Non-Violence or Non-Action?
Some Gandhian Truths About the Tibetan Peace Movement
In the tireless drive of the Dalai Lama and his admirers to promote the Tibetan struggle as a wholly non-violent affair conducted by a race of uniquely spiritual people (who would rather give up their country than commit any act of violence) truth has, unfortunately, become the ﬁrst of casualties. However pious and arguably necessary, this mission to project Tibetan history and contemporary events through the rose-tinted lens of ofﬁcial paciﬁst ideology ignores the sacriﬁce and courage of the many thousands of Tibetan freedom ﬁghters (monks and lamas included) who took up arms for the freedom of their country. But I have commented on this at length, in a couple of previous articles, and it is perhaps unnecessary to go into it again.
I touch on the subject here primarily to bring to the reader’s attention some observations on “truth” and “non-violence” by a person eminently qualiﬁed to pronounce on them. Mahatma Gandhi believed that the love of truth was a more important human quality than non-violence. He called his methods satyagraha or “ﬁrmness in truth”, and felt that terms like “paciﬁsm” or “non-
violence” did not fully convey the essential spirit of his philosophy of action.
Gandhi’s ideas on ahimsa or non-violence were not simplistic. He acknowledged that the very fact of living involved some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. Gandhi himself served as a stretcher-bearer in the Boer War, the Zulu Rebellion and in the Great War, and later explained his actions: “It was quite clear to me that participation in war could never be consistent with ahimsa. But it is not always given to one to be equally clear about one’s duty. A votary of truth is often obliged to grope in the dark.”
He did not attempt to excuse his personal role in these wars merely because that role was a limited one. “I make no distinction, from the point of ahimsa,” Gandhi argued, “between combatants and non-combatants. Those who conﬁne themselves to attending to the wounded in battle cannot be absolved from the guilt of war. The question is subtle. It admits of differences of opinion, and therefore I have submitted my argument as clearly as possible to those who believe in ahimsa and who are making serious efforts to practise it in every walk of life.”
At the beginning of World War II, Gandhi supported a resolution for recruiting Indians into the war effort. He even went around raising recruits himself, though many people were upset by this. “You are a votary of ahimsa,” some of his followers protested. “How can you ask us to take up arms?”
Gandhi’s reply reveals how he considered a person’s social responsibility and his duty to his country to sometimes override even a powerful moral conviction as non-violence. He said: “I recognize that in the hour of its danger we must give, as we have decided to give, ungrudging and unequivocal support to the Empire of which we aspire in the near future to be partners in the same sense as the Dominions overseas… I would make India offer all her able-bodied sons as a sacriﬁce to the Empire at its critical moment, and I know that India by this very act, would become the most favoured partner in the Empire, and racial distinctions would become a thing of the past.”
One of Gandhi’s arguments when recruiting Indians to join the army was not too well received by the British. “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India,” Gandhi claimed, “history will look upon the act of depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity.”
When Pakistani raiders invaded Kashmir and began to approach Srinagar — after Kashmir’s accession to India on 26 October 1947 — appeals were made to Prime Minister Nehru by leaders of Kashmir, including the Maharajah and the popular Muslim leader, Sheikh Abdullah, but Nehru dithered. Finally, at the insistence of Patel, Nehru ordered military help to proceed. Patel, through a broadcast over All India Radio commandeered all aircraft available in India and started air operations.
A relieved Gandhi told Patel, “At one time I was feeling very miserable and oppressed when I heard this (the Pakistan invasion). But when the Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them, and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the Army, I feel proud.” Gandhi justiﬁed his view, “Any injustice on our land, any encroachment on our land should be defended by violence, if not by non-violence… If you can defend by non-violence, by all means do it; that is the ﬁrst thing I should like. If it is for me to do, I would not touch anything, either a pistol or revolver or anything. But I would not see India degrading itself to be feeling helpless.” 1
But whatever exception Gandhi may have considered allowable to nations and individuals in the matter of self defence, he was himself, of course, a committed and unwavering adherent of ahimsa. He died by an assassin’s bullet because he considered having a bodyguard as condoning violence for one’s personal safety. The point I am trying to make here is that though Gandhi was himself unwaveringly committed to his non-violent ideology he did not allow it to blind him to reality, nor lead him into dishonesty in its propagation. He did not hesitate to state that recourse to violence was not something that could be entirely avoided in the course of human affairs.
Whether one admires Gandhi for his non-violence, his spirituality, or his love of truth and courage (the last two qualities are what I ﬁnd most appealing about the man), I do not think there can be any argument that Tibetans and friends can learn much from his life and mission for our own struggle. In Tibetan exile society, routine and somewhat ritual accolade is paid to Gandhi by leaders and politicians but little serious effort is expended in studying his works, which is a real pity. However one may disagree with some of Gandhi’s ideas (I have problems with his views on celibacy and his obsession with his bowels), the clarity and honesty of his thinking are what shines through in all his books and articles.
