Satyagraha: A Call For Independence

In order to understand the Indian Independence movement it is first necessary to understand the driving idea behind it. Satyagraha is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “insistence on truth”, or “holding onto truth”. Satyagraha is a philosophy as well as a practice, taking effect within and yet without the broad category of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi implemented satyagraha to great success early in his life, first in South Africa and then later in India as he fought for the rights of the minority Indian population. This principle involving nonviolence and a commitment to truth profoundly influenced a number of other civil rights leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.

Satyagraha is not a call to subservience, yet at first glance, one is compelled to think so. Nonviolence in the face of oppression may at first seem cowardly, taking the easy way out. Yet Gandhi did not think so. Gandhi believed in the philosophy of satyagraha, he coined the term and lived the practice. Gandhi used satyagraha not only in the Indian Independence Movement, but also earlier in his life, in his struggles for Indian rights in South Africa. Satyagraha not only profoundly influenced what Gandhi himself was able to accomplish, but deeply influenced Nelson Mandela’s struggle in South Africa under Apartheid, as well as Martin Luther Kind Jr.’s nonviolence campaign for civil rights in America.

It’s possible to analyze the Indian Independence Movement through a number of lenses, yet an understanding of satyagraha in necessary to understand why the movement was able to succeed without violence. In his book titled “Gandhi’s Passion”, Stanley Wolpert outlines the importance of satyagraha to the movements in India (100). A revolution that takes place on a solely ideological level is nearly unfathomable; some degree of violence nearly always takes place, and yet Gandhi was able to accomplish much with nonviolence as his sword. Despite satyagraha being primarily a method of social organization, Gandhi believed it transcended the social into the personal. Gandhi envisioned satyagraha as being necessary on every level of life, a standing for truth in all aspects of ones life as being crucial for independence. Gandhi repeatedly called off the movement for independence when he felt his constituency violated the principle of satyagraha. Gandhi explicitly outlined the guidelines of this tactic in many teachings, including nonviolence, truth, and equal respect for all religions. Gandhi’s respect for other religions and his desire for the communication between the differing faiths worked to strengthen his own resolve as well as the resolve of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike (117).

Looking at the movement itself, there were several defining moments that took place within India that solidified the movement. By 1914 when Gandhi left South Africa and returned to India, he was still loyal to the British Empire. However, when the British began imposing oppressive legislation on Indian civil liberties after World War I (89), Gandhi began to organize nonviolence protests using the philosophy of satyagraha. Stanley Wolpert writes extensively about the impact of World War I (90-95) in his book, “Gandhi’s Passion”. Wolpert makes it clear in his writings that Gandhi refined the idea of satyagraha following the postwar carnage (113). The Amristar Massacre, in which British troops gunned down largely peaceful Indian protestors (101), finally convinced Gandhi and India of the need for self-rule. This moment was arguably the single greatest catalyst in the movement, shocking India into self-realization. In the early 1920’s, Gandhi organized large-scale campaigns of “non-cooperation”. This represented his first attempts at creating a solidified India. This action eventually led to his imprisonment, from 1922 to 1924, although his initial prison sentence was four years longer.

Stanley Wolpert writes that despite the circumstance being seemingly negative, Gandhi did a “complete about-face, turning inward again, back to the Truth in his heart, listening only to his inner voice and to the music of his spinning wheel of universal Love, which he passionately turned day after day in the sacrificial solitude of his otherwise empty cell” (114). Gandhi preached to his followers the importance of using what was meant to be evil into good. Here we see that Gandhi practiced what he preached, using what was intended to break his spirit as a way to recharge spiritually, to regain his center. Now we see that what Gandhi told his followers was not simply out of touch doctrine, as many of the Hindu texts are seen by the western world, but living, breathing advice capable of real change in the world.

