The independence movement against the British colonial power in India was coined by Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhis‘ nonviolent resistance in a way, which is unique in world history. Gandhi’s path of nonviolent resistance already started during his exile in South Africa. The political concept of nonviolent resistance emerged as a result of his experiences with apartheid: Satyagraha – the adherence to truth.

The rise of Gandhi to the formative figure of the independence movement and the transition from violent forms of struggle [advocated and carried out in the early independence struggle by Vinayak Savarkar and Barindra Kumar Ghosh, the younger brother of Sri Aurobindo Ghose] to the mass movement by means of non-violent action is […] unthinkable without the confrontation with the ‘anarchist assasins’ which Gandhi had led in many ways in the years up to 1918.”1

Nonviolent resistance

Subsequently, Nelson Mandela’s liberation struggle against apartheid and Martin Luther King’s fight against racism and segregation in the Southern states of America were influenced by Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. According to Gandhi, only nonviolent resistance can break the spiral of violence, usually triggered by a revolution or liberation struggle. Ultimately, through nonviolent negotiation and symbolical political actions, Gandhi and the Congress movement succeeded in drawing the world public’s attention to the injustice of colonization.

Like Patañjali in relation to the Yama and Niyama, Gandhi refers to Satyagraha as a vow, which to follow requires a high measure of integrity and mental strength: “A perfect Satyagrahi has to be almost, if not entirely, a perfect man.”2 With no doubt, Gandhi’s statement was directed against the accusations of right-wing nationalists that ‘passive resistance‘ (as they called Gandhi’s Satyagraha actions) is ‘weak’ and ‘unmanly’ respectively.

Active resistance

However, Gandhi himself never spoke of ‘passive resistance‘. Satyagraha is, on the contrary, an active form of resistance that requires a great deal of courage. Above all, the difficulty of the nonviolent attitude is maintaining one’s composure during a conflict. Therefore, the Satyagrahi must not be drawn into the emotional pull of retribution. Rather, the other party involved in the conflict should recognize that s/he is at fault for his/her violent means. This applies both, to mere verbal provocations as well as to armed conflicts.

While it is perfectly feasible to convince a people faced with brutal repression to rise up in a suicidal attack on their oppressor, it is almost impossible to convince them to meet deadly violence with nonviolent resistance.”3

As soon as the violent conflict party succeeds in eliciting even the slightest violent reaction from the nonviolent party, the previously nonviolent party loses its credibility. In this way, it is put on the same level as the violent party. Therefore, the crucial feature of the nonviolent attitude is the art of responding instead of reacting. In other words, the nonviolent activist has to reduce his/her ‘triggerability‘.

Relationship between Ahimsa and Satya

What is the relationship between the two Yamas Ahimsa and Satya in Gandhis’ Satyagraha concept? Obviously, For Gandhi, Satya comes before Ahimsa.

The first four vows of Satyagraha are:

  • 1. Satya – truthfulness, and justice
  • 2. Ahimsa – love, and the absence of the intention to hurt – out of compassion
  • 3. Brahmacharya – according to Gandhi: sexual abstinence, because he wanted to dedicate all his energy to the spiritual development of humanity, and he saw the violent potential of sexual desire
  • 4. Aparigraha – lack of possessiveness

Ultimately, for Gandhi, a vow means: “to do at all costs what one should do [what one deems to be right]”. Thus, Satyagraha is an ethical-political attitude that holds on to ‘Satya‘, that is truthfulness and justice. And this is also at the risk of being imprisoned or subjected to other forms of repression.

Civil disobedience

Further means of nonviolent resistance against the colonial power were: non-cooperation or positive reinforcement. Gandhi defined ‘disobedience‘ as ‘cooperation with everything that is not bad‘. This also included fasting and finally civil disobedience when all negotiations failed. Accordingly, the refusal to cooperate with the British colonial government also became the eponym of the independence movement in India. The ‘Non-Cooporation’ movement came into being with the Salt March in Gujarat in 1930.

Transformation of consciousness

Despite all these political pressures, the Satyagrahi always acts with kindness and without hatred. The Satyagrahi, in contrast, attempts to gently and compassionately draw the individual s/he is dealing with to his/her side: “I can combine the greatest love with the greatest opposition to the wrong.” (M. K. Gandhi). Therefore, the intention of the nonviolent Satyagraha attitude is to change the consciousness of the other person instead of forcing him/her to do something.

Thus, through the willingness to accept the suffering that has been imposed onto the Satyagrahi, the opponent is supposed to realize by him/herself that s/he is preventing a goal that is right and important for the good of all. However, if s/he does not recognize it her/himself, s/he will be pressured to do so by public opinion.

