Efficacy of Ahimsa (Non Violence) And The Age Old Debate

Posted on October 18, 2011 in Society

By Shashank:

Nonviolence is a philosophy which advocates the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about various political or social changes. The recent nationwide protests by Anna Hazare and company against corruption, and the government’s hysterical response, have once again revealed the efficacy of the non-violent movements. The fact that the sheer determination of a 74 year old frail Gandhian has brought the world’s biggest democracy to legislate a bill, which couldn’t be passed for the past 64 years since our independence, shows the power of the methods adopted.


Firstly, let’s have a look at what really makes non-violence such a powerful form of protest. On the face of it, violence seems to be the superior technique for resolving disputes, as it has obvious and tangible strategies and weapons. Non-violence is not only difficult to visualize, but also fails to provide with any instant feeling of success or gratification.

However, the fundamental problem with a violent protest is that after sometime the campaign loses its perspective, and the conflicting party’s only remaining interests are in victory, vengeance and self-defense. The human sentiment is lost in the heat of the battle, and the morality and ethics take a back seat. This can be seen in the numerous wars waged by US in the Middle East, as well as in the so called ‘Arab Spring’, were immense humanitarian damages have taken place and were gory crime scenes are order of the day.

Various luminary ideologues of non-violence, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, decided to avoid being drawn into this vicious cycle by refusing to take part in a violent confrontation. Non-violence, thus, breaks the cycle of violence and counter-violence and always leaves the possibility of a dialogue open. It is also the most likely to produce a constructive outcome, one based on consensus rather than based on the path of ‘my way’ or ‘no way’.

Many benighted bigots consider non-violence to be ‘cowardly’ and lacking in courage and conviction. However far from being timid, an act of non-violence requires tremendous courage, self-belief, as well as the willingness to endure pain and maybe even death. These acts of self-abnegation require much more audacity than the meaningless carnage of people, where everyone suffers. An act of non-violence greatly reduces the moral legitimacy of those who indulge in violent confrontation. This loss in legitimacy ultimately leads to revolution and the victory of mankind.

The successes of non-violent methods depend upon strong moral principles as well as a sound communication network. People can’t be expected to endorse anything that they are not even aware of. So the activists need to publicize, through various electronic as well as other mediums, their motives as well as what they stand for. As can be seen in the current anti-corruption crusade, the civil society group led by Anna Hazare has successfully managed to mobilize the public opinion in favour of its campaign, by the effective use of media.

There are numerous kinds of non-violent resistances and struggles, each having its own advantages. However the three main categories are: non-violent protest and persuasion (mildest), non-cooperation, and non-violent intervention (strongest). Non-violent persuasion involves taking out peaceful processions, organizing marches or vigils- anything which demonstrates peaceful opposition to a policy or law. Such protests can currently be seen throughout India, with the middle class coming out in millions to mark their anger against the rampant corruption present everywhere, especially in government offices.

The second category of non-violence, and the most common one is non-cooperation. It involves deliberate withdrawal of cooperation with the person, activity or organization against with we are engaged in a conflict with. This method includes strikes, boycotts or the refusal to go to work in order to protest against the working conditions. The non-cooperation moment started by Mahatma Gandhi had played a significant role in the expulsion of British Empire from India.

The strongest form of non-violent protest is intervention. This is done to interrupt the daily proceedings of the opponent and involves blockage of roads, railway tracks or ‘sit in’ in front of the official buildings against whom we are protesting. This also incorporates the much in news ‘fasts unto death’, undertaken by many civil society actives in recent years. All these forms of protests are effective, because they diminish the legitimacy and power of the opponent.

The aim of non-violence should not be coercion, but persuasion and conversion of the opponent. Success through non-violent actions is achieved through three main ways. Firstly, accommodation results when though the opponent doesn’t agree with the activists view point, it decides to accede to some of the demands in order to suppress the revolt. Secondly, non-violent coercion results when despite the opponent’s wish to subdue the protest, it couldn’t do so because of the loss of power or support. Thirdly, conversion results when the opponent has experienced a change of heart, and wants to fulfill the demands of the peaceful protestors.

The idea of non-violence is based upon the acceptance of suffering. By accepting, rather than inflicting pain, the activist puts the opponent in a moral dilemma, which requires a choice rather than a retaliatory action. In the process, both the protestor as well as the opponent is enlightened. The sufferer is morally enriched by not compromising with his fundamental principles, whereas the opponent gets a chance to reconsider his views on the contentious issue, and reflect on its merits.

Nonviolence doesn’t aim to change the opponent’s behavior directly; rather it aims to change the opponent’s values, which in turn will lead to a change in behavior. Thus it goes beyond merely redressing the immediate grievance that has surfaced as conflict, and aims to resolve the anxiety and suspicion that may be the underlying sources of the conflict. Ultimately it works because it seeks to deal with the cause, rather than only the symptoms of the conflict.

In a nutshell, good ends can never come out of bad means, so there should be no threat or coercion in a dispute. Non-violence provides the disempowered with accessible ‘artillery’ with which to alter the power relationship. It should not merely be used as a mean for achieving the end, but a moral imperative or a way of life. It is good not only because it works, but also because it is right.