Tibetan ideas on non-violence are, by comparison, confused, naive, and in certain cases seem to derive from magical beliefs inherent in traditional Tibetan thinking. For instance, the speaker of the Tibetan People’s Assembly, Samdhong Rinpoche, who has come out with his own version of Gandhi’s satyagraha doctrine (but which Rinpoche has translated somewhat awkwardly as “Truth Insistence”), once made the somewhat fantastic pronouncement that if ﬁfty per cent of the Tibetan people were able to comprehend Rinpoche’s doctrine of “Truth Insistence”, the Chinese would be compelled to leave Tibet in less than three months. The Dalai Lama does not make as extravagant a claim for the efﬁcacy of his Middle Way doctrine. Both views, however, reﬂect their roots in traditional metaphysical thinking and clearly reveal an imperfect understanding of the politics of nation states and the Darwinian reality of our modern world. Gandhi, with his legal training in London, his subsequent practice and activism in South Africa, and his reading of Western thinkers of his time, certainly seems to have had a better grasp of the realities of his day. As such, he was capable of developing a non-violent strategy that, whatever its shortcomings as viewed by some Indian intellectuals today, was able to achieve its main task of freeing India of British rule.
Though Gandhi tried to represent himself as the product of his own ancient culture — even in externals with his loin-cloth, bamboo staff and wooden slippers — his political and social thinking owed more to nineteenth century European liberalism than to anything indigenous or traditional. His faith in non-violence was by no means typical of Hinduism. By his own admission, Gandhi’s paciﬁsm was inspired primarily by the “Sermon on the Mount” and Tolstoy. His championing of women’s rights and his antipathy to caste are also certainly derived from contemporary Western thinking. Even his ﬁrst deep insight into Buddhism seems to have come from reading Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia.
In South Africa, Gandhi used British methods of political agitation: writing letters to the newspapers, leading a petition drive, founding a political organisation with membership drives, carefully-kept accounts, a small library, and regular meetings for lectures, debates and group decisions. He also wrote two pamphlets.
Three thinkers of his time impressed Gandhi profoundly. His ideas on civil disobedience and non-cooperation came from Thoreau. His belief in paciﬁsm, as mentioned earlier, came in part from Tolstoy — especially Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You. Gandhi’s social philosophy was certainly inspired by Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Gandhi was tremendously impressed by this book. He read it on a train journey from Johannesburg to Durban in one sitting, not getting any sleep that night, and became determined to change his life accordingly. “Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translated it later into Gujurati, entitling it Sarvodaya (The Welfare of All).”
In the course of human history other “votaries of truth”, besides Gandhi, have, at some time or the other in their lives, probably had to “grope in the dark” when attempting to reconcile duty to nation and people with love of peace. Not all great leaders, of course, made the Gandhian choice, yet do we regard them as any lesser than the Mahatma in moral stature?
The closest thing American democracy has to a saint is Abraham Lincoln. He presided over the most bloody war in American history. That he fought the war for democracy, to preserve the Union and to end slavery, does not easily cancel out the terrible price paid by the American people for Lincoln’s refusal to accept a separate Confederate nation. We must also bear in mind that Lincoln was not tricked or bulldozed into the war by politicians and aggressive generals around him. In fact, during the ﬁrst years of the war, Lincoln had considerable difﬁculty trying to get his overcautious generals to pit the Union army in any serious battle against Confederate forces.
Joan of Arc would, by paciﬁst lights, no doubt be regarded as a violent woman. Before her arrival on the scene the conﬂict between the French and the English was, to borrow from American military parlance, “a low intensity conﬂict”, primarily because of French disunity and the weakness of their king, Charles VI. Joan’s leadership and inspiration escalated the violence dramatically, but it also eventually freed France from the English yoke.
Certainly, peace is preferable to war, and non-violence to violence. Only someone with serious mental or moral shortcomings would dispute the general rightness, even righteousness, of the proposition. But people and nations are sometimes confronted with problems where violent action seems to be not only the sole possible solution but the heroic and wise one as well. Was the illusory peace that Chamberlain and Daladier bartered from Hitler at Munich worth the price of betraying Czechoslovakia? On the other hand, were President Roosevelt’s efforts to push a reluctant America into World War II the evil machinations of a Jew-loving warmonger, as the German propaganda ministry might have put it, or an act that probably saved mankind from Nazi domination?
