Nonviolent Power in Action: The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Interview with Dennis Dalton

by Richard Ricketts

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Editor’s Preface: Dennis Dalton is Ann Whitney Olin Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a leading authority on Gandhi and civil resistance. Please see the note at the end for bibliographical information, and acknowledgments. JG

Richard Ricketts: Do you see resistance to Peace Studies as a field of study?

Dennis Dalton: That is a hard question. Many universities have institutes and centers that incorporate the word “peace,” such as the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia, but all they typically study is the war side of the equation. Peace is seen as a passive phenomenon, as an absence of war, so it is thought that there is nothing there to study.

I suspect this line of thinking is encouraged, in part, by the large grants that are provided from the Department of Defense. Columbia, for example, has traditionally been funded very liberally by the Defense Department and the money is just not there for peace studies. That is why I was really interested in this program at Arizona State University. The founder of the program Ann Hardt was really committed to peace and peace studies. You need someone like that who can fund these types of programs.

When I went to the instruction/education board meetings [at Columbia], I was told the subject was academically soft, not rigorous enough. What they meant was that they deemed pacifism as a weak, effeminate subject.

Ricketts: What do you consider as some of the most important and influential intellectual and theoretical contributions of Gandhi?

Dalton: I taught Gandhi in a political theory course for 39 years at Barnard. I struggled for almost as many years to get Columbia to include Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., in a core curriculum that goes all the way back to Homer. They included the work of the violent revolutionary theorist Franz Fanon, but they would not include Gandhi, nor even consider it, because he was considered not to be theoretically rigorous or sophisticated enough, that he hadn’t made a profound enough contribution to political thought. There is a very strong bias against him, but I think this is so unjust and unfair to Gandhi.

The argument I make is that Gandhi developed distinct and original understandings in the context of, at the very least, two ideas, freedom and power. Swaraj (freedom) he argued, contrary to most political theorists in the West, must have both an external and internal quality. One is not free unless one is liberated in an external sense, that is, one must be politically and socially “free”, as in the case of India, from the British. Additionally, one is not free unless one is also liberated in an internal sense, free from anger, hatred, all those obsessions and addictions that control us. Those forms of enslavement must be expunged in order for a country to be truly and completely free. So Gandhi made the statement that India may well get its independence but that will be as nothing if they have not emancipated themselves from exclusionary ideas such as untouchability, the commitment and belief of the untouchable as an Other, or the prejudice of Hindu/Muslim enmity. Gandhi saw freedom as liberation in the most complete sense.

Secondly, Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha is entirely original. He coined the word in 1906, although it is unfortunate that in English we translate it as nonviolence, that we don’t have a positive word for it. The closest we come to it is compassion, but that doesn’t convey the combined political and spiritual force and power that Gandhi intended satyagraha to convey. Some historians have argued that he is one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century, especially in terms of his understanding of freedom and power. I think the proof is there that his work is academically sophisticated and rigorous.

Ricketts: How does Gandhi’s work shed light on the relationship between religion, politics, and violence?

Dalton: Gandhi said repeatedly from the first page of his The Story of My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography(New York: Penguin Books, 2007) that religion and politics are inextricably interwoven; we cannot understand one without the other. He was sometimes called a charlatan because of that, some felt he was using religion to promote his political causes, but that can be charged to any of a number of religious leaders throughout history. Gandhi was authentic; he was truly committed to his creed of Hinduism, in a universal, non-exclusive sense. He managed to combine his universality in politics with his universality in religion. The two words swaraj and satyagraha are examples of this. Swaraj is a term found in the ancient Hindu vedas to indicate a true emancipation that is not merely political but is also spiritual. Spiritual freedom means freedom from ignorance, freedom to know the truths of the unity and interdependence of all living beings. Satyagraha is also not merely a political tool. It speaks to a creed of not harming or killing another; holding on to a truth, the truth of the unity of all being. So in both cases, these are terms that have deep roots in religion.

Now some have argued that Gandhi’s use of Hindu terms alienated the Muslims and so made partition more likely. I don’t see it that way. I see him instead trying to find Hindu terms and practices that would appeal to Muslims, for example the fast. The fast can be used in a political sense, such as a hunger strike, but Gandhi also used it in a religious sense, that is one of self-sacrifice where one purged oneself of enmity and anger. So the fast is a perfect example of religion and politics being linked together.

