Satyagraha: Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience and Nonviolent Resistance

On the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth on October 2, 1869, Encomia considers some of the significant contributions of this historic figure, notably his concept and practice of satyagraha. -Encomia

by Jonathan English

“I’m more convinced than ever before that nonviolence is the way. I’m more convinced than ever before that violence is impractical as well as immoral. If we are to build right here a better America, we have a method as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon on “The American Dream”, July 4, 1965

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “the line separating good and evil passes . . . right through every human heart.” Humanity has always struggled internally, in the space between our better angels and our darker thoughts. As division and hate blight our body politic, the compelling moral power of Gandhi’s satyagraha remains a vibrant and ever-relevant resource. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement were deeply inspired by Gandhi’s example in this respect. Rather than forgetting that example, it’s worthwhile for us to grasp the power of his teaching.

Satyagraha combines two Sanskrit words—satya, meaning truth, and agraha, meaning firm adherence or insistence. As Gandhi later wrote in his work Satyagraha in South Africa: “Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement ‘Satyagraha’, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.” (See ch. 12.) Elsewhere, he wrote: “Its root meaning is holding on to truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force.”[1] Thus, Gandhi and others began using the term satyagraha, rather than the term they had earlier employed–“passive resistance”–which seemed to imply weakness and an exclusively English derivation.

The Advent of Satyagraha in South Africa

Satyagraha—the term and the first implementation of it as such—developed in South Africa out of resistance to the government’s proposed Asiatic Registration Act of 1906. Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa at the time. He later wrote, “I have never known legislation of this nature being directed against free men in any part of the world.” (Satyagraha in South Africa, ch. 11.) The act, as proposed, would have required fingerprinting and registration of every individual of Asian descent eight years or older living in the Transvaal region of South Africa. Severe penalties accompanied the act. As Gandhi explained the law:

“The certificate of registration issued to an applicant must be produced before any police officer whenever and wherever he may be required to do so. Failure thus to produce the certificate would be held to be an offence for which the defaulter could be fined or sent to prison. Even a person walking on public thoroughfares could be required to produce his certificate. Police officers could enter private houses in order to inspect certificates. Indians entering the Transvaal from some place outside it must produce their certificates before the inspector on duty. Certificates must be produced on demand in courts which the holder attended on business, and in revenue offices which issued to him a trading or bicycle licence. That is to say, if an Indian wanted any government office to do for him something within its competence, the officer could ask to see his certificates before granting his request. Refusal to produce the certificate or to supply such particulars or means of identification as may be prescribed by regulation would be also held to be an offence for which the person refusing could be fined or sent to prison.”

(Satyagraha in South Africa, ch. 11.)

The day after reading the proposed law, Gandhi and others began organizing opposition. Understanding the critical need for solidarity, at a meeting of nearly 3,000 members of the Indian community, “all present, standing with upraised hands, took an oath with God as witness not to submit to the Ordinance if it became law.” (Satyagraha in South Africa, ch. 12.)[2]

Nevertheless, a revised version of the law, substantively the same but exempting women, was enacted and implemented in 1907. In response, the Indian community pursued a path of nonviolent resistance against the law, as well as related unjustly discriminatory laws, for nearly seven years. Gandhi was arrested and briefly imprisoned in January 1908. Many others were arrested and imprisoned or deported. He was arrested again in November 1913, after marching with a group of over 2,000 from Newcastle to Charlestown, and then crossing the border into the Transvaal province in violation of another law. This time he was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.

However, with workers going on strike and the world increasingly watching, after serving only six weeks of his nine month sentence, Gandhi was released from prison, and the South African government agreed to the appointment of a commission to consider the grievances of the Indian community. In early 1914, the commission ruled in favor of all the Indians’ demands. Notably, the registration act was repealed, Hindu marriages would be recognized again, an annual £3 tax was repealed, and an immigration law was moderated.

A more detailed, but still summary, account of satyagraha during these years can be found here.

The Salt March in India

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 where he would protest British rule until India was granted independence in 1947. The Salt March was an act of civil disobedience in March and April 1930 designed to reveal the injustice of Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 and, by extension, of British claims to India more broadly. The Act prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt. Instead, they had to purchase it from British merchants, with a heavy tax added as well.

