New Internationalist

Letters from Gandhi

Issue 381

What would Gandhi say today? Through a series of letters to the Spirit of Gandhi, a 21st century activist explores the relevance – and irrelevance – of his legacy today.

Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, India.
Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, India.

Dear Mahatma Gandhi, Well, Gandhi… do you mind if I call you Gandhi? I’m writing to let you know what’s been happening over the last 60-odd years.

You may be interested to know that many young activists – be they reclaiming the streets of Washington, marching in the streets of Tehran or meeting up in Porto Alegre – are still contending with your legacy.

You will be encouraged to hear that nonviolent action has never been so prolific than in the 57 years since your death. From Chile to Serbia, from Iran to the Philippines, there is now a long list of dictators and tyrants that have been brought down by nonviolent action. You will be glad to hear that South Africa is now free from the types of racial segregation that you fought against there as a young lawyer, and that in the end it was widespread non-cooperation that proved decisive. And although you didn’t make it to that formation meeting of the Shanti Sena (Peace Army) that fateful day you met the assassin’s bullet, your idea of a ‘Peace Army’ has grown into an organization whose membership peaked at 6,000 during the 1960s and inspired a series of global experiments in civilian, cross-border, nonviolent intervention. Organizations like Peace Brigades International, Nonviolent Peaceforce and the International Solidarity Movement work nonviolently in war zones providing protection to movements facing severe repression.

One of the advantages of nonviolent action that you demonstrated so well, Gandhi, is that it doesn’t depend on physical strength or weapons. It can be used by almost anyone: women and men, the old and young. Its power comes from qualities available to all – courage, creativity, self-discipline, co-operation, conviction and compassion.

A fellow student, Alex

Dear Alex, Yes, please call me Gandhi, or better still, Mohandas. I never did feel comfortable with this Mahatma or ‘Great Soul’ business. It makes a life of searching for truth seem, well… beyond the reach of us mere mortals.

It seems that a determined desire for freedom is unstoppable! When thinking about our own revolution in India, the real key for me was realizing that a handful of British soldiers could not rule the millions of Indians without our consent and co-operation. It was then I realized that the British had not taken India, but that we had given it to them. Once ordinary Indians started to withdraw their support for the British Raj, the end of British rule was assured. I tried to demonstrate that that power is not concentrated in the hands of a few rulers at the top of a ‘pyramid’ but is dispersed throughout society. Those who rule would like us to believe that they are invincible; but the reality is that, at some level, all élites depend on the passive and active consent and co-operation of ordinary people to maintain their rule.

A fellow seeker, Mohandas

Dear Mohandas, I’m forgetting that a lot has changed since you died. Sure, millions of Indians might have been able to rise up against British colonial rule, but what about the people of Tibet or West Papua or Palestine today? The strategy of which you speak (now called the consent theory of power) is limited if the opponent is not totally dependent on the co-operation of the people they dominate. So even if the population were to refuse to co-operate it may not amount to much. These days, we need to mobilize not only our own communities but also gain the active support of the international community. We need to design transnational strategies and campaigns that undermine the legitimacy and authority of oppressors.

Power is institutional, reinforced and replicated through social structures; so much so that we internalize and become dependent on the very structures that hurt us. Capitalism, hierarchy, patriarchy, militarism, racism and other structures of domination and control cannot be simply overturned by protests or strikes; alternative structures and processes must be developed in order to transform society.

Sincerely, Alex

Dear Alex, I have always said that unless we also resist the ‘intimate enemy’ of internalized repression we will always be a people enslaved by one power or another, whether foreign or native. And I called the ‘alternative institutions’ you mentioned part of the ‘constructive campaign’. We tried to build self-reliant communities and villages. Many in the West did not recognize that we were trying to build a just and peaceful social and economic system in India that could resist the exploitation of capitalism.

But you have highlighted some important weaknesses in the consent theory of power and already seem to be figuring out how to improve upon it. I like your ideas of transnational strategies.

