India’s Lessons for the Peace Movement

by Gene Sharp

Editor’s Preface: The manuscript of this unpublished essay is not dated, but based on the dating of other material in the same folder, is c. 1962. It is another in our series of discoveries from the War Resisters’ International archive, which we have been researching for the last year. An archive reference, acknowledgments, and a note about Sharp are at the end. JG

The Indian government and people have responded to the Chinese use of armed force to adjust the border between their countries with war preparations and reliance upon military means to deal with the foreign threat. The Indian reaction has for many people in the peace movement, and pacifists in particular, been something of a shock. Many of these believe that India has somehow let them down, that she has failed to live up to the moral challenge imposed in different ways both by Gandhi and by the nature of modern war.

Yet India’s reaction should not have been a shock because her reaction could have been predicted. Similarly the shock of pacifists and other peace workers could have been predicted. This shocked attitude seems to me to be a quite wrong reaction to the Indian situation, a reaction having its roots more clearly in the Western peace workers than in the Indian situation itself.

There are doubtless a variety of interpretations of the Indian response, all of which have certain kernels of truth within them. I suggest that mine may not be the only credible interpretation, but I do think that there is a great deal of truth in it which we may lose if this is ignored in favor of some other interpretation on its own.

Pacifists in particular have rarely responded to the challenge of the Indian nonviolent struggle for freedom on the level those struggles demanded. Critically many pacifists in Europe opposed Gandhi and regarded his nonviolent struggles as being rather violent things at heart. However, as the years went on Gandhi’s movement began to be regarded in two other ways. On the one hand a considerable number of individual pacifists and peace workers began to champion the Indian cause and worked very hard for Indian freedom. On the other hand the example of nonviolent mass revolutionary action in India began to be used by pacifists as an argument in support of the practicality of their own doctrine and program. Yet in my opinion the peace and pacifist movements did not appreciate at that time and have not since adequately appreciated some of the peculiar lessons which the Indian movement has for the peace movement.

This is particularly true of those sections of the peace movement, principally pacifist organizations, whose approach has largely been a doctrinal one; they have been more concerned with a message or a doctrine or a gospel of one type or another than they have been with developing practical political courses of action which could be supported by the vast number of people who are not and probably never will be doctrinal pacifists.

These lessons of the Indian movement, and probably of other nonviolent movements in other parts of the world in more recent years, can perhaps be described as lessons concerning the technique approach to nonviolent action. This approach has long been heavily deprecated by a large number of personal pacifists and particularly by religious pacifists.

This deprecation, however, in my opinion, seems to be an extremely undesirable thing, and in particular it fails to consider the question of why more people have not accepted these doctrines of nonviolence which the exponents of these philosophies of nonviolence have expounded. One of the most important reasons why these doctrines have been rejected is that most people have not believed that they were realistic, that is that they could deal with serious political conflicts and threats to freedom. Another way of putting that is this. The people who have rejected the philosophies of nonviolence on the grounds that they were not believed to be practical, have in effect been saying that they cannot accept the doctrine of the philosophy because they believe it does not have an effective technique to deal with serious crises.

It seems to me that the Indian experience, both under Gandhi and in face of the Chinese situation, has a considerable amount to teach us. The lesson is not however the one which many pacifists are expounding, that if one does not accept the full pacifist dogma one will eventually fall prey to human weakness and resort again at a later stage to war in a new situation. The lesson is, I think, a quite different one.

The adaptation by India of nonviolent struggle under Gandhi to deal with British imperialism was not a doctrinal or moralistic act. It was a political act in response to a political program of action proposed to deal with a particular kind of situation and crisis. It also happened, almost parenthetically, that this nonviolent program was morally preferable to violent revolutionary war, and this in some ways increased the strength of the movement by giving it an aura of moral superiority. The nonviolent course of action was only possible in India because people could be brought to see that the nonviolent way of acting was the practical course of action to achieve what they wanted to achieve. It was also probably psychologically and morally more uplifting to the society as a whole and to individual participants, but this was certainly not the primary factor determining its acceptance.

The Indian nationalists, when faced with foreign oppression and exploitation, were willing to consider and adopt the course which Gandhi proposed for achieving political freedom. It is quite true that particularly in his later years Gandhi felt there had been some inadequacy in the movement and that he began to urge the acceptance of nonviolence as a moral principle instead of simply a political act, but this does not alter or invalidate the interpretation which is offered here.

