Types of Violence and Gandhian Concept of Reducing Violence


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

25 Dec 2017 – Violence has been with us from the beginnings of life on earth and is likely to continue in one form or another in future also. Man’s cruelty and violence against fellow man is well known from time immemorial. The nature of violence and its meaning have of course changed but the broad objectives have not. While the earlier man had stones, sticks, bows and arrows, today there are not only AK 47s and hand grenades but also nuclear weapons, warships, submarines and fighter planes for aggression against an enemy or for protecting one’s country against external aggression.

Wars are an age old curse, having been fought in early Greek city-states, European nation states, and among Indian rajahs (kings). Epics like Iliad and Mahabharata have described not only the wars but also the socio-political conditions and why these wars were fought

Today there is a constant threat of nuclear war that looms over mankind. Another feature of conflict and warfare today is the rise of terrorism as a mode of warfare. This modern form of attrition has spread its tentacles over all globe, be it Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan or India. There are stray incidents of terrorism in several European cities – London, Paris etc.

There is another type of violence visible today- pelting of stones, blowing up of police-stations, schools, public vehicles by certain sections of population, often done to highlight certain core problems or injustice in several countries against the state or it policies.

We discuss some such forms of violence, try to analyse its theory and practice. We outline possible motivation, impulses and causes of violence. Even if not all the forms of violence lead to killing, it can result in deep adverse psychological or social impairment that can be quite dangerous and traumatic.

There are different types of violence as indicated below:

  1. Violence by state on individuals or a group of individuals (community)
  2. Violence by an individual or community against the state.
  3. Violence by an individual against another individual; e.g. shooting, looting, stealing, kidnapping, rape, extortion etc.
  4. Violence committed by a community against another community, as often happens in the case of religious communities.
  5. Violence against environment resulting in serious adverse consequences.
  6. Violence and destruction resulting from natural disasters

Nature of violence                                                                                                 

Violence manifests itself in several different forms which may broadly be categorized as: Direct (or active) violence, Institutional violence, Indirect or passive violence.

Direct or active violence can take several different forms and dimensions:

  • Shooting or killing people with weapons
  • Aerial or drone bombings of specified targets
  • Whipping, cutting off hands, stoning adulterers (prevalent in some orthodox countries)
  • Slapping or caning school children
  • Ambushing police or army personnel in one’s own country
  • Infanticide

Institutional or Structural Violence

  • This is used to describe forms of institutionalized social injustice, and the violence that results because of critical legal laws, values, norms and patterns. This goes beyond the commonsense understanding of violence caused by bodily force.
    It also refers to violence or harm that can be caused by the state as a result of its laws, policies or programs. For example, where farmers’ suicides are caused as a result of government policies, we would say that it is the institutional violence that is responsible for it.
  • Religious institutions are also committing various acts of violence including killing people of other faiths and denominations. There have been known to be conflicts between various sects of Christianity, Shias and Sunnis etc.

Some common forms of structural or institutional violence inflicted on people include:

  • Arresting and punishing a person who is subsequently found to be innocent of charges; Gender violence suffered by women in many parts of the world;
  • Laborers falling ill because of toxic environmental factors in mines or factories;
  • Poverty and destitution suffered by large sections of population: lack of food, clean drinking water, shelter, education.

According to Gandhi, poverty is the source of violence suffered by these people.

Indirect or Passive Violence

Violence of this kind does not appear to be any overt or visible form of violence caused by the state, individual or community but it is suffered by people due to indirect causes such as:

  • A child becoming an orphan
  • Widows thrown out of homes, left to live in ghatsof Varanasi or Vrindavan in India
  • Trauma suffered by a person seeing his loved one being killed, drowned or raped.

Passive Violence

Passive violence induces harm even without first hand involvement. When we see violence all around us, we also resort to violence either in a direct or indirect manner. What is passive violence? According to Gandhi, passive violence is that which disrespects other people’s (and our own) lives, such as name-calling, humiliating and criticizing, even if it is just in our hearts and thoughts. These inconspicuous acts that we commit are actually a form of violence. On a deeper level, psychologists feel that a lack of self-identity can lead to passive violence. Lacking a solid sense of who we are makes us feel insecure, and this can lead us to compare ourselves to others and even criticize or judge others and may lead to violence. Gandhi was referring to these traits when he states that passive violence may lead to physical violence. Thus it is important to stop comparing ourselves to others, since it is not good for us.

Application of violence to highlight issues

Violence in any form is bad and should be avoided. It leads to death, destruction, hatred, envy and brutality. However, in certain conditions it can be justified. Gandhi had said that if you are being attacked by an enemy force, it is your duty to defend your country through violent means, if you cannot do it nonviolently.

There is also another application of human violence – to put forward a community’s demands, whether legitimate or otherwise. We have seen large scale violence of this kind in stone pelting incidents in Kashmir, and in tribal areas with incidents of kidnapping or killing policemen, destroying railway tracks, buses or police stations etc. Without going into the merits of these forms of violence- whether they are justified, whether nonviolent means could be adopted, one obvious result of this violence is that the people’ demands come to the center stage. They acquire a degree of urgency that would otherwise not be possible. Today, people go on fasts, hold rallies and demonstrations etc. for highlighting their demands.

Violence and destruction caused by natural disasters

Natural disasters, in form of floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc. cause untold misery and destruction to mankind, animals and agriculture. Some argue with some justification that these are manifestation of nature’s revenge on humans for damaging and devastating the environment.

Gandhi’s concept of truth and nonviolence

People all over the world, despite the diversities of religion, language, culture and race, desire to live in peace and harmony in their daily lives. They need basic requirements of a decent human life – food, shelter, education, employment, freedom to practice their religion and culture. Gandhi felt that economic and spiritual swaraj (self-governance) – not just India’s political freedom, could reduce this violence. A just and equitable economic system with equal opportunities for all and individuals having the freedom of working honestly in their local communities would constitute the essentials of economic swaraj. Spiritual swaraj, on the other hand, signified morality, truth and discipline.

According to the Canadian scholar Anthony Parel, for Gandhi spiritual swaraj meant inner discipline marked by purity of intention and control over base tendencies like dishonesty, greed, aggression and violence. This entailed morality and virtues like truth, nonviolence, detachment, prayer, compassion and spirituality. These virtues and values are as important today as they were in Gandhian times.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Dec 2017.

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