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Learning from Mahatma Gandhi’s Mistakes – 3

August 10, 2020 Authored by: Koenraad Elst

Read previous parts here:

Learning from Mahatma Gandhi’s Mistakes – 1

Learning from Mahatma Gandhi’s Mistakes – 2

Robust Pacifism

It cannot be denied that Gandhian non-violence has a few successes to its credit. But these were achieved under particularly favourable circumstances: the stakes weren’t very high and the opponents weren’t too foreign to Gandhi’s ethical standards. In South Africa, he had to deal with liberal British authorities who weren’t affected too seriously in their power and authority by conceding Gandhi’s demands. Upgrading the status of the small Indian minority from equality with the Blacks to an in-between status approaching that of the Whites made no real difference to the ruling class, so Gandhi’s agitation was rewarded with some concessions.

Even in India, the stakes were never really high. Gandhi’s Salt March made the British rescind the Salt Tax, a limited financial price to pay for restoring native acquiescence in British paramountcy, but he never made them concede Independence or even Home Rule with a non-violent agitation. The one time he had started such an agitation, viz. in 1930-31, he himself stopped it in exchange for a few small concessions.

It is simply not true that India’s Independence was the fruit of Gandhian non-violent agitation. He was close to the British in terms of culture and shared ethical values, which is why sometimes he could successfully bargain with them, but even they stood firm against his pressure when their vital interests were at stake. It is only Britain’s bankruptcy due to World War 2 and the emergence of the anti-colonial United States and Soviet Union as the dominant world powers that forced Clement Attlee’s government into decolonising India. Even then, the trigger events in 1945-47 that demonstrated how the Indian people would not tolerate British rule for much longer, had to do with armed struggle rather than with non-violence: the naval mutiny of Indian troops and the ostentatious nationwide support for the officers of Subhas Bose’s Axis-collaborationist Indian National Army when they stood trial for treason in the Red Fort.

So, non-violence need not be written off as a Quixotic experiment, for it can be an appropriate and successful technique in particular circumstances; but it has its limitations. In many serious confrontations, it is simply better, and on balance more just as well as more bloodless, to observe an “economy of violence”: using a small amount of armed force, or even only the threat of armed force, in order to avoid a larger and bloodier armed confrontation. This is the principle of “peace through strength” followed by most modern governments with standing armies. It was applied, for example, in the containment of Communism: though relatively minor wars between Communist and anti-Communist forces were fought in several Third World countries, both the feared Communist world conquest and the equally feared World War 3 with its anticipated nuclear holocaust were averted.

The ethical framework limiting the use of force to a minimum is known as “just war theory”, developed by European thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius between the 13th and 18th century, but in essence already present in the Mahabharata as well. Thus, waging war can be a just enterprise when it is done in self-defence, when all non-violent means of achieving the just objective have been tried, when non-combatants are respected as such, when the means used are in proportion to the objective aimed for, etc.

One of the less well-known criteria for just warfare which deserves to be mentioned here in the light of Gandhi’s advice to the Hindus in Pakistan is that there should be a reasonable chance of success. No matter how just your cause, it is wrong to commit your community to a course of action that only promises to be suicidal. Of course, once a group of soldiers is trapped in a situation from which the only exit is an honourable death, fighting on may be the best course remaining, but whenever possible, such suicide should be avoided. This criterion is just as valid in non-armed as in armed struggle: it was wrong to make the Hindus stay among their Pakistani persecutors when this course of action had no chance of saving lives nor even of achieving certain political objectives.

As the Buddha, Aristotle, Confucius and other ethical guides already taught, virtue is a middle term between two extremes. In this case, we have to sail between the two extremes of blindness to human fellow-feeling and blindness to strategic ground realities. It is wrong to say that might makes right and that anything goes when it comes to achieving victory, no matter what amount of suffering is inflicted on the enemy, on bystanders or even on one’s own camp. It is equally wrong to strike a high moral posture which haughtily disregards, and hence refuses to contain or subdue, the potential for violence in human confrontations and the real pain it causes. In between these two extremes, the mature and virtuous attitude is one which desires and maintains peace but is able and prepared to fight the aggressor.

Limiting the use of force to a minimum is generally agreed to be the correct position. In this case, disagreeing with Gandhi is not an instance of Communist or Hindu-chauvinist extremism, but of the accumulated wisdom of civilized humanity. Excluding the use of force entirely, by contrast, may simply whet the aggressor’s appetite and provoke far more violence than the achievable minimum. This is a mistake which an overenthusiastic and inexperienced beginner can forgivably make, but in an experienced leader like Mahatma Gandhi during his time at the head of the freedom movement, it was a serious failure of judgment. The silver lining in the massacres which his mistakes provoked, is that they have reminded us of the eternal wisdom of “the golden mean”, the need for a balanced policy vis-a-vis the ever-present challenge of violence and aggression. It has been known all along, and it is crystal-clear once more, that we should avoid both extremes, Jinnah’s self-righteousness and Gandhi’s sentimentalism.

 

Centre For Indic studies
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