The overwhelming percentage of people throughout the world are not, and never will be, predominantly doctrinally minded in situations in which they do not understand how pressing practical problems can be faced and resolved satisfactorily if they continue to adhere to the particular doctrine in question. They are concerned predominantly in such situations with how to act in a crisis and how to solve the problem. They are not primarily concerned with how not to face problems and how not to act. Yet the pacifists have predominantly concentrated on the latter, on how not to act and how not to solve problems. (Some may remember A.J. Muste’s old pamphlet How to Deal with a Dictator. In it he is almost exclusively concerned with How Not to Deal with a Dictator.)

The Indian nationalists when faced with foreign oppression and exploitation were willing to consider and to adopt a nonviolent course of action which Gandhi proposed to achieve political freedom, but when that struggle was won, Indians did not automatically continue their adherence to nonviolent means. This was a somewhat natural and predictable consequence.

In a multitude of situations throughout the world, people have used and will continue to utilize the technique of nonviolent action for certain limited objectives without being limited to it in all other existing situations as well, and without rejecting violence in all conceivable future situations. There are many people, particularly doctrinal and religious pacifists, who deprecate most strongly this adoption of the nonviolent technique without the nonviolent creed or philosophy or doctrine as well. This deprecation is in my opinion based on a totally misleading understanding of the situation and the possible choices before the people.

In India and in these other situations the choice has not been one of adopting on a limited scale the nonviolent technique as against adopting the whole nonviolent philosophy or creed. For most of these people it was inconceivable that this full doctrinal change could take place within the context and limits of the time in which the problem was going to be faced and solved in one way or another. The choice in this situation and for that political society was instead one between the nonviolent technique and the violent technique – that is war.

It is I think true that every case of nonviolent action in which the technique is widely and successfully practiced by ordinary people is an important contribution to the wider adoption of nonviolent means in place of war and other types of political violence. But one must not expect the same people who have used nonviolent action on one occasion to automatically continue some reliance on that technique in new situations in place of violence.

Very little consideration has yet been given to the whole phenomenon of widespread adoption of the nonviolent technique for political ends and of the role this adoption may have in the removal of political violence from modern society. Much serious work is needed here.

In the United States, particularly in reference to the Deep South situation, certain American pacifists have made important contributions to the nonviolent movement there, and have fully appreciated the importance of the adoption by the Negroes of nonviolent action to deal with the segregation situation, even though this did not in most cases mean that the Negroes adopted nonviolence as a way of life. The choice again here was between nonviolent action and violent action. The lessons of this situation seem to be similar to those of the Indian situation.

Those pacifists and peace workers who have been surprised by the Indian reliance upon military means in facing the Chinese situation ought not to have been surprised. Gandhi repeatedly warned in his later years that India was trying to continue the British military defense policy and that she might even become a major world military power. But we have rarely examined the reasons why India has behaved in this way.

The Indians’ own experience with nonviolent struggle is an important potential contribution to their capacity to see its power and its relevance in any new situation. There is, however, no automatic transference as so many pacifists have assumed.

The answer in a new situation must also be an answer in practical terms, for it is in the lack of confidence in the practicality of nonviolent action that confidence is in turn shifted or continues to lie with violent courses of action – either of military action in war or as strong military preparation as a deterrent. If people had in the past believed that nonviolent means of action were more effective and practical for meeting severe threats than the nonviolent philosophies and creeds with their moral principles condemning violence, then these nonviolent means might not have been so often abandoned or drastically compromised.

Simple moral exhortations for this or against that are in the present situation in India inevitably going to have next to no impact. Faced with what they believe to be justified military invasion and threat of invasion, the Indians now turn to the only means they believe to be effective in this situation – that is to military might.

Gandhi had frequently stated his belief that a free India should be able to defend her freedom nonviolently, and when the Japanese approached India, for example, he thought of ways of resisting that invasion nonviolently, just as he had resisted the British occupation. However, in the days immediately before or following independence right down to the present day, no one has to my knowledge formulated even the framework for a consciously adopted, carefully prepared, systematically trained program of nonviolent defense of India’s newly gained freedom; neither Gandhi, nor his associates, nor Vinoba, nor Jayaprakash Narayan, nor the nationalist politician Ram Manohar Lohia, nor any of the visiting Western pacifists.

