Gandhi and Nonviolent Conflict Resolution (Speech in Stockholm, 1996)

(Speech by Jan Viklund, Gandhi TODAY, in Stockholm, 1996)

by Jan Viklund

Speech held at
The Nonviolence Project
1:st Youth Conference
21 – 23 March 1996 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Gandhi JAYANTI October 2 - UN International Day of Nonviolence

Gandhi JAYANTI October 2 – UN International Day of Nonviolence

THE YEAR OF 1991 was a year of dramatic changes in our global village and in my personal life. As the war in the Persian Gulf escalated, some words kept echoing in my mind:

“Villains don’t fall from the skies, neither do they pop out of the ground like evil spirits. They must be seen as symptoms of society and therefore every citizen is responsible for their existence.”

Yugoslavia broke down and I recalled some other remarks by the same man to his fellow countrymen:

“A nation of 350 millions don’t need the dagger of the assain, nor the sword, the speard or the bullet. It needs a will of its own.”

Later on that same year, as the autumnleaves began to fall, so did the foundations of Russia. The attempted coup was successfully repudiated by nonviolence in action by the citizens of Moscow in a wellorganized human chain around their White House, showing the truth in these words:

“The political power is based on the maxim that the government of the people is possible, only as long as they consciencely or unconsciencely consent to be governed. The power resides in the people and are for some time trusted to those you choose as your representatives.”

I slowly began to realise the significance of that great little man who Winston Churchill called the halfnaked fakire – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also called Mahatma, the great soul. A title of honor he certainly wasn’t very pleased with. As one of his fellowworkers commented: “India has had her share of all to many gurus and prophets. Gandhi is good enough just as a human being.”

I also discovered that although India holds Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, and the Western Peace Movement turned him into a holy relic, much remains to be done – to say the least – on that experiment in nonviolence that he started in this century.

The opposite conception

War and peace, love and hate, bad and good… we have opposite conceptions for most things in the human existence. But what do we really have as an opposite conception for violence? As long as we lack a truly concrete definition in our mind, we are not capable of expressing it in daily action. Ahimsa – the sanskrit definition for nonviolence also stands for universal love, compassion. Despite the many conflicts in India, ahimsa is a far more established definition in the East than nonviolence is in the West. The main difference is that we more or less consider it as a technique, a method, or just the absence or freedom from violence, whereas in India ahimsa stands for a whole philosophy of life, a way of living. The origin of ahimsa goes back to 3.000 B.C., to Buddha and the Buddhism, and to Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Jain means a conquerer, not a conquerer of countries or treasures, but a conquerer of the self. One who has mastered his own desires. There are approximately 10.000 jains in the world today, belonging to a branch of hinduism that has no bloodshed on it’s conscience. But unlike the Tibetan Buddhists they have not suffered any major oppression.

What Gandhi did in the 30s is that he developed the ancient hindu philosophy of ahimsa, into a social and political tool, not only to make India independent but also to uplift the self-confidence of every Indian, in his constructive programme for social, religious, political and economic justice.

Nonviolent resistance

When Gandhi started his commitment back in South Africa, the English press referred to the struggle as a method of “passive resistance”, a term responsible for that deep-rooted misinterpretation of nonviolence as a form of passivity. Actions of nonviolence is on the contrary exactly what is says – actions which are nonviolent. Gandhi coined a new word for this. Satyagraha. It’s made up of two sanskrit words, satya and graha. Satya means “that which is”, which is undestroyable, or thruth, and agraha means holding on to something. So satyagraha litterally means holding on to the truth, and offer nonviolent resistance, even at the cost of your own life.

The one who offers satayagraha is by the way called a satyagrahi.

It’s almost impossible to estimate the number of satyagraha campaigns in India during Gandhis’ lifetime, they where several hundred linked together, and even today satyagraha is performed by local villages in great amount, when the corruption in India gets too serious. A popular form of satyagraha is to do everything “according to the book”, which paralyzes the entire system. Watch out for that reverse and odd form of strike, when you go to India!

The Soul-force

The force of violence is mecanichal, physical, while the force of nonviolence is mental and spiritual. Gandhi also referred to satyagraha as the soul-force. The main thing when you offers nonviolent resistance is to distinguish between the wrong-doer and the wrong-being-done.

