Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics


By : Thomas Weber

Table of Contents

About This Book

By : Thomas Weber
Published by : Gandhi Peace Foundation,
221/223, Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg,
New Delhi - 11002

Civil Disobedience And Social Conflict

If men cannot refer to common values, which they all separately recognize, then man is incomprehensible to man. The rebel demands that these values should be clearly recognized as part of himself because he knows or suspects that, without them, crime and disorder would reign in the world. An act of rebellion seems to him like a demand for clarity ad unity.

Albert Camus (The Rebel)

Very close to the end of his long life, despite the bloody upheavals following the partition of British India, Gandhi was still able to claim quite emphatically that "Satyagraha can rid society of all evils, political, economic and moral".1 Satyagraha, being a resistance to evil, in the context of social conflict,2 includes as its most visible form opposition to unjust laws. in the political field, where most of the satyagraha campaigns in pre-independent India occurred, struggles generally consist "in opposing error in the shape of unjust laws . . . Hence Satyagraha largely appears m the public as Civil Disobedience or Civil Resistance".3
Because Gandhi felt that satyagraha was "one of the most powerful methods of direct action, a satyagrahi exhausts all other means before he resorts to satyagraha". If this is not done "haste will itself constitute violence" and, therefore, the civil disobedience, or other action carried out in the course of a social conflict, will not constitute satyagraha. While a readiness for negotiation had to be maintained, Gandhi realised that "the stage of negotiation, may never be reached", adding quickly that this "must not be the fault of the satyagrahi". The satyagrahi will then "appeal to public opinion, educate public opinion, state his case calmly and coolly before everybody who wants to listen to him", and only then will he resort to Satyagraha. Satyagraha, therefore, requires patience, eschewing all "short-violent cuts to success", and therefore, regardless of the worthiness motives, the relationship of the means to the end must be borne in mind and, "violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes" are to be opposed:

When you have failed to bring the error home to the law-giver [or other oppressor] by way of petition and the like, the only remedies open to you, if you do not wish to submit to error, are to compel him to yield to you either by physical force or by suffering in your person, by inviting the penalty [or repression] for the breach of his laws [or refusal of co-operation]4

The theoretical treatment of civil disobedience to unjust laws in Western literature often begins with an analysis of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and with two of Plato's Dialogues of Socrates--Apology and Crito. Interestingly enough these sources were also extremely important in the formation of Gandhi's political philosophy. Although it appears that he read these texts the year following the mass meeting of Indians in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906, the date taken as the commencement of his (as it was then called) passive resistance campaigns, when an oath was taken to disobey the newly promulgated Indian Registration Ordinance, their influence on his growing philosophy of civil disobedience is obvious.
A great deal of Thoreau's writing is echoed by Gandhi. Both, for example, believed that if a law is unjust in a minor way then it should be let go, but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, sat any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.5
Gandhi also closely parallels Socrates6 when he claims that the seeming breaking of a law is not in fact breaking the law if it is done under three limitations: (1) that a higher law, that of the conscience, is followed,
(2) that the law is broken nonviolently, and
(3) that the violator is cheerfully and willingly prepared to pay the full penalty of such violation.7
This distinction may partially explain the differing emphasis (some say contradiction)8 between Apology in which Socrates places truth higher than the law9 and Crito where he appears to say that laws of the state must be obeyed, and court decisions, even where wrong or unjust, must be abided by.10 It is interesting to note that while Gandhi read both works he chose to translate (into his native language, Gujarati) and disseminate only Apology. Although many of the arguments of Crito were incorporated into his political philosophy perhaps Gandhi thought that the distinctions between primary and secondary sanctions may have been confusing to his relatively little educated audience.

