Mahatma Gandhi was a self-described anarchist

October 3rd, 2012

Ye Olde Rebel of the Week

Yesterday Mahatma Gandhi turned 143, although he died at the age of 78. It also happened to be International Non-Violence Day, a holiday consecrated in his honor. Gandhi is perhaps the quintessential Rebel. His commitment to principled non-violence, civil disobedience and non-cooperation has inspired most of the Rebels we’ve recognized so far, and influenced activists of all philosophies, ideologies and political prejudices. His tireless advocacy of the rights of women, the unity of all creeds, the siblinghood of humanity and independence of India from colonial rule made him a legend in his own lifetime, with monuments and shrines built throughout the world in his memory. And like so many great leaders who fought great power with moral force, his life ended in assassination. So, to recognize these momentous achievements, Mahatma Gandhi is our Rebel of the Week.

Mahatma Gandhi was not born with his creed. He was not even born with the name Mahatma. It’s an honorific meaning “great soul.” He was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and he developed his creed over an entire lifetime consumed with what he called Satyagraha meaning “adherence to Truth.” The highest end of Gandhi’s life mission was achieving Swaraj, crudely translated as “self-rule.” The outward manifestation of this mission was his call for the independence of India from British domination, but the inward essence of it is the complete intellectual, spiritual and political independence of the individual.

Gandhi self-described as a philosophical anarchist, a school of anarchist thought which says the State has no moral legitimacy, but rejects the use of violence to eliminate it. He believed that citizens had no obligation to obey the State. His ultimate vision of India had no government as we’d understand the term. He once said “the ideally nonviolent state would be an ordered anarchy.” Gandhi believed that a society was possible where nothing was done without consent, down to the individual and said it could be achieved through nonviolent conflict mediation, systematically divesting power from the existing layers of hierarchy until all power was invested in individuals who would embody the ethic of non-violence.

Gandhi began this path in 1888 studying law in London, England. His commitment to vegetarianism lead him to befriend members of the Theosophical Society which some credit with the origins of his pursuit of a universal creed. The practice of law lead him to South Africa where he spent 21 years developing techniques of civil disobedience while fighting for civil rights. In South Africa Indians faced the same discrimination as black Africans. He was thrown off a train for refusing to give up a first-class seat, assaulted by a stagecoach driver for refusing to make room for a white passenger, and barred from several hotels for his skin color. And in court he refused to remove his turban when ordered, and even when assaulted by a mob of white settlers he refused to seek redress in the court system.

In 1906 a law was passed compelling registration of the colony’s Indian population. This was the first opportunity for Gandhi to organize a mass non-violent protest, urging Indians to refuse to comply and suffer the punishments. For seven-years the Indian population refused to register, burned registration cards and resisted the law non-violently. Thousands of Indians were caged, flogged, and shot for these acts. But the South African government ultimately caved.

When he first arrived in South Africa Gandhi held many of the racial prejudices common at the time, but his experience in jail for civil disobedience sensitized him to folly of these notions.

In 1915 he returned to India and began organizing peasants to protest British taxes, and boycott British products. Gandhi advocated people even boycott British schools and courts, resign from government offices, and renounce British titles and honors. His willingness to transcend religious divisions and appeal to Muslims and Sikhs made him India’s first leader with a broad multicultural base, facilitating his rise to prominence in the Indian National Congress. He even became a prominent spokesman for the Islamic Caliphate Movement, despite being Hindu himself.

In Congress Gandhi steadily escalated his motions to free India from British rule, and on January 26th 1930 the Indian National Congress declared their independence. The British of course did not honor this declaration. That year Gandhi lead a famous 250 mile march to protest British taxes on salt. Thousands of Indians joined him on this march to the sea and harvest salt themselves. Britain responded by imprisoning over 60,000 people, including Gandhi himself.

During World War II Gandhi intensified his demands for independence and in 1942 called for the British to “Quit India” meaning evacuate immediately. The British responded by imprisoning him and all the Congressional leaders that supported it.

Independence was achieved in 1947 with the partition of India to create Pakistan. Gandhi was opposed to the concept of partition as it contradicted his vision of religious unity. In addition the partition lead to incredible carnage as 12 million people were forcefully moved to one side or the other. Nearly a million people were killed in riots and massacres during border disputes. And despite Gandhi’s tireless efforts to unit Indian Hindus and Muslims he was ultimately assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who thought he was too sympathetic to Muslims.

Gandhi’s philosophy was not theoretical. He practiced his principles so thoroughly that it transformed his life and the lives of everyone who knew him. When asked what his message was he would respond, “My life is my message.” And toward the end of his life he wrote “I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems… I have nothing new to teach the world.” And in the end he always maintained that his most important struggle was not against the British Raj, but the fight to overcome his fears, and insecurities.

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About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.