Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Why Nonviolence Matters in Global Discourse Today

In a world where violence is endemic, it is essential to strengthen forces that are committed to nonviolence and the peaceful resolution of conflict

Gandhi-and-British-reformer-and-politician-George-Lanbury
Messenger of peace: Gandhi and British reformer and politician George Lanbury and a group of children at Kingsley Hall in London (Photo: GANDHI SMRITI/DARSHAN SAMITI)

At a time when the world hungers for peace amid conflict and violent antagonism in different parts of the globe, a systematic counter-narrative with a strong foundation of nonviolence and mutual coexistence needs credence at all levels of society. The deepening of global uncertainties, the escalation of human suffering and deprivation, and widespread environmental degradation necessitate the strengthening of forces committed to nonviolence and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Events and incidents unfolding in global hotpots like Afghanistan are a nightmare for a world petrified by the spectre of terrorist activities and emphasise why only a nonviolent framework encompassing countries and societies is the answer to violent discourse.

World-Trade-Centre
Stark reminder: The destruction of the World Trade Centre drove home the point that violence knows no barriers (Photo: UNSPLASH)

The Afghanistan situation evidences a catastrophic failure of human values and the mantra of peaceful coexistence. The violence, intimidation and deprivation inflicted on a large section of the population, especially women, is in stark contrast to the philosophy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Frontier Gandhi.

In contrast to the present bloodletting were the efforts of Frontier Gandhi, a great follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who formed the world’s first nonviolent army, the Khudai Khidmatgars. It was a force of about 100,000 Pathans who took a solemn oath on joining the ‘Servants of God’ movement stating that “since God needs no service… I promise to serve humanity in the name of God”.

Unstable global order

The different forms of direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence being perpetrated in global conflict hotspots are painful aberrations, against the philosophy of peace and nonviolence furthered by apostles like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The widening geographical swathe of instability, the phenomenon of failing and fragile states, the explosion of terrorism in different parts of the world – all contribute to an unstable global order and distrust between nations.

The situation also raises questions about the ability of global institutions to negotiate the critical challenges emerging from conflict hotspots. They are, in fact, a pointer to serious structural problems and issues of migration and refugee crisis in different conflict zones. A London School of Economics-Oxford Commission on State Fragility and Growth and Development report of 2018, “Escaping the Fragility Trap”, makes a grim forecast, noting, “the latest estimates suggest that by 2030, half of the world’s poor will live in countries that are fragile… (state fragility) will impact the world, driving mass migration, providing safe havens for piracy and trafficking, and enabling terrorist training camps to thrive.”

As the world tries to search for narratives of peace and nonviolence to bring succour to victims of violence, it would be pertinent to revisit the Gandhian praxis in current geopolitical narratives. Gandhi had said that the world would live in peace only when individuals made up their minds to do so. For Gandhi, it was the responsibility of all and at all levels to contribute towards a nonviolent society.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was holistic in its approach as it encompassed human dignity, a deep reverence for life, ethics, with great emphasis on the means of doing anything and its end result, and an economic structure that was not exploitative. The pillars of Gandhian nonviolence – respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation and compassion – are important elements for a violence-free world and a counter to the narratives of hatred, intolerance, stereotype and xenophobia.

To understand the Gandhian praxis of nonviolent alternatives further, it would be pertinent to acknowledge the active component of his principles of nonviolence. He said, “I do justify entire non-violence and consider it possible in relations between man and man and nations and nations, but it is not a resignation from all real fighting against wickedness. On the contrary, the nonviolence of my conception is a more active and more real fight against wickedness than retaliation, whose very nature is to increase wickedness.”

The different forms of direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence being perpetrated in global conflict hotspots are painful aberrations, against the philosophy of peace and nonviolence furthered by apostles like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Eschewing war

For Gandhi, war and conflicts were dehumanising and a scar on humankind. He said, “War, with all its glorification of brute force, is essentially a degrading thing. It demoralizes those who are trained for it. It brutalizes men of naturally gentle character. It outrages every beautiful canon of morality. Its path of glory is foul with passion and lust and red with the blood of murder. This is not the pathway to our goal.”

