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Nonviolence and the Future of Democracy - Rajni Bakshi


Updated: Nov 16, 2023

This lecture was delivered as part of the History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' hosted at St Kabir Public School, Chandigarh on May 5 and 6, 2023.

Yesterday P. Sainath covered important issues about how nonviolence was only one part of the freedom struggle. Similarly, Prof. Krishna Kumar pointed out that democracy is not an exclusive heaven. I want us to focus on this question of ahimsa from a very basic, everyday life perspective.

Let us have a show of hands to gauge who thinks violence is natural. There are no right or wrong answers here and definitely no markings. I see that most people feel that violence is natural. Therefore, nonviolence would look like a made-up ideal, right? But then, is nonviolence possible for ordinary people? I see that this response has a different set of hands, only slightly less than the previous one. This brings me to my next question, whether nonviolence can be practical and viable. For the rest of today’s time, we will explore this together because I want the whole session to be interactive. Factual questions are welcome at any time and for comments and reflections, you will be invited to share them from time to time.

Violence has an actual definition, but it is difficult to define what ‘ahimsa’ is. But there is an official definition of violence from the World Health Organisation: ‘the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation’. It is very important to consider this because the term violence is used very casually now. So let’s be careful not to use the term for anything and everything because then it loses the meaning and seriousness of the specifics of the definition: ‘physical force or power’, ‘threatened’ etc. This is not to say that this definition is sealed and final and never to change, but this is the definition that the global community is working with.

So, then, what is ahimsa? There is no one official definition or entity and the world is taking over the ownership of the word—that is a good thing. Ahimsa is not just the absence of violence—physical or verbal—it is much more than controlling yourself from killing someone you really want to.

‘Ahimsa is the presence of love-in-action’—this you might think to be very ambitious. I think very few people will oppose this idea. This quote is by Michael Nagler, a nonviolence activist in the USA. He is the student of an Indian philosopher settled in the West Coast, Eknath Easwaran, and has done some phenomenal work on Gandhi and nonviolence. But I shall pause here and tell you about the relation of this to the topic.

I have been interested in understanding how democracy can be a constructive and creative process. And I think all of us agree upon this idea about making it creative and constructive. Only five-six years ago, I realized that nonviolence is the most crucial issue, which is why I launched my channel called ‘Ahimsa Conversations’. The reason was that if you take any specific issue—disputes about a temple, a mosque, a small dam or a big one, if we should have stray dogs on the street etc., we can quarrel about it for weeks. And to some extent the disagreement is itself creative, it shows dynamism of different approaches and so on. But can we agree on striving for ahimsa in this sense: the positive energy that is released when we overcome the desire to harm someone and when we resolve to overcome our own afflictive emotions. This fear, anger and hatred—the Buddhists call these afflictive emotions. This is really not a political issue. Eating right food, sleeping the right number of hours, maintaining hygiene—these are all issues of basic wellbeing and not political ones. I suggest to you that in the very same way, we should think of ahimsa as an issue of wellbeing as well, something that directly influences our wellbeing.

So here is a very brief history of this. In Gandhi’s time, there was a theory known as the Killer Ape theory that was very dominant in the West. When we were evolving, which set of apes became us? What was the reason for that fork in the evolutionary tree? This is a big question. At that time scientists argued that the variety of apes that were more aggressive and easily capable of violence were dynamic and it was from them that evolution happened through many links. This theory was also tied to Hobbes’ view that life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Luckily, today there is a vast amount of multidisciplinary research in the natural and social sciences that has proved that this is not true. It is not that we evolved because of our very aggressive ancestors.

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says that we know a lot about the causes of hostile behaviour in animals and humans but hardly know anything about the ways in which conflicts are avoided and relationships repaired and normalized after instances of conflict. This is why people tend to believe that violence is more integral to human nature than peace. Now we know that cooperation and mutual aid have played a bigger role in our evolution. This is not to say that violence was not a major feature. I am not suggesting that violence was not natural to us, it had to be so, to an extent, for us to survive. But there is a big difference between my willingness to throw a rock at an animal for self-defence and me being a creature that runs around destroying other forms of life, either for my pleasure or because I confuse my greed with my needs.

