Uday Singh Mehta | On Satyagraha

By Uday Singh Mehta

On the morning of February 24, 1919, in a context vitiated by the recent introduction of the Rowlatt Bills, which proposed to all but explicitly suspend the individual rights of Indians, along with their rights of association and assembly, Gandhi issued the Satyagraha Pledge i.e. the call for civil disobedience.  It was an act which he called the “most momentous in the history of India.”[1] The pledge stated that “in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey the laws…. and we further affirm that in this struggle we will faithfully follow truth and refrain from violence to life, person or property.”[2] In a telegram sent on the same day to the Viceroy’s private secretary, Gandhi emphasized that the proposed national satyagraha was to be a civil form of action, as he said it was “much better that people say openly what they have in their hearts… without fear of consequences [and] enforce the dictates of their own conscience.”[3]

What did Gandhi mean in this, and in every other context, where he issued the call for civil disobedience by insisting that such action be civil? Why did satyagraha turn on notions such as conscience, truth, suffering, the dictates of the heart, the ability to be steadfast, the practice of fasting, the injunction to refrain from designating an enemy, the courage of being prepared to stand alone, and of course, abjuring from all forms of violence? Why did it ultimately rest on the willingness to be prepared to sacrifice one’s life? In brief, what was the civil component of such action, which in its rigors was so starkly internal, relying as it did, above all else on the internal resoluteness of the individual? And this despite a provocation, which like the Rowlatt Bills, was unmistakably political and collectively intended and felt.

The answers to these questions draw in their fold Gandhi’s most radical reflections and interventions into Indian modernity, while also implicitly delineating that modernity from familiar European and nationalist patterns. They also present a stark contrast to many prevailing ideas regarding the basis and form of political protest. Civility, for Gandhi, was unrelated to the matter of producing a society that attended to the problems of a civilizing process either as a prelude to a commercial civilization or as the groundwork for democratic or other forms of politics. It was not in the main motivated by the experience or the threat of pervasive violence, exploitation or oppression. And finally, whatever the connection such action may have had to anti-imperial agitation, and the articulation of a politically vibrant Indian public, for Gandhi that connection was almost entirely, and merely, circumstantial, and not related to its deeper significance.

There are three aspects which distinguish satyagraha from other familiar modes of public action. The first relates to the way in which it insists on a link between the ethical, the political and the transcendent. The second, on a distinct and rather unusual way in which it conceives of causation or political efficacy; and finally, on a distinct emphasis it places on time, and in particular, on patience.

Regarding the first, for Gandhi, satyagraha was a mode of individual comportment, which had the crucial feature of tying ethics to politics in a way that never allowed the latter to assume an independence of purpose and instrumentality. It referred to that kernel of what it meant to be human, that ember in the midst of social and political life that had the potential of constantly unsettling or infusing those contexts with demands that invariably exceeded the contours of the political by pointing to something that was transcendent, and hence, beyond the immediate context. It involved what Gandhi took to be the core of what it meant to be human; for that reason, it could not be abstracted from the issue of death and self-sacrifice. Ultimately for Gandhi satyagraha instantiated the ineradicable presence and challenge of the absolute in the midst of the everyday routines of life and struggle.  This is what resists the easy incorporation of the Gandhian account of ethics, politics and protest into the narratives that Marx, Mill, Weber, Lenin and others gave of European modernity with their ineluctable normalization and rationalization, typically spurred by a well-organized collectivity.

Returning to the spring of 1919 and the call for satyagraha Gandhi gave numerous speeches and published various circulars on how precisely people were to behave and the conditions that had to be satisfied for someone to be a satyagrahi. I want to summarize and paraphrase the instructions he gave to the volunteers who were gathering signatures from potential satyagrahis.

Volunteers were to limit themselves to people above the age of eighteen who were not the sole providers for their families. Getting signatories for the pledge required explaining why the proposed bills were “unjust, subversive of the principle of liberty and justice and destructive of the elementary rights of individuals.”[4] Volunteers were to be mindful that a single genuine recruit was better than a hundred signatories who did not understand the gravity of the matter.

