Thoughts on economics and liberty

Further notes on civil disobedience

I had raised some basic issues here a few days ago. I found a few minutes to undertake some background research. Here are some findings.

Above all, civil disobedience is entirely different to ordinary disobedience/ protest.

The idea of civil disobedience has a long history including the work of Gandhi which preceded Henry David Thoreau’s work by a year. The work to master the implementation of civil disobedience took Mahatma Gandhi many decades.

Civil disobedience is likely to lead to significant anguish and even injury for the volunteers. The volunteers must be mentally prepared to be injured by the police. The police are the instruments of the state and often consider that they are doing their duty. They can sometimes be excessively brutal in the performance of their “duty”.

Volunteers must be ready not only to be arrested but to be jailed – often for long durations. The government will try to record a criminal prosecution against the volunteers’ names, thus disrupting the volunteers’ future career. The sloppy record of Australia’s lawyers during the covid pandemic also means that there may not be an adequate defence of the civil disobedience volunteers in the courts.

In the light of this, the only reason why someone may choose to become a volunteer is because they firmly believe that a forthright challenge is needed to the authority to recover a semblance of humanity.

Three key principles of civil disobedience.

The first principle is that you maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust. [Source]

The second principle of civil disobedience follows from the first: you should plead guilty to any violation of the law.  [Source]

the third principle of civil disobedience: you should attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause. [Source]


BASED ON Talat Ahmed’s 2019 book, Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience

An illustrative act of civil disobedience: the Salt March

In 1930 Salt March, when [Gandhi] walked 240 miles from Ahmedabad to the coastal town of Dandi with 78 male volunteers. Under the 1882 Salt Act, the British had a monopoly on salt, levying a tax that all had to pay. Upon arrival at Dandi on 6 April 1930, Gandhi issued a statement to the world’s press saying that, although the government had not interfered with the march, ‘the wanton disregard shown by them to popular feeling and their high-handed action leave no room for doubt that the policy of heartless exploitation of India is to be persisted in at any cost.’ The only interpretation he could put on the non-interference in the march was that ‘the British Government, powerful though it is, is sensitive to world opinion’ which would ‘not tolerate repression’ of civil disobedience ‘so long as disobedience remains civil and therefore necessarily non-violent’. He would now test whether the government would ‘tolerate the actual breach of the salt laws by countless people’.4

Gandhi picked up a lump of muddy salt and declared ‘With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’5 After boiling it in seawater to produce illegal salt, he implored his followers to do likewise ‘wherever it is convenient’.6 The effect was dramatic as 2,000 people bathed in the sea at Dandi with Gandhi to pick up salt and so declare the salt laws broken.7 Mass civil disobedience spread throughout India as millions broke the salt laws by making salt or buying illegal salt.

Built upon the principle of love and kindness

Civil disobedience “recognize[s] the eternal law of love, inherent in humanity”. – Leo Tolstoy.

“in the final analysis, his [Gandhi’s] intentions were not to overthrow the system but make it kinder.”

Moral foundations, even puritanism

Following from the above is generally an appeal to moral superiority of the position adopted by civil disobedience participants. Without such moral superiority being repeatedly demonstrated, there is little possibility of the underlying demand for change being accepted by the broader community.

In Gandhi there was  puritanical streak which catapulted him to the highest ranks in Indian society which admires such an approach even if it is hard for many people to abide by the expected standard. In n August 1921, Gandhi declared:

“We must understand thoroughly what self-purification means. Give up drinking alcohol, smoking ganja and eating opium. Give up visiting prostitutes …  Today India lacks the power for peaceful, civil disobedience of laws … But this power will not come through drinking and debauchery. Therefore give up drinking, give up debauchery. This has a very deep meaning. If you would rather have nothing to do with dirty things, you should become pure yourselves.”

The objective is to change public opinion

“No feats of heroism are needed to bring about the greatest and most important changes in the life of humanity … All that is necessary is a change of public opinion”. – Tolstoy.

The objective of civil disobedience is to press upon the general community the reasons why a particular law is immoral and therefore worthy of being disobeyed.

The CRITICAL role of imprisonment in civil disobedience

Thoreau proclaimed that “under a government that imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”  Gandhi and King would go to jail for much longer terms and willingly accept the punishment for breaking the law. [Source]

“Jail, no bail” was a rallying cry of the American civil rights movement. Gandhi reasoned that if the government’s jails are overwhelmed, and the government would have to compromise or collapse.

Martin Luther King Jr said about Gandhi’s strategy:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon … a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it … He [Gandhi] struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul-force, non-injury and courage … Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and the motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.

Specific roles chosen by volunteers of civil disobedience

This may appear outdated, but “at major protests” in Gandhi’s movements, “women were expected to nurse the male satyagrahis when they were struck down by police charges”. The issue here is that there needs to be preparation among the volunteers and allocation of roles – some would take the beatings by the police, others would tend to the injured.

Not the slightest scope for violence

“In the aftermath of the Chauri Chaura incident, on 12 February 1922, Gandhi called a halt to the Non-Co-operation Movement and suspended civil disobedience. Gandhi undertook a fast for five days as penance for what he considered a violent crime committed in his name. He was arrested and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment but released in February 1924 on health grounds”.

Only the strong can participate

“The aim is probably to become aware of the violence inside us; the result, however, is that only those who are psychologically strong can participate in these exercises.” [Source]

Strong preparation

“There is a significant difference between a course that is a direct preparation for civil disobedience” [Source]

This suggests that once a leadership has been identified, a systematic way must be found to build a training program for volunteers.

Plan, plan, plan. A half-century after the street struggles in Birmingham, no American movement has yet surpassed the strategic mastery of the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders were fighting a war — nonviolently, but a war nevertheless — and they planned it as such. They mapped out protests to create escalating drama and pressure. They ran training schools for activists, teaching them how to ignore provocations to violence, among other lessons. [Source]

Advance notice to the Police and other preparation

See this.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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