In the mid ’80s UNESCO commissioned a group of both natural and social scientists to answer the question: Is war natural? The final meeting took place in Seville, Spain and hence the concluding reports are collectively termed the ‘Seville Statement on Violence’. The reports disqualified the claims that violence was genetically programmed into human nature, that the process of evolution has selected aggressive behaviour over other behavioural patterns and that war is caused by the instinct of man’s violent brain. Instead, the same humans that invented war can also invent peace and make efforts to maintain it. Later, the UNESCO adopted this statement and many journals of natural sciences also published the findings of this multidisciplinary group. But they could not get any media coverage either from the West or East because whenever they called up the media and said that ‘Look, this study says that war is not natural’, they replied that is not a story. If you tell us why war happens and how war is inevitable, then that is a story, they said. We are also predisposed to finding violence more glamorous—at least the dominant mindset is such. Maybe we have a predisposition to wanting fights and action etc.

By the way, do you know how the word ‘dhishoom’ came about? Do you know Dev Anand? He was this thin and delicate-looking fellow and he had to do a fight scene in a movie. But his body language was not such. And the director got so frustrated—how does he show this person that he is to do a boxing sequence, that he finally decided to do just add sound effects. So they had a guy stand in front with a mic who kept saying ‘dhishoom’. Thanks to Dev Anand that guy made a career for himself because all Hindi movies have had that sound ever since. That is how the sound has become a part of Hindi movies because there’s no such distinct sound when a fist hits the jaw. And now, we cannot do without it.

I want to now show you a glimpse of one of the Ahimsa talks, and the person speaking is Acharya Srivatsa Goswami from the traditional family of the Goswamis of Vrindavan. He is talking about the presence of the idea of nonviolence within the Hindu tradition.

In the other video glimpse, he makes a very important point and comes back to our topic of democracy. He says, that which is based out of fear is not ahimsa.

When you are nonviolent because you are afraid, that is not ahimsa. Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Apart from the attacks on his life in India later, even in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi was subjected to violent attacks. So he was not practising his nonviolence in some abstract, protected and safe place. He has constantly confronted by violent situations. For example, there is a story where Gandhi was attacked in 1908 and then later his son asked him what he should have done had he been present on the spot—run away and let his father be murdered or fight back with physical force to defend him. Gandhi had replied that it was his son’s duty to defend him even if he had to use violence. So his idea of ahimsa was not an attitude by which you roll over and die. I am referring only to Gandhi because he was our most dramatic experimenter, not because he has the final word on ahimsa or left behind a golden manual you can sift through and know exactly what to do. And I think that is his greatness that he did not leave behind some instruction manual of how to do ahimsa. His life is important because he has the same struggles as us. The important thing is being committed to overcoming violence, not because we will get good marks in heaven but because we will feel better just now. How many of you recall feeling very angry at someone? Do you remember how your body feels—that is not a very comfortable feeling. It might not be as bad as a toothache but it is pretty bad. And then recall how much better you feel when you have love and affection towards someone? This is why I keep bringing it back to the wellbeing dimension.

Next, I want to pursue the question of valour—ahimsa as an attitude and method of the strong. The first video we are going to see is about Aruna Roy. Aruna Roy is a former IAS officer who left her job in ’74 or ’75. She served for seven to eight years and then became a social activist in Rajasthan. She is one of the leading activists who made the Right to Information Act happen, and is still fighting for the implementation of the law. She is one of the co-founders of a school for democracy, located in a village three hours away from Udaipur, called the ‘Loktantrashala’. Month after month it has been training village workers and urban activists on the nitty-gritties, mechanics and philosophy of deepening democracy. You might feel that she is an IAS officer who is well-known and so no one is going to beat her up, but in the next video you will come across someone who was in very close contact with danger.

