Nonviolent Struggle: An Introduction

Siby K. Joseph

John Moolakkattu

Bharat Mahodaya

            The twentieth century is often described as the bloodiest of all centuries in terms of the death and destruction caused by war, and the invention, stockpiling and deployment of weapons of mass destruction. Interspersed between the bloodiest moments of the last century are bright examples of social change and resistance to aggression and injustice brought about through non-violent action. This is particularly true of the last two decades. Tyrants were removed, governments were replaced, invading armies were stopped and domestic repression and denial of human freedom were thwarted. How this hidden power of the ordinary masses was used for the above goals is now chronicled extensively.[1]  At the same time non-violent movements against authoritarianism have also suppressed in countries like El Salvador (1979-81), Burma (1988) and China (1989). However, the fact that non-violence was used as the means of protest has enhanced the legitimacy of these movements worldwide. Comparing outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, it has been found that non-violent resistance methods are likely to be more successful than violent methods and have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.[2]

            Non-violent action “involves an active process of bringing political, economic, social, emotional, or moral pressure to bear in the wielding of power in contentious interactions between collective actors.”[3]  Non-violent action occurs when people refuse to perform acts of omission and commission or a combination of them. Gene Sharp tells us that non-violent action is “a technique of action by which the population can restrict and sever the sources of power of their rulers or other oppressors and mobilize their own power potential into effective power.” This involves strategies of protest and persuasion, non-cooperation and civil disobedience and even non-violent intervention.[4]

            The use of non-violent sanctions is not limited by the type of regime being opposed or by place or by time. We also do not have any evidence to suggest that greater degree of violence that the oppressive system is able to unleash will break the will of the non-violent resisters. However, it is more difficult to sustain a movement which is relying exclusively on violent means given the greater possibility of intensification of repression by the oppressor in such circumstances and the declining level of civilian and external support that the movement will be able to marshal. At a time when we are talking about the role of civil society in nurturing democratic institutions and creating peaceful relations, it must be emphasised that non-violent action is an effective tool that can be put to use in this quest, not only for bringing about desirable social changes, but also for deepening democracy. Although focused on the spread of democracy, a Freedom House study conducted in 2005 shows that “recourse to violent conflict in resisting oppression is significantly less likely to produce sustainable freedom, in contrast to non-violent opposi­tion, which even in the face of state repression, is far more likely to yield a democratic outcome.”[5]

            Many years back Sun Tzu said that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” [6]  Of course this statement was not based on any principled rejection of war as a strategy, but a coolly calculated strategy that recognized the dysfunctional nature of war.  But the quote has lot of implications for non-violent action.

            Non-violent resistance is a civilian-based method used to wage conflict through social, psychological, economic, and political means without the threat or use of violence.  It is an active process of bringing pressure other than force or threat of violence to bear on the wielders of power. Peace is not achieved by avoiding or stifling conflicts over key human issues at stake but by using non-violent struggle as the means to bring such conflicts to a just resolution. Mass non-violent struggle in politics represents an active form of civic engagement and at once a warning to those who ride roughshod over the people.  Although insistence on the purer form of non-violence will often act as a fetter on non-violent action, it is perhaps necessary that at least the leadership in such movements subscribes to notions of non-violence as a principle in order to prevent the movement from lapsing into opportunistic violence.  While planned application of non-violent action may not be possible in all cases, it is desirable that, wherever possible, such planning is undertaken for greater effectiveness.

            At the same time we have instances of failed non-violent struggles in places like China where the regime continues to remain in power. The values in China, which emphasised discipline in parental fashion, the lag in rural China, the communications and media gagging, lack of any organised leadership and the inability to persist with non-violence until the end are often advanced as the reasons for the failure of the Tiananmen Square uprising of students. Pushed to the wall, the youthful protestors took to violence which made it easy for the regime to crush it. Same could be said of the Intifada, which had generated the possibility of a civilian resistance causing even some sections within Israel to change their attitude, the continued use of violence and the general lack of commitment to non-violence undermined its effectiveness. The fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000 and the end of the Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule in Georgia, which was propped up through a rigged election, all suggest that the power of civilian peaceful action as a means to bring about democratic change has now become a widely recognized method. The capacity of the non-violent movement to create an alternative power structure whose base is rooted in the consent of the people is crucial for it to persist with its actions. The Chinese rebellion failed because it had not reached that key threshold. In strategic terms, the students did not attack the regime during its weakest moments, but in a period of economic boom inaugurated by Deng Xiao Ping.

            In our neighborhood in Myanmar, two successive protests, one led by the students in 1988 and the other led by Buddhist monks in 1997 were suppressed, and despite the devastation caused by the cyclone Nargis, no end to the regime is in sight. The Myanmar army is profoundly isolated from the civilian public. Its officers, over the decades of military rule, have become a separate caste that enjoys great privileges, and its soldiers are mainly drawn from the rural areas with very little connection to the urban engaged sections of society.

