Non-Violence in India’s Freedom Struggle
Some say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but what if I were to say that there was something mightier than the pen, say, Non-violence. Many would scoff hearing this, and they certainly wouldn’t be the first. For centuries the idea of non-violence as a tool to combat injustice has been laughed at, mocked and been ridiculed. Yet, this principle of non-violence has been used by many prominent leaders and philosophers, such as Henry David Thoreau, Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and most famously Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who is known for spearheading the Indian freedom movement.
Gandhi is accredited for his role in making the Indian freedom struggle largely peaceful, and freeing India from the constraints of colonial rule in a non-violent manner. Gandhi was inspired by the ideals of Tolstoy and Ruskin, and heavily drew inspiration from Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, all of which are prominent religions in the Indian subcontinent (Chaube 54).
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The Indian freedom movement, from 1857 to 1947, was a movement which attempted to free the Indian subcontinent from the clutches of the East India Company, and later the British crown (Chaube 53). The British first entered India around the early 1600’s and formed the East India Company to use as a base for the United Kingdom to trade with Mughal India and parts of South-East Asia.
However, their interests quickly became political and they focused on acquiring and annexing parts of India for the British crown through violent means. A distinguishing trait of most freedom movements is that they’re generally violent, but the Indian freedom movement was unique in that it was peaceful and relied on non-violent methods to secure independence. It’s been a source of curiosity for many as to how Gandhi managed to use non-violence in a situation which was so volatile, and how he managed to convert public sentiment into something constructive and largely peaceful.
Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolence for social and economic emancipation, and actively focused on creating a sense of unity within India’s diverse population. He sought to create a sense of unity by promoting traditional Indian crafts and culture which had been eroded at and by organizing movements which peacefully disobeyed British rules. These aimed at uniting Indians, and also creating moral pressure on the colonizers in order for them to realize that their principles were wrong.
Gandhi recognized that the diversity and large population of the Indian subcontinent was being manipulated by the British Raj, as they followed a policy of “divide and rule,” where they sought to capitalize on ethnic, religious and lingual differences in order to create a sense of disunity. On 19th July 1905, Lord Curzon implemented the separation of Bengal into two (Chaube 21). Bengal was an important Indian state because it was the epicenter of the resistance against the British (Brown 10).
The British recognized that Bengali resistance had a very real possibility of challenging its authority and separated the state based on religious grounds. Bengal was separated into West and East Bengal, with West Bengal having a larger number of Hindus and East Bengal having a larger number of Muslims. In order to combat the widespread discord and create a sense of pride or brotherhood within the Indian population, Gandhi launched the Swadeshi movement. The Swadeshi movement was aimed towards cultivating Indian nationalism by promoting Indian traditional handicrafts and goods which had been encroached upon by the British, over garments that were being imported from the United Kingdom.
Gandhi felt that Indian’s were abused and forced to work in inhumane conditions to obtain raw material and were subsequently being forced to buy the finished products. He believed that foreign garments were a symbol of the cruelty. The Swadeshi movement was also an economic strategy which focused at building pressure on the British Empire (Rudolph Lloyd I 21). This movement was marked by the image of hordes of Indians gathering to burn imported garments and materials in large public bonfires as an official declaration of resistance.
The Khadi movement ran simultaneously with the Swadeshi movement during the 1920’s. Mahatma Gandhi started to promote khadi in order to emphasize the importance of self-reliance. Khadi was also beneficial for rural villagers because it gave them a source of income. The traditional khadi became a symbol of unity and was an inherent part of the Swadeshi movement. Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 caused anger in many Indians because it barred Indians from making, buying or distributing salt.
Salt was an indispensable part of the Indian diet, and because of the Salt Act, many people were forced to buy their salt at an inflated rate. Gandhi understood that the Salt Act affected all Indians regardless of their social differences and saw this as an opportunity to unite and mobilize Indians under a common agenda. Gandhi and his supporters marched to the coastal town of Dandi where natural deposits of salt could be found and broke British law in a non-violent manner.