Keep experimenting! Warmly, Mohandas

Me again Mohandas, One of the groups that have inspired me has been Otpor – the student-led Serbian resistance movement that nonviolently overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Otpor used the energy of marketing to brand their movement with the ubiquitous clenched fist, a symbol that was printed and spray-painted across the country. They mobilized people not by an appeal to human rights and democracy (even though these were their goals), but by a nationalistic appeal to core Serbian values, with the slogan: ‘Resist because you love Serbia’.

Unified by a shared strategy and a vision of a democratic Serbia without Milosevic, Otpor organized hundreds of thousands through a decentralized network of local groups. Dressed in black and with the clenched fist as their symbol, the young activists reached out to ordinary Serbians. When the State tried to brand them as a neo-fascist terrorist group, Serbians laughed. ‘They are just kids’, they said, ‘and you know, they are right about Milosevic!’ And when repression came – a sure sign that any movement is becoming a threat to the status quo – Otpor activists tracked police who beat them up to their homes and, with giant posters portraying police violence, picketed them. As they were arrested, the call went out and within minutes other activists surrounded the police station and mobilized support networks to monitor and publicize State repression.

With a vision that captured the imagination of the population, a strategy that guided tactics, an ability to withstand repression and persistent campaigns that undermined state power, Otpor literally threw Milosevic out of parliament.

Inspired, Alex

Dear Alex, A nonviolent movement adopting a clenched fist as a symbol? Things really have changed since my day! In Satyagraha, that relentless holding on to truth, there is not the remotest thought of injuring the opponent. I wonder what greater truths were discovered in this struggle?

Heartened, Mohandas

Dear Mohandas, You know what inspires me most about Otpor?

Their goal was not to make Serbia nonviolent. It was about waging nonviolent conflict to win democracy – all very pragmatic. With all due respect, Mohandas, much of what you said comes across today as more principled than pragmatic: very moralizing and sometimes downright weird (all that seeking after ‘truth’, having to be vegetarian and all those dietary experiments!).

I hate to tell you but today you are both ignored and at the same time have become an icon – and like most icons – distorted, clichéd and used, like Che Guevara on a T-shirt. Some aspire to be ‘like you’, yet seem to have little understanding of Gandhi and nonviolence. Some on the Left still think that you’re a bourgeois reactionary.

You are called a pacifist, yet you said you’d prefer violence to cowardice. What a confusing and contradictory character you are!

With affection, Alex

Dear Alex, Of course I do not claim any finality or consistency in anything that I have said or done. In many ways I was a simple community worker committed to serving the poorest in society and was reluctantly thrust into political action. There is no ‘Gandhian nonviolence’ or code that I have left to be followed. I have always maintained that I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. The most important thing is that you conduct your own experiments, and in doing so make new history, adding to the inheritance left by our ancestors. May the many like me perish, but let truth prevail.

You in the West seem captivated by winning or losing, or by political tactics that can be bold and impressive and gratifying. Yet they rarely come close to my concept of total revolution. I tried to live the kind of changes that I wanted to see. I did not want just to resist injustice but also to search for the truth on both sides of the struggle. In all this there is an inseparable spiritual dimension. My goal was never a nonviolent world but simply to know God (Truth) more fully. And it was this that led me to nonviolence.

Good luck with your struggle for the truth, Mohandas

Thanks, Mohandas, It has taken us so long even to acknowledge that there is a deeply personal and creative social dimension to human politics, let alone a spiritual one. Many people apply nonviolence only in their personal lives. Others focus on nonviolent action only as a method or as a tool to be dropped or picked up at will. But the integration of both remains a challenge for us. Maybe we in the West could learn from the Majority World where most people find a deeply spiritual basis for life and politics, which feeds community, resistance and survival.

It may also be true that we reference you far too much these days. You were a great and influential activist, Gandhi. But today there are so many others, great women leaders, indigenous activists, silent community workers or globetrotting radicals from the global North and South who can teach the world so much. If we continue to focus so much on you, Gandhi, the icon, the Great Soul, the great strategist, we risk making those like you who are alive today invisible.

Yours in hope, Alex

Our letter writers, Anthony Kelly and Jason MacLeod, are activists based in Australia.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

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