This ICNC Academic Webinar was presented on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015 by Mary King, author, whose works include, among others: “Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement,” “A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance,” and her latest book, “Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-1925 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change.” King is also a professor of peace and conflict studies at the UN-affiliated University for Peace and an ICNC academic advisor.
Watch the webinar below:
1. Introduction of the Speaker: 00:02- 03:00
2. Presentation: 03:08 – 46:40
3. Questions and Answers: 46:41 – 01:00:52
In this webinar, King will talk about the main findings of her most recent book “Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-1925 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change.” In the Indian village of Vykom (now in Kerala, India,) a 1920s nonviolent struggle sought to open to everyone the roads surrounding the Brahmin temple there. For centuries, almost anyone could walk these roads, except for so-called untouchable Hindus. From April 1924 to November 1925, what Mohandas K. Gandhi called a satyagraha was waged to gain access for excluded groups to the routes encircling the temple compound.
As the 604-day campaign persisted, it gripped British India and beyond, while revealing extreme forms of discrimination practiced by the upper castes: untouchability, unapproachability, and unseeability. The campaign, however, suffered from specific strategic shortcomings. Leadership quandaries abounded while excessively optimistic planning left the campaign directionless. The outcome of the campaign suggests that the conversion – an important mechanism of change theoretically achievable in successful nonviolent struggles – should be redefined to reference an ideal. When civil resistance is chosen to fight deep-seated social pathologies like racism and untouchability, a “settlement” may be out of reach. Instead, strategies of management, comparable to confronting a chronic disease, may be preferable.
King’s findings stress the need to undertake research with unknown, ignored, forgotten, lost or misrepresented civil resistance campaigns or movements, as they hold important lessons for current and future nonviolent struggles.
Further Participant Questions
Questions not addressed during the webinar recording itself.
Participant’s Question: What were the main challenges you faced in conducting this research?
Mary King: I appreciate this question, because I want to encourage others to undertake serious original research on past nonviolent struggles. So much has been obscured or erased. I could almost write a small book (or make a movie!) about conducting the research. I started by cleaning out everything that I could find at Oxford. Secondary sources have generally not been reliable on this struggle, but I found old collateral works that were useful on the Hindu caste system, good anthropology, and books on the Maharani. My chronicling of the 1924-5 Vykom satyagraha ultimately is based on (1) examining primary sources (original correspondence and letters, extensive police reports, correspondence between the British Police Commissioner and the palace officials, hand-written notes, minutes of meetings) in repositories and archives in Kerala and New Delhi; (2) newspaper morgues in Kerala; (3) digesting secondary sources (non-original documents, often historical analyses written by Keralan specialist historians and social scientists); (4) formal interviews in New Delhi and Kerala with a great number of Keralan and Indian historians, scholars, and journalists, and (5) circumstantial information from local people in Vykom from walking about the village, accompanied by Professor Sanal Mohan.
A major challenge was that the State of Kerala does not grant easy access to its archives, claiming the need for barriers due to alleged past theft of documents by foreign researchers. I was required to have three locally recognized historians certify my validity and character as a scholar and researcher. Directors of the archives varied in their interest and support of my purposes, some facilitating my work and others having quite another outlook. As a political scientist, I adopted a methodology based on attempting to confirm events, interpretations, and assertions through three sources, preferably from differing types of resources. This is called “triangulation,” meaning a triangle of sources. Not every researcher is so strict. Yet asking of yourself that you try to have at least 3 sources for every assertion helps to keep a firm grip and hold suppositions at bay. As my research took place long after the actual events, I could not always find three different sources that concurred (from informants, primary documents, newspaper articles and so on). In the book, I must sometimes note conflicting information encountered in historical analyses and archival records. In conducting such deep original research on an historical nonviolent struggle over a period of years, one slowly develops sensitivity to the forces at work, as the documents reveal their own truths (or gaps). So far as I know, this is the first narrative of the Vykom satyagraha constructed on the basis of scrupulous searching, made more rigorous by my own standard of seeking three sources to substantiate each element of the chronicle.
