Did Gandhi need violence?

gandhi-reading495x388Last night I watched a good programme on Gandhi, the second in a series. In it the presenter Mishal Husain suggested that a paradox exists at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, in that its impact relied upon a violent reaction from the British.

This struck me as terribly interesting. Would nonviolence have been as effective without the violence of the British? It’s always annoyed me in the past when I’ve been on a demo and the coverage has dwelt upon the violent minority rather than the peaceful majority, not only as it gives a distorted image of the occasion, but because of the underlying implication: if you really want to get your point across, smack a policeman. The media isn’t interested a story which just says “several thousand protesters marched to Trafalgar Square, heard some stirring speeches and were home in time for tea.”

The idea that nonviolence relies on violence to have impact is disquieting. Is protest only effective when it provokes conflict? I’d hate to think so, although sometimes I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that some marches are actually counterproductive – they are a safety valve of public opinion, and a way for people to feel as though you’ve done something about a particular situation without having to go to the effort of actually doing anything.

The only remotely violent marches I’ve been on are those that have either been (more or less deliberately) provoked by the police’s policy of kettling, or by mismanagement on the part of the organisers, where too many people try to march down too narrow a street and panic leads to a bit of elbowing. Generally people are happy on marches. You feel less powerless, although at the same time you are aware that this is largely an illusion. You come back feeling virtuous – like after church.

Violence has been so removed from our daily experience that to resort to it during a protest is unthinkable; most people think of themselves as nonviolent, and, anyway, we know it’s counterproductive: it becomes the story, taking attention away from whatever the protest was trying to publicise. If the paradox holds then conflict must be provoked in some way for protest to be effective. Does this mean we should seek out another form of protest, one that doesn’t rely on conflict? What would it look like?

Hm. I’m always irritable when filled with questions and no answers. I’m off to heckle at postgrad lectures and stuff for the next couple of days so probably won’t be updating much. Back on Wednesday.


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