As conflicts and violence around the world escalate it has become more important than ever to understand what is a valid and justified means of resistance against an oppressor. As a global community we have more or less accepted that violence is condemnable, a sentiment that is increasingly emphasised by world powers and international organisations. This concept has its foundations in the intrinsic notion that harming another person, especially innocents, is ethically wrong.
Non-violence and satyagraha
Gandhi incorporated this idea through the Hindu principle of satyagraha, which memorialised the Indian Independence movement as one of non-violence. He successfully leveraged economic and international pressure against the British, and ever since the global community has been in love with the objective of nonviolent movements. Nevertheless Gandhi’s success should be understood not as independence won using nonviolence, but rather as independence won without having to use violence. There were a series of specific conditions in India that enabled the movement to avoid violence, conditions that definitely don’t exist in most oppressed communities.
One of the most important factors was the decline of the British Empire. After the second world war the United Kingdom was in a terrible economic and political state; they were in no position to hold onto such a large territory as India. Even colonies that had no grassroots movements were granted independence. Additionally, the colony had diminishing economic returns, as the UK had performed rapid resource extraction over the past centuries. This essentially meant that the British had little to no motivation to spend important resources holding onto the territory, which ultimately played a huge role in the success of nonviolent resistance.
On top of a basically submissive British government, the Indian independence movement was also at its height during a time where self-determination was at the forefront of international politics and military action was discouraged – the backdrop of recovering from World War II. These cumulative conditions are so specific to the Indian situation and the narrow timeframe they won independence in that using their movement as a success for nonviolence fails to recognize the many, many, external factors that contributed to that success. This is not to take away from the incredible bravery and sacrifice of Indian Independence fighters, but rather to simply highlight that their struggle cannot be used as a universal anecdote of the success of nonviolent resistance.
Beyond the Indian instance
This becomes even clearer when taking a look at the history of decolonization and independence movements around the world. One of the most known examples is that of Algeria, whose independence is commonly known to have been won through violence. Algerians were systematically discriminated against and marginalised in their own land, facing legal and social prejudice by French citizens and businesses. Many attempts at nonviolent action — such as government negotiations, international appeals, and economic boycotts — were only met with disproportionate violence from the French government. Ultimately, it was the actions of the armed wing through war that eventually forced out the French from the region.
Haiti won their independence through a violent slave uprising. There were literally no means of nonviolent resistance for them, as they faced a global community that had no regard for slaves and a menacingly powerful French empire. Bangladesh likewise resorted to violence in 1971 only after protests and international appeals only brought out more repression from the Pakistani government. The list goes on, and in all of these cases non-violence only perpetuated or exacerbated the conditions of those resisting — as oppressed groups seeking independence usually have little leverage over powerful and established governments. India fortunately faced favourable conditions in this regard, but odds are that marginalised groups will be led to violence.
Non-violence in the Indian independence movement will always be an incredible feat that should set a standard for what humans can accomplish peacefully, but it should not be used as an example to compare to every violent resistance movement. As an international community we are often quick to judge movements for the mechanisms they use in their cause, as if they have the same privilege of choice as us. But history has proven repeatedly that they do not, and so we must first understand their plight before we can even begin to judge them for their fight. After all, what would you do for freedom, for life, for your family?