Violent and Non-Violent Modes of Resistance in India’s Freedom Movement by Peter Heehs


Violent and Non-Violent Modes of Resistance in India’s Freedom Movement

By Peter Heehs

A Talk Delivered at the University of Colorado, Boulder, April 5, 2010

In this country, when someone mentions the Indian Freedom Movement, almost everyone thinks immediately of Mahatma Gandhi. Few people go much further than that. The image of the “half naked fakir” who took on the British Empire, today known chiefly through Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, is so colossal and so picturesque that is has all but obscured the other participants in India’s decades-long struggle for independence. The few other personalities that are likely to come to mind are secondary characters in this Gandhi starrer, to use a term from Bollywood promotions. There was Nehru, of course, and Patel and Bose and… a whole lot of others whose names one is apt to forget. As for the plot, it can be summed up in a single sentence: Heroic colonial leader stands up to the armed might of Britain using his homegrown method of non-violent non-cooperation. The term non-violence is likely to bring to mind a few other great names, notably those of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. and the 14th Dalai Lama. Beyond that, one is likely to draw a blank.

I hope my somewhat irreverent tone has not made you think that I intend to do a demolition job on Gandhi, or to suggest that non-violent non-cooperation was not all that it is cracked up to be. Nothing could be further from my mind. But I do intend to try to lead you to a broader understanding of the Indian Freedom Movement, the many people who participated in it, and the various methods they used.

When I speak of the Indian Freedom Movement, I mean the movement that began in the 1870s and continued until the attainment of independence on August 15, 1947. There were of course many acts of resistance against the British before the 1870s, but these incidents were relatively unorganized and ineffective, and in the end served only to hasten the consolidation of British rule.

I take the 1870s as marking the beginning of the movement because that was the decade that saw the beginning of civic life in India’s metropolitan centers. Groups like the Indian Association of Calcutta, the Madras Mahajan Sabha, and the Bombay Presidency Association were concerned primarily with regional affairs, but their members began to see the provinces of British India as having a shared destiny. Soon these men felt the need for a national organization, and in 1885 the first meeting of the Indian National Congress was held in Bombay. The Congress eventually became the vanguard of the Indian freedom struggle, but for the first twenty years of its existence, it did little but churn out petitions and resolutions, none of which were taken seriously by the British. From around 1905, however, first the Congress, then other groups as well, became effective molders of public opinion and channels of agitation.

This use of organized political pressure was one of four main factors that brought India to the goal of independence. The other three were violent resistance; non-violent resistance; and the influence of global political and economic changes.

Violent resistance to British rule began when Indian military forces opposed the encroachments of the British East India Company in the mid eighteenth century. In the end this resistance proved unsuccessful. By 1818 the Company was in control of the greater part of the subcontinent. But its control was not uncontested. Between 1770 and 1900, there were more than a hundred instances of armed insurgency in various parts of India. The most significant of these was of course the Great Rebellion – sometimes still known as the Sepoy Mutiny – of 1857-8. It shook the foundations of the East India Company, but it also led to the replacement of Company rule by that of the British crown.

None of the insurrections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were organized political revolts. Most of them were peasant uprisings provoked by local grievances. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, there were a couple of instances of organized violent resistance in Maharashtra in western India. In the late 1870s, Wasudev Balwant Phadke and a makeshift force of subaltern peoples harried the British near Poona for around four years, until Phadke was captured and imprisoned. Fourteen years later, the Chapekar brothers, also of Poona, assassinated a hated British official. The autobiography of one of the brothers shows that they possessed the beginnings of political consciousness, but it also makes it clear that their main motivations were religious.

The Chapekar brothers were executed in 1899. Two or three years later, a group was founded in Bengal that became what I consider the first revolutionary organization in India that had a clear political aim, and a realistic idea of what it would take to drive the British from the country. I will make this group the focus of my discussion of the violent mode of resistance in the Indian freedom movement. Its organizer, Aurobindo Ghose, was in many ways the anti-Gandhi: retiring, while Gandhi sought the spotlight; flexible, while Gandhi insisted on strict adhesion to principles; open to the use of violence, while Gandhi made non-violence the cornerstone of his action. In other ways however the two men had similar backgrounds: English education, familiarity with Western political theory, and a firm opposition to British rule in India.

