Was Gandhi really opposed to violence?

by Jahnabi Barooah

To be clear, Gandhi was certainly opposed to violence used in retaliation.* But he wasn’t opposed to all forms of violence according to Faisal Devji:

“Gandhi himself had always been clear about the fact that his movement had nothing to do with avoiding violence, but was meant rather to invite and in so doing to convert it. For it was evident to him that unlike violence, which possessed only a negative meaning, violence enjoyed a positive existence and was implied in all action, including the everyday processes of living that wore down the body and eventually destroyed it. Nonviolence, therefore, was meant not to provide some alternative to violence but instead to appropriate and, as the Mahatma himself often said, to sublimate it.” (Devji 7-8)

The Impossible Indian

The Impossible Indian

This is the provocative thesis of Devji’s book, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence, published by the Harvard University Press in 2012. An Oxford-based historian of modern South Asia, Devji locates the genealogy of Gandhi’s nonviolent political activism not in Tolstoy, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, or amorphous ideas of ahimsa derived from Indic religions, but in the extremely violent 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which is recognized by some as the first war for Indian independence. From there, he examines the implications of a number of Gandhi’s “political experiments” with violence — his correspondence with Hitler and Jews urging nonviolence, his support of the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement, his desire that the British leave India to anarchy and civil war, among others (8). Since I’m relatively a novice both to Gandhian scholarship, and the literature on modern history of South Asia, I’m not going to attempt a book review here. What I’m interested in doing is pointing out why I find Devji’s reading of Gandhi’s relationship with (non)violence disturbing, yet compelling.

If Devji is right, and I think he probably is, then Gandhi’s use of nonviolent political action was not as straightforward as I previously assumed. If nonviolence can demonstrate its moral superiority only by virtue of it being a response to violence, then, ironically, nonviolent action itself is dependent on violence. Moreover, (voluntary) suffering and death become political weapons that are used to combat violence. This becomes possible because Gandhi separates killing from death. While different people aren’t equally equipped to kill, everyone can voluntarily die, or so Gandhi assumed. By investing voluntary suffering and death with moral virtue, Gandhi, thus invited his fellow revolutionaries to suffer, even give up their lives in response to violence. Devji goes even further to argue that Gandhi incited, or at least was tempted to incite, violent action on behalf of his opponents, so that he could demonstrate the superiority of nonviolence through his reaction.

I’ve only read one chapter of the book thus far, and look forward to reading the rest of it. What are your thoughts on Faisal Devji’s argument? I’d love to hear in the comments.

* A scholarly treatment of this matter would nuance that by noting that Gandhi believed that nonviolence was a weapon of the strong, not the weak and that he preferred violence to cowardice. But the above statement, I believe, is sufficient for the purpose of this blog post.