After Pearl Harbour. Gandhi And Non-Violence


When we came out of prison the nationalist position, the question of India versus England, had in no way changed. Prison affects people in various ways; some break down or weaken, others grow harder and more confirmed in their convictions, and it is usually the latter whose influence is felt more by the mass of the people. But though nationally we remained where we were, Pearl Harbour and what followed it suddenly created a new tension and gave a new perspective. The Congress Working Committee met immediately after in this new atmosphere of tension. The Japanese had made no great advance till then, but major and stunning disasters had already taken place. The war ceased to be a distant spectacle and began to approach India and affect her intimately. Among Congressmen the desire to play an effective part in these perilous developments became strong, and the jail-going business seemed pointless in this new situation; but what could we do unless some door was open for honourable co-operation, and the people could be made to feel some positive inspiration for action? A negative fear of threatening danger was not enough.

In spite of past history and all that had happened, we were eager to offer our co-operation in the war and especially for the defence of India, subject necessarily to a national government which would enable us to function in co-operation with other elements in the country, and to make the people feel that it was really a national effort and not one imposed by outsiders who had enslaved us. There was no difference of opinion on this general approach among Congressmen and most others, but a vital difference of principle arose rather unexpectedly. Gandhiji found himself unable to give up his fundamental principle of non-violence even in regard to external war. The very nearness of that war became a challenge to him and a test of faith. If he failed at this critical moment, either non-violence was not the all-embracing and basic principle and course of action he had believed it to be, or else he was wrong in discarding it or compromising with it. He could not give up the faith of a lifetime on which he had based all his activities, and he felt that he must accept the necessary consequences and implications of that non-violence.

A similar difficulty and conflict had arisen for the first time about the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, when war seemed to be impending. I was in Europe then and was not present at the discussions that took place. But the difficulty passed with the passing of the crisis and the postponement of war. When war actually started in September, 1939, no such question arose or was discussed by us. It was only in ^he late summer of 1940 that Gandhiji again made it clear co us that he could not make himself a party to violent warfare and he would like the Congress to adopt the same attitude in regard to it. He was agreeable to giving moral and every other kind of help, short of actual assistance in armed and violent warfare. He wanted Congress to declare its adherence to the principle of non-violence even for a free India. He knew, of course, that there were many elements in the country, and even within the Congress, which did not have that faith in non-violence; he realized that a government of free India was likely to discard non-violence when questions of defence were concerned and to build up military, naval, and air power. But he wanted, if possible, for Congress at least to hold the banner of non-violence aloft and thus to train the minds of the people and make them think increasingly in terms of peaceful action. He had a horror of seeing India militarized. He dreamt of India becoming a symbol and example of non-violence, and by her example weaning the rest of the world from war and the ways of violence. Even if India as a whole had not accepted this idea, Congress should not discard it when the time for trial came.

The Congress had long ago accepted the principle and practice of non-violence in its application to our struggle for freedom and in building up unity in the nation. At no time had it gone beyond that position or applied the principle to defence from external aggression or internal disorder. Indeed it had taken an eager interest in the development of the Indian army and frequently demanded the indianization of its officer personnel. The Congress party in the Central Legislature ha,d often moved or participated in resolutions on this subject. As the leader of that party in the ‘twenties, my father had accepted membership of the Skeen Committee which had been formed for the indianization and reorganization of the Indian army. He resigned subsequently from it, but that was for political reasons and had nothing to do with non-violence. In 1937-38 the Congress party had put forward in the Central Assembly, after consulting all the provincial governments, proposals for the expansion of the Indian army, its mechanization, the development of the absurdly small and almost non-existent naval and air arms, and the progressive replacement of the British army in India by the Indian army. As the cost of British troops in India was about four times that of the Indian troops, the latter could be mechanized and expanded without much additional cost, if they took the place of British troops. Again during the Munich period the importance of developing the air arm was emphasized, but Government said that expert opinion was not agreed about this. In 1940 the Congress Party especially attended the Central Assembly and repeated all this and pointed out how incompetent the Government and its military department were in making arrangements for India’s defence.

At no time, so far as I am aware, was the question of non-violence considered in relation to the army, navy, or air forces, or the police. It was taken for granted that its application was confined to our struggle for freedom. It is true that it had a powerful effect on our thinking in many ways, and it made the Congress strongly favour world disarmament and a peaceful solution of all international, as well as national, disputes.

When the Congress governments were functioning in the provinces, many of them were eager to encourage some form of military training in the universities and colleges. It was the Government of India that disapproved of this and came in the way.

