Reader in Political Science, University of Rajasthan


The problem of understanding Gandhi’s ideas arose even in Gandhi’s life time. But what confronts us in the post-Gandhi era is a more complicated question of immediate relevance. As Gandhi’s spoken and written word is very extensive, and covers a vast range of topics, it is not always easy to determine his conclusive opinion on a certain issue without coming across divergent evidence on the same. It is not that different schools of thought, each one self-sufficient in itself, vie with each other for the exclusive right for the interpretation of Gandhian literature. Unlike Marxism, Gandhism has not yet arrived at that stage of an intellectual system. What happens more often now is that quite a few sources from Gandhi are offered by very different and sometimes even opposing groups to sustain a single inference. It has become too common. This case is well illustrated by a frequently quoted passage from Gandhi on the alternatives of cowardice and violence before a votary of non-violence.


Cowardice and Violence


“I do believe” says Gandhi, “that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advice violence.”1


Can it be said on this basis that Gandhi supports violence? For instance, Gandhi’s name was invoked in the public to support India’s policy in meeting the aggression of China in 1962 and of Pakistan in 1965. This is not the place to discuss the merits of the whole case in this respect. But to the extent violence is justified in Gandhi’s name, the matter deserves a careful scrutiny.


The basic question to be asked in this connection is, assuming Gandhi’s preference to violence towards cowardice, if he justifies in any way cowardice as such. We find Gandhi repeatedly condemning cowardice. In his post-prayer speech in New Delhi on October 27, 1946, Gandhi said that “there was no sin like cowardice.”2 He always said that non-violence is for the brave, and not for the cowards. In fact, the purpose of Gandhi’s reference to cowardice and violence here was firmly to repudiate cowardice, and not to disown non-violence. The late Martin Luther King, Jr., reveals the true meaning of Gandhi. Referring to this contention of Gandhi, King writes in his book Stride Toward Freedom: “This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight. He made this statement conscious of the fact that there is always another alternative: no individual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need they use violence to right the wrong; there is the way of non-violent resistance.” 3 Obviously Gandhi’s reference to violence was meant to eliminate it, and not to accept it.


This is abundantly made clear by Gandhi in the many observations that follow immediately the above reference to cowardice arid violence. For instance, Gandhi at once adds in the same source: “But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence.” 4 Again, Gandhi repeats in a similar vein: “Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute.”5 And he warns in the same breath that “India’s acceptance of the doctrine of the sword will be the hour of my trial.” 6


All these extracts were from an article that was entitled by Gandhi as “The Doctrine of the Sword”, and published in Young India of August 11, 1920. Gandhi explained at the outset his reason for writing on this subject. Taking into consideration “the hold that the doctrine of the sword has on the majority of mankind,” Gandhi wants to answer its apologists. 7 He also notes that “the success of non-cooperation depends principally on absence of violence,” 8 It is sheer irony that this article “The Doctrine of Sword” which Gandhi wrote to disprove the efficacy of violence, is now being used widely to prove the doctrine of violence. And what is more surprising is that the Mahatma’s pontification is solicited for supporting violence.


Moreover, the piece in question was written by Gandhi in 1920, at a particular period of his life in relation to a specific situation. It will not be quite right if we take certain portions of it today, and deliberately use them for supporting our own conclusions on a specific issue. Gandhi was always developing, and his mind was accordingly changing. As Romain Rolland wrote of Gandhi after their historic meeting in December 1931: “His mind proceeds through successive experiments into action and he follows a straight line, but he never stops, and one would risk error in attempting to judge him by what he said ten years ago because his thought is in constant revolution.” 9


A sense of chronology is imperative for interpreting Gandhi’s ideas. Each has to be understood in its entire context, and related to the main thinking of Gandhi. Sometimes his two texts may appear to have a contradiction or inconsistency. Such cases have to be examined in detail in the total perspective of Gandhism. When this difficulty was pointed out to Gandhi by a correspondent, he offered to suggest a criterion that might be relevant even now. Writing in Harijan of April 29, 1933, Gandhi observes: “When anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, he would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject.” 10


The Kashmir Story


Another view is persistently cited from Gandhi to support armed retaliation. And it believes that Gandhi blessed the Indian Soldiers that were sent by the Union Government to Kashmir in 1947 for military assistance. As this notion has somehow gained wide currency in the country, all the facts concerning it may be acutely examined.


