Ethan Nash examines the successes and pitfalls of Gandhi’s nonviolent disobedience movement.
Gandhi is one of the most revered public figures of the 20th century. Yet, for all of his renown, Gandhi’s actual strategies for promoting social change in India are much less known.
Some people think of him as a spiritual figure who led through moral persuasion alone. Others have heard of the most famous acts of civil disobedience undertaken by him and his followers, protests that have been celebrated widely and dramatized in Hollywood movies. While others picture him as a political figure, sitting at the negotiating table across from officers of the British Empire.
All of these ideas reflect aspects of Gandhi’s political life.
However, each portrait by itself is incomplete.
At the end of 1930, India was experiencing disruption on a scale not seen in nearly three quarters of a century — and it was witnessing a level of social movement participation never seen before.
A campaign of mass non-cooperation against imperial rule had spread throughout the country, initiated earlier that year when Mohandas Gandhi and approximately 80 followers from his religious community set out on a Salt March protesting the British monopoly on the mineral.
Before the campaign was through, the world would see more than 60,000 people be arrested, with as many as 29,000 proudly filling the jails at one time.
Among their ranks were many of the most prominent figures from the Indian National Congress, including politicians that had once been reluctant to support nonviolent direct action.
Not only were Indians illegally producing salt and staging blockades of government salt works, but, as the effort grew, the campaign adopted a rich array of additional tactics.
Hundreds of thousands of villagers refused to pay land and timber taxes. Civil servants resigned from government, with as much as a third of local officials in one district of Gujarat declaring that they would leave their posts. All while activists maintained an organised boycott of British imports.
In the words of one historian, major textile centers including Calcutta, Bhagalpur, Delhi, Amritsar and Bombay, “came to a virtual standstill for part or most of 1930 as a result of [strikes], picketing and self-imposed closures by businessmen.”
Observers near and far could sense the historic magnitude of the moment.
In England, Winston Churchill, then a conservative member of Parliament, railed furiously at what he perceived as his government’s incompetence in properly defending the empire.
British officials within India were similarly distressed.
Sir Frederick Sykes, the governor of Bombay, wrote to his superiors in May 1930: “It is now necessary frankly to recognize the fact that we are faced with a more or less overt rebellion … and that it is supported either actively or passively by a very large section of the population. We have, for one reason or another, practically no openly active friends.”
One police commander described his district as: “Virtually in a state of war for a substantial part of the year.”
How did the Indian independence movement get to this point of success?
What type of organising had allowed for this uprising to take place?
What strategy had led to such widespread and co-ordinated disobedience?
In truth, it was not one strategy, but the combination of several. A large part of the political genius of Mohandas Gandhi lay in his ability to bring disparate strategies together.
BRIDGING THE GAP
For people seeking to generate change today, the landscape of social movements can appear fragmented and confusing. Responding to the myriad challenges of oppression, exploitation and catastrophe, different groups pursue widely varying organising strategies.
This is currently evident in Australia, as it once was in India.
Others focus on the slow-and-steady work of building long-term institutions, such as unions or independent political parties, to challenge the status quo and disrupt the establishment.
We also can see groups fostering counter-culture communities and alternative institutions outside of the mainstream. TOTT News is attempting to do this with our like-minded community.
Despite these actions, there is often little contact between groups employing different strategies — and little sense of common purpose.
However, these different efforts need not see themselves at odds with one another.
Movements function best when they recognise diverse roles and find ways to employ the contributions of each in constructive ways. In fact, this can be a key to success.
Although his organising against British rule in India began a full century ago, Gandhi encountered many of the same divisions that we continue to see resurfacing in modern Australia.
Because of this, his ability to foster and nourish a rich social movement ecosystem — in which different approaches to change each helped to advance an overall anti-imperialist effort — offers intriguing lessons as we continue to live through the COVID dystopia.
Gandhi’s methodology for bringing about social transformation was more interesting than any one of these facets suggests. What makes him such a unique figure to examine within the history of social movements is his ability to bring together a variety of different types of organising.
Gandhi was able to cultivate what can be called a healthy “ecology of change,” in which groups with diverse theories and practices for changing their society could each expand the capabilities of the movement as a whole.