I needed insight on the role of newspapers in the princely state. Professor K. Gopalankutty of Calicut University, contextualized for me how by 1905 the Travancore Princely State had more than twenty Malayalam language and English papers, which were able to reach a public much larger than their individual subscriber base. This extraordinarily high level of literacy and interest in public affairs at that time is part of the backdrop to this fascinating narrative and is consistent with the high rankings of Kerala compared with the rest of India in these and other spheres, such as health status, gender equity, and emergence of political parties. The Mathrubhumi (Motherland) newspaper executives (who were affiliated with the Congress Party and also in some instances acted as key figures in the Vykom campaign) utilized their broadsheet to work on the problems of the princely state as they saw it, making it one of a number of small newspapers that were pro-nationalist, pro-reform, and simultaneously able to play a productive role in the Vykom engagement. Other outlets, published by the landowning classes, were in opposition. Mathrubhumi could straightforwardly support the Vykom struggle, partly because it was located in what was then the Malabar District, where a newspaper published under British India had more freedom to express an angle than would have been the case in the princely states.
This raises the question of whether the Mathrubhumi reports were objective, because of the paper’s affiliation with the Congress party. Actually, the virtue of this newspaper for this chronicling is that it had a correspondent in the village of Vykom filing dispatches and accounts three times a week, throughout the duration of the 604-day struggle. This level of constancy in a newspaper’s reportage is a precious resource for building a chronicle, although there were many gaps. The relative steadiness of the Mathrubhumi’s reporting helped me to chart a baseline for the chronology, against which I could seek verification, contradiction, or amplification from other sources. Editorials were of less interest, but sometimes helped with collateral material. I had challenges, but I also had advantages. My analysis benefited immensely from the generosity of historian Vasu Thilleri, of PSMO College, Kozhikode (Calicut), and his years of study. Professors M. G. S. Narayanan, K. N. Panikkar, and N. N. Pillai offered me unsurpassed insight and generosity. Dr. George Mathew, founder and chair of the Institute of Social Sciences, in New Delhi, offered exceptional assistance over the course of years. A wide number of journalists and social scientists were unstinting in welcoming my queries. I could not have done the book without the research assistance of Dinoo Anna Mathew, a Keralan doctoral candidate in peace and conflict studies at the University for Peace.
The biggest disappointment to me was the complete absence of primary materials written by the satyagrahis, the volunteers, themselves. Varying explanations are possible. Yet it is also worth remembering Michel Foucault’s analysis of archives as “documents of exclusion” and of archival institutions as “monuments to particular configurations of power,” which become “system[s] that establish events and things.” Jacques Derrida took this further with his conception of “archivization” as a process of making permanent a subjective perception of history, suggesting the notion of authority and dominance over memory. It was beyond my remit to investigate why I found no personal notes, minutes, or private letters by the volunteers in the archives, although I found some flyers and song-sheets. Perhaps now that the Panchayats Raj (local governing councils) have been authorized to work on local histories, some private papers, original documents, and banners may turn up. It was extremely difficult to chart what happened in the so-called solution, because the archives were bare. Newspaper accounts were vague and contradictory. Accounts reaching the Western world misrepresented the facts to an astonishing degree. Interestingly, as the twenty-month struggle moved toward its debatable settlement—termed by Professor K. K. Kusuman, to whom I dedicate the book, “a compromise, and not a complete success”—the Mathrubhumi correspondent’s reports become wobbly. Their ambiguity confirmed for me the dubiousness of the “settlement.” In the end, I needed to rely on Keralan social scientists who had known participants and possessed if not first-hand knowledge at least the comprehension that came from having heard participants’ first-hand accounts.