Gandhiji, no doubt, disapproved of these tendencies, but he did not interfere. He did not even like the use of the police as an armed force for the suppression of riots, and he expressed his distress at it. But he put up with it as a lesser evil, and hoped that his teaching would gradually sink into the mind of India. It was his dis-approval of such tendencies within the Congress that led him to sever his formal membership connection with the Congress in the early ‘thirties, though even so he continued as the undoubted leader and adviser of the Congress. It was an anomalous and un-satisfactory position for all of us, but perhaps it made him feel that thus he was not personally responsible for all the varied decisions which Congress took from time to time, which did not wholly conform to his principles and convictions. Always there has been that inner conflict within him and in our national politics, between Gandhi as a national leader and Gandhi as a man with a prophetic message, which was not confined to India but was for humanity and the world. It is never easy to reconcile a strict adherence to truth as one sees it, with the exigencies and expediencies of life, and especially of political life. Normally people do not even worry themselves over this problem. They keep truth apart in some corner of their minds, if they keep it at all anywhere, and accept expediency as the measure of action. In politics that has been the universal rule, not only because, unfortunately, politicians are a peculiar species of opportunists, but because they cannot act purely on the personal plane. They have to make others act, and so they have to consider the limitations of others and their understanding of, and receptivity to, truth. And because of this they have to make compromises with that truth and adapt it to the prevailing circumstances. That adaptation becomes inevitable, and yet there are always risks attending it; the tendency to ignore and abandon truth grows, and expediency becomes the sole criterion of action.

Gandhi, for all his rock-like adherence to certain principles, has shown a great capacity to adapt himself to others and to changing circumstances, to take into consideration the strength and weakness of those others, especially of the mass of the people, and how far they were capable of acting up to the truth as he saw it. But from time to time he pulls himself up, as if he were afraid that he had gone too far in his compromising, and returns to his moorings. In the midst of action, he seems to be in tune with the mass mind, responsive to its capacity and therefore adapting himself to it to some extent; at other times he becomes more theoretical and apparently less adaptable. There is also the same difference observable in his action and his writings. This is confusing to his own people, and more so to others who are ignorant of the background in India.

How far a single individual can influence a people’s thought and ideology, it is difficult to say. Some people in history have exerted a powerful influence, and yet, it may be that they have emphasized and brought out something that already existed in the mind of the people, or have given clear and pointed expression to the vaguely felt ideas of the age. Gandhi’s influence on India’s mind has been profound in the present age; how long and in what form it will endure only the future can show. His influence is not limited to those who agree with him or accept him as a national leader; it extends to those also who disagree with him and criticize him. Very few persons in India accept in its entirety his doctrine of non-violence or his economic theories, yet very many have been influenced by them in some way or other. Usually speaking in terms of religion, he has emphasized the moral approach to political problems as well as those of everyday life. The religious background has affected those chiefly who were inclined that way, but the moral approach has influenced others also. Many have been appreciably raised to higher levels of moral and ethical action, many more have been forced to think at least in those terms, and that thought itself has some effect on action and behaviour. Politics cease to be just expediency and opportunism, as they usually have been everywhere, and there is a continuous moral tussle preceding thought and action. Expediency, or what appears to be immediately possible and desirable, can never be ignored, but it is toned down by other considerations and a longer view of more distant consequences.

Gandhi’s influence in these various directions has pervaded India and left its mark. But it is not because of his non-violence or economic theories that he has become the foremost and most outstanding of India’s leaders. To the vast majority of India’s people he is the symbol of India determined to be free, of militant nationalism, of a refusal to submit to arrogant might, of never agreeing to anything involving national dishonour. Though many people in India may disagree with him on a hundred matters, though they may criticize him or even part company from him on some particular issue, at a time of action and struggle when India’s freedom is at stake they flock to him again and look up to him as their inevitable leader.

When Gandhiji raised in 1940 the question of non-violence in relation to the war and the future of free India, the Congress Working Committee had to face the issue squarely. They made it clear to him that they were unable to go as far as he wanted them to go and could not possibly commit India or the Congress to future applications of this principle in the external domain. This led to a definite and public break with him on this issue. Two months later further discussions led to an agreed formula which was later adopted as part of a resolution by the All-India Congress Committee. That formula did not wholly represent Gandhiji’s attitude; it represented what he agreed, perhaps unwillingly, that Congress should say on this subject. At that time the British Government had already rejected the latest offer made by the Congress for co-operation in the war on the basis of a national government. Some kind of conflict was approaching and, as was inevitable, both Gandhiji and Congress looked towards each other and were impelled by a desire to find a way out of the deadlock between them. The formula did not refer to the war, as just previously our offer of co-operation had been unceremoniously and utterly rejected. It dealt theoretically with the Congress policy in regard to non-violence, and for the first time stated how, in the opinion of the Congress, the free India of the future should apply it in its external relations. That part of the resolution ran thus:

