An Old Debate

The Discourse of Non-Violence in Indian Politics

T Vijayendra

[There is no doubt that violence is evil, and every effort should be made to minimise and ultimately eliminate it. However, in Indian politics the discourse of non-violence is used to disarm the people, and divides the people's movement while allowing the state and the ruling class to remain armed. It labels the politics of class struggle as 'violence' and hides the politics of class collaboration under the garb of non-violence. Its aim is to isolate the socialists and communists and condemn them as believers in violence. The discourse of violence and non-violence in Indian politics is therefore, a false discourse, a bourgeois agenda. The way out is to firmly oppose the state and ruling class by uniting all opposition. Those who want to use peaceful means should use the secular discourse of peaceful, democratic means of struggle. While there is scope for a plurality of approaches, there is no scope for this false discourse of violence and non-violence.]

This essay is addressed to political activists who are on the side of the poor. At present, the poor are engaged in several major struggles, and the activists involved in these struggles belong to a range of political ideologies and tendencies. The issue of violence and non-violence is often raised, and sometimes this divides the people's movement. The aim of this article is to clarify these issues, encourage healthy debate and avoid splits in the people's movement.

For the purpose of this article the meaning of the word 'violence' is restricted only to human beings wreaking violence on other human beings. Killing of animals for food is excluded. In truth the massive destruction of flora, fauna and ecology for the explicit purpose of reducing the enemy food supply and livelihood base should also be considered as violence.

The politics of non-violence is different from its philosophy and ideology, just as the politics of religion is different from each founder's spirituality and philosophy.

The two great religions that have advocated non-violence are Buddhism and Christianity. One must separate the religions from the lives of their founders. Buddhism became a religion during Emperor Ashoka's (304-232 BC) time and Christianity became a religion in 380 AD during the Roman Empire under Theodosius I (378-395).

Now a state is an instrument of the ruling class meant to serve its interests and keep the ruled classes under control. This control is rarely done by force, although the threat is always present. Most of the time, however, this control is exercised through a set of cultural processes which legitimise and justify the system of state power. Religion is one of the most important among these processes. Religions ask people to be ethical and good while allowing the ruling class to carry on exploitation and oppression. The theory of non-violence has played a crucial role in this process. It disarms the people, while allowing the state and the ruling class to remain armed and use violence.

For example, Emperor Ashoka is reported to have been struck with remorse after the brutal victory in Kalinga, and then adopted Buddhism as a state religion and spread the message of the Buddha. But he did not disband his army! In the year 185 BC, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, the last Maurya ruler, Brahadrata, was assassinated by the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pushyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honour of his forces. During Ashoka's regime the relation between the state and religious organisations also became institutionalised. The king was anointed by the religious organisations and the king in turn supported them through land grants and financial backing. Religions provided legitimacy to the king and the state and disarmed the people, asking them to be ethical. As a rule, they were on the king's side whenever the king punished the 'guilty' or waged war.

Buddhism died in India around the 8th century AD, but spread to Nepal, Sri Lanka, S E Asia, China and Japan. The Chinese and Japanese even developed 'non-violent' or 'unarmed' martial arts for self defence in the Buddhist tradition! Today these techniques are used in police training all over the world to punish protesters or even kill them without anybody being able to prove violence. Nor did Buddhism prevent the rulers of China and Japan from having armies and waging violent wars. The Japanese fascists were also known for extremely brutal practices in the Second World War.

Before the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, it would persecute Christians. Adoption of Christianity did not prevent any Christian king or emperor from having armies or waging wars. In fact the Crusades were carried out in the name of Christianity. A firm symbiotic relationship existed between the church and the king/emperor. Even with those within the religion, the Catholic Church was extremely cruel in punishing people who differed from the official version.

Thus the theory of non-violence in history is part of the ruling class's cultural tools to disarm the people and rule them. It is a part of what is called the 'Project of the Ruling Class'.

Modern Period
In the modern period, however, this theory has also helped the people. But, particularly in the case of Gandhi, the matter is not so simple. The three great names among modern votaries of non-violence are Thoreau, Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell. Thoreau's (1817-1862) 'Civil Disobedience' has inspired generations of peace activists. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was very upset by the practice of Christianity by the churches and the churches' support to governments in their war efforts. For years he consistently wrote inspiring articles and books on the issue and inspired generations of people, including Gandhi. He also consistently protested against Czarism in Russia and helped many revolutionaries in their cause. Lenin paid glowing tributes to Tolstoy. Tolstoy maintained that violence by the state was cold-blooded murder since it was carried out by paid functionaries. He had a different position about violence among the people. He maintained that it is not known under what provocation this violence was carried out and so one cannot condemn it outright. Bertrand Russell, mathematician, philosopher and pacifist was a consistent anti-war activist. He was a campaigner against nuclear weapons and for disarmament, and also a vocal critic of the US war in Vietnam. He belongs to the secular trend in the non-violence movement.

The secular proponents of non-violence call themselves pacifists. They oppose wars and call for disarmament. Pacifism covers a spectrum of views, including the belief that international disputes can and should be peacefully resolved. It calls for the abolition of the institutions of the military and war, oppose to any organisation of society through governmental force. It rejects the use of physical violence to obtain political, economic or social goals, and aims for the obliteration of force except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to advance the cause of peace. It is firm in its opposition to violence under any circumstances, even for defence of self and others.

All non-violent resistance is by no means based on a fundamental rejection of all violence in all circumstances. Many leaders and participants in such movements, while recognizing the importance of using non-violent methods in particular circumstances, have not been absolute pacifists. The interconnections between civil resistance and the use of force are numerous and complex.

In contrast to the principle of non-violence stands the non-aggression principle which rejects the initiation of violence, but permits the use of violence for self-defence. So it does not apply when someone is subject to violence initiated by others, and hence self-defence is not morally rejected.

Proponents of Violence
There are not very many articulate proponents of violence. Most of the proponents of violence in modern history have been right-wing fascists and religious fundamentalists. Today this is even more so. There are Hindu fundamentalists who carried out a mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat, the Christian fundamentalists who mowed down 80 children in a school in Norway or the Jihadis among the Muslim fundamentalists who killed hundreds of innocent people on a railway platform in Mumbai.

Are Marxists Proponents of Violence?
The Marxists are also generally considered to be proponents of violence and are supposed to believe in violence as 'a means to an end'. It is, however, difficult to demonstrate the truth of this statement. The slogan of the Russian revolution was 'Peace and Bread'. Communist countries took initiatives in the peace and disarmament movements. In non-Communist countries too there have always been significant numbers of Marxists in support of these movements. Their programme is a revolutionary programme for social change towards equality and the end of exploitation of man by man. Violence per se is not their programme. They accept that revolutions endanger violence but by no means do they propagate it or theorise its virtues. The most familiar argument for violence is 'Violence is the midwife of revolution', where violence is compared to the necessary pain experienced by a mother during childbirth. But it would appear that Marxists are considered violent by default because they do not propagate non-violence, or because they do not agree that the state has a monopoly of violence.

There is however a real problem of sectarian and fratricidal violence among the revolutionaries and Communists. It has existed from the beginning, but it reached a huge scale during the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. Votaries of non-violence normally cite this to say that violence per se is wrong and can never bring any social change and will always bring a new ruling class. Communists themselves treat it as a problem that has to be worked upon. They see it as more a problem of correctly organising and leading the movement, and resolving the problem of democracy and debate within the movement.

However in Indian politics the Marxists and Communists have been dubbed as 'believers' in violence and condemned by the so-called votaries of non-violence. This was and still is an attempt to hide the agenda of class collaboration and oppose the communist agenda of class struggle.

Frantz Fanon
If one wants to find a theoretician of violence in Left-wing politics it was Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), who wrote the book The Wretched of the Earth. It was published shortly before Fanon's death in 1961. Fanon defends the rights of a colonized people to use violence in their struggle for independence. His argument is that colonizers in Africa do not consider the colonized Africans as human beings. Therefore such human beings—who are not considered as human beings—shall not be bound by the principles that apply to humanity. Fanon's book was censored by the French government.

