Gandhi and civil disobedience—a strategy for movements today?

Lachlan Marshall reviews a new book that examines Gandhi’s ideas and the role of his non-violent civil disobedience in the struggle for Indian independence

Gandhi is the best known advocate of non-violent civil disobedience, the approach championed today by groups like Extinction Rebellion. The idea that risking arrest through mass non-violent action can bring down governments has become popular in the climate movement.

In 1931 Gandhi said, “I believe myself to be a revolutionary—a non-violent revolutionary… my means are non-co-operation.”

Talat Ahmed measures this claim, and the effectiveness of his tactics, in her new biography, Mohandas Gandhi: experiments in civil disobedience.

Gandhi was an important figure in the movement for Indian independence. But his distrust of ordinary people consistently led him to rein in struggles when they became too radical.

Gandhi dismissed strikes and mass protests outside his control by saying, “mobocracy is autocracy multiplied [a] million times.” Behind this was his aim of simply replacing British rule with the rule of a new Indian elite—while leaving the underlying oppression of workers and peasants untouched.

Born into a middle-caste family in a trading and money-lending community, Gandhi wasn’t from a wealthy background. But he was privileged enough to receive an education in London, where he began his training as a barrister in 1888.

A strength of the book is its attention to the ideas that shaped Gandhi’s politics. Ahmed concludes that rather than being a uniquely Indian philosophy, “Gandhism” borrowed from a variety of ideas current in London at the end of the nineteenth century.

As a Hindu, Gandhi was raised a vegetarian, and in London his first political activism was in the Vegetarian Society.

This was an elite organisation that, according to Ahmed, was “interested in change through individual effort and moral fibre.” Here Gandhi was introduced to American philosopher David Henry Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience.

Gandhi corresponded with the Russian writer and Christian anarchist, Leo Tolstoy. He immersed himself in the New Testament, and was impressed by the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus preached the virtue of turning the other cheek.

Gandhi returned to India after qualifying as a lawyer, but, unable to find employment, accepted a job in South Africa in 1893. In Durban he became a victim of a kind of racism that he hadn’t experienced in London or even India.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi became a political leader.

Here Gandhi’s political strategy of Satyagraha (literally translated as “truth-force”) took shape. In Gandhi’s words, “pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy… And patience means self-suffering.”

In 1913 Gandhi led a mass movement against restrictions on Indians’ freedom of movement. After the arrest of women defying the travel restrictions, 20,000 Indian workers came out on strike in their defence, closing down sugar mills, hotels and restaurants.

There was even the prospect of black workers joining the revolt. However, Gandhi did not want this, stating, “I saw it reported that we might even ask the Kaffirs to strike. But such is not our intention at all. We do not believe in such methods.”

Ahmed concludes that Gandhi oriented towards, and campaigned for the interests of the Indian merchant and trader elite in South Africa. But to do so, he had to resort to mass mobilisation to overcome resistance from the authorities.


Gandhi is best known for his espousal of non-violence. Yet, as Ahmed documents, his calls to non-violence were always directed at oppressed people fighting back, not at the powerful.

Gandhi usually accepted the legitimacy of the state’s use of violence.

So in 1914 he urged Indians to fight in the First World War. He believed Indians couldn’t demand the full rights of British citizens unless they demonstrated their loyalty to the Empire.

In 1915 Gandhi returned to India. During the war, laws allowing internment without trial and press restrictions were introduced. Most of Punjab was brought under martial law.

On 13 April 1919 the British General, Reginald Dyer, led British Indian Army soldiers to a gathering of Punjabis in Amritsar near the Golden Temple. Without warning they opened fire, killing 379 people and injuring 1200.

The Amritsar massacre was a turning point for British rule in India. Rage at the British brought thousands of people onto the streets.

However, protests in Ahmedabad that attacked government buildings were denounced by Gandhi as, “utter lawlessness bordering almost on Bolshevism.”

Such disdain towards the actions of the masses also shaped his approach to the labour movement.