Participant’s Question: Your point of too much emphasis on conversion over compulsion (power) is seen even today in the differences of views on nonviolent action between two Gandhian practitioners Rev. Dr. James Lawson and Dr. Rev. Bernard LaFayette today. I’ve heard Rev. Lawson mention this disagreement a couple of times saying essentially that Dr. LaFayette, who was his student, places too much emphasis on conversion.
Mary King: Thank you for this question, as it goes to the heart of my findings. When you can, see pp. 300–301 of the book. In the Webinar, I mentioned Gandhi’s fundamental insight in 1905, while still working in South Africa: “For even the most powerful cannot rule without the co-operation of the ruled.” [Gandhi, “Russia and India” (from Gujarati, Indian Opinion, November 11, 1905), in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 5: 8.] This is a riveting, foundational discernment for the method of waging struggle that Gandhi would place on the world stage, while also developing its first codification. In the presentation, I mentioned that he deeply probed social power, but did not talk or write about it as much as he did his moral views. In his speaking and writing, he was seeking to persuade people in the present moment and was not communicating for posterity.
It is incumbent for those of us who are practitioner-analysts, or organizer-scholars, like my fellow worker in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the U.S. civil rights movement, Bernard Lafayette, and my first teacher of nonviolent action in SNCC, the Reverend Dr. James Lawson, to seek to grasp more profound, underlying discriminations. Doing so is complicated by a problem: societies that have won major historical achievements through nonviolent struggle have frequently, even habitually, failed to record these struggles. A worldview has thus become entrenched in which the militarized force of violence, conventional warfare, and armed struggle is overestimated; it has come to be regarded as the strongest force. Meanwhile the achievements of nonviolent action in national struggles for independence, national nonviolent revolutions, and myriad other accomplishments in social alterations are underestimated—forgotten, ignored, neglected, blotted out—even though they may have been more determinative than those cited in the chronicling of armed struggle or conventional warfare.
Glorified reports of the Vykom struggle that reached the Western world with misinterpretations of social change as occurring through “conversion” and self-suffering have done a disservice to the comprehension of the technique of nonviolent struggle. Nonviolent struggle has not been treated with its deserved seriousness in many fields until very recently, in part because metaphysical explanations and a misplaced emphasis on “conversion” and suffering have impeded understanding and posed obstacles to analysis. Gandhi and the people around him used nonviolent action practically and pragmatically. Yet in present-day India and elsewhere this dimension is frequently disregarded as moralistic and seen as not relevant today. In correcting misperceptions of the Vykom campaign and establishing a verifiable chronology for the first time, we are finally able to learn from Gandhi’s mistakes ninety years ago.
Parsing Gandhi, one can see that he pondered deeply how to compel social change in the face of ongoing obstruction and oppression. His expressions on conversion and self-suffering, and his statements that nonviolent action will never fail are, as noted, a hazardous article of faith. If you deconstruct his writings closely you can see that he had discerned at an early stage that suffering love as the process through which he pursued conversion would be of limited efficacy. He did not express himself as often on coercion as he did on moral persuasion, which has led to misperceptions. Obviously, he was acutely aware of the power inherent in mass nonviolent action and spent years wrestling with its practice and prospective powers, but expended much less effort and exertion on its limitations.
Viewing the situation wholly as a Hindu, in Vykom Gandhi relished hope that appeals to the high-caste orthodoxy would be persuasive, and he declared in April 1924 with his tendency for overconfidence, “The [Vykom] Satyagrahis are certain to break down the wall of prejudice, no matter how strong and solid it may be if they continue firm, but humble, truthful and nonviolent. They must have faith in these qualities to know that they will melt the stoniest hearts.” [Gandhi, Young India, April 17, 1924, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 27: 263.] Yet the fact is that literal or excessive emphasis on persuasion and conversion holds real possibilities for harm. It can lead to accepting a deplorable situation because the opponent has not yet been “converted,” resulting in acceptance of intolerable persecution. In addition, unless conversion is described as an ideal, planning and preparation could assume a probability for converting the opponent’s hearts and minds. This can lead to imputing supernatural or superhuman properties to nonviolent action, while also implying that serious, rudimentary power relationships are not included.