Individual civil disobedience
The position of the lone satyagrahi engaged in conflict with a larger group is best illustrated by the case of civil disobedience (being the "breach of immoral statutory enactments11) against the government. Such disobedience, to constitute satyagraha, must be carried out openly and must aim at changing the given law rather than rejecting the system of which the law is part, consequently punishments must be willingly accepted.
Those who strive for ideals often find that their conscience is in conflict with authority or stated laws. Gandhi was quite adamant that no matter what legislation is passed over our heads, if that legislation is in conflict with our ideas of right and wrong, if it is in conflict with our conscience, if it is in conflict with our religion, then we can say that we shall not submit to that legislation.12
Gandhi clearly believed in the authority of the state in a democratic society.13
One has a duty to obey all laws except those that are contrary to the conscience and cause a tangible harm to the welfare of the populace. "Only when a citizen has disciplined himself in the act of voluntary obedience to state laws", explains Gandhi, "is he justified on rare occasions deliberately but non-violently to disobey them and expose himself to the penalty of the breach." He further pointed out that if one wanted to both live in society and retain individual independence of action the points of utter independence must be limited to matters of first rate importance. "In all others which do not involve a departure from one's personal religion or moral code, one must yield to the majority.14
This inherent law-abidingness is further explained by Gandhi when he points out that a satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will because he considers it his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously, that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.
And again:
Civil disobedience presupposes a scrupulous observance of all laws which do not hurt the moral sense... Thoughtless disobedience means disruption of the State. The first thing, therefore, for those who aspire after civil disobedience is to learn the art of willingly obeying the State laws, whether they like them or not. Civil disobedience is not a state of lawlessness, but presupposes a law-abiding spirit, combined with self restraint.15
The state's claim to obedience, therefore, is primary in all cases except where it contradicts the necessity of obedience to the Law of Truth. In a well ordered state this will be rare but when it occurs "it becomes a duty that cannot be shirked". Gandhi explicitly maintains the right of every citizen to be civilly disobedient even in a democratically elected state: It is the "inherent right of a citizen" which he "dare not give.., up without ceasing to be a man":
It is possible to question the wisdom of applying civil disobedience in respect of a particular act or law; it is possible to advise delay and caution. But the right itself cannot be allowed to be questioned. It is a birthright that cannot be surrendered without surrender of one's self respect.16
In Gandhi's scheme the conscience, then, is the final arbiter in deciding whether laws should be complied with. It is, however, not enough merely to break laws, but, as with the general principles of satyagraha, changes of the unacceptable laws should be aimed at through conversion of the majority of the populace and the law makers· The state (that is the majority who voted for it) also has the right to stand by its beliefs - and if no conversion takes place has the right to punish the disobedient satyagrahi. As Kripalani points out, every law gives the subject two alternatives, that is, to obey either the primary sanction (the law itself) or the secondary sanction (punishment for not obeying the primary sanction).17 In this sense the satyagrahi who contravenes a law and voluntarily accepts the punishment can he said to be obeying the law. Gandhi, following this line of argument, was firm in his opinion that "civil disobedience Is the purest form of constitutional agitation".18 These political "crimes", however, could be distinguished from non-political crime. Those who broke the laws and accepted the penalties, that is citizens who were law-abiding except for their political agitations, were friends of the state.19 Criminal disobedience that is, disobedience to all or any law selected at random and coupled with the intention of avoiding punishment, can lead to anarchy, compelling "every state to put down criminal disobedience by force. It perishes if it does not."20Criminal disobedience plays no part in satyagraha.
In a democratic state only defensive civil disobedience is permissible - that is, "involuntary or reluctant nonviolent disobedience of such laws as are in themselves bad and obedience to which would be inconsistent with one's self-respect or human dignity". Where the state is corrupt, repressive or dominated by an imperialist power the "citizen" may "revolt", that is, break laws even for symbolic purposes in order to bring down the system. As the authority or me state is not accepted it need not be cooperated with. This Gandhi termed "aggressive, assertive or offensive civil disobedience"- being a
nonviolent, willful disobedience of laws of the state whose breach does not involve moral turpitude and which is undertaken as a symbol of revolt against the State. Thus disregard of laws relating to revenue or regulation of personal conduct for the convenience of the state, although such laws in themselves inflict no hardship and do not require to be altered, would be assertive, aggressive or offensive civil disobedience.21
Where an individual becomes an "outlaw" the place for him, as a just person in an unjust state, is in prison. Personal liberty is gained at too high a price when that price is the submission to the laws of a state in which an individual does not believe. Such a person, along with the satyagrahi in a democratic state using civil disobedience as a form of constitutional agitation and willingly accepting the penalties, compels the state to arrest them. This often poses no difficulty as the disobedient is viewed by those who do not share their views as a nuisance. Such civil disobedience becomes "a most powerful expression of a soul's anguish and an eloquent protest against the continuance of an evil state"22 or evil within a state.
Because civil disobedience, whether it be aggressive or defensive, aims ultimately at conversion, Gandhi placed very strong emphasis on the word "civil" in the definition of the technique. To be civil, disobedience "must be sincere, respectful, restrained, never defiant, must be based upon some well-understood principle, must not be capricious and above all must have no ill - will or hatred behind it"; in this way it would appear to be civil "even to the opponent", who "must feel that the resistance is not intended to do him any harm".23
Civil disobedience aims to force the opponent and public into making a choice. As Rudolph and Rudolph correctly claim, for Gandhi, civil disobedience, along with other forms of satyagraha, "was a means to awaken the best in an opponent",24 the rationale being that some laws are wrong and in breaking them others are asked to question their own beliefs as to those laws without coercion or violence. If they continue to believe in the justice of the disobeyed law the penalty will be gladly suffered. The opponents are merely being asked a question that they must consider and answer.25 The satyagrahis do not inflict their views on others - the suffering involved is self-suffering. The moral pressure thus exerted by the satyagrahi paves the way for the possibility of conversion. This process, as explained by Gregg, occurs, when the opponent,
with the audience as a sort of minor....realizes the contrast between his own conduct and that of the victim. In relation to the onlookers, the attacker with his violence perhaps begins to feel a little excessive and undignified - even a little ineffective - and by contrast with the victim, less generous and in fact brutal.26