He was a psychologist with French army in Algeria. He had the unenviable task of counselling French soldiers who were torturing Algerian revolutionaries. These soldiers could not sleep well and had disturbing dreams! The book is a powerful description of colonialism and how the colonialist does not recognise the blacks as human beings at all. It describes how racism is constructed. Fanon also describes how a black African internalises this low estimate of himself and how violence plays a role in liberating him, how it gives him the courage to revolt against the white colonialist. When the black man raises his head, he finds that the white man is not any bigger than him in size. When a black man hits the white man and draws blood and sees fear in his eyes—that is the point when he realises that the he can revolt against the colonialist and win! Violence is liberating! He receives a baptism of blood!

Fanon's exhortations to violence can be seen in these quotes: "For in the first phase of the revolt killing is a necessity: killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free." And, "Violence is man re-creating himself."

Non-violence in India
While there will be a critique of Gandhi, it needs to be stated that there is a difference between what Gandhi thought and said and what his followers interpreted it to mean. Also, actions often lead to results different from what the proponents say or mean.

The story begins with the publication of Hind Swaraj by Gandhi in 1908. It is an important book and even after 100 years of its publication it is still available in print in several languages and is still being discussed. It is a curious document. At one level it presents a dream of India which resonates with today's ideas of a post-fossil fuel era, along with reducing the scale of energy use and working towards ecological restoration. At another level it announces Gandhi's arrival in Indian politics after his success in South Africa and lays out his agenda which was different from the existing agenda of other politicians seeking independence. The book's main aim, however, was to isolate the revolutionaries who, according to Gandhi, believed in violence. This was because Gandhi believed that the independence struggle should be fought by non-violent means and that means and ends cannot be different. The tone of book is paternalist and Gandhi chides the supporters of these revolutionaries. This was Gandhi's manifesto.

Very few believed in his manifesto wholly, and most of his followers in the independence movement supported and used his method of non-violence tactically. The irony was that independence was not achieved without violence. Up to a million people died in communal riots during a few months. No revolution in history was so violent!

Gandhi himself was aware of this contradiction and was deeply anguished by it. "Gandhi's anguish was ...centred around his tragic discovery that the freedom struggle led by him had not been the unique non-violent struggle that he and the whole world believed it to have been. The discovery forced itself upon him when the country erupted into savage violence on the eve of independence" (Sudhir Chandra : Gandhi : Rethinking the possibility of non-violence, CSSS, Surat. 2012)

Gandhi's Critics
Gandhi was opposed by large sections of freedom fighters. Some opposed him openly, while others were opposed to him but used him and his methods to serve their own agenda. In fact, except for a few, almost all his supporters even within the Congress party were 'opportunistic' supporters with their own agenda. Many of his Congress supporters were looking forward to forming the government in New India.

One critique of Gandhi runs as follows. Unlike his guru Tolstoy, Gandhi was not consistent in his practice of non-violence. Even after the publication of Hind Swaraj, he recruited soldiers for Britain in the First World War. He did not condemn state violence, and did not ask Indian soldiers to resign from the army though he asked Indian students to leave schools and colleges. When some Indian soldiers refused to fire at an armed Indian people's protest, Gandhi did not defend the soldiers but said that they should have the moral courage to bear the punishment of their defiance of authority.

According to some, Gandhi succeeded because of one fatal flaw in his theory: the theory of trusteeship. Trusteeship meant that the rich can keep their wealth but should act as its trustees. Many of his colleagues pointed out the contradiction between this doctrine and that of non-accumulation. This doctrine gave him the support of the Indian bourgeoisie and ensured complete press coverage of his point of view because the bourgeoisie controlled the press. As Arundhati Roy has observed, Gandhi's methods were like theatre, they required an audience. Many critics also pointed out that without a 'free press', Gandhi's methods cannot succeed. The Indian bourgeoisie supported Gandhi, welcomed him into their homes and donated land and money. After the Second World War, when their purpose was served and it became clear that they would inherit the country, Gandhi was completely dropped by them.

The Indian bourgeoisie supported Gandhi not just because he had an ideology of trusteeship. They saw that Gandhi was opposed to the communists and was able to perform the magic of mass mobilisation while appearing as the messiah of the poor. They saw Gandhi's methods as a road to smooth transition of power from the British to the Indian bourgeoisie. Gandhi's agenda also successfully isolated the communists. Only a part of the socialist movement had veered towards Communism and there has been a bitter struggle between the socialists and the communists ever since.

