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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 21, May 9, 2009

On Violence and the Question of Means and Ends

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by Randhir Singh

The following are excerpts from the author’s inaugural address to the Conference on ‘Emerging Trends of Violence in North-West India’ at Punjabi University, Patiala, on November 5, 2007.

Gandhi remains central to any discussion of violence, and therefore non-violence in the world today. Presently his ‘non-violence’ is a matter of celebrations the world over. If his birth and death anniversaries are occasions for elaborate official and non-official functions in India and the UGC has gone into an overdrive with seminars on ‘Gandhi’s Satyagraha’ etc., the United Nations has declared October 2 as the World Non-violence Day and for the Nobel Foundation it is ‘a big regret’ that he could not be awarded the Peace Prize. Obviously Gandhi has been well sanitised and tamed, and accommodated in the system; his ‘non-violence’ is no threat to the established order or ruling class hegemony anywhere.

This however is too much or too problematic to concede for the present-day votaries of non-violence. As the argument over the efficacy of non-violence proceeds, it is customary for them to refer to ‘the two apostles of peace’, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. They are supposed to exemplify the successful use of Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence. King is lauded as ‘an apostle of social harmony’ along with a rather loud advocacy of ‘Gandhi-King’ style of politics, and Mandela is hailed ‘as the most outstanding Gandhian leader of modern times’. There is no critical assessment of either King’s civil rights movement in the US or Mandela’s Gandhianism in South Africa, of what is gained or even lost in the latter case, no awareness at all of how the issue of structural transformation of society still remains central to the situation in each case.

One does not have to deny the gains of the Black civil rights movement to note that the Voting Rights Act was described by Ronald Reagan as ‘humiliating to the South’ and that ‘White backlash’ and ‘racial polarisation’ are still facts of life and politics in the United States. Ramsey Clark, the former US Attorney General, has even suggested a reason here why Islam ‘has touched the lives of African Americans’—‘they find peace, dignity and a faith they can believe in’. As a recent comment has it:

The civil rights movement’s challenge to Jim Crow in the south had secured major advances, but had also exposed the intractability of American racism. Legal segregation had been destroyed, but economic inequality loomed larger than ever.

No wonder King was himself soon moving to a more radical understanding of the situation. Mike Marqusee has noted:

After the first flush of fame, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956-57, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, it would have been easy for him to rise above the fray and enjoy his prestige. He chose to do the opposite. He chose to take the hardest course, confronting the realities of power, the scale of change necessary and the obstacles to that change….The real Dr King was an altogether more demanding and inspiring figure than the emollient angel being celebrated.

Assessing the overall situation, this is what I wrote sometime back:

The majority of Blacks constitute a distinct underclass in the US economy that has been reproduced over and over again since the time of slavery. And despite all the hype over the achievements of the ‘Gandhian’ civil rights movement, the Black youth have remained the underclass they were. The issue of justice to this vast majority of women and men goes to the very heart of the totality of US life and cannot be really resolved without structural, that is, revolutionary, transformation.

It is significant and worth pointing out that the main lesson that grew out of the later phase of the Black civil rights movement was that a poor people’s movement which is to continue to advance must eventually evolve from a question of rights to a question of power, from civil or political to human emancipation. And this requires a shift in the nature of the organised struggle towards class politics, that is, collective resistance to capitalism. It is not surprising that by 1968, shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was publicly speaking of what he called ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power’ and ‘a radical reconstruction of American society’, of ‘self-transforming and structure-transforming direct action’. ‘We are engaged in the class struggle,’ he publicly stated, and pointed out: ‘We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the Vvoting Rights Bill (in 1965) we moved into a new era which must be an era of revolution. I think we must see the great distinction here between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement.’

Again, one does not need to be an expert on the history of struggle against apartheid in South Africa to note that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, during its decades long struggle, was never a votary of non-violence, Gandhian or any other. It had an effectively functioning military wing. And it had an economic programme which is best described as socialism-oriented. Two weeks before he was freed, in January 1990, in a note to his supporters from prison, Nelson Mandela had said:

The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC (and changing) our views….is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.’

Such indeed was the policy of ANC spelled out in 1955 in its Freedom Charter.