This is not surprising, but it was fatal. For it meant that in the absence of a practical alternative course of action, India’s defense effort became totally military. And it meant that despite the superiority of India’s non-alignment policy, she continued all the time to combine an idealistic international policy with a conventional military program. In a crisis this would inevitably mean that to the maximum of her capacity she would fight in the same way as any other country would have fought – just as without Gandhi’s earlier practical program India’s revolution would have a been a bloody one (witness the 1857 Indian rebellion, or the 20th century Indian terrorists).

Seen in this light, that is, the Indian shift in the Chinese crisis to open war and major war preparations on a larger scale than before, India’s so-called betrayal is neither surprising nor a phenomenon which requires great pondering. It is the inevitable consequence of the lack of any preparation of an alternative practical nonviolent defense policy. The problem is therefore not to be met by private pleas to Nehru or other government leaders to be nonviolent in the situation. It is not to be met by exhortations to be true to Gandhi or to save the world. It can only be met with the development of a realistic powerful alternative way of maintaining one’s national freedom in face of external threats – as well as against internal threats to freedom. In this context it is extremely important that Jayaprakash Narayan has now urged that a nonviolent defense policy is the best one for India to follow.

It is not surprising that Western pacifists do not see the Indian situation in the same light as this analysis. Over past decades Western pacifists have made precisely the same mistake as that which has been made by the Indian Gandhians. That is, Western pacifists have not sought to substitute a nonviolent way of meeting potential aggression or of discouraging it by capacity to resist, but have been largely concerned with moralizing about what not to do, and in action they have been concerned often with quite incomplete and sometimes naïve proposals.

The challenge of the Indian crisis today is therefore not simply one of how we can help India to save her notion of nonviolence. The challenge is as much to us as to the Indians. There is a challenge to offer an alternative practical course of action upon which people can rely to deal with those rulers who seek by military means to impose their will upon their neighbors.

Hitherto, the problem of war and the problem of tyranny have usually been viewed as separate problems. This is probably an error. Both war and tyranny can be described as efforts by a ruler to impose his will upon people by the threat of political violence and armed oppression. From a point of view rejecting major violence for political ends, these thus fall in the same category. They ought thus both to be opposed.

Let us look at it another way. Past efforts to preserve or achieve peace have rarely been seriously concerned with the preservation and achievement of freedom as well. Indeed, some peace proposals in the past have often been at the price of acquiescence or inaction against modern tyrants. On the other hand, those people who have been most concerned with freedom have usually axiomatically assumed that this freedom could only be achieved or guaranteed by some type of violence, that is by armed insurrection or by international war or preparations for war.

Thus both of these groups of people, those who have favored peace and those who have favored freedom, have tended to support courses of action, which have in fact acted against one another.

But it may be that our whole analysis has been wrong. It may be that war and tyranny are intimately related. It may also be that the vast majority of mankind is more concerned with freedom than with peace, even in a nuclear age. It may be that people will never be able to give up war until they have confidence in a substitute way of dealing with threats to their liberty.

As Hannah Arendt suggests in her new book On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963) the problems of modern war and modern tyranny must, if either is to be solved, be faced simultaneously. This is a departure from the traditional peace and pacifist movement and its program. It is, however, I believe the lesson we have to learn not only from the Indian crisis but also from a perceptive look at the failure of the Western peace and pacifists movements.

We still must face that disturbing question: When almost everyone who knows anything at all about these problems (and this includes most of the people of the literate world at least) agrees that war must be abolished, and knows that if there is another it may end everything, why in this situation does everybody continue to support preparations for war?

The answer, I suggest, is that they will continue to do so until they have confidence in an alternative way of dealing with those crises for which they have traditionally relied upon war.

The answer to our problem, therefore, is not one of reasserting this dogma or that, but of developing a course of action in which ordinary people as well as political leaders can have confidence, a course of action which can preserve and extend freedom in the face of modern tyranny and can do this without the necessity of military means.

If we are able to induce this kind of confidence it is highly likely that support for war will disappear far more quickly than we imagine today. This kind of alternative program, in my opinion, is capable of producing and achieving infinitely greater support than the pacifist and peace movements have envisaged for themselves in their wildest moments of optimism.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 405: Folder 4. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gene Sharp (b. 1928) is one of the world’s leading experts on the history, theory, and practice of nonviolence. His three-volume work The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973) is considered essential reading for anyone interested in any aspect of nonviolence and nonviolent struggle. He is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was for thirty years a research fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. He is also founder of the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, a non-profit organization concerned with nonviolent action and conflicts.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi