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GANDHI'S RELEVANCE?

As Gandhi acquires mythological status, and rapidly enters global

consciousness as a metaphor of his age, what effect did his policy of satyagraha

(loosely translated to imply non violent resistance) have upon India's claim for

independence, as distinct from other political, economic, or religious forces in play

at that time? Are we to consider and compare any possible relevance to Britain's

situation in the 1980's? If so we must similarly define the various forms, and aims,

of public demonstrations. It is platitudinous to suggest that the balance of the power

of destiny could ever singularly rest in peasant hands, either then in India, or now,

in its equivalent form, in a political, of what might loosely be called, at an earlier


time, a working class demonstration in Britain. It has often been suggested by

historians with the benevolent slant of retrospection that Gandhi was able to unify

Muslim and Hindu differences and unite the people towards a common aim of

independence, but, and without attempting to discredit Gandhi's personal humility

in attempting to unify consciousness by his campaigning in villages, evidence

suggests that the main agent of political mobilisation lay in the richer 'peasants',

the Patidars ( politically recognised as a separate caste in the 1931 Indian census, -

formerly known as Kanbi), who were protesting against the land tax pressure upon

owners: they saw the European plantocracy as a rival to their own ambitions, and

in supporting Gandhi in his pursuit of independence they were inevitably furthering

their own cause; that Gandhi was seeking to release them from their oppressors was

merely coincidental to their own ultimate aims of becoming oppressors themselves.

And although Gandhi's promotion of Khadi - home made and spun cloth - was

a symbolic reaction against the importing of mass produced cloth from Lancashire,

and instigated as a possible income for peasants after harvest time, subsequent

events, culminating in the state of emergency declared as late as in 1975, suggest

that his earlier example should now be regarded as no more than a sentimental

recollection of Panchayat raj - the idea of an autonomous village economy, an

economically self-sufficient unit. The idea of independence predated the Mutiny,

but the first evidence we have in India as a direct result of Gandhi's action is

the Montagu - Chelmsford reforms introduced in 1919. Ironically, the Amritsar

Massacre, which along with other civil disturbances, introduced the reforms only

after the suspended hartel, the Indian equivalent of an English General Strike.
It is from this date that nationalist feeling became intense, and it is from this

moment that the movement against British rule became that of the whole people;

the earlier division of Muslim and Hindu, instigated by the British on the Bengal

partition of 1905, ostensibly for administrative reasons, became temporarily healed.

Gandhi was always the figurehead, but contemporary figures saw him, as Vere

Birdan recalled, "If we thought about Gandhi at all it was really that he was just a

bit of a nuisance." The sum of the evidence now suggests that Indian independence

would have come without him, and at a similar time; the Labour party, having held

the policy of Indian independence as part of its programme since the early days of

the early days of the war, were only too ready, after the end of the war, to dispose

of a continent now once again torn by Muslim - Hindu rioting, leaders who disagreed

as to policy, and to absolve themselves from the cost of post-war modernisation.

Neither should we exclude international opinion at that time; Truman had already

spoken to Stalin about the inevitability of India's independence, and Labour's

subsequent policy of withdrawal counted much with official American opinion.

That Gandhi was able to write to Nehru as late as 1946; Abolish the Salt Tax, unite

the Muslims and Hindus, remove untouchability, take to Khadi.' now sounds

unwittingly ingenuous, if not desperate, considering the Muslims were already

demanding a separate state in Pakistan, and that a new faction was emerging - The

Muslim League - who were in opposition to a new and independent India. A year

later the British Parliament introduced a bill supporting the Mountbatten proposal

of dividing the subcontinent into two separate states; the immediate effect was
similar to the Bengal partition of 1905, excepting that the second count of the total

number massacred remains incalculable. Western society has not, of course, been

steeped in Indian traditions.

Therefore, when considering the effect of Gandhi's satyagraha upon European

matters, and perhaps its philosophy, we must first divest Gandhis Hindu philosophy

from the idea of non-violent resistance used as a secular, political device: Gandhi

sought to make the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita a living faith with the large mass

of people, modifying as he did that text's emphasis on action towards his idea of

peaceful political demonstrations. The example that will inevitably spring to mind is

the idea of the use of satyagraha as a protest against nuclear disarmament. However,

for the purpose of this article this type of civil action I wish to more properly define

not as satyagraha but as civil disobedience, a clear distinction being made between

non-violent resistance, as an action instigated against an occupying power, or, as

