Violence—or at least the threat of violence—has always been a part of revolutionary foment. India’s bloody Sepoy Revolt of 1857 precipitated Britain’s increased control of the colony. The British then sought to squelch further rebellions. But, the barrister-turned-revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi interrupted the tradition beginning in the early 20th century.
Racist Notions of Superiority
The British officials used the Sepoy Revolt as justification to increase the crown’s control. And, in 1858, India was transferred from the British East India Company’s oversight to the British Crown directly.
The British colonists typically regarded native Indians as uncivilized children who needed discipline and stern rule. This racist notion of superiority led to vast inequities and firm control. Indeed, although British appointees depicted their duty in India as a burden, they invariably employed Indian servants to tend to their every need. The British enlisted some of India’s elite in the civil service to help them govern the subjects of the British Raj, a population of between 200 and 300 million.
These elite Indian recruits received an education in some of England’s best schools. But no matter how anglicized they became, the British never considered them as equals. Social and economic differences spoke to the vast gulf between the colonizers and the colonized.
One man who seemed destined to join the Indian civil service was Mohandas Gandhi, whose father worked as a bureaucrat in the British Raj. In 1888, young Gandhi left for London to study law. In England, he made connections with left-leaning activists, including members of the Fabian Society, as well as with theosophists, and socialists.
Once he had a law degree in hand, Gandhi returned to India briefly before heading to South Africa where he was hired by an Indian firm to represent it in a legal case in Transvaal province. He worked there for the next 21 years. Still, despite Gandhi’s position as a barrister, and being part of an Indian elite family, such relative advantages didn’t shield him from being treated as a coolie—the derogative term for an Indian worker.
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Equal Rights within the Empire
Gandhi originally felt pride at being a subject of the British Empire. As a young lawyer, even when he came to realize the racial inequities of a colonized people, he didn’t argue for a breaking away from Britain. Instead, he campaigned for equal rights within the empire rather than national self-determination. But as he took on one legal case and cause after another, Gandhi began to see British imperialism as a system of racism and exploitation.
He became active in Indian politics in South Africa, promoting the rights of Indians, and he started the journal Indian Opinion. Inspired by a 1905 general strike in Russia that forced the imperial Russian government to make political concessions (albeit temporarily) Gandhi wrote that even the 300-year old Romanov autocracy could not rule “without the cooperation of the ruled”.
Henry David Thoreau’s Influence
A major influence on Gandhi’s thinking came from the American author Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience, explains that his refusal to pay a state poll tax was morally justified though technically illegal. Thoreau wrote that the only obligation an individual has is to act in conformity with his or her conscience. And “under a government which imprisons any [person] unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Thoreau also wrote that those who refuse to cooperate and act according to their conscience retain their power. This resonated with Gandhi. During the age of Enlightenment in the 18th centuries, some thinkers in France and Britain had already begun to question state authority.
Civil society was viewed as a counterweight to the excesses of state power. ‘Civil Disobedience’ as described by Thoreau and ultimately practiced by Gandhi epitomized how individuals and civil society could check governmental overreach.
Gandhi first put this theory into action in 1907, when the Transvaal Colony instituted the discriminatory Asiatic Law Amendment. The law forced tens of thousands of Indians in the Transvaal to register with a state office, where they had to submit to a physical examination and provide fingerprints. Then, they had to carry a certificate with them at all times. If they failed to register or provide their pass when asked to do so, they could be fined, imprisoned, or deported.
To Gandhi, this was a clear example of the government overreaching its moral authority. He and allies picketed government offices to prevent Indians from registering. Their efforts bore fruit. Only a small minority of the Indians living in the area registered as required. Those who did register faced shaming by the protesters. Gandhi described the tactics of this campaign as ‘satyagraha’: a Sanskrit and Hindi term that translates as truth-force. Though it can be used to describe non-violent resistance, it meant something more substantial to Gandhi.
Satyagraha entails the use of moral pressure, and an appeal to reason, to address a conflict rather than violence. Satyagraha implies a protracted campaign that entails patience and sacrifice. But self-sacrifice is what gives the method its power. During this protest, Gandhi found himself imprisoned for the first time. It was as Henry David Thoreau had said, prison is “the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide with honor”.
Leo Tolstoy’s Influence
The writings of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy also influenced Gandhi. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina had abandoned his possessions and become a Christian pacifist in later years. His writing and example inspired people across the world, including Gandhi.
In 1908, Tolstoy responded to a letter from Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das, writing that the Indian people would be free from British oppression only if they used passive resistance and love as their weapons. The letter was widely circulated and was eventually published by Gandhi in his definitive work: Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule).
Common Questions about Civil Disobedience and Gandhi’s Early Influences
In 1888, young Mohandas Gandhi left for London to study law. In England, he made connections with left-leaning activists, including members of the Fabian Society, as well as with theosophists, and socialists.
Gandhi described the tactics of this campaign as ‘satyagraha’: a Sanskrit and Hindi term that translates as truth-force.