Protest and ethics

Print edition : October 07, 2011

Scholars explain why certain non-violent protests succeed, while some others do not.

THERE has been a lively public discourse in India on whether civil society has a right to civil disobedience in a parliamentary democracy, following Anna Hazare's non-violent, yet coercive, protests in the form of indefinite fasts, rallies and picketing of elected representatives, demanding a strong Lokpal. Many have expressed reservations about Hazare's means of protest, saying that these are untenable in a democracy, which is wedded to the rule of law. They point out that the processes of law and democratic institutions may take time to deliver and even while trying to hasten their pace there is no alternative to patience.

Signs of impatience, such as making impossible demands and setting deadlines for lawmakers, may imperil their ability and duty to consider dispassionately the merits of alternative policy choices. Such coercive protests may result in the state disproportionately favouring one group capable of making vociferous protests over another that does not share similar strength in terms of the number of people supporting its cause. In other words, the nature of non-violent, yet coercive, protests in a democracy is riddled with serious ethical questions that have not been satisfactorily resolved either by political thinkers or by scholars.

The two books under review deal with such ethical and practical aspects of civil resistance, including its relevance in a democracy. The first book, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, explores why certain non-violent actions succeed in mobilising people and in achieving their objectives while others do not. The book includes 19 case studies drawn from across the world, beginning with Gandhi's leadership of the civil resistance movement in India from 1917 to 1947 and ending with the revolt of the monks in Myanmar in 2007.

In the last chapter, A century of civil resistance: Some lessons and questions, Garton Ash explains: There is strength in these numbers [of followers], and there is safety. Such mass gatherings break through the barrier of fear which, as Gandhi saw, is the essential bulwark of all non-democratic regimes.

Ash's further generalisations, based on the case studies by different authors, make interesting reading. He says: In these movements and moments, social actors who are not usually thought to make history' emerge to do so. Ordinary people do extraordinary things. Students, being more impatient, fearless, and perhaps more idealistic than their elders who have families and jobs to worry about, and may remember what it is like to be defeated are often found to play a vanguard role, whether in China, Myanmar, or Czechoslovakia.

Alliances of social groups

One of the keys to effective mass social action is the forging of alliances between social groups that are usually separate from, if not indifferent or even hostile to, each other. As Aleksander Smolar explains in one of the chapters, when students and intellectuals protested in Poland in 1968, workers barely lifted a finger in support; in 1970, when workers protested, students and intellectuals did not react; in 1976, with the formation of the Workers' Defence Committee (KOR) they started coming together, and significantly KOR soon renamed itself the Committee for Social Self-Organisation. Poland's Solidarity movement was a grand alliance of workers, the intelligentsia and peasant farmers, together with important elements in the Catholic Church.

Ash cites China and Myanmar as examples of this phenomenon. In China in 1989, there was a coming together of students and workers, with the support of some entrepreneurs. In Myanmar in 2007, it was students and monks, and then ordinary people' coming out to protect the monks. As the outcomes in China and Myanmar show, the mere coming together of different sections in pursuit of their demands does not guarantee success.

Ash says in his essay that he spent many hours of his life standing in revolutionary crowds, on freezing squares from Warsaw in 1980 to Prague in 1989 to Kiev in 2004, and they remain gloriously mysterious. What is clear to him, however, is the importance of individual leaders on the platform.

Tom Lodge, in Chapter 13, reminds us that an estimated 16,000 people died in the last five years of South Africa's freedom struggle, many of them in ethno-political conflict between the United Democratic Front/African National Congress (ANC) and the Zulu Inkatha movement. In Lhasa, Tibet, in 2008, peaceful protests in defence of Buddhist monks rapidly degenerated into race riots against Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. Non-violence is not the natural default setting of angry young men inflamed with ethnic passions, Ash cautions.

Leaders are needed to keep them exercising unnatural restraint, often using some of those same strong national, ethnic, and religious emotions to that effect. In the early days of the strike in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980, Lech Walesa (who went on to become Poland's President) and his colleagues struck up the national anthem so that an unruly crowd of strikers would stop and stand to attention rather than march out through the gates, inviting police reprisals and possible bloodshed, as had happened in 1970. They got the strikers singing March, march Dabrowski (the refrain of the Polish national anthem) precisely so that they would not march. Ash watched many times how Walesa used this technique. Faced with a crowd that was getting turbulent, he would strike up the national anthem to calm it. Ash calls it`the patriotic catharsis.

Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ricardo Lagos all were tested in such moments, and all were criticised for choosing the path of negotiation and compromise over violent triumphalism. The book's case studies emphasise the importance of individual leaders in determining the course of events, for good or ill.

According to Ash, non-violent transitions depend also on the restraint, and the political skills, of those whom the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger has called the heroes of retreat: Mikhail Gorbachev, archetypically, but also F.W. de Klerk in South Africa and Eduard Shevardnadze twice, as Soviet Foreign Minister in the late 1980s, and as Georgian President in 2003.

Almost every author of individual chapters in this book emphasises the importance of the international context. Some point to specific elements of deliberate external intervention, although this is by no means always present. Ash's view that sometimes it is precisely the lack of intervention that is decisive is perhaps debatable. In Myanmar in 2007, for example, Ash suggests that it was the failure of China, India and the country's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to intervene more effectively that condemned the civil resistance movement to defeat. It was not so much that the governments of China and India supported the Burmese generals; just that they did not stop them, Ash reasons. It is, however, debatable whether India could have played such a role in Myanmar, overlooking its own national interests.