Now turned Gandhian and reconciliationist, ‘an apostle of peace’ and a votary of non-violence, Mandela, along with Mbeki and others, has also turned away from the ANC’s programme of a revolutionary restructuring of South African society and opted for neo-liberal, admittedly Thatcherite, policies with disastrous consequences for the common people of South Africa. After over a decade of this new agenda (1994-2006), Naomi Klein in her book. The Shock Doctrine, has thus highlighted the toll showing conditions today are much worse than under apartheid: the number of people living on less than $ 1 a day doubled from two to four million; the unemployment rate more than doubled to 48 per cent from 1991-2002; only 5000 of 35 million Black South Africans earn over $ 60,000 a year; the ANC Government built 1.8 million homes while two million South Africans lost theirs; nearly one million South Africans were evicted from farms in the first decade of democracy; as a result, the shack dweller population grew by 50 per cent, and in 2006, 25 per cent of South Africans lived in them with no running water or electricity. And there’s more: the HIV/AIDS infection rate is about 20 per cent, and the Mbeki Government shamefully denied the severity of the crisis and did little to alleviate it; it’s been a major reason why average life expectancy in the country declined by 13 years since 1990; 40 per cent of schools have no electricity; 25 per cent of people have no access to clean water and most who do can’t afford the cost; and 60 per cent of people have inadequate sanitation, and 40 per cent no telephones…..

I will only add that unlike in India where poverty and wretchedness of the poor is more visible, in South Africa it remains tucked away in the poor townships, 17-18 kilometres away from the city, as was the case under apartheid.

With Nelson Mandela’s Gandhian turn, South Africa today is a classic example of a revolutionary resistance movement’s betrayal of its people.


Even in India Gandhi’s non-violence has not been the success it is made out to be, not unoften simply assumed to be. Apropos this, way back in 1990, I had written:

….In large historical processes there are continuities and there are breaks, at times even revolutionary breaks which involve a change in the economic basis, the economic-structural relations, of society. In India, in our times, no revolutionary break has occurred, neither at independence, nor afterwards. The balance of social forces and ideals in the national movement resulted in the settlement of 1947—its ‘transfer of power’ involving no basic economic or social or state structural change, but putting new, now Indian ruling classes in control of the state power in India. (Nearly two decades later, Gunnar Myrdal was to write of ‘the new government’s role as the successor to the British raj’, of ‘the gulf between rulers and ruled’ and the life-style and conduct of the new rulers which ‘encouraged the view that political independence had done little more than displace a foreign with a native privileged group’.) The new rulers set about India’s economic development even as they maintained, of course, with due modifications, the class (exploitative) structure of the Indian society as a whole. It is the logic of this structure, the new and the old well articulating with each other, which had a determining influence on what eventually came to be built in the country—an India-specific state-supported capitalism, with every aspect of our social life—politics, culture, morality, everything, everywhere—bearing the mark of this somewhat comprador capitalism.

In these matters, the subjective concerns of political leaders, of rulers or their political representatives, matter—but only marginally. In the absence of revolutionary politics which changes the objective, economic-structural basis of society, not only does the logic of this basis assert itself in the economy, it also decisively conditions developments in other areas of social life, in politics, morals, culture, ideology, etc.—all changes, no matter how important otherwise, yet remain essentially superstructural. Thus, for example, we know of Gandhi’s love and concern for the Indian people which to him meant, above all, the impoverished peasantry of India—‘the semi-starved masses… slowly sinking to lifelessness’ as he once put it—a love and concern (rather paternal in nature, always fearful of people straying from the ‘right’ path) which was possibly the most distinguishing feature of Gandhi’s social philosophy. Metaphorically speaking, he wanted the peasant to inherit this country. Yet it is not Gandhi’s peasant but a Birla who inherited India in 1947, alongwith, of course, communal violence, the partition, and much else that Gandhi did not want. And of decisive importance here is the fact that, besides other limitations, Gandhi’s political theory and practice (non-violence, trusteeship, satyagraha, etc.) had no room at all for any genuine economic-structural change, not even for radical land reforms, a necessary though not sufficient condition for any improvement in the life of the vast masses of Indian peasantry. Inevitably he failed, here as also elsewhere in most of his declared purposes. Seeking to ensure ‘the rights alike of prince and pauper’, Gandhism, in effect, only served as a petty-bourgeois ideology in the service of the big bourgeoisie, in the Indian historical process. It is a mark of the greatness of Gandhi, a truly magnificent human being with all his faults, frailties and foibles, that in sharp contrast to the opportunism or pettiness of his many followers, he recognised his failure when it finally occurred, and confessed it—‘I do not understand how all these terrible things are happening in our country… What mistakes have we made, for we must have made mistakes? Otherwise how could all these things happen?’—and died, as he had lived, fighting for his people, a fulfilled yet disillusioned and disconsolate man.