Second, volunteers were to elaborate the meaning and significance of taking a vow, which the pledge amounted to. It involved something “solemn”. Like vows, civil action, Gandhi said, were “taken only in respect of matters otherwise difficult to accomplish. When after a series of efforts we fail in doing certain things, by taking a vow to do them we draw a cordon around ourselves, from which we may never be free and thus we avoid failure. Anything less than such inflexible determination cannot be called a vow.”[5] A vow was different from other intentions; it involved a self-consciousness about the conditions under which life itself was worth living, hence a self-consciousness about death and self-sacrifice.

The third broad instruction was to the potential signatory. He or she was to be fully conscious that during the struggle they were to be fearlessly committed to the truth and to ahimsa, that is to non-violence. Under no circumstances were they to misrepresent the truth, even if doing so would serve the national cause or undermine the imperial authorities, because ahimsa included non-hatred. In pledging to be satyagrahis the signatories were committing themselves to “bear pain,” endure suffering, and live with the consciousness that they were prepared to die for their convictions. As Gandhi said in a speech on March 7, 1919 “Satyagraha was a harmless, but unfailing remedy. It presupposes a superior sort of courage in those who adopted it – not the courage of the fighter. The soldier was undoubtedly ever ready to die, but he also wanted to kill the enemy. A satyagrahi was ever ready to endure suffering and ever lays down his life to demonstrate to the world the integrity of his purpose and the justice of his demands. …. No one should sign the Pledge without fully realizing the [spiritual] significance of the Rowlatt Bills or the Satyagraha Vow with all the suffering it might entail.”[6] There were to be no processions, no organized demonstrations, no work stoppage, all police orders were to be obeyed, no stone throwing, no obstruction of traffic, and no pressure was to be exercised on anyone, including crucially, on those who had not signed the pledge.

If satyagraha and the forms of behavior that it mandated were political acts, they had to articulate themselves without resort to the idea of an enemy or a comrade, or the power in numbers, or the expression of a collective will, or the ability by violence or other powerful means to undermine the will of the imperial authorities, or the coordinated nature of protest. Gandhi eschewed all these familiar modalities of political action and protest. What he advocated had no resonance with either the vanguardism of the well-organized Leninist cadre or with the legal and representational challenges that liberal moderates had proposed, which after all also turned on the logic of numbers. As Gandhi said, “It is not the numbers so much as the quality that we want. Let me, therefore, note down the qualities required of a satyagrahi. He must follow truth at any cost and in all circumstance. He must make a continuous effort to love his opponent. He must be prepared to go through every form of suffering, whether imposed upon him by the government, which he is civilly resisting… or by those who may differ from him. This movement is thus a process of purification and penance. Believe me, if we go through it in the right spirit… the Rowlatt Bills will be withdrawn and the country will recognize in satyagraha a powerful religious weapon.” [7]

There was something audacious in Gandhi’s firm conviction that the bills would be withdrawn by the utter lack of a calculus that distinguished friend and enemy, and supporters and opponents. From Gandhi’s perspective, it made no difference that love was extended to an opponent or a friend, or that the suffering occurred on account of the government or others who were also critical of it or that the truth was completely divorced from circumstantial and tactical considerations. Gandhi denied all of these familiar categories and the logic that typically accompanies them, and through which we understand the rationale of political protest.

What in effect Gandhi was repudiating was a familiar understanding of political change and causality. If one takes him at his word he did actually believe that the purity of the penance and sacrifice offered by a handful of people could and would result in the revoking of bills that had the full statutory and material support of the mightiest political power on earth. It recalls his comments in Hind Swaraj where he asserted that swaraj (home rule) itself did not require a mass movement, but could be had “in an instant” by the genuine fortitude of a few people. One can view such comments as empirical predictions, in which case, their warrant seems implausible, and Gandhi’s rhetoric over-extended and unduly optimistic. But such a perspective misses the point. These claims are more interesting in suggesting how on Gandhi’s reckoning the logic of political transformation was itself susceptible to civil and ethical practices, which were pegged to self-suffering and indifferent to familiar political and social categories, and which therefore defied the very terms in which politics understood itself.