Aurobindo Ghose – now generally known by the name he later assumed, Sri Aurobindo – was born in Bengal in 1872, three years after Gandhi was born in Gujarat. Sent to England at the age of 7 by a father who wanted him to enter the Indian Civil Service, he returned to India in 1892 and found work in the Princely State of Baroda. Almost immediately he began contributing articles to a newspaper in which he criticized the approach of the Indian National Congress in unambiguous terms:

I say, of the Congress, then, this,—that its aims are mistaken, that the spirit in which it proceeds towards their accomplishment is not a spirit of sincerity and whole-heartedness, and that the methods it has chosen are not the right methods, and the leaders in whom it trusts, not the right sort of men to be leaders.

This was not the best way for a twenty-year-old writer in India to ingratiate himself with his elders. A Congress stalwart told the editor of the newspaper that publishing such things could get him into trouble. The editor asked Aurobindo to tone things down; disgusted, Aurobindo stopped publishing political journalism for more than a decade.

For the old Congress leaders, the model for political change was the British Parliament. For Aurobindo, it was the French Revolution. At Cambridge, while other Indians read the works of J.S. Mill and John Morley, he devoured histories of “the revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation, the struggle against the English in mediaeval France and the revolts which liberated America and Italy.”[2] His heroes were Joan of Arc and Mazzini, not Disraeli and Gladstone. But Aurobindo knew that turn-of-the-century India was not ready for revolution. He therefore formulated a three-part program that he believed would take about thirty years to bring to fulfillment. First, as he wrote in a retrospective note, he would start a “secret revolutionary propaganda and organisation of which the central object was the preparation of an armed insurrection. Secondly, there would be a public propaganda intended to convert the whole nation to the ideal of independence which was regarded . . . as unpractical and impossible.” Finally, there would be “the organisation of the people to carry on a public and united opposition and undermining of the foreign rule through an increasing noncooperation and passive resistance.”[3]

Aurobindo began to put this program into action in 1902. The first part, setting up a revolutionary organization, had humble beginnings. In that year he sent an associate named Jatin Banerji to Calcutta with a plan of setting up a physical culture group that could eventually be given revolutionary training. Banerjee got in touch with others who had similar ideas. The result was the launching of the Anushilan Samiti or Self-Culture Association. For a year or two the early members of this group did body-building and marching, learned to ride bicycles or horses, and read books on revolutionary history. A year or so later Aurobindo’s younger brother Barin joined in. Almost immediately Barin and Banerjee began to quarrel. Within months the group split apart. That might have been the end of the Bengal revolutionary movement if political events had not intervened.

In 1905, the British government decided to divide the Presidency of Bengal into two new provinces. For political reasons, the bureaucrats charged with this task decided to draw the line not between Bihar and Orissa, on the one hand, and Bengal on the other, but between the eastern and western parts of Bengal. Bengalis were enraged by the proposed partition of their homeland, and they decided to do something about it. To the surprise of almost everyone, there was a great upsurge of protest. To persuade the British that they were serious in their opposition to the partition plan, thousands of people in Bengal resolved to boycott British goods and promote swadeshi or indigenous products. This tied in with another movement, started a few years earlier, to promote indigenous or “national” education and institutions.

Aurobindo, still in Baroda, realized that the anti-Partition movement provided an opening for the second and third parts of his program: popularizing the ideas of nationhood through newspaper writing, and organizing a movement of non-cooperation. He also sent his brother Barin back to Bengal to make another try at revolutionary organization. Things began to move very fast. Aurobindo became the principal of the Bengal National College. He began to write for a newspaper, the Bande Mataram, which soon become the pre-eminent English-language nationalist paper in India. It was in the columns of Bande Mataram that he, for the first time in India, declared that the goal of the national movement must be complete independence from Britain. At the same time, Barin and his associates began collecting guns and experimenting with bombs. Aurobindo had wanted them to prepare slowly for a countrywide insurrection. Barin and his friends did not have the patience for this. They, and their financial backers, were more interested in doing things that would get into the newspapers: blowing up trains, assassinating officials, and so forth.

