Sat, Dec 11, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The fading case for ‘civil’ disobedience in an ‘uncivil’ world

Gandhi’s promotion of peaceful resistance to injustice rested largely on the idea of moral suasion, which can often seem dated in today’s world

By Shashi Tharoor

With the Nobel Peace Prize presented this month in the absence of this year’s laureate, the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), it might be wise to think of a man who never won the prize: Mahatma Gandhi. Despite that omission, there is no doubting Gandhiji’s worldwide significance — including for Liu.

The Mahatma’s image now features in advertising campaigns for everything from Apple computers to Mont Blanc pens. When Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi swept the Oscars in 1983, posters for the film proclaimed “Gandhi’s triumph changed the world forever.” But did it?

The case for Gandhi-led global change rests principally on the US civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, who attended a lecture on Gandhi, bought a half-dozen books about the Mahatma, and adopted satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, as both precept and method. In leading the struggle to break down segregation in the southern US, King used non-violence more effectively than anyone else outside India.

“Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence,” he memorably declared. “We must meet the forces of hate with soul force.”

King later avowed that “the Gandhian method of non-violent resistance ... became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, and Gandhi furnished the method.”

Last month, US President Barack Obama told India’s Parliament that were it not for Gandhi, he would not be standing there as the US president.

So, yes, Gandhism helped to change the US forever. However, it is difficult to find many other instances of its success. India’s independence marked the dawn of the era of decolonization, but many nations threw off the yoke of empire only after bloody and violent struggles. Other peoples have since fallen under the boots of invading armies, been dispossessed of their lands or terrorized into fleeing their homes. Non-violence has offered no solutions to them.

Indeed, non-violence can only work against opponents vulnerable to a loss of moral authority — that is, governments responsive to domestic and international public opinion, and thus capable of being shamed into conceding defeat. In Gandhi’s own time, non-violence could have done nothing to prevent the slaughter of Jews in Hitler’s path.

The power of Gandhian non-violence rests in being able to say: “To show you that you are wrong, I punish myself.”

However, that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you. Your willingness to undergo punishment merely expedites their victory. No wonder former South African president Nelson Mandela, who told me that Gandhi had “always been a great source of inspiration,” explicitly disavowed non-violence as ineffective in South Africans’ struggle against apartheid.

Indeed, Gandhi can sound frighteningly unrealistic: “The willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God or man. -Disobedience, to be ‘civil,’ must be sincere, respectful, restrained, never defiant and it must have no ill will or hatred behind it. Neither should there be excitement in civil disobedience, which is a -preparation for mute suffering.”

For many around the world who suffer under oppressive regimes, such a credo would sound like a prescription for sainthood — or for impotence. Mute suffering is fine as a moral principle, but only Gandhi could use it to bring about meaningful change.

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