Home / Politics / Policy /  How Satyagraha still drives change globally

New Delhi: Gandhi is a global figure who is rarely studied and analysed from a global perspective. As a global thinker with a transhistorical influence, Gandhi applied his experiments with truth and practice of non-violence, not only at an individual level but also in the process of the global affairs. In Gandhi’s model of national and international politics, truth (satya) and non-violence (ahimsa) were brought into a mutually interacting and reinforcing relation. Therefore, as in the case of means and ends, truth and non-violence were, for Gandhi, interchangeable entities beyond cultural borders and mental ghettos.

Moreover, according to Gandhi, non-violence in international politics was a matter of non-violent organization of the world bringing peace and interconnectedness among cultures and civilizations. As such, Gandhi was always concerned with cooperation among nations in terms of mutual understanding, empathetic friendship and non-violent partnership. Therefore, the main question for Gandhi was: how would world cultures and diverse religious traditions engage in a dialogue with each other?

The heart of Gandhi’s ethics of interconnectedness and mutuality was to look within oneself, change oneself and then change the world. That is to say, at a more fundamental level, for Gandhi, cultures and nations were not isolated entities, because they all played a special role in the making of human history. Therefore, Gandhi rarely spoke in terms of a linear world history. His goal for every culture (including his own) was the same as his goal for every individual: to find the truth and establish peace. This was a way for him to open up the world to a harmonic exchange and a transformative dialogue among nations. Therefore, at a more philosophical level, Gandhi believed that every culture should learn from others.

This is exactly what Gandhi himself tried to do, either through his ashramic and communitarian experiences in South Africa and India or directly in his political experiences with the British colonizers. Such a dialogical attitude conducted by Gandhi at the deepest level and in a spirit of genuine reciprocity and solidarity was not only a moral requirement, but also a geopolitical necessity.

Gandhi’s conception of “enlarged pluralism" took on the task of fostering togetherness and solidarity among cultures and traditions in the interest of democratizing modernity and bringing about a more just global order. One reason why Gandhi was able to do this was that he had political and cultural pluralism in his bones and he never made the mistake of rejecting or underestimating other traditions of thought in his approach to truth and in his stress on non-violence.

Global satyagraha

As such, under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Satyagraha turned into a global instrument of non-violent dissent against authoritarianism and a pragmatic tool of the powerless against the powerful. Thus, Gandhi had an ability to invoke Satyagraha globally as a transformative and emancipative methodology.

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (right), or ‘Frontier Gandhi’, with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Getty Images
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Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (right), or ‘Frontier Gandhi’, with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Getty Images

There have been several successful experiences of Satyagraha in the past 50 years. Among the followers of Gandhi in the 20th century who successfully launched their own Satyagraha against racial, religious and economic injustice and struggled for human rights, one could mention names like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Benigno Aquino, Jr. and many others. In more than half a century, many around the globe drew inspiration from Gandhi’s method of Satyagraha. Gandhian non-violence in its global sense remains exemplary as a political action and is transferable as a human experience from one tradition of thought to another.

Gandhian non-violence was already invoked during his lifetime by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as the “Frontier Gandhi". Few people know about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as a Muslim proponent of non-violence, who stressed the compatibility of Islam and Satyagraha. That is why, the recent history of non-violent action around the world has shown us clearly that Satyagraha is a seed that can grow and flourish in other cultures and religions rather than only in the Hindu society. Maybe this is the reason why and how Gandhi had a profound theoretical and practical influence on moral and political leaders around the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr

Often labelled as the “American Gandhi", Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence for the effectiveness of his own campaigns in areas such as integration and voting rights. King not only travelled to India, but also read Gandhi’s writings. He became Gandhi’s greatest disciple, by embracing Gandhi’s Satyagraha as a method of struggle for the emancipation of blacks in the US.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo: AFP
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Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo: AFP

It seems, therefore, that King stands in the long tradition of spiritual understanding of non-violence: he speaks of love (agape) as the central dynamic of non-violent action, based on the Christian conviction that God is on the side of those who love their enemies and struggle for justice. Non-violent action was related, in King’s mind, to a permanent struggle in human nature between good and evil. As such, in the spirit of Gandhi, Martin Luther King considered Satyagraha as a process, never as an achievement.

As King became more deeply involved with the Gandhian Satyagraha against segregation in the US, his understanding of non-violence as a moral commitment to God and to other human beings was raised to an ultimate and absolute principle of social and political action. King never concealed his debt to Gandhi for his method of Satyagraha as well as his refusal to separate the political from the ethical.

The genius of King’s action was to unify his Christian conception of love and Gandhi’s thought on Satyagraha

Though King was deeply influenced by the black church heritage and evangelical liberal Christianity, his two principal tactics of non-cooperation and civil disobedience against racist laws in the US were primarily influenced by Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. The genius of King’s action was to unify his Christian conception of love and Gandhi’s thought on Satyagraha.