In particular, he united these activities — mass protest, structure-based organising, and the creation of alternatives — to collaborate in the service of a unified social movement.
Gandhi served as a bridge between these different orientations, providing an exceptional model of how movements can benefit when different strategies come together. To appreciate Gandhi’s rare talent at bridging these worlds does not require putting him on a pedestal.
Rather, we can all draw valuable insights from the growth of the Indian independence movement in his time and its success in elevating anti-imperialist agitation against British rule to historic levels.
IGNITING MASS PROTESTS
The first type of activity that Gandhi promoted is perhaps his most renowned: He was famous for creating campaigns of mass disruption that would draw in many thousands of participants, spread over large areas, and force an issue to the fore of political discussion.
Gandhi referred to this method of mobilisation as satyagraha, or the application of “truth force.”
Throughout his life, Gandhi led major satyagraha campaigns. Undertaken over a period of four decades, these began with his initial experiments in civil disobedience and non-cooperation in South Africa and culminated in drives that affected the whole of India.
The first mobilisations in India involved regional campaigns of strikes and protests by farmworkers in 1917 in Bihar and 1918 in Gujarat. Farmers collectively refused to pay land taxes, even in the face widespread arrests, beatings and confiscation of farmland.
After five months, the government relented and returned land, released prisoners and eased taxes.
While such early drives were largely contained to local areas, the satyagrahas grew into disruptive campaigns with much larger scope.
Today, as in Gandhi’s time, when mass protests grab headlines and send thousands into the streets, they are regularly described as ‘unplanned’, ’emotional’ and ‘spontaneous’ uprisings.
Gandhi’s refinement of this perception in the public’s eye — with the strategic use of unarmed uprising — is one of his great contributions to social movement history.
An influential early study of Gandhian civil resistance noted that: “Satyagraha, as applied socio-political action, requires a comprehensive program of planning, preparation and studied execution.”
Gandhi’s first nationwide satyagraha was the 1920-22 drive known as the Non-Cooperation Movement. This campaign unfolded through a series of escalating actions.
Historian Perry Anderson describes four ultimate aims of disruptive activity:
1) Renunciation of all titles and honours conferred by the British.
2) Resignations from positions in the civil service.
3) Resignation from the police and army.
4) A refusal to pay taxes.
Following Gandhi’s announcement of the strategy in August 1920, the drive quickly took hold.
“The campaign electrified the country,” Anderson notes, “drawing in social layers and geographical regions hitherto untouched by nationalist agitation[.]”
Historian Judith Brown adds, “Men and women, old and young, townsman and rustic, could choose the action appropriate to them, from attending a meeting to closing a shop, staying away from classes, or persuading local shopkeepers to stop selling foreign cloth and liquor.”
Everyone played their part.
The impact could be felt across an expansive area. Hindi poet Rambriksha Benipuri famously remarked, “From the time I have been aware, I have witnessed various movements; however, I can assert that no other movement upturned the foundations of Indian society to the extent that the Non-Cooperation Movement did.”
By early 1922, British administration had been disrupted but not disabled, and noncooperation leaders determined that the movement was ready to begin a tax strike.
However, only four days after announcing this escalation, Gandhi controversially decided to call off the Non-Cooperation Movement altogether following an outbreak of violence in the northern town of Chauri Chaura. Gandhi spent two years in a British jail for ‘promoting seditious activity’.
While the strategic wisdom of curtailing the campaign was hotly debated among supporters and detractors alike, what is not in question is that the drive successfully translated the principles of satyagraha from its regional applications in Bihar and Gujarat to an India-wide movement.
In doing so, it set the stage for an even larger wave of mass civil resistance: the Salt Satyagraha.
Commencing in March 1930, the Salt Satyagraha began with a 200-mile march by Gandhi and his supporters to the coastal city of Dandi, and it expanded quickly from there.
“The march generated great India-wide publicity,” Brown writes, and soon millions more joined the satyagraha.
Although British authorities brutally repressed protests and made tens of thousands of arrests nationwide, resistance continued month after month.
