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Interweaving Violence and Non-violence

Anirudh Deshpande ( teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Violence and Non-Violence across Time: History, Religion and Culture edited by Sudhir Chandra, South Asia Edition, New York: Routledge, 2018; pp 314, ₹ 1,095 (hardbound).


We live in a hopeless violent time and crave non-violence. We have tried to understand human violence since the time familial and social violence began, but our understanding of violence has failed to produce a non-violent world. In the process of understanding the binary of violence and non-violence, we often confuse non-violence with peace. Philosophically speaking, non-violence is a necessary condition of peace, but, is it a sufficient condition as well? The modern world has produced Adolf Hitler and M K Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Idi Amin, the Ku Klux Klan and Martin Luther King simultaneously. Systems produce different men, and then, men produce different systems. Sudhir Chandra’s admirable attempt to refresh and improve our study of violence and non-violence must be read in this context. Is non-violence enough or even desirable to create a new world based on peace? Is non-violence always possible? These are the ontological questions of our being today because violence is both individual and systemic. Unless it is addressed at the level of individuals and structures both, there is little point in researching it. Further, notice is to be taken of the fact that individual and communitarian violence are intertwined with social formations which produce them. In this sense all violence is ultimately structural violence.

The objective of this timely volume of collected essays, written by scholars in pursuit of diverse perspectives on the subject of violence and non-violence, is to arrive at a philosophical understanding of violence. After all, as the editor of this volume would have us believe, upon our understanding of violence in time and space depends our chances of rescuing humanity from the curse of violence. Violence began when humanity divorced itself from nature. This divorce in “human history has been a force for good as well as evil” (p x). Civilisation would have been impossible if humans had remained enslaved to nature. But civilisation, as Marx held, also produced social inequality and, thereby, “structural” violence.

This book is a result of two workshops organised at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study Foundation—in 2013 and 2014—to study why and how “in the evolution of human civilisation non-violence and violence have often so operated as to render their separation difficult” (p x). The rich essays in this volume are guided by the “imperceptibly operating interpenetration of violence and non-violence in human nature and institutions” (p xi). The overall viewpoint of the volume is Gandhian and treats Gandhi primarily as a philosopher of non-violence, leaving out his politics with which the scholars of structural violence may disagree. The offering is interdisciplinary with the motley group of contributors comprising 10 distinguished professors, one former teacher of English, one senior researcher and one Vedic scholar. The book is a sum of 13 contributions, some of which are difficult to read, and therefore, not directed at the plebian victims of quotidian contemporary violence. Further, the price of this South Asia edition will keep it away from many university students in South Asia. Hopefully a cheaper paperback will be made available in the Indian market soon.

The topics of the essays are diverse but thematically linked. The introduction by Chandra speaks of violence and non-violence across time as a puzzle. Chapter 2 looks at the “negation of violence in the Vedic sacrifice.” Chapter 3 raises the important question whether violence is “intrinsic to religious confrontation. Chapter 4 addresses the issue of violence and non-violence in Islam. Chapter 5 is an interesting piece on Japanese Buddhism and violence, based on a reading of the medieval Japanese “war chronicle,” The Tales of Heike. This is followed by another intriguing essay on the “symbolic use” of elephants in European cultures in the context of military strength and non-violence. Chapter 7 looks at the violence in the philosophy of Hendri de Saint-Simon. Chapter 8 offers a “meditation” on non-violence, identity and sympathy. Chapter 9 provides some “unfashionable observations on non-violence.” Chapter 10 looks at the “conditionalities of Dalits and slums” and comes to the Gandhian conclusion that to “change their situation, the Dalits need acceptance by the non-Dalits” (p 200). The chapter is based on a sociological survey of the 2 square kilometre-large Dharavi in Mumbai which, despite being densely populated, is largely non-violent. Chapter 11, one of the best in the volume, is worthy of special notice because it focuses on Palestine.

In Palestine the Gandhian techniques, tried by the colonised, failed against the Zionists in 1936 and then in the immediate context of the Nakba (catastrophe). Chapter 12 looks at medical ethics and violence against participants in clinical trials in India—a topic usually overlooked by Indian media and medical circles. It raises an important question: whether “war” against disease can be waged without the violence suffered by trial participants who often become unknowing victims of modern medicine. The last chapter counterposes violence as a “law of life” to non-violence as a law of “our Being” and upholds the life of Gandhi as “an invaluable testimony” (p 299).

In this scheme, where the negation of the ego becomes possible by an individual resort to truth, the success of morally persuading the other to eliminate the duality of the self and other is crucial. The possibility of the other not conceding to satyagraha remains under-explored in the idealist Gandhian understanding of the world. Just hypothetically, place Gandhi in Nazi Germany or militaristic Japan in the 1930s to understand the point; Mussolini had called Gandhi a saint but it is doubtful whether he would have tolerated this saint in his own backyard.