An important aspect of Gandhian philosophy is the determination to work for peace. Gandhi firmly believed that human beings had the potential to achieve peace and that the desire for peace was insatiable. He felt that “we can certainly realize our full destiny and dignity only if we educate and train ourselves to be able to refrain from retaliation”.

Gandhi had an apt answer for those supporting violent resolution of conflict. He said, “I have found that life persists in the midst of destruction and therefore there must be a higher law than that of destruction. Only under that law would a well-ordered society be intelligible and life worth living. And if that is the law of life, we have to work it out in daily life. Whenever there are jars, wherever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.

“In this crude manner, I have worked it out in my life. That does not mean that all my difficulties are solved. Only, I have found that this law of love has answered as the law of destruction has never done.”

His delineation of the significance of resolving conflict through nonviolent means needs to be underlined and assimilated by those who are part of peace processes, “The weapon of violence, even if it is the atom bomb, becomes useless when it is matched against true nonviolence.”

Further, if various global conflicts are critically analysed, one would find that the arms industry is one of the greatest perpetrators of these conflicts and it is in its interests to keep it that way. Gandhi had warned against this catastrophic tendency when he said, “Like opium production, the world manufacture of swords needs to be restricted. The sword is probably responsible for more misery in the world than opium.” This was a prophetic statement, as unending conflicts point to the fact that a huge number of arms are bought and sold, legally or illegally.

Common agenda

Amidst the challenges faced by the global community, it has become imperative that all stakeholders, including the citizenry, governments and institutions, make a genuine attempt to counter them through nonviolent persuasion, dialogue and other means. The Gandhian praxis offers valuable lessons on how to avoid violent conflicts. It has become a global necessity otherwise the world will see more forms of conflicts. This was underlined by Gandhi when he said, “If the best minds of the world have not imbibed the spirit of nonviolence, they would have to meet gangsterism in an orthodox way. But that would only show that we have not got far beyond the law of the jungle…. You and I who believe in nonviolence must use it at the critical moment.”

Gandhi-as-a-young-satyagrahi-in-South-Africa
Early days: Gandhi as a young satyagrahi in South Africa (Photo: GANDHI SMRITI/DARSHAN SAMITI)

Gandhian methods of nonviolence have influenced nonviolent struggle in other parts of the world. Kwame Nkrumah, who led the freedom struggle in Ghana and was the country’s first prime minister, was greatly influenced by Gandhi. He said, while leading the freedom struggle, “At first I could not understand how Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence could possibly be effective. It seemed to be utterly feeble and without hope of success. The solution to the colonial problem, as I saw it at that time, lay in armed rebellion… After months of studying Gandhi’s policy, and watching the effect it had, I began to see that, when backed by a strong political organisation it could be the solution to the colonial problem.”

Amidst the challenges faced by the global community, it has become imperative that all stakeholders, including the citizenry, governments and institutions, make a genuine attempt to counter them through nonviolent persuasion.

During the struggle, in 1950, Nkrumah declared the launch of positive action; it was influenced by Gandhi’s nonviolent action. Like the Mahatma’s strategies, positive action employed the tactics of protest and strike against the colonial administration.

Leaders of Zambia’s freedom struggle, like Dr Kenneth Kaunda, also drew inspiration from India’s nonviolent methods. Dr Kaunda was greatly influenced by the strategies and philosophy of Gandhi. He described Gandhi’s method of satyagraha as “a lifebelt thrust into the hand of a drowning man”.

Another important leader who followed Mahatma Gandhi was the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon, Dr Nelson Mandela. His deep commitment to principles of nonviolence, forgiveness and reconciliation echoed the Gandhian praxis. Mandela had referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a saint warrior and was greatly influenced by the Gandhian approach of believing in the efficacy of pitting the soul force of the satyagrahi against the brute force of the oppressor which led to converting the oppressor to the right and moral point.

Using nonviolent communication as a strategy in conflicts

History has repeatedly reminded us of how a dysfunctional communication ecosystem leads to conflicts. It also reminds us, as in the case of the genocide in Rwanda, how tools of communication can be misused to propagate hatred. The expansion of the digital media, while creating many opportunities to connect and interact, has also offered platforms to divisive forces promoting hate narratives.

