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Democracy, Injustice, And Civil Disobedience

Democracy, Injustice, and Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

By Bhupal Lamichhaney

Democracy does not automatically ensure justice and equality for all. However, people are certainly freer to correct injustices within a democracy than within any other form of government. Aligning its noble principles with equally noble practices is an unending duty for any democracy interested in sustaining itself. It requires a vigilant yet patient population who understands democratic process and is willing to work non-violently to reconcile and transform itself. The same qualities are required of a population caught within a terrorist, despotic regime. History proves repeatedly how non-violent people-power wins over any tyranny in the end. Individuals, who resort to violent methods to achieve their so-called justice, merely swap injustices thwarting an opportunity to win true social fairness and equality.

The pursuit of citizen justice and fairness began more than 2000 years ago in the ancient Greek city-state known as Athens. It was there the Greeks began a new governmental experiment they called Demokratia, from the combination of the word demo, meaning popular, and kratia, meaning government. This experimental ‘popular government’ vested supreme power in the people themselves, who through a free electoral system executed direct democratic rule. For two hundred years Demokratia flourished. It ushered in a Golden Age for Greece, yet to be duplicated anywhere in the Western world. Only the crush of Rome could destroy its glory, but not before it set a lasting benchmark to influence the creation of future democracies rising many centuries later.

Therefore, it is that modern democratic states bear certain similarities and characteristics to their early Athenian counterpart. For instance, modern democracies continue to set geographic boundaries around a designated territory in which their population lives free and independent under an elected government exercising power and authority therein according to the majority will of the electorate. The Athenian city-state practiced a style of democracy, referred to by many historians as polis. The term polis referred to an entity having the following qualifications: (1) territory; (2) population and (3) government. As such, Athens was free to develop any style of government it wanted as were its sister city-states.

Therefore, it was that Athens developed a system of government that included active participation of her people and called it a democracy. The early Athenian lawmakers and representatives in the government craftily carved the phenomenon of citizenship in their polis. They determined a citizen could only be an adult male who had completed his military training. Interestingly, this rule barred the majority of the population. On the one hand, women, slaves, foreigners, and aliens living within the city were permanently disenfranchised. Evidentially, such inconsistencies were not determined as such at that time. Even the great philosopher, Aristotle, though an alien himself, never argued against the citizenship rule. However, that equality and inequality coexisted at the dawn of democracy should not surprise us in the 21st century. Have we not stumbled over a multitude of our own inconsistencies in the ever-evolving process of forming a perfect government?

Regardless of modern political criticisms, Athenian citizen rule attained powerful transformation in governance and contributed untold progress toward the process of empowering and freeing humanity from political injustices.

Injustice, the unjust, unfair action or treatment of others, violates their inalienable human rights to live in peace with their neighbors, free from political oppression, tyranny, and terrorism. At every moment of time, throughout the course of human history, inequality, suppression, and the denial of human rights prevail in some fashion, somewhere in the world. Societies, even living in natural stages, are not free from injustice. Strong ones at any moment can inflict harm in many ways upon another of lesser strength. Weak and vulnerable people must either submit their rights to the authority of the strong ones or bear horrible consequences, even death.

Although injustice, disregard, and inhumanity to life remain a perpetual sorrow in the course of human events, there have always been people who understood these prevailing elements to be the societal evils they are, and who have courageously stood to fight against them for the sake of freedom and justice. Multitudes of known and unknown people have lost their lives fighting injustice. According to Rousseau, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Why such enchainment happens and how may these chains be broken is the quest of humanitarians in every age.

Modern conceptualists of democratic theory came to support the principle that all people are created equal and entitled to justice and protection of their human rights. However, as in Athenian democracy, contradictions and inconsistencies arise in every democracy in the world as to the actual practice of these noble principles. Within modern democracies, political debate continues as a means to improve their society’s interpretation of citizen rights and freedom. In the US, we hear much today about the need to transform hearts and minds of people to grasp the depths of injustices done within and without the society that they may become a more compassionate electorate. The great movements for civil rights, workers’ rights, women rights, gay rights, animal rights, environmental protection, and now immigration reform all represent a democratic society being asked if not forced to look into its soul to find better ways of practicing the principles for which it stands.

John Stuart Mill, in his essay, “Subjection of Women” (1869), presents a then outrageous idea to the conservative minds of his day regarding the unequal status between men and women. He considered the reality of men’s treatment of women was to place them in a far worse condition than endured by slaves. He was convinced that in democracy people could feel freedom and enjoys liberty for the moral and intellectual advancement that would result in greater happiness for everyone.