Some critics say that the issue was never between violence and non-violence, for no one was advocating violence per se. The issue was independence with social justice or independence with the brown bourgeoisie replacing the white. To them Gandhi's agenda appeared clearly for the latter (although Gandhi was very concerned about injustice in the Hindu society towards the lower castes). As events proved, the bourgeois agenda succeeded. If anything the logic of his policies facilitated such an agenda.

Finally some say that Gandhi's discourse on non-violence was deeply religious, asking people to disarm and to be ethical, and that this legitimised the violence of the ruling classes.

Post-Independence India
Post-Independence India continued to harp on how India won independence through non-violent means, even while the huge shadow of a million deaths during partition hung over it. Also there was not a single day since then till today when the Indian state has not been at war with some sections of the Indian people. Gandhi's legacy, such as it was, passed over to Vinoba Bhave. These people did not oppose any injustice done by the Indian state. Whatever little militancy Gandhi had, was completely blunted by Vinoba and his ilk.

Both the Indian state and Vinoba Bhave continued the Gandhian tradition of isolating the Left by calling them believers in violence. Vinoba started his Bhoodan movement in Telangana explicitly to oppose the communists. In 1967 Jayaprakash Narayan, another of these Gandhians, went to Musahari to oppose the Naxalites. Both of them had no success.

Today a hundred fires are burning against the Indian state. There are the CPI (Maoist)-led movements which engulf more than 100 districts of India; there are identity movements in the North-East, Kashmir and several Indian states, notably in Darjeeling and Vidarbha. There are anti-mega-project movements by peasants and rural people whose livelihood is endangered by these projects and which are also environmental hazards. In most of these cases, at some stage the state opposes them violently, often killing several people. It also harasses the so-called 'non-violent' people through the police and judiciary. And all the time it calls for using democratic means and exhorts people to give up violence. Thus, the most violent people are calling upon others to become non-violent!

The most blatant case is the case of violence in Chhattisgarh. The state created a vigilante army called Salwa Judam with the express purpose of fighting the Maoists. When the Maoists fought back, then the state created the discourse that the poor tribals are caught between the two fires of the Maoists and the Salwa Judam. The real purpose of the state was to get land for the industry by displacing the tribals. More than a lakh tribals were driven out of the area to Andhra Pradesh. The state has been repeatedly exposed by the press, civil liberty organisations, Gandhians like Himanshu Kumar, scholars, and finally by the Supreme Court.

To sum up, the discourse on non-violence is mainly used to isolate the forces who are fighting on behalf of the people, by labelling them violent and undemocratic and diving the people's movement. The proponents are by and large those who unleash violence on the people. Yet there are people who fall into this trap and start criticising the left and the Maoists. It should be noted that many of these advocates of non-violence are not actually fighting for the poor whereas those who are (Gandhians like Himanshu Kumar in Chhattisgarh and earlier Man Mohan Chaudhuri in Orissa) usually avoid getting into this debate.

Violence exists because people live in a class divided society where the ruling class rules with the help of the state. The state employs violence, using its standing army, armed police and store of arms to keep the ruled classes under control. The state is the primary source of violence in society.

Violence is undoubtedly evil and every effort should be made by all to minimise and ultimately eliminate it. However in Indian politics the discourse of non-violence is used to disarm the people and divides the people's movement while allowing the state and the ruling class to remain armed. It labels the politics of class struggle as violence and hides the politics of class collaboration under the garb of non-violence. Its aim is to isolate the socialists and communists and condemn them as believers in violence. The discourse of violence and non-violence in Indian politics is, therefore, a false discourse. It is a bourgeois agenda. The way out is to firmly oppose the state and ruling class by uniting all opposition. Those who want to use peaceful means should use the secular discourse of peaceful, democratic means of struggle. There is scope for plurality of approaches. But there is no scope for this false discourse of violence and non-violence.

Vol. 47, No.11-14, Sep 21 - Oct 18 2014