On March 2, 1930, Gandhi sent a letter to British Viceroy Lord Irwin announcing his intention to initiate a campaign of civil disobedience unless his requests, including abolition of the Salt Tax, were granted. His letter explained, “My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

Receiving no response, on March 12, 1930, Gandhi began the march from his ashram near Ahmedabad some 240 miles to Dandi on the Arabian Sea where he would illegally harvest salt that deposited naturally on the shore. He was accompanied by almost eighty others from the start. However, by the time he reached Dandi on April 5, 1930, tens of thousands had joined the march. On the beach, Gandhi defied the Salt Act by reaching down and lifting up a lump of natural salt from the mud. “With this,” he said, “I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”

Civil disobedience soon spread to other parts of India, and over 60,000 people were arrested. Gandhi was arrested on May 5. But peaceful demonstrations continued. Peaceful protesters marched on the Dharasana Salt Works 150 miles north of Bombay where they were assaulted and beaten by police. Reports of the assaults by American journalist Webb Miller led to international condemnation.

Gandhi was released from prison in January 1931. In exchange for agreeing to call off the satyagraha, he was given a role in negotiations at a London conference considering the future of India.

Principles of Satyagraha

Gandhi’s teaching and example yield several principles associated with satyagraha. Various enumerations have been suggested. (See principles of nonviolence listed by The King Center here.) But a few basic principles can be discerned at a minimum.

First, satyagraha seeks to remedy not trivial errors but specific laws or power exercises that are significantly and demonstrably unjust. Second, satyagraha is designed to reveal truth, to reveal the presence of injustice resulting from application of unjust law. Third, satyagraha is not passive, but active, firm, and courageous, willing to bring about “creative tension” and face risk. Fourth, satyagraha is nonviolent in method, anticipating and even accepting punishment for civil disobedience.[3] Fifth, satyagraha refuses to treat opponents as enemies, as it seeks to convert opponents and foster a reconciled relationship.

Martin Luther King Jr. was famously influenced by Gandhi. In his Palm Sunday Sermon on Gandhi on March 22, 1959, describing the revelatory nature of satyagraha, he noted that through the Salt March “Gandhi got all of the people of India to see the injustice” of the Salt Act. Likewise, emphasizing the nonviolent element of satyagraha, Dr. King quoted or paraphrased Gandhi as saying, “If you are hit, don’t hit back; even if they shoot at you, don’t shoot back; if they curse you, don’t curse back, but just keep moving. Some of us might have to die before we get there; some of us might be thrown in jail before we get there, but let us just keep moving.”

Finally, stressing the reconciling nature of satyagraha, Dr. King said:

“And the significant thing is that when you follow this way, when the battle is almost over, and a new friendship and reconciliation exists between the people who have been the oppressors and the oppressed. There is no greater friendship anywhere in the world today than between the Indian people and the British people. If you ask the Indian people today who they love more, what people, whether they love Americans more, British more, they will say to you immediately that they love the British people more.”

In his Sermon on the American Dream, Dr. King made a similar point. “’One day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process.’ And our victory will be a double victory.”

And in his speech, Birth of a New Nation, Dr. King said, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness.”

Echoes of Satyagraha

The influence of Gandhi’s concept has been broad but immeasurable. His influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. has already been mentioned above. Beyond Dr. King, echoes can be heard in the words of other prominent figures of the last century.

Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn alluded to Gandhi’s example in his historic 1974 essay “Live Not by Lies.” He admits that in the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union (where freedom of association and the traditions of English constitutional law did not exist) people were too afraid, too controlled, to rise to the level of “the sort of civil disobedience that Gandhi advocated.” However, appealing to an element of the concept of satyagraha, he writes:

“Let us admit it: we have not matured enough to march into the squares and shout the truth out loud or to express aloud what we think. It is not necessary. It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say what we do not think. This is our path, the easiest and the most accessible one, which allows for our inherent, well-rooted cowardice.”

Further, he writes:

“[S]ince violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence. Violence does not lay its paw on every shoulder every day: it demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies. And this submissiveness is the crux of the matter. The simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation is this: personal non-participation in lies. Though lies may conceal everything, though lies may control everything, we should be obstinate about this one small point: let them be in control but without any help from any of us. This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing for us to do and the most destructive for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it cuts short their existence. Like a virus, they can survive only in a living organism.”

