top of page
  • S Aditya

Disobeying Civil Disobedience

Perhaps the greatest turnaround in the history of political communication was ushered in with a walk. Not just a walk, a march. Not just a march, an act of defiance. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set his foot out of his ashram on March 12, 1930, not only did he begin one of the most triumphant phases of the Indian National Movement, but he also rephrased the logic of civil disobedience.

True, there were incidents of civil disobedience before, and after. This piece shall deal with either form. But what Gandhi did to civil disobedience is roughly analogous to what a triangular prism would do to a beam of light: channelise it. Differentiate the strands. Reorder them. Club them together.

Where does this idea arrive from? What exactly does civil disobedience entail? To answer these questions, we turn to a thinker whom Gandhi himself acknowledged he “greatly benefited from”. He was an essayist named Henry David Thoreau.

On January 26, 1848, Thoreau was called for a lecture on a peculiar subject – his experience of prison life. Thoreau’s lecture was committed to a pamphlet and published as “Essay on Civil Disobedience”. Interestingly enough, Thoreau does not even mention the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ once in the speech/essay. Nonetheless, it came to impress, influence and direct civilians worldwide in the art of disobedience.

What did Thoreau say that was so transformational? His argument was plain – the best government was the one “that did not have to govern at all”. His position was unmistakably enmeshed in the backdrop of events that he was writing: The Mexican American War – that drew wide condemnation from pedestrians to senators – one among the latter being a certain Abraham Lincoln. For Thoreau, the government was not the vehicle of progress, it was the inhibitor of it. The government pulled the levers of a massive machine that disregarded individual rights, affirmed slavery, waged wars against distant lands, and crushed individual earnings under taxation. One could observe here an almost mirror resemblance of Gandhi’s own ideas.

While the issues were one half of it, the solutions were the other – and the most crucial – half. In what he terms as “counter-friction”, Thoreau discusses his plan of action. It was to wage a “peaceable revolution” – he wanted disgruntled citizens to make the State aware of their disgruntlement. And if you are incarcerated? Thoreau has an answer ready from his own prison experience – a Government can only lock your senses up: not your soul. And surely not your ideas.

While Gandhi’s lessons from this text might already be apparent to us, it is prudent to pause and reflect on what this truly meant. What did Gandhi wish to achieve by agitating against the salt tax? Sure enough, salt was a levelling commodity: it is used by all – irrespective of varnas and classes. But here, Gandhi also looked at what the tax represented. To borrow from his letter to Viceroy Irwin of March 2, 1930, the tax was “the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint.”

Yet this was not the end of civil disobedience. The Gandhian model of protest acquired the status of a ritual for civil rights activists across the planet. Despite its fluidity, or because of it, activists took liberties with picking and choosing among strands of this playbook. One such black civil rights activist, named Bayard Rustin, would exemplify a perfect turnaround in the idea of civil disobedience. From the annals of philosophical anarchism, he would place the idea of political communication via civil disobedience in the vortex of modern democracy: in electoral politics.

Rustin was a longtime associate of Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, he was the prime organiser of the March on Washington ceremony in 1965, where King made his now-famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Yet Rustin was known for another reason. In 1967, he published a famous article that would signal a shift in the ideology of civil disobedience. The title was self-explanatory: From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.

What motivated Rustin was his lifelong commitment to socialism. His journey in politics taught him politics might be the root of all ills, but there was no better medicine than politics itself. The United States in his time might have phased out the notorious Jim Crow Laws, but they were only halfway through. De facto segregation of whites and blacks still proceeded. And Rustin’s method to alter this was not to boycott politics but to enter into the political machine.

Rustin appreciated the progress in the civil rights movement in America – of which he himself was an active volunteer. He acknowledged that while civil rights activists of yore fought for desegregation canteens and equal seats in buses, they were now inching closer to the systemic root of racism and bigotry in America. His averment to his fellow activists was not to retreat, but progress. “Power corrupts, but the absence of power also corrupts,….”, was his conviction.

It is not hard to finely draw similarities between Rustin and Gandhi and their historical pathways. Both were protesting against what they perceived as unjust oppression: accentuated by myths of race and inequality. While it is debatable if civil disobedience is worthy as an instrument of protest, what is unquestionable is its moral power.

One last question is left answered. Was this shift inevitable? In some ways, it was. Although civil disobedience is not dead, it assumed varied forms. The initial adherents and preachers of civil disobedience were philosophical anarchists – their ideal form of government was a far cry from the mammoth machines that we have today. They could breathe, live and prosper without a State. But today’s State is different. Democracy is not an end in itself. It is a means to a higher-end, as J S Mill would have it, to realise the full breadth of the moral consciousness of an individual. And Rustin was quick to grasp it. Civil disobedience did not mean civilian distance. Government is amenable to change, within, or without.

By S. Aditya


bottom of page