The historian Howard Zinn, who was a senior adviser to SNCC, often would say to us, “First we must change behavior, and let attitudes alter at a different pace.”
Social distance is additionally an important factor in assessing whether a targeted group may be amenable to the nonviolent protagonists’ aspiration for “conversion.” In this regard, see Thomas Weber, “ ‘The Marchers Simply Walked Forward until Struck Down’: Nonviolent Suffering and Conversion,” Peace and Change 18, no. 3 (July 1993): 267–89.
Although he held onto his hope for conversion, Gandhi was generally guarded in evincing this view and most certainly did not use these terms in speaking with the Indian National Congress Working Committee. The record is crystal clear that he sought adherence to the rules of action from the working committee, not beliefs, creeds, or perceptions of nonviolence as a way of life. As noted in the Webinar, by 1925 Gandhi was speaking of compel, compulsion, pressure, and public opinion. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1930s (cited on p. 298 in my book) writes that to think of conversion of a class or nation is “to delude oneself.” He calls it an illusion to think that an imperial power will give up its domination of a country, or a class yield its superior advantages, unless “effective pressure, amounting to coercion, is exercised.”
To Nehru, Gandhi was seeking to apply pressure, but he called it conversion.
Furthermore, anticipation of being able to change an opponent’s normative values, attitudes, and beliefs can block acknowledgment of nonviolent struggle as a practical method for fighting for social justice, which might slowly, gradually, and incrementally be substituted for violence. This larger objective is why I have long been involved. Multiple forms of power are generally involved. My research on this archetypal struggle and the notion of “conversion” suggests the importance of avoiding certitude and simplistic impressions of conversion, especially as a basis for the planning and preparation of campaigns of nonviolent action. Let it constitute an ideal. The evidence is otherwise too scant. Additionally, we seriously need robust revisiting of struggles that have been poorly documented, or were, as in Vykom, badly misrepresented.
In SNCC, we viewed the sincerity of an individual’s involvement in the struggle not on the basis of words or statements, but on actions and their willingness to “put their body on the line.” By dissociating requirements of ideology, belief, or spiritual affiliation, and by not screening participants for their personal beliefs, contemporary campaigns can recruit with the widest appeal. Participants may consider themselves as realists; take their stand on the basis of philosophical idealism; or be motivated by their strong personal moral values, their religious faith, or their beliefs. In choosing civil resistance, however, they may be equally, or more so, acting from pragmatism and a quest for practical outcomes. Let us not assume that we can change the hearts and minds of the adversary, but instead seek to alter its institutions, policies, practices, and structures.
Participant’s Question: Congratulations on great research and a great presentation. My view is that Gandhi always offered ‘converting the heart’ first and that it often goes on under the surface. Would you agree?
Mary King: Thank you for your appreciation. To a degree I have been discussing your question above. Your observation has some merits. Gandhi tended initially to speak of conversion as an objective and this is how he would speak. Yet as the intuitive strategist that he was, he organized extensive mobilizations built on his conception of satyagraha half a dozen times under varying circumstances over the course of his life after returning to India. Subject to definition, these could include indigo planters in Champaran (Bihar), 1917; peasants of Kheda, or Khaira (Gujarat), 1918; Ahmedabad (Gujarat), 1918; against Rowlett Acts, 1919; 1920–2 noncooperation movement; Vykom, 1924–5; Bardoli (Gujarat), 1928; 1930–4 civil disobedience movement; 1940 individual civil disobedience; 1942 Quit India Movement. Some of these were national mobilizations directly involving tens of thousands. They were hardly based on humble appeals.