Reflecting on the breadth of mobilisation, nationalist leader and future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru later stated, “It seemed as though a spring had suddenly been released.”
Gandhi taught his crowds to approach everyone, no matter their anger, no matter their prejudice against him or his people, with kindness and respect.
This tactic caused the world to sympathise with India and turn against the British Empire, as its forces beat, imprisoned, and humiliated Indian rebels.
It also changed the minds of many who came in contact with Gandhi.
After nearly a year of protest, sensing that the momentum of the campaign was gaining success, British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, brokered a settlement with Gandhi.
While some debated the value of the short-term gains secured in the compromise, others recognised that the Salt Satyagraha had dealt a significant blow to British prestige in India.
This was a sentiment echoed by hardliner imperialists in London, who regarded the settlement as a fatal blunder for the empire. Resources drained, sympathy garnered and the tide beginning to turn.
These actions would allow for other elements of the unified movement to simultaneously build.
BUILDING A STRUCTURE FOR OPPOSITION
Even as Gandhi led dramatic mass protests, he also contributed to building up a stable, long-term organisation that could serve as an institutional body to represent the independence movement.
That organization was the Indian National Congress. Founded in the 1880s, the original purpose of Congress was to foster the greater influence of Indian elites in the British-controlled government.
After his return to India in 1915, Gandhi worked to change the organisation’s composition and outlook, and in the following decades, Congress grew more antagonistic toward the British.
By 1930, the organisation was advocating for full national independence and expulsion of the British Raj. In time, it would become the ruling party of the world’s largest democracy.
On August 15, 1947, Nehru, one of Gandhi’s top lieutenants, took office as India’s first Prime Minister, representing the dramatic transformation of Congress from a small dissident group to a insider party holding the reins of state power.
The gradual growth of Congress over the span of decades was akin to ‘structure-based organising’ in other parts of the world, such as the formation of social-democratic parties in Europe.
In the U.S. context, we can see examples of structure-based organising in the formation of major labour unions, and in Saul Alinsky’s model for building community-based organisations that can leverage the power of their members over time.
With reference to the U.S. civil rights movement, Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns could be likened to high-profile drives such as the Freedom Rides or the Birmingham campaign, while the Indian National Congress bore more in common with durable membership organisations like the NAACP.
Gandhi’s involvement in the leadership of the Indian National Congress was episodic, and he would sometimes withdraw for long periods of time to focus on other aspects of his work. He held official positions only for relatively short stretches, and he went so far as to resign his party membership for a time, starting in 1934, after growing frustrated with internal politicking.
Yet, whatever his formal role at a given moment, Gandhi served as a key figurehead of Congress for nearly three decades, and his interventions played a decisive role in shaping the organisation.
Even critics of Gandhi, such as Perry Anderson, acknowledge that, in the historian’s words:
Gandhi “was a first-class organizer and fundraiser — diligent, efficient, meticulous — who rebuilt Congress from top to bottom, endowing it with a permanent executive at the national level, vernacular units at the provincial level, local bases at the district level, and delegates proportionate to the population, not to speak of an ample treasury.”
Gandhi authored a new organisational constitution that established a more representative governance structure for Congress and substituted Hindi for English as the language of business.
He also steeply reduced membership fees so that, as first-hand observer Krishnalal Shridharani wrote in 1939, “the poor had as much opportunity to join as the rich.”
Gandhi relentlessly travelled to different regions to cultivate relationships, solidify support for his program, and build up local party infrastructure.
By 1922, there were 213 District Congress Committees, covering the great bulk the country that was under direct British administration. Shridharani estimated that, by 1930, one out of every three villages had a Congress office. Gandhi’s exceptional fundraising abilities helped to support growth.
In a heterogeneous India, rife with divisions of class, caste, religion, and geography, most organisations represented limited, sectarian constituencies.
Gandhi made significant strides toward defying this trend, uniting rural and urban, educated and uneducated, and bridging large geographical expanses.
Maintaining participation and shoring up the party’s local infrastructure was a continual challenge, and Gandhi’s hopes of bringing together Hindus and Muslims was met with very limited success.
