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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 32, July 30, 2011

Duragraha in the Name of Satyagraha: A Gandhian Perspective

Monday 1 August 2011


Sometime back the incidents at the Ramlila Ground, yoga-guru Ramdev’s political gimmicks, and now Anna Hazare’s new threat of Satyagraha fast at Jantar Mantar have created an urgent occasion to reflect over Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of ‘Satyagraha’. It is important to recall Gandhi’s handling of the term because some civil-society representatives, various political groups and others are relying heavily on the Gandhian phenomenon of protest and struggle. All of them invariably call their movements as Satyagraha. The popular support they are fetching is also due to the symbolic connection with Gandhi’s ‘fast-unto-death’. The purpose of this article is not to devalue the historic need of a stronger anti-corruption Act or drive, but only to suggest some points from historical hindsight to understand the contemporary popular protest movements’ appropriateness for branding themselves as ‘Gandhian’.

At the very sunset, it needs to be said that Mahatma Gandhi’s activities were never fragmented in their approach and style. The main domain of all his activities was politically organic.1 Satyagraha was an important component of it but it was not the ‘only’ act, and he never propagated it in isolation. For pursuing his politics, he made interactive relationships and engagements with various streams of public life and politics. The only exception in this regard was communal and casteist politics to which he never gave legitimacy. Gandhi showed extraordinary vigilance to keep his movements away from reactionary elements.

The present movement of the Anna team and similar ones by others are not only non-political or apolitical in their content but these are also trying to defame and belittle the parliamentary democratic system. It is not, like criticising the malfunctioning and ineffectiveness of the parliamentary system in India as a public tool for the welfare of the Indian people. What these proponents of mass movements are doing (consciously or unconsciously) is only to reach a political catastrophe. The destination of these movements would be to reach a political vacuum and an atmosphere of helplessness that might be exploited for the advantage of creating cheaper political blackmailers in the shape of benevolent fascism.

It is important to remember that Gandhi always propagated his Satyagraha doctrine with extraordinary zeal to characterise its basic precepts. He launched all his Satyagraha movements with utmost care and restraint. For example, he wrote in 1934:

Everyone cannot use surgical instruments. Many may use them if there is an expert behind them directing their use. I claim to be a Satyagraha expert in the making. I need to be far more careful than the expert surgeon who is a complete master of his science. I am still a humble searcher.2

The main purpose of this cautiousness was to distance the movement from petty power-seekers and self-righteous elements.3 Gandhi was a great mass movement strategist who also knew the negative aspects of populism-based mass movements which could often do disservice to the ‘cause’. For example, in a speech at the Madras Social Service League in 1916, he said:

For social service, as for any other service on the face of the earth, there is one condition indispensable, viz., proper qualifications on the part of those who want to render that service. The question to be asked is whether most of us who are already engaged in this kind of service and those who aspire to render that service, possess the necessary qualifications; because you will agree with me that servants, if they can mend matters, can also spoil matters, and in trying to do service, however well-intentioned that service might be, if they are not qualified for that service, they will be rendering not service but disservice.4

For countering the populism based ‘massisation’ of democratic politics, he emphasised the pre-requisites for becoming a genuine and sincere satyagrahi. To differentiate between a genuine satyagrahi and a stubborn action-mode enthusiast, he coined the term ‘Duragraha’ or ‘A-Satyagraha (anything but Satyagraha)’. To make my argument clearer I refer here only two incidents.

When Gandhi launched his Satyagraha doctrine at the national level in India, many public enthusiasts tried to copy it unintelligently. Gandhi rebuked such instances in strongest terms. For example, some employees of a market in Bombay offered a peculiar kind of Satyagraha for enhancement of their salaries, laying down flat to completely block the entrance of the market and had their placards—‘you may as well tread on the stomachs of the poor and get in’—prominently displayed. The leader also resolved to go on a one-day fast. Gandhi, knowing all this was being done in the name of Satyagraha, rebuked them in these words:

I do not see any Satyagraha in what you have done. Satyagraha is not a weapon which can be used to exact what you want by force….It cannot be justice pure and simple that you may get through the means you have employed. How
can a hunger-strike prove the justice of your demands?...what you have done is not Satyagraha, but the very acme of ‘A-Satyagraha’ (anything but Satyagraha).5

Similarly in April 1919, he criticised the people of Bombay who took recourse to Duragraha (violent activities in streets, throwing brickbats at the police and road blockage, un-civilian gestures etc.) following Gandhi’s arrest, in these words:
I have not been able to understand so much excitement and disturbance that followed my detention. It is not Satyagraha. It is worse than Duragraha.6

In fact, Gandhi did not satisfy himself with that statement and he instantly released a Press Statement in which he adopted even stronger language to delink himself from the Duragrahis. He reiterated that

