Gandhi and prison: an opinion

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002

Gandhi practised two types of Satyagraha in his mass campaigns. The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. When we today hear this term, our minds tend to stress the “disobedience” part of it. But for Gandhi, “civil” was just as important. He used “civil” here not just in its meaning of “relating to citizenship and government” but also in its meaning of “civilised” or “polite”. And that's exactly what Gandhi strove for.

We also tend to lay stress differently than Gandhi on the phases of civil disobedience. We tend to think breaking the law is the core of it. But to Gandhi, the core of it was going to prison. Breaking the law was mostly just a way to get there.

Now, why was that? Was Gandhi trying to fill the jails? Overwhelm and embarrass his captors? Make them “give in” through force of numbers?

Not at all. He just wanted to make a statement. He wanted to say, “I care so deeply about this matter that I'm willing to take on the legal penalties, to sit in this prison cell, to sacrifice my freedom, in order to show you how deeply I care. Because when you see the depth of my concern, and how “civil” I am in going about this, you're bound to change your mind about me, to abandon your rigid, unjust position, and to let me help you see the truth of my cause.”

In other words, Gandhi's method aimed to win not by overwhelming but by converting his opponent — or as the Gandhians say, by bringing about a “change of heart”.

Now, to many people, that sounds pretty naive. Well, I'll let you in on a secret. It was naive. The belief that civil disobedience succeeded by converting the opponent happened to be a myth held by Gandhi himself. And it's shared by most of his admirers, who take his word for it without bothering to check it out.

As far as I can tell, no civil disobedience campaign of Gandhi's ever succeeded chiefly through a change of heart in his opponents. But this doesn't mean civil disobedience didn't work. As a matter of fact, it did work. The only thing off-kilter was Gandhi's explanation of how and why it worked”.