Mill believed everyone should have the right to vote. He argued that the reason people should be able to vote is to be able to defend their own rights. This argument he applied to both men and women. Mill as an MP of the British Parliament often demanded the vote for women, a revolutionary position for his time.

Women were subject to the whims of their husbands and/or fathers during Mill’s time. There endured a prevailing social norm that “might was right.” Therefore, women were considered inferior, both physically and mentally, to men and therefore needed to be "taken care of." Survival of the Fittest and Biological Determinism drawn from the biological theory of evolution and religious views supporting a hierarchal view of men over women within the family system also contributed to this view. In addition, the standard of the ideal woman as mother, wife, and homemaker was a powerful idea strongly upheld in 19th century society.

Mill considered the inequality of women as an historical hangover from an antiquated past, which had no place in the modern world. Mill saw inequality of women as a hindrance to human development; since, in effect, generally half the human population was unable to contribute to society outside the home. Of course, this practice still prevails in many countries of the world where women are considered inferior.

While we talk about democracy and some of the paradoxes within it, we cannot forget to think of an independent America in quest of freedom and liberty for all. Thomas Jefferson, the visionary leader who fought for the freedom for himself and for all Americans, had his own inconsistencies in the paradoxical matter regarding the emancipation of his own slaves.

Dr. Cornel West in his book, Democracy Matters, scathingly criticizes Jefferson. He writes, “The Declaration of Independence, principally written by thirty-three-year-old revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson — who himself embodied this paradox, being both a courageous freedom fighter against British imperialism and cowardly aristocratic slaveholder of hundreds of Africans in his beloved Virginia — offers telling testament to this complex and contradictory character of the American democratic experiment.”

What can we learn by studying the paradoxes of the American democracy? Perhaps it is that no matter how young a democracy is or how mature it may become, injustices will inevitably occur. For this, the electorate must not fail to be educated in compassion, justice, and human rights. Polarization around only one’s own point of view at the expense of understanding another’s is also dangerous as it leads to exclusionary actions and prejudice toward selected segments of society.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849), described the very gloomy paradox the United States found itself regarding the democratic principles of liberty, freedom and equality for all for which it stood and the slavery for which it practiced. He passionately supported the abolishment of slavery. Thoreau could not abide his democratic government supporting the principles of liberty and freedom while defying them in practice. Thus, his famous essay he wrote of a new and exciting way to defy injustice in a nonviolent way. He described his method of disobedience a new peaceful revolution in human history.

The same method Thoreau prescribed to pressure the American government to abolish slavery has now become globally accepted as a powerful, non-violent democratic means to force unjust opponents to incorporate change. People in various countries have adopted this peaceful political tool to unseat unjust, tyrannical governments. How could Thoreau have imagined the legacy he would leave to peace loving people a century later and beyond? This was another great leap forward in democracy.

Thoreau in his essay came out with a very new revolutionary approach to fight against injustice and tyranny. For him, such a practice as slavery was fundamentally immoral and even if it would be, difficult and expensive to stop it then so be it. He wrote, “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

He was proactive in search of liberty, equality, and justice. He advised people through his essay, “Don’t just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice. Voting for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to be actually just. This is not to say that you have an obligation to devote your life to fighting for justice, but you do have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice your practical support.”

Thoreau was of the view that paying taxes was one way in which well-meaning people collaborate injustice. People who proclaimed the war in Mexico was wrong and that it was wrong to impose slavery contradicted themselves by funding both with their taxes. The same people who congratulated soldiers for refusing to fight the war were willing to fund the government that started the war. Thus, the government got legitimacy for injustice by the collaboration of people.

“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” Thus, Thoreau introduced this new way of nonviolent resistance to injustice by disobeying its rules. A new approach to achieve political goal for human dignity, freedom, and liberty was presented to the world.

Commonly, governments engage evil practices they use their corrosive power to force people into obedience. Democratic governments are less forceful in this regard compared to non-democratic ones. However, they can also use oppressive power tactics in the name of preserving the constitution or maintaining law and order. Any form of government could fail, past and present, if care for human rights is neglected in any way.

It is, therefore, not surprising at all, to find the famous quote, mistakenly attributed to either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, "That government is best which governs least.” Actually, Henry David Thoreau coined this great quote in his essay on the duty of civil disobedience.

