Friday, February 08, 2019

Gandhi and civil disobedience: a clarification

[This is a revised version of something I first posted in 2012.] 

Civil disobedience is a form of protest in which protestors deliberately violate a law. Classically, they violate the law they are protesting, such as segregation or draft laws, but sometimes they violate other laws which they find unobjectionable, such as trespass or traffic laws [In these cases, they are frequently violating such laws to draw attention to the issue at hand (although the lawbreaking may be in some incidental manner linked to the issue, as when nuclear plant protesters trespass onto the grounds of the plant), for such lawbreaking (of unobjectionable laws) is intended to convey, at least in part, frustration with existing means of moral and legal transformation (presumably other means have been tried or ‘exhausted’ and failed) and the seriousness or authenticity of their convictions (hence ‘communication’) (Cf., for example, the Abalone Alliance campaigns against Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, California, 1976-1984.)]. Most activists who perform civil disobedience are scrupulously non-violent, and willingly accept legal penalties. The purpose of civil disobedience can be to publicize an unjust law or a just cause; to appeal to the conscience of the public; to force negotiation with recalcitrant officials; to clog the machine” (in Thoreau’s phrase) with political prisoners; to get into court where one can challenge the constitutionality of a law; to exculpate oneself, or to put an end to one’s personal complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to unjust lawor some combination of these. While civil disobedience in a broad sense is as old as the Hebrew midwivesdefiance of Pharaoh [or the Greek drama Antigone], most of the moral and legal theory surrounding it, as well as most of the instances in the street, have been inspired by Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. — Peter Suber in Christopher B. Gray, ed. Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing Co., 1999): 110-113. 

Historical Exemplum
“On March 12, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi, age sixty years, left his ashram at Sabarmati with seventy-eight followers (in photo above), bound for the shores of Dandi, a small village on the coast of Gujarat in western India. Thus began the historic Dandi march and salt satyāgraha, one of the most dramatic events of modern Indian history. The march covered over two hundred miles and lasted twenty-four days. Its specific object was to protest against the tax the British Raj had placed on salt. Under the regulations of the India Salt Act 1882, the government enforced a monopoly on the collection or manufacture of salt, restricting its handling to officially controlled salt depots and levying a tax of Rs1-4-0 (46 cents) on each maund (82 lbs.). Gandhi defied this monopoly and so broke the law by simply collecting natural salt from the seashore on April 6. The broader object of the march was to spark a campaign of civil disobedience against the Raj in order to attain independence. The salt satyāgraha, therefore, began with Gandhi’s act at Dandi, quickly spread throughout India as others followed his example, and intensified with his arrest on May 5. It then continued for almost a year until direct negotiations between Gandhi and Lord Edward Irwin, the Viceroy, ended the campaign. [….] 

Why did Gandhi choose the salt tax as the issue? Its abolition had been advocated in India generally, and by Gandhi in particular, decades before the salt satyagraha. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s mentor, roundly condemned the salt tax in 1902 before the Imperial Legislative council in Bombay. Gokhale dwelt on the ‘unquestioned hardship’ that the salt tax ‘imposes upon the poorest of the poor of our community.’ [….]

In the first extensive comment that he had ever made on the salt tax, he outlined the reasons for his choice of this particular tax in characteristically inclusive terms: ‘Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life. It is the only condiment of the poor…. There is no article like salt outside water by taxing which the State can reach even the starving millions, the sick, the maimed, and the utterly helpless. The tax constitutes therefore the most inhuman poll tax that ingenuity of man can devise.’ The issue, then, had by now acquired its essential components: the indispensable moral emphasis, including special stress on the suffering of a ‘helpless’ population, and the suggestion that the resistance to the tax must touch virtually everyone, but certainly ‘the starving millions.’ In this article, Gandhi proceeds to wax eloquent on some of his favorite themes: the way in which Government monopoly of salt production and distribution has killed the native Bengal salt industry; the exorbitantly unfair charge of the salt tax compared to the cost of production; the ability of India to manufacture all the salt it needs without unnecessary foreign imports from Liverpool; and the insinuation that if an illegality exists in this instance, it rest with the Government and not with those who must legitimately resist this immoral law. [….] 