The next activist is from America and this description is from 40-50 years ago. Some context here for the students: many of you would know that there was a Civil Rights movement in America. It was partly inspired by Gandhi. David was a young boy, almost a teenager then. In the Southern states there were places called the ‘lunch counters’. In a shop or a departmental store there would be a counter and you would be served from the other side; you had to sit down, eat and leave. These counters were banned for non-white people. The Civil Rights activists went there deliberately to challenge that ban, knowing very well that they would not be served any food and that other people would come and heckle and threaten them. David is describing one such event when he was part of a sit-in.

This is not a standalone incident. Ahimsa Conversations is just a glimpse of a vast universe. And in this vast universe, this is a common experience. Of course, not everybody survives, the knife does not drop in every case. There are cases where the hater does the harm they threatened to do. That is why Gandhi does say that you have to be willing to face that possibility if you are going to tread this path. The threat of injury is far greater when you are taking the opposite path of the gun and the knife. If you believe in the violent approach—let me talk to you about the American activist Richard Gregg who came here, went back and wrote a very important book which had a big effect on the nonviolence movement in America. He writes, ‘The object of nonviolent resistance is partly analogous to this object of war. War seeks to demoralize the opponent, to break his will, to destroy his confidence, enthusiasm and hope. Nonviolent resistance demoralizes the opponent only to re-establish in him a new morale that is finer because it is based on sounder values. Non-violent resistance does not break the opponent’s will but alters it, does not destroy his confidence, enthusiasm and hope but transfers them to a finer purpose.’ The next video is of Nisha Anand who was born to Indian parents in America. She is the CEO of Dream Corps and has some phenomenal work working towards the release of people who have been unnecessarily incarcerated. She along with other people made a vast group effort. In her activism, she has covered all that we have been talking about.

The floor is open now, I would value challenges, questions etc. Yesterday we talked a lot about problems and hate. So my question is: Are there any advantages of hating the hater? Suppose we were to listen to the concern behind the complaint. When somebody says something and we feel offended, it is an instinct to jump at them because whatever they have said violates our value system. But suppose we stop and ask, what is the story behind such hatred that you are professing? Please sit down, have a glass of water and let’s discuss this. Has anybody ever done that here, or had any such experience?

Question Answer Session

Audience Member 1: This has happened many times with me while dealing with parents of students. Some will come with multiple complaints such as not being able to reach the school phone or any such issue. What I generally do is that I get up from my seat and walk over to them and tell them—I am on your side, please share what the problem is and let’s talk. I am also a parent and sitting across the table doesn’t change roles. Immediately their tone changes and they will themselves come up with solutions to their problems and then also apologize for their behaviour. And eventually, whenever there are issues unrelated to my work people will call me to handle the issue. I feel that when people understand that you are going to listen to them and not become offensive or defensive or react to them, it automatically solves the situation.

RB: This reminds me of an incident narrated to me by a friend. You have definitely heard of road-rage. I am capable of it, I admit. Working on ahimsa doesn’t mean I am liberated from road-rage, that is too much to ask for. So some guy overtook my friend’s car after which he screeched his own car to a halt in front to block him. Angrily my friend went out to fight when something overcame him. He touched the other man’s feet and said, ‘Sorry, brother.’ The whole situation went in the opposite direction. Yesterday Professor Krishna Kumar kept saying that nonviolence is the requirement of democracy. I would like to see some thought, some feedback or even puzzles on how you see this playing out in everyday life?

Audience Member 2: It is easy to fight and war is not the solution to anything. Talks and being a better listener can help us find solutions to many problems, whether in our lives or in the society or on a national/international level. We are seeing the example of Russia and Ukraine. It has been quite some time now that war is going on. I don’t think any side is winning, both sides are losing and so is the world. Everyone is apprehensive about how it is going to affect our future. Nonviolence has to be practised and it is definitely not a sign of weakness. It is weakness if we fight because it means we give up the option of another choice.

Audience Member 3: I see this as a lawyer and from the cases I have dealt and my visits to jail inmates. I have also explored the concept of restorative justice that doesn’t believe in punishing the criminal but having a conversation with that person. The person having the conversation is the victim and people who are close to the victim. So if there is a rape case, the victim and her family sit with the convict and his friends and family. That dialogue is largely based on ahimsa. While I was exploring that, I understood that it was not just helping the person who has committed the crime but also the victim who might then think, okay, so this might have happened. It helps the victim overcome that anger. I was just linking this to the criminal justice system because punishing and putting a person in jail is also kind of violence—I feel—maybe not in line with the definition that you used here. So if we want to reform the community and society, we need to develop a nonviolent dialogue in kinds of extreme offenses.

RB: Thank you for bringing in this concept. So, restorative justice is one of the most expanding areas in the whole sphere of nonviolent activism across the world. Latin America is a hub that is working on this in many localized places. Latin American cities have a huge problem of gang violence where many people get hurt. In many such cases these techniques are being used very fruitfully.

Meena Megha Malhotra: I would want you to tell us about how ahimsa works in the face of deep oppression. We know about communities that have been oppressed for centuries, so how does it work in situations of that nature?

RB: The Gandhian answer would be—not acting against that oppression is the worst form of violence. The question then is, when you are faced with a very violent oppressor, what do you do? There is no one answer to this. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood in the ’40s, black people were being lynched in the USA and that oppression is not less than what you just talked about. King’s advocacy of nonviolence was on similar terms—he believed nonviolence was not for cowards but a way of life for the courageous people. He exhorted his listeners to attack the forces of evil and the people doing evil and to build communities everywhere one goes. He also advised one to avoid both inner, spiritual and outward physical violence because the universe was on the side of justice. The most important lesson I would say is to organize and train. In the face of very severe and organized oppression, random acts of nonviolence would just make people sacrificial lambs. It needs organization and training. You must have heard of Rosa Parks. She just didn’t wake up one day and decide that, oh enough, I won’t give up my seat anymore. She was part of the movement, she had gone to various trainings, she had been cultivating the strength, patience, courage and confidence—actually the first thing is to build confidence. The worst thing that happens to somebody who is in a group that has been oppressed for centuries is that they don’t have confidence. Through those training sessions, they gave each other confidence and that led to the moment that day when she was able to nonviolently take her stand and the rest is history. Imagine that people born 60 years after the event in a country half-way across the world know her name. That is the kind of immortality her actions achieved.

Audience Member 4: The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, believed in nonviolence. Do you think we would have achieved our independence only from peaceful protests rather than violence?

RB: I think I would go with P. Sainath’s answer form yesterday. Both the dispersed and scattered incidents of violence protests did play their roles. It will be many more centuries before we agree on which part was more important. It may also be impossible to say that. Let’s look at it this way. There are about 140 countries in the world and 70 are known to have Gandhi statues—this is not to do with promotions of Gandhi but some facts. Most of these statues are commissioned, built and installed by the local people because of the way in which he went about and whatever he embodied. Human beings need markers, they have a need to focus on something and because of the way in which he lived his life, he gave us a reason to make a marker out of him. Not because his is the last and final word but because there is that kind of inspiration. I believe that our real struggle for democracy has only just begun. I did a conversation with a veteran Gandhian Sarvodaya activist who is 91. He made a very profound point. He said that our people had struggled for independence and to drive the British away but not for democracy. Therefore, when we see the breakage and toxicity today in the ways in which they have been enumerated already, it seems like we are losing everything. Whatever was already in our hands is going away from us. And this is a very natural feeling. Here’s a suggestion: why not see ourselves as soldiers of a new movement. Excluding them and excluding us will not be a democracy. It will be some kind of authoritarian state. It is important to be fully educated about the dangers of living in an authoritarian state. It means that tomorrow you can be picked up just like that and locked up, charges can be filed and then you can be left with trial pending for decades. Let’s think of it as a joyous struggle for democracy and not a defensive thing of saving things, as a positive, building exercise, a creation.

Audience Member 5: This is not a question but a reflection. After all the time I have spent in teaching, I have noticed that aggression in students in the ninth and tenth standards is mostly when they have not had breakfast or tiffin. Do you think it is related?

RB: Yes, when you are hungry and miserable, you could get angry more easily.

Audience Member 5: And then we can relate this to poverty. Then there is so much connection with students and the oppressed people. The latter have been deprived of their basic right to live. And the students, although not deprived of the basic needs, have made a choice of coming to school without eating breakfast and therefore, that aggression keeps on building up. When they have their tiffin, they calm down.

