Mahatma Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance in the 21st century

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To what extent is Mahatma Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance a role model for peaceful political transitions in 21st century?

Gandhi’s global reach

For those who have previously been to Hong Kong, you may be expecting demonstrators in the “Umbrella Revolution” to be wearing the iconic “I (heart) HK” T-shirts. Yet, Hong Kong student protesters were reportedly seen wearing T-shirts with Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes proudly printed on them. The “Umbrella Revolution”, as the movement has been dubbed, was modeled on Mahatma Gandhi by protest leaders after Beijing refused to grant Hong Kong greater democracy and autonomy in the upcoming 2017 election. Most protestors only learnt of Gandhi’s teachings after joining the protests, with many finding India’s struggle for independence inspiring and worthy of being a role model.

The 21st century has often been characterised by the rise of the global economy, the deepening concern with regards to online privacy and the war on terror amongst many other things. It is also characterised by the surge in separatism all over the world as democracy is increasingly accepted as a universal value (Sen, 1999). Gandhism has inspired many protestors, ranging from the youths in the Arab Spring to the student demonstrators in Hong Kong. At this point, it is important to ask ourselves several questions. Just how effective is Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance, otherwise known as Satyagraha? Can his model be an effective role model, which can be replicated and implemented consistently to various situations and contexts? What are the limitations of his model? Lastly, is this model of non-violent resistant sustainable in our changing world and what is the future going to be like for Gandhism?

Protestors all over the world have cited Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance. Professor Gene Sharp, Nobel Laureate from the University of Massachussetts, once wrote a book titled, “The politics of nonviolent actions”. In his book, Sharp compiled a list containing 198 methods of non-violent actions for practitioners to follow (Sharp, 1973). In fact, the Umbrella Revolution leaders have published a similar manual for disobedience to be used in the ‘Occupy Central’ movement. These seemed to suggest that Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance could be replicated across various countries and situations. However, I beg to differ.

It’s all about the context

It is important to note the differences in context of various situations, especially the parties involved as well as the relationship that these parties share. Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violent resistance was applied in a scenario of colonialism, which is in the context of foreign occupation. The use of non-violent resistance in the face of foreign occupation has allowed Gandhi and the Indian population to fight for India’s independence from a moral high ground. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhism non-violent resistance, also succeeded in his quest for attaining civil rights for African American. His context, however, was different from Gandhi’s. Martin Luther King’s policy represents the best-known example of a non-violent policy in a situation where a segment of the population within a sovereign state is deeply opposed to that state’s official policy.

While Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance succeeded in the United States and India, it may not apply to Hong Kong, or for that matter, other political transitions in the 21st century. For example, despite bearing semblence to both of these cases, Hong Kong’s context is very different.

First and foremost, the crucial factor in the success of Martin Luther King and Gandhi’s campaigns was the nature of the political systems of the United States and Britain. Both countries are democracies. By refusing the opinions of the masses, these countries could be seen as hyprocrites who reneged on the very foundation that their societies were built upon. In contrast, China operates under a communist regime whereby non-violent resistances historically had scant effects. Examples include the Dalai Lama’s non-violent resistance concerning Tibet and the non-violent student protests leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance will be ineffective, and hence a poor role model for political transitions within a communist or authoritarian regime.

Secondly, there was blatant injustice suffered both by the African Americans and the Indians. The same cannot be said about the people of Hong Kong. The protests in Hong Kong stemmed neither from injustice nor cruelty but rather, from a difference in political ideologies and the idea of freedom. Gandhi was able to galvanise international public opinion by showing the world the suffering of his people. Evidently, Hong Kong’s Gandhi-inspired non-violent resistance has successfully captured world attention. However, most of these attentions were more related to the implications of the protests on the businesses and trade in the region as well as China’s ability to have a peaceful rising. I believe that people are more sympathetic towards the physical suffering and cruelty of fellow humans in India rather than to the plight that Hong Kong is currently in. Failure to capture world opinion and the world’s sympathy reduces the effectiveness of Ghandi’s model of non-violent resistance.

Lastly, non-violent campaigns have a chance of succeeding if protestors are faced by a weak opponent which relies for its continued hold on power upon an external factor no longer willing to sustain it. The success of Gandhi’s campaign was partially due to the fact that his philosophy found resonance amongst the British public, who were against political repression by violence. Britain’s decision to grant independence to India was partially prompted by the dwindling support from the British public. On the other hand, the Chinese government neither has the intention of relinquishing control over Hong Kong nor are they getting less support domestically within Mainland China. China’s heavy hand in state media censorship effectively increased the information asymmetry such that information from media sources will always support the government’s attitude towards the protests. Such propagandas and censorship brings legitimacy and domestic support for Beijing’s attitude towards the Hong Kong protests. Without alternative viewpoints and clampdowns against any media contents sympathising Hong Kong protestors’ demand for western-style democracy, Beijing will continue to garner support from her people.