Hate speech and narratives, whether offline or online, are not a harmless matter. They can be linked to different forms of crime like trafficking, radicalisation, promotion of violent extremism and psychologically disturbing acts.

mahatma-Gandhi

While governments across the world, civil societies, international bodies like the United Nations have been working to counter the ill-effects of violent communication, an important response could be to educate and sensitise citizenry on nonviolent communication and its importance.

Nonviolent communication is a holistic communication system involving verbal and nonverbal thoughts and ideas. In fact, given the seriousness of the situation regarding the widespread dissemination of hate narratives, senior Gandhian Natwar Thakkar had argued for promoting nonviolent communication literacy among the masses.

To contribute to a culture of practising nonviolent communication, the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, has embarked upon a major orientation programme. It is currently running a free introductory online course on nonviolent communication (https://www.gandhismriti.gov.in/announcement/orientation-course-nonviolent-communication-0)
The course is available in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam and Manipuri. The aim is to offer it in other languages too.

The Samiti has been organising a large number of workshops and orientation programmes nationally and internationally to sensitise participants about different aspects of nonviolent communication. Besides, training programmes are being conducted for judicial officers, police, teachers, students, administrative officers and others.

The importance of nonviolent communication in our daily lives can be assessed from the views of participants who have attended the course.

Zawadi Ndasima, Uganda: I realised as I did the course that nonviolent communication has to be part of my daily routine. It has to be practised and is practical. Using this will help me in my life and community.

Augustine Behemuka, Kenya: I have picked two practices that I hope can help me to incorporate the elements of nonviolent communication in my daily habits. I now introspect through daily reflection on my habits in the evening before retiring to bed. This will help me identify common patterns in my behaviour; especially regarding the way I respond or react to tense situations during the course of the day. In my own life experience, this has been helpful in developing a sense of awareness to the reactions – verbal and non-verbal – made by the people I engage with. I may know if my message has been received positively or otherwise. Two, continue to practise active listening during my conversations with all people that I interact with at work, home and even public space.

Ishani Ghosh, India: This course helped me broaden my vision and taught me a great deal about this method of communication, which I now hope to make an integral part of my daily practice. It helped me grasp the importance of words and communication. It is really surprising to know how language can help to establish a bridge of connection between individuals, and yet also destroy such a bridge, if not used carefully. I learnt to avoid the use of evaluative language and moralistic judgements.

Toksonbaeva Kanimet Abdisalamovna, Kyrgyzstan: Exposure to the use of nonviolent communication helps us handle issues that may arise and also contributes to the strengthening of relationships.

Maleeka Hussaini, Afghanistan: Through the course, I have learnt different elements of nonviolent communication – how we should talk to different people, how we should respect others, how we should promote understanding, how we should appreciate the positive things around us and understand the importance of being compassionate. I have tried to understand how when we are compassionate we are able to connect with our friends, people and other living beings. I have tried to understand that compassion is a skill that we all can cultivate. Concern for others is very precious and when we have compassion and love for others, we can build a beautiful and peaceful world.

Girish Karadalii, India: Nonviolent communication means communication with politeness, being respectful and not hurting others’ sentiments. In recent times, I have got aggressive many times and used foul language out of frustration. But now I have realised that I can handle it if I listen to what is coming from the other person and how I can make him/her understand in a nonviolent way.

Sohini Jana, India: I intend to make non-violent communication a part of my daily habits by consciously engaging in the following steps:

  • Becoming mindful of judgemental thoughts and responses when listening to someone
  • Avoiding evaluative statements
  • Focusing more on prioritising the relationship rather than deciding to prove whether or not someone is right or wrong
  • Empathising with the other’s emotions by accepting that they have a different story than ours
  • Expressing gratitude and daily maintaining a gratitude journal
  • Listening to learn
  • Respecting the speaker by attentive body language as well as active learning
  • Practising appreciative enquiry in order to create a safe space for communication and helping the other person feel heard
  • Focusing more on connecting with the other person while appreciating differences and disagreements
  • Engaging in introspection to keep note of my own prejudices and avoiding reactions based on stereotyping
  • Becoming mindful of the language I am using while communicating.

Role of technology

Also, in the context of the contemporary hyper-technological age, it would be pertinent to explore examples of how technology promotes and encourages nonviolent alternatives. Here is a description of a unique intervention by The Economist (2008) (http://www.economist.com/node/10650741).

