upper class Indian men, was formed to push for representation within colonial rule, the British Raj, although eventually it demanded outright independence.
However, the Congress strategy reflected its membership. The moderate wing lobbied and negotiated with the British representatives, while the more radical nationalists argued that a brave and dedicated minority could win a military victory on behalf of the masses.
Neither of these elitist strategies was successful in convincing or outwitting Britain, and Congress was as eager to recruit Gandhi to their ranks as peasants and workers were to participate in their own liberation.
After thousands were inspired to participate in the independence movement by breaking the salt laws, peasants and workers extended the strategy of defiance beyond making their own salt. Forest laws were defied, unfair taxes and rents were evaded and peasants physically defended their property from police seizure. When Gandhi was arrested in May 1930 there were strikes and mass demonstrations in Maharashtra which forced the police off the streets.
In Sholapur workers replaced police with their own administration for a week. In Peshawar Hindu troops were ordered to fire on a crowd of Muslim demonstrators but two platoons broke ranks and handed their weapons over to the demonstrators.
British businessmen, alarmed by the uprising, began supporting demands for at least semi-autonomous self-government for India.
For almost a year, the movement of millions showed no signs of flagging but Gandhi called off the campaign when he was released from prison in early 1931.
He claimed that the participants were becoming dangerous, dishonorable and uncontrollable. Even the conservative members of Congress were devastated that the movement was cut off before any real gains had been made. Gandhi signed an agreement with Viceroy Irwin without winning a single one of the original demands of the Salt March. Even the salt law remained intact.
At face value, it would seem that it was Gandhi’s very strict ideal of a completely non-violentcampaign that prompted him to quell the movement—but this is far from the truth. His non-violence was actually part of a political strategy to displace the British rather than overthrow them.
Gandhi’s response to the mutinous Hindu troops who fraternized with Peshawar demonstrators instead of firing on them reveals that Gandhi’s non-violent principles had a peculiar flexibility.
Far from congratulating the troops who mutinied as a triumph of non-violence, Gandhi condemned the soldiers for failing to fire, saying:
“A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks that oath which he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey; for when I am in power I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials, and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power.”
In this comment to a French journalist Gandhi revealed that the seeming idealism of non-violence actually cloaked an anxious reformism.
Gandhi wanted to preserve a placid working class and the forces to control it for when the British left. He took great pains to reassure the Indian elite that political strikes and threats to private property were not his agenda: “We want no political strikes… We seek not to destroy capital and capitalists, but to regulate relations between capital and labour,” he had said in 1918.
In 1921 he assured the landlords, “I shall be no party to dispossessing propertied classes of their private property without just cause.”
Gandhi reigned in the Salt Satyagraha before it won anything. The physical resistance that workers put up to defend picket lines and that peasants used to defend their land represented worker and peasant power that threatened to go beyond Gandhi’s strategy of forcing the British to negotiate.
Gandhi would not embrace the power that workers in particular had to defend themselves and to throw out the British. Nor was he committed to supporting their struggle to throw off the whole capitalist class.
As a result, the non-violence he demanded meant those he mobilised were left completely vulnerable to the brutal force of the British Raj. Where Gandhi had effectively muzzled activists, horrific scenes of violence were inevitable.
In May 1930, at a “non-violent” raid on a salt works in Gujarat the Satyagrahis were told under no uncertain terms that they were not to resist the soldiers.
A United Press reporter observed the results: “They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls… Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies.”
Neither the quality nor the aim of worker or peasant violence was in any way equivalent to the violence that the British Raj had inflicted on them.
Not only were the British prepared to violently suppress the Independence movement, they routinely beat workers to discipline them, “bagged natives” on hunting trips and introduced systemic poverty, debt and hunger as part of their strategy of “bleeding India”.
In contrast to both the relentless violence of the British, and the completely disarmed and largely ineffective Satyagrahis, grew the kernel of a strong workers’ movement.
The violence that this group used was to defend themselves and to fight for liberation.
The Bombay naval mutiny in 1946 offers an example of the power that a united working class could exercise.
The resistance began as a strike to protest conditions of naval ratings, but quickly grew into a broader mutiny against the British rule in India. Popular support for the mutiny poured forth, as first the workers of Bombay held marches and general strikes. Workers in other cities followed suit. The Royal Indian air force, local police forces, and parts of the British Indian army joined the strike.
The mutineers and strikers marched with the flags of the Muslim league, Congress and Communist Party tied together to symbolise national unity and a rejection of communal violence.
The British government was panic-stricken. They sent whatever police and soldiers they could muster to quell the uprisings. No longer able to rely on Indian naval forces they resorted to Scottish naval regiments to put down the spreading naval mutiny. The working class fought back to defend the growing movement with guns, rocks and knives.
Despite the magnificent display of unity and strength and its potential to force the British out, Gandhi condemned the militant activity.
Both Congress and the Muslim League denounced the mutineers and strikers. The demobilization of this unified struggle paved the way for the bloodbath that was to come when Indian independence led not to a unified state but to ethnic cleansing of Muslims and the creation of Pakistan.
When India eventually achieved independence in 1947, the ramifications of failing to use the strength of the working class to end imperialist control became clear. Britain negotiated the terms of independence with the local elite, the bourgeoisie of Congress and the Muslim League.
In the absence of a united class struggle, the divide and rule tactics that the British had long used to weaken Indian resistance flourished. Hindu-Muslim violence and antagonism peaked. Congress agreed to partition off Pakistan because the alternative of a unified Muslim-Hindu working class was a threat to its own power as the new rulers of India.
The result was the gruesome violence of partition and two capitalist states, both with virtually unchanged bureaucracies and repressive police forces, both with exploitative ruling classes and neglected and impoverished labouring classes, with wars, nuclear weapons and communal violence.
The revolutionary potential of the united working class both appealed to and terrified Gandhi. His attempts to both mobilise and muzzle an anti-imperialist movement with non-violent philosophy sparked fierce mass movements, but also exposed Indian workers and peasants to the divisive, exploitative and physical violence of the ruling classes.
Despite the myth, non-violence did not win Indian independence.
Tragically, the lack of alternative political leadership in the independence struggle meant that the potential of the working class to end both the violence of British rule and that of the Indian elite that replaced it, went unrealised. The violence of the state was left intact.
Although it might seem a long way from Copenhagen to Gandhi and Indian Independence, there is an enduring lesson. Naomi Klein was perpetuating a myth at Copenhagen. There is no moral equivalence between the violence of the ruling class and its armies and police and the resistance of workers and protesters defending their rights.
Their violence leads to a perpetuation of a violent system. Our resistance has the potential to end it.