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Nonviolence, the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi said, “Is as old as the hills.” As an idea and an ideal, nonviolence is indeed old. Throughout history people have yearned for harmony, peace, and stability—conditions ultimately rooted in nonviolence—and have been inspired by the nonviolent activism of such leaders as the Dalai Lama, Corazon Aquino, Cesar Chavez, and Lech Walesa.
People have often tried nonviolent means to redress their grievances. But the idea of nonviolence as a deliberate and preferred strategy of action for political and social change acquired widespread credibility and currency only during the twentieth century. No person was more central to that credibility and currency than Mohandas Gandhi. With Gandhi nonviolence assumed a revolutionary dimension unprecedented in scope and global impact.
Gandhi and the Power of Nonviolent Action
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) was the first person to develop a coherent worldview of nonviolent action and to propose a well-articulated strategy to realize such a worldview. Gandhi’s strategy was to struggle using a moral force. He called this force “satyagraha”—the active pursuit of truth through love and nonviolence. A satyagrahi (a person who undertakes satyagraha) must renounce not only violence, but also revenge and hate. Gandhi’s dedication to nonviolence is unparalleled in the history of nonviolent mass action.
Gandhi’s initial experiments in satyagraha were in the context of South Africa’s policies of racial discrimination at the dawn of the twentieth century. He subsequently used satyagraha to transform economic, political, and social realities in British colonial India. To him the purpose of satyagraha was not to force one’s adversaries into submission but rather to transform the interrelationships of those people engaged in conflict. Gandhi’s campaigns relied on methods such as fasting, hartal (strike), noncooperation, boycotts, marches, and civil disobedience and were aimed at the injustices of British colonialism as well as the moral failure among Indians. For instance, he undertook nonviolent campaigns to relieve the peasants of Champaran of the economic exploitation of British planters (1917–1918); to free India from British rule (1920–1921, 1930–1934, 1940–1942); and to foster unity and heal tensions between Hindus and Muslims (1947–1948) during and after partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
Gandhi’s demonstrations of satyagraha—both in spirit and strategy—touched people around the world and inspired hundreds of leaders across geographical, ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries. Many people who followed Gandhi on the path of nonviolent action, even if pursuing different trajectories, have been internationally acclaimed. These people include the Indian freedom fighter Vinoba Bhave; the Dalai Lama (spiritual and political leader of Tibet); South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu; U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; U.S. farm worker activist Cesar Chavez; Aung San Suu Kyi, a prodemocracy activist in Myanmar (Burma); Polish trade union activist Lech Walesa; and Czech political activist Vaclav Havel. After Gandhi, nonviolent action became a powerful trend during the twentieth century and shaped scores of social and political movements around the world.
Nonviolent Struggles in Asia
In Asia people used nonviolent action to combat oppression arising from colonialism or authoritarian regimes and to mobilize support for democratic reform and human rights. Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (1890–1988), later known as “Badshah Khan” or “Frontier Gandhi,” was a Muslim leader of the Pathan people in the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of India. He was a follower of Islam and with Gandhi and founded the world’s first nonviolent army, known as the “Khudai Khidmatgars” (Servants of God), to protest British atrocities, including plundering of Pathan villages. The army eventually grew to a force of eighty thousand Pathans dedicated to nonviolent action. Badshah Khan supported Gandhi’s vision of a united India. However, partition could not be avoided, and NWFP became part of Pakistan. With the support of Khudai Khidmatgars, Badshah Khan mobilized a nonviolent movement to gain democratic rights for the Pathans in newly created Pakistan. During the next three decades he spent fifteen years in prison and seven years in exile as Pakistan continued to be ruled by the military.
Khudai Khidmatgars is significant not only because of its struggle against colonialism and authoritarianism, but also because it was an experiment that helped advance the agenda for a peace army to resolve international conflicts. Moreover, because of the dedication of such large numbers of Muslims to nonviolent action, the Khudai Khidmatgars helped to dispel the myth that nonviolence is not consistent with Islam.