Gandhi’s nonviolence was holistic in its approach as it encompassed human dignity, a deep reverence for life, ethics, with great emphasis on the means of doing anything and its end result, and an economic structure that was not exploitative.

It was the first time Facebook, a social-networking website, has been used to organise what many have described as the largest demonstration in their country’s history. On February 4 more than a million people in Colombia, and smaller groups in dozens of cities across the world, took to the streets to repudiate the FARC guerrillas. In doing so they may have changed the terms of the debate about how to free the 750-odd hostages held by the guerrillas, some for a decade…. That prompted Oscar Morales, a young engineer, to set up on Facebook a group called “One million voices against the FARC”. The media took up his call for a march. The government cleverly stayed out of its organisation, although it gave public workers time off to attend. The opposition was divided, with some calling for protests against abuses by the security forces too, but in the end, many of its leaders marched.

From news reports, it was found that Morales used his Facebook campaign to rally around 12 million people against the guerrillas. He said, “The campaign convinced people to say: We do not tolerate the kidnappings and we want their freedom. On the day of the protest, February 4, 2008, the whole country was surprised by how many people marched. More than 500,000 people joined our Facebook group. Months later many freed hostages said they had heard our protest in captivity on a radio and it gave them hope they had survived. We showed most people do not support FARC. Many members left and rejoined society.”
(http://metro.co.uk/2010/02/08/oscar-morales-how-i-used-facebook-to-protest-against-farc-85760/)
Thus, nonviolent alternatives have great efficacy and remain relevant at all times. It is the ingenuity of those committed to the tools and techniques of nonviolence to work incessantly to reinvent, innovate, and promote creativity to motivate citizens to adhere to the principles of nonviolence in their daily lives.

On the normalisation of hate: Need to change discourse

Vedabhyas Kundu: Mahatma Gandhi had underlined, “The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs, even as violence cannot be counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through nonviolence. Hatred can be overcome only by love; counter hatred only increases the surface as well as the depth of hatred.” (Harijan, 3-8-1947)

Emily-WeltyOne of the important challenges today as the world hungers for peace is the percolation of new forms of violence in all layers of our societies, the seeming “normalization” of hatred and hate speeches. In such a context, please share your perspectives on the initiatives that need to be taken, escalated to a global level by peacebuilders, to promote the spirit of solidarity and harmonious coexistence.

Emily Welty: I think it’s really important to note that we don’t have to engage in advocacy at the United Nations in order to begin the work of nuclear disarmament or peace-making more generally. The systems of absolute domination that made nuclear weapons possible can be countered in our everyday lives.

We can resolve to prevent suffering, to reduce harm in our families and in our communities, and we can build sustainable systems of transformative justice that don’t depend on revenge or coercive violence. We can create forms of mutual aid that lead to the flourishing of those around us. At the ground level, we can change the way we talk about nuclear weapons and can refuse to glorify them in our art, literature, or popular culture. We can talk about the fact that strong nations rely on diplomacy and can meet the basic human needs of their citizens while fearful nations rely on nuclear weapons.

Changing the discourse changes the way we approach nuclear weapons. We can also encourage our cities to become part of the ICAN Cities Appeal, especially if we live in a nuclear-armed state (as I do) and feel that our country might not give up nuclear weapons soon. There is so much that we can do.

(Dr Emily Welty was part of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Pace University, USA)

{Excerpts from Conversations on Peace and Nonviolence: Drawing Connections with 16 Global Experts; Published by Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti}

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) makes an important point for the entire global community to understand and assimilate: “Peace should never be taken for granted. It is an ongoing process, a long-term goal that requires constant engineering, vigilance and active participation by all individuals. It is a choice to be made in each situation, an everyday life decision to engage in sincere dialogue with other individuals and communities, whether they live a block or a click away.” No knee-jerk action or short-cuts can contribute to sustainable peace, it has to be nurtured every day and in every setting.

In conclusion, I would like to quote 1980 Nobel Peace laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel who stressed that to build a society in which peace is the foundation of life, “We must reach out our hands, fraternally, without hatred and rancour, for reconciliation and peace, with unfaltering determination in the defense of truth and justice. We know we cannot plant seeds with closed fists. To sow we must open our hands.”

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