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Of Gandhi, King and Kublalsingh

MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, December 10 2012

There was within non-violence a major problem: there were few examples of its being victorious. There were a number of Quaker examples, but these concerned small groups impressed by Quaker witness.

The Quaker attempt to “convert” Nazis away from anti-Jewish behaviour, failed. All that Quakers could do was to facilitate Jewish refugees as they fled Nazi-occupied Europe. The same was true of slavery.

Quakers could — and did — ban slave-owning by Quakers. They boycotted the produce of slave-labour, principally sugar and indigo. They provided many of the safe houses along the slave-freedom railway from American segregation states to Canada. Harriet Tubman, the African-American of the Railway, was herself a Quaker.

They could lobby the British parliament for agrarian and political reforms for Ireland. They couldn’t produce widespread, deeply-rooted change where this was needed.

Armed revolution was more likely to succeed.

What to do if the oppressed were poor, poorly armed, divided among themselves, easily coerced or bought? This was what Gandhi faced.

Anyone who visits the Taj Mahal, wanders around and discovers the Victorian Tomb of a British official on the grounds of a splendid Indian Moghul palace nearby, is likely to compare the two tombs: The Taj and this. They are likely to ask themselves, how come?

Stand on a railway platform, watch the weight of humanity who disembark — how come…? It was the question that Mahatma must have asked himself about India and about South Africa.

How come Britain was able to conquer, colonise and keep these vast countries with their own complex civilisations.

How could one reverse British colonialism?

MacSweeney’s hunger strike to death gave part of the answer. Non-attachment even to life was the ultimate in commitment. Gandhi’s own experience in South Africa hinted that non-violence could be victorious if it was allied with a mass movement, but only if he was prepared to die if that was needed.

Two things were crucial if mobilisation was to succeed:

(a) The Cause itself must be easily understood.

This was illustrated with the victory of Gandhi’s Salt March. Salt was used by everyone.

To refuse taxes on salt was easily understood by those who suffered the most from British taxation: the poor, notoriously difficult to organise.

(b) The outline of the India to replace British India must be known.

This free India must both build on the past and point to a future which was morally superior to the present Colonial rule.

Non-Violence and


Ever ask why the spinning wheel on the Indian flag? It is the symbol of the India Gandhi envisaged and that British colonialism had manifestly broken. It is there in De Valera’s vision of a milk-drinking Ireland with “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads”.

MacSweeney’s sister helped the cause by establishing an Irish-speaking school. These visions of the society-to-come, based on a nostalgia for the past, never came into being. Few recall that unlike Christian pacifists, Gandhi was not against violence. Indeed, he considered that it was more worthy to violently fight than to opt out. Non-violence was struggle, he claimed, and the higher form of struggle since it refused hatred or enmity. For himself, Gandhi constantly tested his decision not to be bound by possessions, family or wants. Gandhi won India’s freedom from Colonial rule.

He did not win the internal struggle of Jinnah’s demand for a virtual Muslim state, as well as the Hindu Nationalists’ demand for a Hindu India.

There non-violence failed. Gandhi certainly did not foresee India as a nuclear state, or the situation of her small farmers faced with drought and poverty. He certainly did not foresee Bollywood and billionaire India. But he forged a weapon that would be used by Martin Luther King on the heels of Rosa Parks’ refusal to follow the White Supremacy regulations for a segregated bus. It would be used in Apartheid South Africa by the forerunner of Nelson Mandela: Chief Luthulu.


There is little knowledge or understanding of non-violent resistance here in Trinidad and Tobago. There is little known of early Christianity, even in the Catholic Church. Or even of the first Franciscans. It is rather the authoritarian traditions of feudal obedience and loyalty which have been passed on. Kublalsingh is on stony ground. There is also missing a clarity of purpose and of vision.

Does Dr Kublalsingh only wish the re-routing of a highway?

If he does, it is unlikely to mobilise beyond his immediate geographical area and his friends.

The hunger strike is then disproportionate. But I knew Greenpeace when it was first Rainbow Warrior and a half-dozen or so nutty cases. Except that they have changed the world.

President Obama is the fruit of Rosa Parks and her tired feet. And so I wouldn’t brush off Dr Kublalsingh, Madame Prime Minister. Not with the accumulated dry tinder around.

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