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Nonviolence In History

Much of the long history of nonviolent action has been lost for lack of interest in recording and recounting these struggle. Even existing historical accounts and other surviving information have not been brought together. The result is that a comprehensive history of the practiceand development of the technique does not yet exist. So we will give a few especially interesting or significant cases.

Nonviolent actions clearly began early (see the box for forms of NVA): examples go back at least to ancient Rome. In 494 B.C. for example, the plebeians of Rome, rather than murder the consuls in an attempt to correctgrievances, withdrew from the city to a hill, later called "the Sacred Mount." There they remained for some days, refusingto make their usual contribution to the life of the city. An agreement was then reached pledging significant improvements in their life and status. A similar Roman action occurred in 258 B.C. The army had returned from battle to find proposals for reform blocked in the Senate. Instead of using military action, the army marched to the hertile district of Crustumeria, occupied "the Sacred Mount", and threatened to establish a new plebeian city. The senate gave way.

Forms of Nonviolent Action

The most comprehensive study can be found in part two of Sharp’s books onThe Politics of Nonviolent Action.’ He lists the following methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion.
Formal Statements : Public speeches; letters of opposition or support; declarations by organizations and institutions; signed public statements; declaration of indictment and intention; group or mass petitions.
Communications With a Wider Audience : Slogans, caricatures and symbols; banners, posters and displayed communications; leaflets,pamphlets, and books; newspapers and journals, records, radio and televisions; skywriting and earthwriting.
Group Representations: Deputations, mock awards, group lobbying; picketing; mock elections.
Symbolic Public Acts : Displays of flags and symbolic colors; wearing of symbols; prayer and worship; delivering symbolic objects; protest disborings; destruction of own property; symbolic lights; displays of portraits; paint as protest; new signs and names; symbolic sounds; symbolic reclamations; rude gestures.
Pressures on Individuals : "Haunting" officials; taunting officials, fraternation; vigils.
Drama and Music: Humorous skits and pranks; performances of plays and music; singing.
Processions: Marches; parades; religious processions; pilgrimages; motorcades.
Honouring the Dead : Political mourning; mock funerals; demonstrative funerals; homage at burial places.
Public Assemblies : Assemblies of preotest or support, protest meetings; camouflaged meetings of protest; teach-ins.
Withdrawals and Renunciation: Walk-outs; silence; renouncing honors; turning one’s back.
There are three methods of social noncooperation :
Ostracism of Persons : Social boycott; selective social boycott: lysistratic nonaction; excommunication:interdict.
Noncooperation with Social Events, Customs and Institutions : Suspension of social and sports activities; boycott of social affairs; students strike; social disobedience, withdrawal from social institutions.
Withdrawal from the Social System : Stay-at-home: total personal noncooperation; ‘flight" of workers; sanctuary; collective disappearance; protest emigration (hijrat).

Ashoka 273-232 BC

An outstanding example of nonviolent action in ancient timesis King Ashoka. The keynote of his reform was humanity in internal administration and abandonment of aggressive war. On the death of Bindusara in 273B.C. we come to the reign of Ashoka, the first Indian ruler whose personality throws an immense shadow against the backcloth of Indian history. In the place of the traditional policy of territorial expansion, he substituted conquest by righteousness (dharma). He won many victories in this method. Ashoka believed that by setting an example, others would follows.

Shortly after the war adding Kalinga (Orissa) to his kingdom, Ashoka was converted to Buddhism. During the war 100,000 were killed, even Brahmins and ascetics were murdered, and 125,000 were taken captive. Shaken by the suffering and misery of the war he turned to philanthropic administration, moral reform and preaching Buddhism. He caused edicts to be cut into pillars and rocks to demonstrate compassion. He built hospitals, and put into practice the Buddha’s law of ahimsa, of charity and tenderness to all living things. He sent Buddhist missioneries to other countries. His foreign policy was based on coexistence rather than expansion. He used herbs to treat mentand animals. He promoted peace necessary for ordered economic expansion and an assurance of the justice and morality of the central authority. Ashioka was a Hindu who followed a particular sect. Buddhism was not separate from the mainstream of Hindu thought.