Tibetan Quest for Freedom
Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), the fourteenth Dalai Lama, was forced into exile by the Chinese government in 1959. The Dalai Lama continues to lead his followers in nonviolent resistance against the Chinese and to serve as a beacon of nonviolence to the international community. He has declared that violence by Tibetans would be suicidal and that “nonviolence is the only way” for Tibet to gain independence. While accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama commended nonviolent resistance, including the hunger strikes of Chinese students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Dalai Lama, like Gandhi, believes that the cultivation of inner peace and integrity is the ultimate weapon for world peace because happiness lies within oneself.
Restoring Democracy in the Philippines
Corazon Aquino (1933–2009) led a nonviolent resistance to restore democracy in the Philippines after President Ferdinand Marcos illegally declared himself the winner of an election in 1986. Influenced by Gandhian tactics of boycott and noncooperation, Aquino called for a nationwide boycott of banks, newspapers, beverages, and movies. She called upon people to withdraw their funds from large banks with close connections to Marcos, to shut down schools and factories, and to delay paying utility bills. Tactics of noncooperation brought government operations to a halt and slowed the economy. Housewives, priests, workers, and businesspeople alike supported the movement, refusing to accept the fraudulent outcome of the election. The force of nonviolent sanctions and boycott ultimately prevailed: Marcos was exiled to Hawaii, and Aquino became the duly elected president of the Philippines.
Quest for Democracy in Myanmar
In 1988, two years after democracy was restored in the Philippines, Aung San Suu Kyi (b. 1945) led a democratic movement in Myanmar (Burma). Consequently, in 1990 elections were held in which Suu Kyi’s democratic party won. However, unwilling to give up authority, the military junta refused to abide by the election results. Inspired by Gandhian satyagraha and Buddhist compassion, Suu Kyi continued her nonviolent struggle in the face of oppression and remained committed to the cause of freedom and human rights even when put under house arrest. Her resistance often takes the form of hunger strikes and active noncooperation with the authoritarian regime because she is convinced that “freedom from fear” is essential for bringing democracy to Myanmar. Large numbers of Myanmar citizens are influenced by the moral strength of Suu Kyi and regard her as Myanmar’s destiny.
Arrested Democracy in China
After the emergence of a democratic movement in Myanmar, in China tens of thousands of college students, led by student Wu’er Kaixi (b. 1968), demanded democratic reform from the Chinese Communist government in 1989. As the movement gained momentum, three thousand students staged a hunger strike, drawing more than a million people to their side at Tiananmen Square. They demanded democratic reform and an immediate meeting with government officials. But negotiations did not continue because students felt rising anger toward the government and because student leaders felt estranged from one another. On 4 June 1989, military troops marched into the square, killing several hundred protesters in what became known as the “Tiananmen massacre.” However, the movement helped secure international condemnation of the Chinese Communist regime for its violation of human rights and resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions.
Nonviolent Movements in the Americas
In the Americas nonviolent movements became central to the restoration of rights in the United States— the world’s most powerful democracy—and to the defeat of dictators in central and Latin America.
Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. South
The seeds of Gandhian nonviolence were planted in new soil when Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) led the civil rights movement in the U.S. South during the 1950s and the 1960s. Drawing upon satyagraha and his own experience as a Christian minister, King developed a unique philosophy of nonviolent resistance that was effective during the major civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott (1956), the lunch counter sit-ins (1960), the freedom rides (1961), the Albany, Georgia, campaign (1961–1962), the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign (1963), and the drive for voting rights (1964–1965). The movement championed the use of nonviolent action as a form of social protest and mobilized the African American population across the nation. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963, during which he articulated his dream of racial equality, attracted the largest nonviolent demonstration after Gandhi’s mass movement in India and helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
United Farm Workers Movement
While the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, a young Mexican American farm worker, Cesar Chavez (1927–1993), was searching for a solution to his community’s economic problems. He found a sense of direction in Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Imbued with the spirit of satyagraha, energized by King’s civil rights campaigns, and drawing upon his Christian ethic, Chavez during the period 1960–1980 led members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America in nonviolent campaigns to secure their rights and protest their exploitation. Through policy changes and legislation Chavez achieved numerous improvements, such as an increase in wages, work rule reforms, workers’ benefits, and a ban on the use of dangerous pesticides on farms. The movement relied on nationwide consumer boycotts and labor strikes, pickets, processions, and fasting. The movement not only achieved its goals, but also demonstrated the power of an underclass that previously had had no political standing.