Satyagraha was idealistic but at the same time intensely practical. It was a source of power for a people that had neither weapons nor wealth. It gave the British no way to justify their violent repression.”4

The instrumentalization of Ahimsa?

With regard to the relationship between Ahimsa and Satya one can conclude:

Ahimsa is the means in the Satyagraha attitude,

Satya / truth, here in the sense of legality, is the goal.

This ‘instrumentalization’ of the principle of nonviolence is perhaps the price that had to be paid for the politicization of the term Ahimsa. Nevertheless, Gandhi was convinced that the nonviolent path by which liberation was achieved would determine the future of the liberated country itself.

Nonviolence is not a means to a goal nor is it a goal in itself. It is, rather, a technique that exceeds both an instrumental logic and any teleological scheme of development – it is an ungoverned technique, arguable ungovernable.”5

Political stress-field

Every new formation of a political landscape also has an impact on an intellectual level. Subsequently, the past is perceived from a new perspective, the collective memory undergoes a transformation. In order to be able to better assess Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent resistance, it is necessary, to outline the political areas of colonial conflict beyond the borders of India.

It was not only in India that resistance against the colonial powers began to organize at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, decolonization began in Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. With decolonization, new nation-states emerged, and simultaneously, a new phenomenon: religious dressed-up nationalism. Indeed, it can be observed in all formerly colonized countries probably as a cultural demarcation reaction to the pejorative colonial or ‘oriental‘ discourse.

However, especially in India one of the great difficulties of the resistance movement was to unite the religious communities, provinces, and Princely States into one federal republic. For it was only through British colonization that India had grown into a community of states whose size and diversity are breathtaking. With decolonization, India finally became the ‘largest democracy of the world‘.

Tagores’ criticism of nationalism

Concurrent with the Independence movement, religious nationalism also emerged in India. This kind of nationalism was supported by many Indian Intellectuals. Others, however, such as the Bengali poet, composer, choreographer, painter, philosopher, and cosmopolitan social reformer Rabindranath Tagore were critical of nationalism from a very early stage.

Initially, Rabindranath Tagore was an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘Swadeshi‘ movement. This movement called for a boycott of British goods and the purchase of exclusively Indian products. However, as the Swadeshi movement in Bengal gradually began to become repressive and violent, Tagore turned away from it in disillusionment. He not only questioned the nationalist movement and its disposition to violence. Furthermore, he was critical of the idea of ‘nation’ as such.

A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. […] It is a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being.”6

Artificial unity from the political laboratory

Ultimately, the power of the nation as an ‘artificial unit‘ is, according to Tagore, too abstract. Since it dissolves the spontaneous cohesion of people and the individual’s sense of responsibility for the community. Instead, it reinforces the selfishness of individuals and groups. Furthermore, it forces the subjects under its abstract bureaucratic regulatory mechanisms in order to make the masses governable.

When this engine of an organization begins to attain a vast size, and those who are mechanics are made into parts of the machine, then the personal man is eliminated to a phantom, everything becomes a revolution of policy carried out by the human parts of the machine, with no twinge of pity or moral responsibility. […] This abstract being, the Nation, is ruling in India.”7

Rabindranath Tagore foresaw very early on, that the formation of nations would go hand in hand with the rise of unregulated capitalism. Since, in the merging of states into ever-larger units, he saw the first step toward a globalized economic dictatorship.

Non-economical needs of society

Hence, the nation is a wealth-producing mechanism that ignores all non-economic needs of society. However, being human, according to Tagore, also includes nonconformist creativity and spontaneity. Moreover, the freedom of the individual also consists in defying group norms and developing a unique worldview.

In contrast to other Indian intellectuals, and to a certain degree also [in contrast] to Gandhi, Tagore did not reject the [European] Enlightenment but strove for a fusion of the best Indian and European traditions. […] For Tagore art, above all, was the decisive engine of development.”8


Likewise, either in the Arabic cultural space decolonization resulted in the conjunction of nationalism and religion. In addition to the far-reaching transformation brought about by decolonization, a religious power vacuum had been created here by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had stretched from South-Eastern Europe to the Red Sea, from the Caucasus to North Africa.

It had a secular ruler, the Sultan, and a religious ruler, the caliph. The religious influence and unifying power of the Caliph were great. Although the tradition of the Caliph is nearly as old as Islam itself, one should consider the circumstance, that mundane and religious power was separated in the times of the Ottoman Empire, which is not the case in postcolonial and postmodern radical recourses to this religious leadership idea.


Ultimately, the Caliphhood had reached the height of its power in medieval times. At this time the caliph was considered as deputy of the Prophet Mohammed. In this heyday of Islam, the Caliph was both, a mundane and a religious ruler. Later, the title of the caliph became less and less important. Finally, during the Ottoman Empire ‘caliph‘ was more or less merely a formal-symbolic title, without mundane power that was held by the Sultan.