Group social conflict and the individual
Dhawan notes that individuals are more likely to be amenable to reason and more alive to moral considerations than a group. In group satyagraha, as opposed to individual satyagraha, the need to remain nonviolent and truthful becomes more difficult "because the emphasis in group action tends to shift from inner purity to external conformity and this tells on the potency of soul-force".27In recognition of this after the suspension of mass civil disobedience in 1933 following the gradual demoralisation of it's leaders, Gandhi continued to permit individual civil disobedience.
Gandhi himself was the leader of one group of disputants in large-scale social conflicts in regard to the position of oppressed Indians in South Africa and against the British imperialist state in his native India. He also recommended that satyagraha be used by U.S. Blacks in achieving their rights.28 He realised the pitfalls in mass satyagraha but saw the necessity for it and consequently used it when the need arose. Although the dialectic of mass satyagraha as practiced by Gandhi stops short of class conflict, Lannoy reminds that it refuses "to balk at creative social conflict".29
As noted above, satyagraha in the form of civil disobedience can even be used against a government. Through mass action it can even bring down a state when "no alternative presents itself but open application of force".30 Shridharani points out that this step is not to be taken lightly: "Satyagraha is to be employed only when anything, except violence and war, is more desirable than the existing state of affairs."31 Gandhi believed that no government can control a person who does not sanction such control and that the government of people is impossible without their consent.32 The necessity for such a withdrawal of consent and the initiation of satyagraha to overthrow a government presumably would never be justified in a democratic state. "Mass satyagraha" in these instances, Gandhi claims, "does not abolish legislatures, committees, investigating bodies and conferences. But it controls them, puts them in their proper place, and renders them less capable of doing harm."33 When satyagraha is used against the rulers in this less ambitious fashion Gandhi still warns that there must be no exclusive focusing on "the misdeeds of the Government, for we have to convert and befriend those who run it. And after all no one is wicked by nature".34
In any social satyagraha, whether against the government, a group or an individual, before taking any action an individual must first convince themself of the truthfulness of the cause. They must "never act as a mere functionary, a representative of an institution or an underling, but always as an autonomous, fully responsible person".35 Realising the danger of indiscipline in tense situations of mass action, however, Gandhi held that once the decision has been made by an individual to embark upon a course of action along with others, the orders of the leaders must cheerfully be obeyed: "He will carry out orders in the first instance even though they appear to him insulting, inimical or foolish, and then appeal to the higher authority."36
Cleaving to nonviolence in group social conflict situations may undercut the ability of the opponent to employ overly harsh measures of suppression or retaliation. If they do use measures that appear to he disproportionately harsh they run the risk of alienating not only neutrals but also, eventually, supporters and allies. Satyagraha campaigns must, therefore, be carefully planned and executed.
Mass satyagraha progresses in stages, the stage to be reached and the length of time before progressing to the next stage may be dictated by the type of opponent and the circumstances, but always the general rules of satyagraha concerning truth, nonviolence, means and ends, self-suffering and coercion must be followed for that campaign to be satyagraha in more than name only.
In group conflict, the action to be taken before the adoption of satyagraha, according to Naess, can be divided into the following stages:37

  1. The non-partisan analysis of the conflict and its background.
  2. The clarification of essential and long-range interests which the conflicting groups have in common.
  3. The definition of reasonable long-range aims which all of the contending parties might envisage and agree to.
  4. The formulation of these aims in a precise and concrete way, coupled with an attempt to ensure that the contending parties understand them.
  5. In the case of a persistent refusal by one party to accept the defined aims, an attempt at compromise by making non-essential changes in the definition.