I had gone on to refer to Nehru also whose social theory came to exhibit the same inadequacy, a lack of structural mapping of society and social change.

Or, again, we know of Nehru’s concern to build socialism in India. He not only argued that ‘the only key to the solution of… India’s problems lies in socialism’, but had insisted: ‘and when I use this word I do so not in a vague, humanitarian way, but in a scientific, economic sense’. Aware of the need for ‘vast and revolutionary changes’, he most perceptively spoke of ‘terrible costs of not changing the existing order’. Yet, once in power, Nehru shied away from the cost of even genuine land reforms—‘they will present numerous practical problems involving basic social conflicts (and may) give rise to organised forces of disruption’, the Draft Outline of the First Five-Year Plan warned. What is more, he simply abandoned socialism ‘in a scientific, economic sense’, that is, as a basic economic-structural change. Apart from the insistence on the state playing ‘a vital part in planning and development’, the focus is increasingly on the need to ensure ‘rapid economic development with continually rising levels of production’, ‘to exploit natural resources’, ‘to take sufficient advantage of the advance in science and technology’, etc. In fact, in a subtle, perhaps unconscious but politically most convenient shift, he now sought ‘the key’ not in socialism but in the development of ‘science and technology’—‘the temples of modern India’ and all that. He increasingly opted for what I would describe as ‘fetishism of science’, that is, investing science with powers it does not in itself have, expecting it to do the job of a social revolution, which it simply cannot. Inevitably, once again, the logic of the economic structure asserted itself. What got built in India was not socialism but capitalism, a state-supported capitalism. The rhetoric of socialism, now redefined as ‘a socialistic pattern of society’, whatever that meant, served only to deceive and win mass support. And Nehru, even as he gave India the then much-lauded ‘vision of socialism’, in effect, helped reduce it to only ‘a vision’ in India. History is indeed a very cruel mistress.

India today is indeed a monument to the failure of Gandhi and his non-violence. He himself stands reduced to a symbol frozen in monuments statues, road names and occasionally the politicians’ Khadi and his non-violence to a subject for Bollywoodian gandhigiri. Not a single one of his ideas and ideals, his hopes and dreams for the Indian people, the ends his politics of non-violence sought, has been realised. Instead, India, in its post-independence capitalist development, has steadily moved away from them, leaving the country more riddled with conflict, disharmony and violence than every before in its history.

Even so, through all this, all his faults, frailties and failures, all the inadequacies of his theory and practice, peeps a Gandhi who needs to be distinguished from the motley crowd of ‘pious do-gooders’ and putative ‘statesmen’ at home and abroad, including not a few Gandhi Peace Prize winners, who today invoke him and preach non-violence to the world. They simply lack Gandhi’s greatness of spirit, his honesty and courage, his humanity and, above all, his passionate love and concern for the common man which is indeed the distinguishing and redeeming feature of his social theory. They have little in common with a Gandhi who recognised himsa in ‘the wanton humiliation and oppression of the weak and the killing of their self respect’, in ‘the starvation and exploitation to which they are subjected’, a Gandhi to whom freedom had no meaning until ‘we have wiped every tear from every eye’, who offered this ‘talisman’ for choosing the right course of action: ‘Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest human being you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you are contemplating was going to be of any use to him? Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him a control over his own life and destiny?’ Gandhi sought a pro-people transformation of Indian society, even though he had no clear theory of how to go about it. He denounced the shackles of a false civilisation and inspired hatred against it, even though his theory provided no solution here, no way to overcome and go beyond it. This Gandhi’s legacy is indeed ‘political dynamite’. Hence the need to rescue Gandhi from the assorted lot of present-day Gandhians and make him part of Indian people’s emancipatory project today—doing this not eclectically, adding up his name or ideas, but in a proper theoretical manner, within an adequate, self-consistent framework which, in my opinion, is best provided by Marxism, its basic understanding of society and social transformation.

Even with the best of present-day Gandhians, given the essential inadequacy of their theory—which, incidentally, they share with Gandhi—their advocacy of non-violence is only so much moralising politics, a form of utopianism which in its ultimate outcome only serves conservative ends.

