The Guardian, Aug 11, 2001
Face to Faith
Causes and effects
Saturday August 11, 2001
On February 4 1922, in the village of Chauri Chaura in northern India, a
group of processionists marched through narrow lanes, shouting slogans against
British rule. This was not an isolated march, but part of the vast, nationwide,
peaceful civil disobedience movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. It was
two years since the Indian National Congress had passed a resolution demanding
Swaraj (self-rule). In the northwest, the Khilafat Movement was in full swing,
and the protests against the Rowlatt Act were spiralling throughout India.
When the procession in Chauri Chaura ran into a group of policemen, they
continued to shout slogans. Perhaps it was frustration, or the humiliation
of facing defiant civilians. Whatever the reason, the police turned violent
on the non-violent processionists.
The shocked people of Chauri Chaura chased the police constables all the
way to the local police station. There they set fire to the building, killing
22 officers. Gandhi's non-violent struggle for independence had suddenly
turned violent. Gandhi was shaken. Sitting in Bardoli in western India, he
termed the incident "a divine warning", and decided that tempers had to cool.
He could not afford to lose the moral authority that he sought, of trying
to convince the British rulers that their whole imperial project was ethically
Against the advice of his senior allies in the Congress, he suspended the
non-cooperation movement. He was to write: "God has been abundantly kind
to me. He had warned me that there is not yet in India that truthful and
non-violent atmosphere which can justify mass disobedience which can be described
as civil, which means gentle, truthful, humble, knowing, wilful yet loving,
never criminal and hateful. God spoke clearly through Chauri Chaura."
I have often thought of this incident in the last year, during which we have
seen the civil society protest against globalisation, by moving from one
city to another, taking on the Establishment of corporatist and statist interests.
Its critics have called it "the travelling circus of anarchy" or "protest
tourism". Its supporters believe the rudderless youth of the world have discovered
a new cause. From Seattle to Quebec, Prague to Genoa, thousands of impassioned
young people have turned political, and peacefully protested against what
they perceive as inequities in the world.
While their appeal is moral, the protests have been accompanied by violence,
usually against property, but at times against people as well. In Prague,
one activist justified the action of other activists who hurled acid at Czech
policemen, by saying that the Czech police were legitimate targets in the
war. In Genoa, the slain activist was carrying a not insubstantial fire extinguisher
for a purpose that can only be surmised as violent.
Would the anti-globalisation movement benefit from a similar dramatic gesture
to that of Gandhi's? When he suspended the non-cooperation movement many
Congress leaders felt he had committed a Himalayan mistake. Independence,
they believed, was only an inch away. Gandhi defended his decision: it was
not an act of cowardice, he was to write in 1930; his decision was based
on his philosophy of Satyagraha, the basis of his civil disobedience campaign.
Satyagraha means insisting upon the truth. It implies an unwavering commitment
to the means, not only to the end, however important the end may be.
Gandhi insisted there was no room for violence, whatever the provocation
and that steadfast commitment to non-violence remained his hallmark. For
Gandhi's genius lay in understanding the immense moral power of self-restraint.
He never ignored the vital distinction between British imperialism and democracy.
He had faith that good sense would prevail, the tradition of fair play and
justice would emerge triumphant.
If India wasn't ready for it, he was prepared to wait. His reasoning was:
violent emotions are too powerful and must be controlled; he could not risk
the movement he was trying to build to be derailed by violence.
After the rioting in Goteborg, presciently anticipating the violence in Genoa,
the critic of neoliberal economics, Susan George said as much. She argued
against wanton destruction of property and violence. Her reason is tactical:
greater violence would mean the bourgeoisie would lose their stomach for
political change, and their support, she argues, is vital. Some of the young
and impatient anti-globalisers believe that a few shattered shops and property
are a small price to pay for the right to protest. (Yes, Gandhi did believe
in making a bonfire of British clothes, but they were not looted goods. They
were usually contributed voluntarily by their owners who switched to locally
made clothes, following Gandhi's call for self-reliance).
Today's protesters miss that important point. Their great moral appeal is
that they are speaking out for the dispossessed. And who are the dispossessed?
The sick in the third world who can't afford expensive medicines; the poor
in the developing world who cannot export their products to the developed
world which has artificial trade barriers; the destitute in the poor countries
who see their governments burdened by debt and unable to build schools and
Pitting them against the fat cats is no contest. They have won their moral
argument. Must it be spoilt with violence - even if the provocation is real?
Many activists in the crusade against globalisation like to believe that
if he were alive today, Gandhi would have blessed their struggle. They could
not be more wrong. Remember Chauri Chaura.