Vykom: Strategic nonviolent action against untouchability

By Robert J. Burrowes

Why does nonviolent action work? And how good was Mohandas K. Gandhi as a nonviolent strategist? If you want high quality evidence in your search for answers to these two questions then I encourage you to read Professor Mary E. King’s latest book on the struggle against untouchability, unapproachability and unseeability in the south Indian village of Vykom during the 1920s. See ‘Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924–25 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change

History is not always considered instructive and yet the major achievements, and failures, of nonviolent activists throughout the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries can be better understood if we understand what happened at Vykom.

King’s book describes the nonviolent struggle that took place to open the roads surrounding the local Brahmin temple to everyone. For centuries, any person or animal could walk on those roads except those Hindus without caste – the ‘untouchables’ – whose proximity was considered ‘polluting’ to higher castes. From April 1924 to November 1925, upper caste Hindus and others conducted a satyagraha (loosely, a nonviolent campaign) to put an end to this blatant discrimination but relied heavily on strategic guidance from Gandhi.

The Vykom struggle was designed by Gandhi to eliminate untouchability by ‘converting’ the high caste Hindus ‘by sheer force of character and suffering’. Within a decade of the Vykom campaign the narrative that emerged, and which has persisted to this day because of its unquestioned promulgation in several well-known books on nonviolence, is that this was achieved.

However, after protracted research in sometimes obscure places, including the morgues of newspapers no longer published, the viewing of colonial and archival records, and interviews of a diverse and extensive range of scholars, Professor King presents new evidence that the suffering of activists – whether untouchable or caste Hindu – was ineffective in ‘converting’ orthodox upper-caste Hindus in Vykom.

So what actually happened? What did the settlement achieve? King tries to correct historical misunderstandings and argues that conversion (as distinct from accommodation and coercion, for example) is rarely the mechanism of change in a nonviolent campaign. She also identifies and evaluates shortcomings in Gandhi’s leadership, particularly on this point.

King is well qualified to undertake this study of the previously neglected Vykom satyagraha. She participated in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and has been a prominent scholar in the field of nonviolence ever since. Moreover, she is thorough, as the extensive footnotes in her book illustrate.

The Vykom satyagraha was an early example of the strategic application of nonviolent action even if it was some twenty years after Gandhi started using it strategically. And while he emphasised the importance of moral suasion to ‘melt the heart’ of opponents, and this is an emphasis that appears throughout his writing, King points out that Gandhi was also politically astute and, by 1905, was well aware that ‘even the most powerful cannot rule without the co-operation of the ruled’. Power in any struggle is important and must be wielded, albeit nonviolently.

Nevertheless, in relation to Vykom, as King points out and documents, the perseverance of the satyagrahis in self-suffering – for example, by standing in flood waters for hours at a time, withstanding without retaliation the atrocities inflicted by hooligans and the police (which led to some deaths and serious injuries, such as blindness), and imprisonment – on which Gandhi insisted, cannot be said to have ‘melted’ the hearts of the caste Hindus who controlled access to the temple roads. Moreover, Gandhi’s strategic guidance limited the satyagraha in other ways too. So understanding why a settlement was eventually achieved requires a more sophisticated analysis, which she then offers.

I would be less critical of Gandhi than King, however. I do not disagree with her documented shortcomings of his strategic guidance and, given my own research into human fear, agree with her that ‘melting hearts and minds’ is often a forlorn hope, especially if someone is terrified. A terrified individual clings with phenomenal tenacity to what makes them feel safe. And most orthodox caste Hindus, like conservative Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims, cling to a belief set they were given no choice but to adopt as a child. In short, if you have been terrorised into adopting certain beliefs (about untouchability or anything else), they are not accessible to change without profound psychological healing from the fear that holds those beliefs in place. Realistically, melting hearts and minds can only happen with those who are not (unconsciously) terrified.

But Gandhi did understand the need to use power. He was just engaged in a lifetime effort to work out how to do this both ethically and effectively. His solution was nonviolent action designed to maximize the chance of ‘melting hearts and minds’. Even if he was wrong, it seems to me he was working from a sound orientation: that is, his ongoing experimentation was valuable. If he wasn’t ‘hard line’ about certain points that he thought he had learned, then he couldn’t later discover their weaknesses and abandon them. And the liberation of India after thirty years of strategically applied nonviolent action is evidence of his capacity as a strategic thinker, even if he made mistakes. What might other stalled liberation struggles achieve if they boasted a leader of Gandhi’s calibre?

Since his time, in virtually all contexts, nonviolent leaders have adhered strictly to certain principles while still being more flexible than was Gandhi. Partly, this has been due to the collective nature of most nonviolent leaderships. For example, Martin Luther King Jnr had many colleagues on whom he relied, several of whom had travelled to India to learn from or about Gandhi, as Professor King documents. Gandhi had no forebears (in the strategic application of nonviolence) or genuine peers, even if several of his fellow satyagrahis were trusted colleagues.

My own sense too, is that Gandhi had a ‘deep strategy’ in which his strategies to liberate untouchables or even India were, ultimately, only subsets. What was this ‘deep strategy’? The transformation of each individual into a fearless Self-realized human being. And it is only if we recognize this ‘deep strategy’ that apparently inexplicable tactics, like insisting that Hindus fight their own internal battles without support from people of other faiths, can be understood.  My own sense is that Gandhi would have happily lost many political and cultural ‘battles’ if his ‘war’ to liberate the human spirit could be won.

So you can see why I like Mary King’s book so much: it got me thinking, deeply. It is invaluable precisely because of its sophistication in raising important but subtle questions about nonviolence, social change and Gandhi in a most unusual way. Given the carefully documented historical evidence of nonviolent struggles that is increasingly available, what does nonviolence mean, ultimately, to you? And what is your sense of how nonviolent action should be applied?

If you want to read more about Mary King’s efforts as both an activist and scholar of nonviolence, then you can find out more on her website.  You won’t be wasting your time.

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Robert J. Burrowes

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is [email protected]

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