Non-violence doesn’t just mean not doing violence; it’s also a way of taking positive action to resist oppression or bring about change.
The essence of non-violent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists.
The aim of non-violent conflict is to convert your opponent; to win over their mind and heart and persuade them that your point of view is right. An important element is often to make sure that the opponent is given a face-saving way of changing their mind. Non-violent protest seeks a ‘win-win’ solution whenever possible.
In non-violent conflict the participant does not want to make their opponent suffer; instead they show that they are willing to suffer themselves in order to bring about change.
Non-violence has great appeal because it removes the illogicality of trying to make the world a less violent and more just place by using violence as a tool.
Among the techniques of non-violent protest are:
- peaceful demonstrations
- holding vigils
- fasting and hunger strikes
- civil disobedience
One of the most famous leaders of a non-violent movement was Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), who opposed British imperial rule in India during the 20th century.
Gandhi took the religious principle of ahimsa (doing no harm) common to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and turned it into a non-violent tool for mass action. He used it to fight not only colonial rule but social evils such as racial discrimination and untouchability as well.
Gandhi called it “satyagraha” which means ‘truth force.’ In this doctrine the aim of any non-violent conflict was to convert the opponent; to win over his mind and his heart and pursuade him to your point of view.
Gandhi was firm that satyagraha was not a weapon of the weak – “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it always insists upon truth.”
Gandhi did not think that non-violence was a tool for those who were too scared to take up arms (an accusation that was sometimes made):
My non-violence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach non-violence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes.
Gandhi, Young India, 28 May 1924
Non-violence in Gandhi’s thinking was a tool that anyone could (and should) use, and it was based on strongly religious thinking:
Non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all – children, young men and women or grown-up people, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind. When non-violence is accepted as the law of life, it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts.
Gandhi, Harijan, 5 September 1936
Non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us.
Gandhi, Harijan, 12 November 1935
Non-violence: an example
You can get a clear understanding of what’s involved in non-violence by looking at the instructions that Gandhi gave to followers of his satyagraha movement in India.
- A satyagrahi, i.e., a civil resister, will harbour no anger.
- He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
- In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
- When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
- If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
- Non-retaliation excludes swearing and cursing.
- Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
- A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
- In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.
Young India, 27 February 1930