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Elements of Resistance: Warriors of Peace

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The following is Chapter Six, in its entirety, from the forthcoming book, "Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State" by Jeriah Bowser and published by the Hampton Institute Press.

There have always been individuals who have sought to understand the root cause of oppressive violence and injustice, and who have tried, some successfully and some not, to counteract the violence of their culture with a nonviolent and pacifist alternative. Three such individuals stand out in the past few centuries as great leaders of resistance movements: Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each of these men and the struggles they led are commonly held up as examples of nonviolence at work. They are often brought up in conversations about nonviolent vs. violent tactics as proof that "Nonviolence works, right! I mean, India is independent, South Africa is no longer under Apartheid rule, and Black people in the US no longer have their own water fountains! How can you argue with that logic?"

There are two major ways that we are duped into seeing 'The changing of the masks' as social progress; a) By not understanding that every successful nonviolent movement had a violent counterpart that was crucial to the success of the overall struggle; and b) By not understanding the way that oppression simply changes forms, methods, and definitions while maintaining or increasing the actual level of oppressive violence. We will closely examine the lives of these three men and the movements they represented and try to more accurately understand the roles that nonviolent and violent resistance has shaped the course of history in an attempt to learn from their mistakes and successes, so that we may hopefully make our resistance more effective.

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Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in India. Great Britain, one of the largest and most violent States in the history of humanity, had 'acquired' through violent means the country of India during the mid-1800s. India, as a colony of Great Britain, was subjected to an increased level of State structural violence, as England was quite adept at exploiting the people and land of India and converting them into capital, turning the natural world into money, transforming life into death. The people of India had been pawns on the world stage for hundreds of years at this point, and were hungry for independence around the time of Gandhi's entry into the picture.

Gandhi had a fairly quiet and inconsequential childhood, in which the importance of truth and asceticism were impressed deeply upon him. He was educated in London to be a lawyer, and shortly thereafter moved to South Africa to work for a trading company. He was fairly unfamiliar with racism and oppression, as his father was an influential politician and Mohandas had experienced a somewhat privileged upbringing, so when he was thrown off of a train for refusing to sit third class when he had a first class ticket, he was shocked and horrified at this treatment. He quickly became involved with resistance work in South Africa after he heard about a bill that was being passed that would eliminate the voting rights of Indians, Native South Africans, and other non-European people groups. Although incredibly inexperienced and unfamiliar with either social reform or public leadership, he managed to join South Africa's marginalized and oppressed people groups together to resist the oppressive government and secure meager political and social gains. Returning home to India, Gandhi realized that the racism and oppression he had experienced in South Africa were very much present in his beloved homeland, and he spent the rest of his life attempting to fight this injustice through his philosophy which he developed, known as Satyagraha.

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Satyagraha can be translated as "Soul force" or "Truth force." Satyagraha states that an unjust opponent or situation can be overcome by a dedication to the truth, a willingness to suffer, and a commitment to nonviolence, or ahimsa. Through loving nonviolent action, Gandhi believed that every oppressive person, system, and State in the world could be overcome. There are many ways that Satyagraha can be used to resolve issues ranging from small family disputes to massive geopolitical struggles and a full exploration of it is not necessary here, however, I highly recommend those who are not familiar to research it more fully on their own [1]. Although Satyagraha is widely hailed as one of the most important theories to come out of the past century and has been used successfully in perhaps thousands of successful resistance movements since Gandhi first practiced it in India, it would be a disservice to not examine it fully and try to understand its shortcomings.

One of the fatal flaws of Satyagraha is its perhaps utopian idealism, in that it does not account for the realities of senseless oppressive violence that oftentimes take place in our self-destructive world. With Satyagraha, you can be as actively nonviolent as possible, committing your entire self to your cause, and at the end of the day if your opponent is not moved to compassion, your best option is to simply die with dignity rather than resist with violence. This flaw is made apparent in an open letter from Gandhi to the Jewish people who were being oppressed at the hands of Nazi Germany where he urged them to nonviolently resist their oppressors and persuade them with the force of their souls, even in the face of blatant genocide, declaring that " if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant [2]" and in his letter to Hitler where he politely asked the Fuhrer to, " prevent a war which may reduce the world to a savage state. [3] " This line of reasoning was completely unrealistic in the face of such naked oppressive violence, and he received much criticism for his stance on the Jewish genocide. Stokely Carmichael summed it up well, " In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. [4] "

The two points which need to be emphasized and understood in regards to Gandhi and his movement are again: a) the role that violence played in the Indian independence movement, and b) the lack of real social change post-independence.