The All-India Congress Committee firmly believes in the policy and practice of non-violence, not only in the struggle for Swaraj, but also, in so far as this may be possible of application, in free India. The Committee is convinced, and recent world events have demonstrated, that complete world disarmament is necessary an ‘ the establishment of a new and juster political and economic order, if the world is not to destroy itself and revert to barbarism. A free India will, therefore, throw all her weight in favour of world dis-armament and should herself be prepared to give a lead in this to the world. Such lead will inevitably depend on external factors and internal conditions, but the state would do its utmost to give effect to this policy of disarmament. Effective disarmament and the establishment of world peace by the ending of national wars depend ultimately on the removal of the causes of wars and national conflicts. These causes must be rooted out by the ending of the domination of one country over another and the exploitation of one people or group by another. To that end India will peacefully labour and it is with this objective in view that the people of India desire to attain the status of a free and independent nation. Such freedom will be the prelude to the close association with other countries within a comity of free nations for the peace and progress of the world.

This declaration, it will be noticed, while strongly affirming the Congress wish for peaceful action and disarmament, also emphasized a number of qualifications and limitations.

The internal crisis within the Congress was resolved in 1940 and then came a year of prison for large numbers of us. In December, 1941, however, the same crisis took shape again when Gandhiji insisted on complete non-violence. Again there was a split and public disagreement, and the president of the Congress, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and others were unable to accept Gandhiji’s viewpoint. It became clear that the Congress as a whole, including some of the faithful followers of Gandhiji, disagreed with him in this matter. The force of circumstances and the rapid succession of dramatic events influenced all of us, including Gandhiji, and he refrained from pressing his viewpoint on the Congress, though he did not identify himself with the Congress view.

At no other time was this issue raised by Gandhiji in the Congress. When later Sir Stafford Cripps came with his proposals, there was no question of non-violence. His proposals were considered purely from the political point of view. In late months, leading up to August, 1942, Gandhiji’s nationalism and intense desire for freedom made him even agree to Congress participation in the war if India could function as a free country. For him this was a remarkable and astonishing change, .involving suffering of the mind and pain of the spirit. In the conflict between that principle of non-violence, which had become his very life-blood and meaning of existence, and India’s freedom, which was a dominating and consuming passion for him, the scales inclined towards the latter. That did not mean, of course, that he weakened in his faith in non-violence. But it did mean that he was prepared to agree to the Congress not applying it in this war. The practical statesman took precedence over the uncompromising prophet.

As I have watched and thought over this frequent struggle in Gandhi’s mind, which has led often to so many seeming contradictions—and which affected me and my activities so intimately—I have remembered a passage in one of Liddell Hart’s books:

The idea of the indirect approach is closely related to all problems of the influence of mind over mind—the most influential factor in human history. Yet it is hard to reconcile with another lesson: that true conclusions can only be reached, or approached, by pursuing the truth without regard to where it may lead or what its effect may be—on different interests.

History bears witness to the vital part that the “prophets” have played in human progress—which is evidence of the ultimate practical value of expressing unreservedly the truth as one sees it. Yet it also becomes clear that the acceptances and spreading of that vision has always depended on another class of men— “leaders” who had to be philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men’s receptivity to it. Their effect has often depended on their own limitations in perceiving the truth as on their practical wisdom in proclaiming it.

The prophets must be stoned; that is their lot, and the test of their self-fulfilment. But a leader who is stoned may merely prove that he has failed in his function through a deficiency of wisdom, or through confusing his function with that of a prophet. Time alone can tell whether the effect of such a sacrifice redeems the apparent failure as a leader that does honour to him as a man. At the least he avoids the more common fault of leaders—that of sacrificing the truth to expediency without ultimate advantage to the cause. For whoever habitually suppresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.

Is there a practical way of combining progress towards the attainment of truth with progress towards its acceptance? A possible solution of the problem is suggested by reflection on strategic principles—which point to the importance of maintaining an object consistently and, also, of pursuing it in a way adapted to circumstances. Opposition to the truth is inevitable, especially if it takes the form of a new idea, but the degree of resistance can be diminished—by giving thought not only to the aim but to the method of approach. Avoid a frontal attack on a long-established position; instead seek to turn it by a flank movement, so that a more penetrable side is exposed to the thrust of truth. But, in any such indirect approach, take care not to diverge from the truth— for nothing is more fatal to its real advancement than to lapse into untruth.

Looking back on the stages by which various fresh ideas gained acceptance, it can be seen that the process was eased when they could be presented, not as something radically new, but as the revival in modern terms of a time-honoured principle or practice that had been forgotten. This, required not deception but care to trace the connection—since ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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