Gandhi … recruited his fellow marchers not from the Congress, but from his own ashram, where he could rely on bonds forged from trust and discipline. No producer or director can ever have lavished more concern and concerted attention on his cast of characters. Men, women and children, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, high-castes and harijans [i.e., Dalits], college-educated poets from the Punjab and musicians from Maharashtra—this diverse community grew united in its unqualified adherence to Gandhian nonviolence and personal devotion to its prophet. V.G. Desai, one of the marchers, recalls that Gandhi repeatedly told members of the ashram that ‘he was born in order to destroy the British empire in India. He was a man with a mission and just as he was devoted to this cause, so this inspired devotion in us.’ By the end of February [1930], Gandhi declared his intention to ‘start the movement only through the inmates of the Ashram and those who have submitted to its discipline and assimilated the spirit of its methods’” [that is to say, actual and would-be satyāgrahis]. In this way, Gandhi underscored both his dissatisfaction with the undisciplined politics of the Congress organization, and his own position that among his adherents only one quality really counted, a disciplined belief in the creed of nonviolence.” — Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action (Columbia University Press, 1993)

Perhaps needless to say, “the masses” who were inspired by and themselves courageously followed his example, did not necessarily share this disciplined belief in creedal nonviolence. Nonetheless, for Gandhi, they had an inherent right to protest the salt tax with civil disobedience. 

Gandhi and Civil Disobedience: A Clarification 
In her excellent entry on “civil disobedience” for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Kimberley Brownlee states that “[a] revolutionary like Gandhi was happy to go to jail for his offences, but felt no fidelity toward the particular legal system in which he acted.” I think this is a bit misleading if not wrong on several counts. First, Gandhi did in fact characterize civil disobedience as the “purest type of constitutional agitation” (emphasis added), and while he was in several respects, a philosophical anarchist, he took pains to stress the difference between his conception of civil disobedience as that practiced by a “philanthropist and friend of the State,” from that of the typical anarchist, who would indeed feel “no fidelity to the particular legal system in which he acted.” Gandhi politically assumes a presumptive fidelity to, and thus the legitimacy of, the (democratic) State’s legal order. Indeed, this is in keeping with his belief that the civil resister or disobedient must earn the right to break the State’s laws by demonstration of a prior obedience and attitude of respect for such laws. In other words, Gandhi’s conception of civil disobedience “presupposes a scrupulous and willing observance of all laws,” demanding of the civil resister a “law-abiding spirit combined with self-restraint” (Raghavan Iyer). Furthermore, Gandhi distinguished between aggressive or offensive civil disobedience and defensive civil disobedience, in which case the former, not countenanced by Gandhi, involves breaking the law “merely as a symbol of revolt against the State” (Iyer). In short, as Anthony Patel has well-argued, “we can put to rest the assertion that [Gandhi’s] concept of a non-violent society [which, after all, was on the order of a ‘Euclidean’ utopian model or Rāma Rājya] is incompatible with the coercive state.” 

The foregoing applies, for Gandhi, to the more typical cases of ideal civil disobedience as practiced by the individual (cf. the story Antigone in Greek drama), although Gandhi did envisage a less stringent and more “rights”-oriented civil disobedience practiced by the masses, as in the case of “complete civil disobedience,” justified only when “violence is corroding the entire body politic” (Iyer). For Gandhi, civil disobedience is considered a “branch of satyāgraha,” and thus it is closely connected to his notion of “non-cooperation,” although the latter is distinguished in the first instance from civil disobedience by his contention that while non-cooperation can be safely practiced by the masses, the latter is best thought of as the “last resort” and principled prerogative of a select few individuals, at least in the beginning of a particular satyāgraha campaign (in which it is but a part of this larger ‘whole’).

Gandhi makes other distinctions between individual and mass civil disobedience, as the latter is (spontaneously) “exercised by the masses as an inherent and legitimate right to secure the recognition of claims they regard due them as citizens,” while at the individual level, Gandhi understands the act of civil disobedience to be ideally and simply motivated along the lines of the performance of a duty, and thus not as a “rights claim,” but rather a duty owed under the dictates of conscience (there not being anything that can be comparably described as ‘mass conscience’). In effect, Gandhi invoked different conceptions of and justifications for individual (as something of an ‘heroic type’ or satyāgrahi) and mass civil disobedience, although what is “common to both is the willingness to suffer the penalties of disobedience and the determination to abstain from violence in the campaign of resistance.” In sum, while civil disobedience is for Gandhi a universal human right, “in practice only a few individuals were capable of exemplifying [it] in a spirit of tapas or self-suffering,” that is, in the manner required of the satyāgrahi.  

References and Further Reading:
  • Brownlee, Kimberley. Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Brownlee, Kimberley, “Civil Disobedience,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Dalton, Dennis. “Civil Disobedience: The Salt Satyagraha,” in his book, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993: 91-138.
  • Epstein, Barbara. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Actions in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 ed. (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
  • Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.      
  • Parel, Anthony. “Gandhi and the State,” in Judith M. Brown and Anthony Parel, Press, 2011: 154-172.
  • Perry, Lewis. Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Relevant Bibliographies:


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