'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Thursday, October 23, 2014
Mark Engler and Paul Engler - How Did Gandhi Win? Lessons from the Salt March
History remembers Mohandas Gandhi’s Salt March as one of the great episodes of resistance in the past century and as a campaign that struck a decisive blow against British imperialism. In the early morning of March 12, 1930, Gandhi and a trained cadre of seventy-eight followers from his ashram began a march of more than 200 miles to the sea. Three and a half weeks later, on April 5, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, Gandhi waded into the ocean, approached an area on the mud flats where evaporating water left a thick layer of sediment, and scooped up a handful of salt.
Gandhi’s act defied a law of the British Raj mandating that Indians buy salt from the government and prohibiting them from collecting their own. His disobedience set off a mass campaign of non-compliance that swept the country, leading to as many as 100,000 arrests. In a famous quote published in the Manchester Guardian, revered poet Rabindranath Tagore described the campaign’s transformative impact: “Those who live in England, far away from the East, have now got to realize that Europe has completely lost her former prestige in Asia.” For the absentee rulers in London, it was “a great moral defeat.”
And yet, judging by what Gandhi gained at the bargaining table at the conclusion of the campaign, one can form a very different view of the salt satyagraha. Evaluating the 1931 settlement made between Gandhi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, analysts Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler have contended that “the campaign was a failure” and “a British victory,” and that it would be reasonable to think that Gandhi “gave away the store.” These conclusions have a long precedent. When the pact with Irwin was first announced, insiders within the Indian National Congress, Gandhi’s organization, were bitterly disappointed. Future Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru, deeply depressed, wrote that he felt in his heart “a great emptiness as of something precious gone, almost beyond recall.”
That the Salt March might at once be considered a pivotal advance for the cause of Indian independence and a botched campaign that produced little tangible result seems to be a puzzling paradox. But even stranger is the fact that such a result is not unique in the world of social movements. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, had similarly incongruous outcomes: on the one hand, it generated a settlement that fell far short of desegregating the city, a deal which disappointed local activists who wanted more than just minor changes at a few downtown stores; at the same time, Birmingham is regarded as one of the key drives of the civil rights movement, doing perhaps more than any other campaign to push toward the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This seeming contradiction is worthy of examination. Most significantly, it illustrates how momentum-driven mass mobilizations promote change in ways that are confusing when viewed with the assumptions and biases of mainstream politics. From start to finish—in both the way in which he structured the demands of the Salt March and the way in which he brought his campaign to a close—Gandhi confounded the more conventional political operatives of his era. Yet the movements he led profoundly shook the structures of British imperialism....
For momentum-driven mass mobilizations, there are two essential metrics by which to judge progress. Since the long-term goal of the movement is to shift public opinion on an issue, the first measure is whether a given campaign has won more popular support for a movement’s cause. The second measure is whether a campaign builds the capacity of the movement to escalate further. If a drive allows activists to fight another day from a position of greater strength—with more members, superior resources, enhanced legitimacy, and an expanded tactical arsenal—organizers can make a convincing case that they have succeeded, regardless of whether the campaign has made significant progress in closed-door bargaining sessions.
Throughout his career as a negotiator, Gandhi stressed the importance of being willing to compromise on non-essentials. As Joan Bondurant observes in her perceptive study of the principles of satyagraha, one of his political tenets was the “reduction of demands to a minimum consistent with the truth.” The pact with Irwin, Gandhi believed, gave him such a minimum, allowing the movement to end the campaign in a dignified fashion and to prepare for future struggle. For Gandhi, the viceroy’s agreement to allow for exceptions to the salt law, even if they were limited, represented a critical triumph of principle. Moreover, he had forced the British to negotiate as equals—a vital precedent that would be extended into subsequent talks over independence.
In their own fashion, many of Gandhi’s adversaries agreed on the significance of these concessions, seeing the pact as a misstep of lasting consequence for imperial powers. As Ashe writes, the British officialdom in Delhi “ever afterwards … groaned over Irwin’s move as the fatal blunder from which the Raj never recovered.” In a now-infamous speech, Winston Churchill, a leading defender of the British Empire, proclaimed that it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi … striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace … to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” The move, he claimed, had allowed Gandhi—a man he saw as a “fanatic” and a “fakir”—to step out of prison and “[emerge] on the scene a triumphant victor.”
While insiders had conflicted views about the campaign’s outcome, the broad public was far less equivocal. Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the radicals in the Indian National Congress who was skeptical of Gandhi’s pact, had to revise his view when he saw the reaction in the countryside. As Ashe recounts, when Bose traveled with Gandhi from Bombay to Delhi, he “saw ovations such as he had never witnessed before.” Bose recognized the vindication. “The Mahatma had judged correctly,” Ashe continues. “By all the rules of politics he had been checked. But in the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.”
In his influential 1950 biography of Gandhi, still widely read today, Louis Fischer provides a most dramatic appraisal of the Salt March’s legacy: “India was now free,” he writes. “Technically, legally, nothing had changed. India was still a British colony.” And yet, after the salt satyagraha, “it was inevitable that Britain should some day refuse to rule India and that India should some day refuse to be ruled.”
Subsequent historians have sought to provide more nuanced accounts of Gandhi’s contribution to Indian independence, distancing themselves from a first generation of hagiographic biographies that uncritically held up Gandhi as the “father of a nation.” Writing in 2009, Judith Brown cites a variety of social and economic pressures that contributed to Britain’s departure from India, particularly the geopolitical shifts that accompanied the Second World War. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that drives such as the Salt March were critical, playing central roles in building the Indian National Congress’s organization and popular legitimacy. Although mass displays of protest alone did not expel the imperialists, they profoundly altered the political landscape. Civil resistance, Brown writes, “was a crucial part of the environment in which the British had to make decisions about when and how to leave India.”
As Martin Luther King, Jr. would in Birmingham some three decades later, Gandhi accepted a settlement that had limited instrumental value but that allowed the movement to claim a symbolic win and to emerge in a position of strength. Gandhi’s victory in 1931 was not a final one, nor was King’s in 1963. Social movements today continue to fight struggles against racism, discrimination, economic exploitation, and imperial aggression. But, if they choose, they can do so aided by the powerful example of forebears who converted moral victory into lasting change.
Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor at Yes! magazine. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles. They are writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. They can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com