Gandhi – Did His Non-Violence Strategy Rest on Fear of Uncontrollable Violence?



Ten days ago, India & the World celebrated the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi is a very important figure for us. He was simply the Greatest Good human of the 20th century, bar none. If there was a man who should be sanctified as a Saint by all societies & all religions, it is Gandhi. But Gandhi, to us, was far greater than just a Saint. He was, as we wrote a year ago, the Greatest Strategist & Tactician of the 20th century, bar none. No one fought the world’s mightiest and most barbaric superpower with as little as Gandhi.

Unfortunately, Gandhi’s legacy has been misunderstood and misused by both Indians and European-Americans for their own purposes. He has been celebrated and ridiculed for the same reasons, his commitment to Non-Violence. That made us write our article of last year titled Forgive Them, O Mahatma, for They Do Not Know What They Say.

Today, we take the next step in our analysis of Gandhi’s core strategy of Non-Violence. 


1. Why Gandhi  Chose Non-Violence & Why It Worked for Gandhi?

Gandhi was not the first Indian to fight for India’s freedom from British rule. And Gandhi was not the first Indian leader to select Non-Violent Civil Disobedience as a strategy. There was a vibrant freedom movement in India when Gandhi arrived from South Africa. Leaders like Gokhale & Agarkar were  arguing for peaceful, non-violent struggle while leaders like Tilak were for using all means necessary.

Gandhi realized quickly that these Indian leaders were not able to reach the ordinary people of India with their ideas or movement. Their reach was limited to the literate or educated Indians, a tiny sliver of India. The numbers were simply too small and their resources far too limited to make any impact on the British.

So Gandhi made it his core strategy to wake up the ordinary Indian. Indians had been continuously defeated and occupied by foreign invaders for 800 years. They had become used to being ruled and exploited by foreigners. Their life had not changed materially when the foreign British overthrew the foreign Muslim rulers. But the core weakness of the British rule was their dependence on Indians to administer and protect British rule. So the best way to fight the British was to persuade Indians to stop cooperating with the British.

But how? Gandhi’s genius was to understand* that great leaders like Tilak were unable to reach the mass of India because they based their arguments on intelligent logic. That can be understand but that does not create energy in Indians. The way to reach Indians is the way Saints reached ordinary Indians for centuries – with Dharma (a silent), Bhakti, Shraddha or devotion-based belief. So Gandhi threw away his western garb and dressed like ordinary Indians. And he began speaking their language – the language of Bhagvat Dharma (a silent), the language of his own Vaishnav heritage. His most famous one-liner was the all-Indian mantra:

  • “Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye, Jo Peed Parayi Jane re”

or “He alone is Vaishnav who understands the grief/misfortune of others“. Understanding the grief of others also means renouncing worldly riches. And so Gandhi began his travels all over India preaching his Bhakti-based message and asking Indians to reject imports of British fabrics & clothes. Every one of his messages was designed to hurt imports from Britain and damage British commercial interests in India. And the methods he used were totally steeped in Indian Bhakti-marg or the devotional, spiritual path.

The message worked and Gandhi became the Mahatma, the one man ordinary Indians all over India knew and revered. The British could no longer treat Gandhi the way they treated Tilak or all previous leaders of the Indian freedom movement. Remember the simple brilliance of Gandhi’s Strategy that was articulated in the movie “Gandhi”:

  • “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot rule 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate”

Treating Gandhi as brutally as they had treated all other Indian leaders would wake up all of India. And the British could not risk that. They had no ability to handle, let alone control, a nationwide revolt especially if the Indian police or the Indian army refused to cooperate. This fear of uncontrolled conflagration was what made the British treat Gandhi with great caution. This caused utter frustration among the British elite of that time, even leading Churchill to fume about “that half-naked fakir”.

The British, as devious, brutal & barbaric as they were, simply could not solve that puzzle – the impossible irony of having to be gentle with apostle of Non-Violence because of fear of uncontrollable violence that his maltreatment would create.

This is why Non-Violence worked for Gandhi and why it has not worked for the Dalai Lama and others. This is why the Dalai Lama had to flee from Chinese-occupied Tibet while Gandhi could remain in British-occupied India. The Chinese can handle & suppress violence erupting in Tibet while the British, with Indian Army & Indian police, were utterly incapable of handling India erupting in violence.

2. Bal Thakre & Gandhi

Last year, we witnessed an amazing outpouring of grief and affection all across the state of Maharashtra & its capital city of Mumbai. Every street corner in Mumbai exhibited large photos of Bal Thakre, (or the British Thackeray) adorned with garlands. We saw the same in other cities in Maharashtra. People told us stories of the vast funeral in Mumbai in which reportedly 2 million Mumbaikers of all backgrounds and ethnicities took part. The respect and grief was stunning in its sincerity and scale.

Balasaheb, as he was affectionately called, was as different in his attitude, approach and message from the Mahatma as you can get in India. Where Gandhi appealed to the passive devotional part of the Indian psyche, Thakre appealed to the aggressive martial spirit of the Maharashtrian and Indian psyche. While Gandhi was gentle, Thakre was abrasive. While Gandhi preached non-violence, Thakre preached glory of armed resistance against injustice.

Gandhi began his movement with the Swadeshi or “favor Indian” campaign in which he exhorted Indians to buy domestically produced clothes and burn clothes imported from Britain. Thakre began his Native Mumbai movement by demanding jobs for native Marathi Mumbaikers over non-native migrants to Mumbai. This movement began in the 1960s against South Indian migrants in Mumbai and later shifted against North Indian migrants in Mumbai.

People forget that, in his early days, Gandhi was utterly detested by the British and epithets were hurled against him by English-Educated Indians who held him in contempt. We all know that Thakre was detested by the ruling Congress party. We all know the epithets that were hurled against him by today’s English-Educated Indians in Mumbai and Delhi.

Frankly, the scale of affection for Balasaheb and the deep grief over his death amazed us. We spoke with many North Indian migrant taxi driver
s in Mumbai during our trip. To a man, they said Thakre was the only man in India who spoke for the Hindus. No one man in India had the guts to stand up for Hindus as Thakre did, they told us. Now there is no one who would fight for Hindus, they lamented. We heard the same from South Indians in Mumbai.

We realized that Thakre had transcended his native movement to become Hindu-Hruday-Samrat or Emperor of Hindu hearts all over India. Just as Gandhi had transcended his buy Indian movement to become Mahatma for all Indians.

Both Gandhi & Thakre were core Indians, men of deep faith, loyalty and love for their country and their Dharma (a silent). They reached ordinary Indians the way very few others did. And the respective rulers of India who hated them knew that. This is why the British occupiers treated Gandhi gently and this is why Congress party left Thakre alone. They were both petrified of the uncontrollable violence that could erupt if Gandhi or Thakre were ill-treated.

Fear of violence is often greater and far more useful than actual violence itself. Both Gandhi and Thakre knew that. This is why Gandhi would stop every one of his protest movements when violence erupted. He was smart enough to not cross any red line that would be intolerable for the British. Thakre was equally smart. He never exceeded any red line that would be intolerable for the ruling Congress party including extending his reach into rural North India, the bastion of Congress power. This was also because both Gandhi & Thakre knew that the Indian people, serially defeated as they have been for 1,000 years, are incapable of sustained violent struggle.

Gandhi & Thakre were very different people with starkly different message, approach and style. They both appealed to different core values of Indian Dharma (a silent). And they were totally true to those values. That is why they were both loved by Indians who grieved when they passed away.

That leaves irony as a big difference. The irony that the revered and loved non-violence strategy of the Apostle of Non-Violence actually rested on the fear of uncontrolled violence.

* This point has been made by many who understand both Gandhi & India. But no one has done with as much insightful study as Professsor Sadanand More of Pune University. His collection of essays titled From Lokmanya to Mahatma is a must read for any one who wants to understand Gandhi.

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