The Gandhian form of non-violent civil disobedience i.e. the Satyagraha has been a part of India’s political picture before as well as after Independence. It has manifested in various protests against State action. H0wever, there has always been a debate on people’s assertion of their demands through Satyagraha in an independent India governed by a working Constitution. In an article published in July-September 1970 issue of Quest magazine, the author Mr. Nageshwar Prasad discusses the relevance of Satygaraha in the political system. Produced below is the full text of the article.
The technique of non-violent direct action (satyagraha) has not been examined with reference to its application to a political system that claims to rest on legitimacy. The term legitimacy was first used by Max Weber while discussing the typology of authority on the basis of its acceptance or non-acceptance by the people in the system. The International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences defines legitimacy as ‘the foundation of such governmental power as is exercised both with consciousness on the government’s part that it has a right to govern and with some recognition by the governed of that right.’ (International … 1968 p. 244). Legitimacy, therefore, in the first instance, presupposes the right of the authority to govern and second the consent of the governed to such a right. From the point of view of this definition, no other system than democracy can approximate an ideal type of legitimacy because the democratic authority rests on the consent of the majority of the governed.
The technique of satyagraha was not developed in a system which claimed to rest on legitimacy. Both in South Africa and India the system that confronted Gandhi was based on illegitimacy. They derived their authority to govern from naked force rather than consent. Alienation from the system rather than participation in it was the distinguishing feature of these systems. It was to such illegitimate systems that the technique of non-violent direct action was directed. And therefore it could be justified. But in a legitimate system such as democracy, it is supposed that democratic institutions and procedures are effective means of satisfying the basic functions of the government. In such a system, therefore, no other means which fall outside the boundary of the democratic framework, it is argued, can be used if the end sought is the fulfilment of the basic functions of the government.
At this point, we should define the functions of the government. For the time being, we accept the government and the political system as the same, although the latter is a much wider concept (Almond and Coleman, 1960, p. 5). According to Almond, there are four input and three output functions of a political system. (Ibid., p. 17). Of the seven functions, two are most germane for our discussion here. The political system articulates the interests, claims and demands for political action. This he calls interest-articulation. The second function which the political system performs is the formulation of general policies where interests which have been articulated may be combined, accommodated and compromised. This he calls the interest-aggregation function of the political system.
The effectiveness of a system therefore can be judged in terms of the extent to which it aggregates different interests which are articulated by different groups in society. In other words, the demands that the system articulates at the political level must be combined and accommodated at the policy output level. This does not mean that the political system performs its interest-aggregation function in a natural or a mechanical way, that there remains nothing to be done once the demands have been articulated. The ideal situation of course would be that the system should combine and compromise demands into policy output. But this does not happen.
There are many groups competing with each other, demanding that their interests be responded to by the political system. In a democracy, such competition is very common. The more developed democracy is, the more organised will be the competition of different groups in society. But however organised group competition might be, it is not always possible for the system to aggregate the interests and demands of all the groups at the same time. This is for three reasons. First, the political system may not command sufficient resources to satisfy the demands of all competing groups. Second, as a natural corollary of the first, the groups that command greater political resources (Dahl, 1963, p. 15) may be able to influence the policy output in their favour and third, a politically resourceless group may not command easy access to the political machine to influence it in their favour, because as Dahl says, the ‘control over political resources is distributed unevenly even among adults.’ (Ibid.). Among political resources, Dahl mentions ‘money, information, food, the threat of force, jobs, friendship, social standing, the right to make laws, votes and a great variety of other things.’ (Ibid.)
This state of resourcelesness is likely to exist in all societies, perhaps in under-developed societies more than others. To the extent that these resources are not accessible to the groups in society, the legitimacy of the political system will always remain questionable to them. The greater the number of such groups, the greater will be their alienation from the system and the lower will be the scale of legitimacy. In turn the greater the inaccessibility of such groups to political resources, the more haphazard, intermittent, spasmodic and unorganised will be their interest articulation. If this happens, the legitimacy of the political system will always remain in crisis.
It is necessary here to refer to two of the categories among Dahl’s political resources mentioned above. The first is the vote and the second is the threat of force. A case is often made out that the right to vote guarantees certain mechanisms through which groups periodically may express their demands for satisfaction. Together with votes go other instruments through which demands can be articulated. It is true that in such a system opportunities for the expression of demands exist. But the democratic political system has till now not been able to satisfy all sections of the population through these traditional means. This applies even to such an advanced political system as the American where the ethnic minority still continues to languish under many disabilities. Thus the necessary guarantee of the usual instruments of interest articulation may not succeed in inducing the system to respond to the demands of certain groups in society. Or the process of interest aggregation may be partial and slow, with the result that the frustration resulting from such groups might outstrip the usual channels.
We now turn to the political resource that Dahl characterises as ‘threat of force’. By this, we mean to resort to violence by certain politically resourceless groups for making demands upon the political system. The use of force in a system may be justifiable on many counts. First, the system may have alienated an overwhelming majority of the population. Second, the system may be bogged down in continuous ineffectiveness and the ruling elite might have become so self-centred as not to permit interest articulation and interest aggregation functions to take place at all. Such a closed system will then need to be replaced and therefore the use of force in such extreme cases may be justified. But in an open political system such as democracy, the politically resourceless groups should find some other instrument of self-articulation which is different from the usual democratic channels and which eschews violence but does not become dysfunctional for the democratic framework.
