Gandhi and non-violence

by Melanie Smuts*

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), otherwise known as Mahatma (Great soul) or, in India, Bapu (father) created the Satyagraha movement at the heart of India’s struggle against colonial rule by the British. Satyagraha – a compound of Sanskrit words which translate roughly as an ‘insistence on truth’ – was the core philosophy and strategy of resistance based on non-violence (Ahimsa) which ultimately led to an independent India, and shaped India’s identity and struggle movements for decades.

Gandhi, as a person, was a unique and complex figure. At the age of 13, he was married off in an arranged marriage to 14 year old Kasturbai Makhanji (commonly known as Kasturba). Kasturba became a central agent in Gandhi’s political activities and the Satyagraha movement.


As a young man, Gandhi studied law at University College London, England. He did not love or excel at law but became actively involved in the Vegetarian Society and the Theosophical Society. After being called to the bar in London, he returned to India but could not successfully establish a legal practice. Ghandi moved to South Africa after being offered a contract with a Durban firm. This marked the birth of his civil rights campaigns and initial experiments with non-violent resistance.

Illustration by Alex Cherry
The disenfranchisement and apartheid policies in South Africa compelled Ghandi into civic activism. Ghandi helped organise Indian resistance by forming the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894. Though his movement focused on the Indian community, Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence became a central technique for anti-apartheid heroes like Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela.

Ghandi encouraged Indians to defy racial laws relating to voting, movement, or registration, and to accept whatever punishment was consequently meted out. Subsequently, the government was shamed and entered into an agreement with the Indian community: truth prevailed over violence.

Having established himself as a thinker, activist, and organiser on liberation and political activism, Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and joined the Indian National Congress. He developed his Satyagraha campaigns and peaceful non-cooperation as central tools for India’s independence struggle.

Two campaigns show the enduring memory of the insistence on truth and non-violence. The first is the Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) massacre, where over 1000 peaceful protesters were injured or fatally shot by British officials for a sit-in protest against the jailing of two Satyagraha activists. The massacre shocked the global conscience and irretrievably damaged British standing in India.

The second event was the 1930 Salt Satyagraha. This was a peaceful campaign against the British tax and monopoly on salt and salt production. In protest, Gandhi walked 380 kilometres and invited others to peacefully disobey. Millions of Indians campaigned and up to 80,000 Indians were arrested. Though the British policies persisted, peaceful non-cooperation and Satyagraha remained the preferred types of protest. This campaign profoundly impacted Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States.

There is immense conflict and violence in the world around us. War, gun violence, and bloody uprisings dominate headlines. Gender-based violence, from the gang rape and murder of an Indian student, to the gang rape and mutilation of Anene Booyson in South Africa, has exposed the brutal misogyny that makes most parts of the world unsafe for women. The assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban shows that a simple demand for the education of children can be met with ferocity, and serves as yet another example of the human tendency to use violence to achieve one’s aims.

We need non-violence in the world. We need a culture where change and opposition is undertaken with integrity rather than with force. We need the dominant forces in the world to be agents for non-violence, not propagators of war. Gandhi famously implored us to "be the change that we wanted to see in the world." Non-violence and an insistence on positive change is an important place to start.


More on non-violent resistance here.


Special thanks to Alex Cherry for permitting the use of his work.



Melanie Smuts is a 2012 LLM graduate from the Human Rights and Democratisation programme at the University of Pretoria. She is a South African with a strong interest in education reform. She has previously worked in social entrepreneurship consulting, as a curriculum developer and teacher in Uttar Pradesh, India and is currently employed as the Chief Operating Officer of Enke, a youth leadership organisation.


Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.

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