It’s also important to understand that the passage of time and the effect on third parties can also be involved. These factors can help to bring about more elliptical long-term changes in attitudes and emotions. After twelve years of virtually unmitigated obstruction by the Travancore Princely State government, on his birthday in 1936 the last Maharaja issued a royal proclamation that opened not merely the roads around Brahmin temples, but every temple in Travancore to all. The Vykom satyagraha and Gandhi were ingredients in the circuitous process that brought this about. Other, similar, nearby struggles in 1926, 1928, and 1930 against untouchability failed and were all but lost to history because they had no Gandhi. As I see it, in endeavoring to gain knowledge and lessons from Gandhi’s own learning curve, which we can now do with regard to Vykom, we demonstrate his continuing relevance.
As noted in the Webinar, I am not saying that Gandhi never changed hearts and minds. He did, for example, with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Muslim chief minister of Bengal. In the lead-up to India’s independence, by March 1947 the Calcutta riots had become sheer, persistent bloodshed. No one had worked more relentlessly to avert the circumstances in which India found herself than Gandhi. On August 12, Suhrawardy returned to Calcutta and went to see Gandhi. In a sincere confessional reversal, Suhrawardy asked Gandhi to stay in Calcutta and work with him. “If I stay here you will have to stay with me, and live as I live,” Gandhi responded. The two men moved into an aging mansion owned by a Muslim widow in one of the most derelict slums of Calcutta. Their personal needs were attended to by Muslim volunteers. Unguarded, they would reason with the people for protection. Upon the arrival of Suhrawardy and Gandhi, a menacing mob lunged at Gandhi, shouting that he was responsible for all the killings. “We are all responsible,” Suhrawardy replied, adopting Gandhi’s stance. For two and a half months, the Hindu and the Muslim slept on matching mats, ate the same meals, and daily walked about the streets and alleys of Calcutta, making themselves accessible. They talked with anyone, gave solace, and listened to grievances. The two allies pleaded, as August 15 neared, that the independence of India and Pakistan from the British should not be marred by carnage. On the appointed day, a doubting Calcutta awoke to a surprising Hindu-Muslim concord that would usher in independence. [I give this account in my book, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action, orig. Paris: UNESCO, 1999, 2d edn (New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Mehta Publishers, 2002), in which I am indebted to Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 65, 66. An order form for Mehta Publishers for this book is on my web site www.maryking.info.]
Participant’s Question: I remember reading one of my first feminist critiques of Gandhi’s voluntary suffering approach to change in the 1980’s book “Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence.” I’m curious to know how much of your interest and insights into the Vikom campaign came from your awareness and experience as a woman. What do you think might be some of the learning from your work that would be relevant to women’s struggles and a feminist perspective on nonviolent struggle?
Mary King: The portal through which I significantly for my life walked at age 22 was to working in Atlanta with Ella Baker and others on a human relations project at the Student YWCA, followed by joining the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Julian Bond and I shared a tiny office, from which we worked to get out the news. This effort, called Communications, was necessary, because the southern white news media did not consider the killings of African Americans, or atrocities against them, to be newsworthy. The experience would be decisive for my life.
The Movement, as we simply called this massive nonviolent “movement of movements” involving tens of thousands, gave knowledge, experience, and proficiencies to the women participating in it. It was localized, decentralized, and organized around the specific local needs of different communities. Often it was the first nurturing of leadership skills for girls and women. SNCC especially was profoundly committed to female participation in the struggle, in large part because of Ella Baker’s influence. SNCC, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, was ahead of the rest of U.S. society in recognizing and developing the capabilities of women. In our interracial struggle, men often acted as spokespersons, yet women were in my view were the crucial force at the grass roots. Women—some black, others white—who worked in the movement would take on board insights, experience, knowledge, lessons, skills, and vision from their having learned how to organize. This in turn would allow them subsequently to move on to other justice and rights concerns.