Between the middle of 1906 and the middle of 1908, Barin and his associates tried at least ten terrorist actions. All of them were failures, although some came tantalizingly close to success. Unfortunately, the last one resulted in the death of two innocent Englishwomen, whose carriage was mistaken for that of an unpopular magistrate. Two dozen members of the revolutionary group were arrested. Aurobindo also was apprehended and put into jail, but eventually was released for lack of evidence. His brother was found guilty and condemned to death, a sentence later commuted to transportation to the Andaman Islands penal colony.

I have just used the word “terrorist” in connection with the actions of Barin Ghose’s group. In 2010, no word in the English language elicits a more visceral reaction. To most of us, “terrorism” brings to mind the 9/11 tragedy, suicide bombers, and the targeting of innocent civilians. These associations, all legitimate, obscure the more precise meaning, or rather meanings, assigned to “terrorism” by social scientists and historians. Properly speaking, “terrorism” is the use of intimidation and terror to bring about political ends. Originally used for policies carried out by the French revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror, it came to be applied to any policy or mode of action meant to strike terror in those it is directed against.

Terrorism has passed through a number of phases since the time of the French Revolution. Roughly speaking one may distinguish a stage of revolutionary terrorism – which I subdivide into an anarchistic, an anticolonial and an insurrectionary phase – and a later stage that I call apocalyptic terrorism. The revolutionary period in its three forms extended from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, and beyond. Anarchistic terrorists, who were active in Russia and Western Europe from the 1870s until the first world war, sought the overthrow of nation-states. Anticolonial groups, such as the one Aurobindo was connected with, were active throughout the twentieth century in India, Ireland and other places. They played a significant role in bringing an end to the rule of the great colonial powers. Insurrectionary groups, active since the mid twentieth century, have had less success in bringing down postcolonial regimes in Sri Lanka, Israel, and other states. Faced with the might of a well-organized national military force, and the condemnation of much of the world, insurrectionary groups developed techniques such as suicide bombing, which were later taken up by the sort of groups I refer to as apocalyptic terrorists.

Unlike the three sorts of revolutionary terrorists, apocalyptic terror groups do not have a clear, attainable aim, such as the overthrow of a national regime. Rather they long to “bring down the system” or to wipe out the enemies of the true faith. Groups that fall into this category, such as AUM Shinrikyo and al-Qaeda, typically treat innocent civilians as stand-ins for unattainable governments. They can and do inflict enormous damage, but they are unlikely to attain their aims since these aims are cast in such apocalyptic terms as to be unattainable.

Few terrorists of any sort have ever applied the term “terrorist” to themselves. This brings us to the popular cliché, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” As with all clichés, there is a grain of truth in this saying, but it muddles useful distinctions. The question to ask members of a revolutionary group is not whether they want freedom, but whether their methods are realistic, effective, and avoid what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage.” By these measures, the revolutionaries with whom Aurobindo Ghose was associated were indeed freedom fighters, although some of their methods – attempts to assassinate British officials and collaborators, and the intimidation and robbing of rich and powerful Indians – could rightly be referred to as terrorist methods.

Aurobindo was not afraid to use the word terrorist, though one should keep in mind that the term did not then have the connotations that encumber it today: “In some quarters,” he once wrote, in a third-person note:

there is the idea that Sri Aurobindo’s political standpoint was entirely pacifist, that he was opposed in principle and in practice to all violence and that he denounced terrorism, insurrection etc. as entirely forbidden by the spirit and letter of the Hindu religion. It is even suggested that he was a forerunner of the gospel of Ahimsa. This is quite incorrect. Sri Aurobindo is neither an impotent moralist nor a weak pacifist.