The Muslims, when Gandhi fasted in Calcutta and Delhi, were in a minority. They were being butchered by the majority Hindu population in most cities. Gandhi chose the locations of his fast to protect the Muslims and he charged the Hindu majority with the responsibility to protect the Muslims; they must not allow this minority to perish. That was a powerful message. He was assassinated largely for the unifying ideas and success of these fasts. His assassin stated in his trial that he shot Gandhi because of his overly tolerant stance towards Islam, and that if Gandhi had had his way the British Raj would be replaced by a secular Raj and not a Hindu Raj; it would allow the Muslims political power, and his assassin didn’t want that at all.

Again I stress the intertwining of religion and politics. Think of the assassination itself, here is a political figure. who is also a religious figure, being assassinated for religious reasons, which also apply to political reasons, that is, that the Muslims would get more political power in this new state. And the assassin is a devout Brahmin orthodox Hindu, and Gandhi as well claiming to be an orthodox Hindu. So an orthodox Hindu kills an orthodox Hindu, except that the assassin’s interpretation of Hinduism is exclusive and Gandhi’s is inclusive.

Ricketts: Why is it that students are taught so much about violent leaders and not as much about great nonviolent leaders?

Dalton: I wish that we could have that compelling force behind nonviolence that we have for violence. As we all know violence is deemed newsworthy, violence is the show. People want video games and films and all the rest to see performances of violence. Gandhi knew that so well, and that is why when he went on the 1930 Salt March he chose from his ashram only those who had undergone training in nonviolence for over two years while living with him there. Now why did he say that was so important? Because these people would not strike back when they were beaten. And subsequently when they walked up to challenge the British salt monopoly, when line after line of protesters were brutally beaten but did not strike back. Gandhi knew that if there were a single incident of violence on the part of the protesters then the news media would get a hold of it and give the British more validity and reasons to strike back. He was very sensitive to this dynamic, and it had to be absolute.

Martin Luther King showed another example of this intense dedication to nonviolence when after the bombing of his house he stood on his porch and preached to the crowd to “love thy enemy.” The moral force behind that makes it become newsworthy, even when the appeal of violence is not present. That manipulation of the media is the trick or accomplishment that somehow made nonviolence more newsworthy or more readily captured the public’s imagination.

To make nonviolence newsworthy is a challenge. Gandhi did it with the Dandi Salt March. It was a drama, the best that one could imagine and he pulled off every act perfectly. There was no lapse in terms of the way in which he performed. King pulled it off beautifully with the Montgomery bus boycott. King noted that people would look back and say he pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the Montgomery bus boycott and they would be waiting for him to do it again and again and again and that was not that easy to do. But he managed to capture the imagination of the news at that time. One has to make the media want this kind of story.

Ricketts: Can you speak to the process by which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became Mahatma Gandhi?

Dalton: Gandhi was immensely fortunate to have lived a long life, and as such we can see his life divided into different phases. He was born on October 2, 1869 and died on January 30, 1948 so he lived 79 years. That allowed him to live a long, what I call, inclusivist phase, using the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s term. Before that we wouldn’t have recognized him. As a young man he was enamored of the British and British culture to such an extent that, as he says in his Autobiography, he wants “above all to become a British general and adopt all manners of the British.” He takes violin lessons, elocution lessons, spends money he shouldn’t have spent as he didn’t have much during his time in London,  buys the best clothes from Bond Street. He becomes a lawyer and dresses and acts as a dandy. But that stage of his life changed dramatically after he went to South Africa.

During the 21 years he spent in South Africa, the real transformation of Gandhi the dandy into Gandhi the civil resister (satyagrahi) occurred. It occurred after he had tried everything, newspapers, petitions, court trials, to redress the grievances of the South African Indian community, in thrall to and humiliated by apartheid. So Gandhi comes to the point where he cannot accept apartheid any longer and in September 1906 Gandhi tried a change in tactics. He and a few others took a pledge to go to prison unless the apartheid laws were changed, and, of course, the British administration did not repeal the apartheid laws and he was imprisoned. After his release he staged his first march, in 1913.

