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Last Updated: 11/25/2003
Non-violence as dignity
Seema Kamdar talks to Mary King

“Gandhi recognised that conflict will always be within us. I think we should study his powerful insights to achieve a more equitable social and political structure. The civil rights movement succeeded because the whites realised that racism was wrong and that they, and not the blacks, had to change.”

As a teenager Mary King joined the US civil rights movement inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's example, and worked with Martin Luther King Jr - one of the few whites to do so. In Mumbai recently to receive the Jamnalal Bajaj international award for promoting Gandhian values outside India , Mary King , the professor of peace and conflict at the UN University for Peace, spoke to Seema Kamdar .


How did you get involved in the black-dominated civil rights movement?

Mary King: The movement was consciously shaped along non-violent lines. All through the period from 1920s right up to the 1950s, black leaders travelled to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi and his followers. News about the Mahatma's success in India was widely disseminated in the US . I went to work with civil rights campaigners immediately after university because I felt that America had not taken care of, much less resolved, the problems handed down by the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many intellectuals in these post-modern times find Gandhi's idea of non-violence irrelevant. Violence is increasingly seen as an inevitable tool of political protest across the world...

Mary King: I am deeply convinced that Gandhi's thoughts have a greater utility today than ever before. We are living at a time when there is broader appreciation of human rights, and when individuals and NGOs can make a difference. The idea that non-state players can be effective was not understood earlier. In fact, the 21st century is more amenable to the use of non-violent tools than the earlier ones. At the turn of the last century, only about 10 per cent of the total world population had access to human rights.     Gandhi recognised that conflict will always be within us. I think we should study his powerful insights to achieve a more equitable social and political structure. The civil rights movement succeeded because the whites realised that racism was wrong and that they, and not the blacks, had to change.

What is your interpretation of the Mahatma's concept of non-violence?

Mary King: The most unique thing about non- violence is that it preserves the dignity of your opponent; it doesn't seek to humiliate him. The use of violence does exactly the opposite. It also helps to consolidate the opposition. Palestinian suicide bombing drives Israelis to come together, even though they are divided over Ariel Sharon.

  Violence is not a long-term solution to social problems. As Gandhi put it, violence only awakens the thirst for revenge and retaliation. The US may have 130,000 troops in Iraq but that is not helping them. Of course, the Americans aren't alone in their worship of violence. Gandhi, to me, was the most shrewd political thinker who ever walked the earth. Having studied all manner of political thinkers from the ancient Greeks onwards, I can say Gandhi's political ingenuity was of daunting dimensions. There wasn't a single aspect of politics that he didn't touch upon. The basis for India 's independence, the future of its relations with European countries, his thought covered everything. For some reason, Indians like to think of Gandhi as a partisan individual.

But it's a mistake to pigeonhole him as an ideologist or even a Congressman. If you read the 100 volumes of his collected works, you realise he doesn't root for democracy as such, but for political potentiation and decentralisation.

How influential, globally, has his theory of non-violence been?

 Mary King: Gandhi never claimed to be the originator of the theory of non-violence but he was definitely the codifier. There are a whole compendium of human rights movements that has fought essentially on non-violent spurs. For two years, the Serbian youths of Otpor studied documents and materials based on what are, basically, Gandhian insights into the nature of power. The fall of Slobodan Milosevic did not happen overnight. There were provincial non- cooperation movements which made governance ineffective before the campaign reached the capital.

  All movements that dismantled the Soviet Union were based on this - the withdrawal of consent by the governed. The Czechs, the Poles, the Filipinos... Veritas, a Filipino radio heard nationally, broadcast Gandhi and King all day long. In Burma too, though no credit is given to Gandhi, the activists are steeped in his vision. Many movements have interpreted the nuances of non-violence in the way their language permits it. There is no equivalent for the concept in some languages like Polish and Italian. So, they use terms closest to its meaning. In Poland , the Solidarity Union uses the term 'social self-defence', while the Tibetans call non-violence 'political defiance'.

Non-violence calls for tremendous discipline and determination. It is strictly voluntary. The only person who can decide whether to take the risk is the person himself. It is rooted in popular consent. For half a century leading up to the 1970s, the South African struggle adhered to Gandhian thought.

  As apartheid became brutal, and closed down the political space, the exiles were driven to Lusaka where they decided to go back to violent methods. There is a need to study non-violent movements as a body of knowledge. Because today there is so much faith in violence. People question the concept of non-violence but no one talks of violent struggles and how they don't work.