Indian Activist Suggests Farmers’ Protests Adopt Gandhi’s Satyagraha

Social activist Medha Patkar is calling for protestors to adopt Satyagraha

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

An advocate for Indian farmers advised they use passive protests for change, The Indian Express reported. Farmers are protesting what they believe are unfair debts and produce rates. Mohandas Gandhi practiced Satyagraha to protest British rule in India.

Mahatma Gandhi portrait photo
Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) became known as “Mahatma,” which means “great soul.” A respected spiritual and political leader, Gandhi called for the practice of holding passive, nonviolent protests. Photo by Elliott & Fry / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to The Indian Express, a social activist recommended a peaceful and potentially powerful next step for Indian farmers protesting debts and produce rates. “The ongoing farmer protests should continue by adopting the path of Satyagraha and rejecting sectarianism and violence, said social activist Medha Patkar,” the article said. “Farmers have two crucial demands: they want to be free from the weight of debt and get the correct rate for their produce. [Patkar] highlighted that the new farm laws aim to privatize and corporatize the agriculture sector which would not only affect the farmers, but also the consumers.”

Satyagraha is a practice of passive and nonviolent protest that gained global attention when Mohandas Gandhi practiced it to protest British rule in India. How did Gandhi become well-known worldwide?

Gandhi’s Early Days

Dr. Jay L. Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of both the Logic Program and of the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program at Smith College.

In a lecture for The Great Courses, Dr. Garfield said that the religion of Jainism developed in India around the same time as Buddhism but had “an even stronger emphasis than did Buddhism on non-violence and non-harming.”

“The Sanskrit term for this is ‘ahimsa,’ non-harming,” he said. “Religious Jains often wear face masks so as not to accidentally inhale small insects. Jain monks and nuns you will always see walking with a broom to sweep the ground in front of them in order to prevent accidentally treading on a small animal.”

Gandhi had several Jain relatives and friends, despite coming from a devout Hindu family. He took Jainism’s philosophy of non-harm to heart but also studied the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. From the Gita, Gandhi learned another practice that would shape his life: svādharma.

Svādharma and Thoreau

“Svādharma is the idea that in virtue of our particular role in society, we each have a particular duty, and that a meaningful life involves our discharge of that particular duty,” Dr. Garfield said. “Gandhi took that up but gave it a real political twist: He twisted it into the idea that our svādharma derives from our political circumstances and that it’s our political circumstances that really entail our duties, and that those duties are public, political duties.”

Gandhi committed himself to “the importance of leading a life guided by one’s svādharma,” Dr. Garfield said.

Gandhi was also affected by Henry David Thoreau, whom Gandhi learned of while in the United Kingdom. Thoreau taught civil disobedience—that duty could lead someone to disobey a law that they found immoral and that they should do so publicly and representationally. This turns the disobeying party’s actions into a public symbol against the immorality of the law they refuse to obey.

By practicing Thoreau’s civil disobedience with a political interpretation of Hindu svādharma, a sense of duty and meaning based on social roles and obligations, and Jain ahimsa, a philosophy of non-violence and non-harm, Gandhi led powerful protests against British rule over India.

Social activist Medha Patkar may be implying that it’s time for a Gandhi-like figure to stand up for farmers’ rights and lead the cause for change.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

This article contains material taught by Dr. Jay L. Garfield for his course Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions. Dr. Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and director of both the Logic Program and of the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program at Smith College. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh.