Beyond The Lines | Mahatma and the military: Slender was the difference


In this age when military strategy is a key instrument of policy in international affairs, is Mahatma Gandhi relevant? Did the apostle of non-violence justify the use of military force? An illustrative story is a good point to begin. The year was 1948: the state of Kashmir hung in balance, unresolved by Partition. Pakistani raiders, backed by its army, unilaterally decided to settle the matter and went on a rampage, sweeping through defences of Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir. The raiders entered via Uri, captured, pillaged and demolished defences in Pattan and Baramulla. Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession and asked for India’s help.

Colonel LP Sen, then posted at the army headquarters received orders from General Rob Lockhart, India’s British chief of army staff, to fly to Srinagar and take over 161 brigade in defence of the valley. He was hastily made a Brigadier and badges were rearranged for him. Before he was to leave, he received summons to visit a gentleman who wanted to be briefed on the situation. Soon, Colonel — now Brigadier — Sen was sitting before Mahatma Gandhi, briefing him on the job at hand.

Gandhi listened to the briefing but had no questions for Sen. Pausing a little, he spoke, “Wars are a curse to humanity. They are so utterly senseless. They bring nothing but suffering and destruction.” His remarks left Sen nonplussed. After all, he had a critical job at hand – that of preserving the nation’s geographical sanctity. “What do I do in Kashmir?” asked the new Brigade commander, deciding to lob the question back at the Mahatma. Gandhi smiled and said, “You’re going in to protect innocent people, and to save them from suffering and their property from destruction. To achieve that you must naturally make full use of every means at your disposal.” A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated.

Mahatma Gandhi may not have subscribed to the philosophy of war as an instrument of policy, but then he also told Brigadier Sen to fight in Kashmir with all means at his disposal. As with other aspects of his thinking, Mahatma Gandhi’s views on several issues were thought to be complex. On one hand he had said that violence wasn’t a means to defend territory, and on the other his position on Sen’s dharma was that of defending and protecting the citizens — by all means.

All along, Mahatma Gandhi’s views on wars and the use of military force existed at two levels. One, at a principle level, Gandhi believed that war was evil but on the other hand, he saw war as an essential instrument in pursuit of a higher goal — peace. He never condoned violence and even spoke strangely on aspects of defending the country using non-violence. However, his approach towards anyone using war or military means was to take a nuanced, informed view. And more often than not, he offered passive support for the use of military force, where he believed the cause was right.

His outlook is often misconstrued as ambivalent unless it is dissected as an approach with informed distinctions. When war broke out between the Boers and the British in 1899, although being more sympathetic to the Boers, Gandhi felt that as the Indians were subjects of the British Empire, they should support the British. Gandhi believed that the war gave an opportunity for Indians in South Africa to leverage rewards — such as achieve welfare — once the war was over. He came up with the idea of a volunteer ambulance force and helped evacuate several war wounded. It is another matter that despite the good work done by Indian volunteers, the condition of Indians remained wretched in South Africa.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Britain requisitioned for support from India. The request was met with sweeping consent from royals of princely states and key political leaders. The Tamil nationalist poet Subramania Bharthi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, and Mahatma Gandhi supported the war efforts in the hope that India’s role in the war would help in autonomous rule later and enabled Indians to benefit from military training.

Author Vedica Kant, in her book India and the First World War, writes: For Gandhi, “Home Rule without military power was useless, and this was the best opportunity to get it.” An India “trained for fighting will be able to wrest freedom in a moment”, and with the strength gained on the battlefield “even fight the Empire, should it play foul with us.” Gandhi wrote in a journal: “To bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them… If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible dispatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.”

Gandhi also believed that service in the army would develop courage in the ordinary Indian and mould their ability to become able satyagrahis. He was in favour of the idea of nurturing a stronger character among citizens through military service but connecting it to satyagraha seemed absurd and tended to reduce the scope of such service. It is here that his views complicate the otherwise direct reasoning that drove his reasons for the war efforts. However, if we closely observe his understanding of Indian participation in wars, he is consistent with having a high level view on the principle of action and a more nuanced view on the operations of it. Gandhi supported recruitment for the army, despite his close friend Charles Andrews’ objection to his decision.

In retrospect, the participation of the Indian Army in World War I gave the army an early experience of fighting in foreign territories. It enriched its martial tradition, and also helped build a courageous fighting machine for independent India three decades later, just as Gandhi foresaw.

The case of Netaji Subhas Bose illustrates the Mahatma’s thinking on the use of military means and its outcome into violence: he didn’t mind discarding his supporters once he strongly believed in his stance. Bose and Gandhi differed widely and Bose defeated Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya to become the Congress president. Bose sold a dummy to the British, escaped to Afghanistan and beyond, eventually raising a committed, courageous army of Indians from various communities willing to fight the British. Gandhi praised his efforts — dismissing criticism about Bose’s ties with fascist Germany — and believed that Bose “verified the saying of Tulsidas that all becomes right for the brave.”

On Bose’s reported death, Gandhi paid glowing tributes, which resulted in a face-off with writer and biographer Louis Fischer. Fischer was aghast and demanded to know why he supported Bose’s military alignment with Germany.

“Suppose he had gone to Russia or to America to ask aid for India. Would that have made it better?” shot back Gandhi.

Fischer argued that “it does make a difference to whom you go.” To Fischer’s charges on Bose’s overture to a fascist country, Gandhi smiled and said, “There are powerful elements of fascism in British rule.” He closed out the conversation: “…in India these (fascists) are the elements which we see and feel every day. If the British wish to document their right to win the war and make the world better, they must purify themselves by surrendering power in India.”

In fact, Gandhi understood the Second World War better than the British leaders. He criticised the 1938 Munich agreement and called out Hitler’s bluff when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and others were hoodwinked by the former. “The agreement that has been signed is a peace that is no peace. The war is only postponed. England and France have quailed before the combined violence of Germany and Italy,” wrote Gandhi with uncanny foresight. The war broke out exactly as he predicted. In fact, he admired Poland’s resistance to Hitler’s invasion. “The Poles knew they would be crushed and yet they resisted the German hordes. That is why I call it almost non-violence.”

Gandhi’s views were steered by principles and beliefs, which at times may have been wound down by unreasonable, dogmatic fixation to ideas. Yet, he retained the ability to separate the higher principle from the nuances of effective operations. His consistency in maintaining a line of thinking may have come at the cost of betraying naiveté, copping bitter criticism and chased by dogged opposition. Yet, his bitterest critics will agree that he was the master and the messenger of his own stance.

The message in his thinking is about retaining the sanctity of independent thinking, unaffected or influenced by the fashionable bigotry of praise or criticism. Of having the courage to express an opinion and stand by it. Of being unafraid. This feature is exemplified in the manner in which he understood the context of necessary violence (possible outcome of military force) within the higher message of non-violence (relevance of peace in a warring world).

It’s a strategic leadership lesson that stands true for political, military and business leaders in India. Gandhi recognised, though did not actively canvas, that a judicious application of military force is a necessary instrument of policy if peace is the final objective. It is an apposite coincidence that Gandhi’s birthday is preceded by one day by India’s battle with China at Cho La on 1 October 1967 that ushered a few decades of peace.

2 October is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

The writer is the author of ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’. His fortnightly column for FirstPost — ‘Beyond The Lines’ — covers military history, strategic issues, international affairs and policy-business challenges. Views expressed are personal. Tweets @iProbal

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Beyond The Lines | Mahatma and the military: Slender was the difference
Beyond The Lines | Mahatma and the military: Slender was the difference
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