5/13 | Satyagraha

Banu Bargu (UC Santa Cruz)

Karuna Mantena (Yale University)

Uday Mehta (CUNY Graduate Center)

Moderated by Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University) and Bernard E. Harcourt

November 30, 2017 from 6:15 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.

Columbia University’s Maison Française

Columbia University

“For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

— Mahatma Gandhi, Letter to the Viceroy, March 2, 1930 (#100, p.227).

An anti-colonial independence movement in India founded on non-violent resistance that brought about national independence from the British Commonwealth. A nationwide civil rights movement founded on non-violent action, radiating from Montgomery, Alabama, that contributed to fundamental civil and political rights—including voting, education, and housing—in the United States. Non-violent action has a storied history. And still today, principles of non-violence infuse broad national movements in the West (Velvet Revolution, #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street, Nuits Debout, Orange Revolution), in the East (Tiananmen Square, Umbrella Movement, Impeachment of Park Geun-hye), and in the South (Jasmine Revolution, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, Tahrir Square, Taksim Square).

Non-violent action has been a potent modality of uprising throughout history, and it remains so today. In sharp contrast to the modern conception of revolution and Maoist forms of insurrection, but delicately woven into the fabric of the Arab uprisings and the movement for Black lives, non-violence is a unique form of revolt that aspires to a deep self-transformation of the militant actor and a conversion of the opponents through the witnessing of self-suffering. In this Uprising 5/13 seminar, we will focus on one strand of the theory and practice of non-violent action, namely the writings and practices of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) on Satyagraha.

The neologism satyagraha that Gandhi coined—the literal meaning of which is “to hold on to truth” or “to cling to truth” or “a tenacity in the pursuit of truth” (Gandhi #3, p. 6; Editor’s Notice, p. iii; Karuna Mantena; Bilgrami, “Ghandi, the Philosopher,” p.7)—refers to a personal ethic and self-transformation through which an individual remains true to his or her ideals of justice, and seeks to convince or convert others by working on him or herself and taking on the burden of the sufferings of injustice. The term is often simplified, in translation, to mean “non-violent resistance,” and at a practical level it is narrowly associated with the imperative of non-violence. But the concept has to be understood through the larger framework of an ethic or a faith that gives someone the strength to turn the suffering of injustice onto themselves. The resulting non-violence is not so much a practical maxim or a political strategy—although it is always political and strategic—so much as it is the necessary product of steadfastly staying true to one’s ethical or spiritual beliefs and the ethical imperative not to hurt others.

The concept of satyagraha contains, at its core, three central elements: truth, self-care, and suffering.

1/  Truth, or faith: It is true belief or faith—holding onto a personal truth—that empowers and lends force to satyagraha. Gandhi defined satyagraha as “Truth-force” (satya means “truth”)—though in other places he also referred to “Soul-force” or “Love-force” (#3, p. 6). It is only when the believer is entirely committed to “the truth of his cause,” Gandhi emphasized, that he or she will have the force to succeed in non-violence (#88, p. 202). It is that faith in the truth of one’s cause that ensures that the reformer will not lash out at an opponent, but instead work harder on him or herself, and be prepared to sacrifice him or herself. In this sense, satyagraha does not give rise to an instrumental form of non-violence, but instead to an unconditional, entirely committed faith, like a spiritual belief or a moral commitment.

The exact nature of that moral belief or faith is intricate. Akeel Bilgrami unpacks Gandhi’s notion carefully in his chapter “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” where he argues that, for Gandhi, it is the link between moral judgment and moral criticism that is severed: the satyagrahi can form binding moral judgments that ground her practice, but at the same time must refrain from making moral criticisms of others—despite the fact that she believes those moral judgments to be entirely right and universalizable. As Bilgrami argues, “There is no other way to understand [Gandhi’s] insistence that the satyagrahi has not eschewed violence until he has removed criticism from his lips and heart and mind” (“Ghandi, the Philosopher,” p.15).

This severing of criticism from judgment goes hand in hand with the satyagrahi serving as an exemplar for others, rather than criticizing them. Exemplarity replaces criticism—in Bilgrami’s words, it “is intended to provide a wholesale alternative to the concept of principle in moral philosophy” (ibid., p.20). The importance of exemplary action resonates with what Uday Mehta refers to as “Gandhi’s anchoring moral acts in the most mundane aspects of everyday social and individual existence” (Mehta, p.370).

2/  Work on the self:  Non-violent resistance requires self-transformation. It involves work by and on the individual him or herself. It cannot be achieved from outside the person. It is deeply subjective. Gandhi explained this in discussing the case of protest at temples, where he opposed for instance blocking the way of those who refused to admit the untouchable. “The movement for the removal of untouchability is one of self-purification,” Gandhi wrote. “No man can be purified against his will.” (#88, p. 201). Gandhi explained that any and all steps, even in drastic situations, “have to be taken against ourselves” (#88, p. 202). These are, as Mantena explains, “practices of ascetic self-mastery.”

Practices of self-mastery and care of self permeate non-violent resistance: “Satyagraha presupposes self-discipline, self-control, self-purification,” Gandhi wrote (#25, p. 77). Notice the omnipresence of the self. It is care of self that comes first. As Gandhi explained: “the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self” (#3, p. 6).

3/  Suffering:  The willingness to bear the suffering of injustice, to take that suffering onto oneself, is at the very heart of remaining true to oneself and converting one’s opponents. It is by suffering that one truly demonstrates the sincerity of one’s beliefs and the stakes of justice. It is also the most powerful way to convince others to change themselves. It shows that the satyagrahi is not there to hurt, but rather to impress upon others the justice of their position.

Suffering—or the broader concept for Gandhi of “the law of suffering”—is what converts others. This law of suffering represents, for Gandhi, the historical fact that no country achieved independence without going through hell—in his words, “without being purified through the fire of suffering” (#47, p.112). Conversion is the operative term: “I have deliberately used the word conversion,” Gandhi wrote. “For my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India” (#100, p.227). And it operates through the emotions and affect of the opponent. The goal is to “draw out and exhibit the force of the soul within us for a period long enough to appeal to the sympathetic chord in the governors or the law-makers” (#7, p. 35).

Withstanding suffering is thus at the heart of satyagraha. “He who has not the capacity of suffering cannot non-co-operate,” Gandhi wrote. “He who has not learnt to sacrifice his property and even his family when necessary can never non-co-operate […] He who is not ready to undergo the fiery ordeal cannot non-co-operate” (#19, p.67). Suffering is, naturally, extremely challenging; however, the fact that satyagraha is not presented as merely instrumental or strategic, but rather the product of truthful belief or faith, means that the actor is not constantly engaged in a reevaluation of their actions, and can remain single-mindedly focused on assuming the burden of suffering.

In sum, truth, self-care, and suffering are central elements of satyagraha and come together to form the heart of the practice: “in the struggle of life,” Gandhi writes, “[one] can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-suffering” (#7, p. 36). Notice: truth, self, and suffering. Non-violence can only succeed through the combined force of these three: “Non-co-operation as a voluntary movement can only succeed, if the feeling is genuine and strong enough to make people suffer to the utmost” (#48, p.117).

In terms of practice, several forms of non-violent action fall within satyagraha, including non-co-operation and civil disobedience (#1, p.4). Civil resistance was another subsidiary term, used alongside civil disobedience (#99, p.223). Satyagraha excluded, in Gandhi’s words, “every form of violence, direct or indirect, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word or deed” (#88, p. 201). It even ruled out bad thoughts toward others. The satyagrahi, Gandhi maintained, “must not harbor ill-will or bitterness against the [evil-doer]. He may not even employ needlessly offensive language against the evil person, however unrelieved his evil might be” (#25, p. 77).

In this sense, for Gandhi, non-violence had to extend to thought as well as action. It meant avoiding anger, it excluded even swearing and cursing (#26, p. 79). It implied, in the anti-colonial context, scrupulously avoiding “intentional injury in thought, word or deed to the person of a single Englishman” (#26, p.78). It even involved being courteous and polite toward the police that are arresting you and the prison officials who are detaining you (#26, p.79). Gandhi wrote:

It is a breach of Satyagraha to wish ill to an opponent or to say a harsh word to him or of him with the intention of harming him. And often the evil thought or the evil word may, in terms of Satyagraha, be more dangerous than actual violence used in the heat of the moment and perhaps repented and forgotten the next moment. Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice. It is never fussy, never impatient, never vociferous. It is the direct opposite of compulsion. It was conceived as a complete substitute for violence. (#88, pp. 201-202)

Gandhi’s practices of fasting—which, as Banu Bargu discusses in Starve and Immolate (2016, p. 14) “were formative for the constitution of modern India”—represent the kind of work on the self and the suffering that characterizes and defines satyagraha. Sometimes, but not always. Gandhi’s views on direct action were extremely nuanced and contextual. Civil disobedience was not always appropriate and had to be judged based, for instance, on whether individuals were doing it because they expect some personal gain (#72, p.171). Fasting, as well, could be used for good or ill depending on the context.  “Even fasts may take the form of coercion,” Gandhi wrote (#88, p. 202), “there is nothing in the world that in human hands does not lend itself to abuse.”

Gandhi denied being a politician or partaking in politics (#46, p.109), but he did self-identify as “a practical idealist” (#55, p.133). He also displayed a rare pragmatic streak at times. In fact, he even justified violence under certain extremely limited circumstances of domination and weakness—in cases of extreme self-defense or helplessness—not as a form of satyagraha but as a form of vulnerable self-defense. “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence,” he writes, and adds, “I took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu rebellion and the late War” (#55, p.132). In situations of helplessness, of utter weakness, violence may be appropriate. But he then added that “I do not believe India to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature” (#55, p.133).

It is this complex ambivalence toward practical reason and pragmatism that makes Gandhi someone Uday Mehta calls a “deeply anti-political thinker,” at least along the traditional lines of modern political theory (Mehta, p.363). As Mehta writes, “His commitment to non-violence can only be understood by acknowledging that he did not view the world solely or even primarily in political terms” (Mehta, p.364).

So it is to Gandhi’s rich and nuanced view of non-violence that we turn next.

Welcome to Uprising 5/13!

[Read full post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]