Interpreting Gandhi’s Principles of Non-Violence for Today’s World

On October 2nd, India celebrated the 145th birth anniversary of the father of the country’s independence movement Mahatma Gandhi (or “Gandhiji” to Indians) and the event was celebrated globally as the ‘International Day of Non-Violence’. In India, the day is an occasion for sober reflection on the principles which Gandhiji espoused through his life and the freedom struggle which he led. In this month’s Frontline, we present a lecture by Rajni Bakshi who is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations – a leading foreign policy think tank based in Mumbai – on the relevance on Gandhiji’s ideas of non-violence in today’s global context.

Gateway House was founded in 2009 by Manjeet Kripalani, a former BusinessWeek columnist and Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Neelam Deo, a career foreign service diplomat who served as the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast and several West African countries, and most recently as the Consul General in New York. Unlike most Indian foreign policy think-tanks, Gateway House is based in India’s financial capital Mumbai rather than New Delhi as it seeks to engage with India’s businesses on foreign policy. Its mission is to “engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs” and its research and debates have covered an array of topics including geopolitics, economic reforms, democracy and nation-building, national security, science and innovation, and energy and environment.

As Ms. Kripalani told us, Gateway House’s core mission is to “give India a global voice, create a community of intellectuals in Mumbai and work at the intersection of business and foreign policy.” With that in mind, Gateway House established the Gandhi Peace Fellowship to explore the relevance of the India’s founding father’s ideas for the country today. According to Ms. Kripalani, “We wanted to explore what kind of democracy India should be and felt that Gandhiji’s ideas have not been sufficiently analysed in this context to find an economic model unique to India.” The lecture accordingly explores a number of themes including the relevance of Gandhiji’s principles of self-sufficiency (‘swaraj’) and sustainability – which have taken on increasing relevance in recent years as India copes with an economic slowdown and prepares for its general elections early next year.

The Lecture: A Force More Powerful – Non-Violence for our World Today


It is an honor to be with you here today on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi – Gandhiji or Bapu as most Indians call him even today. So, first and foremost, my thanks for this opportunity to be here with you and engage in a shared exploration of a question that haunts and taunts people across the world.

Most of us long for a world in which there are no bombings, riots, wars – why then does non-violence seem so difficult to action?

Before we understand this question in more detail – by way of preamble, I would ask you to step back in time to January 1948, exactly ten days before Gandhiji was shot dead at point blank range – as he walked towards the prayer meeting he held every evening.

On 20th January 1948 a group of seven men had come to the same prayer ground and set off a bomb they hoped would kill Gandhiji. On that particular day they failed.

Madanlal Pahwa, the man who actually ignited that crude bomb, was just 20 years old at that time. So after serving a prison sentence of 17 years Pahwa went on to live a full life.

In 1999 Ashis Nandy, the noted political psychologist, sent me to interview Pahwa – to learn about his childhood, his youth and what drove him to kill a man widely respected as a great soul ‘mahan-atma’. I was acting as research assistant to Nandy’s extensive and on-going study of both violence and non-violence.

As Pahwa, who by then was 72 years old, described the feelings and events of his youth the picture that emerged was more of a highly strung delinquent drawn into a conspiracy for the thrill and excitement rather than deep rooted political or ideological convictions.

Ever since then I cannot help wondering how many of the young people now being drawn into terrorist groups might be similarly motivated – more adventurers than mission-driven rebels.

It was a mission-driven votary of violence, who finally did kill Mahatma Gandhi on 30th January 1948. Later during his trial this assassin, Nathuram Godse, made an elaborate, almost eloquent, argument both justifying the use of violence and explaining its necessity.

So the challenge of putting non-violence into action appears to be two-fold: how to deal with the votaries of violence and the skepticism of those who want peace but lack faith in non-violence as a method, as a way of life.

Ironically, it is relatively straight forward to grapple with those who see violence as a necessity, a means to be deployed to get what they want – as a tool of either acquiring power and/or holding on to power.

Skepticism about non-violence is subtle and far more complicated. How do we answer the cynicism of those who are not votaries of violence and may actually want to reduce use of violent methods but have no faith in non-violence as a philosophy, as a method, as a way of life?

This is why many people who admire Mahatma Gandhi, even revere him, perhaps regard him as the most towering figure of the 20th century – don’t believe that his advocacy of non-violence is practical or doable by ordinary people.

It is this same mind-set which may dismiss various symbolic efforts to advocate non-violence as empty gestures in an age when senseless violence and random acts of cruelty seem to be proliferating everywhere.

Certainly, those who see life and reality from this vantage point have much evidence to marshal in their favor. It is a perfectly obvious and respectable question to ask — if non-violence is a force more powerful why did Gandhiji and Martin Luther King fall to assassins’ bullets? What good has the ideal of non-violence done for the victims of innumerable terrorist strikes as well as the violence unleashed by wars launched to fight terrorists?

As far as I can tell there is no simple and direct answer. This is a seriously painful question.

And yet when the utility of violence is expressed from the very heart of suffering its power is indomitable.