Aurobindo wrote this during the 1940s, when Gandhi was recognized everywhere as the leading voice of Indian nationalism. Clearly, Aurobindo did not think that Gandhi’s doctrine of Ahimsa or principled non-violence was the only possible basis for a movement of national liberation. Yet Aurobindo did think that passive resistance, a method generally linked with Gandhi, had an important role to play in the national movement. He developed his ideas on the subject in 1907 in a series of essays entitled The Doctrine of Passive Resistance. These essays are his most extensive work on practical politics, and one of the most important pieces of political thinking to come out of the freedom movement.

You will recall that Aurobindo wrote in a retrospective note that his program for national liberation had three parts: the organization of an armed insurrection, the diffusion of nationalist ideas, and the preparation of a movement of passive resistance. He could not, of course, speak of armed insurrection while he was a visible public figure. Instead, he wrote about national self-development – a broad category that included activities like the development of indigenous education, manufacturing, and so forth. But, he said, self-development was not supported by organized political strength, the nation inevitably would sink back into “weakness, helplessness and despondency,” for, as he wrote in the first essay of the Doctrine:

Political freedom is the life-breath of a nation; to attempt social reform, educational reform, industrial expansion, the moral improvement of the race without aiming first and foremost at political freedom, is the very height of ignorance and futility. . . . The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the free habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude.


It was simply not in Britain’s interest to let Indian self-development go too far. Therefore, Aurobindo concluded, “we shall have to fall back on the third pol­icy of organised resistance, and have only to decide what form the resistance should take, passive or active.” Resistance could have one of two aims: to establish a new form of govern­ment or to remove the more objectionable features of the old. The second of these was only possible when the government was “indigenous and all classes have a recognised place in the political scheme of the State.” Where the ruling class was a “despotic oligarchy,” as in Russia or India, it was necessary to insist on “a free national Government unhampered even in the least degree by foreign control.” Resistance to the oligarchy could take three forms. It could “attempt to make administration under existing conditions impossible by an organised aggressive resistance,” as the Irish had done under Parnell. It could follow the Russian example, engaging in “an untiring and implacable campaign of assas­sination and a confused welter of riots, strikes and agrarian risings all over the country.” Finally, it could take the “time-honoured” form of “armed revolt.” Aurobindo thought that each of these methods had its place. He personally preferred the third – armed revolt – but he could not, of course, announce this in the pages of Bande Mataram. Instead, he wrote, “The present circumstances in India seem to point to passive resistance as our most natural and suitable weapon,” adding immediately and with surprising frankness: “We would not for a moment be understood to base this conclusion upon any condemnation of other meth­ods as in all circumstances criminal and unjustifiable.” Liberty is the life-breath of a nation, “and when the life is attacked . . . every means of self-preservation becomes right and justifiable.”6]

When the life of the nation is threatened, all means of self-preservation are legitimate. What Aurobindo was thinking of when he spoke of the “life” of India was not, of course, the biological survival of its millions. Rather he was thinking of the survival of India as a distinct and important cultural unit. He feared, as he wrote in a moment of despair, that if British rule continued, “very soon this great and ancient nation will have perished from the face of the earth.[7] To prevent this from happening, he was working in a number of different ways simultaneously. As a political journalist, he was trying to build up a feeling of national self-awareness among people who at the time had little sense of India as a nation. As a party organizer, he was trying to turn the Indian National Congress into an effective political instrument. Among the methods he recommended that the Congress take up was the boycott of British products and institutions. This was what he meant by passive resistance, and he thought that this was essential. But he did not, as Gandhi did when he became a leader of the movement in 1920, believe that more active forms of resistance were always illegitimate. As he wrote in the sixth chapter of The Doctrine of Passive Resistance:

To submit to illegal and violent methods of coercion, to accept outrage and hooliganism as part of the legal procedure of the country is to be guilty of cowardice, and, by dwarfing national manhood, to sin against the divinity within ourselves and the divinity in our motherland. The moment coercion of this kind is attempted, passive resistance ceases and active resistance becomes a duty.


