Yes, I’m aware that it’s not July 4. August 15, 2017 happens to be the 70th anniversary of the day a different country broke away as politically independent of England: India.
A Unique Independence
Few things inspire more passion, more violence, than the struggle for freedom. Political independence always requires a fight of some kind, but on August 14th and 15th, 1947 the world learned that the fight doesn’t require violence. While the independence movement in India and Pakistan was not entirely bloodless, ultimately England agreed to let them go peacefully. This peaceful independence was unique and influential, and owes much to Gandhi and his philosophy of Satyagraha.
People often use words like “civil disobedience” or “nonviolence” to describe Gandhi’s approach, but Gandhi himself preferred the term satyagraha. This term was coined specifically for India’s independence movement, and as Gandhi explained, “truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.” In crafting as well as interpreting the word, Gandhi took care to keep force central to satyagraha and his nonviolent approach.
Many interpreted nonviolence as weakness, but the satyagraha Gandhi practiced and preached not only requires but also grants great force. After all, the practitioners of satyagraha (called satyagrahi) were faced with misunderstandings, anger, and hatred from within and without, which are circumstances that make holding firmly to truth and love very difficult. Ultimately however the force each individual put into the movement created a collective force that proved strong enough to overthrow imperialism.
Using satyagraha to overthrow a government drastically changes the word overthrow because it usually implies violence. With satyagraha however, the aim is not to defeat through physical force, but rather through voluntary conversion; as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “in the end, there is neither defeat nor victory but rather a new harmony.” The harmony that Gandhi sought for his country is made obvious by the fact that he didn’t focus simply on the single issue of political independence from Britain but also worked for equal rights for all within Indian society.
Even as we celebrate India and Pakistan’s independence and the crumbling of imperialism, we still deal with the reverberations of our ancestors’ actions.
Bigotry and hatred are all around us. A simple call to nonviolence is inadequate, but I for one am going to study further Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. A simplified version of Gandhi’s nonviolent approach can and has been used to silence marginalized people, but anybody who espouses Satyagraha needs to know that this kind of nonviolence comes from an honest examination of what the truth truly is.
One of the more common Gandhi quotes is a call to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” and so I am starting with myself. Just like every one of you reading this, I have unconscious biases to unlearn, and I have listening to do. Because I want to hold firmly to the truth; I want to help create that new harmony where a greater truth and justice is understood by society at large.