In October 2001, within a month of the terrible events of 9/11, I happened to be passing through a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. I was struck by a laminated page that had been stuck on the gate to a small local park. The text on that page was letter written by a woman who had lost her husband in the terrorist strike on the World Trade Centre a month earlier.

Please, let there be no more killing, she pleaded in the letter that had been published by the Chicago Tribune. Even in that moment of deep personal loss, the widow seemed to be equally anguished by the claim that bombing another country, even one which harbored terrorists, would serve as justice. Her plea echoed the phrase made famous by Gandhiji: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”

This conviction resonated strongly with others bereaved by the 9/11 attacks. Some of them joined a campaign to establish a Department of Peace within the U.S. government. Efforts to create such a department date back to 1793 and have been re-energized by the tragic events of 2001.

Activists in favor of a Department of Peace also took the lead in celebrating the centenary of non-violent civil disobedience – which quite uncannily happens to fall on September 11. It was on that day in 1906 that Gandhi first made a public appeal for ‘satyagraha’ – appeal to truth by non-violent means.

How, you might ask, do such mobilizations and personal appeals of the kind posted in that park – help us to process, to grapple with the challenge of countering cynicism about non-violence?

Personally, I draw inspiration, reaffirmation and sustenance from all such actions – regardless of their size or impact.

For instance, in 2008 there was a lethal terrorist strike in Mumbai. It took three days to regain control over three separate locations where the terrorists were entrenched. At the end of the shooting 164 people were dead and at least 308 others were wounded.

Soon after this citizens groups, schools and colleges collaborated to organize a human chain for peace across the city. As a participant in that gathering do I believe that hands-across-Mumbai-for-peace can directly counter votaries of violence? No I don’t.

Why then do many of us find reaffirmation in such actions?

Mostly because stating and repeatedly re-stating our intention in favor of non-violence is an essential starting point. It is the bare minimum that we can do, the necessary first step which begins a thousand mile journey.

But what next? From what do we derive energy and guidance for the many further steps of this long and arduous endeavor? How can we creatively process our doubts about non-violence as a practical method and way of life?

Through the centuries and across diverse cultures there are many sources of inspiration. And yet, in our times, there is a pervasive faith and conviction that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a beacon for the present and future of the human race.

It is commonly believed that this is because Gandhiji deployed non-violence to defeat a seemingly invincible empire and free India from colonial rule. This is true but in all fairness many factors contributed to India’s freedom.

It is not Gandhiji’s place in India’s history that makes him a beacon in the 21st century. He is an epochal figure because his own struggles with the violence within can give us all confidence and not lose heart.

Never comfortable with being called a ‘saint’ Gandhiji was utterly transparent about how he discovered the ideal of non-violence through his own personal struggles.

In 1938 after 56 years of being married to Kasturba, Gandhiji wrote:

“I learnt the lesson of non-violence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her (Kasturba’s) determined resistance to my will, on the other hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her and, in the end, she became my teacher in non-violence.”[1]

And just what was this ‘non-violence’ which Gandhiji learnt?

First and foremost it is a far more active and more real way of fighting against wickedness…..quite different from physical retaliation which we know only leads to counter-violence and thus increases wickedness.

Gandhiji sought “….entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance.”

But isn’t that precisely the moment in which the terrorist or tyrant has the last word by using physical violence to silence the non-violent resister?

That is a real possibility, Gandhi admitted. Therefore, the first pre-requisite for those embracing non-violence is absence of fear and willingness to die without retaliation.

“Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means putting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.”[2]

This possibility of the ‘other’, the opponent – even a powerfully oppressive tyrant – being transformed is critical to Gandhiji’s faith in non-violence.

Again there is no delusion here. Gandhiji is fully aware that those who use violence, who believe that might is right, may be blind to soul force exerted by the votary of non-violence. And yet Gandhiji’s emphasize is on the possibility that such resistance can also dazzle the opponent and “… at last compel recognition from him, this recognition would not humiliate him but would uplift him.”

Yes, this is a description of an ideal state…which some may dismiss as an unattainable utopia. But Gandhiji argued:

“The propositions from which I have drawn my arguments are as true as Euclid’s definitions, which are none the less true because in practice we are unable to even draw Euclid’s line on a blackboard. But even a geometrician finds it impossible to get on without bearing in mind Euclid’s definitions. Nor may we… dispense with the fundamental propositions on which the doctrine of Satyagraha is based.”[3]

The key element of this confidence is a passionate rejection of cowardice. Nothing is more incompatible with non-violence.

To those who have mistakenly seen Gandhi as a pacifist it may come as a surprise that he emphatically states that non-violence presupposes the ability to strike.

Therefore, non-violence is “… a conscious deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance. But vengeance is any day superior to passive, effeminate and helpless submission. Forgiveness is higher still. Vengeance too is weakness. The desire for vengeance comes out of fear of harm, imaginary or real.”[4]

This is why Gandhiji repeatedly insisted that “the path of true non-violence requires much more courage than violence.”[5]

Skeptics have been quick to say ‘this is why non-violence is the purview of saints or saintly persons – it is unrealistic to expect that ordinary people, ‘the masses’, can practice non-violence.

For Gandhiji this line of reasoning was “a gross self-deception”:

“If mankind was not habitually non-violent, it would have been self-destroyed ages ago. But in the duel between forces of violence and non-violence, the latter have always come out victorious in the end. The truth is that we have not had patience enough to wait and apply ourselves whole-heartedly to the spread of non-violence among the people as a means for political ends.”[6]

Over the last six decades this faith, this conviction, has been validated many times over – in the civil rights movement of the United States of America, in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, by the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, more recently by pro-democracy protestors across the world and to some extent even the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that began in New York and then sprang up in different cities two years ago.

While Gandhiji’s inspiration is often actively invoked in many of these struggles it is important to acknowledge that many other thinkers and activists have added to this tradition.

In particular I would like to draw on the legacy of Thomas Merton a Christian monk who wrote extensively about non-violence and unfortunately died very young in 1968. Merton’s writings have inspired activists for more than half a century.

Like Gandhiji, Merton put great emphasis on why the votary of non-violence cannot feel superior or treat the opponent as some form of ‘low life’. Christian non-violence, wrote Merton, means that you cannot see the adversary as being totally wicked and utterly incapable of being reasonable or well-intentioned.

Such an attitude, Merton said, would defeat the very purpose of non-violence – which is to foster openness, communication, dialogue. It is when these fundamentals are compromised, Merton found, that acts of non-violent civil disobedience just end up antagonizing the adversary, making him still more unwilling to communicate in any way other than through bullets.

Above all, Merton urged:

“….Instead of trying to use the adversary as leverage for one’s own effort to realize one’s ends however ideal, non-violence seeks only to enter into a dialogue with him in order to attain, together with him, the common good of man. Non-violence must be realistic and concrete. Like ordinary political action, it is no more than the ‘art of the possible’. But precisely the advantage of non-violence is that it lays claim to a more Christian and more humane notion of what is possible. Where the powerful believe that only power is efficacious, the non-violent resister is persuaded of the superior efficacy of love, openness, peaceful negotiation and above all of truth. For power can guarantee the interests of some men but it can never foster the good of man. Power always protects the good of some at the expense of all the others. Only love can attain and preserve the good of all. Any claim to build the security of all on force is a manifest imposture.”[7]

So where does this leave those of us who may feel like fledgling travelers on the path of non-violence?

I draw strength from the fact that even the most rigorous and accomplished travelers of this path have emphasized that the endeavor remains, somewhat indefinitely, a work-in-progress.

Though he had supreme confidence in non-violence as an ideal Gandhi remained, to the end, a seeker – someone striving towards an ideal rather than claiming to have arrived at a goal.

“Ahimsa is a science” Gandhiji wrote. “The word ‘failure’ has no place in the vocabulary of science. Failure to obtain the expected result is often the precursor to further discoveries.”[8]

Twenty days before he was assassinated Gandhi wrote:

“I must not …flatter myself with the belief – nor allow friends …to entertain the belief that I have exhibited any heroic and demonstrable non-violence in myself. All I can claim is that I am sailing in that direction without a moment’s stop.”9

It is this spirit of sailing in the desired direction that informs our work in Citizens for Peace – a small volunteer group in Mumbai which aims to serve as a platform for creatively addressing difference. I am a trustee of Citizens for Peace. We are anchored in the following faith:

We believe in differences.

We believe in living with them.

We believe in the hard work of respect and peace.

We believe that’s what bridges divides.

We believe in compassion, but unflinching justice.

The same faith was the foundation of a series of dialogues brought together by my friend, the philanthropist and author Rohini Nilekani. In a television program known as “Uncommon Ground” Rohini invited leaders of the corporate sector and the social-activist world to be in dialog with each other on issues where they have otherwise been at logger heads – sometimes leading to prolonged conflicts.

Seeking to build dialog and understanding – between those who are caught in bitter disputes – is an important form of non-violence. At its depth this is bound to be a process of self-discovery. As Rohini Nilekani says: “When we react in violence to violence, we are perhaps reacting against our own selves. We recognise and despise or are ashamed of the violence in ourselves. But once we become self aware, as Gandhiji does, and compassionate towards our selves, our own shortcomings, we can then recognise the sameness in others. Our violence inside and the clear and present violence of the other is one and the same. Once we see this we can resist, with compassion and thus without fear. That’s why we cannot feel superior to the violent but we can feel strong. Because there is little to lose, really but our own violence!”

This inward quest is not easy. I find myself being tested and failing all the time – by situations in every day life which trigger impatience or anger.

But there is great joy, ananda, in renewing the resolve. So above all, I wish us all ever deepening joy in this journey. Thank you once again for the honor of being with you today.

Om Shantih, Shantih Shantih.

Rajni Bakshiis the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. This lecture was delivered at the International Day of Non-Violence’ at the UN Convention Centre in Thailand on October 2. For additional research by Gateway House on this and other topics, please refer to their website: