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A Summary of M.K. Gandhi's Technique for Political Action

By Mary Sibley

February 1995


I have prepared this description of the political action technique of M.K. Gandhi at the request of Dave Hall for distribution to the DrugReform Coordination Network (DRCNet) and other drug policy reform advocates who may have an interest in Gandhi's technique. I have read much about Gandhi's technique and know that I still do not fully comprehend its application and implications. My knowledge is especially scanty in the area of organizational structures through which Gandhian campaigns were conducted, although I surmise that Gandhi's campaign organizations were highly structured. I am currently seeking texts describing and analyzing Gandhi's organizational structures. If anyone has such a text, I would appreciate access to it. If anyone has studied Gandhi's life and work and reads something within this that seems to be wrong, misleading, or a misinterpretation, I would welcome suggestions. In addition, I would be glad to participate in further discussion.


For assistance in organizing my thoughts, I give credit to Joan V. Bondurant, whose book "Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict" (second edition, 1965, Princeton University Press) I consulted occasionally while writing this. In the text that follows, annotations are sparse. If anyone is interested in reading more about a particular topic, let me know and I will provide references. INTRODUCTION

How this Discussion Is Organized

This discussion is organized into three sections. The first section discusses the cultural context and other conditions under which Gandhi conceived and conducted political campaigns. The second section discusses the fundamental principles of a Gandhian campaign. The last section discusses the steps in a Gandhian campaign and includes my opinions about the similarities between these steps and steps that have been taken by drug policy reform advocates. A Short Definition of Gandhi's Political Technique Gandhi's political technique is a process of creatively engaging with others to transform an unjust cultural, economic, social, or governmental system into one that is more just. Scope of Gandhi's Technique Gandhi is most famous for his political activism with respect to ending British rule in India. He used the technique not just to work toward reform and ultimately removal of British rule in India, but also in many conflict situations between Indians only. For example, he organized and led programs designed to change how the upper class Hindus treated the lower class Hindus. Gandhi himself considered his most important work the constructive programs designed to remove the underlying causes of poverty and to rebuild strong local economies in impoverished areas. Without this work, poor Indians would not have had the sustenance needed to participate in the many campaigns that led to home rule. Martin Luther King applied techniques similar to Gandhi's in the United States when working to end civil rights injustices based on race. Many of King's programs, speeches, and writings strongly resemble Gandhi's, with terminology and other specifics tailored to the issues and systems at hand. Another 20th century leader who has successfully used similar techniques when engaging a cruel and conscience-less government is Vaclav Havel. The injustices that these leaders were working to overcome occurred in widely varying cultures, social systems, and governments. Because I assume that most readers are specifically interested in political strategies with regard to changing unjust laws in the U.S., the following discussion focuses on the application of Gandhi's techniques in conflicts with governments.


The Cultural Context in which Gandhi Developed His Techniques

India is multi-cultural with most cultures based on religions. The Hindus are the largest group, followed by the Muslims, who constitute a large minority. Then come a much smaller number of Sikhs. Many other religious groups exist, but they are very small in numbers. People of these religions had lived side-by-side in relative peace for thousands of years when the British arrived. As the British became established economically, they started an insidious campaign to divide the Indian people along religious lines, especially by planting in Muslims fear of discrimination from Hindus should the British not keep the Hindu influence in check. The British were quite successful in promoting disunity between the Hindus and Muslims, a legacy that to this day engenders hatred and bloodshed. The Sikhs were selected to be the native component of the British-controlled police force. The Sikhs were a large enough minority to provide enough police for British purposes, and yet a small enough group that Sikh police were patrolling and incarcerating primarily Hindus and Muslims. After a couple of hundred years of British encroachment on the cultures, inter-cultural fear and suspicion that had not existed before the British became the norm.

Gandhi's Starting Place in Society

Gandhi was born a Hindu. The Hindu society is stratified (some say "calcified") into classes referred to as castes. The caste into which one is born determines the jobs one may have, the education one may pursue, the privileges one is allowed, the places one may gather water, the people with whom one may eat, etc. The highest caste is the Brahmans; the lowest, the untouchables. Outside of these are the outcastes. The outcastes are those who violated the rules of their caste to the extent that the authorities within the caste cast them out. Thereafter, they are to be shunned by others in the caste--no one may help them, they are not allowed to work within the caste, etc. Gandhi was a member of the Bania caste, which participated in business and government in his home state. Gandhi was publicly ordered an outcaste when he was in his late teens because he went to Britain to study law; his caste's leaders said it was against the religion to leave the country. The leaders actually went so far as to inform the caste members that if they saw him off when he left for England, they would be fined! Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, "The order had no effect on me, and I took my leave . . ." ( M.K. Gandhi, "An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with the Truth," Part I, Chapter XII, [1927] translation by Mahadev Desai, published in the U.S. in 1957 by Beacon Press, Boston).


Gandhi adhered to four fundamental principles familiar to the Westerner. Three are truth, non-violence, and self-suffering. The fourth is concerned with means and ends. All campaigns conducted under his guidance were consistent with these principles (occasional errors arose due to the experimental nature of the technique and limitations in campaigners' previous experience). These fundamental principles are summarized below.


Gandhi did not fully define the "truth" but instead said that he was seeking after it. He was seeking after it through socio-political action, just as others might seek after it through a mystical or spiritual path, the study of mathematics, or the creation of art. I gather from my readings that the goals of most his contemporaries were much more immediate and concrete (like a cost-of-living increase for workers in a textile mill, the right for untouchables to walk past a temple used by Brahmans, the replacement of British rule with home rule, etc.). The replacement of British rule was a mighty goal. Those who held it accepted the need for a large number of intermediate goals that they collectively agreed (often after long and arduous debate) would contribute directly or indirectly to achievement of the mighty goal. Some of the intermediate goals included things that even the most uneducated, illiterate, and impoverished could grasp immediately, like: (1) Having all Indians weave their own cloth rather than buy British cloth (most Indians made their own clothing) and (2) Repealing a salt taxation and regulation scheme that drove the cost of salt so high that the poor could not afford it. Salt is an essential dietary element in India's climate and can be collected from India's ocean beaches or retrieved from inland deposits by anyone after a bit of instruction. The salt laws brought the British significant revenues. Enforcement of the salt laws included fines and incarceration for those who were caught making or collecting salt for personal use and most especially if the person was producing and distributing marketable amounts outside of the government's regulatory structure.


Gandhi maintained that no human or group of humans could know the complete truth. No matter how close one thinks one might be to the truth, one could be in error either wholly or in some lesser way that is not immediately apparent. Because of this, he maintained that no one could use violence toward others to press his or her view of the truth forward. This principle excluded all acts of violence, and Gandhi's definition of violence was broad. As one might expect, physical violence could not be used against an opponent. He also maintained that there should be no violence in one's expression and words. The non-violence principle required that an opponent be treated with utmost respect. Smear campaigns aimed at defamation of character were not in his political action toolbox, just as murder of lawmakers, judges, bureaucrats, and police were not in his toolbox. Gandhi's non-violence is a full antonym for violence. Not only does non-violence refrain from destructive acts, it is aggressively and provocatively constructive. Thus, Gandhi's campaigns did not seek to defeat an opponent, but instead to convert the opponent to a more just position and to challenge the opponent to act upon the new position. In addition, Gandhi held that there must be an opportunity for an opponent to save face, so long as no fundamental principle or aim of the action was thereby compromised.


Self-suffering is an integral element of Gandhi's technique and a necessary corollary to provocative non-violent action. Self-suffering can take the form of material and social sacrifice. For example, loss of employment, property, or income as a result of holding to one's view of the truth is a form of self-suffering. Self-suffering reaches its personal extremes in incarceration, physical injury, and the sacrifice of one's life. Gandhi wrote: "Suffering injury in one's own person is . . . of the essence of non-violence and is the chosen substitute for violence to others." (M.K. Gandhi, "Non-violence in Peace and War," 2nd edition, Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1944, p. 49). He also wrote, "Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant." (M.K. Gandhi, in "Young India," August 11, 1920 ). Self-suffering is preferred over submitting to humiliation and pr ovides a way to preserve one's personal dignity in the face of those who would treat one unjustly. Throughout his writings and campaigns, Gandhi emphasized that inviting self-suffering is something that must not be done lightly. One who invites self-suffering must be prepared for the fullest possible sacrifice that may result from one's actions.

Means and Ends

Gandhi believed that means do not serve ends, rather means create ends. Thus, to attain an end that is positive and truthful, one must use means that are positive and truthful. This philosophy can be summarized by his statement, "the means are the ends in the making." Means that create ends have two interesting implications. First, one cannot define a just, non-violent end and then use unjust and violent means to attain it--for the end will be in character with the means used. This view precludes taking actions under the philosophy summarized in the statement "the ends justify the means"--a philosophy that seems to permeate current U.S. policy-making. Indeed, the "ends" being created by current government policy with regard to some drugs are very different than the officially stated goals.

A second implication is that, while one must always be moving toward a goal of pure truth and justice, the end cannot be defined precisely in advance. Each action one takes creates the next action and that one, the next, each action always in keeping with the last and moving progressively closer to truth and justice. Through actively engaging with fellow activists and the opponent, one grows in understanding of what must be done, a step at a time, to create the most just and truthful end.

The technique becomes dynamic when it succeeds in provoking internal change in the opponent. Thus the knowledge and understanding of both the activist and the opponent grow simultaneously toward truth and justice. However, the technique is not self-propelling; it is usually used in a context of a stagnant, inert, or deliberately destructive force and requires tremendous energy. The activist must constantly reassess the opponent's comprehension and adjust the program so that it is more than reactive to the opponent's change--every change must be viewed as an opportunity to press the campaign further forward.

What Gandhi's Contemporaries Thought About the Fundamental Principles

A few of Gandhi's contemporaries adhered to the fundamental principles as inviolable guides by which to conduct one's personal life as well as one's social or political actions. However, the majority of his contemporaries accepted the fundamental principles as policies. They recognized the success of the principles in empowering the disempowered and realized that, even if viewed as policies, the principles were the key to winning "home rule" with an unarmed and impoverished army of the disenfranchised.

This acceptance as policy rather than principle caused Gandhi some dismay. When the activists with whom he was working rejected these even as policy, he would leave the political sphere and return to his constructive work toward remedying the devastating economic problems in the villages of India. Eventually, his contemporaries always asked him to return to the political sphere.


The Progress of a Campaign

Upon discovering an opportunity for reform or change, a campaign is conducted through several steps. Each step is a necessary prerequisite to the next, for each must fully develop the context in which the next occurs. The early steps develop the public stage upon which later steps, if they become necessary, can be played out. Some of the steps initiated early in the campaign, especially education, continue throughout the campaign. The progression is designed to maximize early in the campaign all opportunities for the opponent to make positive changes and save face without campaigners moving to more provocative measures. The careful progression provides fullest opportunity for the campaigners to adjust their position if they discover that they have inadvertently violated a fundamental principle. It gives campaign leaders the opportunity, through engaging with the opponent early in relatively low-risk situations, to realistically assess their own strengths and weaknesses and those of the campaigners and to determine what more provocative steps can and cannot be taken successfully.

A Summary of the Steps of a Gandhian Campaign

The steps of a campaign are:

-- Investigation of the facts, situation, and conditions

-- Education of the campaigners, the public, and the opponent

-- Negotiation and arbitration

-- Preparation of the campaigners for more provocative measures

-- Agitation

-- Issuing of an ultimatum

-- Economic boycott and forms of strike

-- Non-cooperation

-- Civil disobedience

-- Creation of alternate structures

In India, these steps eventually led to the establishment of a parallel government in some places, which provided Indians with some of the experience needed to assume self-government when British rule was removed.

The steps of a campaign are described in the paragraphs below. In brackets I have mentioned my current opinion of where drug policy reform advocates have made the most progress. Investigation of the Facts, Situation, and Conditions A Gandhian campaign is founded on an objective assessment of the facts. All facts are considered; none are rejected or downplayed if they do not fit the expectations of the campaigners--to do so would be to move away from the complete truth. The situation of campaigners and those experiencing the injustice are examined. As full an understanding of the situation as possible is developed among all involved. The conditions at the time--public awareness and opinion, the situation of the opponent, and other relevant factors are all considered and weighed.

[Drug policy reform advocates seem to me to be strongest here. The only difficulty I've seen is the occasional attempt to reject or downplay a pertinent fact that doesn't quite "fit," but this is usually remedied through discussion among reform advocates.]

Education of the Campaigners, the Public, and the Opponent

With the facts in hand and the situation and conditions fully examined, education begins. All who join the campaign must be educated; they become representatives through their association and must be fully informed. The public is often unaware of or misinformed about injustices; they must be educated to understand why change is needed. Many opponents are similar to the public--they are unaware or misinformed. Gandhi felt that there were only a few pponents who would actually want injustices to be perpetuated or continue. Gandhi was an optimist and believed even those few could be converted. [Drug policy reform advocates are weak here, but getting stronger. At the International Conference for Drug Policy Reform last November, attendees recognized the need to raise public awareness about injustices of the drug war. I understand that organizations like NORML are following up with activities geared toward education of the general public. The Washington Hemp Education Network (W.H.E.N.) was started by a group of marijuana policy reform activists in Washington State who recognized the need for education. My personal experience has been that many of the people who join W.H.E.N. recognize the injustices and are looking for the facts. Others join because they have much knowledge and want opportunities to educate and persuade others. Some relish entering the opponents' sphere and educating! Also, Cliff Schaffer's persuasive strategies provide an excellent example of guidelines that have been tailored to move the opponent toward the truth given an opponent's entry position in a discussion. Such guidelines must be assessed and modified periodically to ensure that they keep pace with the inevitable progress the opponents will make when so persuaded.]

Negotiation and Arbitration

Remedy for the injustice is sought first through established channels within the existing system. Petitioning for change of unjust laws, challenging unjust laws in the courts, and other legislative or legal methods fall under this step.

[Drug policy reform advocates working on reform of marijuana laws have done plenty of negotiation and arbitration at the federal level and in many states. I am not aware of as high of a level of negotiation effort for substances like heroin, cocaine, etc.]

Preparation of the Campaigners for More Provocative Measures

Immediately upon recognizing the existence of a conflict situation that might lead to more provocative measures, Gandhi's technique calls for intense preparation. The motives of campaigners are examined, weaknesses of the group are identified, and exercises in self-discipline undertaken. The goal of this step is to assess and develop the campaigners' ability to adhere to fundamental principles and to continue action in the face of significant risks. There is much discussion of the issues at hand, the current situation and conditions, and of the potential results of various courses of action. [I have not heard of drug policy reform advocates undertaking such self-examination and participating in mutually agreed upon exercises in self-discipline. I have heard discussions and analyses about potential actions that fall under subsequent steps.]


Agitation includes legal high-profile activities such as rallies and picketing. Such events are opportunities for the leaders to assess the group's readiness to proceed with higher profile and more difficult steps without deteriorating into violence. Mass gatherings also provide an opportunity to begin instructing campaigners who have not been trained previously in the fundamental principles, to communicate developments in the campaign, and to explain the next step.

[I haven't heard much about this kind of agitation. Agitation I have heard about has involved small numbers of people and, as far as I know, it has not been part of a sequence of steps such as described here. I do not believe that Hemp Fests, even if no one smoked, would meet the criteria by which Gandhi defined agitation because they are not part of a highly focused political campaign and do not have a strong educational focus.]

Issuing of an Ultimatum

A strong appeal is made to the opponent. The appeal is quite explicit. It states the problem, identifies a constructive solution and the responsibilities of each party in the solution, and explains what the campaigners will do if the opponent does not participate in the solution. The ultimatum should include provision for the opponent to save face within the scope of the fundamental principles. The opponent is fully informed about the next step. In fact, from this step forward, every single step taken is preceded by a full advance disclosure to the opponent of what will be done, when, and where. Before each step commences, the opponent is offered the opportunity to change.

[If drug policy reform advocates started a Gandhian campaign today, I believe that they would be years from being able to issue ultimatums that actually carried any weight.]

Economic Boycott and Forms of Strike

In India, Indians boycotted foreign cloth with such success that they had a significant impact on the mills in Britain. Strikes have been used extensively in the U.S. for in all kinds of reform campaigns A scene in the movie "Gandhi" shows the power of a nationwide strike. [To conduct an economic boycott requires economic alternatives for the boycotters. To conduct an effective strike, a campaign needs great numbers of campaigners and who have economic alternatives. As far as I can tell, drug policy reform advocates are generally dependent on the dominant economic structures and so are weak on this point.]