A study of nonviolent action through out history would be a great contribution to peace in the world. We can t race each nonviolent movement and learn important lessons. Let us look at Buddhism. In 606-647 A.D.,Buddhism under Harsha displayed great wealth, but it had ceased to have moral influence on people or rulers. It represented a vested interest of certain elements among the upper classes. The collapse of Buddhism was due to its irrelevance to the emerging economic order of the self supporting village, for the monasteries were too expensive for the small village unit, and with the decline of a strong central power there was no longer support from powerful kings. Buddhism, concentrated into the luxury of its monasteries, was too degenerate anf flabby for the new world of the village. Reading histor like this can be powerful theologizing.

The pre-Gandhian expansion of nonviolent struggle can be grouped into four sources :

  1. Nationalists who found nonviolent action useful in resisting foreign enemy or alien laws. The struggles of the american colonists before 1775 furnish important cases of nonviolent resistance. They refused to pay taxes and debts to British--refused to import, or obey unjust laws by using independent political institutions, and serving social and economic contact with the British and pro-British colonists. In 1776 they repealed the Stamp Act.
    Nationalists examples include the Hungarian resistance against Austria between 1850 and 1867 and the Chinese boycotts of Japanese goods in the early twentieth century.
  2. Trade Unionists and other social radicals used strikes and boycotts against what they regarded as an unjust social system, and for the improvement of the condition of working men.
  3. Individuls gave impetus on the level of ideas and personal examples --e.g.Leo Tolstoy in Russia and Henry David Thoreau in the United States, both of whom wanted to show how a better society might be peacefully created.
  4. Oppenents of depotism -- e.g. Russian Revolution of 1905. Thousands joined a peaceful march to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a mild petition to the Tsar. The guards fired into the crowd; over a hundred persons were killed and over three hundred wounded. A predominantly nonviolent revolution followed spontaneously it lasted about 1 year-- mainly strikes which paralysed St.Petersburg and Moscow and the railway and communications systems. Whole provinces and nationalities broke away from tsarist control and set up independent governments. The Tsar finally had to grant an elected legislature--something he had vowed never to do. Trade unions made rapid growth. The loyalty of troops wavered. The downfall of the tsarist autocracy was, however, postponed until February 1917.

Gandhi and Satyagraha

Gandhi carried the concept of the powerful committed minority into the twentieth century, first gaining recognition of the rights of Indians living in South Africa and then achieving India’s independence from British domination. The revolutionary principle introduced byGandhi resolves the paradox of freedom. He called satyagraha, "soul foce" or "truth force". Satyagraha derives its power from two apparently opposite attributes; fierce autonomy and total compassion. It says, in effect, " I will not coerce you. Neither will I be coerced by you. If you behave unjustly, I will not oppose you by violence(body-force) but by the force of truth--the integrity of my beliefs. My integrity is evidence in my willingness to suffer, to endanger myself, to go to prison, even to die if newcessary. But I will not cooperate with injustice.

The true Satyagrahi is a man of God--the way of life is that of one who holds steadfastly to God, and dedicates his life to Him. Truth can only be attained by loving service of all by nonviolence, I returns good for evil. Gandhi lived this philosophy and required those who joined him at Sabarmati Ashram to take the 11 vows of the Satyagraha Ashram : see Appendix 3 for details of the eleven vows.

Gandhi derived his doctorine of Satyagraha from the Gita ideal of the karma-yogi, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Henry David Thoreau’s writings, and ideas of Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy. Satyagraha appeals to reason conscience of the opponent by inviting suffering on onself. The motive is to convert the opponent and make him one’s willing ally and friend. The moral appeal to heart and conscience is more effective than an appeal based on threat of bodily painor ciolence. Violence does not ever overcome evil; it suppresses it for the time being to rise later with redoubled vigor. Nonviolence puts an end to evil for it converts the evil doer. Nonviolence is unflinching, of the brave, he’ll die with a smile on his face and with no trace of hatredin his heart. It requires a disciplined charter, selflessness, and unswerving devotion to duty.