He had absolutely no sympathy whatever with those who were duragrahis. They must be punished for their misdeeds and they could claim no sympathy from the public….The Satyagraha struggle must be conducted in a quiet and peaceful manner and in the true spirit of Satyagraha.7

As a matter of fact, Gandhi never justified any mass movement only for the sake of it. It was not an easy task for a political mass leader because mass movements of any type would bring with them a lot of mass support, excitement and expectations (however false that might be). But Gandhi was sure that a closer scrutiny of the mass movement rhetoric was necessary at any point of time. To accomplish that task, he compared the notions of Satyagraha and Duragraha.8 And in this comparison he gave valuable insights to be able to understand the Gandhian mind of protest and struggle. Prominent Gandhi scholar Joan V. Bondurant has analysed it in her classic Conquest of Violence. This article owes a lot from her work.

GANDHI’S notion of Satyagraha is a synthesis of ‘method of action’ and ‘method of enquiry’. Both work simultaneously. And, in the process, affect the course of action according to the lights gained from this dialectical method. 9 The enquiry part of Satyagraha is equally important as the action part of it, because a Satyagrahi has also to acquire adequate knowledge and realities about the reason of the cause which has prompted him to offer Satyagraha. A Satyagrahi, by instinct, functions in a dialogic open mindset realising the complexities of ‘Truth’.10 Of course, he tries his best to combat the bias of his adversary but he also tries to un-bias himself from any ill judgment. Gandhi stressed the need of focusing and attacking the root of the problem, not only on the symptoms of it. That is why he sought for a change or transformation in the ‘system’ and he consciously refrained from giving negative certificates to the individuals working within that system. He had realised from his long political career that error of judgment and making mistakes is not the lot of his opponents alone. Even well-intentioned public activists could also do wrong, consciously or unconsciously.11

Gandhi always emphasised that since Satyagraha was one of the most powerful methods of direct action, a Satyagrahi was morally bound to exhaust all other means before resorting to it. He would therefore constantly and continually approach the constitutional authority, he would appeal to public opinion, would state his case calmly and coolly before everybody who wants to listen to him, and only after he had exhausted all those avenues would he resort to Satyagraha.12

The most important point in this context is that the Satyagrahi would do all these functions of Satyagraha with an enquiring mind and with the gesture of his willingness to alter his position at any point of time. Gandhi’s purpose of making it an indispensable qualification for calling himself a Satyagrahi was, in fact, to resist the egoistic mindset in the Satyagrahi’s thinking process.

In Duragraha, the element of ‘stubborn resistance’ and ‘fixed prejudgment’ is a dominant factor and the course of action is adopted by this irrevocable rigidity. A Duragrahi takes it for granted that what he insists upon as Truth or injustice is the only truth. He shows extraordinary zeal and haste to launch a mass movement and either very easily betrays the cause or falls a victim to shabby power politics by grabbing the fruits of his movement at whatever cost. There also involves an element of fanaticism and cynicism in his behaviour which would also be against democratic norms. The Duragraha movements concentrate on romanticised extremist notions and demands, without giving proper attention to ‘constructive democratic politics’ and details.13

Gandhi always insisted upon the need to understand the crucial difference between a genuine public activist (Satyagrahi) and an egoistic activity enthusiast who would indulge in public work only for satisfying his ego or seeking power and reputation. As he warned in Young India in 1925,

…..Heroism and sacrifices in a bad cause are so much waste of splendid energy and hurt the good cause by drawing away attention from it by the glamour of the misused heroism and sacrifice in a bad cause.14

He was a great observer of people and Indian culture. He had found from experience that populist mass politics might also be used to sideline the real, concrete issues of pro-poor orientation and quest for a positive democratic, radical transformation. To secure his long-term movement from such degeneration, he asked for humility, non-violence (democratic consciousness), insistence on truth-derivation and a natural disinclination from world pleasures (anti-capital orientation) to every activist so that the movement might not be derailed. Egoistic, self-righteous gestures and their off-shoots, like individual inner-appeasements, were not his style of politics. For example, in 1924, Gandhi advised a ‘no-holds-barred’ type of Satyagraha enthusiast with these valuable insights:
In the first place, one should never embark upon non-cooperation all of a sudden. Evil customs which have prevailed for ages cannot be eradicated in a moment. Reform is one-legged, and so proceeds haltingly. Anyone who loses patience can never become a pure satyagrahi…. The thing is that a reformer should be free of egotism. Why should we assume responsibility for ending all evils? We should be content with speaking the truth ourselves and acting truthfully. Likewise, in regard to the civil practices in the community, we should see that our own attitude and conduct are blameless and we maintain a neutral attitude towards others.

