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Civil resistance: from theory to practice

Civil resistance: from theory to practice
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First Published: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST

Rallying cry:Buddhist monks in Myanmar protesting against the military regime in September 2007. AFP
Rallying cry:Buddhist monks in Myanmar protesting against the military regime in September 2007. AFP
Updated: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST
In the last half-century, what united African-American civil rights campaigners in the American South in the 1960s, anti-Apartheid demonstrators in South Africa in the 1980s, anti-communist agitators in Czechoslovakia in 1989, discontented citizens and student groups at Tiananmen in China in the same year, striking monks in Myanmar in 2007 and Tibet in 2008? Civil resistance.
Rallying cry:Buddhist monks in Myanmar protesting against the military regime in September 2007. AFP
A hundred years ago, civil resistance as a political force was not much more than a minor curiosity. Although it had theoretical roots in the ideas of Thoreau, Tolstoy and Ruskin, Mohandas Gandhi’s work for the rights of Indians in South Africa was the only feather in its cap. Today, that is no longer so. The idea of civil resistance has a history, a dignity, an allure, a vocabulary. The phrase “civil resistance” immediately brings to mind strikes, fasts, boycotts, demonstrations; a commitment to non-violence; the use of potent symbols and messages; a sense of active community, solidarity and discipline among discontented people.
Insofar as one of the reasons for studying history is to avoid repeating its mistakes, civil resistance offers a sharp, self-conscious break from many centuries of bloodshed and suffering over political, social and religious disputes. Thus, even when it fails, or is stamped out by violent reprisals, it is still on one plane a success, for having neutralized through responsible action the instinct to meet blow for blow. Yet, as recent history shows, civil resistance, while not evenly and universally effective, does not need any charitable definitions of success. As the editors of this volume of case studies of modern civil resistance campaigns around the world argue, the idea of civil resistance has helped redefine revolution since the 1960s. Although violence remains endemic in human affairs, civil resistance “has assisted at the birth of a new genre of revolution, one that involves force but not the violence always associated with that word”.
One of the key emphases of Civil Resistance & Power Politics is that it understands civil resistance not as an ideal of moral action and non-violent “conversion” of the adversary through “truth-force” as Gandhi saw it, but simply as a strategy of practical politics. Moral transformation of the adversary is not essential to successful civil resistance.
Indeed, as the scholar Judith M. Brown argues in a sceptical review of Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns, mass action strategized by Gandhi, even though it significantly changed the terms of imperial engagement with the colonized, could not be said, as some do, to have “brought an end to empire”. Political and economic factors, such as World War II, tilted the balance of history in favour of Indian independence.
Civil Resistance Power Politics: Oxford University Press, 408 pages, Rs995
Gandhi certainly radically enlarged the terms of protest and negotiation available to the disenfranchized, and laid down a frame where any person, even a child, could join the movement as a political actor. Among the lessons we learn from Gandhi’s example is that civil resistance does not usually yield instant results—it shifts the balance of power step by step. We learn also that much depends on the timing of civil protest, and on the adversary’s willingness to engage. During the Quit India campaign of 1942, for instance, the Raj’s attention was directed towards the World War, and Congress leaders were summarily rounded up and thrown into jail. The movement was not a success. So, as the career of even the most successful exponent of civil resistance shows, skilful strategy (and not just moral rigour) can immeasurably help improve the efficacy of civil resistance.
What factors improve the probability of civil resistance campaigns? The case studies offered here show that since civil resistance is really a form of political theatre, widespread local and international publicity is certainly a factor (the rise of the Internet and the availability of cheap video technology are therefore good omens for civil resistance in the 21st century). Mass enlistment makes for campaigns that cannot be crushed easily, and provides a kind of safety in numbers. International support and the economic and diplomatic pressure of neighbouring political powers can often decisively influence the way domestic power holders perceive their options in dealing with civil resistance. The merit of this book is in the way it takes the reader forward from civil resistance as an idea to civil resistance in practice. Even as it seeks to reshape history, civil resistance has much to learn from its own history.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 35 PM IST