However, the Ottoman Empire had been subject to increasing territorial restrictions since the late eighteenth century. Through trade treaties, the former territories of the Ottoman Empire were subjected to the interests of the European powers. Therefore, it was the eradication of the Caliphate as a pan-Islamic symbol that led to the emergence of a political movement that deliberately referred back to an Islamic identity.

Thus as early as in the nineteenth century, the beginnings of the identity conflict between Islamic tradition and Western modernity became visible, which would be fully reflected only in the twentieth century. An examination of the development in the last century shows, how much the ideological discussions were determined by collisions of material interest.9


Hence, the phenomenon of politicization of religion was a reaction of the colonized cultures to the pejorative discourse of the colonial powers. Edward Said pointed out, how centuries-old preconceptions could be preserved under the guise of the colonial pseudoscience ‘Orientalisms‘.

Indeed, the agenda of the orientalist discipline was to gather knowledge about the colonized countries. This administrative knowledge should help to better control them and exploit their resources even more effectively. However, orientalism, according to Edward Said, is a ‘science’ full of prejudices from medieval times of the crusades. Furthermore, orientalist disciplines represented the cultures of colonized countries in a way that left no doubt about the need for their colonial governance.

The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise, it was to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually means to have their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power.”10

Politicization of religion

Consequently, this discourse was intended to prove that the colonies would not be able to form modern, democratic nation-states without the ‘help’ of the colonial power. Above all, Edward Said shows how these prejudices continue to have an impact today – especially in times of general fear of terrorism. The fact that it is precisely the prejudice-laden orientalist discourse that has led to the politicization of religion again illustrates the fatal effect of prejudice. As a result, currently, it is precisely this politicization of religion that has once again led to a wave of radicalization of religious-cultural demarcation.

Already during decolonization, religion had served the colonized countries to distance themselves from the imposed culture of the colonial powers. As a result, many decolonized countries experienced the most diverse and complex connections between nationalism, religion, and in some countries, socialism.

Countries and nations have, of course, existed since time immemorial […]. But until then, countries and nations had never been regarded as something that could either form the basis of group-identity or legitimacy of political power.”11

Similarly, in India the politicization of religion took place. This happened both on the side of the Hindu nationalists and on the side of some groups of the Muslim minority. Indeed, the strong polarization of the religious communities in India also had democratic political backgrounds. With the ‘Morley-Minto-Reform‘ the British colonial power had introduced a new electoral system with separate constituencies for Muslims and Hindus. In addition, the British government supported the Muslim elite unilaterally, by establishing Muslim educational institutions.

Divide and rule

Above all, this division policy of the British colonial government was a reaction to the Hindu-dominated Congress movement, which gained increasing popularity. Therefore, the ‘Council Act‘ von 1909 (‘Morley-Minto Reforms‘) gave excessive significance to religious affiliation as an identity-forming instance.

In India, the situation anyway was much more complex than in the Arabic cultural space. For, here not only one single religion was dominant. Rather, it was and still is just the plurality of religions, cultures, and languages which makes India so unique. Besides a large ‘Hindu’ majority and a big Muslim minority, many other smaller religious communities are existing in India – such as Sikhs, Parsi, Buddhists, Jains, roman and protestant Christians, Jews, and many others less known faiths.

Moreover, the Indian Muslim community had its own divisions. In South, India Muslims were in the minority, and therefore sought the protection of the state. Whereas in the Northern states, especially in Punjab and Bengal, they formed a majority and rather tended to separatism.

Muslim League

For decades Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to bring the two camps together under the All-India Muslim League. The liberal Ali Jinnah had been close to the Congress movement at the beginning of his political career. He had pursued the same goals: a united India, completely liberated from the British colonial power.

Again and again, the British colonial government had tried to divide India in order to remain at the levers of power in Delhi. For this reason, the British colonial administration granted privileges or even autonomy to individual Provinces and the Princely States. Unfortunately, the Muslim majority in Northern India had indirectly supported these attempts at division through their provincial political interests. The Congress movement, on the other hand, was keen to unite all religious communities in the struggle for independence.

Gandhi’s support of the caliphate-movement

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi played an important role in the Congress movement as a figure of integration. Due to his Satyagraha attitude, he had always succeeded in this very integration. However, in 1919 Gandhi apparently went too far in this attempt at integration. His support of the Muslim caliphate movement brought him sharp criticism. After the Massacre of Amritsar Gandhi wanted to win the Indian Muslims to the common fight for independence.

