Over the previous decade-and-a-half [Gandhi] had enunciated the ethics and strategies of his form of civil protest, and in 1919 he sought for the first time to put them into practice on an all-India stage. In this, Gandhi drew from two main traditions that he fused together in a strikingly original way. The first was that of passive resistance, which can be dated back to the nationalist struggle by the Hungarians against the Austrian empire. Initially conceived as a practical strategy suited to situations in which the opponent commanded an overwhelming control of armed force, it was applied by the Irish in their fight for Home Rule, and then the Finns in their movement for self-determination within the Russian empire. The struggle in Finland produced some analysis of the method, with distinctions being made between the tactics of noncooperation, civil disobedience (e.g. breaking of specific laws), and nonrecognition (e.g. refusal to recognise the whole edifice of rule imposed by the oppressor).

The other major tradition was the spiritual and moral one, developed in the USA by Christian dissidents and free-thinkers, and in Russia by Leo Tolstoy.

Christian dissidents drew on Christ’s injunctions for his followers to obey their conscience while at the same time abstaining from the use of any physical force against the armed might of the state. The Quakers were notable in their principled stands in this respect. It came to be known as the tenet of “non-resistance”. The idea was developed in a secular form by some Americans of the early-to-mid nineteenth century, who emphasised the moral superiority of the method. Tolstoy took this up, arguing that any endorsement of violence was unchristian. He held that resistance without recourse to violence provided a far more moral and compelling means for opposing a despotic state than attempts at armed revolt, as the latter merely gave an excuse to the rulers to act yet more oppressively. All of this inspired Gandhi in his development of a spiritual and moral theory of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi was not, of course, the only Indian nationalist to develop a theory of civil resistance –Aurobindo Ghose was the other notable figure in this respect. It is notable that both Ghose and Gandhi spent important formative years away from India – Ghose in Britain and Gandhi in South Africa – and this gave an international dimension to their thinking and writing on nationalist strategy. While Ghose became an adherent of the practical form of passive resistance that had been developed in the European nationalist movements mentioned above, Gandhi became convinced of the spiritual superiority of a principled renunciation of any recourse to physical force through his study of the alternative American and European thinkers, along with a selection of Indian scriptures.

In this, he melded Christian non-resistance with what he understood as an Indian tradition of non-killing, or ahimsa, giving it a new political dimension in his notion of satyagraha.

In this, the force of Truth employed with strict nonviolence was seen to possess a compelling spiritual power.

Certain features of this whole process stand out. One involved mass mobilisation. Ghose had sought to blend European-style passive resistance with the strategic use of Indian social institutions that could enforce mass solidarity, such as caste organisations. His projection of India as a “Motherland” that was associated with the Hindu mother-goddess – a sentiment developed initially by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in the late nineteenth century – provided a powerful emotional foundation to the nationalist resistance of many Bengali Hindus. It was not a sentiment, however, that appealed to the Muslim majority in Bengal, or indeed the large Muslim minority in India generally.

This was a pitfall that Gandhi scrupulously avoided in his work amongst Hindus and Muslims in South Africa. His emphasis on “Truth” was something that had emotional appeal for people of both religions. Later, back in India, he projected the idea of nonviolence as a universal value that cut across religious divides. This allowed his Muslim comrades and followers to accommodate nonviolence as a non-sectarian moral principle. Thus, while Gandhi built on Ghose’s theorising on methods of civil resistance, for example using social boycott during his campaign in South Africa to enforce solidarity, he found a way to avoid the trap of religious sectarianism while at the same time appealing to powerful spiritual values.

At the same time, Gandhi sought to reshape the notion of honour in public affairs. The politics of honour and shame permeated public life in India at a popular level.

This involved, typically, maintaining one’s standing in one’s caste and community, and it gave rise to violent vendettas and blood feuds. Gandhi’s own Kathiawad was a hotbed for such hostilities, and Gandhi knew from his early experience how destructive they could be. He never denied the importance of maintaining one’s honour, stating that: “My honour is the only thing worth preserving”. This, however, was to be achieved not through violent retaliation but in a nonviolent refusal to cooperate. In this, it was better to accept death rather than retaliate with force. Gandhi sought through his campaigns to expand the question of honour beyond the realm of the family and local community or caste into a defence of the honour of the people as a whole against the state. He advocated a self-imposed suffering that was free from any feeling of hatred of the opponent.This might involve the taking of vows to abstain from the use of foreign cloth or liquor and the like, as well as other forms of self-imposed discipline.

In his case, this included fasting, though he argued that even a fast could be violent in intent if deployed wrongly.

It was best used only in cases in which the two parties knew each other personally and enjoyed a mutual respect. All of this struck a chord with the popular belief, seen in such practices as dharna (sitting on fast before the door of someone against whom one had a grievance), that self-suffering, in itself, legitimised protest.

By such means, the idea of armed struggle by small groups of dissidents – one that had inspired so many young Indian nationalists during the first decade of the twentieth century – lost much of its appeal over the following decade, being replaced by a commitment to nonviolent methods, whether on moral or pragmatic grounds. The most important of the pragmatic considerations was that nonviolent methods allowed for the mobilisation of a far greater proportion of the population than violent ones. While only younger able-bodied people, and, in the context of the day, mainly young men, were seen to be suited to armed struggle, nonviolent resistance could be undertaken by anyone who had the courage to take a stand, whether male or female, young or old, physically fit or disabled. Gandhi held that his method was particularly suited to women. His belief in this respect was inspired by his friendship with feminists in South Africa and by what he had seen of the suffragette movement in Britain. No longer could Indian freedom fighters ignore the large majority of the population in their strategies for mobilisation. Gandhi argued this all very persuasively in Hind Swaraj and other writings of this period.

Excerpted with permission from The Nonviolent Struggle For Indian Freedom, 1905-19, David Hardiman, Penguin Random House India.