In 1921 he explained that strikes, “do not fall within the plan of non-violent non-cooperation… In India we want no political strikes… We must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements… We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labour. We want to harness capital to our side.”

Once again Gandhi demonstrated his opposition to broader system change.

Salt March

Britain held a monopoly on salt production and imposed a tax on all sales, inflating prices. In March 1930 Gandhi walked 240 miles from Ahmedabad to the coast, where he declared a campaign of defiance of the salt laws. He made salt by boiling sea water and implored Indians across the country to follow his lead. Millions broke the salt laws by making salt or buying it illegally.

This tapped into a deeper mood of resistance, inspiring defiance of forest laws and other unpopular taxes.

The British cracked down heavily. When a Muslim follower of Gandhi was arrested in April 1930, crowds gathered in protest. The British opened fire, killing over 200 people.

On 4 May Gandhi was arrested, and with his permission, a mass raid on a salt works in Gujarat took place. One of Gandhi’s followers instructed the crowd, “You must not use any violence under any circumstances. You will be beaten, but you must not resist: you must not even raise a hand to ward off blows.”

What followed was a sickening attack on defenceless protesters. A journalist reported on the carnage: “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.”

The movement forced Viceroy Irwin to release Gandhi from prison. But instead of calling for the protests to escalate, he ordered a halt to the campaign once he had been invited to talks on constitutional reform.

The resulting pact brought an end to the boycott in exchange for the release of prisoners arrested during the campaign; permitted coastal residents to make their own salt; and allowed the picketing of shops selling foreign cloth or alcohol. However, the salt tax remained in place.

Much more could have been achieved had Gandhi been willing to extend the movement. But, as Ahmed explains, “Compromise was the hallmark of Gandhi’s tactics, even though to reach such a compromise he had to both mobilise the masses and ensure that their actions did not lead to the overthrow of the authorities. The price of his partial victories was to be measured in the bashed-in heads and broken bodies of his non-resisting followers.”

Quit India

Gandhi would not play the role of recruiter for the British Empire again in the Second World War.

In August 1942 Gandhi launched the Quit India campaign. The British recognised the threat and imprisoned him from 1942 to 1944.

The movement that would ultimately lead to the collapse of British rule operated largely independently of Gandhi. It was not his non-violent tactics but strikes and mutinies that proved effective.

While he was in prison Subhash Chandra Bose established the Indian National Army (INA), sponsored by the Japanese in an effort to drive the British out of India.

When a Muslim INA leader was jailed after the war, it sparked what has been called “the almost revolution.”

A mutiny began in the Royal Indian Navy, involving 20,000 Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sailors. They pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the flags of Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party. They were supported by a general strike of 300,000 people. The revolt spread across India and into areas that would become Pakistan.

However, the independence leaders wanted to bring the movement back under their control. As Congress leader Patel wrote on 1 March 1946, “discipline in the army cannot be tampered with… We will want [the] army even in free India.”

Gandhi condemned the mutineers as “thoughtless and ignorant”.

The unity demonstrated in the mutiny was squandered, paving the way for the horror of partition. One million people died in communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims.

Britain whipped up divisions along religious lines in an effort to undermine the independence movement. They created separate religious electorates that leaders of the different communities exploited for their own advancement.

Gandhi staunchly opposed partition and supported Hindu-Muslim unity. But he had helped call off the kind of mass movement across the religious divide which could have prevented it. He also opposed efforts by the left in Congress to appeal to Muslims on a class basis, leaving a vacuum which the Muslim League could exploit to recruit Muslims on the basis of religion.

Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in January 1948. His efforts had helped shake the foundations of the British Empire.

However his non-violent tactics did not succeed in bringing down British rule—and at times proved disastrous. Gandhi did not aim to challenge capitalism or change the system. Yet it is this kind of radical change that we will need to deal with the climate crisis today. This will require mobilising the power of mass protest and workers’ strike action that Gandhi was so determined to avoid.

Mohandas Gandhi: experiments in civil disobedience

By Talat Ahmed, Pluto Press, $27.95


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