Democrats all over the world take his quote as the guiding principle of a democratic rule. Many political leaders, reformers, writers from all over the world are influenced particularly from his views on civil disobedience. Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Martin L King, John F Kennedy, and B. P. Koirala spoke about his influence on them. B. P. Koirala, the leading freedom fighter from Nepal is famous for his quote “A system which rules less can only guarantee civil liberty and individual freedom. Breaking the laws issued by unjust governments is the moral duty of an enlightened citizen,” We find similarities in these great men of the world regarding freedom, equality, and justice.

As Thoreau wrote, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, and then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

Thoreau was a firm believer in the moral autonomy of an individual. He seemed convinced that whenever one sees injustice happening in the society whatever law it is one should use his/her autonomy to fight against it. To wait for a majority to build up can do more harm. Thoreau wrote, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” He further questions, “Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt?” He is a peace loving man and therefore does not want to wait for amendment to happen after bloodshed.

However, the debate whether Thoreau was anarchist or not can be very lively in the present context of globally appreciated the path of nonviolence civil disobedience to achieve political goal of any nature. From changing dictatorial regimes to wining freedom from foreign occupation and letting rulers hear the people’s voice this active civil disobedience method is used. For example, the peoples’ strike in Russia in 1905, the movement for self-rule in India, confronting communism in Poland, are the examples of the use of nonviolence method in the movement for power. The same method was used in resistance to terror in Denmark, El Salvador, and Argentina. Nonviolent actions were selected for the campaign for Civil Rights in the USA, and against apartheid in South Africa. For restoring democracy and people’s power in Philippians, twice in Nepal and many former Soviet States like Ukraine and Georgia the nonviolent civil disobedience tool was used. Thoreau has shown the path that gave millions of people freedom, liberty, equality, and hope for betterment.

Civil disobedience includes the active denial to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government or of an occupying power without physical violence. It is not only a tactic to win a political struggle but a path of reform for the life of millions of people around the world. Mahatma Gandhi led Civil disobedience nonviolent resistance movements in India in the fight against British colonialism. Actually, Thoreau’s concept theorized and practiced in Indian movement for independence. Most notably, Mahatma Gandhi developed civil disobedience as an anti-colonialist tool. In his later days, he gave a new political philosophy of nonviolence for governance also.

Civil disobedience has served as a major tactic of nationalist movements in former colonies in Africa and Asia prior to their gaining independence. Gandhi said, "Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil, implies discipline, thought, care, attention.” In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may deliberately choose to break certain laws, by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally. Protesters practice this nonviolent form of civil disorder with the expectation that they will be arrested, attacked, or beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack, so that they will do so in a manner that quietly resists without threatening the authorities.

Mahatma Gandhi called this path of active disobedience as ‘Satyagraha’ meaning quest for truth. He states that untruth is injustice and quest for truth is the fundamental rights of people. If this right is denied people, have all right to cease not to obey injustice, which is evil. He was also of the view that governments often tend to use force for making people obey them. He further said that only cowards used forces to make people obey them. The government’s people are always in fear of some unseen power or strength. That unseen strength in the form of fear is the key factor the governments use in order to keep status quo ante in the society. This unseen fear force is the hindrance to the freedom and liberty of the people. The fear within a human being is what has to be given up in order to be a nonviolent practitioner. Therefore, people in governments cannot be nonviolent at all because they do not have such moral courage and strength as people does.

We find similarities between Gandhi and Thoreau regarding moral strength of an individual compared to the physical strength of a government. Once an individual leaves fear of being hurt for good no physical force can make him/her, obey the unjust law and orders. Gandhi wrote, “It requires more courage and strength to be nonviolent practitioners.”

However, even the Gandhi led ‘Quit-India Movement’ could not remain completely nonviolent as Gandhi wished. Although, civil resisters did not use force and were nonviolent, the suppression used by the British Raj was very violent. Many people were injured and hundreds died. During the Quit-India Movement, some political pundits criticized Gandhi for shepherding people into the lion’s den, referring to the Jaliya Walla Bagh incident where the British Government massacred three hundred peaceful Indian citizens at one time. However, the truth is, India won her independence with Gandhi’s nonviolent peaceful civil disobedience movement with relative low casualty during the long struggle for Independence. This epic achievement of self-rule in the large nation of India is her enduring hallmark to the greatness of nonviolent civil disobedience-- the force more powerful than any weapon.

