British rule is a curse, my dear friend: Gandhi’s gentle firmness

I’ve been immersed in Gandhi lately, both his own writings and a massive two-volume biography (Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World: 1914-1948, by Ramachandra Guha). I’ve loved Gandhi all my life, but my current reading has given me a new appreciation for the blessings he brought to the world.

One thing that has really jumped out at me this time is his rare combination of 1) firm, determined conviction and commitment to action when it came to issues, vision, and principles, and 2) gentle, gracious love when it came to the human beings he interacted with, even his “enemies.” In today’s climate, when a protest is called “peaceful” and “nonviolent” as long as no one physically strikes anyone—even if the protest includes angry chants of “F*** you!” directed toward opponents—Gandhi’s spirit is a breath of fresh air.

A beautiful example of this is Gandhi’s 1930 letter to Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy of India, before commencing his famous Salt March. This was a protest against the oppressive British ban on Indians collecting salt—a staple of life and provided for free by the sea—and the equally oppressive tax the British imposed on Indians who now had to buy salt from them. The letter begins this way:

Dear Friend,

Before embarking on Civil Disobedience and taking the risk I have dreaded to take all these years, I would fain approach you and find a way out. My personal faith is absolutely clear. I cannot intentionally hurt any thing that lives, much less fellow-human beings even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst therefore I hold British rule to be a curse, I do not intend to harm a single Englishman or any legitimate interest he may have in India.

I must not be misunderstood. Though I hold the British rule in India to be a curse, I do not therefore consider Englishmen in general to be worse than any other people on earth. I have the privilege of claiming many Englishmen as dearest friends. Indeed much that I have learnt of the evil of British rule is due to the writings of frank and courageous Englishmen who have not hesitated to tell the unpalatable truth about that rule.

Here you see both sides of that combination I mentioned. On the one hand, Gandhi is uncompromising in his convictions: British rule of India is a “curse,” something “evil.” In material that follows these paragraphs, which I will omit for the sake of brevity, Gandhi presents to Lord Irwin a devastating case for the “unpalatable truth” of those assertions. But on the other hand, however withering his critique of British policies, Gandhi expresses nothing but kindness and love to British people: Lord Irwin is a “friend” with whom he would like to work to find a way out of their current predicament. Many other British people are his “dearest friends”—indeed, at least some of them have stood against the curse of British rule—and he wishes no harm to any British person.

This kindness is reflected later in the letter when Gandhi reviews all of the attempts that had been made previously to resolve the issue through negotiation. Gandhi is famous today for his civil disobedience campaigns (satyagraha), but given his commitment to treating others with love, for him civil disobedience was always a last resort. Such firm opposition could indeed be loving, but only if it was done after making every attempt to resolve issues through respectful dialogue and negotiation with the human beings on the other side. Alas, all too often today, it seems that heading for the streets is the first thing people do. (Though, to be clear, regarding many issues with the Trump administration, I personally believe we have very much reached the “heading for the streets” stage.)

But in this case, all that respectful dialogue and negotiation did indeed fail, and so Gandhi and his associates felt compelled to turn to the firm opposition of a satyagraha campaign—the Salt March. But even as he informs Lord Irwin of this, his love and respect for the people he is opposing never wavers:

Having unquestioning and immovable faith in the efficacy of non-violence as I know it, it would be sinful on my part to wait any longer. This non-violence will be expressed through civil disobedience [the Salt March,] for the moment confined to the inmates of the Satyagraha Ashram, but ultimately designed to cover all those who choose to join the movement with its obvious limitations.

I know that in embarking on non-violence, I shall be running what might fairly be termed a mad risk, but the victories of truth have never been won without risks, often of the gravest character. Conversion of a nation that has consciously or unconsciously preyed upon another far more numerous, far more ancient and no less cultured than itself is worth any amount of risk.

I have deliberately used the word conversion, for my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own. I believe that I have always served them….If I have equal love for your people with mine, it will not long remain hidden….

I have no desire to cause you unnecessary embarrassment or any at all so far as I can help. If you think that there is any substance in my letter, and if you will care to discuss matters with me, and if to that end you would like me to postpone publication of this letter, I shall gladly refrain on receipt of a telegram to that effect soon after this reaches you. You will however do me the favour not to deflect me from my course unless you can see your way to conform to the substance of this letter.

This letter is not in any way intended as a threat, but is a simple and sacred duty peremptory on a civil resister….

I remain,
Your Sincere friend,

This letter, kind as it was, had no effect on British policy, but what followed certainly did. So began the Salt March, probably the most famous campaign of Gandhi and his followers—a campaign that, though its short-term results were limited, ultimately changed history both in India and the world.

It is difficult to imagine such a letter being written today. I have tried to keep to the spirit of it when talking with my new Border Patrol friend David, who is helping me get my computer back. But can we imagine this spirit spreading? Can we imagine a campaign for human betterment that firmly and unflinchingly stands up to oppression but, rather than falling into the sad contradiction of “righteous anger,” is committed to the gentle conversion of oppressors’ hearts through genuine kindness and love?

This is what what I dream of, and I thank my brother Gandhi for reminding me that this dream can be realized.

3 Replies to “British rule is a curse, my dear friend: Gandhi’s gentle firmness”

  1. Greg, thank you so much for sharing this bit of our shared humanity and what can be possible, voiced through one I have also long admired – Ghandi.
    Such inspiration is so needed in this tumultuous time that is also a great opportunity for healing within and among us.
    Peace, love, blessings, Dennis

  2. Thanks Greg for sharing this. I need to be reminded during these times. I have been focusing in the same way but not without vacillations. The temptation is great toward righteous anger but realizing true conversion will only come through, as you said, “genuine kindness and love.” Once again, thanks sharing Gandhi’s clear demonstration on how to do it.

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