The depth of this experience gave me a grip on the structural bases for the persistence of semi-slavery, disenfranchisement, and gross inequality of opportunity, in a nation quiescent and complacent about its institutionalized racism, in which collusion between law officers and the terror and vigilante groups that operated with impunity was silently accepted. Immersion in SNCC’s programs of nonviolent direct action also prompted some of us to ask whether there was comparability between the concerns of women and the systems of racial inequities that we were working to disintegrate.
My colleague in SNCC, Casey Hayden (Sandra Hayden), and I wrote a document titled “Sex and Caste” and sent it to 44 women across the United States who were working in freedom and peace movements. Published by Liberation magazine of the War Resisters League in April 1966, the document calls “the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings” as being among the deepest faced by human societies. Historians now consider the document tinder for second-wave feminism. Emerging directly from endless hours of discussion among women SNCC workers and talks with the local women with whom we lived and worked, the 44 recipients in turn circulated it in small groups, soon to be so-called consciousness-raising groups. These groups would provide a broadly dispersed base for what would—with interaction from other forces—become the women’s liberation movement in the United States, soon to link to women mobilizing around the globe.
After 1970 in the United States, the label “women’s liberation” would be applied to a profusion of groups that often did not know about their predecessors. Most did not realize that women—black and white—who had been working in the civil rights movement had absorbed wisdom, specific skills, and critical thinking from their experiences organizing, and that this involvement had accelerated their moving on to make justice and rights claims for women.
I am taking too long to say that it was my immersion in a mass movement that had deliberately learned from the Gandhian struggles that brought me to ask the larger questions concerning feminism and gender, not the other way around. Splits and divisions within the women’s liberation movement would cause dispersal and decentralization. Yet broader and deeper forces were at work that would help to crystallize feminism and gender studies from its generative energy―two major worldwide developments of the twentieth century. By the turn of the twenty-first century, women’s international mobilizing had made its way into one of the last bastions: the United Nations. In 2000, the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security was adopted, mandating the involvement of women in all aspects of building peace.
To your specific citing of Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, ed. Pam McAllister (New Society Publishers, 1982), I’ve looked again at the chapters about Gandhi that you cite. Not surprisingly, the authors are uncomfortable with his unfortunate essentialism, meaning his unsubstantiated presumptions about the “natural” attributes of men and women. Historian David Hardiman relevantly points out in his Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas (London: Hurst and Company, 2003, p. 160), “Fellow nationalists and women activists never subjected Gandhi to any strong criticism for his patriarchal attitudes. In this, we find a contrast to his other major fields of work, in which sharp differences were expressed in a way that forced him to often qualify or modify his position.”
For myself, I prefer to focus on another lesson that we can learn from Gandhi. We must accept that he was imbued with a deeply patriarchal worldview that painfully persists even today in India and elsewhere throughout the world, notwithstanding the fact that his experiments during twenty years of working in South Africa had led him to recognize as a fundamental concept the central involvement of women in political action. By 1921, on the eve of the Vykom struggle, he was calling for women to become involved in national political deliberations, to secure the vote, and to press for legal status equal to that of men. The hand-looming of khadi involved millions of women in this aspect of his Constructive Program; thus even if under Purdah they could participate in working toward India’s independence, as he conceived it. Unquestionably, early in the twentieth century he was placing the nationalist cause ahead of the hearth in championing women’s leadership. By the late 1920s, Indian women were in some locations leading local struggles.
The last part of your question deserves a solid answer, but the questions are incisive and I have written too long. I am delighted to say that my colleague, economist Anne-Marie Codur, and I have a chapter in a new two-volume reference work that your library should obtain (Anne-Marie Codur and Mary Elizabeth King, “Women and Civil Resistance,” in Women, War and Violence: Typography, Resistance and Hope, ed. Lester R. Kurtz and Mariam M. Kurtz, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2014), 401–45.) An historical review, we also treat among other issues the concrete advantages that women possess in nonviolent direct action and we pose some questions for further research. It will say more than I can say here.