The manuscript of Live Not by Lies was dated February 12, 1974, the same day he was arrested by secret police. The next day he was expelled from the Soviet Union. The essay was published in the Washington Post on February 18, 1974.

Four years later, in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czech playwright Václav Havel echoed Solzhenitsyn’s essay when he wrote on the theme of “living in truth.” He wrote in the context of what he called a post-totalitarian system in communist Czechoslovakia. The essay explicitly references Solzhenitsyn and calls to mind “Live Not by Lies.” Havel wrote:

“Why was Solzhenitsyn driven out of his own country? Certainly not because he represented a unit of real power, that is, not because any of the regime’s representatives felt he might unseat them and take their place in government. Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion was something else: a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness, which in turn might one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences. And so the post-totalitarian system behaved in a characteristic way: it defended the integrity of the world of appearances in order to defend itself. For the crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff. As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’—when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game-everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”

Even in his use of metaphor, Havel echoes Solzhenitsyn, who had written: “If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and would subside. That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world” (emphasis added).

In apparent agreement with Gandhi, Havel wrote of the exemplary, luminous, centrifugal power of living within truth. He speaks of living in truth as an act with “moral dimension” and “singular, explosive, incalculable political power.”

“[A]s long as appearance is not confronted with reality, it does not seem to be appearance. As long as living a lie is not confronted with living the truth, the perspective needed to expose its mendacity is lacking. As soon as the alternative appears, however, it threatens the very existence of appearance and living a lie in terms of what they are, both their essence and their all-inclusiveness. And at the same time, it is utterly unimportant how large a space this alternative occupies: its power does not consist in its physical attributes but in the light it casts on those pillars of the system and on its unstable foundations. After all, the greengrocer [who began living in truth] was a threat to the system not because of any physical or actual power he had, but because his action went beyond itself, because it illuminated its surroundings and, of course, because of the incalculable consequences of that illumination. In the post-totalitarian system, therefore, living within the truth has more than a mere existential dimension (returning humanity to its inherent nature), or a noetic dimension (revealing reality as it is), or a moral dimension (setting an example for others). It also has an unambiguous political dimension. If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”

After arrest and imprisonment, Václav Havel would soon become President of the newly free Czech Republic, following the Velvet Revolution.

Significantly, in each country represented by these adherents to truth or devotees of satyagraha—India, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the United States—their nonviolent efforts helped achieve seismic change and movement toward justice, all without resort to war. Their influence, and that of satyagraha, continues to cascade and ripple outward, across the world, incalculably.

[1] Statement to Disorders Inquiry Committee Jan. 5, 1920 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 19, p. 206), quoted in “Satyagraha,” Wikipedia.

[2] In reference to God, Gandhi said, “We all believe in one and the same God, the differences of nomenclature in Hinduism and Islam notwithstanding.” Satyagraha in South Africa, ch. 12. In his collection The Way to God, he elaborated, stating, “God is certainly one. . . . I dispute the description that Hindus believe in many gods and are idolaters. They do say that there are many gods, but they also declare unmistakably that there is one god, the god of gods. It is not, therefore, proper to suggest that Hindus believe in many gods. They certainly believe in many worlds. Just as there is a world inhabited by men and another by beast, so also, is there one inhabited by superior beings called gods, whom we do not see but who nevertheless exist. The whole mischief is created by the English rendering of the word deva or devata, for which you have not found a better term than ‘god.’ But God is Ishwara, Devadhideva, god of gods. So you see it is the word ‘god’ used to describe different divine beings that has given rise to such confusion. I believe that I am a thorough Hindu but I never believe in many gods. Never even in my childhood did I hold that belief and no one ever taught me to do so.” The Way to God (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 5-6.

[3] Gandhi seems to have been essentially or largely a pacifist in his own life, though it’s not clear that he expected total pacifism of others. In any case, satyagraha—holding firmly to truth—may not necessarily rule out self-defense or just war in limited, appropriate circumstances. Indeed, it could be argued that satyagraha would entail, in a classic example, defensive just war to stop a genocidal, invasive regime such as Nazi Germany. George Orwell discusses some of these concerns in connection with Gandhi in his essay, “Reflections on Gandhi,” available here. A brief summary of just war principles can be found here.