            The Tibetan issue for national self-determination within the People’s Republic of China also is at a crossroads given the impatience of the youth and their desire for total independence rather than being content with the demand for internal self-determination advocated by the Dalai Lama. The refusal of the Chinese establishment to negotiate in good faith with the representative of the Dalai Lama, who has an excellent grasp of the imperatives of non-violent action is, in many ways, resented by considerable sections of international civil society. In 2009, the Tibetans in exile decided not to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year festival in remembrance of the dead in violent clashes in Tibet in March 2008. China’s response shows that such symbolic actions affect the establishment more than isolated violent acts given the publicity it generates and the moral high ground it allows for the Tibetan resistance to occupy. Very recently, in Maldives, the authoritarian 30 year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ended through a non-violent movement. Maldives can be rightfully added to the dozens of countries from the Philippines to Chile to Ukraine whose autocratic governments have been overthrown by employing peoples’ power.

            The most popular form of non-violent struggle in the world is the strategic one that has been popularised by Gene Sharp. It works like military strategy except that the means employed are non-violent. It nonetheless creates the aura of a war and the employment of strategies of cunning etc., to defeat the opponent. The importance of such an approach is that it is very calculating and therefore appealing to many people who are guided by rational choice theories. It does not concern itself with ethical or moral questions except that the means used are formally non-violent. This is not to suggest that it is unconcerned with moral questions. Instead, the element of strategy is seen as primary.  Since Sharp is dealing with tough regimes, the message is not one of Gandhian conversion, but one of defeating the other through a different form of power based on the withdrawal of consent. Non-violence becomes a form of  politics by other means.  Stephen Zunes tells us that the  Palestinian movement “advanced its nationalist cause far more through the largely unarmed resistance in the occupied territories than from terrorism and other forms of armed resistance” [7] during the period of Intifada even though it  used non-violence purely on strategic considerations rather than based on any strong commitment to it.

            Sharp seems to combine elements of a Machiavelian expediency, Clausewitzian war strategy and a consequentialist  understanding of the Gandhian methods to construct a form of non-violent action that he claims to have universal validity. This is oblivious of the fact that often movements emerge not on the basis of such calculations, and some space has to be accorded to their spontaneous emergence. Hence it is doubtful if the strategic non-violent action in itself can bring about deeper transformations since the very process can generate high degree of mutual hostility. The challenge is to build a more humane politics and to redeem it from its Machiavellian moorings. This is perhaps the most important contribution that non-violent actions of the last century have bequeathed to us. Not every movement in the twentieth century adopted non-violent methods because of a principled attachment to non-violence. Some obviously did not have the arms to resort to violent action or if they had were aware of its implications for the destruction of life and property. Yet they adopted it as a measure of their resolve to fight their oppressors rather than acquiesce in their oppression.

            In recent years, India too has witnessed a number of civilian resistance movements. Kashmir now boasts of a number of groups who believe in peaceful ways of agitation for self-determination. In Manipur, for example, the Meira Paibis (women torchbearers) in 2004 staged a nude protest against the killing of Manorama Thangjam by the Assam Rifles, who was picked up by the Assam Rifles, raped and killed. The women held aloft a banner that read, “Indian Army Rape Us.”, a method of naming and shaming the military directly and the Indian government indirectly, which eventually developed into a civil society protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. This as well as the hunger strike undertaken by Irom Sharmilla Chanu from 2000 onwards is also in the line of non-violent action, although one may not designate them as principled. The hunger strike serves as a bridge that connects what has often been women’s private sphere to the public sphere. It serves as a means of political communication to gain sympathy and support, and when women engage in hunger strike, can produce effects on several fronts.

            Combining the seemingly negative non-violent action with a high degree of positive element helps to neutralize the hostile environment that can emerge if the actions are focused on protests alone. Gandhian non-violent action, which combines Satyagraha with constructive work, addresses this problem in a balanced way.  Johansen and Martin say:  “To say ‘no’ is common and easy, but it will often be regarded as unhelpful, as blocking progress. To present alternatives is more demanding, but often rewarded by being seen as constructive.” [8]

            Zunes cites cases of suppressed ethnic minorities as particularly difficult ones for winning the support of majority sectors against government repression given the widespread popular prejudice against such minorities. For example, this has been cited as a major impediment to non-violent action for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka.[9]  The Tamils ostensibly took to violence after expressing their grievances non-violently for more than three decades. One could always say that non-violent ways of protest by the Tamils failed because it had not reached a critical mass capable of shaking the foundations of the regime during this period. It is certainly a miscalculation to think that employment of force by a minority against an ethnicised state governed by a predominant majority group will ever achieve success. Recent military successes of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil rebels attest to that.