At the time Aurobindo wrote this, he was an emerging leader of the Extremist faction of the Indian National Congress, while Gandhi was the leader of a movement demanding civil rights for Indians in South Africa. There Gandhi had begun to develop the methods that he would name satyagraha, a Sanskrit word that means literally “holding firmly to truth.” One of Gandhi’s earliest expositions of satyagraha comes in the pamphlet Hind Swaraj, which was written two years after Aurobindo’s Doctrine of Passive Resistance, In the seventeenth chapter of this pamphlet, Gandhi wrote:

Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. How, then, can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Physical-force men [by which Gandhi meant both Extremist politicians, such as Aurobindo, and active revolutionaries such as Barin Ghose] are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. And that is a fitting thing for their constitution. But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.


In his early writings, such as Hind Swaraj, Gandhi used the term satyagraha or truth-force as a virtual synonym of passive resistance. Later he distinguished the two, because he became convinced that passive resistance did not always exclude the use of violence. It was, like overt violence, a form of duragraha: holding on to one’s selfish, narrow interest rather than to truth and the common interest. In addition, Gandhi believed that passive resistance was a technique employed by the weak, while satyagraha was “a weapon of the strong”. There was one final point of distinction: satyagraha, according to Gandhi, “ever insists upon truth”, while passive resistors were apt to lapse into untruthfulness.[10]

Gandhi wrote these clarifications in 1920, when he was about to begin the Non-Cooperation Movement, which was his first great experiment in the use of satyagraha in India. By insisting on three things: absolute non-violence, the strength of suffering for a cause, and the absolute necessity of truth, he was highlighting the chief characteristics of satyagraha, but he also was responding to criticisms made by others. Aurobindo, for example, far from thinking that satyagraha was a weapon of the strong, likened it to “getting beaten with joy.” The Mahatma’s insistence on absolute truth-speaking was impractical, Aurobindo said, since “Politics, war, revolution are things of stratagem and ambush – one cannot expect the truth there.”[11] (To say that one need not always reveal the entire truth – which is what Aurobindo is talking about here – is of course not the same thing as condoning outright lies and deception.) Looking back in 1940, Aurobindo concluded that Gandhi had transformed the passive resistance of the anti-Partition years “from a political means into a moral and religious dogma of soul-force and conquest by suffering.”[12]

This is not to say that Aurobindo was unaware that Gandhi was an extremely effective politician. The Non-Cooperation Movement that Gandhi launched in 1920 revivified a country that had been politically somnolent since the end of the anti-Partition movement in 1912. Gandhi succeeded in doing one thing that the politicians of Aurobindo’s generation failed to do: To bring the masses into the movement. Aurobindo had written about the necessity of reaching the masses as early as 1894, but it was not until Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement sixteen years later that the masses began to participate to any significant extent. Over the years, Gandhi perfected his technique of non-violent non-cooperation. First, he would make a demand, such as the repeal of a repressive statute, say, the salt tax. Then he would mobilize thousands of volunteers, who deliberately and publicly disobeyed the law. This forced the British to act in the name of preserving order. Whatever punishment they meted out had to be borne with utter passivity. The volunteers, led by Gandhi himself, allowed themselves to be taken into custody, sometimes to be beaten, and then dragged off to jail. Once imprisoned, Gandhi often resorted to a fast, sometimes a “fast unto death.” All of India, later a good part of the world, waited and watched. Ultimately the British would blink. Some sort of concession would be made, Gandhi would drink a glass of juice, and soon the drama would resume in another locale.

Gandhi kept a close watch on his volunteers, and was always ready to suspend the movement if he thought that there was any lapse into violence, weakness or untruth. He ordered a halt to the Non-Cooperation movement when some volunteers got out of control and burned down a police post where some Indian policemen had taken refuge. Gandhi’s decision stunned many of the movement’s leaders, who begged him to reconsider. Gandhi was unyielding. He undertook a fast of expiation and allowed himself to be arrested and imprisoned. After his release, he spent most of his time dealing with the resolution of social problems.

