October 2 was International Day of Non-Violence, which coincides with Gandhi’s (1869-1948) birthday. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of this sizable historical figure, so he deserves an in-depth look: first, to understand the essential details of his biography, and second, to assess his significance and impact on modern life as the architect of the decolonization of India and champion of nonviolent resistance.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 to a well-off Indian family who attempted to provide him with the best possible education. From a young age, he embodied the paradigm, and the paradox, of decolonization: his family’s financial resources allowed him to study law in the mother country. It was there that he understood the advantages and privileges of British society, which had established a protectorate over India in the mid 19th century through the British East India Company. The Company’s goal was to exploit the natural resources of that territory to the benefit of the British Empire, guaranteeing respect for the local authorities provided that they in turn ensure that the profits from Indian resources would benefit no other nation.
Having become aware that the situation created by the British Empire in India favored the wellbeing of the few while the rest of the population lived in extreme poverty, Gandhi resolved to fight those injustices from then on. After a brief return home in 1891, where he barely stayed two years and had little success establishing himself as an attorney, he moved to South Africa, another British colony with a set of social conditions very similar to those in his home country. While castes reigned in India, creating a structure in which individuals were unequal due to the status they acquired at birth (crucially affecting the untouchables), in South Africa, the black population had been subjected to harsh exploitation and discrimination by the colonial authorities. That is where Gandhi would spend 21 years, starting the fight for equal civil rights and creating a family.
When he returned to India in 1915, with a background battling colonialism and fighting for equal civil rights, he took what from the modern perspective appears to be a curious turn, as he led the recruitment campaign for Indian soldiers to support the British Empire in World War I. Nevertheless, what may be seen as a contradiction was nothing less than a step toward other colonies beginning to demand independence at the beginning of the 20th century: in the outset, the different colonial powers asked their colonies for support in the war effort in exchange for self-determination. With the Great War over, the promises were thwarted and Gandhi’s position, like other national leaders in the rest of the colonized world, now saw independence as the sole objective to be achieved, always through nonviolence.
His greatest skill in political terms was marrying nationalist sentiment with the Hindu faith, uniting a broad share of his fellow citizens with a nationalist message. Thus, he was able to get his message out into many parts of Indian society and they showed their support for the cause, for example, in the Salt March of 1930. As the visible leader of the Indian National Congress, the leading nationalist and pro-independence party in India, he experienced the harsh repression of the British authorities who imprisoned him on several occasions. Despite having been subjected to constant displays of violence from the enemy, his response never used the same methods and he was always in favor of passive resistance as a strategy to demonstrate the colonial power’s barbaric methods and complete lack of reason for its actions. Assuming this position, he led the last push to demand the withdrawal of the British from India in 1942, with World War II in full swing. Once the campaign was finished in the summer of 1947, he achieved the dream of independence for his people, which he was only able to enjoy briefly because he was assassinated in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who criticized what he considered to be Gandhi’s excessively moderate stance.
As indicated at the beginning of this article, beyond the main milestones that marked this man’s life, a man who is undoubtedly one of history’s giants, we must stop and consider his legacy in the following decades. Moving chronologically, I’ll begin with his most immediate legacy: the decolonization of India, and generally his contribution to the decisive decolonization of the remaining territories dominated by empires, as well as the undeniable empowering of the people, who would soon be referred to as the Third World. Gandhi became one of the major representatives of the great contradiction of the old colonial empires, which invited the children of the colonized elite to study in the mother country, ignoring the fact that these same young people would learn about democratic and liberal European values and would feel the desire to export them back to their home countries. Without noticing the collateral damage of the very same system of domination that they had created, the empires demonstrated one of the essential causes of their decline: their inability to capture the spirit of the new age.
That said, unlike the violent fight against colonization that took place in other contexts, Gandhi took a position that identified much more with human dignity. Although Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire had defended the futility of using tolerance with intolerant people and, more recently, Marxist intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon held that the violence of colonization must be fought with violence in the decolonization process, Gandhi took the opposite path. Convinced in the Kantian sense of the perfectibility of human beings and of the possibility of reaching agreements through dialog and passive resistance, without resorting to brute force, he showed that a third path to demanding civil rights was possible. And it was not only possible, but it also led them to victory, although in his specific case said victory certainly did not do justice to the fight he led: not in the sense of compensation for the effort put in, as he was assassinated barely one year after witnessing the long-awaited independence; nor could he be seen as the creator of a stable political environment, since the ethnic and religious differences between the Muslim population of Pakistan and the Hindu population of India created one of modern history’s most controversial and bloodiest borders.
To conclude, in a period when the option of resolving conflicts with dialog is losing ground to the empire of violence (“Venus has died, Mars prevails”) it is almost our duty to remember people like Gandhi who proved that another solution was possible. No matter how many people believe (and how often it is proven) that violence only begets more violence, it is possible to get out of that spiral, and all we need is the will to do so: i.e., our manifest desire to try to resolve crises by breaking a vicious cycle that will otherwise lead to the destruction of everything human that remains in our ontological nature as a society.
Fanon, Frantz (2001). The Wretched of the Earch. London: Penguin Books.
Guha, Ramachandra (2018). Gandhi: the years that changed the World, 1914-1948. London: Penguin Books.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. (ed. 2009). The Age of Extremes. 1914-1991. London: Abacus.
Kant, Immanuel (ed. 2016). La paz perpetua. Madrid: Alianza.
Voltaire (ed. 2015). Tratado sobre la tolerancia. Madrid: Tecnos.