This opinion was put to Gandhi himself by a correspondent who took strong exception to his stand on the Indian Government on the Kashmir question. Gandhi referred to it as “ignorance” on the part of the correspondent. In his post-prayer speech in New Delhi on November 5, 1947, Gandhi positively stated: “The audience would remember that he had repeatedly said that he had no influence in the matter over his friends in the Union Cabinet. He held on to his views to non-violence as firmly as ever.” 11 Gandhi went on to suggest that “the non-violent technique would be no armed resistance to the defenders.” 12 He even added that “non-violent assistance” which would be very different from the military help, “could be sent from the Union without stint.” 13


This is Gandhi’s categorical enunciation of his fundamental difference with the Indian Government on the policy of sending the military to Kashmir. Independent India found Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, lonely in his peace mission. The “Last Phase” of Gandhi, as pyarelal’s authentic account establishes it beyond any doubt, was a witness to the increasing gulf between the Mahatma and his followers of the Indian National Congress in Government on important questions. In view of Gandhi’s timely repudiation of his supposed sanction to the military aid to Kashmir, the controversy must have been allowed to rest at that. The story that the Father of the Nation gave his blessings to the India army proceeding to the assistance of Kashmir is purely a myth despite the fact that a number of Indian and foreign writers on Gandhi still cherish it.


Arne Naess is a notable exception in this respect. In his book Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Naess writes: “Although Gandhi judged the responsibility for bloodshed in Kashmir in 1947: believing that India had the right on her side in her struggle with Pakistan, he still believed that India should never have resisted Pakistan troops or civilians with physical violence, India, according to Gandhi, might easily have offered Kashmir, non-violent aid and this would have been a heroic deed.” 14 This treatment on the subject is in contrast to the easy and many distortions of Gandhi’s ideas in the contemporary scene.


Satyagraha and Duragraha


Nowhere is the Gandhian spirit more misused than in the contemporary trend of gherao and bandh that has almost seized the country. As they are found in practice, gherao and bandh are far removed from Gandhi’s technique of satyagraha. Gandhian method has a definite pattern and philosophy that are integral to its working. Satyagraha is a technique in quest of influence as different from power. What it has always sought is a moral influence to convert the enemy and resolve the conflict peacefully. The gherao and bandh are, on the other hand, woeful exercises in power-politics. They have scanty regard for the Gandhian principle that means and ends are convertible. Can we then call bandh and gherao as methods of Satyagraha?


It may be interesting to recall that Gandhi makes an important distinction between satyagraha and duragraha even in the earliest phase of his movement. Speaking at Ahmedabad on April 14, 1919, Gandhi observes that satyagraha without the religious spirit is duragraha. Again writing on September 11, 1919, Gandhi warns that “if people employ duragraha in the name of Satyagraha and unpleasant consequences follow the latter is certainly not to blame.” 15 The bandh and gherao belong more appropriately to the cult of duragraha.


The present practice of Satyagraha in India reminds one of the late C. Y. Chintamani’s comment that usually satya is with Gandhi while agraha remains with the people. At present Gandhi is followed only in name. Hence, the issue whether a certain thing is Gandhian or not is unfortunately reduced to a semantic ritual instead of becoming a meaningful question of interpreting Gandhi’s life-work. It was said of Professor Harold Laski that when some one challenged his claim to be a Marxist, he replied that he was a Marxist in Marx’s sense while the other one was a Marxist in his own sense. In a similar vein, it may be safely said now that it is not very difficult for us to be Gandhian. The issue finally is whether we are Gandhian in the spirit of Gandhi.”


1 See The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. XVIII, (Government of India, Publications Division, 1965) p. 132

2 M. K. Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War, Vol. II. (Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad. 1949) p. 159

3 Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom. (Harper and Raw, New York. 1958) p. 102

4 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. XVIII. p. 132 Op.Cit

5 Ibid, p. 133

6 Ibid, p. 134

7 Ibid, p. 132

8 Ibid

9 Cited in D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma Gandhi: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Vol. III. (The Times of India Press, Bombay. 1952) p. 183

10 M. K. Gandhi, Harijan, April 29, 1933. p. 2

11 M. K. Gandhi: Non-Violence in peace and War Vol, II. Op. Cit., p.332

12 Ibid. p, 333

13 Ibid.

14 Arne Naess, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age (The Bedminister Press, New Jeresy, 1965) p. 110

15 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. XVI (Government of India, Publications Division. 1965) p. 123