RB: If you realize this with students, then you will also realize how much hunger the poor of the country are used to, that it does not have an effect on them. If every person on the streets allowed their anger to be driven by their hunger, we would not be sitting here peacefully today.. But this is a window that you opened that is alerting us that we have three meals every day and when we skip one and we are reduced to this state. So then the one who eats only one meal a day must be going through so much.

Audience Member 6: Is nonviolence really the right path to take when you have encountered a life-threatening situation where a self-defensive form of violent action is the only way out or the only thing you could do to get yourself out of that situation?

RB: No not at all. Gandhiji was very distressed when he went to Noakhali where there was terrible communal violence in 1946, ten months before Independence. He was horrified at the terrible things that happened at many villages and the villagers saying that you had told us to not raise our hands. Actually, nonviolence is like a spectrum. At the lowest end, there is the feeling that it would be great pleasure to just slap you but I am controlling myself and not doing it despite wanting to. At the highest level is that person who says, ‘Come kill me and yet I will pray for your good’—this is spiritual nonviolence. This is a whole spectrum and there are many spaces within this by which you can achieve it.

Audience Member 7: I wanted to ask if nonviolence is practical on a global scale or is it just a personal philosophy?

RB: It certainly is not only a personal philosophy. Two American scholars studied the regime-changing political movements throughout the whole twentieth century—1900-2000. They categorized violent and nonviolent movements. They found that the nonviolent movements were almost two-thirds successful. It is not that the violent movements were not successful, they were but less in number and usually got drawn out. A much larger number of nonviolent struggles succeeded in changing regimes. It haunts most nonviolent activists in the world—the rudimentary answer is not a satisfying one, even when it is clear that violence is leading nowhere. We are seeing how the Ukraine war is dragging on and on. we have seen, America and fought and not lost so many wars. When we think about the difficulty of making nonviolence produce results, let us not forget, violence also has the same difficulty—it doesn’t always produce the desired results. And I always want you to remember this, when you are in working life, never underestimate the power of any individual to make a huge difference. The Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962. The United States of America and the Soviet Union were in a face-off. There was one Russian nuclear submarine, carrying nuclear weapons, within firing range in the US. And there was a moment of confusion—communications in ’62 were not what they are today. There was an uncertainty among the officers in the submarine who felt that they should release the missile, the nuclear warhead missile. The captain said, I am not convinced we have the orders and I will not fire it. He averted a nuclear war. I think his name is Vasily Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, often called, ‘the man who averted Third World War’. Sometimes it is a defensive action but can make a huge difference. Nonviolence often leaves room for dialogue, nonviolence is dialogue.

Audience Member 8: What would be your take on Muslims beating themselves on Muharram? Would that be violence, because in the movie PK there was a dialogue—which God would want their own disciples to be beaten?

RB: This is a difficult one. It is not just Muslims in Muharram but people also do the lying-down and rolling parikrama in temples, people who starve themselves before God. I should not comment on this. As long as that person is not infringing upon the safety and peace of mind of others, we have to leave room for the individual to find God in whatever way they want.


Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based author, speaker and founder of Ahimsa Conversations.

Her books include: Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: for a market culture beyond greed and fear (Penguin India, 2009 and Greenleaf, UK, 2012), which won two Vodafone-Crossword Awards; Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi (Penguin, India: 1998) which inspired the Hindi film Swades; Long Haul: the Bombay Textile Workers Strike 1982-83 (BUILD, India: 1986). On 30th January, 2020, Rajni launched a YouTube Channel called Ahimsa Conversations, which is a platform for exploring the possibilities of nonviolence.

From 2013 to 2022, she served as member of the Executive Committee of the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

Rajni was awarded the Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2000.

From 2013 to 2016 Rajni was the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, a Mumbai based foreign policy think tank. She serves on the Boards of Child Rights and You (CRY), Citizens for Peace (CfP) and the Centre of Education and Documentation (CED).

Rajni has a BA in journalism and political science from George Washington University and an MA in philosophy from the University of Rajasthan.

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