Apropos this, I have commented:

A most important aspect of Marxism is its rejection of utopianism in politics. Criticism of utopian thinking by Marx and Engels, regarding socialism or elsewhere, is common knowledge. In a general way Marxism enjoys a theoretical advantage in that its analysis or understanding of society and therefore its politics is a structural and a non-moralising one. In Marxism of Karl Marx, moral passion as part of revolutionary ethics is of course central to revolutionary politics, but by itself it generates only a most ephemeral kind of politics which is quickly reabsorbed and recontained by the system it seeks to question and transform. In fact, as historical experience reveals, a moralising politics tends to develop where a structural cognition and mapping of society is blocked. Or, as a scholar has well put it:

voluntaristic wishful thinking—often wedded to a direct appeal to the authority of claimed moral imperatives—tends to predominate in politics precisely at times when the advocated political objectives are poorly grounded, due to the inherent weakness of those who promote them. Direct appeal to morality in such political discourse is used as an imaginary substitute for identifiable material and political forces which would secure the realisation of the desired objectives.


Advocacy of non-violence is almost invariably accompanied by a confused and confusing discussion of the question of means and ends. I would like to make a brief classificatory comment on the controversy1 and then relate it to the issue of the often cited or acclaimed success of Gandhi’s non-violence in winning India’s freedom.

It is axiomatic that the means are justified by the end they achieve; there is simply no other way to justify them. As Professor G.C. Field, a scholar of impeccable orthodoxy, has argued in his book Moral Theory:

Of course the end justifies the means; if we will the end we will the means to it. As for doing evil that good may come, it is really a meaningless phrase: because if good comes of it, and it was done with that intention, it cannot be evil.

Put a bit strongly the argument essentially holds. Against this we have the conventional view. As formulated by one of its leading advocates:

I suppose that of the many lessons that Gandhiji taught, perhaps the most important, was that means are more important than ends. If in the process of achieving the ends, the means are bad or twisted, we will not reach the ends. If our aim in life is a good life, how can we reach it by unworthy means?

Though well-meaning, this is a confused view and the confusion here is caused by three interrelated reasons.

The first reason concerns the origin and nature of the morality or ‘goodness’ of the means. In the conventional view they are assumed to be or treated as ‘good’ in themselves, which is simply not the case. Our morals, ideals or ethical principles do not exist in themselves, in their own right, independently of nature and history, rooted in God, gods or scriptures or in some way possessing an eternal, absolute, authoritative reality of their own. According to a naturalistic view of man and his world, now accepted by most scholars of ethics and by anthropologists, psychologists and scientists in general, all mental, moral or spiritual phenomena are genuine functions of living organisms at the human level of development (just as life itself is a mode of behaviour of matter at a particular level). It is thus argued that the evolutionary process has risen higher than its source, nature has evolved humans with their morals, ideals or ethical principles. These emerge from the requirement of social life and derive their validity from their usefulness. Hence they are also subject to modification according to circumstances and may under certain conditions be suspended.

The conventional view, in effect, postulates that we must confine ourselves to means that are in themselves good, judging the morality of our actions by reference to some absolute rule and not by the consequences. But this is not a moral proceeding. South ethics requires us always to judge the action by the results, good and bad, and not by its conformity to a rule, regardless of results. The validity of moral rules does not lie in themselves as though strict conformity to them were good regardless of what happened. That a moral rule has come to be established means of course that it is generally to the interests of people that it should be followed and that when it is broken evil results, but that does not mean that it must never be broken. It may be necessary, though if that is the case it will be exceptional and regrettable, and evil will follow.

This immediately suggests the second reason for confusion in the conventional view: the failure to draw a distinction between what is evil and what is morally wrong. It is a good rule, for instance, not to inflict pain, but serious operations involving suffering are sometimes necessary, and if we avoid them even more pain will result. The evil in such cases has to be accepted. Again, lying is generally wrong and always an evil, but we resort to deception of the enemy in war, and sometimes conceal the truth from sick persons. There are certainly occasions when not to lie would be a most immoral course of conduct, as when we might have to misdirect an intending murderer to save his victim’s life. There is an ethical principle involved here: There is no moral rule that duty may not compel us to break in exceptional cases.2

Every morally serious person finds himself from time to time in a situation where he must break a moral rule to achieve a greater good; and he believes that he is right to do so. The principle that it is never right to depart from moral principles, even to achieve some good end, no matter how many people would suffer if the rule were not broken, far from reflecting a superior ethical standpoint is supremely unethical and is generally regarded as such.