            Violent groups often eschew and discourage women’s participation. Women’s movements’ use of non-violent tactics may “stem from activists’ attachment to the core value of opposition to coercive means”.[10]  In other words, violent and non-violent methods offer differential opportunities of engagement for men and women, which may not be suggestive of any essentialism about men’s and women’s capabilities or inclination to either violence or non-violence.

            Can non-violent action be engineered from the outside? The overwhelming evidence is otherwise. Support from the outside can be a very useful element in strengthening the movement, but it would not be possible to create a non-violent movement wholly from the outside with not much support from the inside.

            In recent years, there have been attempts to link non-violent movements with the agenda of the West, particularly the US.  This refuses to recognize the fact that many non-violent protests taking place in the world are actually directed against the neo-liberal policies of the US and agencies linked to its interest.  This also imposes the need for reflexive practice on the part of the non-violent activists that enables them to evaluate their own work and remain independent of external linkages that can arouse suspicions. Building support from the third parties should be at the cost of realising the original goals of the movement[11].

            Building a culture of resistance to evil through non-violent means is a task that should not be the concern of isolated segments of society, but should become a part of the social ethos inscribed in the dictionary of political parties, youth movements and other protest groups fighting for various issues.

            This volume is a collection of selected papers presented at the international Workshop on Non-violent struggles of the twentieth century and their lessons for the twenty-first, jointly organized by the Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha and the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi from 6th to12th October, 1999. Late Ravindra Varma,  the then Chairman of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the Institute of Gandhian Studies, was instrumental in the   organization of the Workshop. The Workshop brought together outstanding scholars and practitioners from as many as eleven countries to discuss threadbare the struggles and identifying the lessons and means of increasing efficiency of non-violent methods.

            The first article by Ravindra Varma examines the basic principles of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. He recounts the basic beliefs that emerged in Gandhi’s mind during the struggle in South Africa. The highest force at the command of human being is the force of the mind and the spiritual force that touches the heart and conscience. This subtle force is inherent in Truth or Love. Varma says that Satyagraha uses this force, and to be a Satyagrahi, one has to become an effective medium or conduit of this force by removing the obstructions to its flow.

            Jorgen Johansen, in his article entitled “Non-violence as a Constructive Force” cites empirical evidence of growing trust in non-violent means in the struggles for political, social, economical and religious aims by analyzing the cases of Iran, Poland, Bolivia, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, South Africa etc . According to the author, the pragmatic use of non-violence as a substitute for arms, is a major step in positive direction. He also looks at possibilities of spreading non-violent techniques and deep non-violent life style.

            In the next article Vijayam speaks of the increasing misutilisation of Satyagraha for partisan ends and the employment of this technique either to tarnish the image of the ruling group or to obtain favourable decisions. Calling for the purer form of Satygraha that is issue-based and guided by general interest, the author identifies the social movements as the ideal vehicle for carrying out  Satyagraha.

            John Moolakkattu looks at some problematic areas in non-violent action. His paper draws on the writings of Gene Sharp to point out the limitations of Sharp’s approach in containing structural violence. While endorsing the general approach of Sharp, the author proposes to link the technique dimension with its moral and structural dimensions.

            M. P. Mathai traces the Gandhian Legacy in the struggles of the post-Gandhian period in India and looks upon these struggles as peoples’ pursuit of the ideal of Swaraj. He outlines the typology and issues of various struggles. The author admits that the role of non-violence in these struggles is a moot question. He argues that these groups are more convinced than ever before that non-violence has to be accepted as an ideal.

            Usha Thakkar’s article examines the contribution made by women to the non-violent struggle for independence of India. Thakkar says that the participation of women under Gandhi’s leadership is a glorious chapter in the history of India as well as in the history of twentieth century.  Participation of women in the struggle for independence gave a new dimension and legitimacy to Indian politics. It also demonstrated that inner strength is more powerful than brute force and the so-called ‘weak’ can make history, when committed to a cause and readiness to face adverse situations.

            Sunderlal Bahuguna narrates the history of non-violent struggles in the hilly region of Uttarakhand. His article highlights the sacrifice of Dev Suman during the struggle for independence, fight against untouchabilty, liquor and looks at the  famous Chipko Movement from the perspective of an insider.

            In his article entitled ‘Solidarity beyond Words’, P V Rajagopal examines the meaning of north-south solidarity in relation to the oppressed and marginalized people of the world. He defines solidarity as the conviction born out of an internalized understanding of struggles, sufferings and the sorrows of the poor. He emphasizes the need for translating our words into action by reaffirming our commitment to millions of poor people who are struggling for survival.

            Sanat Mehta explains in detail history of Pardi Grass Land Satyagraha in Surat, under the leadership of Ishwarlal Desai. The Satyagraha was organised by Pardi Kisan Panchayat against the injustice of zamindars in the post-independent era. For Ishwarlal Desai, Pardi Satyagraha was not merely a movement for land reform; it was part of a wider movement for proper utilisation of land and self-sufficiency in food.