To think “I do this, I do that” is ignorance, like that of a dog who thought that the cart was being drawn by him…. We should learn these by heart and, as they suggest, remain free from pride… As proud of our sacrifices and in the arrogance of our views, we abuse our friends who cooperate with the Government.15

It does not mean that he believed in goody-goody type of politics. He was perhaps the greatest critic of British imperialism and the colonial structure of exploitation it had built in India. He was the initiator of bringing the quest for anti-untouchability in national politics. He never minced his words in criticising religious orthodoxy and other negative features of the Indian society. But, he did not centre his arguments on individual defamation. He did not believe that one Dyer or Linlithgo or one orthodox Brahmin’s extinction from the scene will do any good to the cause. Because innumerable others will grow unless the issues are dealt with in an organic, systematic and strategic way. Gandhi was an irrepressible optimist. And, he expanded this optimism even to transform the opponent. But, ‘transformation of opponent’ was not his basic strategy of social change. It was a constructive option always offered to opponents for a dignified exit or change his ways for the welfare of people. If the opponent, even then, refused to mend his ways, Gandhi had great political skill to nullify his influence in the shape of non-cooperation and Satyagraha.

NOWADAYS, all types of public activists feel attracted towards the Satyagraha slogan. Even communal, casteist and other reactionary elements adopt one or two aspects of the Satyagraha drive for pursuing their politics. Gandhi always remained aware that this was the caricature of his Satyagraha doctrine. So he intertwined many other prerequisites with his doctrine. He emphasised that ‘self-suffering’, ‘voluntary poverty’ and ‘convertibility of ends and means’ were the basic essentials for a public activist. The self-suffering concept should not be mingled with egoistic gestures like fast etc. because Gandhi knew that egoistic gestures are the symptoms of Duragraha. Of course, fast was an important weapon in Gandhi’s armoury but he used it against those whom he considered his kith and kin and inseparable from his orbit of politics. It was not like forcing the opponent to do something fixed by him. It was quite opposite to the approach of the self-proclaimed civil society representative like Hazare who, on the one hand, criticises the government and parlia-mentary democracy-based politics and its representatives and threatens the government with fast and, on the other, hopes to get fortunes from them. Gandhi did not propagate or convene his fast in the category of ‘we’ and ‘they’. His discourse and political gestures generated self-introspection and developed a constructive milieu in non-confrontational ways of radical democratic politics. Moreover, politically, it was his method of controlling things within the grand national political movement of which he considered himself as the Generalissimo. In this way, fast was like an activity from a head of family to enforce his will.

Self-suffering and voluntary poverty notions in Satyagraha were introduced by Gandhi to bring purity of purpose, utmost transparency and sincerity in public actions so that only competent and deserving people would come forward for the public cause. His ends-means rhetoric was repeatedly focused due to his sense of respect for democratic structures, due procedures and his distaste for opportunistic hastiness. Otherwise, the ‘movement’ might be swept away by smallar minds, incompetent intellects or masqueraders.

Moreover in this time of Satyagraha zeal, one should not afford to forget that Gandhi’s Satyagraha of militant form was a strategy derived by him for fighting injustices against colonial rule. That is why, when India was approaching independence, Gandhi, like a concrete revolutionary, started propagating in favour of parliamentary democracy as the future field of contestation for politics. For example, in 1945, he told a prominent kisan leader, Prof N.G. Ranga, that
Civil disobedience and non-cooperation are designed for use when people, the tillers of the soil, have no political power. But immediately after they have political power, naturally their character will be ameliorated through legislative channels.16

He echoed similar ideas in 1946 at the AICC meeting, for approval of a Resolution in favour of the Constituent Assembly by saying that
I regard the Constituent Assembly as the substitute of Satyagraha. It is constructive Satyagraha.17

Again, he said:

I do not consider the proposed Constituent Assembly to be non-revolutionary. I have said and I do mean it cent per cent that the proposed Constituent Assembly is an effective substitute for civil disobedience of the constructive type.18

But even before that in 1937, he was convinced of the historical value of parliamentary democracy. He wrote that

In making room for parliamentary programme, we are advancing a step further in the direction of non-violence…Truth and non-violence are both the means and the end, and given the type of men, the legislature can be the means of achieving the concrete pursuit of truth and non-violence. If they cannot be, that will be our fault and not theirs. If we have a real hold on the masses, the legislatures are bound to be that and nothing less.19 


1. In 1919, describing the rationale of his engagement with politics, Gandhi said: ‘If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish, therefore, to wrestle with the snake as I have been doing with more or less success consciously since 1894…’ See, R.K. Prabhu and U.R. Rao (eds.), The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, first published 1945, 2002, p. 101.

2. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Volume III, pp. 260-61, Publications Division, New Delhi.

3. Self-righteousness and ego-centric political gestures are unsuited for any genuine democratic pursuit.

4. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWMG), Volume 13, ‘Speech at Gandhi Social Service League’, 16.02.1916, pp. 235-36, Publications Division, New Delhi.