Throughout this period Indian revolutionaries continued their activities. They had a number of notable successes; but for the most part the British, with their enormous advantage in manpower and matériel, were able to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries had a significant impact on the course of the national movement. Ironically, the outcome of their actions was remarkably similar to that of Gandhi and his non-violent volunteers. The chief result of both the violent and non-violent movements was the creation of national self-consciousness; the chief means of diffusion of both movements was the media, in those days primarily the newspapers. The same papers that allotted banner headlines to Gandhi’s Salt March also covered the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and the later heroics of Subhas Chandra Bose. Today such figures and finding new life in the movies, and their impact on the younger generation is unquestionably greater than Gandhi’s.

The revolutionaries influenced the course of the national movement in another way as well: they strengthened Gandhi’s hand when he sat down to negotiate with the British. Gandhi never compromised his ideals by cooperating with the terrorists, but he knew that much of his strength came from being perceived by the British as a lesser evil than a man like Bhagat Singh. At the Round Table Conference of 1931, Gandhi did not hesitate to tell the British that if the government refused to work with him it would have the terrorists to deal with. He held “no brief for the terrorists,” he said; but he made it clear that the government could say “goodbye to terrorism” only if it would “work Congress for all it is worth.”[13]

Gandhi’s only serious rival for the leadership of the Indian National Congress during the 1930s was Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali who had been influenced by Aurobindo and Bengal’s revolutionary terrorists during his youth. Bose was imprisoned several times for his supposed connections with active terrorists or for acts of civil disobedience. Like Gandhi, he emerged from jail with his popularity enhanced. But unlike Gandhi, and like Aurobindo, Bose looked on nonviolence as a weapon to be used or discarded as circumstances dictated.

In 1938 Bose was elected president of the Congress. The next year he successfully challenged Gandhi’s candidate and won a second term. Gandhi’s supporters forced him to resign. As the leader of the Forward Bloc, Bose continued his political work until his imprisonment in 1940 under the Defence of India Act. Released after five months and kept under house arrest, he escaped from India and went to Germany and then Japan, meeting with Axis leaders in both countries. In 1943 he took up the leadership of the Indian National Army or INA, which had been organized the previous year by another Bengali revolutionary. The INA, consisting mainly of Indian soldiers who had been captured in Southeast Asia, played a subordinate role in the unsuccessful Japanese siege of Kohima and Imphal in 1944. Militarily insignificant, the INA was thrust into prominence in November 1945 when some of its officers were court-martialed. The public outcry against these proceedings, together with a localized revolt of the Royal Indian Navy, convinced the British that the armed services could no longer be depended upon to protect British interests in India. Clement Attlee, British prime minister from 1945 to 1951, who presided over the final transfer of power, told a former Bengali judge that Bose’s INA did much more than Gandhi’s satyagraha to persuade him that it was time for Britain to pull out of India.

By this point, however, global changes had made the continuation of British rule in India an impossibility, with or without the example of the INA. You may recall that in the beginning I spoke of four factors that brought India to independence. These were political pressure, violent resistance, non-violent resistance, and the influence of global changes. I have tried to outline the contributions made by some of those who made use of political pressure and violent and non-violent resistance. But it must be admitted that by the end of the second world war, Britain was in no position to hold on to its empire. Decolonization was inevitable. But it is a significant fact that former British colonies have reaped the benefits of freedom in direct proportion to the amount of united opposition to British imperialism that they offered.

Before the Freedom Movement, regional identities – Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, and so forth – overshadowed any sense of national identity. Religious identities made it difficult for Hindus and Muslims to work together. A host of different languages made it difficult for people in different parts of the country to communicate with one another. It was with such differences in mind that Winston Churchill once mockingly said, “India is merely a geographical expression, it is no more a single country than the equator.” No one could make such a statement now. However much regional oligarchs and religious firebrands insist on local and communal exclusiveness, most Indians, especially young Indians, think of themselves as Indians first, and as Maharashtrians or Bengalis, Hindus or Muslims, second.

