Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha Movement

With satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi ushered in a new era of civilian resistance on the political scenario of the world. The word was coined to aptly define the mode of non-violent resistance that the Indians at South Africa were building against the oppressive British colonialists. The word has been variedly interpreted, but literally it is a combination of two words, signifying truth and force.
By connotation, it means an unshaken faith in truth, unwavering even in the face of adversity. satyagraha for Gandhi was the only legitimate way to earn one's political rights, as it was based on the ideals of truth and . Satyagraha was the key aspect of all revolutions of the Indian National Movement in the Gandhian era of Indian history for more twenty long years, and its legacy was carried on long after him as Martin Luther King used it in his battle against racism. Satyagraha has not been free of criticism, but its methodologies have gained wide acceptance around the world as a more potent tool of resistance than armed violence.

Origin of Satyagraha :Term and Influences

Gandhi was in need of a term to connote the revolution against the British imperialists that he organized in South Africa. 'Passive resistance', his first perfunctory choice, was not only a foreign term that Gandhi had strong reservations about, but the connotations of the term was also inadequate to highlight the aspect of truth and moral courage that Gandhi associated with non-violent political resistance. Moreover, it put political ends at the forefront, dissociated from deeper ideological values. Gandhi needed an Indian name that could encompass all these aspects of the revolution within it. A competition was thrown open in the local newspaper, 'Indian Opinion', and 'sadagraha' was elected as the best entry. Gandhi took the term, but changed it to 'satyagraha' highlighting the aspect of 'truth' in it. 'Satyagraha' was based on the principles of non violence, which was the founding principle of Gandhi's political ideology, that was based on as much as theological tenets of Jainism, Buddhism, Upanishads and the Bhagwatgita, as on the political theories of Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thureau.

Definition and Method

Satyagraha is fundamentally a way of life, which guides the modes of political activism undertaken by the followers of its principle (or satyagrahis). On a personal front it involves a life committed to truth, chastity, non-attachment and hard-work. On the political front, satyagraha involves utilisation of non-violent measures to curb the opponent, and ideally to convert him rather than to coerce him into submission. A satyagrahi wants to make the evil-doers see the evil that they are indulging into, and realize their injustice. In an ideal way, it involves transforming them into acceptance of the right, and if that fails to come around, then at least to stop them from obstructing the right. Picketing, non cooperation, peaceful marches and meetings, along with a peaceful disobedience of the laws of the land were typical modes of resistance adopted by satyagraha. Reverence to the opposition was one of the unique features of the satyagraha preached by Gandhi. Under no circumstance, should the opposition or the flag of the opposition be insulted in a Satyagraha movement. Resistance on the part of the authorities would be expected, but a true Satyagrahi had to bear all hardships, including physical assault with patience, not ever stooping to anger, and to defend the faith even at the cost of life. Gandhi believed that the Satyagrahis had to be extremely strong in inner strength and moral courage in order to do that, and also realized that could not be achieved unless the Satyagrahis maintained a pure and simple life. He made his own life a veritable example of his teachings, and also turned his ashram at Sabarmati as a haven for individuals who chose to maintain a life based on his teachings. Non-violence of all forms were to be resisted and refrained from. Abuses and swearing were strictly prohibited and all forms of abstinence from sensual pleasures were highly advocated. Hard labor was an integral part of Satyagraha. Every one was meant to work for his or her food and the clothes. Khadi developed as the very mark of nationalism, and simple life became the order of the day. Absolute secularism and eradication of every shade of untouchability were also distinct characteristics of satyagraha. It was only in such a way, Gandhi believed, that the Indians would be strong enough to tread the paths of a truly non-violent revolution.

Satyagraha in the Indian National Movement

Gandhi achieved success in the revolutions he led in South Africa by following the path of Satyagraha. He had an innate belief that it would succeed in India too. In fact, Gandhi had an innate belief that it would be the only effective way to fight the powerful British, because two centuries of colonial rule has financially and morally emasculated India to such a degree, that any other form of resistance was bound to fail. Gandhi's satyagraha methods had few takers in his early years at the Indian National Congress. However, under the able guidance of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi's method gradually gained acceptance. Gandhi shot into political prominence by successfully employing methods of Satyagraha at the indigo planters revolution at Champaran in Bihar. The same method was repeated with similar results at Kheda in Gujarat against the raised taxes from the British authorities. Satyagraha became the foundation of the non-cooperation movement of 1920, following the infamous Rowlatt Act. Non-cooperation movement ended unceremoniously with the Chauri Chaura incident. However, it was during the civil disobedience movement that Gandhi re-inroduced satyagraha in a big way. His peaceful denial of government rules started with the celebrated Dandi march and the making of salt on 12th March 1930, defying the British Salt Law that prohibited the making of salt without government permission. Although ridiculed in the early years by a majority of the Western and particularly British press, the true power of satyagraha was soon realised by the British government, as all government endeavors and enterprises were in doldrums following mass boycott from Indians. Gandhis's satyagraha reached the pinnacle of success, and Indian Nationalist movement reached a feverish pitch, forcing the government to initiate procedures towards the Gandhi-Irwin pact, followed by the second round table conference, where Gandhi gave one of his greatest speeches exposing the evils of the British rule and endorsing the methods of satyagraha.

Satyagraha by that time has gained wide popularity, and there were committed satyagrahis all over the country. Quit India Movement reclaimed the ideals of satyagraha, which finally went a long in securing Indian independence.

The Legacy of Satyagraha

Gandhi had to pay for his ideals with his life, but he never veered from his innate faith in non-violence and his belief in the methods of satyagraha. The significance of satyagraha was soon accepted worldwide. Martin Luther King adopted the methods of satyagraha in his fight against the racial discrimination of the American authorities in 1950.

Satyagraha is more than a political tool of resistance. It is a holistic approach towards life, based on the ideals of truth and moral courage. The similarity of the satyagraha to some of the greatest philosophical and religious tenets of the world have been observed and much written about. However, in the specific context of India, Satyagraha was an immense influence. It went a long way in instilling among the Indians a dignity for hard labor and mutual respect. In the traditional Indian society torn apart by caste and creed based discriminations, satyagraha stated that no work was lowly. It championed secularism and went a long way in eradicating untouchability from the heart of India's typically stratified society. Satyagraha glorified the role of women as an important member of the society. All in all, satyagraha instilled in the Indian mind a dignity and a self respect that is yet unprecedented in its modern history.

Last Updated on 17/04/2013



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