Nehru’s Word: Non-violence,’ Doctrine of the Sword’ and choice between cowardice and violence
Jawaharlal Nehru, in An Autobiography, first published in 1936, discusses why the Congress adopted the method of non-violence as articulated by Gandhi ji
Comemmorating the centenary of the Non-Co-operation Movement, we continue our discussion of the adoption of non-violence by the Congress, and the implications of its withdrawal after the Chauri Chaura violence. Jawaharlal Nehru, in An Autobiography, first published in 1936, discusses why the Congress adopted the method of non-violence as articulated by Gandhiji.
The Congress had made that method its own, because of a belief in its effectiveness. Gandhiji had placed it before the country not only as the right method but as the most effective one for our purpose. In spite of its negative name it was a dynamic method, the very opposite of a meek submission to a tyrant’s will. It was not a coward’s refuge from action, but the brave man’s defiance of evil and national subjection.
Gandhiji had pleaded for the adoption of the way of non- violence, of peaceful non-co-operation, with all the eloquence and persuasive power which he so abundantly possessed. His language had been simple and unadorned, his voice and appearance cool and clear and devoid of all emotion, but behind that outward covering of ice there was the heat of a blazing fire and concentrated passion, and the words he uttered winged their way to the innermost recesses of our minds and hearts and created a strange ferment there. The way he pointed out was hard and difficult, but it was a brave path, and it seemed to lead to the promised land of freedom. Because of that promise we pledged our faith and marched ahead.
In a famous article—” The Doctrine of the Sword “—he had written in 1920: “I do believe that when there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. ... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless victim to her own dishonour. But I believe that non- violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment…But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her...But I do not believe India to be helpless, I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature...
Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will... Non- violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law—to the strength of the spirit…
“Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the putting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or regeneration.”
We were moved by these arguments, but for us and for the National Congress as a whole the non-violent method was not, and could not be, a religion or an unchallengeable creed or dogma. It could only be a policy and a method promising certain results, and by those results it would have to be finally judged….
Chauri Chaura and its consequences made us examine these implications of non-violence as a method, and we felt that, if Gandhiji’s argument for the suspension of civil resistance was correct, our opponents would always have the power to create circumstances which would necessarily result in our abandoning the struggle. Was this the fault of the non-violent method itself or of Gandhiji’s interpretation of it? After all, he was the author and originator of it, and who could be a better judge of what it was and what it was not? And without him where was our movement?
Many years later, just before the 1930 Civil Disobedience movement began, Gandhiji, much to our satisfaction, made this point clear. He stated that the movement should not be abandoned because of the occurrence of sporadic acts of violence.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)