Thoughts on economics and liberty

Gandhi supported the use of guns for self-defence and opposed the racially discriminatory Arms Act of British India

Gandhi DID NOT oppose the idea of an Arms Act in principle – that he agreed regarding regulation of arms comes out clearly when one reads him completely. But he DID oppose the RACIST Arms Act introduced in 1878 by the British. The “India’s Arms Act of 1878, which gave Europeans in India the right to carry firearms but prevented Indians from doing so, unless they were granted a license by the British colonial government.” [Source].


From my reading (see annotated text in blue below) it appears he would like arms to be used for self-defence, particularly to defend women.

EXTRACTS FROM HIS COMPLETE WORKS (download the 100MB searchable text file here)


The Leader, 28-11-1917: VOL. 16: 1 SEPTEMBER, 1917 – 23 APRIL, 1918 COLLECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI Page 7930

The reforms relating to the Secretary of State and his Council are suggested as being consequential on the reform of the system of government in the country itself. They will, it is trusted, be found to make for economy and for harmony between the authorities in the two countries, without in any way impairing efficiency.

In the Memorandum in support of the proposals, which we beg to hand with this address, the case for reform is set forth at some length. It discusses, too, the important cognate subject of local self-government and a few urgently needed administrative reforms for the introduction of which both the Congress and the League have long been earnestly appealing to Government. The resolutions of the Congress and the Moslem League, the Joint Scheme of Reforms, and the memorandum of the nineteen members, are appended to our Memorandum to facilitate reference. We hope that the country will not have to wait longer to see Lord Ripon’s cherished scheme of real local self-government fully carried out; or for the substantial Indianization of the public services for which our late revered countryman, Mr. Dadabhoy Naoroji, laboured so long and so hard; or for the complete separation of the judicial services and functions from the executive, a reform needed even more in the interest of the backward masses than of the classes; or for such an amendment of the Arms Act and Rules as will not only do away with the invidious racial discrimination against Indians but empower them to possess and carry arms on conditions similar to those which prevail in other civilized countries, in most of the States in this very country, and in the case of Europeans and Americans in British India itself. The country has expressed its gratification at the removal of the bar against the appointment of Indians as commissioned officers in the Army. It trusts that the rules which will regulate their admission will be liberal and open an honourable and patriotic career to the young men of all classes who may satisfy such tests as may be imposed to judge their fitness, that the requisite facilities for their training and examination will be provided in India itself, and that lndians will be appointed in reasonably large numbers. It is a grievance of long standing that Indians are not permitted to enlist as volunteers. If, however, the system of volunteering as it has existed is to disappear, it is believed that the Indian Defence Force will not be disbanded after the war, and it is urged that the Indian section of it may be placed on a level of absolute equality with the European.



The Government does not give us commissions in the Army, it does not repeal the Arms Act; it does not open schools for military training. How can we then co-operate with it? These are valid objections.



Were you not helping the cause of war when you, both while in Africa and here, enlisted men for field service? How does it tally with your principle of ahimsa?

By enlisting men for ambulance work in South Africa and in England, and recruits for field service in India, I helped not the cause of war, but I helped the institution called the British Empire in whose ultimate beneficial character I then believed. My repugnance to war was as strong then as it is today; and I could not then have and would not have shouldered a rifle. But one’s life is not a single straight line; it is a bundle of duties very often conflicting. And one is called upon continually to make one’s choice between one duty and another. As a citizen not then, and not even now, a reformer leading an agitation against the institution of war, I had to advise and lead men who believed in war but who, from cowardice or from base motives, or from anger against the British Government, refrained from enlisting. I did not hesitate to advise them that, so long as they believed in war and professed loyalty to the British constitution, they were in duty bound to support it by enlistment. Though I do not believe in the use of arms, and though it is contrary to the religion of ahimsa which I profess, I should not hesitate to join an agitation for a repeal of the debasing Arms Act which I have considered amongst the blackest crimes of the British Government against India. I do not believe in retaliation, but I did not hesitate to tell the villagers near Bettiah four years ago that they who knew nothing of ahimsa were guilty of cowardice in failing to defend the honour of their womenfolk and their property by force of arms. And I have not hesitated as the correspondent should know only recently to tell the Hindus that, if they do not believe in out-and-out ahimsa and cannot practise it, they would be guilty of a crime against their religion and humanity if they failed to defend by force of arms the honour of their women against any kidnapper who chooses to take away their women. [Sanjeev: Basically he considered the use of arms for self-defence and for the defence of one’s family fully justified] And all this advice and my previous practice I hold to be not only consistent with my profession of the religion of ahimsa out and out, but a direct result of it. To state that noble doctrine is simple enough; to know it and to practise it in the midst of a world full of strife, turmoil and passions is a task whose difficulty I realize more and more day by day. And yet the conviction, too, that without it life is not worth living is growing daily deeper.

Young India , 5-11-1925


COLLECTED WORKS VOL. 39 : 4 JUNE, 1927 – 1 SEPTEMBER, 1927 – Page 18954

As long ago as 1917 or 1918, I said that amongst the many black deeds of the Government, disarmament was the blackest. And out-and-out believer in non-violence though I am, I hold that it is right of any Indian who wishes to bear arms to do so under lawful permission. I do submit that an Arms Act is now and will ever be a necessity of good government. I do not believe in the inherent right of every citizen to possess as many arms as he chooses without a licence. On the contrary, I hold it to be absolutely necessary for good government that the State should have the authority to prohibit the holding of arms except under prescribed conditions.


VOL. 40: 2 SEPTEMBER,1927 – 1 DECEMBER, 1927   – Page 19261

When the Government removes the Arms Act and makes it possible for every Indian to carry arms you will have achieved your object. But remember that it is not possible. Not even a Swaraj Government can do without an Arms Act. Some check there ought to be. Therefore,  I  would  like  you  to  believe  that  the  Madura Satyagraha has failed. It is much better to own our failures, if we are to succeed henceforward.



The Commissioners in every division were holding conferences on the Delhi model. One such was held in Gujarat. My co-workers and I were invited to it. We attended, but I felt there was even less place  for  me  here  than  at  Delhi.  In  this  atmosphere  of  servile submission I felt ill at ease. I spoke somewhat at length. I could say nothing to please the officials, and had certainly one or  two  hard things to say.

I used to issue leaflets asking people to enlist as recruits.1 One of the arguments I had was distasteful to the Commissioner : ‘Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.’ The Commissioner referred to this and said that he appreciated my presence in the conference in spite of the differences between us.



Sanjeev Sabhlok

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