After his release, he withdrew from politics for a time, travelling India, and working among the peasantry. But in 1930, Gandhi wrote the Declaration of Independence of India, afterwards leading the Salt March in protest against the British monopoly on salt, a substance necessary to live. Gandhi considered the salt tax an egregious example of British oppression, yet another reason for independence. The Salt March is another example of Gandhi’s exemplary leadership; what began as a seemingly small act of disobedience quickly gathered numerous followers and attracted nationwide media attention (144). This was Gandhi’s magnum opus, comparable to Martin Luther King Jr,’s March On Washington. The belief behind the Salt March being that salt is a necessity of life, and the British taxing it so heavily was equivocal to a direct violation of human rights (142). The British not only taxed salt, but also possessed a monopoly on the manufacturing and selling of the mineral. This made it illegal for any Indian citizen to harvest his own salt. Gandhi had initially planned to work the salt flats on the beach, which became encrusted with sea salt after the tide, but the police stalled his efforts by crushing the salt deposits into the mud. Gandhi reached down and picked up a small bit of natural salt out of the mud, and British law was defied.

Thousands followed his lead, not only where he was but across India. Civil disobedience in response to the Salt March broke out all across India, soon involving millions of Indians (149). British authorities arrested more than 60,000 people (150). Gandhi himself was arrested, yet satyagraha continued even without him. Finally, in January of 1931, the government yielded. The prisoners were released (153) and Gandhi met with Lord Irwin, the viceroy of India, who agreed that the Indian National Congress could send a representative to the Round Table Conference to be held in London.

Despite Gandhi receiving a warm welcome in England, the Conference seemed unable to decide on the issue of how an independent India would handle its Muslim minority. Many conflicts between Hindu and Muslim populations, especially among fundamentalists, led to fear that violence may further separate the two groups.        Following the indecision of the British, Gandhi temporarily withdrew from public life yet again. Yet Indian independence was inevitable at this point. The Government of India Act in 1935 surrendered a great deal of power to Indians, but the Indian National Congress demanded more. After World War II broke out, India erupted into violence. Many nationalist leaders, including Gandhi were jailed. After the war, the new British government wanted to get India out of its hands quickly. The British government’s position of power quickly became untenable in the new world, globalization and the increased ability for mass movement made it much more difficult for an empire to sustain a colony.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League, demanded that a separate state be created for India’s Muslims. This was in opposite of Gandhi’s beliefs, as he wished for unity among the regions religions. The divisive nature of religion is seen often throughout history. It’s seen clearly during the American Civil Rights Movement. The differences in Christianity are seen most explicitly in the dichotomy between the SCLC and the KKK. The SCLC used its core philosophy to promote peace and equality, and the KKK twisted Christian doctrine to propagate a war of racism and bigotry. No one understood this potential of religion more so than Gandhi. Gandhi wished to unite world religions at their core of self-betterment and love. Although conflict between Hindu and Islam populations continued, Gandhi optimistically advised those close to him, “we can achieve everything by love. Love can never be impatient nor can it be angry. If you behave with Muslim brethren in this spirit their anger will go” (216). The fact that Gandhi continued to refer to Islamic peoples as his “brethren” despite clear doctrinal differences is indicative of Gandhi’s overall attitude towards religion. He was willing to see beyond differences of belief and love in spite of the violence he found himself surrounded by.

Despite Gandhi’s wishes, the British agreed to divide the country into two halves. In August of 1947 India gained independence, as well as its partition into two countries, India and Pakistan. This measure did not serve to solve India’s problems, as the country immediately descended into violence. Hindus and Muslims began killing each other in large numbers while refugees fled the country.

Despite the widespread violence that the nation descended into, the vision for an independent, unified India was in place. In his short time, Gandhi shared his love of humankind and fought for peace among the regions diverse population. Gandhi’s legacy would go on to influence innumerable social leaders, setting the precedent for nonviolent protest. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about a colleague who spoke to him about Gandhi, saying, “His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works… As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.” Gandhi’s idea of inter-religious peace was certainly a radical one, an idea that even today we find it difficult to adhere to at times. The philosophy of satyagraha was hugely influential in India.

Had Gandhi decided to utilize violence in his rhetoric, or even to simply abstain from preaching nonviolence, unfathomable bloodshed surely would have ensued in India. Satyagraha itself went on to be influential in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, with him saying this about the philosophy, “the whole concept of satyagraha was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform”. Gandhi’s legacy impacting India and future nonviolent movements simply cannot be overstated.


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