When moral rules are broken we become responsible for evil and although at the same time we may be achieving good, that good is diminished by reason of the evil we do. We must never console ourselves by saying that the evil is really good because it attains good ends. It would be quite incorrect to say that any means that produce a good end are themselves ipso facto good. That would indeed be an expression of the thoroughly unethical doctrine that the end justifies the means, and so would any decision which considered only the end and its value and did not balance against it the evil involved in the means. An ethical approach will acknowledge that the means are evil and will weigh that evil against the good that it achieves; if the decision is to adopt those means, they are still recognised as evil, but because the good outweighs that evil it is morally right to adopt them. The means are evil—but it may nevertheless be immoral not to use them.

The person who sticks to the rule regardless of the fact that by doing so he is responsible for more evil that if he broke it, is not the highly moral person that he claims to be, but morally irresponsible.

The third reason for confusion in the conventional view is implicit in the two reasons discussed above. As Professor Field has stated it:

From the point of view of practical decision, the end does always justify the means in the sense that the course of action which will produce a balance of good results in the circumstances should be adopted. [But] the particular course of action which may be the best means to a particular end, may also produce other results which are not desirable; and if on striking a balance we find that this course of action will produce more evil than good, it should, of course, not be adopted.

In other words, when considering the end likely to be achieved by the means we are contemplating one must take into consideration all the consequences of the means adopted—not merely the direct consequence, the main end, but the indirect consequences, those perhaps undesirable results flowing from the means but not part of the result aimed at. A good deal of misunderstanding is obviously due to the critics entirely ignoring this generally admitted qualification. They invariably assume, and on no grounds at all except their own determination to put their opponents in the wrong, that those who select the means appropriate to a certain end deliberately ignore the evil flowing from those means. Why in the world should they? The means are chosen because they are suitable; they are suitable because their results are good, and these results include all and not merely some of the results.


The real issue in the controversy over means and ends is not therefore as to whether we may or may not adopt means involving evil to attain a good which outbalances that evil or to avoid a still greater evil, but as to whether the good attained is really worth the cost, or whether there is another route to that good involving less evil. We may also disagree not only as to worth of the good to be achieved but as to the extent of the evil involved in attaining it, and here the point of view and the social position of the contestants affects considerably their decisions. No class will ever resent the injustice done to others as much as it resents the injustice from which it suffers. Those who do not themselves suffer from the evils of unemployment will never regard it as an evil greater than the evil to them of social remedies for unemployment which touch their privileges. It is factors like these that underlie the ethical struggles in matters of willed social change or transformation.

I will only add that adoption of means involving evil, however necessary, needs to be done in full awareness of the insidiously corrupting power of evil. It is not a matter of ‘a little water clears us of this deed’. Evil, and for that matter good, is not something that you can switch off and on at will, as Machiavelli says his Prince can and should. Far more relevant and insightful here is Shakespeare when King Macbeth desperately asks: Will these hands never be clean again? (‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making green one red.’)

The above discussion puts the issue of ‘India winning freedom through Gandhian non-violence’ in proper light. I am not going to discuss the validity of this claim or attempt any exhaustive assessment of Gandhian politics in our freedom struggle, much less his role as an astute politician as, for example, in the Subhash Bose episode or as an idealist as, for example, in the Bhagat Singh episode where there is always the consideration that those truly passionate about an ideal tend to justify any means to achieve it. I will only draw attention to a few considerations to argue for a more honest or balanced view of the success of Gandhian non-violence in winning India’s freedom in 1947.

We may again note Gandhi’s own view in this regard, as expressed in the wake of Mountbatten settlement and the accompanying horrors of communal conflict and massacres spread over wide areas of India:

I do not understand how all these terrible things are happening in our country. For many years the Congress has struggled and grown, and it has grown stronger and stronger, and advanced higher and higher; but now, after we have reached the pinnacle, somehow these horrible things are happening, and the Congress is not able to do anything effective to stop them. What mistakes have we made, for we must have made mistakes? Otherwise how could all these things happen? It seems that while we were building the Congress, at the same time it was decaying; and today it is obvious that it has decayed, because it is not able to fight all the bad things that are going on in India today.


