My daily experience is that every problem lends itself to a solution if we are determined to make the law of truth and nonviolence the law of life. For truth and non-violence are, to me, faces of the same coin. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Violence as a form of agitprop has a long history. The belief that human nature is a developing entity that is capable of change had energized Mahatma Gandhi to carry on with his experiments in social engineering through the non-violent path of satyagraha. Gandhi’s discovery in South Africa of the virtues of satyagraha was indeed novel.

It was a revolutionary principle of realising ‘Truth through non-violence and revalidate non-violence through Truth.’ He suggested that to begin with, the best field of satyagraha is the domestic one. This discovery shows the alternative to war and violence, which threatens to destroy the very fabric of a civilised existence.

In 1931, Albert Einstein wrote to Gandhi: ‘You have shown through your works, that it is possible to succeed without violence even with those who have not discarded the method of violence.’ The British victory in the Boer war (1899) brought little relief to Indians in South Africa.

The new regime in that country was to blossom into partnership, but only between Boers and Britons. Gandhi realised that, with the exception of a few Christian missionaries and youthful idealists, he had been unable to make a perceptible impression on the Europeans in South Africa. On 22 August 1906, the Transvaal government published in the Transvaal Government Gazette Extraordinary a particularly humiliating ordinance for the registration of its Indian population.

If adopted, the ordinance would ruin the Indians of South Africa. Ever since his public work started in 1893, Gandhi trained and prepared the community to be united, to remain non-violent and stand firm on its genuine demands. He realised that the expression, ‘Passive Resistance’, was inadequate to express the real meaning and nature of nonviolence.

“Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action,” he said. He disliked the term ‘Passive Resistance’ ~ “I accept the interpretation of ahimsa, that it is not merely a state of harmlessness, but it is a positive state of love of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence.

On the contrary, love, the active state of ahimsa, requires you to resist the wrongdoer by dissociating yourself from him even though it may offend him or injure him physically.’ The ordinance of the apartheid regime in South Africa offered a scope for testing the effectiveness of one of the greatest ideas of modern times ~ nonviolent resistance as a form of public protest.

However, in response to the ordinance, a public meeting was held on 11 September 1906 at the Jewish Empire Theatre in Johannesburg where around 3000 Indians working in different parts of Transvaal province had gathered to express their determination not to submit to the ordinance.

Gandhi outlined the course of action and its consequences ~ ‘We might have to endure every hardship that we can imagine, and wisdom lies in pledging ourselves on the understanding that we shall have to suffer all that and worse.’

Historian Robert A Huttenback in his book, Gandhi in South Africa, wrote, “With a roar of enthusiasm, the Transvaal Indians rose to take the pledge and a new political technique was born.” Strangely, the next day, on September 12, the Empire Theatre was completely destroyed by fire. Many Indians regarded it as an omen that the ordinance would meet a similar fate.

To Gandhi, it was a mere coincidence. Following the collective vow at a mass meeting of Indians, Gandhi, through Indian Opinion, a journal edited by him at that time, offered a prize for a better name for the new kind of opposition to government unfairness.

In response, one of the contestants, Maganlal Gandhi, a second cousin of the Mahatma who lived at Phoenix Farm, came up with the word, Sadagraha, meaning firmness for a noble cause, and won the prize. But Gandhi modified the same as it failed to express his idea in full.

He corrected it to Satyagraha. Etymologically, the term Satyagraha means passion for or firmness in Truth (in Sanskrit Satya) plus Agraha (passion or firmness). Thus was born Satyagraha, a new technique for redressing wrongs through inviting, rather than inflicting, suffering, for resisting the adversary without rancour and fighting him without violence.

Mere non-violence does not make any campaign a Satyagraha. It should be nourished by truth and love. To formulate the concept of Satyagraha, Gandhi quoted from the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau, from the Bible and from the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu literature. He called ‘the surgery of the soul.’

Satyagraha lasted for more than seven years in South Africa. It had its ups and downs, but under the Mahatma’s leadership, the small Indian minority sustained its resistance against the daunting odds. Hundreds of Indians chose to sacrifice their livelihood and liberty rather than submit to laws that were repugnant, to their conscience and self-respect.

In the final phase of the movement in 1913, hundreds of Indians, including women, went to jail, and thousands of Indian workers who had gone on strike in the mines bravely faced imprisonment, flogging, and even shooting.

It was a terrible ordeal for Indians. However, under pressure from the governments of Britain and India, the South African government accepted a compromise negotiated by Gandhi on the one hand and the South African statesman, General Jan Christian Smuts on the other. Finally, a commission was appointed and the Indians’ relief bill was passed.

The major issues on which the Satyagraha struggle had been waged were conceded, the £ 3 tax on the ex-indentured labourers was abolished; marriages performed according to Indian rites. It was also decided that the domicile certificate bearing the holder’s thumb-imprint would be sufficient evidence to enter South Africa.

Gandhi had prescribed the certitudes of moral discipline for the satyagrahi ~ He must be an actual sufferer or his bona fide invitee; he must be a man of truth and non-violence; he must be a law-abiding citizen; he must strive through reason, discussion and self-suffering to arrive at a solution which is agreeable to all; he must refrain from taking illegitimate advantage of the opponent’s weakness. The forms of action can be classified into five broad categories ~ fasting, defiance of violence, self-imposed suffering other than fasting, non-cooperation (including strikes) and civil disobedience.

The steps for successful Satyagraha are: Negotiation and arbitration; preparation of the group for direct action; agitation; issuing of an ultimatum; economic boycott and form of strikes / dharna; non-cooperation; civil disobedience; usurping of the functions of government; and parallel government. According to the historian, Bipan Chandra, and the political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed, satyagraha works primarily when the opponent has a conscience. Gandhi himself was well aware of the limitations and had once observed that it may not work against a dictatorship.

In 1937, a Chinese delegation asked Gandhi how they could fight Japanese aggression through Satyagraha. Gandhi replied that such a struggle requires incisive training. Moreover, as the Satyagraha movement envisages a direct confrontation with the opponent, it can hardly be applied to counter terrorism as terrorists operate from a distance. It can be used against neo-imperialism, however.

In his book, Gandhi As Disciple And Mentor, the political scientist Thomas Weber has mentioned its influence on world leaders, pre-eminently Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama and Lech Walesa. Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement and the efforts to make the Chambal dacoits surrender, and Sunderlal Bahuguna’s Chipko movement are a few examples of the application of Gandhian satyagraha with varying degrees of success.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer.)