Gandhi faced this problem, as I have stated, early in his public career in South Africa and later in India. In South Africa, the Indians as a group were shut off from the political system. Gandhi, therefore, challenged the very basis of the legitimacy of the system. In India, a whole nation was rigorously kept out of participating in the decision-making process of the system. In terms of Lipset’s formulation, therefore, the systems were both illegitimate and ineffective (Lipset, 1963, p. 69). Gandhi, therefore, invented the technique of satyagraha (non-violent direct action) to undo this unequal status of the groups in the former and overthrow the latter. But what about a situation in which the legitimacy of the democratic system is unquestioned but effectiveness in terms of response to the demands of certain groups in society is low? And if these groups are politically resourceless, can the use of satyagraha be justifiable?
Gandhi’s answer in such a situation would be a straight ‘yes’. If the system becomes so inefficient that demand input and policy output are not in equilibrium, it obviously loses the confidence of certain sections of the population. In the face of persisting inertia on the part of the system, non-violent direct action is the only course that can be conceived outside the usual democratic procedures. Such a system at least ceases to depend upon the consent of the politically resourceless groups. Gandhi, therefore, wrote as long back as 1914 in Indian Opinion ‘In politics, its (satyagraha’s) use is based upon the immutable maxim that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed .. .’ (Gandhi, 1951, p. 35). In other words, the legitimacy of the system rests only on the consent of the different groups in the political system.
If, then, some of the constituents of the system, as a result of persistent denial of access to it, come to a point where they have to choose between violent and non-violent direct action, Gandhi prefers the latter. Such a situation is not unlikely to develop in a legitimate political system, especially in emerging nations which have opted for the democratic system. In his evidence before the Hunter Committee, Gandhi conceded this point. ‘I can conceive the necessity of satyagraha in opposition to the would-be full responsible government.’ (Ibid. p. 33). To the question whether ‘with all the rights of self-government we shall be able to dismiss the government’, he replied, ‘I cannot feel on that point so assured forever. In England, it often happens that ministers can continue in the executive even though they lose all the confidence of the public. The same thing may happen here too and therefore I can imagine a state of things in this country which would need satyagraha even under Home Rule.’ (Ibid., p. 34).
Once the use of satyagraha is conceded in a democracy, certain consequences might follow for the system. One of these, which has been very often emphasised, is that any mass action, however non-violent, is likely to generate forces of anomie which may endanger the stability of the system. The answer to this will depend upon the responsiveness of the system. How soon can the system process the demand and satisfy the groups making it- this will, eventually, test the system’s stability. Apart from the system’s ability to satisfy demands, Gandhi prescribed some pre-conditions for non-violent direct action. In the first place, the technique was to be used only when all legal, formal and other peaceful methods had been exhausted. In the second place, if satyagraha seemed inevitable, the participants had to be trained in such a way as to be able to exercise this weapon without deviating from the norms and values envisaged by the technique. In other words, like Almond’s political culture, the culture of satyagraha presupposed cognitive, affective and evaluative orientation of the participants in the action process.
Just as democracy cannot be sustained without a certain kind of attitude orientation, satyagraha too cannot be sustained without the psychological orientation to the whole process. In other words, the culture of satyagraha, like the political culture, refers to the entire technique with all its norms and values as internalised in the cognitions, feelings and evaluations of the participants in the action process.
Almond and Verba, 1963, p. 14). Gandhi subsumed it under what he called the discipline of satyagraha. We call it the culture of Satyagraha because the term broadens the entire meaning of the technique. Thus the term signifies the participant’s knowledge and belief about the technique which we subsumed under cognitive orientation. Similarly, by affective and evaluative orientation, we mean the emotive commitment to and judgment and opinion of the participants about the action technique.
The question is how realistic it is to expect a large mass of people to participate in the action to internalise the satyagrahi culture. To the extent that the participating masses are not trained in the culture, the danger of deviation from the strict path of non-violence will always loom on the horizon. It is here that the role of training in non-violence and leadership is of inestimable value. This leadership aspect of the action is of crucial value to our discussion. Almond and Verba in the Civic Culture discuss this aspect of the political culture in detail. I am trying to apply it to the concept of what I call the culture of satyagraha (see Almond and Verba, pp. 14-15).
The role of leadership consists of planning, directing and guiding the whole course of satyagraha action. Gandhi made this very clear before the Hunter Commission. ‘As I intended to make it a mass movement, I thought the constitution of some such Committee (i.e. the satyagraha Committee) as we had appointed was necessary, so that no man should become a law unto himself, and, therefore we conceived the plan that the Committee should be able to show what laws might be broken’. (Gandhi, 1951, p. 21). If, therefore, the participants were not as well trained as could be expected, the leadership of the movement must be thoroughly soaked in the satyagrahi culture. Emphasising this aspect, Gandhi declared, ‘Satyagraha by the vast masses of mankind would be impossible if they had all to assimilate the doctrine in all its implications. I cannot claim to have assimilated all its implications nor do I claim even to know them all. A soldier in an army does not know the whole of military science; so also does a satyagrahi not know the whole science of satyagraha. It is enough if he trusts his commander and honestly follows his instructions and is ready to suffer unto death without bearing malice against the so-called enemy.’ (Ibid., p. 363).
The article was originally published here.