A just and humane society cannot be built by unjust and inhumane means…

In all of known human history, and in every society in every corner of the globe, some human beings have always been unjust to others. Those who oppress others variously wield the power of wealth, of ownership of land and capital; of claims of superiority of a specific gender, race, caste, ethnicity and sexuality against others; of greater physical strength and brute force; of weapons and state authority; and of claims of superior knowledge and religious sanction. This superior power is deployed against those who have less muscle, resources, social standing or influence, to extract submission and fear, cheap or free labour, or impose political, cultural or social domination, and physical and sexual control. The violence of oppression is sometimes naked, brutal and manifest; and in other situations is covert and internalised.

Equally, all of human history is also the story of resistance to injustice. Some heroic resistance, epic in scale and solidarity, plays out in open battles against formidable adversaries; other resistance is stealthy and hidden; some is collective, and some individual. A great many of these acts of resistance have failed in their ultimate objectives of eliminating the oppressor or forms and institutions of oppression. However, invisibly even many of these ‘failed' efforts, big or small, solitary or cooperative, have contributed ultimately in eroding the hegemonic power of particular forms of oppression, even if these have not been extinguished or vanquished. Simultaneously, new and often more lethal forms of exploitation and injustice continuously evolve, and these generate ever-new strivings and forms of resistance.

Sanctioned by tradition

Most religious and many secular traditions valorise submission to power and even tacitly to the oppressive exercise of power, such as by men, the king, the headman, the male head of family, the village elder, the landlord, the priest and the warrior leader. Yet, simultaneously, both spiritual and other ethical codes also usually prescribe resistance to injustice as mandatory to good human action, and as indeed the highest duty. In the Hindu tradition, such resistance is deemed essential to dharma — a comprehensive idea that includes duty and morality (although this same dharma also prescribes ritual injustice to persons deemed to be of lower castes and gender). In Muslim traditions, the Prophet is said to have taught that when confronted with injustice, the least duty is to respond at least from the heart, by grieving and rejecting the injustice. The higher duty is to resist from the mouth, by speaking out against the injustice. The highest duty is to resist with one's hands, by acting against the injustice.

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In the debates around the legitimacy of shedding blood to resist injustice, even those who call for abjuring violence usually nuance their pacifism and prohibitions on violent actions with exceptions for self-defence, or protection of those who are weaker and in imminent danger. The right to choose violence as a last resort for self-defence, and of assertion to protect oneself against violence, are relatively well-settled ethical and political principles, except with a small minority who advocate pacifism as an absolute fundamental.

Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan writes an apocryphal parable of an encounter of Gandhiji with a raped pregnant woman, and a tribal Bhil youth who was tied to a tree by his landlord. The youth's tongue was cut off and body burnt because he drank water from the well of the landlord. The woman tells Gandhi: ‘You are responsible for this. I could have cut him to pieces, but you taught us to loathe violence.' The Bhil also says with gestures that he had endured only because to resist would have meant violence.

Gandhi replies to the young woman, ‘Dear child, if teeth and nails were of no help, you could have saved your honour with your sickle or the kitchen-knife'. Gandhi then turns to the Bhil: ‘Your axe would have helped where words failed you.' ‘Then what about non-violence?' they ask. Gandhi replies: ‘Nowhere have I said that it is wrong to harm the aggressor in order to save your life or honour; only it should be the very last resort...'

I love also the speckled wisdom of another Buddhist fable, to which I turn sometimes in moments of ethical doubt. A fierce and deadly cobra is converted to the code of non-violence by a Buddhist sage. The gentle and learned monk returns to the village where the cobra lives some months later, and finds him half-dead. Every passer-by kicks him, and children throw stones at him for sport. The sage is alarmed by the plight of his disciple, and asks the cobra why he allowed himself to come to such a pass.

‘It was you who taught me to abjure violence', the cobra says to him. The sage replies: ‘I did teach you not to bite people. But I did not tell you not to hiss!'

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Perhaps the most persuasive argument mustered in support of violence for seeking justice is that violent resistance is the only effective recourse for the defenceless and powerless, when pitted against the brutal and unjust might of the state, often backed by corrupt and formidable corporate wealth. This is a practical rather than moral argument.

Not a failure

Arundhati Roy, for instance, illustrates the futility of non-violent resistance with repeated references to what she regards to be the failure of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). But in fact I do not agree with her assessment of the NBA as a failed movement. This evaluation is based on a narrow and literal assessment of its direct local impacts. This epic non-violent movement — despite many flaws in strategy — caught the imagination of an entire generation, and altered fundamentally how the rights of millions of people displaced from mega-projects, and the social and environmental impacts of such projects, are perceived.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam has indeed been completed, with disastrous outcomes. But governments have been forced to move a long way forward from the dispensation which prevailed in the early decades after Independence, in which these projects were uncritically celebrated and the human and environmental costs simply regarded as inevitable costs of development. The Narmada Award provides greater legal rights at least on paper to displaced persons, including land for land, even though so far governments have actively withheld these rights, even by resort to subterfuge. Courts have passed many anti-people orders, and yet there have been progressive rulings as well, such as by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in the Maheshwar Dam case. There are no black and white victories in these battles: they often play out incrementally — with the proverbial two steps forward and one step back — but I do believe the direction is forward. I have no doubt that if the people of the Narmada basin had not fought their brave and protracted non-violent battle, displaced people everywhere would have been more dispossessed today. I do not call this failure.

Struggles that succeeded

There are many examples of exceptional success of non-violent struggles. I have written separately about the extraordinary achievement of the Safai Karmchari Andolan to help bring an end to one of the most stubborn and degrading practices of untouchability, of manual scavenging or the cleaning and carrying of human excreta by women of designated castes. They have done this by combining mass mobilisation and judicial interventions, and achieved outcomes which even a decade earlier would have seemed impossible. Gandhi himself battled against religious violence, and ultimately lost his life in this battle, after the country had been partitioned on religious lines. Yet the movements that he led are not failures: Pakistan was created on grounds of religious identity, but the majority of Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, opted for a pluralist democratic State, and this idea of India survives continuous assaults by religious fundamentalists.

I believe — and the experience of human history bears me out — that it is violent movements which are much more likely to fail to achieve their initial stated objectives. Justice can never be violent or retributive: its intrinsic character is compassionate, measured and wise. It is self-evident to me that it is impossible to build a just and humane society by means which are unjust and inhuman. The outcomes of strategies which are built around bloodshed, vengeance, repression and hate will always ultimately be brutal and unjust, even if the violence is undertaken for lofty ideals.