|Volume 6 | Issue 10 | October 2012 ||
Lessons from the Troika of Non-Violence: Gandhi, King and Mandela
Non-violence as a means to address dissent and discord is still an ideology to be upheld, posits ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY.
“As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom." --Martin Luther King Jr.
To talk about non-violent ways to resolve conflicts in our current politics is like asking people to stop flying bullets with bare hands. We are in a period, particularly in Bangladesh, where politics and violence have become synonymous, where political missions have become war missions, where politicians have become war lords, and where the collateral damage of these wars and violence is borne by the common man. Accommodation of ideas and diversity of opinions have been replaced by outright intolerance and brutal suppression of opposition, dissent in politics is not only despised but violently opposed, and oral dialogues with opponents are replaced by armed duels to resolve any conflict.
The irony of today's political environment is that this is so removed from the ideal that was laid out by our country's founder more than 40 years ago when he urged his countrymen to launch the resistance movement against the Pakistani junta. The non-cooperation that he urged his people to take resort to was essentially non-violent, a massive protest of denial to obey the central government at every walk of life, which drew worldwide attention to the rights of Bangladshis and the brutal response of the Pakistani Junta. Two major principles or ideals that Sheikh Mujib believed in, characterised this historic movement. One espoused by Henry David Thoreau, which stated that people should not allow governments to overrule, and that people have a duty both to avoid doing injustice directly and to avoid allowing their acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. The other principle, which had the greatest impact on Sheikh Mujib, was espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, the principle of peaceful non-cooperation with an oppressive government, the single most admired movement in the World.
Reflections on non-violence as a way to resolve conflicts may appear utopian in today's world, in particular in the context of what we have been witnessing in our country's political arena and society at large. What is non-violence is all about, and why should we be even thinking about this when politics and social behaviour around us have turned the other way?
The root of Gandhi's non-violence is “ahimsa” literally, lack of animosity or universal love. For Gandhi this lack of animosity extended to his opponents also. He believed in convincing or winning his opponents through ahimsa and non-violent means. Utopian as it seems, the idea was put in practice when Gandhi introduced Satyagraha or Power of Truth to test his non-violent way to protest. Gandhi himself stated that he had coined the term while he was in South Africa. The first test of Satyagraha was the famous Salt March 0f 1930 when to protest the Salt Tax of the Government of India, Gandhi marched 240 miles on foot from his village in Gujarat to the sea side and gathered salt. The seminal protest would be identified in history as the first milestone toward Indian independence. Gandhi would later integrate non-cooperation with the British as the other significant element of Satyagraha and practice of non-violence. He also warned his disciples at that time that “non-co-operation is a measure of discipline and sacrifice and it demands patience and respect for opposite views. And unless we are able to evolve a spirit of mutual toleration for diametrically opposite views, non-co-operation is impossibility.” Peaceful, non-violent non-cooperation would play the single most influential role in India's fight for freedom. It would shape India's young generation that period in a way which other political tactics or protest could not achieve in forcing the hands that ruled the country.
The non-violent movement of Gandhi is not only credited with gaining India's freedom from British dominance, but years later it would also influence greatly two other great minds -- Martin Luther King in USA and Nelson Mandela in South Africa -- and the movements they led. This would also influence our country's founder in launching his non-cooperation movement that would ignite our war of liberation later.
For Martin Luther King, Gandhi's doctrine of Satyagraha had the most powerful influence on his thinking and his Civil Rights Movement. After discovering Gandhi's thought, King felt he had found the key by which oppressed people could unlock social protest. Gandhism was a way to fight the oppression of African Americans. King came to believe that “nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient at the moment; nonviolence is ultimately a way of life that men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim.” The historic march on Washington in 1963 and King's speech (“I have a dream”) that followed it was imbued with the Gandhian spirit of non-violence. The historical consequences of this largely non-violent Civil Rights Movement were the enactment of Civil Rights Act by US Congress in 1964 that banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the US to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
The seeds of non-violent non-cooperation that Gandhi sowed in South Africa as a young lawyer would germinate into another historic movement -- movement against Apartheid led by Nelson Mandela in the same country some four decades later. Mandela himself often referred to Gandhi as the person who inspired him and that he was greatly attracted by Gandhi's spirit of non-violence in his youth. Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, a party that was founded earlier in the century to fight white rule and domination in Africa. The Youth League of ANC that Mandela initially formed was largely based on the Gandhian principle of non-violence. (However, ANC would later resort to armed struggle as non-violent defiance of apartheid policies of the government of South Africa proved futile.)
Although neither ANC nor Mandela can be said to have gained freedom from apartheid through non-violent means alone, Mandela in his personal life and treatment of his former incarcerators after he was freed from prison would show reflection of Gandhi's teachings. Of Gandhi he said, “India gave South Africa Gandhi the barrister and Africa gave India back Mahatma Gandhi the Great Soul.” The leadership qualities of Nelson Mandela had at its base Gandhi's Spirit. It is reported that the 27 years of his life that Mandela spent in Robben Island in the prison his cell was full of books of Gandhi and many other classics. Praising Gandhi, Mandela once said “we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his (Gandhi's) nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century. Both Gandhi and I suffered colonial oppression, and both of us mobilized our respective peoples against governments that violated our freedoms.”
The Troika of non-violence, Gandhi, King and Mandela followed a path that moved nations and societies to raise human dignity and remove centuries of injustice, hatred and aggression. With their passive but unrelenting determination they succeeded in undermining mighty governments in ways that proved to be more effective than any results that would have come out of armed rebellion. The paths they chose for their respective movement to free their people from domination exemplified how economic pressure, accepting sacrifice for their cause, and embracing their “enemy” would lead them to the outcomes that they sought.
In a historical irony, however, the greatest proponent of non-violence Gandhi -- would succumb to a violent death, although his demise would not put a stop to his ideals. Similarly, some other proponents of the ideology would also fall to violence. Martin Luther King fell to an assassin's bullet; the founder of our country, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would also meet a tragic death by violent means. Their violent deaths, however, did not disprove the maxims they believed in; because the movement they led had already succeeded in achieving the goals they sought. India achieved its freedom; the Civil Rights Movement in the USA led to many changes in law that accorded the Blacks their equal rights; the non-cooperation movement initiated by Bangabandhu ultimately led us to our independence.
Nonviolence is difficult and requires great discipline. Gandhi warned that there is no easy way. “It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of non-violence ... unless there is a hearty co-operation of the mind, the mere outward observance will be simply a mask, harmful both to the man himself and to others. The perfect state is reached only when mind and body and speech are in proper co-ordination. But it is always a case of intense mental struggle ... Such a struggle leaves one stronger for it ... Non-violence is a weapon of the strong. With the weak, it might easily be hypocrisy.”
In today's world of hate, stubbornness and excessive reliance of muscle power to settle difference the non-violent movement seems to be an idea so far out that many people may look upon it as a fanciful creed. Societies have changed, people have changed, some will argue. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that these movements happened in the last few decades, and humankind as a whole has benefited from these movements. It is a tribute to the movement and the attraction it held for others that non-violence as a means to address dissent and discord it is still regarded as an ideology to be upheld.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a retired World Bank staff member and lives in the USA.
© thedailystar.net, 2012. All Rights Reserved