He had changed dramatically, and that change came about as a result of the brutality of the apartheid regime. In 1915 Gandhi returned to India only to face the Amritsar Massacre (1919) and the passage of the repressive, anti-terrorism Rowlatt Act (1919-1920). This combination of events seems to have broken Gandhi’s trust in British justice and led to his resolve that Indian non-cooperation had to be escalated into a massive disobedience campaign. He said, “Now I am a rebel committed to the end of the British Raj.” India achieved full independence in 1947, and Gandhi was assassinated just months later, in January 1948.

Ricketts: Are great leaders, those such as Gandhi, necessary for nonviolent movements to be successful?

Dalton: In Bosnia I don’t think they needed a strong leader. In South Africa a great deal was accomplished before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He was a charismatic leader but was in prison for 27 years. The leaders I have known and have studied have happened to be great charismatic leaders. I like the way in which Max Weber talks about charisma as value-neutral. Hitler was certainly among the most charismatic leaders that we have seen. Did Germany need that kind of charismatic leader to wage World War II and perpetrate the Holocaust? Some write persuasively that that could not have been done without Hitler, that he was absolutely crucial.

Martha Nussbaum, whom I previously mentioned, makes the point that within every civilization there are clashes, contrary to Huntington’s clash between civilizations, clashes between what she calls inclusivists and exclusivists, code words for the universalist/humanist versus the separatist/partisan. She also says that there is the same clash within you and within me. That is we have our own forces to resolve. That was Gandhi’s point; unless you resolve those forces you will have no capacity to be the kind of leader that is necessary for nonviolent revolution. Eric Erickson, in his book Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: Norton, 1969), has written how Gandhi struggled to overcome these contradictions. Gandhi would always say that his most difficult satyagrahas were within his own family.

Ricketts: Gandhi has been criticized for his treatment of women. Can you talk a bit about his views on women?

Dalton: There are two schools of thought. One concerns Gandhi’s treatment of his wife. In his Autobiography he says he was a “strict but kind husband,” and makes comments about how his wife taught him satyagraha in the process of a tempestuous, jealous interaction when they were children. They were married at the age of 13. He comes across in the Autobiography as negative in his attitudes toward women. This school also says that Gandhi tended to regard women as best in the home, not in the political scene.

Despite that, a second school of thought says Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns greatly empowered and politicized women. They were given a major role. He managed to bring the women, during these campaigns, out of the home and into political arena, and they went to prison along with the men. Every time he spoke of women he said that they made better satayagrahis, practitioners of civil disobedience, than men because they had infinite patience and an infinite capacity to suffer, although seeing worth in women’s capacity to suffer is going to arouse questions about sexism today.

One of the best texts on this is Gandhi: The Roots of Charisma (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) by Susanne Hoeber Rudolf and Lloyd Rudolf, who write about Gandhi’s ability to mobilize women, especially how his feminine style of politics managed to bring Gandhi into the theater of real power. That feminine style of politics was characterized by self-sacrifice, patience, compassion, qualities that we do often associate, stereotypically or not, with women. He saw the masculine macho model as set forth by the British, but also by Indian political groups, as a real obstacle. He wanted to get across the image of compassion that he had seen in his mother. He will continually refer to the influence of his mother. Should he be called a feminist? On one hand this is problematic; on the other hand the leading Indian feminist, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, says that Gandhi was “a champion of women because he brought them out of the home and into the political arena.”

Ricketts: How is Gandhi relevant to the world today and why should we read him?

Dalton: As Nussbaum says, there is a clash within everyone. We read Gandhi to see how nonviolence has power. We read him to reinforce that element within ourselves that is nonviolent, which speaks to compassion, speaks to non-domination, patience, understanding, empathy. When I teach Gandhi I try to convey this, that if it were not for his example in the practice of nonviolence, for his demonstration of its power, then we would be nowhere. He says, “My teachings will vary. I may contradict myself but my commitment to nonviolence is steady sure, and consistent.”

Our culture today is fraught with violence, and we are bombarded with violent images, language, and symbols. It is through education that we can nurture the forces of nonviolence within and without, and try to instill empathy and understanding in our students, children, and those around us.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dennis Dalton is the author of Indian Idea of Freedom: Political Thought of Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, New York: Academic Press, 1982; and Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. He is also the editor of Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings, edited with introduction by Dennis Dalton, London: Hackett Publishers, 1996. The interview is courtesy of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona;

“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