Bondurant38 goes on to systematise the steps to be taken in the actual satyagraha campaign (in this instance against a government, especially a repressive one) as:

  1. Negotiation and arbitration. All established channels to be exhausted before undertaking further steps.
  2. Preparation for group action. Discussion, examination of motives and self-discipline exercises started.39 Issues at stake, appropriate action, circumstances of opponents and public opinion examined.
  3. Agitation including the distribution of propaganda, marches, etc. commenced.
  4. Issuing of an ultimatum. Future steps to be taken are brought to the notice of the opponent if no agreement is reached.
  5. Economic boycott and strikes, including picketing and general strike, commenced.
  6. Non-cooperation. Non-payment of taxes, boycott of schools and other public institutions undertaken.
  7. Civil Disobedience. Breaking of selected laws because they are central to the grievance or are symbolic.
  8. Usurping the functions of government.
  9. Parallel government.

As with political oppression, economic oppression and exploitation, racism and sexism rest to a large degree on the acquiescence of the exploited. With this in mind, Gandhi noted that "exploitation of the poor can be extinguished not by effecting the destruction of a few millionaires, but by removing the ignorance of the poor and teaching them to non-cooperate with the exploiters".40 It was partly for the educative purpose of pointing this fact out to the oppressed that Gandhi instituted what he called the "Constructive Programme". This Constructive Programme was originally part of the struggle to obtain India's independence. It involved future leaders in the struggle and put them in contact with the masses (it is not enough, Gregg points out, to work for people, they must be worked with) as well as helping to bring about the society Gandhi envisaged free India as being. The programme, in its original context, dealt mainly with the problems of communal unity, the removal of untouchability, the reestablishment of rural industries, village sanitation, prohibition, basic education for all (including adults), national language, education in health and hygiene, and work towards economic equality.42 This aimed at producing "something beneficial to the community, especially to the poor and unemployed and provided "the kind of work which the poor and unemployed can themselves do and thus self-respectingly help themselves".43
For Gandhi this constructive work offered replacement for what the nationalists were opposing at the very time that they were opposing it. Without it, civil disobedience, if it succeeded in over-throwing the imperialist rulers, would exchange one group of leaders for another leading to "English rule without the Englishmen . . . the tiger's nature, but not the tiger....44This again reflects Gandhi's view that good ends can only grow out of the use of proper means.
In large-scale social conflict situations Gandhi always coupled constructive work to civil disobedience, sometimes seeming to say that constructive work was an aid to civil disobedience and at other times putting the formula around the other way. Civil disobedience, he claimed, was capable of use as a technique for the redress of local wrongs or in order to rouse local, consciousness or conscience, alone however it could never be used in a general cause such as, for example, independence. For civil disobedience to be effective "the issue must be definite and capable of being clearly understood and within the power of the opponent to yield"· It could, however, be used to assist a "constructive effort" in such a case. In the first two uses of civil disobedience listed no elaborate constructive programme is necessary, but in the latter case civil disobedience without it becomes "mere bravado and worse than useless"· Constructive work, in other words, becomes a key weapon in the undertaking of large and general nonviolent campaigns, and perhaps such campaigns are not fully nonviolent unless accompanied by some kind of constructive activity.45
In a campaign against a war or nuclear installation the constructive social element would take the form of recruitment of others to help build a movement, the education of public opinion, etc. if civil disobedience is aimed at alleviating the oppression of a minority group, it would include working with that group to help them learn their rights, to organise themselves, etc. It would be designed to prevent the action from being an academic exercise on the part of the demonstrators, and to keep them in human contact with those that they aim to assist, or those that share the common struggle.
Besides being "socially useful and brotherly", constructive work has a subjective side: furnishing a discipline for nonviolence. It provides a tangible function for satyagrahis while the "proper channels" are being exhausted - it is "able to compensate for the apparent lack of headway towards the specific objectives of the struggle". Besides the positive aspect of influencing public opinion, it aids morale by giving the satyagrahi something positive to do rather than merely leaving him or her to suffer the negative aspects of frustration while waiting for something to happen:
....among all morally healthy and vigorous people there is, in relation to any great conflict, an imperative need for deeds·.. It must be action which is expected to advance towards power to win settlement of the specific issue....without a programme of practical performance in which any person can take part (i.e. a programme other than talk) many pacifists cannot maintain their belief. The moral and psychological need for deeds is compelling. Without such exertion pacifism seems and feels too negative.46