Or closer home, was it wrong for the people of Lhasa to rise up in armed rebellion to protect the life of the Dalai Lama? Was it wrong of the Dalai Lama to use the armed escort of resistance ﬁghters to escape from Lhasa? What would have happened had he remained? He might have been killed in the ﬁghting, or suffered imprisonment, torture and public humiliation like the Panchen Lama. In the opinion of the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal, had the Dalai Lama remained in Tibet “they (the Chinese) would have used His Holiness just as the Japanese used poor Pu Yi (the last Manchu emperor). That’s what he would have become, another Pu Yi.” 2
So, in a sense, the Dalai Lama owes his freedom, his present international stature and maybe even his Nobel Peace Prize to violent men who rescued him not only from physical danger but from a situation that was politically and morally compromising. They also freed him from a relationship with the Communist Chinese that was not only hopeless but unhealthy as well.
This article does not seek to advocate that Tibetans take up arms here and now, but to point out to our leaders and friends that the complexities of human affairs call for a more eclectic and robust approach to the Tibetan problem than the current paciﬁst inertia. Even if, let us say, we eventually adopt a non-violent strategy by consensus, this decision should come about through study, discussion and appreciation of realities, not merely as an article of mystical faith nor because it is being applauded by celebrities and world leaders for whom peace, trade with China, and maintenance of the status quo, is deﬁnitely more important than Tibetan freedom.
But getting back to Gandhi. When all’s said and done, the Mahatma’s brand of non-violence towers above ours because his was a doctrine of sacriﬁce, courage and above all, action; qualities, which in the Tibetan non-violent movement are conspicuous only by their absence — unless one counts the heroic courage of some lone activist inside Tibet. Otherwise, in the rank and leadership of the movement in exile, non-violent activism seems to have become entirely an affair of celebrities, rock concerts, Hollywood movies, conferences, careers and conveniences. The ultimate convenience being the giving up of our main goal of independence in order to save “Tibetan Buddhist culture” — a euphemism, if I have ever heard one, for the power of the theocracy.
We should also remember that Gandhi led by example. The genuine simplicity of the Mahatma’s lifestyle (Sarojini Naidu’s crack about the cost of supporting the Mahatma’s poverty is more witty than substantial), his readiness to face police batons, endure imprisonment, even face death for his convictions were doubtless more inspirational to his followers than just teachings and initiations. Such fearlessness and integrity is, to be brutally frank, non-existent in our leadership circles.
But the Tibetan “Truth Insistence” movement seems to have discovered a substitute. In a document I have received, which seems to be a manifesto of the movement, Samdhong Rinpoche expresses the conviction of being able to instil the requisite qualities of courage, endurance, forbearance and compassion in his followers through the wonderfully vague yet impressive sounding method of “philosophical understanding”. If I know anything about how things are done in Dharamshala we are deﬁnitely in for more nebulous, “feel-good” conferences (with silk-lined folders and expensive colour souvenir magazines for delegates), seminars and workshops, all of which will probably be underwritten by some well-meaning foreign foundation with more enthusiasm and money than awareness of the real and frightening dangers assailing Tibetan society.
Inside Tibet courageous souls still defy Chinese might with courage worthy of Gandhi. Still the question must be asked whether any of those brave activists are, in any true sense, non-violent activists. In conversations with a number of new arrivals in Dharamshala, I received the deﬁnite impression that nearly all of the demonstrators and activists in Tibet adopted non-violent methods (up to a point, they threw stones and burnt down a police station) because they were not in a position to do anything else; and that if the time came where violent insurrection were possible against the Chinese they would welcome it. Orville Schell, who secretly interviewed a number of activists inside Tibet for the Frontline ﬁlm Red Flag Over Tibet, told me that an important Tibetan Lama he interviewed had said that the only way to stop the Chinese was through violence.
And this is beginning to happen, albeit in a modest way. Judging by the few bombs that went off in Tibet in recent years, some stubborn Tibetans deﬁnitely seem to lack appreciation of our ofﬁcial non-violent philosophy. If Gandhi were still around, one might suppose that he would, as a matter of course, condemn our bombers and applaud the exile peace movement. But I am not sure. In the 11 August 1920 issue of Young India he wrote:
I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I could advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms than she should become a helpless witness to her own dishonour.
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(I had earlier ended the article here but a friend, after reading the draft, suggested I include the opinion of another “great soul” in this discussion. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in the conclusion of his Political Testament, did not mince words on the question of defending Tibetan sovereignty against Chinese aggression: “We should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful means where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means.”)
Tibetan Review, September 1997
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1. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel; India’s Iron Man, B.Krishna, Harper Collins India, 1996.
2. Kundun, Mary Craig, Harper Collins, London, 1997.Non-Violence or Non-Action?,