The Caliphate movement had emerged from the solidarity of Indian Muslims with the Ottoman Caliph. Since a part of the Indian Muslims longed for a symbolic identification figure. The deposition of the Ottoman caliph by the Allies in 1919 had created a power vacuum. Furthermore, the British support of Kemal Ataturk outraged some groups among the Indian Muslims.

However, in the Islamic world, more often radical traditionalists made reference to the caliphate. For instance, the very traditionalist Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, founded in 1928, also wanted to revive the Caliphate and aimed at a state ruled by the laws of Sharia. The liberal Ali Jinnah, therefore, accused Gandhi of supporting ‘religious zealots’. This, he said, further divided the Indian Muslim camp.

Tagore’s vision

Rabindranath Tagore also criticized Gandhi for this alliance. As a result of this ‘combination of rebellion and religion’, he feared an ‘orgy of terror‘, which shortly afterward indeed happened. In 1921, two years after Gandhi had shown solidarity with the Caliphate movement, a violent revolt of the ‘Mappilas‘ occurred in South India. The Mappilas in Kerala rebelled violently against Hindu landowners and money-lenders.

First signs of partition

Finally, Jinnah succeeded less and less in integrating the Muslims in Punjab and Bengal into his All-India Muslim League. This was also a consequence of the Morley-Minto reforms. Hence, the detachment of a separate state for the Muslims in the North seemed inevitable to him and the Congress movement.

Using a subcontinental communal divide as its lever, the Congress in 1947 was able not only to cut the Muslim League’s demands to size but to use its inheritance of the colonial state apparatus to impose a central authority over the regions.”12

Consequently, the Congress movement, which had always stood for a united India, suddenly agreed to the division of the country. Here it becomes evident, that M. K. Gandhi had not always agreed with the politics of the Congress movement. That is to say, he spoke out against the partition of India right to the end.

Gandhi’s downfall

When Independence was within reach, Bapuji [M.K. Gandhi] shocked many people by proposing to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Governor-General and Viceroy of India, that Jinnah be made the first Prime Minister of independent India. Bapuji said that this would win the confidence of the Muslim minority and preserve the unity of the country.”13

The first wave of radicalization of Hindu-nationalism

However, the proposal came too late. Gandhi’s daring last-minute attempt to prevent the division failed. Thus, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became the Governor-General of Pakistan. During the Partition of India, both, Hindus and Muslims became victims of violent groups. As a result, one million people died, at least 14 million had to flee.

Nathuram Godse

In 1915, the Hindu nationalists founded the ABHM – Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (the All-India Hindu Gand Assembly) as a reaction to Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League.

However, Hindu Nationalism, which had emerged with decolonization, no longer directed its hateful polemics solely against the colonial power. It had another enemy: the Muslim minority. The murderer of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse claimed that he had killed Gandhi because he wanted to grant the Muslim minority the same rights as the Hindus. Looking back, Gandhi’s murder seems like a dark omen of a future in which India has arrived today. Not only Gandhi’s body had been killed. Moreover, his vision for an India, in which all religions can exist peacefully with each other did not have any popular apologists anymore.

Gandhi: “Religions are like different roads leading to the same point. […] Why does it matter which road we take as long as we reach the same destination. Wherein is the cause for quarreling?14

Ahimsa as a political attitude

If one considers how many lines divided the Indian society, it seems like a wonder that the Indian Independence movement had successfully overcome these gaps with the Ahimsa attitude. Ultimately, the Satyagraha attitude leads from the ineffectiveness of spiritual retreat into the field of political action. However, it does not only ‘hold on to the truth’, but also to the principle of compassion and love.

Correctly understood and assiduously practiced, nonviolence would produce answers to all the world’s problems more surely and more direct than any messianic political or sectarian religious creed could hope so. From the small, a large entity would grow.”15

The path of nonviolence

In conclusion, Satyagraha – the nonviolent ‘force’ of truth – was not only a way out of colonial oppression. Moreover, it intended to bring about a profound spiritual transformation in anyone who took the vow of nonviolence. Since the path of nonviolence has in itself a potential for positive change. Ultimately, it can become a ‘cosmopolitan compassion’ for all living beings on this planet and the entire universe – whether or not the political goal is achieved. Consequently, non-violence in its active form is, according to Gandhi, nothing more than ‘pure love’.

Love and truthfulness are two sides of the same coin.”16

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

>> The Cosmopolitan Attitude of Ahimsa

>> Ahimsa in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra

>> Ahimsa as Political Practice in Post-Gandhi India

>> The Violence of the Caste-System

>> Nonviolent Resistance Movements Worldwide

>> Disgression: Power & Violence

>> Disgression: Humanity & Human Rights