Participant’s Question: How should we view Gandhi in the field of nonviolent resistance: as a religious figure that advanced nonviolence as an ethical and moral stance or as a pragmatic strategist that waged civil resistance campaigns as a coercive though nonviolent & constructive force? Which figure/view is more dominant in your opinion in Gandhi’s actions and writings on nonviolent resistance?
Mary King: Thank you for your question, as it gives me an opportunity to make some extremely important points. What Gandhi called the technique, method, and process of nonviolent resistance historically arises in virtually all cultures and can be located in the ancient period. His personal spiritual regimens, however, are less likely to be received as universal truths, in the sense in which some of his other insights have proved to possess.
Gandhi ought to have full acknowledgment for nonviolent struggle being chosen as the specific technique of fighting for India’s independence, about which there was nothing inbuilt, intrinsic, natural, or predictable. He had to marshall all his analytical, persuasive, and communications skills, and personal powers to persuade the Indian National Congress that this approach would be both practical and effectual. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had held office as secretary and president of the Indian Congress Party, makes this plain. After Gandhi’s death, he told a Hungarian journalist that when Gandhi “first brought this revolutionary idea of noncooperation and all that, almost every leader in India opposed it. Even the most advanced leaders did not understand it.” [Tibor Mende, Conversations with Mr. Nehru (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956), pp. 23–4, as cited in my book on p. 263.] I can almost hear him sputtering “all that” with slight exasperation, because Nehru was not a “believer” in nonviolence as a creed and often tired of Gandhi’s religious metaphors. As late as 1928 Nehru was still willing to consider using violence to end the British Raj.
Gandhi deserves the credit for the adoption of civil resistance, but he could not have done this solely as a religious figure. What is critical for us to understand in today’s world is that Gandhi deeply appreciated and understood the impossibility of constructing a mass movement on the basis of his own personal and strict spiritual regimens. His senior colleagues and partners, including Nehru and the members of the Congress Working Committee, viewed his doctrine of nonviolence as anything but mystical, spiritual, or religious. They did not even conceive of it as an ethical principle. They saw in it a practical system for realizing their political quest for independence. This position was acceptable to Gandhi, so long as they adhered to a policy of exactingly nonviolent action.
As noted earlier, his writings are aimed at influencing people in the moment. With regard to Vykom, by March 1925, one year into the twenty-month struggle he drops his moral idioms and metaphors, and begins speaking of compulsion in pressuring the maharaja and the high-caste orthodoxy: “I ask you, the Savarna Hindus of Trivandrum and through you the whole of the Hindu community of Travancore, to insist to break down the prejudice of orthodoxy in Vaikom and to compel, by pressure of public opinion, . . . the opening of these roads to the untouchables and the unapproachables” (pp. 234–35). To compel through the pressure of public opinion discloses a refined comprehension of the social and political power being utilized for a technique. He is not emphasizing moral suasion in speaking to the Nambudiri Brahmins in the capital, even though profound ethical contemplations were involved for him. It is said that Gandhi spoke and wrote more on untouchability over the length of his life than any other topic.
Mary King went to work for the civil rights movement soon after graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, first in Atlanta and then in Mississippi, 1962-1965, serving on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She has built her academic specialty on the study of nonviolent civil resistance and is acclaimed as a top authority on the subject. Now a professor of peace and conflict studies at the UN-affiliated University for Peace, she is a Distinguished Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford.
King is the author of many books, including “Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement,” A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance,” and her latest book, “Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-1925 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change.
King has served in the Carter Administration with worldwide oversight for the Peace Corps, and for the domestic Vista program and other national volunteer service programs.
For her work on the theory and practice of nonviolent action and in peace education, King has been awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj International Prize, the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize, and the James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement. She is the recipient of honorary degrees from her alma mater Ohio Wesleyan University and Aberstwyth University, in Wales, United Kingdom, where she did her doctoral work in international politics.