Nevertheless, Judith Brown writes, by the early 1920s, Congress had established itself as “the only organisation with any realistic claim to be the mouthpiece of a nation.”
LIVING THE ALTERNATIVE
The Constructive Program
In addition to the mass satyagraha campaigns and his structure-based organising through the Indian National Congress, Gandhi was also active in the creation of alternatives, or what has sometimes been called “prefigurative politics.”
This aspect of his work is evident in statements from Gandhi including his contention that:
“The best propaganda is not pamphleteering, but for each one of us to try to live the life we would have the world live.”
For Gandhi, the idea of India gaining independence was more than a political goal — it involved changing one’s way of life.
His anti-imperialism did not involve merely having Indian elites take over national rule from the British. It also included a rejection of the enemy’s conceptions of civilization, against which he juxtaposed a vision of reinvigorated Indian village life.
He saw his efforts to build alternative communities and counter-cultural institutions as an essential component of the overall push for swaraj, or freedom.
Historian Dennis Dalton writes that: “Gandhi interpreted the word to mean freedom in two distinct senses: the ‘external freedom’ of political independence and ‘internal freedom,’ which required a more personal process of decolonization and the pursuit of social transformation.”
Pursuing swaraj, then, was not just a matter of pushing for legal reforms. Rather, Gandhi spent much of his time working on what he called the “constructive program”.
The constructive program was an attempt to begin building a new social order, even as the old one still exists, with decentralised cooperatives functioning independently of the state and other institutions of the old order.
Gandhi’s vision for the constructive program included many overlapping activities: he advocated spinning of hand-woven cloth (or khadi), the expansion of village industries such as soap and paper-making, and enhanced simplicity in lifestyle, such as improved education and cultural practices that rejected established divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
As a result of these efforts, many in Gandhi’s time viewed him less as a political leader than a religiously-driven lifestyle advocate. In his published writings, he frequently took up issues of diet and hygiene, concerning himself with matters such as the best way to make an affordable, effective and reusable toothbrush out of commonly available twigs.
Needless to say, these were far from the core concerns of organisers in Congress, who focused on constitutional questions of how India would secure self-governance.
Through mass protest, the re-formation of societal structures, and the building of alternative structures, Gandhi had achieved what many considered to be the impossible.
From this point, it was all about sustaining this new system.
Here, we can learn even more lessons.
UNITY IS THE KEY FACTOR
The three distinct approaches to pursuing social change reflected in Gandhi’s diverse activity are not unique to the drive for Indian independence. Instead, they appear in many different social movements, across continents and time periods.
However, because these organising traditions are based on different theories of change, they often find themselves in conflict with one another.
One can find many examples of these tensions. A well-known saying to emerge from the community organising tradition of Saul Alinsky was: “Build organizations, not movements.”
Here, suspicion of “movements” reflected a skepticism of mass mobilisations that seemed to burst suddenly onto the political scene, but then to fade out just as rapidly.
Likewise, in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, friction between “organising” and “mobilising” produced heated internal movement debates among groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
While mass mobilisation and structure-based organising are sometimes at odds, both approaches can be in tension with groups focused on “living the alternative.”
As a result of different approaches to change, “politicos” (who pursue strategic politics) and members of “the counter-culture” (who focus on prefigurative activity) sometimes find themselves with little common ground.
Organisers trying to directly contest the power of capital or of the state are often dismissive of activists who are more interested in creating counter-cultural communities that sidestep currently dominant institutions. This can cause a variety of issues and can stop any progress being made.
Such conflicts continue to emerge today in disagreements between activists trying to influence mainstream politics and those trying to build autonomous spaces outside of it.
Friction existed in Indian independence movement, too. In fact, the multi-faceted movement ecosystem that Gandhi nurtured could only be sustained for a limited period.
The very principles that Gandhi pioneered were undone by those in the incoming system.
Although the ecosystem was sustained for an impressive period, divisions between different approaches to change gradually deepened. They would lead to a split after independence.
This is where future generations must learn from these mistakes.
While it can be difficult for people with different theories of change to work together, it is not impossible to overcome tensions.