No Gandhi in Egypt, no Gandhi in Hong Kong

Gandhi’s model also lacked a crucial element that led to his success – leadership. During the Arab Spring, the Egyptians realized that they lacked a leader of Mahatma Gandhi’s stature who knew how to handle mob revolutions and harness their potential in achieving the objective of the protests. The same could be said regarding the leadership quality of the protest leaders in the Umbrella Revolution, most of them students in their early 20s. Gandhi’s charisma and his vast support, both in India as well as internationally, enabled him to channel popular energy and negotiate from a position of power. Evidently, the effectiveness of Ghandi’s model hinges upon the leadership of the protest leaders and their ability to organise protests based on applicable parts of the model.

Gandhi lives on…

Nirupama Rao, previous Indian ambassador to the United States once said, “The influence of Gandhi has by no means ceased. His political action strategy, the well-planned and executed applications of non-violence continue to inspire struggles across the world. The management of diversity with courage and foresight is also an important lesson from Gandhi that we must learn.” Gandhi’s passion and dedication to his country is indeed moving and awe inspiring. His willingness to stand in the face of adversity is also encouraging that serves as a lesson to many.

… But not his model

However, his model of non-violent resistance should not be taken entirely as a role model due to the various underlying contextual differences I have previously highlighted. Activists and protest leaders need to understand that the underlying differences between their own campaigns and the struggle for India’s independence may not be the same. What worked for a peaceful political transition in India may not necessarily work for other countries. Activists and political leaders alike need to account for differences in culture, the underlying contextual differences between their political transition and that of India’s, as well as ensuring proper leadership and commitment to a common cause before adopting Gandhi’s model of non-violent resistance in search of peaceful political transitions in the 21st century.


A brilliant and very timely essay, Gabriel. I have often thought about this issue as well, and my conclusions are not too different from yours. You very ably highlight the dwindling support for holding on to India amongst British public. Also, the severe pounding that Britain got at the hands of Hitler and the pressure exerted by US on Britain just had to result in the emancipation of colonies.

The curious question is: If not non-violent, then what form of protest do you think could ever work anywhere in China? Surely, violent protests will not cut it, as has been seen in Xinjiang time and again. At the same time, it's hard to imagine China being an autocracy for a very long time. Maybe the rise of a Gorbachev-like leader will turn things around. What do yo think?

Hey Prabhat and Gabriel, I am just going to reply in that section so both of you could see it:)

Gabriel, I think it is a very well argued article without too much affliation or presupposition to political preferences. I think you have clearly pointed out the several major differences why the Gandhi model may not be applicable to HK (or anywhere else in this age). So here I would only try to offer some of my shallow opinion regarding Prabhat's question: what form of protest could ever work anywhere in China?

To answer such question, one needs to go back to the root of such protests--what does the protest hope to achieve and how do you define "work". If a major reform is in your mind (considering all the comparable examples raised here are reforms, then I would say the answer is no. But my question here is, even in democratic countries like US or UK, I highly doubt today any form of protests would lead to a major reforms in the society. Does it means the country lost its democracy--no, I think it actually means their democratic institutions and systems have been well-developed so they are able to reduce radical reforms to incremental changes.

If you count incremental change as a form of progress, then I do think protests could work in China as long as you know the way up to the central authories. But I won't elaborate here since it is way too complicated. But anyway, call me a optimistic and I hope above can partially answer your question.

Thank you for your kind words Prabhat, i hope you enjoyed reading my article!

Personally, I doubt that there will not be any form of protest that will really work in China, at least for the next decade or so. I believe that the key reason is because China government is able to make use of the information asymmetry between various parties and to ensure that the ease of information dissemination between protest organisers will be greatly reduced, creating uncertainty and distrust amongst the protesters.

I also have my doubts whether a single leader is able to change a country as large as China. The Chinese have a very strong culture of "remembering their roots" and it is unlikely that a single "Gorbachev-like" leader will turn things around. Remember we are talking about millenniums of culture here.

I believe that change will eventually come when more Chinese are lifted out of poverty and with the rising middle income group asking for a higher standard of living which the current political structure may not be able to support. The Chinese government is keen on keeping control and at the same time, pragmatic. Eventually, I believe that the Chinese Communist Party will slowly shift towards a more "Asian-styled democracy".

All in all, I believe that if there is indeed a political transition, it will definitely happen only if the CCP allows it to.

That's an interesting comment about Chinese culture. I have read that being loyal to the state is also a part of it, so maybe you're indeed right about CCP's control over people's imaginations, which would allow them to hold on to power for much longer than most others. A Singapore-like democracy could indeed be a possibility in the far future, as you rightly point out. Since you seem deeply informed about Chinese culture, it'll be great to see an article from you on the attitude of Chinese people towards their government and society. This is perhaps something that few are aware of (I am certainly part of the ignorant crowd), and would make for great reading.