Finally, satyagraha involved a distinct temporality and a particular commitment to patience. Patience for Gandhi refers to an essential condition for crafting a state of inwardness as the ground for moral and political action. Such actions are tethered to the search for self-knowledge and are vitiated by the lure of a short cut.  For Gandhi self-knowledge is ultimately linked to his religiosity, but he invokes the idea in ways that make it clear that it is, at least partially, a digest for a much broader secular and psychological form of moral guidance. Patience sediments opinions, beliefs, and values, it is a monitor against the momentum that backs abstracted forms of epistemological, moral and political self-assurance. His view recalls Aristotle’s discussion of character in the Ethics where again moral and political actions are constrained by those things, which only through repeated practice become habitual, thus constituting a buffer against moral and political expedience. Gandhi, like Burke, was troubled by forms of existence that offered incitements and incentives to modes of living that were indifferent to the demands and conditions of self-knowledge and human integrity.  They were both suspicious of descriptions of individuals and political movements merely on the basis of their intentions, or their political visions, or their numerical strength or abstract renderings of freedom and equality.

Gandhi had a specific loss in mind which he associated with the effects of modern civilization. It is the loss of the conditions for self-knowledge. Absent this knowledge self-rule might mean something like Kant’s notion of autonomy, i.e. abiding by a law that one gives oneself, where the law itself has to be universal and in which the imperatives and obligations that flow from it apply to everyone.  But this kind of self-rule was crucially reliant on an abstraction. Through a familiar dialectic self-rule could refer to a form of ruling in which the self rules, not itself, but others. This was the conception, which most nationalists held to, namely, a mode of ruling in which the nation ruled itself and in which it was not ruled by another nation. But that is precisely the kind of nationalism, which Gandhi firmly eschewed. Gandhi did not equate freedom with self-rule, just as he did not equate it with the end of the empire. In the chapter entitled “How can India become free?” he demurs at the very question. His response is telling because once again he invokes the importance of time, “I do not expect my views to be accepted all of a sudden. My duty is to place them before readers like yourself. Time can be trusted to do the rest.”[8]  Here one sees that uniquely Gandhian mix of giving duty an imperative form, while conceiving of the beneficial effects of doing one’s duty with the work of an indeterminate time.[9]  Gandhi was vouching for a kind of inevitability, but one that was wholly unconnected with any teleological purpose or assurance. One can think of this as a self-subverting form of consequentialism, where the consequences are assured, but also immeasurable, because they belong to the indefinite future.  No ordinary nationalist would have sanctioned freeing the nation from imperial subjugation to the vagaries of patience and an indeterminate time.

The rigors of civility and satyagraha were underwritten by an ethic of patience. They were meant as a way to alter the relationship of the self to itself and to the world, from the midst of the existing configuration of society. Gandhi’s thought, as anyone familiar with his letters knows, with their obsessive attention to meals, ablutions, cures, exact schedules, and even to things, is never free from a focus on the precise conditions life. There is an acute concern with details, but nothing like an abstract social agenda. Gandhi’s passions found their clearest focus in this myriad of apparently trivial details that make up the texture of everyday life. For Gandhi, these details were intertwined with the essential question of the human. They were infused with a religiosity because for him the transcendent was always conditioned by the utterly mundane. It allowed him to think without leaning on history, without seeking its warrant or its causal assurances. Instead Gandhi believed that the question of how to act could be consigned to patience, because the implications that followed from that had a surer connection with self-knowledge.


[1] CWMKG, vol. 17, page 318

[2] ibid, page 297

[3] ibid, p 298

[4] ibid, page 316

[5] ibid, page 394

[6] ibid, page 324

[7] ibid, page 341

[8] Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, 72 (emphasis added)

[9] Gandhi expresses a similar confidence in the effect of time in a letter to Ramchandra Kahre where he says, “The correct reasoning, however, is this. If we do our duty, others will also do theirs some day.” M. K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (11 February, 1932, vol. 55) (emphasis added)