Mahatma Gandhi, the peacemaker

Gandhi considered the problem of peace as an ethical, rather than political, issue

October 03, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:03 am IST

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Mahatma Gandhi was attentive of the fact that world peace is not possible without the spiritual growth of humanity. So far, the 22 years of the 21st century have not been peaceful. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents the biggest threat to peace in the world since the end of the Cold War. Many believe that humanity will never attain peace. But we all know that peace is the result of a long process of compassionate dialogue and tireless caring across cultural, religious, and political boundaries.

Gandhi considered the problem of peace as an ethical, rather than political, issue. For him, the importance was to be on the side of the just. In a letter published in Harijan on December 9, 1939, he wrote: “The moral influence would be used on the side of peace... My nonviolence does recognise different species of violence — defensive and offensive. It is true that in the long run the difference is obliterated, but the initial merit persists. A nonviolent person is bound, when the occasion arises, to say which side is just. Thus, I wished success to the Abyssinians, the Spaniards, the Czechs, the Chinese, and the Poles, though in each case I wished that they could have offered nonviolent resistance… But who am I? I have no strength save what God gives me. I have no authority over my countrymen save the purely moral. If God holds me to be a pure instrument for the spread of nonviolence... He will... show me the way...”

A peace strategy

This letter explains a great deal on Gandhi’s psychology as a moral leader at the time of war. It also shows clearly that he was a man of peace, who, beyond the violent values of his time, could struggle for nonviolence and dialogue among nations. Based on this assumption, it appears that the most appropriate way to interpret Gandhi’s approval of violence over cowardice is to consider him as a consistent thinker on peace. Hence, it would be wrong to say that there were gradual changes in his opinions on war and peace.

If it is accepted that Gandhi always had a peace strategy even when he wrote on violence over cowardice, we can establish a continuity between his writings on war and peace in different stages of his struggle. Gandhi wrote: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence…But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment… But… forgiveness only when there is the power to punish…. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her. I therefore appreciate the sentiment of those who cry out for the condign punishment of General Dyer and his ilk. They would tear him to pieces if they could. But I do not believe India to be a helpless creature. Only I want to use India’s and my strength for a better purpose.” This said, Gandhi never dissociated nonviolence from violence, either in reality, or as major concepts of his political philosophy. Therefore, we can understand his position, when he affirmed that an action “may wear the appearance of violence” and yet be “absolutely nonviolent in the highest sense.”

Many famous critics of Gandhi’s nonviolence have pointed their fingers at the impotence of Gandhian nonviolence against totalitarian regimes. Hannah Arendt said, “If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy — Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England — the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” However, unlike Arendt, Gandhi believed that in the absence of a concrete ethical foundation, the political could not function democratically and non-violently.

The task of the political

Therefore, for Gandhi, the essential task of the political was to bring moral progress. While Hitler believed in eliminating morality from politics, for Gandhi, it was most important that the moral legitimacy of non-violence be a strategy of peacemaking. That is why Gandhi is impossible to classify in terms of conventional categories of peace studies and conflict resolution. Gandhi remains an original thinker in the matter of peace building and also an astute peace builder.

Comment | The Mahatma as an intercultural Indian

From Gandhi’s perspective, nonviolence is an ontological truth that follows from the unity and interdependence of humanity and life. While violence damages and undermines all forms of life, nonviolence uplifts all. Gandhi, therefore, advocated an awareness of the essential unity of humanity, and that awareness required a critical self-examination and a move from egocentricity towards a ‘shared humanity’. This ‘shared humanity’ cannot exist today if it is not aware of its own shortcomings. It needs to strive to remove its own imperfections, in order to be able to foster a pluralistic peace. Needless to say, in an age of increasing ‘globalisation of selfishness’, there is an urgent need to read and practise the Gandhian social and political philosophy in order re-evaluate the concept of peace.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Non-violence and Peace Studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

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