Civic Strike in El Salvador
After people discovered the power of nonviolence, the scope of its application assumed several dimensions. In El Salvador in Central America students, doctors, and merchants in 1944 used nonviolent action to bring down the longtime military dictator, General Hernandez Martinez. Opponents of Martinez’s brutal policies organized a civic strike using nonviolent tactics. They detached Martinez from his closest friends, allies, and members of the military and forced him into exile.
Desaparecidos Movement in Argentina
In 1977 fourteen mothers organized a march in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with the motto, “We will walk until we drop.” Wearing white scarves, these women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties fearlessly walked into the Plaza de Mayo and were joined by hundreds of other people in their protests against the “disappearance” of their sons, daughters, husbands, and other relatives under the authoritarian regime of General Jorge Videla. Marching, writing letters to international agencies, advertising in newspapers, and collecting twenty-four thousand signatures on a petition, members of the desaparecidos (the disappeared) movement created international awareness about the violation of human rights in their country while refusing to be silenced at any cost. Their efforts eventually led to the downfall of the military government.
Chilean Resistance to a Dictator
Like protesters in El Salvador and Argentina, protesters in Chile remained committed to nonviolent noncooperation as they opposed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1915–2006). As the protest movement grew, protesters gained courage and refused to pretend that Pinochet had their consent to rule. On the contrary, they worked to convince people that Pinochet commanded no popular support of Chileans. Challenged by such protests in 1988, Pinochet called for plebiscite (vote), which he lost. Clinging to authority, he tried to bypass the plebiscite results. But his own supporters, in the wake of mounting popular protest, refused to support him, and he was defeated.
Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Revolutions in Europe
During the last two decades of the twentieth century nonviolent revolutions became a major trend throughout Eastern and Central Europe. The most notable took place in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
In Poland, Lech Walesa (b. 1943), inspired by Gandhi, led industrial strikes in 1980, giving rise to Solidarity, a federation of Polish trade unions. The ensuing movement during the next several years remained totally nonviolent. It not only brought an end to Communist dictatorship in Poland but also kindled the spirit of democracy throughout eastern Europe. Through his dedication to nonviolent action, Walesa shared a lesson he had learned: “We can effectively oppose violence only if we ourselves do not resort to it.” Walesa became the president of Poland in 1990.
In Czechoslovakia, the writer Vaclav Havel (b. 1936) led the nonviolent resistance movement against Soviet oppression. His seminal essay, “Power of the Powerless,” outlined a strategy for nonviolent revolution. He called upon people to empower themselves by daring to “live within the truth” and refusing to “live a lie.” Havel was elected first as president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and later as first president of the new Czech Republic in 1991. Soon “people power” had resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Communist regimes all over Eastern Europe.
South Africa: A Country of Struggle
Even though Gandhi had begun his satyagraha in South Africa, inspiring nonviolent action throughout the world, South Africa remained under the policy of apartheid (racial segregation) for most of the twentieth century. The struggle against apartheid assumed violent dimensions several times during the century. Even the political leader Nelson Mandela (b. 1918), who began the nonviolent resistance, took to violence, resulting in his serving twenty-three years in prison. Nevertheless, nonviolent sanctions, strikes, rent boycotts, street committees, and boycotts of business owned by whites ultimately disabled the government. Moreover, the formation of the United Democratic Front, which included all people who favored democratic reforms through nonviolent means, eventually forced change in South Africa. Nonviolent methods alone did not bring the change, but they were instrumental in exposing the stark nature of apartheid and the suffering of people engaged in nonviolent resistance. Such exposure undermined the credibility of the government. In 1994, after free elections, South Africa finally became a democracy; Mandela was its first president.
Nonviolence emerged as a powerful trend during the twentieth century. Undertaken in diverse contexts, nonviolent movements varied widely in the degree of challenge they posed to the established institutions of power and authority and the extent to which they brought about meaningful social transformation. However, collectively they showed that war and violence are not the only, and certainly not the best, means of changing the institutions of power or creating a new social order. In the years to come we may see that Gandhi was right in asserting that “we are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”
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