Figure 1. Gandhi breaking the Salt Act of 1882 at Dandi (Yainik 85) A picture of Gandhi picking up salt was circulated around the various regional newspapers of India, and also in publications abroad which helped to bring attention towards the unjust policies of the British. News of the Dandi march spread like wildfire through India, and Gandhi’s simple way of defying the British created a sense of pride within the Indians. Gandhi realized the importance of creating a sense of unity and did so by using several symbols that the masses could relate with regardless of their background.
The Indian freedom struggle was marked by a plethora of non-violent movements which served to build and apply pressure on the British colonizers. The three most distinct and important movements in the Indian freedom struggle were the Non-Cooperation movement from 1920 to 1922, Civil Disobedience movement in the 1930’s, and the Quit India movement in the 1940’s. Each of these movements built up momentum and portrayed the increasing frustration of the Indian people (Chaube). S.T.S Furthermore, Gandhi was no stranger to how simple gestures of disobedience could cause a public stir. He often relied on public gestures and grand spectacles because he knew of the power that they had (Brown 6).
Throughout his life he participated in several fasts which often ran for more than two months in order to protest the unjust actions of the British colonizers. These fasts received widespread attention as they were heavily reported on and served to garner sympathy for the Indian cause from all around the world. Gandhi also believed that in order to truly bring together the Indians, the rigid caste system needed to be abolished. He believed that social emancipation was a key part of uniting the Indians and so that they could work together towards a common goal (Chaube 103).
People from the lower Hindu castes were made to do most of the dirty labor which made them “untouchable.” Gandhi realized that in order to really integrate all parts of the Indian population together, he had to remove the stigma associated with the lower castes. He is known for saying, “Obedience to the law of bread labor will bring about a silent revolution in the structure of society.” (Gandhi 14) Many people wonder whether Gandhi and his legacy are still applicable now.
A large number of people seem to think of Ahimsa and its principles as archaic and believe that it will not be repeatable in the 21st century. Although Gandhi died almost 80 years ago, his principles and ideals have never been more relevant. In today’s day and age, hate has infiltrated into every nook and cranny of the world, and it stands tall in the face of love and hope. Politicians campaign on socio-economic divides and capitalize on ideological differences for their own gain.
This has served to fragment an increasingly diverse world and has led to a large number of hate motivated actions. In a world so disjointed by ill will, Gandhi and his legacy are extremely pertinent. In conclusion, Mahatma Gandhi effectively used non-violent means to help secure independence for India through focusing on building a sense of unity within a diverse and fragmented population.
He did so by emphasizing the importance of reliance on Indian handicrafts and culture and by building pressure on the colonizers by peacefully defying their rules. He organized several movements in order to create momentum and moral pressure on the colonizers. His philosophy will always remain relevant, and the way in which he made the “impossible” come true will be studied and analyzed for centuries to come.
As an Indian with a passport which bears no connection to Britain, my identity and citizenship is a living testament to the fact that non-violence can truly bring about change on a large-scale platform. To those who doubt the viability of nonviolence, I can only reference a famous quote by Madge Micheels Cyrus, “Non-violence may not always work but violence never does.” (Cyrus 41)
- Chaube, S.K. “GANDHI AND THE INDIAN FREEDOM MOVEMENT.” The Indian Journal of Political Science, vol. 46, no. 4, 1985, pp. 430–437. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41855197.
- Brown, Judith M. The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Hind Swaraj. Rajpal & Sons, 2010. “Gandhi’s Strategy for Success – Use More than One Strategy.” Waging Nonviolence, wagingnonviolence.org/feature/gandhi-strategy-success.
- Larson, Jeanne, and Madge Micheels Cyrus. Seeds of Peace: a Catalogue of Quotations. New Society, 1987. Rudolph, Lloyd I., and Susanne Hoeber. Rudolph. Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays: Gandhi in the World and at Home.
- Oxford University Press, 2006. Spring, Ursula Oswald. “Ahimsa and Human Development : A Different Paradigm for Conflict Resolution.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 133–151. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41960892.
- The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings. Oxford University Press, 2019. Yajnik, Birad Rajaram. Peace, Truth, Ahimsa: a Photobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. Visual Quest Books, 2014.