That means you oppose the injustice, but without loosing sight of the human being inside the aggressor or the opponent. I’d like to quote Adam Curle on this psychological aspect. He’s in his 80s by now, and has for several years been working as negotiator and peace mediator between guerilla leaders and governments in South America, Africa and Asia. In the foreword of one of his books he actually says that “the term nonviolence is just as insufficient as calling love non-hate. And he goes on to explain that “ to say ‘I non-hate you, darling’, would seem like a fairly lukewarm expression.” Here follows some extract from the chapter about nonviolence on the indiviual level:

We can’t controll our thoughts and emotions completely. Perhaps we don’t express them in words, but they more or less arise spontaneously. It’s easy to verify this. Try to observe or memorize how your thoughts jump from one subject to another and ends up somewhere it couldn’t be predicted, as a link in an hidden chain of associations. These associations dominate a greater part of our mind, and is connected to hidden dreams and memories. They bring us moments of anxiety, depression, happiness, fear and self-satisfaction.

We are not aware from one moment to another of who we are. We are not experiencing our own presence. When we are angry, we are the anger. When we are depressed, we are the depression. We are not aware of ourselves as a special phycho-physical unite. We are not aware of the basic foundations for our existence, the origin we share with others which relates us with everybody. Our instinct of self-preservation is strong and prevent us from recognizing the facts that links us to other human beings. But still, we notice that something is missing, that something in our lifes is unsatisfactory.

Our identity

We try to compensate this by building a false identity, we can call it the “I” or the ego. This image of myself, that I call “I”, and which I think is a constant, is really a constantly changing collections of moods, impulses, thoughts and imaginations. Yesterdays “I” are not todays “I”. Although some characters in all those different “I’s” are more permanent than others and stands for some continuity, our image of the “I” is an illusion. That “I” which appears in the company of friends, when we want to make an impression on people, with people we feel afraid of or dislike, people we love, when we are happy, depressed – all these are different, separate personalities, masks we put on or off. But unlike actors we are not aware that we do it.

We create images of an “I” with bits and pieces of our life, which we hope shall make an attractive and pleasant impression. The cornerstone in this image may very well be a special talent or quality which we ourself consider of great value. But that which satisfy us, not necessarily satisfy others – and then we feel that the “I” lets us down.

When this happens we experience what we can call an crisis of identity. We automatically try to rebuild the broken defence system of the ego. We blame the damages on the circumstances or other people – they are stupid, have bad taste, the show envy, etc. etc. At the same time, we rebuild our “I” so it can handle any further attacks. When the damages are too serious to handle, we become what we call depressed.

These states of minds that occur then, are harmful for all human relationships, especially for those that demands a great inner strength and sensibility, such as mediation, peacekeeping and active nonviolence. There you need a calm mind, which will not be affected by the need and fears from an unsatisfactory ego, and which is capable of creating a serious communication with others, a contact with their common origin. A disturbed mind just tend to influence others with its own anxiety.

Individual nonviolence

Well, how do we react when we are faced with violence – physical violence, mental violence or social violence? The first impulse can be anger and a strong sense of revenge, to meet violence with violence. Another reaction can be to give up, out of fear. That would mean a form of cowardice which turns away from injustice, and which according to Gandhi is worse than revenge, because it let’s the violence continue unstopped.

No, we must first establish that we are not conducted by an depressed ego, and than realise that we and the one who threaten us have a problem in common. We are faced with the danger of being hurt in larger or smaller extent, while the aggressor is faced with the moral danger of hurting another person.

What’s that for some sort of moral danger, you may ask. Well, the danger is that the aggressor may develop a violent behavior that narrows his possibilities of reaction, and may lead to both bad reputation and painful revenge. For the moment he’s naturally not aware of this. Therefore we must not only try to prevent violence, but to do it in a way that makes him understand that his methods will hurt him just as much as it will hurt us. To do this is is the very core, the essence of nonviolence. It’s a kind of technique which uses the violent energy of the aggressor to turn upside down on his self-understanding.

Margot and the landlordess

A more concrete example may illustrate this: (this is a true story)

Margot, a young women from a poor family in the north of England, got an education at a London University to be a socialworker, moved to London and rented a room. Among the students there were a large number of Africans. Margot made friends with them and sometimes she invited them to tea in her room. But one day her landlordess said: “I have noticed that you invite black people. I don’t like them and must ask you not to do that.” Margot replied to her: “I can assure that they won’t do anything harmful.” The landlordess said: “ That doesn’t matter. I just don’t want them in my house, and that’s that.” Margot said: “It’s your house, and you have the right to decide who may or may not visite it. I shall not invite them again.”

Margot now wrestled with her own disappointment and pain, and manage to get rid of the bitterness over the landlordess’ behavior, by the insight that the woman was stuck in the conventional racism that existed within the society. She also realised that this attitude couldn’t be confronted openly. At the same time, Margot decided that if she wasn’t permitted to mingle with her African friends, she wouldn’t invite any friends at all. Everything else would in some way mean that she accepted her landlordess prejudice. After some weeks the landlordess noticed that no one came to visit Margot. She remarked: “You should mingle more with your friends, it’s not right for a girl like you to be all alone.”

