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Gandhism and Conflicts Of Democracy

Gandhism and Conflicts Of Democracy

By Dr. Ravindra Kumar

Just like being simple in his individual life, Mahatma Gandhi was equally simple in his work and ideas. His personality was neither of the kind of perpendicular nor was it angled. His appeal to the people was always direct. That is why; during his entire lifetime he neither was considered an eminent intellectual in the academic sense of the term, nor was he accepted as a great scholar, thinker and philosopher. However, it is another matter that after his passing away, he became a centre of study and research for so many scholars and intellectuals of both-the East and the West; perhaps the largest number of books and papers are being published today on various aspects of life, works and views of Mahatma Gandhi.

Why is it so? Answer to this question is also very simple. It is because the manner, in which he explained the practicability of Ahimsa-the non-violence and placed it as an effective weapon for direct action, was unique in itself. Although, through the ages, Ahimsa-the non-violence, in spite of subsisting in human world in different forms in theory and practice both, was considered merely a personal virtue or a value, especially to be practiced by Rishis, Saints or Incarnations, Messengers of God, and that too in social and religious behaviours, but, it was Mahatma Gandhi, who, perhaps for the first time in the entire human history, declaring it to be a social virtue or a value also, called upon humanity to cultivate it like the other virtues or values in routines. In his own words:

“Non-violence is not a cloistered virtue confined only to the Rishis and the Cave-dwellers. It is capable of being practiced by the millions, not with full knowledge of all its implication, but because it is the law of our species. It distinguishes man from the brute. But man has not shed the brute in him. He has to strive to do so. This striving applies to the practice of non-violence [in all walks of life including political], and not [merely] to the belief in it.”

Further he states:

“Surely society is largely regulated by the expression of non-violence in its mutual dealings. What I ask for is an extension of it on a larger, national and international scale”

Mahatma Gandhi, by giving extension and anew dimension to the concept of Ahimsa, declares that purest non-violence is epitomized in having a tendency… towards spiritual or physical benefit unto everyone without selfishness and with pure thought after cool and clear deliberations So, he rightly believes:

“The final test as it is violence or non-violence is after all the intent underlying the act.”

As the whole world knows, through his political actions, basis of which was Ahimsa-the non-violence, he not only led his compatriots to the door of freedom of their motherland, India, and ensured independence from the centuries old shackles of slavery, but explaining its meaning and purpose in a comprehensive and all-welfaristic way, showed a unique, evergreen and exemplary path to the citizens of the whole world to attain freedom and secure justice at all levels even in democracy.

Democracy and Conflicts

Since human-freedom, equality of justice and welfare of all are the basic tenets of democracy, no matter if they have not become a reality in toto for each and everyone until now, or if in it the final yardstick of concurrence of the people is majority, in my opinion, it has come to stay as the best way of governing the people politically.

Democracy, according to the best definition of Abraham Lincoln, “is the government of the people, for the people and by the people.”

In democracy, apart from the presence of above-mentioned tenets, there is a greater possibility of peace in comparison to any other form of the system. It is because people are connected with the system directly as well as indirectly at every level; it provides maximum opportunity to people for progress or development and, above all, in it people can themselves decide the mode of their welfare. And it is for this reason that today a big portion of the world happens to be under democratic system of government.

Mahatma Gandhi, who wishes for a stateless democracy fully based upon non-violence, more or less, supports the system of the day on the one hand, and he expresses desires to work continuously for improvement in it until it comes within the domain of Ahimsa on the other. For, improvement is necessary because democracy is a manmade institution, and no manmade institution is out of risk; according to time and space it is a subject to improvement. Democracy cannot be an exception. In Gandhi’s words:

“There is no human institution but has its dangers. The greater the institution, the greater the chances of abuse; democracy is a great institution and, therefore, it is liable to be greatly abused.”