in the nuclear example given above, as civil disobedience; actions instigated against

a policy held by the government in power. Examples of the former - non violent

resistance - are, for example; Gandhi's attack on British imperial rule by the mass

ceremonial performance of illegal actions; the Norwegian policy of resistance

during W.W.2; The Czechs reaction to the Soviet invasion in '68. But should these

examples also include the Peace campaign in Northern Ireland in'75? The failure of

this latter campaign, which at first sight holds similarities with the Indian situation,

in that a partition exists between Protestants and Catholics as had, and does still,

exist between the Muslims and Hindus, will be shortly examined in more detail.
Amongst other examples of the latter defined civil disobedience are; the international

campaign against nuclear weapons (CND, etc.); and the domestic civil disobedience

in America arising from the the National Association for the Advancement of

Coloured Peoples.

The last examples given in both categories eventually led to the abandonment

of non-violence, in the American example the adoption of more aggressive tactics

from 1967 onwards led to the development of black power organisations such as the

Black Panthers. It is only mildly, if bitterly, ironic that it was a British government

who, having introduced partition in India in 1905 (ostensibly for administrative

reasons) and again later in '47, should have used the same device in Ireland, in 1921.

As a political device it seems singularly destined for failure.

As was the Northern Ireland peace movement, for, without entering into an

in depth analysis of the tangled Anglo-Irish history (this article must by definition

remain concerned primarily with any relationships of Gandhis philosophy to

modern day Britain), the situation in Ireland is that, unlike the Indians, who were

united despite themselves towards an independence of India, Ireland is divided even

in its essential aims; the Catholics seek a republic, but the Unionists object strongly

to any constitutional or institutional link with the Irish republic - inevitably; since

the Protestants form a large majority on 'their' side of the border, but constitute a

minority in the whole of the island, it is apparent that they might be subjected at a

future time to the same degree of political and economic discrimination that they

themselves have practised for so long. That the movement was capable in its early
days a type of unity amongst the middle-class Protestants and Catholics, has its

parallel in India; as already mentioned the 'middle class' Indians sought to promote

their own aims, albeit that the aims were different; peace, and independence. But

the inherent contradictions of the Irish situation were readily apparent when reporters

asked a group of women if they had the backing of Betty Williains and Mairead

Corrigan (the Belfast born founders or the Peace Movement) for a public demonstra-

tion. Their curt reply, 'We are the Shankill Peacewomen up here, we don't want any

known Fenians up here.' unwittingly reveals the essential division between the two

sides. That there would be a civil war upon the withdrawal of troops of a proportional

similarity with Britain's withdrawal from India is without doubt. The problem

appears intractable, the only improbable solution to prevent bloodshed would be to

persuade the Protestants by a campaign of mass propaganda to move back to the

mainland. This acquiescence on the part of the Protestants would be inconceivable;

Ireland is naturally seen as their homeland, ever since the early plantations of

1608 - 10, a settlement instigated by the earlier defeat of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of

Tyrone, and the Earl of Tyrconnell. Only since the set up of the six counties of

Northern Ireland in 1920, however, have the Protestants achieved a two to one

majority, and thus total political and economic domination over a minority: as has

arisen at various times throughout history, those with economic dominance over

others have naturally sought to prolong their position of advantage with and by

oppression.

With regards to civil disobedience as a protest against nuclear power, what


is the balance between self discipline on the part of the demonstrators, and the

moral restraint upon the use of force by the government in power? Gandhi sought

persecution, to the extent of saying in 1919, after identifying himself with the

Muslims in their Khilafat opposition to the Treaty of Sevres, 'I am here to invite

and submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me, for what in law

is a deliberate crime, but what appears to me to be the highest duty.' The words

' .. in law is a deliberate crime..' are relevant to this discussion in that public

demonstrations are regarded as a right within the U.K. and are as such less likely

to provoke a violent response from the police, and, consequently, since there is a

correlation between access to the media and the violence that may erupt upon the

streets, may be less publicly advertised than might otherwise be. We may cast our

eyes back towards the suffragette movement and the difficulty women later had

over becoming arrested; without he resultant publicity their cause was viewed to

have been undermined.

