The limits of looking to Mahatma Gandhi for answers

comments 3






The limits of looking to Mahatma Gandhi for answers

“Narrative is linear but action has breadth and depth as well as height and is solid.”                                                                                                                                  Thomas Carlyle.

Geopolitics is complicated but humanity is very simple. This is about the only generality that applies across the board in political impasses, conflicts and transitions in the 21st century. Unfortunately, in an age where we think of ourselves as being civilized, we are still dogged by conflicts and political instability all over the world. And the popular narrative is that we’ve never had it so good.

People love narratives in their history. It helps us make sense of what happened when we can put a beginning, middle and end to a series of events. Most wars are explained away by economic factors creating some form of unrest at a political or social level and a subsequent legislation, leader, or movement coming to the fore. Before you know it, the country found itself in a war, which looking back on it now, was all so predictable.

“On Gandhi: Don’t ever forget, that we were not lead by a saint with his head in clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground.”                                                                                                                                                                                       Shashi Tharoor

Few periods of history escape this narrative-building. Mahatma Gandhi’s rise to prominence is a fine example. The oft-cited peaceful model of Gandhi is given the credit for bringing independence to India in 1947.  The truth is that Mahatma Gandhi was an extremely intelligent man and could see the writing on the wall for Britain in India. His peaceful protests set a fine example but Indian independence was coming, regardless.

Unfortunately, his peaceful model would achieve little if anything at all in most modern conflicts. In the West Bank, to take one example, human rights violations occur on a daily basis. Does anybody believe that Israel will desist in settling disputed territories if Palestinians walk the 150km or so to the River Jordan to protest, in the same way that Gandhi and his followers did for British salt tax when walking to the Indian Ocean[i]? It’s unlikely at best.


Our fetish for leaders and narratives leads us to conclusions which are lazy and inaccurate. Countries involved in conflicts and impasses are defined as good and bad. This is easier to digest than the truth, which is that some things happen and it’s very difficult to explain why. Is the Israel Palestine situation about security, religion or territory? Or is it now purely based on bitterness? Is the Russian-Ukrainian conflict about economics, identity or energy?

In each of the modern conflicts listed above, only three reasons were cited. There could possibly be tens of reasons in each case: lobbying, corporate interests, demographics or faulty political systems could just as easily be cited. The point is that to look at geopolitical impasses as simplistic as being one-fit-all models will not solve them. We need to be more creative in our problem-solving than that.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Martin Luther King

Even when special leaders like Mahatma Gandhi are involved, it doesn’t always happen.  Martin Luther King – a disciple of Gandhi’s methods – was a truly exceptional leader. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better one in modern times. But most Americans would accept that there’s still a long way to go in prejudice that exists in people’s minds and elsewhere in the United States, even if huge strides have been made.

Another problem with looking at an issue in terms of outstanding leaders arriving on the scene is that people don’t strive for meaningful change when there aren’t any. Tunisia has just elected the country’s main secular party in its second free democratic election since ousting the autocrat Zein-al-Abidine in 2011[ii].  Where would Tunisians be now if they had waited for the arrival of a charismatic leader like Gandhi or King? Or thought that a peaceful protest on its own would solve their ills?


Complexity doesn’t make a situation unsolvable. Quite the opposite; seeing all the sides in their complexity gives us a more refined understanding ; we then gain an appreciation of the complexities involved in finding a solution. Creativity begins to emerge to solve something that before seemed unsolvable. Obstacles become challenges and black-and-white attitudes begin begin to meet in the middle ground.

Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance might have elements which can be used elsewhere, but it’s certainly not an all-or-nothing scenario. Perhaps his biggest contribution was bringing intelligence to the situation. We lack that in too many political contexts in the 21st century. By turning everything into an easy-to-digest narrative, we are moving further away from intelligence to something which resembles a tabloid view of the world.

“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”

                                                                                                                                    Ian Stewart



Hi Michael. I would disagree with your argument that a Gandhian or King's approach to conflict resolution is too simplistic to solve today's problems. Firstly, characterising today's problems as somehow 'more complex' than those of earlier ages is fallacious. The non-violence movements were fragile, had their detractors, and powerful regimes bent on their defamation. Whether the national movement alone is the cause of Indian independence is a questionable issue, but it certainly ensured that the movement did not spiral into a humanitarian disaster where the British and the Indians went into open conflict nation-wide.
The reason why three movements succeeded - in fact arguably, they are the most successful movements to date - the anti-Apartheid movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Independence movement is because of the recognition that violence leads to violence, leading to a spiral where no-one (apart from a few) benefits. Say the Palestinians walk peacefully to the River Jordan to protest. What can Israel do? Therein lies the clever strategy. Either, it can kill them and become a monster in the world's eyes, inviting swift retribution. Or, it can ignore them and lose face. Either way, Israel loses. Non-violence is a media-savvy strategy. The more news spreads of unjust retribution to non-violence the more support it gains and emotions are the most powerful motivators. Contrast this with violence as a strategy - it could work as in the case of Tunisia, but it is an isolated success in the great quagmire of conflict now called the Middle East.

Hi Kalyani,

Thanks for your feedback. Firstly, I certainly wasn't endorsing violence in Tunisia - although I can see that I gave that impression in my article. Instead, I was trying to underline the importance of popular action, rather than waiting for the charismatic leader that might never arrive.

I'm in agreement with the general thrust of your arguments. But to take the example of Israel and the Palestine again, I believe Israel has lost the media and popular support for its actions in the Palestine but it has seemingly made no difference to the situation. Ergo, the problem is complex.

In suggesting that problems are more complex now than they were before, it wasn't to belittle any struggle from the past. Far from it. But take the example of Russia - 40 years ago, the Soviet Union was portrayed as an outcast and a danger to the west. Now, in some circles, it is still portrayed as such; the difference being that Russians are providing huge capital inflows to the likes of London and have a near energy-monopoly in the eastern half of Europe.

Thanks again for your comments. It was great to get some feedback.

Hi Michael. Thanks for your reply.
Yes, I understand that you are not endorsing violence, but just positing that a popular movement doesn't need a charismatic leader. I'm partly agree with you on that note, though perhaps movements work better when there is a charismatic leader? But that would probably diverge from our discussion.
"Israel has lost the media and popular support for its actions in the Palestine but it has seemingly made no difference to the situation" would be an erroneous assumption because though no action has been taken on the ground, the country has lost support and credibility worldwide. This will mean US, EU and other powerful countries may be more hesitant next time they try to openly back Israel because of popular sentiment against the same in their countries. Of course it won't lead to blatant changes, but subtle changes to support for Israel (on which it is heavily dependent), because, the situation is 'complex'.
I also agree with you that today's international relationships are more cautious and nuanced than before the Second World War, and this definitely changes things.