At its height, the Indian independence movement created levels of popular activity and mobilisation rarely seen elsewhere, and it provided an example of how organisers with diverse orientations toward their work could complement each other in powerful ways.
Through his personal commitment to each of the three approaches — and his ability to express a vision of them as a unified whole — Gandhi helped create a common identity.
Inside a thriving ecology of change, each branch of the movement must remember to keep advancing a cooperative, transformative program, regardless of differences in belief.
Ecology of Mutual Support
Critical to a healthy movement ecology among Indian nationalists was the idea that each branch benefited from the contributions of the others. These benefits took tangible form.
In success, portions of the movement focused on alternative communities received a major boost from other branches of the movement. That is, from associating with Congress and with the satyagraha campaigns. Both protesters and the new party supported the alternative systems.
Because of this association, counter-cultural stances became norms within the movement as whole.
During times of mass mobilisation, movement participants were not merely asked to boycott British goods or legal institutions, they were also called upon to abstain from liquor, embrace the spinning wheel, and uphold principles of communal unity. Live the ethics — don’t simply think of living them.
Even though these activities had little to do with directly ousting the British, and more to do with projecting an alternative vision of Indian society, they were substantially integrated into the culture of the movement as time went on. Teaching themselves to change as they pushed for change.
Even though the Indian National Congress was more focused on winning formal independence from the British, than building village-level alternative institutions, Congress members were influenced by the wider social movement ecosystem and adopted a variety of countercultural practices.
As Brown writes, “The handspun cloth which Gandhi hailed as the symbol of a swaraj society became the virtual uniform of Congressmen who in an earlier generation had prided themselves on their semi-Western sartorial elegance.”
In turn, volunteers from these communities were among the most committed participants in nonviolent disruption. Here, the energy of the people was guided into nonviolent channels.
As a result, the structure-based organisers of the Indian National Congress also benefited from the other branches of the movement. Politicians in Congress that were willing to support mass protest and the creation of alternatives, as they understood the clear gains that their organisation reaped.
Periods of mass mobilisation and civil disobedience allowed Congress to expand its popular reach and grassroots infrastructure, as waves of new people were drawn into political activity.
Starting to see how this all works together?
The struggle against imperialism in India offers a remarkable example of a rich social movement ecology in action, including how the struggle can be simultaneously able to sustain itself through repeated waves of nationwide disruptive protest, how to build a robust oppositional party institution, and how to cultivate communities of people living in resistance to mainstream norms.
Future movements must ensure that this ecosystem is sustained.
Maintaining collaboration requires persistent effort. Gandhi, having long emphasised the importance of communal unity and inter-religious harmony, was shattered at the prospect of an impending partition of the country into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.
Biographer Joseph Lelyveld writes of Gandhi: “Here he was, at the end of his days, expressing chronic disappointment and, sometimes, a sense of defeat. He’d had more to do with India’s independence than any other individual — in declaring the goal and making it seem attainable, in convincing the nation that it was a nation — but he was not among those who celebrated.”
However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this history is not that the social movement ecosystem ultimately fragmented, but that it held together for as long as it did.
Many lessons can be learned from the successes, and failures, of Gandhi’s campaigns.
Over a period of several decades, nationalist forces were able to create multiple cycles of widespread uprising and to absorb the energy of these revolts into lasting oppositional structures.
They managed to profoundly alter public opinion during moments of peak mobilisation, as well as to sustain a culture of resistance during periods of relative calm. Each of these accomplishments is rare and laudable.
The Indian independence movement was part of a complex array of developments that led to the British departure from India, and Gandhi’s role within this history is remembered to this day. The social movement ecology that Gandhi cultivated had a profound effect in shaping India’s history.
In serving as a figure who was able to bridge different organising traditions, Gandhi provided a model of a complex social movement ecosystem that can be replicated.
This model not only holds rich wisdom for the children of social movements today, because it illuminates a critical idea..
Transformation is most likely to come about, not through any one single approach of creating social change, but through the integration — and sustainment — of many approaches.
Australia, an unarmed country like India, can learn much from this historic struggle.
The Lessons of Mahatma Gandhi
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