The greatest example of non-violent revolution is supposed to be M.K. Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian nationalist movement, and this proves that non-violent revolution is not only desirable but possible. Unfortunately, the history of non-violent movements is taught selectively and I would say misleadingly. The neo-Gandhian formula is premised upon an inadequate and inaccurate assessment of i) formation of modern states in general, ii) the Indian independence struggle, and iii) Gandhi’s politics.
Modern state-formation is the result of tremendous struggles among various actors. Different classes occupy different positions of power, and often modern state-formation has been the result of class struggle, mixed in with several other considerations, like ethnicity, nationality, geography, regionalism, so on. These struggles have, in general, been very violent. The key question is not whether or not a political order can be established without violence, the key questions are: who is wielding the violence? whose violence wins? who maintains and imposes violent after the formation of the new order?
The Indian struggle for independence is no exception to this rule. I am not talking about how the British exercised considerable violence against Indian freedom fighters — they did, a lot of it. I am talking about how Indian freedom fighters exercised violence in the process of fighting against the British, and then in the process of fighting other Indians to determine what set of class, national, ethnic, gender, etc. interests would rule the new Indian political order — indeed, what set of class, national, ethnic, regional interests would constitute the new political order.
Often, this violence was exercised with Gandhi’s approval.
It’s difficult to understand that Gandhi was concerned with the realpolitik of the formation of the Indian state. He was engaged in the politics of negotiation, compromise, and being realistic.
Why not unleash violence against the British masters? Generally, it is my interpretation, and not just mine, that Gandhi was concerned with the protection of the power and privilege of upper sections of Indian society. Often, social movements would rise up not against the British directly (“british? what’s that?”) but against local rapacious landlords, or against the new classes of capitalist industrialists, who were often allied with or operated with the protection of the British. Gandhi’s goal was to unite the landlords, the capitalists, so on, with the masses in general and to win complete Indian independence. Gandhi’s goal was not the radical transformation of society, but its passing into Indian hands. For this, Gandhi had to tread a thin line between unleashing mass force against the British, but ensuring that that mass force did not translate into class antagonism amongst Indians.
To ensure this, Gandhi would rather suspend anti-British campaigns than allow for any violent outbreaks. Moreover, class antagonism was repeatedly repressed for the greater goal of anti-British unity.
This kind of general view frustrated many stalwarts of the Indian National Congress, as well as other Indian freedom fighters unassociated with the Congress. One remarkable example of how Gandhi was willing to unleash massive violence to get his way was his struggle against the representative of Indian untouchable castes, B.R. Ambedkar. Representatives of the untouchable castes demanded separate electorates, alongside Sikhs, Hindus, etc. under British constitutional provisions in 1932. Gandhi was fiercely and savagely opposed to separate electorates, as he saw Hinduism as a unified and monolithic category. Untouchables were intrinsic to Hinduism, and separate electorates would fragment his ideal of Hinduism. More than that, it would institutionalize the caste-class antagonism and make it incredibly apparent.
Gandhi thus began a fast unto death to oppose separate electorates for untouchables. Let us be clear, untouchables were, and continue to be, the most oppressed and brutalized segment of Indian society. The notion that Gandhi had died because of untouchables would unleash massive violence, incredible violence, against untouchables. Under such threats, Ambedkar was coerced to take back the demand for seperate electorates. It should be noted that Ambedkar was one of the most remarkable leaders of Indian independence — he started the Independent Labour Party in 1936 as a socialist alternative to Congress, at a time when the Communist Party had not got itself together. The ILP cooperated with socialists and communists in class struggle. Ambedkar, notably, also chaired the committee that drafted the constitution.
Another remarkable leader who was turned off of Gandhi’s class-collaborationist non-violent politics was Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose was twice elected president of the Congress — against Gandhi’s favoured candidates! — and sought to turn it into a more militant and socialist organization, or at least, to take up these kinds of causes. Gandhi would have none of it and through undemocratic and unscrupulous means he forced Bose to resign in 1939 from the Congress presidency.
So Bose formed the All India Forward Bloc instead. He then left India, toured Britain’s enemies in Europe to garner support for an army to fight the British in India, formed it in Japan, and entered India with the help of the Japanese as part of World War II. Now I am not someone who lauds Bose’s attempts at cooperating with Nazis and fascists to raise an army — and to be clear, Bose was anti-fascist and anti-Nazi. However, I don’t see the British as any less fascistic or decrepit, so I understand where Bose was coming from and admire him for that.
My point here is that Gandhi was a) often an anti-democratic jerk, who b) was not shy of unleashing massive violence to obtain his goals. Let’s examine two more examples.
Shortly after India was given independence by the British, it was embroiled in at least two (but not only two) attempts to garner territory and establish control.
The first of these was in Kashmir, where a Muslim-majority population (as opposed to its Hindu ruler) which would either favour independence or accession to Pakistan was instead forcibly inducted into India. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi coerced the Hindu ruler into signing an instrument of accession to India, which led to Pakistan seeking to establish its via flash military occupation that lasts, brutally, to this day. The Pakistan Army’s British commanders chose not to help Pakistan fight that war, as they were allied with the Indians. So Pakistan mobilized tribal militias to fight the Indian Army. Gandhi happily approved the use of violence to occupy Kashmir and defeat the Pakistani irregulars and regulars who were fighting that war.
Well, all right.
The second example is that of Hyderabad, where the Hindu-majority population would favour accession to India, but the Muslim ruler wanted independence. Although it is not widely known, the Hyderabad State Congress ultimately formed armed squads to conduct operations against Hyderabad from Indian territory (within Hyderabad, Communist armed squads were operating in the Telangana Rebellion). Hyderabad State Congress activists traveled to visit Gandhi and ask for his permission. As John Roosa puts it, “Gandhi, distraught and despairing over the communal violence in India, openly weeping at times, was non-committal. He only asked them to practice non-violence as best they could.” After Gandhi died, the “non-violent” Indian state invaded Hyderabad and took it over by force — in the process massacring tens of thousands of Muslims — under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, a close Gandhi associate. Incidentally, the Congress also cleared out the Communists, massively repressing them all across India.
What is my point here? Again, the political considerations of state formation are very different from some kind of transcendent belief in non-violence. Gandhi recognized this very clearly. The Indian state, right from its inception and even before that, has wielded great violence — often with Gandhi’s explicit or implicit consent — in a variety of situations. Always the key question for the Congress was how to maintain a strong rule over India which favoured certain sections of the landed elite and industrialist class.
None of this is to claim that Gandhi was not a believer in non-violence or didn’t have many good things to his credit. Of course, he was and he did. The point is, politics doesn’t work like some kind of hippie commune, and even Gandhi knew that.
This myth of non-violent revolution should be laid to rest. All formations of new political orders are violent because they represent the struggle of various forces in society. Those who seek to preserve their privilege will use violence, and even those who are trying to upset the social order do use violence, even if Gandhi is leading them. The question is when was Gandhi okay with violence and when was he not? When was the Congress okay with violence and when was it not? Under what conditions, to preserve what privileges, to garner what outcomes?
That is the question that faces all revolutionaries and all those trying to create new political orders.