Civil disobedience, as defined in Western Civilization, is a policy of peaceful protest against laws or government policies in order to achieve political change (Spielvogel, 888). This policy was advocated in Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, a treatise that has served as inspiration for many people, among them Mohandas K. Gandhi.
The basic premise of Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, is that there is a law higher than civil law. This higher law - which can be called moral law - demands the obedience of the individual. Furthermore, in situations where civil law conflicts with moral law, the individual must follow his conscience, and if need be, disobey civil law. He goes on to state that moral issues must be decided by the individual’s conscience, and thus is obligated to do what he or she feels is right at all times (Cliffsnotes, 91-93). These concepts are what served as motivation for Gandhi.
Gandhi was born and raised in India during the late 1800s. As a young man, he attended college in Britain. After receiving a degree in law and being admitted to the British bar, he returned to India to begin his law career. In just two years time, he was
employed by an Indian firm with ties to South Africa. Upon arriving in South Africa, Gandhi was disturbed by the denial of civil and political rights to Indian immigrants. It was here that he would begin his struggle to gain equal rights for Indians.
For twenty years, Gandhi remained in South Africa, doing all he could to secure equality for Indians within the country. He was arrested many times, and even endured a beating from white South Africans. It was this beating that led him to teach the policy of passive resistance and non-cooperation. It was also during this time in South Africa that Gandhi wrote his speech entitled “On Nonviolent Resistance.” In the excerpt provided, Gandhi provides the basis for his use of nonviolence. He initially points out that there are two ways to deal with injustice. On one hand, a person can “smash the head of the man who perpetrates injustice” and end up getting his or her “own head smashed in the process.” (220) On the other, a person can use the method of satyagraha. Utilizing this method allows the person to avoid injuring someone else to make his or her point. However, there is still a chance the person may get hurt. In short, Gandhi makes it clear that satyagraha is the preferred method for dealing with injustice.
After gaining some minor successes for Indian immigrants in South Africa, Gandhi returned home to India, where he became the leader of India’s fight for independence from Britain, under whose rule India had been for many years. From the 1920s to the late 1940s, he led a long campaign of nonviolent resistance for India’s independence. Despite several incidents of being arrested and jailed, Gandhi urged his followers to continue on and retain the principles of nonviolence, regardless of whatever violence was inflicted on them (219).
Gandhi used going to jail as a method in his nonviolent campaign against British rule in India. He took the concepts of Thoreau and applied them to the situation at hand: independence from Britain. Having peaceful demonstrations throughout India would often result in hundreds of people being arrested and jailed. In Gandhi’s mind, if the jails were continually filled with nonviolent protesters, the rest of the world would see this as injustice, thus putting Britain in a bad light. This negative publicity would in turn lead to Britain wanting to give up India as a colony, thus removing the stain from their public image.
Gandhi’s use of nonviolence had political, economic and spiritual ramifications.
Politically, it allowed him to gain an immense amount of power and influence over the Indian state. For example, he played a pivotal role in preventing India from supporting Britain during World War II. (Encarta, 2) Economically, the refusal of India to use British goods was quite significant for both countries. The boycotting of British goods served to emphasize just how serious India was about gaining its independence. This in turn forced Britain to realize that, if independence were not granted, they would continue to lose a huge source of revenue that was important to the British economy. This boycotting tactic is seen in many campaigns involving nonviolence, with one of the most well known instances being the Montgomery bus boycott conducted during the early days of America’s Civil Rights Movement.
Spiritually, Gandhi’s strong belief in nonviolence carried over into the way he lived his life. He focused on living in a very plain manner, dedicating his time to prayer, fasting, and meditation. He gave up all earthly possessions, dressing and eating as those of the poorest classes in India did. Whether it was intentional or not, his lifestyle served to elevate him to the status of saint in the eyes of the Indian people. He essentially became the embodiment of Hinduism. Thus, both spiritually and politically, Gandhi had a tremendous hold of the people of India, so much so that the British authorities refrained from doing anything to curb his power. (Encarta, 1)
Like any leader of a political movement, Gandhi had his moments when he felt as though the campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience would fail. After a series of particularly violent armed revolts against the British, he became so discouraged that he called an end to the civil disobedience campaign. He attempted to step out of the political scene, but was always drawn back into it whenever a new injustice done by the British emerged. (Encarta, 1-2)
In the end, the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience was a good and bad method for Gandhi. Despite being arrested many times during the course of his political career, Gandhi retained his belief in the principle of satyagraha. Like Thoreau, Gandhi realized that one had to be willing to sacrifice everything for the cause he was fighting for.
Therefore, his many experiences of going to jail did nothing to hinder his goal of attaining Indian independence from Britain. He was simply following Thoreau’s belief that if one person went to jail for a cause he believed in, then that cause was a just one.
However, there were many instances where the Indian masses did not always adhere to nonviolence. Like many people who have been oppressed for long periods of time, they wanted to gain their freedom in a speedy manner. This often led to their breaking out in revolts periodically, despite the immense reverence they had for Gandhi and his principle of satyagraha.
It is clear that nonviolent civil disobedience can be an effective tool against oppression, yet it does have its drawbacks. Such a method requires a great deal of patience, as the ultimate goal may not be reached in a short amount of time. Yet, in the end, the true victory will lie with those who chose to avoid a violent path to gain justice.