The Satyagraha movement, Gandhi's Indian independence movement, was indeed a remarkable social movement that did many things right and no doubt contributed to the eventual liberation of India from British rule in 1947. Gandhi's group was not the only group working towards independence, however, nor was it even the largest group. Bhagat Singh, Rani Laxmi Bai, Chandrashekhar Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose, Nana Saheb, Bal Gangadar Tilak, Ram Prasad Bismil, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all leaders of various social, revolutionary, religious, and political parties in India who were fighting for independence alongside the Satyagraha campaign. These groups and leaders all contributed to the eventual independence of India, and many of these groups were much larger and in many ways more successful than the Satyagraha campaign. So why do we only ever hear about Gandhi?

One answer to this lies with the concept of 'saving face' and the need of the British Empire to maintain its illusion of power, control, and noble character to the rest of the world. At a certain point, the British government realized that Indian independence was inevitable, and they had several choices as to how they would make their departure. They could go fighting with the radical socialist forces of Bhagat Singh, they could go by the ballot with Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress, or they could go peacefully and diplomatically with Gandhi, the little old man who pledged to never fight, resist, coerce, or in any way violate the sensibilities of the British Empire. Naturally, they went with Gandhi, as in many ways he was the perfect poster child of revolution: a revolutionary who held the utmost respect for his oppressors and was willing to engage in any number of inconveniences or hardships in order to win his opponents hearts and minds. Thus, the British nobility made friends with Gandhi and his consort and claimed that it was his struggle, the Satyagraha struggle, which had done the trick and successfully secured independence for India. George Orwell, a young British police officer during the Indian Independence Movement, observed, " Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference."

Think of the repercussions if the violent resistors Bhagat Singh or Subhas Chandra Bose would have been hailed as successful revolutionaries, if the dozens of colonized nations held by European nations around the world at the time would have seen a violent revolution as the key to their freedom, as well. No, that would never do. Gandhi was the perfect role-model for national liberation, as he never truly threatened the British Empire's ability to dominate and exploit in any way and he allowed them to make a graceful departure from their colony. Not only did they make a graceful departure, but they never actually left. In many ways India simply switched from direct colonial rule to indirect neocolonial rule, as the economic disparity, poverty, public health issues, religious violence, women's rights, lack of democratic process, government corruption, and access to education that were so lacking in British India are in many ways worse today than ever before. As Gandhi himself said, " What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

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In no way am I condemning or renouncing Gandhi, his teachings, or his life's work, but I think it is important to realize that there are many narratives of history, and choosing to only see and believe one narrative is severely limiting to one's ability to effectively understand and implement effective social change. Trading one oppressor for another is not progress, it is being duped.

Gandhi's and Bhagat's methods of revolution were effective, valid, and successful. Neither one was 'better' than the other; they each played their role in the struggle. The point is that we only know about Gandhi because that is the only story that was deemed suitable for history lessons by the British Empire. We are presented with a very narrow and sanitized version of history because that is the version that is least threatening to Business As Usual. As resistors, we must be willing to see history accurately and in doing so, to see that there are many different approaches and tools for social change that have been effectively used, and must continue to be used. To limit ourselves to only one tool of resistance - nonviolence - is to ignore history, to be ignorant of social progress, and to blindly accept the State narrative of safe, nonthreatening resistance that has been presented to us.

The second major misunderstanding arises from a lack of understanding the functions of globalized capitalism and the ways that a country under neocolonial rule is just as much if not more oppressed as when under direct colonial rule. Gandhi's Satyagraha movement called for much more than just the annexation of India, he had many goals and hopes for the future of India- none of which were actualized. Gandhi called for a) India's complete economic, political, and social independence from Great Britain; b) a country of religious tolerance, with Muslims and Hindus peacefully occupying the same communities; c) an end to the concepts of class division and caste, especially in regards to the 'untouchables'; and d) the creation of local economies and the building of self-reliant communities, ultimately leading to a self-sufficient country with minimal imports.

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Jeriah Bowser is an autodidactic student of philosophy, sociology, psychology, environmental studies, religion, anthropology, and theology; and is the Ecology & Sustainability Department chair at the Hampton Institute. His tumultuous upbringing and (more...)
 

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Elements of Resistance: Warriors of Peace