It is for these reasons, Gregg suggests, that such former distinguished pacifists as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell abandoned their faith in pacifism at the outbreak of the Second World War.47 J Horsburgh makes the further point that constructive work as a "requirement of satyagraha has been much neglected in recent years, especially in the West" and suggests that Martin Luther King's "gradual loss of influence within the American civil rights movement was largely due to this oversight."48
The final major element in Gandhi's view of the way social conflicts should be resolved was his theory of "trusteeship". He believed that the owners of wealth had the choice before them of voluntarily converting themselves into trustees of their wealth for the poor, or class war. In keeping with his "hate the sin and not the sinner" dictum Gandhi claimed that we must seek to "destroy capitalism, not the capitalist. "I must not aim at his destruction. I must strive for his conversion."49 In other words Gandhi disputed the Marxist claim that class antagonisms that occur in society are irreconcilable.
Trusteeship to some degree at least depends on a realisation of the oneness of humanity and on a belief in the moral correctness and desirability of non-possession and voluntary poverty. This has a basis in the Hindu philosophical tradition. In a secular, industrialized and consumerist society the idea may be a little more difficult to get across convincingly. Gandhi was against redistribution of wealth by coercion because he maintained that any future nonviolent state had to be built upon nonviolent foundations. A redistribution of wealth by force would require continuing force to maintain the structure. Trusteeship was his method of introducing the principles of satyagraha into this particular realm of social conflict:
As soon as a man looks upon himself as a servant of society, earns for its sake, spends for its benefit, then purity enters into his earnings and there is ahimsa in his venture. Moreover, if men's minds turn towards this way of life, there will come about a peaceful revolution in society, and that without any bitterness.50
All who believed in a more equal distribution of the country's (or for that matter, the world's) resources would reduce their wants to the minimum, ensure that their earnings were free from dishonesty, renounce the desire for speculation and live in a way that is in keeping with the newly acquired satyagrahi philosophy of life. The rich person would not be forcibly dispossessed of their wealth, it being hoped that "he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the society".51
Although Gandhi, characteristically, assumed the honesty of the trustee, he planned that in a free and nonviolent India the idea was to have legislative backing. In the meantime where the rich refused to become the guardians of the poor, Gandhi "lighted on non-violent, non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the right and infallible" solution, noting that the rich "cannot accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the poor in society".52
This "non-cooperation" as envisaged by Gandhi was "a protest against....participation in evil":
Its object should not be to punish the opponent or to inflict injury upon him. Even while non-cooperating with him, we must make him feel that in us he has a friend and we should try to reach his heart by rendering him humanitarian service whenever possible.53
Such non-cooperation is a duty and a step towards the dignity obtainable through self-help for the individual:
No one is bound to cooperate in one's own undoing or slavery. Freedom received through the effort of others, however benevolent, cannot be retained when such effort is withdrawn. In other words such freedom is not real freedom. But the lowliest can feel its glow as soon as they learn the art of attaining it through nonviolent non-cooperation.54
This whole area of social conflict places a great emphasis on the individual, first of all to refuse to be ruled or exploited any longer, and secondly, as with the case of the rich, to examine one's own life-style to determine the degree to which he or she is also responsible for the oppression or exploitation of others. This introspection is particularly important to ensure that the chain is broken, to ensure, for instance, that labour aims at sterilising capital rather than, as is often the case, wanting to "seize that capital and become capitalist itself in the worst sense of the term".55
Finally it should be noted that Gandhi himself saw the difficulty of making his theory of trusteeship a practical reality; however, he affirmed his faith in it, stating: "I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it. It is true that it is difficult to reach. So is nonviolence".56

Although social conflicts can be extremely complex, the importance of the individual cannot be overlooked even in the subjective sense. Whether changes in the unequal nature of society can in fact be brought about by the moral transformation of individuals or only through changing the prevalent structures, Gandhi does point to things that the individual himself can do to make their own life more worthwhile subjectively, while perhaps aiding the introduction of objective structural changes. Gandhi was fond of saying that satyagraha depends on the quality of the participants, rather than their quantity, and his thought concerning the individual, in this area of conflict especially, can be summed up by the amalgamation of a few well worn phrases - not only does the revolution start here, but the buck also stops here.