Calmly and without any anger Margot explained the situation and the landlordess became most regretful. “Oh, please, invite them”, she said. “ Their color really doesn’t make any difference.”

So Margot invited them again. When the landlordess met them she discovered that she actually liked them, and furthermore let them rent some rooms. If Margot have consented to the landlordess’ restrictions under protest, turned angry and moved out, it would have brought damage to them both. Margot would have lost a room she liked in any other way, and been forced to look for another, the landlordess would have been forced to look for another guest and – most important – the racism would have remain without any modifications.

Margot was a women with high principles, that ment more to her than her own social life. They proved to be a lot stronger than the landlordess prejudice. But often we are involved in disputes where the moral principles seems less important than our own wellbeing, our comfort and our sense of being illtreated.

So far Adam Curle, who recently published a report on his work in Bosnia, where several centers for Peace and Nonviolence has been doing a tremendous job in refugee camps and among youth – far, far outside of the media spotlights. This book is called “Another Way – Positive Response to Contemporary Violence” (Jon Carpenter Publishing 1995, ISBN 1 897766 22 X) I strongly recommend it!

Recognizing nonviolence

I have found that life persists in the midst of destruction, remarked Gandhi when thousands of sikhs were massakred in Amritsar in India 1919. “And therefore I came to the conclusion that there exists a force that is stronger than violence. But history don’t recognize nonviolence. If two brothers quarrel and become friends again, this do not become history. But if they need the help of a lawyer or hurt each other serously it will certainly be recorded in the books. Nonviolence is that everlasting force which upholds the universe. History just becomes a notebook of the interruptions in that continouting flow.”

Three years ago I first heard about an international campaign aimed to bring about some changes in this. That is to finally recognize nonviolent resistance in our political structure, in our societies. It is initated by an female Indian peace reseacher, Dr. Suman Khanna, who made her sholarship on Gandhi in 1978 and has been visiting Sweden regulary since the mid 80s. I want to point out that there are two kinds of peace researching, soft peace reseach and hard peace research. The latter has to do with military expenditure, defence policy and nuclear disarmament, and get a lot of attention, while soft peace research has to to with mediation, civil relationships and nonviolent conflict resolution – and is a bit less glamorous and not so wellpaid. Suman Khanna works in that field.

– According to Gandhi the aim of education is to build character, she says. But what we do, both in the East and the West, is to produce money-making machines, not thinking human beings. If we made thinking human beings the world wouldn’t look like this today.

Waste of human brilliance

In Sweden she discovered that the Nordic Peace movement struggled with many inner conflicts, that it had became a protest movement, rather than that social movement Gandhi advocated. She had many discussions with Scandinavians who couldn’t accept that besides body and intellect, man also has a soul. The world consume 2 million dollars every minute on military expenditure, but its not mainly a question of a waste of money but with the human brilliance.

– All this power could be used for something constructive, says Suman. I have worked in the slum areas of India, in the greater part of Calcutta, and seen children die in their mothers arms, just because they did not have one rupie for an injection! There are many forms of violence and Gandhi saw poverty as the worst form. 35.000 children die every day due to malnutrition and lack of social care.

To handle conflict

When Suman Khanna visit schools and universities she analyzes the war system with the pupils. What do you think are the main causes? she asks them. Often the answer will be conflicts. But what is a conflict?

– Conflict is only a clash of interest and opinons, says Suman. They are not the real problem. There will always be different thoughts and ideas. We are different! It’s a beaty in this. The question is not conflict itself, it is how we handle conflict. And there are only two ways – through violence or through nonviolence. If conflict is handled properly they can lead to growth in institutions, they can lead to growth in personal relationships. But we have the war system of today, because we – that is adults living in democracies – have decided, that when there will be a conflict we may use violence to resolve it.

– We shouldn’t confuse the habitual with the natural, she continues. We teaches as history only is a matter of war, but the fact is that nonviolent resistance has been used by a lot more people besides Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It is not a question whether nonviolence works, but that it hasn’t been recognized in the political structure.

During Sumans workshops the need for a concrete plan to promote nonviolent resistance internationally, developed. and this resulted in a campaign which was launched last year, on the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Aug. 6th 1995, and is planned to continue to the year 2000. The campaign has been initiated in 16 countries by now, including Sweden.

Nonviolent Defense

Nonviolence is a science, Suman remarks. It does not mean just sitting around feeling good about the world. Without analysis, research and proper training you can’t practise it. We have constructed a perfect violent defense system. But we haven’t put so much as one dollar a day aside, on systematic training in nonviolent defense.