Actually, King came to regard the Gandhian movement of non-violence as an intrinsic continuation of the sayings of Jesus. For him, the practical consequence of the belief in Gandhian Satyagraha was an active application of the two concepts of love and community in terms of the concrete realities of black experience in America. In fact, King came to believe that all the laws of the universe went in the direction of achieving the Beloved Community, which was reminiscent of Gandhi’s Rama Rajya.

Nelson Mandela

In the same manner as for Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US, the Gandhian experience of non-violent action found its most authentic exemplification in the African continent with Nelson Mandela. “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain top of our desires," proclaimed Mandela in a Gandhian manner.

Nelson Mandela. Photo: AFP
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Nelson Mandela. Photo: AFP

Undoubtedly, Mandela’s imprint and influence on our world and times as a non-violent leader remain as powerful as that of Gandhi. Perhaps no leader in recent times has symbolized better the Gandhian movement as Mandela did—going beyond all distinctions of colour, creed and class. His release from the Victor Verster prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990, after having served twenty-seven years in prison and spending many of these years on Robben Island, was celebrated as the triumph of empathetic truth and non-violence over injustice and repression in South Africa.

With Mandela assuming office as president in 1994, South Africa started looking beyond its own violence and humiliations to heal the national and racial divide. Effective non-violent actions played a crucial role in crippling the brutal and racist apartheid regime in South Africa, helping establish a legitimate, democratically elected black majority government. Mandela’s intention in practising non-violence was to establish national reconciliation in South Africa. But to succeed in this, he knew well that South Africa had to listen to its violent past and to heal it.

Mandela’s imprint and influence on our world as a non-violent leader remain as powerful as that of Gandhi

As an institution of forgiveness, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission acted on behalf of the South African State in order to try to heal the wounds of many who suffered from violence. “We may never forget, but we must forgive," underlined Mandela. And he added: “To make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes your partner." This is the clue to Mandela’s Gandhian moment, which puzzled some in the black and in the white communities within South Africa and elsewhere—they took a long time to put their hearts into believing the non-violent process of nation-building.

One thing is certain: by practising Gandhian non-violence in South African politics, Mandela became one of the key models for global Gandhism in the 21st century. Mandela strengthened the institutional bases of the Gandhian moment by engaging his moral capital in the direction of civic participation and democratic deliberation in South Africa.

Arab Spring

As a great insight and a valuable instrument of emancipation, Gandhi’s Satyagraha continues to represent the basis of all non-violent struggles against injustice. In the past 30 years, the world witnessed non-violent campaigns and movements in places such as Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Myanmar, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, and Tunisia. Although many were not successful and were met with violent responses of entrenched authoritarian rulers, alternatives based on repetitive cycles of violence often aimed at innocent civilians are even less so. As a result, the foreign policy community, together with transnational civil society through which many movements are linked by common cause and purpose, are increasingly following Gandhian non-violent struggle by those facing sustained repression.

People demonstrate in front of a mosque against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in Ankara, on 15 March 2013. Photo: AFP
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People demonstrate in front of a mosque against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in Ankara, on 15 March 2013. Photo: AFP

The non-violent democratic awakenings in West Asia from 2009 to 2012 demonstrated once again that Gandhian non-violence could help to provide the disobedient space that is needed. What united Tunisian and Egyptian citizens in their democratic uprisings, as was also the case for the Iranian youth in the Green Movement of 2009, was freedom from interference and a struggle against the concentration of arbitrary power.

For those young Egyptians, Tunisians and Iranians, freedom meant putting an end to the unjust accumulation of power and to demand their governments to be based on public accountability and popular sovereignty. Both in Iran and Egypt, non-violent resisters primarily targeted direct and visible institutions personified by their political leaders—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hosni Mubarak—while criticizing the authoritarian nature of power in these two regimes.

Though these non-violent social movements were not homogeneous, they provided the West Asian societies with a new Gandhian tool of struggle beyond the rule of political parties. This transformation in political values, norms, symbols, and everyday codes of dissent revealed a great moment of the global Gandhian movement in the Arab Spring and after.

In conclusion

Gandhian non-violence has been instrumental in political transitions from authoritarian or oppressive rule for many decades. Indeed, non-violent revolutions, characterized by civil society organization, mass mobilization, and negotiation, have revolutionized the very concept of revolution. Long gone are the days when the very concept of revolution was synonymous with violent struggle from below and armed efforts at state capture or overthrow.

In the past 30 years, the world witnessed non-violent campaigns in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Myanmar, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia

In many countries, organized civic pressure and a principled commitment not to resort to violence has been used to fight colonialism and foreign occupation, advance women’s and minority rights, and improve transparency and good governance.

Seventy years after Gandhi’s death, opinions and views about him and his non-violent technique of struggle remain deeply divided. But if one thing is certain is that Gandhi had a global impact on the transformation of human societies in our time. Gandhi, in short, was a leader with a global cause. He found it, of course, in Satyagraha and, ultimately, beyond the independence for India in the legacy of non-violence.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is professor, vice dean and director of Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University.

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