Among all the anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century, the Indian Freedom Movement was perhaps the most successful, if we take as our measure of success the political stability and economic development of the resulting nation. The collective struggle of the Freedom Movement welded the regional, linguistic, cultural and religious components of India together into a robust unity. India faces tremendous challenges – regional divisiveness, linguistic and cultural differences, religious conflict, popular insurrections, persistent poverty – but 63 years after independence, there is no doubt that India has established itself as a nation whose political and economic strength, and cultural importance, can only grow.

The challenges faced by other former colonies are much greater. At times they seem almost insoluble. The South Asian nations that achieved independence on India’s coattails, so to speak – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka – have not been as successful as India in achieving national unity, political stability, and economic progress. Elsewhere in the postcolonial world, the situation is even more bleak. Few African nations, despite the natural and human resources of that continent – can look forward to a future as assured as India’s. The most notable exception, of course, is South Africa, and South Africa is the African country that shares with India a history of prolonged and united opposition to a repressive regime.

South Africa’s struggle against apartheid lasted almost fifty years, and was too complex a movement to be summarized in the few minutes that remain. But one might say that, like the Indian Freedom Movement, it owed its success to four factors: political pressure, violent resistance, non-violent resistance, and global political and economic changes. The main political force behind the movement in South Africa was the African National Congress, founded in 1913, when Gandhi was still active in the country. For most of its existence, wrote Nelson Mandela in the year 2000, “the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence.” But by the early 1960s, Mandela and others found that they could no longer follow the Gandhian strategy. “There came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone. We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle.” Seeking to avoid loss of life, Mandela made sabotage his technique of choice. He also sought the support of other African nations by presenting his policy at a meeting of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa in 1962. There he declared: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.”[14]

A few months later, Mandela was convicted of sedition and the following year of sabotage and other crimes. He would remain in prison for almost thirty years. During this period he was branded as a terrorist not only by the South African government, but also by such leaders of the free world as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But by the nineties world opinion had turned against South Africa to such an extent that it became impossible for the government to defend the apartheid regime, or to keep Mandela imprisoned. After his release in 1990, Mandela urged peace and reconciliation, but he also made use of “tactical fighting talk and threatened recourse to violence should negotiation fail.”[15]

Mandela’s admiration for Gandhi is boundless: “There are those who believe he was divinely inspired,” he wrote, “and it is difficult not to believe with them.”[16] But Mandela may have had a better grasp on human nature than the Mahatma. “The people’s patience is not endless,” he once said. “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight.”[17] In this, his attitude was closer to that of Aurobindo and other Indian revolutionaries than to the excessively principled attitude of Gandhi. To lead a successful political movement, some amount of flexibility is needed. This means being open to the most effective methods, whatever they might be. As Mandela himself said, “Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[18]


[1] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches 1890-1908 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2002), p. 21.

[2] Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2006), p. 71.

[3] Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes, p. 47.

[4] Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes, p. 48.

[5] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, p. 266.

[6] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, pp. 269, 272, 277–78.

[7] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, pp. 69.

[8] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, p. 294.

[9] Mohandas Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, p. 57.

[10] M. k. Gandhi, “Letter to Someone in Madanpalli,” Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, volume 19 (, p. 350.

[11] Sri Aurobindo, On Himself (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 380.

<[12] Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes, p. 14.

[13] M. K. Gandhi, “Speech at Plenary Session of Round Table Conference,” Collected Works, Vol. 54 (, pp. 222, 228.

[14] Nelson Mandela, The Sacred Warrior, Time magazine online, January 2, 2000,

[15] Boehmer, Elleke, “Postcolonial Terrorist: The Example of Nelson Mandela,” Parallax 11:4 (October 2005), p. 49.

[16] Mandela, Sacred Warrior.

[17] Mandela quoted in Boehmer, Postcolonial Terrorist, pp. 51.

[18] Mandela, Sacred Warrior.

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