It is sometimes argued that sanctions do not work, but Poland and South Africa are two cases where they did contribute to the eventual, relatively peaceful transition to democracy. South Africa illustrates a final, intriguing Cold War connection. Tom Lodge shows how the fall of the Berlin Wall encouraged F.W. de Klerk to release Nelson Mandela from prison and open negotiations with the ANC. Soviet support for an armed struggle by the ANC was no longer to be feared.

In one of the last texts Gandhi published, he wrote of the unconquerable non-violence of the strong. The editors titled his article Ahimsa never fails ( Harijan, January 11, 1948).

Three weeks later, he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, while horrendous internecine violence between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs raged all around. Asking how we are to understand what almost were his last published words, Ash answers that the time scale for the success of non-violent action can be long.

What, anyway, is the yardstick of success? Ash suggests that a relatively neutral and historically sensitive definition of success might be to achieve the goals that non-violent protagonists set themselves: self-rule for India, ending racial segregation in the United States, ending apartheid in South Africa, ending communist rule in central Europe, independence for Kosovo, and so on.

Ash agrees that this assessment is more complicated than it might appear at first glance, since different non-violent actors had different goals and individual non-violent actors sometimes had multiple ones. Often, the outcomes are ambiguous: what looks like failure in the short term may appear as success in the long term, or vice versa. The editors indicate that they would be happy if the book offers lessons to would-be satyagrahis on how to strengthen democracy through non-violent protests, rather than to dictatorships on how to foil peaceful non-violent protests.

Some observers have found it tempting to compare the recent Anna Hazare-led movement in India to the one led by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. Historians, however, found such comparisons unconvincing because of differences in historical contexts, and some of them have described Hazare's characterisation of his movement as the second freedom struggle as hyperbole. While it may be premature to judge his movement, the relevance of Gandhi's ideas in today's context continues to fascinate scholars.

Gandhi's prescriptions

Contributors to The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the 21st Century, edited by Douglas Allen, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Maine, U.S., agree that Gandhi's thought and action are philosophically significant. The authors, while not romanticising Gandhi and while being cognizant of the changing contemporary contexts, submit that Gandhi's prescriptions are relevant to, and urgently needed for addressing, the problems of the 21st century.

At the outset, a dichotomy is discernible among the Gandhi scholars. On the one hand, several authors contend that Gandhi's influence has been remarkable in India and throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century and continues to the present; on the other hand, other authors submit, often with sadness, that the world since Gandhi's assassination, including India, has increasingly been defined by non-Gandhian really extreme anti-Gandhian values, priorities, and economic, political, cultural, and philosophical orientations, and the Gandhian philosophical influence has declined and is often completely absent. The reader is left to wonder which one of these two reflects reality.

The book brings out the wide range in evaluating the adequacy and relevance of Gandhi's philosophy. While some scholars say the 21st century urgently needs Gandhi's philosophical approach to cope with its deepest crises, others see the need to analyse, reconstruct, reinterpret and reformulate his valuable philosophical construct that is, relate to his philosophy selectively, raising critical questions and rejecting certain important aspects of his thought and action.

As Allen explains in his Introduction, Gandhi does not simply, passively, and absolutely accept and respect the other as the other. His philosophy involves examination, critical reflections, and all kinds of normative evaluations and judgments. The book promises to offer a Gandhian philosophical orientation to major 21st century concerns by trying to empathise with and understand the religious, philosophical, ethical, cultural, economic and political views of diverse others, even those defined by our dominant power structure as irrational, immoral, threatening or evil or categorised as enemies and terrorists.

The book makes Gandhi's activist philosophy, with its integration of theory and practice, particularly insightful and relevant to major developments in the 21st century, such as widespread violence and war, the concentration and centralisation of power, the dehumanisation and alienation of the contemporary individual, dominant structures of oppression, exploitation and injustice, and the increasing recognition that we have become committed to economic, military and environmental policies that are not sustainable and threaten the survival of humankind and the planet.

Two essays in the book are especially relevant to our discussion. In Chapter 4, Satyagraha and the Right to Civil Disobedience, Vinit Haksar answers the argument that there is no place for civil disobedience in a constitutional democracy. According to him, Gandhi thought that civil disobedience, when properly conducted, could work as a safety valve, for in its absence there would be violent threats to the constitutional system.

Those who believe that civil society in India today is too ambitious and makes illegitimate inroads into the sphere of law-making by posing impossible demands will find Gandhi's view persuasive. If civil society is prevented from influencing policy or law-making, then it would provide the justification for civil disobedience. Gandhi believed that people cannot be party to a wrong seemingly perpetrated by a government. He probably recognised this right to resist an unjust regime as an inherent human right to enhance democracy, even though he might have been reluctant to consider it as a distinct and formal constitutional right under a democracy.

In his essay Three 9/11s: Satyagraha or Terrorism, Richard L. Johnson brings out interesting historical coincidences: Gandhi initiated satyagraha on 9/11 of 1906 to remove the anti-Indian laws in South Africa. On 9/11 of 1973, General Augusto Pinochet staged a terrorist attack against Chilean President Salvador Allende, who chose to take his own life rather than live under a military junta. Pinochet's reign of terror continued for 15 years, and he masterminded Operation Condor, a plan of terrorism carried out with other Latin American dictators which left thousands more dead throughout the region by the end of the 1980s. The 9/11 of 2001 is too recent in public memory to warrant repetition. The author concludes that Gandhi was correct: responding to terror with terror leads to escalating violence, terror and insecurity, and we need to explore alternative non-violent approaches.

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