And there is such a defense. In USA we have the Civilian-Based Defence Association, where professor Gene Sharp has been doing reseach on the issue for over 30 years. In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a regular encyclopedia on nonviolence, he systematically describes 198 specific actions, including historical examples. Ever since the 60s the ideas of a civilian based, nonviolent form of defense has survived even in Sweden. In 1974 the Swedish government established a delegation for non-military resistance, to investigate this possibilities. But in the end it just turned out to be a lot of bureaucracy, and quite unrecognized by the general public – that is, the very people who is supposed to be trained and educated in nonviolent defense.

The Peace Army

Actually, the first seeds of nonviolent defense was already spread by Gandhi, at the ashrams and communities where thousands of people from all different nationalities and religions lived together. Gandhi talked about a Peace Army, Shanti Sena.

“O, misers, your speech is not backed by sena”, it says in the Vedas. Meaning is has no power, it will not carry. Literally sena means a band of people assembled to do or die. The idea occured in 1914, while Gandhi struggled in South Africa and the world got ready for the first world war. What is a winning army really, Gandhi asked himself. The armed chariot that wins the victory of Rama in Ramayana is not of the ordinary kind:

“Courage is it’s wheels; character it’s banner; self disciplin and good will it’s horses, with mercy and spiritual balance as it’s reins.”

This was the equipment suitable for the nonviolent soldier. In the 20s Shanti Sena became a part of the Indian struggle for independence and fostered fearless and passioned co-workers. Says Gandhi: “Satyagraha brigades can be developed in every village and block in the city. They must remain free from political intrigue, but with good judgement and a will to serve.”

Several of western friends of Gandhi was inspired. Dr Maude Royden in an open letter of London Daily Express in 1932, asked for volontaries for a peace army. It would serve as a buffert between the fighting Japanese and Chinese forces in Shanghai.

Martin Luther King Jr in India

After Gandhi’s death Shanti Sena went into decline. Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual inheritant of Gandhi, revived the idea in the end of the 50s.

March 2nd 1959 eight hundred satyagrahis gathered for a march from Ajmer to Gagwana. One of the participators was Martin Luther King. At the camp after the march King asked Vinoba about the possibilities for satyagraha in the nuclear age.

We no longer can afford conflicts of mental attitudes, Vinoba answered. Courage, vision and faith are necessary elements for a mutual disarmament. I feel that two forces will shape the human life hereafter, those of spirituality and those of science. But a third force should cement these two together.

Shanti Sena expanded and included disaster relief after floods, refugee services, work with Himalayan bandits, and racial riots. The Shanti Sena also became internationally active and collaborated with people in Cyprus, Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Unarmed Peacekeeping Force

In 1971 Vinoba formulated a proposal for an “Unarmed Peacekeeping Force”, presented to the UN. The idea resulted in the “Cyprus Resettlement Project” of 1972-1974.

Shanti Sena got several follow organizations in the west. Peace Brigades International was established in Canada 1981. They train escorts to threatened human rights activists in different parts of the world. Peace Brigades have offices in 14 countries, including one in Sweden.

Civil threats

Most peace researchers today agree on that the major military threats are decreasing, that after the end of the Cold War, what we are witnessing is a large number of civil wars, within countries, not war between countries. They also agree on that the so-called civil threats are increasing. Civil threats, that is enviromental disasters, terrorism, xenophebia and racial violence. But defending human rights and the enviroment requires a completely new kind of defence. Björn Hettne, peace researcher at the University of Gothenburg, in an article recently warned for a potential risk of civil war, even in a country like Sweden. There are a number of trustworthy indicators of a society on the edge of a breakdown, and two of them are: 1, when the largest group of people with a common interest, is fairly small, and 2, when the difference in standards of living increase in the society.

“We lived on the belief that we had a rather low level of conflict in Sweden,” Björn Hettne remarks. “But the main solidarity is declining, in favour of the interest of your own group of people. There is a lack of security, which expresses itself in violence.”

Hettne’s opinion is that you need more psychological research, less soldiers, and a lot more active civilians.

In that perspective, there is an urgent need to develop the same self-confidence in our society, as Gandhi managed to do in India in the 30s. More than anything else he enlightened his people and made them feel faith, trust and courage. But I look around me today and I see mistrust and discourage.

You can’t live on mistrust and discourage. Your need faith, trust and courage as well as you need food and water. Then you don’t need any violent walls to surround you. With faith, trust and courage, nonviolence becomes reality and not just a longing or a wish.

I would like to invite you to proceed Gandhi’s experiment in nonviolence and participate in this very important campaign.

Thank you for listening.

Related links:
Gene Sharp (Wikipedia)
Adam Curle (Wikipedia)
Vinoba Bhave (Wikipedia)