Since the violence at Red Fort on Republic Day, there has been much commentary on how difficult it is to prevent rogue elements from undermining a sincerely non-violent protest. Subsequently, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha called off plans for a march to Parliament on February 1. In doing so, they followed a well-established tradition of non-violent political action — to withdraw action when there is a risk of violence.
What is the basis of this rule of non-violent action? Can it work if state power is in the hands of those who appear indifferent to the appeal of truth — satyagraha? Why, against all odds, is it worthwhile to keep faith in non-violence? In non-violent action, what are the underlying assumptions about power and are those assumptions valid now?
For all the public appreciation that the farmers’ peaceful methods have evoked, cynicism about non-violence is ever-present. Those who nevertheless stay on this path are bolstered by three truths. The obvious one is that remaining non-violent makes it harder for the state machinery to use violence against the protestors.
Two, being determined about non-violence enables disparate individuals and even ideologically divergent groups to build internal cohesion. This was dramatically evident in the historic anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Activists from all over the world underwent intensive training to create human walls across Seattle and bring the WTO’s ministerial meeting to a standstill. Even in that case, a breakaway faction of self-proclaimed anarchists went on a rampage, doing damage to the property of multinational brands. Media coverage inevitably focused on this and under-reported the parallel success of the much larger number of non-violent protesters.
Three, symbolic protest or sitting in dharna is not enough. The civil disobedience must sufficiently, materially disrupt the operations of the opponent. This happened during the anti-Enron protests in Maharashtra in the late 1990s and more recently in struggles for tribal land rights. As Ulka Mahajan, leading activist of the Sarvhara Jan Andolan, has said — nothing frightens those in power more than a group of people fearlessly and peacefully demanding their rights.
All of the above hinges on the understanding famously articulated by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Namely, that it is merely obedience, not power, that flows from the barrel of a gun. The defining moments of non-violent struggle happen when those who control state power effectively want obedience and don’t care for the true power that comes from voluntary participation by the citizenry.
For many, the farmers’ protest evokes anxiety because the government appears disinterested in seeking such widespread voluntary participation. A section of the population, too, appears to support this form of state power.
In the last 70-odd years, the practice of non-violence has developed in two, almost parallel, dimensions. One is purely tactical and aims to defeat those in power by denying them what they crave. The other is more morally imaginative and Gandhian in essence. It assumes that those who wield power can be made to see the error of their ways and come to the path of justice. It is vital to remember that a combination of both these dimensions has worked in diverse situations. There is even available evidence that, across the world, this has worked more often than violent insurgency.
In a time of darkness, there is merit in acknowledging those who have kept the pathways lit simply by relentlessly striving for and experimenting with non-violence. This is even more energising when you realise that these continuing experiments are the work of ordinary people — not saints.
Last but not least, non-violent struggle needs almost infinite reserves of patience. This may seem counter-intuitive. When you consider the farmers freezing at the Singhu border, it does seem that it is the government that has the advantage of out-waiting the protesters. Those who equate power with obedience can more easily appear immovable and in no hurry. Actually, they only win if those fighting for justice give up and withdraw into a shell of defeated helplessness. Non-violent protests become unbeatable by constantly seeking new ways to deepen their resolve and reaffirming faith in possibilities we cannot immediately actualise.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 8, 2021, under the title “The patient vigil”. The writer is an author and founder of the online platform ‘Ahimsa Conversations’