            Sulak Sivaraksa describes the efforts made in his native Thailand to practise Buddhist principles and how this was subverted by ‘American experts’ who saw these principles to be at odds with the notion of progress. Although leaders like Pridi Banomyong tried to recreate the principles of Vajjian republic of Buddha’s period in ancient India, his one time ally Pribun who came to power in Thailand went ahead with the development of Thailand according to Western models. He sees a ray of hope in the revival of the ancient Vajjian ideals thanks to the concerted efforts of Buddhist clergy and activists.

            Thubten Samphel in his paper provides an overview of the non-violent struggle of the Tibetan people. He feels that the Dalai Lama’s uncompromising attitude towards violence and his unquestioned moral authority among Tibetan people prevents Tibetans from taking up arms.

            A.T. Ariyaratne in his article lays stress on the importance of awareness creation  and conscientisation through educational programmes as practical non-violent responses to new forms of violence and injustice faced by his organization in the process of trying to ensure peace within human personalities and human communities as also between human beings and nature itself in Sri Lanka. He feels that the final option before Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is direct political action if all other efforts fail.

            Nurul Alam says that although Mujibur Rahaman was inspired by Gandhi and tried the constitutional method in the initial stages of the struggle against the Pakistani rulers, he was not averse to the use of violence when the Pakistani army cracked down on the civilian population. He highlights the peace accord signed with the tribals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as an example of peaceful resolution of conflict.

            Grazina Miniotaite traces the origin of the idea of civilian defence during the struggle for Lithuania’s independence and describes how certain elements of civilian defence stemming from that experience later came to be incorporated into the national security system of the country.

            Elena Aleinikova’s paper deals with Belarus’ Popular Front and its activities. Unlike the other erstwhile Soviet States where reformist communists were at the helm of popular fronts, the fight in Belarus was largely directed against the authoritarian rule of Communist Party.  Although the Front succeeded in undermining the pivotal constitutional position of the Communist Party, many activists have either been co-opted or silenced by the regime.

            Chris Walker identifies elements of Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle which are more relevant to Asia. He says that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King realised the creative energy of conflict and used it for beneficial purposes.

            Medha Patkar highlights the various issues involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Project and the extent to which the principle of non-violence is adopted  in its struggles.

            This volume is a modest attempt on the part of Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha and Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, to document the different aspects of non-violent struggles from an international perspective. We are sure that this volume will kindle interest among non-violent activists and academic community and help in identifying new areas of research in this direction.

            We take this opportunity to express our deep sense of gratitude to Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, Chairman, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha and Radhaben Bhatt, Chairperson, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, for their initiative and institutional support in the publication of the book. We are highly indebted to Narayan Desai, Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, for agreeing to write a brief foreword for the volume. We must also acknowledge our debt to Surendra Kumar, Secretary, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, for his support and encouragement. We are grateful to Arunima Maitra for assisting us in the editing of the book. Our special thanks are due to Shrikant Kulkarni of the Institute of Gandhian Studies for his kind help. Last but not least, we are grateful to Sugunan of Lars Computer Centre, Athirampuzha, Kottayam and Manohar Mahajan of the Institute for word processing.


Notes and References

[1].   See for example Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Stephen Zunes et al, eds.
Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999); Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. 3 volumes. (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).


[2].   Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “ Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”, International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 7–44


[3]. Kurt Schock,  “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists”, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 36, No. 4. (October, 2003), p. 705.


[4]. Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Boston: Porter Sargent, 2005), p. 39.


[5] Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman, How Freedom is won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (Washington: Freedom House, 2005), p. 8.


[7].   Stephen Zunes “ Unarmed Insurrections against Authoritarian Governments in the Third World: A New Kind of Revolution”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3. (September, 1994), p. 405.


[8].   Jorgen Johansen and Brian Martin, “Sending the Protest Message”,  Gandhi Marg Vol. 29, No. 4, ( January – March 2008), p. 504.


[9].   Stephen Zunes,  1994.  op. cit, p. 420.


[10].   Anne N. Costain, “Women’s Movements and Nonviolence”, PS: Political Science and Politics 33: 2 (June, 2000), p. 179.


[11].   There have been several misrepresentations of nonviolence and non-violent action. More recent among them is the work of Peter Gelderloos who advances arguments that seem to suggest that non-violence is bad both as a principle and as a policy adducing empirical evidence in support of his conclusions. This has been subjected to a severe criticism by Brian Martin for adopting double standards – one for violent action and another for non-violent. See Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007) and Brian Martin, “How Nonviolence is Misrepresented” (review article) Gandhi Marg, Vol. 30, No.2, (July-September,2008), pp. 235-57.