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Satyagraha 100 Years Later: Gandhi Launches Modern Non-Violent Resistance Movement on Sept. 11, 1906

StorySeptember 08, 2006
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September 11th 2006 has a special significance. It not only marks the fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, it also marks 100 years to the day that Mahatma Gandhi launched the modern nonviolent resistance movement. We speak with Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, about "Satyagraha." [includes rush transcript]

September 11th 2006 has a special significance. It not only marks the fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, it also marks 100 years to the day that Mahatma Gandhi launched the modern nonviolent resistance movement. Gandhi called it "Satyagraha."

The date was September 11th, 1906. Speaking before 3,000 Indians gathered at a theater in Johannesburg, Gandhi organized a strategy of nonviolent resistance to oppose racist policies in South Africa. Satyagraha was born and since then, it has been adopted by many around the world to resist social injustice and oppression.

Gandhi used it in India to win independence from the British. The Reverend Martin Luther King used it in the United States to oppose segregation and Nelson Mandela used it in South Africa to end apartheid.

Today, we mark 9/11 by looking at Satyagraha. We speak with Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and co-founder of the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis Tennessee, which promotes nonviolence in conflict zones around the world.

  • Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Born in South Africa under apartheid, Arun moved to India in 1946 to live with his grandfather. He remained in India until the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Arun Gandhi spent the next thirty years as a journalist in India. In 1991 he co-founded the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis Tennessee, which promotes nonviolence in conflict zones around the world.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gandhi joins us from Rochester, New York, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and co-founder of the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee, which promotes nonviolence in conflict zones around the world. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Arun Gandhi.

ARUN GANDHI: Thank you very much. Thank you very much for having me on your show.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you define Satyagraha for us?

ARUN GANDHI: Satyagraha is the pursuit of truth. My grandfather believed that truth should be the cornerstone of everybody’s life and that we must dedicate our lives to pursuing truth, to finding out the truth in our lives. And so his entire philosophy was the philosophy of life. It was not just a philosophy for conflict resolution, but something that we have to imbibe in our life and live it all the time so that we can improve and become better human beings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the spread of the concept and the movement around the world, looking back now at its impact, could you talk about how it spread and the impact it’s had on social change around the world?

ARUN GANDHI: I think it has had a tremendous impact, as you just said in the introduction. So many people around the world have used nonviolence as a way to resolve a conflict that they faced in their lives. And they continue to use it everywhere all over the world there. And I think, in a way, nonviolence is our nature. Violence is not really our nature. If violence was our nature, we wouldn’t need military academies and martial arts institutes to teach us how to kill and destroy people. We ought to have been born with those instincts. But the fact that we have to learn the art of killing means that it’s a learned experience. And we can always unlearn it.

And I’m always reminded of a very pertinent statement that my grandfather made. He said, "Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can prove to me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness." And I think that’s what we have to remember and try to imbibe in our lives there, that we can never overcome violence with more violence. We can only overcome violence with respect and understanding and love for each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gandhi, can you tell us what your grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, did 100 years ago today?

ARUN GANDHI: Well, as you said, he met in the theater with more than 3,000 Indian people, because they were victims of prejudices in South Africa and all kinds of unjust laws were enacted to oppress them and suppress them. And he realized that this was not right and that we should not submit to these things and should not live with this. And so he got the people together and explained to them that we have to resist this kind of injustice, and we have to do something about it. We should not just submit to it and live with it.

And people were wondering, how can we resist with the state so powerful, and we don’t have any weapons, you know, because every time, even today, when somebody talks about resistance, everybody thinks in terms of weapons and war and fighting. And that’s when grandfather explained to them that we don’t need any weapons of mass destruction. We have the ability to respond to this nonviolently and with self-suffering. And that’s what he encouraged the people to do. And they came out into the streets with love for the enemy. You know, grandfather didn’t tolerate any hate for the enemy or any anger for the enemy. He said nonviolence has to be complete nonviolence. We have to have love and respect for the enemy, and that is the only way we can overcome them. And that’s what he showed in his work.

And I am amazed that the prime minister of South Africa, General J.C. Smuts, later on he admitted that grandfather was the greatest. He called him a saint, and he said, "It was my misfortune that I had to be against him," you know. And it was that kind of feeling of reverence and awe that he inspired even in his opponents. And I think that’s what we have to remember and try to make it a part of our lives, because violence is destroying us. You know, we’re seeing violence growing every day in our streets, in our homes, in our towns, in our cities, in the world itself. Everywhere we turn, we see violence and hate and prejudice and anger and all of these negative emotions that are destroying humanity. And we have to wake up and take note of this and try to change our course, so that we can create a world of peace and harmony where future generations can live happily together.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For some of our younger listeners, especially, who may not be aware of the specific ways in which your grandfather carried out his movement, especially in India, could you talk about some of the tactics used or the key moments in the fight for Indian independence? And also I’d be interested in your perspective on how you see how India today is either carrying out — whether people are either carrying out or have forgotten much of the lessons of Gandhi.

ARUN GANDHI: Well, nonviolence is something very powerful, and the power behind it is not weapons, but the support of the people. And grandfather had this knack of picking on issues which really affected a lot of people everywhere. And therefore, he was able to get people to come out and join his movement.

Now, to give you an example, the salt march that took place in 1930, when he announced to the nation that he was going to defy the salt laws enacted by the British and defy the British government, even the Congress Party members who were his supporters began to doubt and wonder: "How can you destroy the British empire by defying the salt laws?" And, you know, everybody ridiculed the whole idea, and even the British ridiculed the whole idea, and grandfather remained steadfast there. But the reason why he picked on the salt law was that that was one law that affected everybody, Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor. Everybody across the board were affected by that law. And when he decided that he was going to march 247 miles to the sea —

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if you could explain why that law was so oppressive to the Indian people.

ARUN GANDHI: Because the British had decided that they were going to take the Indian salt back to Britain and refine it and repackage it and sell it back to the Indian people at about 20 times the price, and, you know, enormous taxes were imposed on salt. And India had been impoverished by the British colonialism and imperialism. And people were very poor. And this kind of tax on salt, something that everybody needs every day, was totally unjust, and therefore, grandfather decided to defy this.

And when he marched that day, began the march, 247 miles to the sea, you know, it just caught the imagination of the people. And millions of people poured out into the street. And even if they couldn’t participate in his march, they did things in their own cities to defy the British. And the response was so tremendous that the Congress doubters also began to see the wisdom of it, and the British government were taken completely by surprise. And I think that was the turning point in the freedom struggle in India. From that point onwards, the British lost their hold over the country. And it just went down to ultimately giving independence to the country there.

AMY GOODMAN: And in your work in the Middle East, Arun Gandhi, how have you applied Satyagraha?

ARUN GANDHI: Well, I had the opportunity to go there in 2004. And as it turned out, I was the last foreigner to have meet Yasser Arafat and to have spoken to him. And the message that I took to the people in the Middle East is that this kind of violence that you are committing is not beneficial to you or beneficial to anybody. You are only destroying a whole generation of young people and not achieving anything. And lately, after 2001, after the terrorist attacks here, everybody in the West has been looking at suicide bombers as terrorists. And so, instead of gaining sympathy for the cause of the Palestinian people, you are only, you know, gaining more anger and frustration, and people are branding you as terrorists, and you are losing the battle there.

So I tried to suggest to them that they should take, you know — reexamine their whole procedure and see what they can do nonviolently to achieve their goals. I suggested to them that Napoleon, the greatest military general that the world has seen, has written in his book that the general who holds the initiative has better chances of winning the war. And I said in this case, you are not holding the initiative at all. It is the Israelis who are holding the initiative, and they are making you do things that they want you to do, and that can justify more violence and separation of your people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was the response of President Arafat, who had spent his whole life in armed resistance, basically, to free his people?

ARUN GANDHI: Well, one of the questions that he asked me was, well, suppose you were given the leadership, what would you plan to do? And I said, look, I can’t give you an offhand answer to this question, because it needs to be studied properly. I need to be here. I need to understand the problems here. But one thing that really comes to my mind here, I said I had just been to Amman, Jordan, where I had met with more than half a million refugees, Palestinian refugees, who were living for more than a decade in awful conditions. And they were frustrated and angry, and they wanted to come back to Palestine and live a peaceful, normal life there. And I told —

AMY GOODMAN: You have ten seconds.

ARUN GANDHI: I told Mr. Arafat, I said, suppose you were to go there and lead this half a million people, men, women and children, in a march to Palestine, and no armaments or anything, just say that we are coming back to live in peace and harmony in our homeland, can the Israelis kill so many people and live with their conscience? I said the whole world would wake up and stop this action.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gandhi. I want to thank you very much for being with us. I hope to see you in Memphis on January 11th, on our Breaking the Sound Barrier tour. And I want to let our listeners and viewers know, on Monday, the movie Gandhi will play all over the country, on the 100th anniversary of Satyagraha.

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