Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ghandi, King and Sharp - My reflections

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance during the civil rights struggle in the United States was largely influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha. In his autobiography, King wrote:
“As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ... It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking”

I wouldn’t classify Gene Sharp’s discourse as a theory on its own; I would rather prefer to consider it as a theoretical analysis of nonviolent change which has helped in classifying the various methods of nonviolence resistance and the possible outcomes that could be expected from the employment of these methods.
Both Gandhi and King promoted the basic principles of Satyagraha as listed below:
1.    Nonviolence,
2.    Truth (Belief in its use at all times, in all aspects of the struggle),
3.    Chastity (Both physically and spiritually),
4.    Self control, no matter the provocation (both in words and deeds)
5.    Courage (and this includes willingness to bear any discrimination, discomfort or ill-treatment as a consequence of the resistance),
6.    Respect for other beliefs and cultures, even if they are the aggressors.
7.    Personal devotion to contributing to the community of protesters. This devotion must be based on personal convictions and not dependent on whether the others also contribute or not).
From my personal reflections, I see Nonviolence as promoted by Gandhi and King to be a moral struggle which works towards using nonviolent methods to force oppressors to critically examine their actions. By embarking on Acts of Omission, and willing to bear the consequences, the oppressed are actually declaring their independence from the control of the oppressors’ authority, which they are therefore refusing to accept as being legitimate. By continuing to neglect the actions which are expected of them despite the consequences, they are actually eroding the moral authority being claimed by the oppressor. Though the oppressor may have the power of force behind him, the oppressed are able to show they possess an inner strength to resist the oppressor’s force.
By moving the struggle further to committing Acts of Commission, the nonviolent protester shows that apart from being able to refuse recognizing the oppressor’s authority (Through acts of omission), he could use his self declared freedom to initiate acts that conflict with the interests/expectations of the oppressor.
As suggested by Judith Brown, "this is a political strategy and technique which, for its outcomes, depends of historical specificities”.
But the three broad classification of the possible outcome of the use of nonviolent resistance are most feasible. Both Gandhi and King believed that the nonviolent struggle should aim at converting the oppressor to cooperate with the oppressed to meet a just end that the oppressor is unwittingly obstructing. A spirit of love and understanding can be seen in this outlook; they both aim at getting the oppressors to actually see light and willingly cooperate with the oppressed to effect a positive transformation. A good example of this conversion is the US Freedom Riders struggle in the 1960s, the series of Interstate Freedom Rides in 1961 led to the authorities cancelling the various racial policies on trains, toilets, waiting rooms and lunch counters. Another situation where conversion was arrived at as a final solution was the South African Racist struggle which has now led to a free South Africa for all races.
In struggles for independence from colonial or other occupying forces, and it usually has to end with nonviolent coercion. Because in this situation, the aim is to get the oppressors leave the land they have colonized and allow the natives an opportunity to rule themselves. Examples abound of situations where this aim is achieved. It is also a common aim of nonviolence resistance efforts to force Dictators to cede power in order for democratic elections to be used to elect leaders. Examples of these are what we are presently seeing across the Arab world.
Sometimes, the middle course of Accomodation is a better alternative if the reality being challenged offers opportunities for negotiations. Both the oppressors and the oppressed can find a middle ground upon which they can agree to end the protests. Labour unions usually have this as their aim when they use nonviolent means to tackle government policies. Negotiations usually ensue and at the end, each side has to s



  1. Dear Ibrahim,

    I am a great admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. I'm not entirely convinced that their nonviolent struggles were the sole cause of the changes that took place in India and the U.S. It is not quite that simple. However, without their struggles, change may not have taken place so quickly.

    Best regards,

  2. While I agree that their Non-violent efforts were not the only causes of change in the countries; the moral stands they took in the struggles offered a Strong moral rallying point for the Struggles.

  3. Definitely. I think that the moral and/or ethic that each was espousing are important for students and teachers to understand. Without these principles we will never be able to reach peace in the world. Their principles in my opinion are critical and if we can convince students of the importance of these principles, we have succeeded in setting the groundwork for peaceful co-existence.


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