Everything looks dark to me, very dark, and I see very little hope. Some people say that after the dark night comes the bright dawn; but I only see the darkness of the night. I do not know when the dawn will come.

Yet again, when Gandhi proclaimed his last fast (on January 12, 1948) against the spreading horror:

Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than I should be a helpless witness to the destruction of India.

We have also noted that India today is a monument to the failure of Gandhi’s politics of non-violence. Not only his larger ideas and ideals stand abandoned, even his particular hopes or promises remain unrealised. For example, communal peace and harmony he sought remains as distant as ever and those whom he anointed ‘harijans’ continue to suffer as they have done all along.

(Perhaps Gandhi had some presentiment of this failure. His fast of January 12, 1948 was not only for communal peace but also against corruption in the Congress—‘factionalism and money-making activities’ of its legislators and Ministers. ‘Let us beware,’ he had warned, and advised even disbanding of the Congress—an advice which was simply ignored by power-hungry Congress leaders).

Surely it is not denying Gandhi’s greatness, or his pioneering role in mobilising millions in the cause of India’s freedom, to suggest that all this and much else that is wrong with India today, has something to do with Gandhi’s politics of non-violence in India’s freedom struggle.


Votaries of non-violence at home or abroad, however, continue to cite India’s freedom as a success story of Gandhian non-violence. As I have said above, my concern here is not with the merits of this claim, only with pointing out that in terms of the means-ends controversy, this is a confused, if not dishonest, claim in the sense that focusing on the end in view. India’s freedom, it overlooks other ends or consequences resulting from the Gandhian means.

The first and foremost consideration here is the partition of the country, the hideous orgy of violence, of mass murders and destruction which accompanied it, and the long term cost of it all that we are still paying and the future generations will continue to pay.

It is true that when the peaceful settlement he sought arrived in the shape of Mountbatten Award and was revealed to bring the partition of India and communal riots, Gandhi was the first to sound the alarm and oppose it. ‘Vivisection of India can only take place over my dead body,’ he declared and jumped into the fray. Gandhi indeed died, battling in the cause of communal peace and unity of India. Even so Gandhi’s politics cannot escape the responsibility for the partition of India and what accompanied or followed it. The parts of India which ultimately went into the making of Pakistan were predominantly feudal areas with vast masses of impoverished Muslim peasantry. Gandhi’s policy prescriptions for India’s national movement had little or nothing to offer this peasantry to draw it into India’s freedom struggle. Gandhi’s social theory simply could not accommodate a programme of radical land reforms. The absence of any such programme together with Gandhi’s combination of nationalism with Hindu revivalism and his use of Hindu symbols in the national movement left this Muslim peasantry eminently vulnerable to the appeal of Muslim League’s communal politics as also to the imperialist policies of playing on religious divisions—all of which helped to sow the seeds of the terrible harvest that was the partition of India. This denouement was also, in part at least, the nemesis of a quarter century’s preaching of non-violence frustrating the revolutionary energy of the masses.

Again, Gandhi’s search for a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the British allowed them to continue with their imperialist policies and intrigues, foment divisive communalism, play the Congress and Muslim League against each other and ultimately succeed in partitioning India and salvaging as much of their imperialist interests as possible. Peaceful settlement also meant that there was no revolutionary overthrow of the imperialist rule, no breaking away from the old order of things. The freedom that was won involved no economic, social or political revolution in the country, only a transfer of power from the foreign rulers to Indian rulers—‘the political independence has done little more than displace a foreign with a native privileged group’ is how Gunnar Mydral saw it a couple of decades later.

It was typical of Gandhi’s politics of non-violence that when the greatest national upsurge swept India after the Second World War—popular support for INA soldiers on trial, strike in the Royal Indian Navy, peasant struggles (for example Tebhaga in Bengal and Telangana in Hyderabad) working class actions (for example the countrywide postal strike), people’s movements and revolts in the Princely states, etc.—which also witnessed unprecedented Hindu-Muslim fraternisation in the streets, Gandhi saw in this upsurge only the threat of ‘delivering India over to the rabble’ and hastened to welcome the Cabinet Mission and advocate a compromise settlement with the British. If for the Viceroy Wavell, as he noted in his journal, India was ‘on the edge of a volcano’, which soon led the British to abandon any hopes of holding out longer, particularly since even the loyalty of Indians in the army was now suspect, for Gandhi, this revolt from below with its revolutionary possibilities was the menace of ‘red ruin and anarchy’, which had to be countered or averted with a compromise settlement with the British.