Solutions to Violence

The editor is aware of the problems in assuming that non-violence is easily possible in this world. Yet, we must have “faith in non-violence even as we believe it to be empirically an impossible possibility” (p 1). One way of keeping this faith alive is to seek wisdom in the parables and syncretic traditions of civilisations. This is the way shown by the Sufi and Bhakti traditions which are under mortal threat these days. Since violence is seen to be bred by feelings of attachment, envy and revenge, it is best to understand its futility with reference to, say, Buddhist perspectives present in the Jataka tales. One Jataka tale is narrated by the editor in Chapter 1, with reference to the work of the famous Sri Lankan scholar Gananath Obeyesekere, to underline the virtue of forgiveness as a possible solution to the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. The bigger question is whether humanity will learn from its past. For Gandhi, who referred to the Mahabharata and swore by the Bhagavad Gita, the issue was one of Dharma. His critics might say that for him it was more an issue of varnashrama dharma and sanatan dharma than anything else; that he was, in essence, an advocate of a humanised status quo. The editor is aware of this and refers to the “violence without which the iniquity of the hereditary Indian caste system could not have been possible” (p 6). What solution to this violence was offered by the master? A change of heart. This, according to Ambedkar, is impossible to square with a belief in the sanatan dharma. Gandhi sought solace in a mythical, romantic, non-violent village because his vision of life was idealistic and not grounded in history. He could, and did, inspire a band of followers, but failed to transform a society that was based on caste violence and influenced by religious prejudices. The magnanimity of the editor is visible in the recognition of this, for he has included a history of Palestine in the volume which asserts that in particular situations non-violence can be “complicit with evil” (p 11). This is anathema to a Gandhian.

Many assumptions presented in this volume are sound. For instance, Cristina Ciucu points out two important things. First, that ahimsa can only be based on a “high degree of purity” of thoughts and actions and a “satyagrahi’s position can only be uncompromising or else risks being converted into its opposite” (p 260). Second is the recognition, via Hannah Arendt, that the glorification of violence is “entirely absent from the Western tradition of political thought prior to the modern age” (p 261). We may or may not agree with Arendt’s denunciation of modernity but the point merits consideration. Once again, we arrive at the binary which has guided modernity and its technological arrogance: history is made by men and nature by god. From this we infer that much of the violence in modern times is a result of the misplaced human belief in eternal growth, now made impossible by the terminal contradiction between private profit and the environment. The solution may be found in “forgiveness and non-retaliation” with respect to your “enemy” and, in our view, nature or whatever little remains of it. Yet, unless the structural roots of violence are addressed, forgiveness might seem a platitude doled out by the powerful. The structures remain important to the question of non-violence and violence.

An Impossible Non-violence?

Post 1989, the structures which influence human existence are the same which have dogged humanity since 1,500 CE, capitalism and its corollaries imperialism and colonialism. The sum of these is neo-liberalism, fashionably called globalisation to deceive the media-controlled masses. The perspectives offered by Arendt, George Orwell and Noam Chomsky are important to understand the violence of totalitarianism which, after the demise of the USSR and Maoist China, is present in the contemporary world as corporate-backed authoritarian populism. In the essay on Palestinian society, Abaher El Sakka asserts an important point made by Georges Labica according to whom “contemporary colonial regimes render the realisation of non-violence impossible or nearly so” (p 205). This is largely true because non-violence requires a modicum of freedom and negotiating social space to operate; Gandhi could practice it because the British entertained a certain notion of civilisation about themselves. Even then they tolerated non-violent resistance only till a point. The modern ultranationalist state has no such illusion. In 1936 the Palestinians experimented with civil disobedience à la Gandhi but after the Nakba—the 1948 Palestinian exodus—this became impossible because Israel had arrived on the scene, ironically, comparable to a Nazi state. This brings up the point about the postcolonial states being, sometimes, more colonial than the originals. What alternative did this leave to the victims of Israel? So, “as long as the structural colonial Israeli violence exists, it will be countered by Palestinian resistance, be it classified violent or non-violent” (p 219). The coloniser sometimes does not leave any space for dissent. Thus Palestine “is in a colonial condition par excellence” and “must not be morally judged on the basis of the reigning international formulation of legitimacies which are totally controlled by the coloniser and the dominant powers of the world” (219).

Thus, the praxis of violence or non-violence is never outside the historical context. Further it is also historically wrong to assert that a “just” violent struggle will necessarily lead to violent outcomes. The examples of China (1919–49) and Vietnam (1942–75) prove this. The long Irish war against the English was both violent and non-violent, ultimately resulting in Irish independence. Finally, the limits of legitimate and illegitimate violence, both, must be analysed from the viewpoints of the oppressors and the oppressed to develop the potential of non-violence as an option of mass resistance.


Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2019


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