Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How Do you Keep Non-Violence Non-Violent?

81 years ago today, Mahatma Gandhi started his salt march to Dandi by holding up a handful of mud and salt and declaring that "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." He was right. The non-violent opposition to the British salt tax was a major step in the story of Indian independence, one that is infused with Gandhi's non-violence. Non-violence is extremely difficult to maintain when the group is large, emotions are running high, and the threat of violence is immanent. It was certainly very helpful to have a figure like Gandhi who was thoughtful about non-violence, could speak of it in clear and powerful ways, and was very charismatic.

But we've seen other cases, the Velvet Revolution and what has transpired in Egypt recently in which non-violence works without a single charismatic leader. Yet, there are any number of cases in which non-violent protests turned violent...often with tragic results. When you do not have a leader extolling the importance of non-violence, it is easy for elements -- sometimes from the other side -- to infiltrate and start the move to violence.

What, then, is necessary to keep a non-violent movement non-violent? Does it take appeals to reason? Is it a function of the opposition, will it only be effective against certain sorts of adversaries? Is it a matter of time, that things must end quickly because non-violent tactics have a limited life? Does it take groundwork laid before the action? Is it a function of infrastructure, that there must be a vibrant free press, international presence, or decent roads?