Nahi-Kala Satyagraha

The record of functioning of the limestone quarry at Nahi-Kala is a record of irregular and unscientific quarrying tha has violated several rules. The U.P.Directorate of Geology and Mines had reported that the concerned limestone quarry has given notice by the Directorate of Mine Safety on the grounds of excess slope at the vertical height of the steps, quarrying on faces steeper that 60 degrees, and rolling down of the mineral extracted. The Kalpavriksh report describes how the quarry operators hardly paid any respect to the official notices. It makes the whole issue more disturbing, since the quarry was being operated for the last four years without proper lease, only on the basis of an interim injunction from the local Court in Dehradun.

This administrative ineffectiveness led to the people of Nahi-Kala taking up direct nonviolent resistance to limestone quarrying under the orgnisation of the local activists of the Chipko movement. The resistance took the form of obstruction to the movement of trucks to and from the quarrying site by the volunteers of the movement. Under the active leadership of Shri Dhoom Singh Negi and encouragement of Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna, volunteers positioned themselves on the truck route and a camp was established on the bank of the stream called Sinsyaru Khala. The villagers and the Chipko activists started their nonviolent resistance to ecologically destructive limestone quarrying on September 16, 1986, bringing a complete halt to the functioning of the quarry and the movement of the mineral. On March 15, 1987, the Chipko movement against limestone quarrying celebrated six months of its struggle. The struggle has not been easy. For six cold monhs, the volunteers have spent nights under the little tent near Sinsyaru Khala making sure that their natural wealth is no longer turned into profits, but is available for their children as a source of sustenance. Local Courts have served the peaceful satyagrahis with notices of arrest. Mr. C. G Gujral and his men have made many attempts to attack the protectors of nature’s resources. On 30th November,1986 four trucks with 50 men armed with sticks attacked the satyagraha camp. But Chamandai ran down from the village, stoodbefore the trucks, and told the men that the quarry would be operated only over her dead body. They dragged her for a few hundred feet, but finally had to run back, overcome by the power of her peaceful protest. While the spirit of Satyagraha stays alive in Chipko, the movement has transcended beyond its original association of hugging the trees in the Garhwal Himalayas. The Chipco Movement in the Doon Valley shows that the movement is not merely a matter of hugging trees, but of embracing the living resources of nature in all their diversity, inluding the living mountains and living waters. On 25th September,1986, the 100th day of struggle, Ghahshyam "Shailani", the folk poet who gave th Chipco Movement it’s name in a song he wrote in 1972, spent a whole day singing new songs against quarrying in the Doon Valley, inspite of his failing health. Amnd wih his songs, the Doon Valley Chipko gets new strength to fight an extended battle for the protection of nature.

A fight for truth has begun
at Sinsyaru Khala
a fight for right has began
in Malkot Thano
Sister, it is a fight to
protect our mountains and forests
They give us life
Hug the life of the living trees and
streams to your hearts
Resist the digging of mountains which kills
oure forests--and our streams
A fight for life has begun at Sinsyaru Khala.

Source : Lokayan, March 5, 1987. "Chipko Movement Against Limestone Quarrying in Doon Valley" by J.Bandopadhyay and Vandana Shiva.

Gandhi used the fast as one of the strongest methods of civil disobedience. He said fasting should be prompted by the highest devotion to duty and love for the opponent :

  • it should aim at purifying oneself ;
  • it should seek to convert the oppnent;
  • you should be thoroughly convinced that your stand is right;
  • it should be used only when all other methods fail, as a last resort, and never for personal gain ;
  • it should be in the nature of prayer--for purity and strength, and power from God.

Ahimsa or Satyagraha was a practicethat Gandhiji developed gradually. The above box shows an effective use of Satyagraha today, against limestone quarrying in Nahi-Kala, an area of the Doon Valley.

See Appendix 4 for profiles of some contemporary Gandhians.

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