This is not say that public opinion is impotent, indeed, it was thought decisive

in the struggle over the Corn Laws, but unlike Gandhi's later cause the nuclear

debate is already international; whereas Gandhi sought to alert English and then

global opinion by the action of provoking breaches of public order, the nuclear

faction seeks to alert their own government. That both sought, and seek, to disrupt

the police and judicial machinery of state by overloading their procedures to a point

where their can no longer be applied is merely coincidental. Civil disobedience then,

has its potency in England, the U.K. and in Europe. Large numbers in passive
inaction inevitably restrict the polices powers to react; the author can recall

thousands of helmet-less motorcyclists streaming down the Great West Road,

London, on their way to protest about the compulsory wearing of helmets introduced

earlier that year; the police looked on helplessly. But of violence against the

demonstrators? The satygraha are beaten now in India, as they were in 1920, non

violence as a social action is a absurdly spent force. The police seek to increase their

powers in Northern Ireland, and reports of torture are 'unofficially' censured before

they reach the mainland. That the recent shooting of a man in London provoked

such an uproar has its ominous inconsistencies if you were to consider that the

police have assassinated several similarly unarmed men in Northern Ireland. The

Northern Ireland Peace Movement, on its march, faced little police resistance, but

hostility from the Provisionals, who took to stoning the thousands who trudged

along sheltered only by their umbrellas. The UDA reacted differently; there they

were the silent men in dark glasses lining the roads to prevent trouble. How much

unity and enthusiasm must be sustained if a cause is to be effected? Gandhi's hope

of unity collapsed upon Mountbatten's division of India in1947, but a portent of

this collapse was seen in 1939: Congress and Gandhi disagreed as to whether to

participate in the war, Jinnah had declared the 'Indian nation does not exist.' and

Gandhi, in despair had replied, 'He had dashed to the ground all hopes of unity.'

This idea of unity, constancy and enthusiasm is unlikely to be broken in the

case of nuclear disarmament; the CND campaign has been consistent throughout

the sixties and seventies, despite the lack (until recently) of media coverage and

enthusiasm from the national press. And even here, these institutions with their
inherently inbuilt right-wing bias, have sought, even if only 'unconsciously' to

discredit the disarmament campaign by the lowering of its credibility; the recent

Greenham Common demonstration was reported ambiguously, with repeated

emphasis and over articulation of the word 'women', as if a feminist action against

a proposed nuclear site was, perhaps, unusual, an event worthy of not merely

reporting, but of a restrained ridicule also. But the avowal of a feminist view point

in relation to the nuclear movement is inherently ambiguous, not in that the feminist

movement has no comment to make concerning the nuclear issue, but that such

emphasis upon the exclusion of men (by the media) can be ultimately interpreted as

irrelevant; the nuclear bomb is essentially sexless, as neither of the two superpowers

have as yet developed a device that is attentive to gender.

Does then, finally, Gandhi hold any relevance for us today? In comparing the

differences between India's situation in the days before independence, and in the

U.K. now, albeit in extremely general terms: we have seen that the higher castes,

Brahmin and Rajput and Bhuinar, tended to form the general majority of participation

in satygraha, as the middle classes in Europe tend to form the majority in European

demonstrations, no correlation being made between between class, and caste, but

we can deduce that their aims were and are very different; India is still torn by

poverty, the result of oppression upon its peasants by the 'new' landlords, as well as

Muslim-Hindu differences, whereas the Europeans have now more humanitarian

aims; concern at the unnecessarily heavy expense of the cost of the cold war, or any

real war, the dangers of contamination from radiation - and it is because of these
arguments that religious disagreement is transcended, and also that the arguments

are not concerned with the threat of immediate occupation by a foreign power

implies that as a protest they will succeed; Mrs Thatcher and her government may

well hope that the Sizewell public enquiry will go against them, if only to save face

at the reversal of policy, but also to avoid the enormous cost, but in contrast to this

is a government already too committed to the Americans to dispose of the Trident

missile programme. It is to the Labour Party's credit that they have alerted them-

selves to the groundswell of opinion, and have already opted for nuclear

disarmament. That Gandhi's philosophy of non violent resistance is now seen to

work, at our later time, as a secular device - civil disobedience - is ironic, but it is

also ironic that in Ireland, which at first sight has seemingly apparent parallels with

India as already mentioned, the use of satygraha is futile; the roots of the provinces

problems are historically intractable, but considering India's own fate of perpetual

division, we must consider Gandhi's use of satygraha there as failed too; historical

analysis will eventually consider Gandhi, in time, after the current waves of

deification have spent their force, as a saintly man living in an unsaintly world:

the essential division between his aims and his people lies finally in the irony of his

assassination; by a Hindu who believed Gandhi had been too conciliatory to the

Muslims.

(1986)