Martin Luther King was to America as Gandhi to India. The American Civil Rights Movement in the fight against segregation and disfranchisement was at its peak from 1955-1965. Civil rights are those rights that all inhabitants of a nation expect to enjoy by law. However, the term is even broader than “political rights,” which refer only to rights evolving from the authority and are enjoyed usually only by a citizen. Civil rights have a legal as well as a philosophical basis. In the United States, civil rights are thought of in terms of the specific rights guaranteed in the Constitution such as freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, the rights to due process, and to equal protection under the law. After nearly a decade of nonviolent protests and marches, ranging from the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycotts, to the student-led sit-ins of the 1960s, to the huge March on Washington in 1963, Congress finally passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing basic civil rights for all Americans, regardless of race.

The civil rights movement in the US has shown the power and the need of constant vigilance in order to achieve and sustain freedom and equality. In modern politics, it is understood one of the fundamental principles of democracy is equality. Most regimes known to human beings claim they are for the good of the people, but only democracy is the government by the people. Government by the people implies people are equal. Although Plato thought guardianship a better alternative to democracy, he was still convinced democracy stood for freedom and equality.

Although equality was in practice in the Athenian era as an inherent principle for governance, it was after Locke’s statement “That all Men by Nature are equal,” intrinsic equality was ascribed as the basis for rule, particularly in collective decisions. According to Robert A Dahl, Locke’s “Intrinsic equality evidently means that no one is naturally entitled to subject another to his (or, certainly, to her) will or authority”. However, we see in many instances the notion of equality has also been taken away. There is always a fear that those achievements can be squashed away in practice. Political rights, once achieved, also need safeguarding through strong and constant activism.

The slaves in America were emancipated after President Lincoln’s bold step, long before Martin Luther King was born. In the eyes of the law, they became equal in all respect. However, in practice the African Americans were segregated in every sector of the society until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Had African Americans, along with other liberal Americans, not staged a nonviolent Civil Rights Disobedience Movement that persuaded the government for a change, the situation would not have improved by itself.

Even early 20th century democracies of the US and Britain were not inclusive enough to accommodate all their people as citizens. True, the classical democracy of Athens and American democracy in 1950s, if compared in terms of the exclusiveness and equality they practiced toward the minority population or non-citizens, they both appear very inhumane today. Keeping in mind democracy and its fundamentals such as equality, Robert A Dahl in his book ‘ Democracy and its Critics’ describes the Strong Principle of Equality as follows: “The conviction that ordinary people are capable to govern themselves is the basis of rule by the people -- democracy. Until this notion is justified, people’s rights for ruling will not prevail.”

Democracy is not only an instrument to maximize freedom but also maximize human development and protection of individual interests. The political system in which a government ensures one hundred percent general freedom, freedom of self-determination, and moral autonomy without any interruption, is an ideal system. No such ideal state and system has ever existed. However, democracy is open to incorporate changes with innovations and experiments that maximize freedom for all. Civil disobedience activism constantly gives power and moral strength to the public to stand against any kind of injustice. This political tool hits the government at its center point without bloodshed. One can adopt and steer the movement thinking of the situation and what level of injustice they are facing and participation of the people in it.

As mentioned before, the nonviolent tool of civil disobedience is used in day-to-day political, as well as civil policy formations. If a policy can affect people and if people find it unjust what do people do? If people just surrender to the authority, there is the chance that injustice will be prolonged. People suffer and sacrifice for democracy to get rid of injustice. Democracy cannot ensure total justice.

As time passes, knowing and unknowing injustices will definitely surface in societies. Governments may stage many impositions like raising taxes and cutting social welfares. If the culture of nonviolent civil disobedient movement remain active and present, at any given moment one can be optimistic about incorporation of intuitional change without loss of life and property. Thus, we keep moving toward better defining and practicing justice and equality.

Injustice is a worldwide phenomenon, existing in every society, even in democracies. From century to century, the definition of injustice has changed according to the era’s political and philosophical climate of opinion. Yet, within the enlightenment of human virtue, the true definition of injustice has never changed, no more than the cry for freedom and justice within the heart of the oppressed. However, regardless of the time or cause of injustice, history has proven repeatedly, the most powerful force for true transformation of political, social, and economical order for justice is not the violent swapping of injustices, but rather the united people power of non-violent civil disobedient activism. In Nepal, we have recently experienced the return of democracy through nonviolence means, which has been active in between brutal violence of the Maoists and the Monarchists.


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