Now, when all possibilities of abuse are there in a democracy, the state of conflicts in it is also inevitable. Then, how can we get rid of conflicts in a democratic system, and that too, as per the expectations of the Gandhian way in which Ahimsa-the non-violence is nucleus? In my opinion through the maturity of the organs of democracy or the democratic institutions, we can make the democracy healthy. And as much a democracy is healthy as less the possibilities of conflicts in it. This is the first thing that can be proclaimed openly.

But, this thing itself raises a question before us and that is how democratic institutions can gain maturity and that too again through the way shown by Mahatma Gandhi? To find answer to this fundamental and very important question it is necessary for us to analyze Mahatma Gandhi’s views about some of the basic tenets of democracy, of which representation and public opinion are of utmost importance.

Representation and public opinion, both, play their important role in construction and conduction of democratic government. That is why; Mahatma Gandhi not only held opinion on them but he expressed it exclusively before the world Regarding representation he said:

“I hold it to be an utter delusion to believe that a large number of delegates are in any way a help to the better conduct of business, or that it safeguards the principle of democracy. Fifteen hundred delegates, jealous of the interests of the people, broadminded and truthful, would any day be better safeguard for a democracy than six thousand irresponsible men chosen anyhow. To safeguard democracy the people must have a keen sense of independence, self-respect and their oneness, and should insist on choosing, as their representatives, only such persons as are good and true.”

No doubt, following two concrete points pertaining to representation, along with their importance in the system, are quite clear in the above statement of Mahatma Gandhi:

  • Consciousness in people for democracy and the role of representatives in it is absolutely necessary; and
  • Full care in choosing representatives for conduction of the system.

He does not consider the number of delegates as important. Rather, he prefers those representatives, who may fulfill needs of people for their welfare to the maximum possible extent, no matter if they are few in number, because people’s interest is the main spirit of a democracy.

Secondly, it is healthy and mature public opinion, which controls the state and the government. So, if the system is to be kept healthy, it is only going to be possible through healthy public opinion, repudiation of which is quite difficult by the state. In the words of the Mahatma himself:

“A popular state can never act in advance of public opinion; if it goes against it, it will be destroyed.”

No democracy can be successful without healthy criticism; well-informed, balanced and matured criticism is the backbone of public life there. In the absence of critical analysis, there is an apprehension of losing the real form and feature of democracy. Therefore, there is always a need to make the people conscious; what public want, there is the need of making the people in the government familiarized in this regard. Even then, if the government does not work in accordance with aspirations of people then those resuscitating it, must be aware of their strength. The state or the government cannot even for a moment exist without the wish of public opinion.

How can a healthy and matured public opinion be generated? According to Mahatma Gandhi it is possible only through the right education. That is why; emphasizing on right and true education he points out that if no right education is imparted, public opinion can go in reverse order. And in such a situation it would be very difficult to tolerate it. To quote Mahatma Gandhi himself:

“Healthy public opinion has an influence, of which we have not realized the full significance…Public opinion becomes intolerable when it becomes violent and aggressive.”

Majority and Legislation

The principle of majority, as we know, plays the key role in a democratic form of government; the scale of the establishment of democracy is the decision of the majority. In such a situation whatever majority decides, should it be accepted? Mahatma Gandhi says that to an extent the decision of majority should be surely taken for granted; one should yield to majority in matters of details. But, there is no place for autocracy in democracy even if it of the party in absolute majority. Individual freedom of each and everyone must be cautiously protected in democracy. In case individual freedom is not protected or if it is violated then, Mahatma Gandhi holds:

“Minority has a perfect right to act differently from the majority.”

In spite of the principle of majority applied in democracy of the day, Mahatma Gandhi desires cooperation of the both-majority and minority-to establish an ideal society completely free from exploitation. For this he suggests:

“Let us not push the mandate theory to ridiculous extreme and become slaves to resolution of majorities. That would be a revival of brute force in a more virulent form. If rights of minorities are to be respected, the majority must tolerate and respect their opinion and action…It will be the duty of the majority to see to that the minorities receive a proper hearing and are not otherwise exposed to insult.”