Yet again, implicit in the peaceful settlement noted above was another long-term consequence that needs to be considered. It was the old socio-economic and state-bureaucratic structures left behind by the freedom of 1947, which, with all their structural compulsions, became the basis for the post-independence Nehruvian national project of self-reliant economic development promising ‘growth with equity and distributive justice’, but which, given the structural logic of its basis, almost inevitably ended up as ‘a type of capitalist development in the interests of a narrow section of Indian society’ as V.K.R.V. Rao described it. Passing through a series of crises mid-sixties onwards, the Nehruvian project finally collapsed in 1991 with the ruling classes going for ‘globalisation’ as their new strategic option—a shift from the state-supported capitalism to a wholly privatised ‘free market’ capitalism and from self-reliance in economic development to reliance on Foreign Direct Investment and the multinationals, a shift euphemistically described as ‘economic reform’ whose structural logic as a former President of Brazil once reported it to the masters in Washington, is: ‘the economy is doing fine, the people are not’. Whatever be the benefits that ‘economic reform’ has brought to a small section at the top, it has further polarised our society, played havoc with the lives and livelihoods of the common people and pushed our poor still further into a peripheralised existence within the global capitalist system.


Apropos India’s ‘development’ during the Nehru era, I had written:

To borrow from Tom Paine’s metaphoric rejoinder to Burke’s attack on the French revolution, admiration for the ‘plumage’ of India’s ‘national development’ should not prevent us from seeing its failure in ‘the dying bird’. The world indeed looks very different from below, when the poor and oppressed of ‘our nation’ look at it.

This is even more true of ‘development’ during the current era of neo-liberal economic reform, when we not only continue to move away from everything Gandhi held dear or wanted for his people, but our society remains structurally saturated with violence and our people continue to bear the ‘terrible costs of not changing the existing order’.

This too is, in its own way, a consequence of Gandhi’s politics of non-violence, the means which, it is claimed, won us our freedom.

There is much else in Gandhi’s politics or in India today which can be considered as the consequences other than freedom of India which the votaries of non-violence almost invariably ignore. For example, Gandhi’s love and concern for the common man notwithstanding, his ‘non-violence’ continues to be useful to the ruling classes in various ways. Or, Gandhi’s involvement with Hinduism (including his effort to purify it), his combination of nationalism with Hindu revivalism or mixing of religion with politics, his openly avowed and expressed religiosity may not have much to do with the present day Hindutava, ‘cultural nationalism’, religiosity or revivalism, but all this has certainly served as an obstacle to the much-needed secularisation of Indian polity. Or the obscurantist elements in Gandhi’s world outlook, which have obviously reactionary, anti-people implications and which, incidentally, have allowed today’s post-modernist obscurantism to line up Gandhi in support of its attack on what is described as ‘imperious enlightenment vision’; and so on.

One can concede these other consequences—other than India’s freedom—flowing from or associated with Gandhi’s politics of non-violence and still argue that freedom as won in 1947 was worth the cost or that it was the only suitable route to India’s freedom. But the argument has to be more honest or balanced than it normally is or has been. It should, at the very least, allow for a different assessment of the cost and suitability of both this route and a possibly better and less costly revolutionary route to India’s freedom espoused, among others, by Bhagat Singh later in his life. As Indian people’s struggle for freedom continues, the issue in any case remains open and relevant today.

I will conclude this address by returning to the point I had made at the beginning. Violence is a social, conjuncturally produced phenomenon. Most violence today arises from the way ‘the modern society’ is organised and from the politics and practices of the dominant classes or elites. To borrow Macpherson’s analogy, complaining about the bread (violence in this case) we must not forget the bakery (that is the society) which produces it. Therefore even as we seek specific remedies for specific forms of violence in our society—which, however arisen, often tend to become an autonomous factor in society—we need to move towards organising a just and humane, genuinely democratic society. It is going to be a long haul. But there is no alternative.


1. The argument here is reproduced from John Lewis’ two contributions to The Modern Quarterly, in 1946 and 1950.

2. Gandhi, incidentally, allowed such breaking of moral rules and did not rule out even adoption of violence under certain circumstances.

Prof Randhir Singh is a renowned Marxist scholar and retired Professorof Political Theory, University of Delhi.

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