5. Mahadev H. Desai, Day to Day with Gandhi [Secretary’s Diary], Vol 1, 21.01.1919, pp. 276-77, Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi.

6. CWMG-15, Satyagraha Leaflet No.3, 11.04.1919, p. 211. The Independent newspaper published the report with the headline: ‘Be Satyagrahi, Not Duragrahi’. See The Independent, VII, No. 57, 15.04.1919, Allahabad.

7. ‘Interview to The Press’, The Bombay Chronicle, 14.04. 1919, CWMG-15, p. 214. Also see, CWMG-67, pp. 92, 289-90; CWMG-84, pp. 5-6.

8. R.R. Diwakar, an important Gandhian thinker, for making a distinction between Satyagraha and Duragraha, has written that “Category which may sometimes resemble Gandhian Satyagraha is what he called ‘Duragraha’. We are witness to a number of ‘Duragraha’ nowadays. A duragrahi takes it for granted that what he insists upon as truth or justice is the only truth and justice and adopts tactics which are in externals similar to those of Gandhian Satyagraha. There is more of fanaticism in it which is in fact the worst enemy of truth and coercive measures are adopted which are opposed to the very spirit of non-violence and Gandhian Satyagraha.” See R.R. Diwakar, Saga of Satyagraha, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1969, p. 30. Also see, in this connection, Raghavan N. Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1973, 2003, pp. 310-12.

9. Bondurant, in this context of this argument, refers to the famous lines of Samuel Beer. These make more explicit the crucial importance of the enquiring aspect of Satyagraha. Samuel Beer wrote: “An enquiring mind comes to a problem with certain purposes, but in its contact with facts those purposes are modified and enriched. New traits in a situation may be perceived and that perception will modify the purposes which were brought to the situation. Thus creative solutions arise. In the continuum of inquiry, the inquirer’s perspective is continually developed. The purposes and interests which he brings to inquiry guide him in his contacts with the facts. But what he learns about the facts in turn guides the development of his interests and purposes. If he is to learn, he must start from what he already knows. In that sense his approach to the facts is limited and biased and he is ‘blind’ to many aspects of the facts. But we must not forget that he can learn and that in the course of learning his initial purposes may be greatly enlarged and deepened.” See Joan V. Bondurant, ‘Satyagraha versus Duragraha: The Limits of Symbolic Violence’ in G. Ramachandran and T.K. Mahadevan (eds.), Gandhi: His Relevance For Our Time, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay, 1964, pp. 70-71.

10. As Gandhi put it in these words, ‘I let the party act upon me and influence me as much as it will. It enables me to know it at its best. I make no secret of my intention that by coming under its influence, I hope to influence it in favour of my method. If in the process, it redeems me and converts me, all honour to it. I should then declare my conversion from the house top.’ Tendulkar, op. cit., Vol III, p. 2.

11. As in 1925, in the context of error of judgment Gandhi said that ‘his consciousness of the fallibility of the human nature must make him humble and even ready to retrace his steps immediately after he discovers his error’. Tendulkar, op. cit., III, p. 204.

For another example, Gandhi wrote in Young India 12.05.1920 which is, in his typical language, an introspective vigilant social scientist’s tone: “I think that the word ‘saint’ should be ruled out of present life. It is too sacred a word to be lightly applied to anybody, much less to one like myself who claims only to be a humble searcher of Truth, knows his limitations, never hesitate to admit them…. and frankly confesses, like a scientist, is making experiment about some ‘of the eternal varieties of life…’” Prabhu and Rao, op. cit., p. 3.

12. Prabhu and Rao, op. cit., pp. 170-71.

13. We are of the view that Duragraha in mass movement-based politics and its offshoots in socio-political matters arise due to incorrect and often vague understanding of the overall complex issues of society. ‘Real radicalism’ should be a scientific enquiry which has to be explored through ideological struggles and not through populism-centred demagogy or verbal jugglery. In our view, taking extreme positions in socio-political matters is a type of intellectual dissipation which, like, all revisionist tendencies, has to be ideologically fought against. For a brilliant example of this analysis, see Vladimir Lenin, “‘Left Wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder”, Collected Works, Vol 31, Progress Publishers, Moscow pp. 17-118. Also available on Internet website

14. Prabhu and Rao, op. cit., p. 179.

15. CWMG-23, Navajivan, 13.04.1924, p. 432-36.

16. Tendulkar, op. cit., VI, ‘In Memorium’, 1944-45, p. 292.

17. Tendulkar, op. cit., VII, ‘Real Danger’, 1946, pp. 147-48.

18. Tendulkar, op. cit., VII, ‘Meaning of Independence’, 1946, p. 159.

19. Tendulkar, op. cit., IV, pp. 160-61.

The author is a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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