He also suggests:

“Claiming the right of free opinion and free action as we do, we must extend the same to others. The rule of majority, when it becomes coercive, is as intolerant as that of a bureaucratic minority. We must patiently try to bring round the minority to our view by gentle persuasion and argument.”

To ascertain the above suggestions of Mahatma Gandhi, it is necessary that before any legislation, intended to be brought into force, it should be patiently deliberated upon; it must be kept in mind that democracy demands patient instruction in it before legislation.

Rights and Duties

Equal rights to all are expected in democracy; in the absence of which there can be no enjoyment of freedom. If freedom, which in concrete terms according to the Mahatma is the interdependence in political, economic and moral spheres also, is to be shared equally by all, without any kind of discrimination, and even by those who are physically weak, the lame and the hailed, they must be able to contribute equally in its maintenance. But, simultaneously, in order to acquire rights, each and everyone is supposed to perform his/her duties. That is why; Mahatma Gandhi says that the true source of a right is duty. In other words, if someone discharges his duties, rights are not far from him. He also rightly points out that if someone having duties unperformed runs after rights, they escape him like a will of the wisp; more he pursues them, the further will they fly. In his own words:

“If instead of insisting on rights everyone does his duty, there will immediately be the rule of order established among mankind.”


“Rights that do not flow directly from duty well performed are not worth having.”

Equality is placed at the highest state in a democracy; but rights also cannot be the exception of it. If there are no equal rights for each and everyone, there is no possibility of proportionate progress, and in such a state no democracy can survive for a long. It is a well-known fact. So, before having a desire to acquire rights, everyone should be ready to perform his/her duties. It is the best way even to strengthen the edifice of democracy as well as to run it on the path of Ahimsa-the non-violence shown by Mahatma Gandhi.

Justice and Punishment

When being a manmade institution democracy cannot be free from conflicts, how can it be free from crimes? An individual commits small or bigger crimes, no matter if generally this term is used for a legal crime.

Now, if there is a crime, and if it is established, there should definitely be provision of punishment for it. But, how much should it be and what type of it should be met out in a democracy to accord justice to all concerned? In this regard Mahatma Gandhi holds his own different views and certainly the root of them can be found in his commitment for non-violence as we can presume it from his important following comment on redemption:

“I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin; I seek to be redeemed from sin itself or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.”

No doubt, a human being commits sin intentionally and unintentionally as the dealings of the world are such that it is impossible for a human being to get wholly rid of sins. If so then certainly one has to bear consequences of sins. Hence, for commission of crime, the provision of punishment is too utmost essential. But it must be of such a nature that could accord an opportunity to a wrongdoer to reform and amend him/her in the future. It is fully within the scope of Gandhian philosophy as also a step forward in direction to make democratic institutions matured and healthy and ultimately to strengthen democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi is of the firm opinion that as the possibility of reform and improvement exists in every human being; he/she must not be deprived of reforming and improving him/herself. And that is why; he is in support for abolishing the provision of capital punishment altogether.


Now, the conclusion we draw from the above analysis is this that democracy, which is not the exception of drawbacks-though temporary in nature, smaller or bigger-in the same manner as the other walks of human life, can be made free of them to a large scale, if not completely as per the wish of Mahatma Gandhi, through its mature and healthy organs or institutions. In this regard utmost need is of awakening among the masses and making the system responsible in practice as much as possible; in it there must be all possibilities and provisions for reforms at all levels.

In fact, reforms are the signs of development. An institution like democracy depends on reforms much more in comparison to others, because its responsibilities are far greater than any other political institution to achieve its goal, if not fully then to maximum possible extent. So, Mahatma Gandhi’s simple suggestions to make different organs of democracy matured and healthy are worth giving a thought; through them, definitely, there are all possibilities of its growth in strength. And no doubt, a deep rooted or strengthened democracy can, more or less, accord well to all; it can grant considerable relief to people from conflicts.


Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned Gandhian scholar, Indologist and writer. He is the Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Meerut, India and the author of the book entitled, ‘Theory and Practice of Gandhian Non-Violence’.

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