Non-cooperation involves refusal to support the portions of the system that require reform or accept benefits from the system. For example, during the campaign to remove British rule, Indians resigned from government posts, removed their children from government schools, returned awards and medals that they had received from the government, and so on. Economic boycott and strikes described in the previous step can be regarded as forms of non-cooperation. [The judges who refuse to try drug cases are engaged in non-cooperation. People who refuse to provide urine samples as a condition of employment are engaged in non-cooperation.]

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience extends non-cooperation to the active and open breaking of selected laws. Gandhi set complete and voluntary obedience to laws as a prerequisite for civil disobedience. Laws to be broken were selected very carefully for their position at the heart of the problem or for their symbolic value. Civil disobedience involves a deliberate courting of arrest and, upon arrest, no defense is offered in the courts. In fact, full admission of guilt is required. The prosecutors, juries, and judges are challenged to see the injustice of the law that they are defending against the civil disobedient and to cease their cooperation with the injustice. In mass campaigns involving civil disobedience in India, prisons filled up very quickly. Very often, the leaders were arrested in an attempt to dishearten the campaigners and end the campaign. Sometimes they were arrested upon delivery to the authorities of their notice of intent to disobey! Other times, the government ignored them completely which, of course, encouraged more people to join the campaign. If the government ignores the first civil disobedients, the provocative nature of increasing numbers of civil disobedients eventually compels the government to act. And compelling the opponent to act is the point of civil disobedience. Two important organizational points must be mentioned here. Every campaign in which the leaders may be arrested must provide succession of leadership. A succession procedure must be planned in advance so that civil disobedience continues apace no matter how many leaders have been arrested. The second point involves support for the families of the civil disobedients. There must always be people who are willing to forego civil disobedience and remain free to take care of the children, the aged, and the ill. Support people should be identified in advance and should, under no circumstances, court arrest.

[Medicinal marijuana suppliers and users come to mind as a possible example of civil disobedients, although an analysis would reveal that very few of these civil disobedients actually meet all of the criteria set forth by Gandhi.]

Creation of Alternate Structures

If, after all of these steps, the existing system fails to become more just, an alternate means of ensuring justice must be developed. This is especially important when the existing system is so corrupt that people are disobeying it not just as part of a campaign, but simply because they find themselves unable to conduct their lives peacefully without disobeying it. Such a system is approaching inevitable collapse by virtue of its inherent flaws. Alternate structures must be built in advance not only to provide for immediate needs, but also to prevent (or at least mitigate) the potential release of destructive, anger-driven energy that often follows an oppressive system's collapse. [Medicinal marijuana buyers' clubs provide an example of an alternate structure.]

Demands of Gandhi's Technique on Campaigners

Gandhi's technique exacts a great deal from a campaign's leadership and those who follow them. They must tirelessly plan and monitor the progress of the campaign, reassess their position and the position of the opponent, and respond creatively and provocatively to events as they unfold. Leaders must be flexible enough to respond to change.

At the same time, they must have the insight to know which potential responses might lead to stagnation of the campaign or will compromise a fundamental principle--for either will lead to setbacks.

Leaders must be consummate communicators: with the opponent, the public, potential supporters, and those who have joined the campaign--else misunderstandings and misinterpretations can arise as the campaign is adjusted to changing conditions and events. Leaders must have an ability to organize, inspire, and use fully the talents of an extremely diverse group of people who volunteer their services to a campaign. People with widely varying perspectives and beliefs must be transformed from a disorganized scattering of supporters in conflict not just with the government, but often with each other, to a coherent, responsive unit that can target its actions and responses with great force. Finally, all in the campaign must have an ability to manage or dispel the tension and anger that can arise when their efforts appear to be frustrated, when there are disagreements among campaigners, and when they directly confront an often-hostile opponent.


Many drug policy reform advocates have been using political action techniques similar (though not identical) to the steps described above. But drug policy reform advocates have not catalyzed into a dynamic, coherent group that can act synchronously to achieve a clearly defined goal. I believe that, if reform advocates' efforts were synthesized in a Gandhian sequence with an underpinning of the fundamental principles, success would be inevitable.


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