Is Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha Significant in Our Times?


David M. Traboulay | Academia – TRANSCEND Media Service


This paper was the fruit of two conceptions.  The first was that it was part of a book-length manuscript on the making of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement that I started in 1993, a completed manuscript that has been revised at least six times, and remains unfinished.  The second motive arose from a deep concern over the consequences of terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and, on the other, by the recent horrific acts of violence in America, especially the murder of children at an elementary school. To this horror was added the sordid and painful story of the gang-rape and death in Delhi of the physiotherapy student, a young woman, Nirbhaya. What started in the mode of a scholarly exercise shifted to a more activist mode of a civilizational question: Is Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha significant in our times?


I have selected two studies for reflection.2  The first is Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul–Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, published in 2011.  This work brought great controversy, especially in India, where there arose a movement to ban the book.3  It is difficult to place this thoughtful and critical work within an academic discipline.  A journalist by profession, Lelyveld admitted that he was hardly a historian.  His was not a traditional biography.  Generally an admiring study, his focus was more on Gandhi as a social reformer than his Satyagraha movement.  More specifically, his interest was on Gandhi’s struggle to end the injustice of India’s caste system and untouchability.  His early chapters narrating Gandhi’s twenty one years in South Africa are of interest because it was in South Africa that Satyagraha was conceived, developed, and practiced.  My own study of Gandhi placed its emphasis on his experience in South Africa and the inspiration he drew from the indentured Indian labourers.  As a descendant of indentured Indian labourers from Trinidad, I had a deep interest in Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa. Indeed, Gandhi played a great part in the 1917 abolition of Indentured Indian labor, or semi-slavery, as he called it.

The second work is Mary Louise Gude’s Louis Massignon: The Crucible of Compassion.  I was drawn to this work after reading a paper by Carool Kersten, “Macchiavelli or Gandhi? Chaiwat Satha Anand’s Nonviolence in a Comparative Perspective.”  The second part of this paper was on the renowned French Catholic scholar of Islam and Arabic, Louis Massignon.  Criticized as an Orientalist by Dr. E.W. Said in his seminal work, Orientalism, Massignon was a faithful follower of Gandhi’s Satyagraha from the 1920s to his death in 1962. Mary Louise Gude’s scholarly biography of Massignon allowed me to view Gandhi’s Satyagraha from an insightful perspective. I thought that Massignon was able to understand and connect Gandhi’s political, social, and spiritual ideas and actions in a luminous way.

For Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi initially was invited to serve as an advocate of the Indian elite in South Africa against racial discrimination, but  his political transformation came when he became aware of the extreme injustice towards the indentured Indian laborers or “coolies” as they were called.  Lelyveld argued that this awareness led Gandhi to acknowledge at the same time the injustice and cruelty of the caste system and untouchability practiced in India.  Gandhi’s decision to mobilize the Indian indentured workers and women in the great march of 1913 was his moment of truth, the real birth of Satyagraha, and Gandhi’s journey to becoming the mahatma.

Lelyveld slowly and deliberately painted the landscape of Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa from the day after he arrived in Natal on May 23, 1893 to his departure in 1914.  He stated that he would not accept Gandhi’s narrative of his experiences in his Autobiography but would seek to interrogate the accepted version. This method of raising critical questions of a dominant and accepted narrative is interesting and insightful but at times the interpretation of evidence can be problematic.  Its purpose did not necessarily mean that the author sought to demean the achievements of Gandhi, but rather to show that, in this case, Gandhi was also an imperfect human being with weaknesses, flaws, defeats, and fads, and so be of greater influence for others if seen as human and not as a saint.  Or, as Giriraj Kishore, the author of The Girmitiya Saga, declared as the motivation for his novel, Gandhi was Mohan before he was Mahatma.4  Yet, at times, the interpretations proposed by Joseph Lelyveld seemed in line with avowedly imperialist Western writers.  For example, Lelyveld raised the suggestion that Gandhi in South Africa created several changes of ideals which the author called “self-invention.”  He hinted that Gandhi’s Autobiography, written in 1927, called “Experiments in Truth,” could have been the fruit of expediency to “jump-start his career.”

His circular and allusive method of constructing his argument was held together by the main theme of Gandhi as a social reformer.  Writing letters to the newspapers was Gandhi’s first method of responding to unjust legislation against Indians.  In May 1894, as he was preparing to return home to India, he saw an article about a bill to disenfranchise Natal’s Indians.  As a response, he wrote his first pamphlet to the colonial legislature in Natal. When the newspaper, The Critic, responded that it was the caste system and not the laws of Natal that condemned Indians to be a servile race, Gandhi said that the comment reached the depths of his heart.  Although hired to defend Indian businessmen, he was aware early in South Africa that the Indian laborers on sugar plantations and the coal mines were the most exploited in their state of “semi-slavery.” Embarking on a life of service, he drafted petitions, and founded the Natal Indian Congress. Among its objectives were to inquire into the conditions of indentured Indians and to take proper steps to alleviate their suffering and to help the poor and helpless in every reasonable way.”5  As his prestige as leader of Indians in South Africa grew, he made every effort to persuade Indians of all regions, religions, castes and classes to see themselves as Indians.

His relationship to the indentured Indians was a major key to understand Gandhi’s transformation from a diffident British educated lawyer in South Africa to become a radical political activist against injustice to the poorest Indians.  He became aware of the terrible exploitation of indentured Indians, and their suffering.  It did not go unnoticed that many of them were from lower castes and untouchables.  As Gandhi later commented, “I believe implicitly that all men are born equal…I have fought the doctrine of superiority in South Africa inch by inch and it is because of that inherent belief that I call myself a scavenger, a spinner, a weaver, a farmer and a laborer.”6

Some admirers of Gandhi suggested that  Lelyveld  had accused Gandhi of racism against Black Africans.  The other accusation was that the author had written that Gandhi had a homosexual relationship with his Jewish friend, Herman Kallenbach.  Both narratives were brief and presumably included to show that Gandhi was not a saint, but human with weaknesses. In neither issue did the author conclude that Gandhi was either a racist or had a homosexual relationship with his friend.  Since these stories caused such a storm of protest, it is useful to examine how the author developed the narratives and to what purpose.

Lelyveld argued that Gandhi should have known that his use of the word kaffir to describe Africans carried the meaning of inferior.8  However, consonant with his method of argumentation, the author balanced this description with the story of a debate at the YMCA in Johannesburg on the question: “Are Asiatic and Colored Races a Menace?”  In his contribution, Gandhi argued:

 “In a well-ordered society industrious and intelligent men can never be a menace.  We can hardly think of South Africa without the African races…South Africa would probably be a howling wilderness without the Africans.  Africans are the world’s learners.  They are able-bodied and intelligent.  They are entitled to justice and fairness, like the indentured Indians.  It’s a question of being able to own land, live and trade where they want, move freely from province to province. If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen?  There are differences and misunderstandings but I do believe, in the words of the sacred hymn, “We shall know each other better when the mists have rolled away.”9

1906 was a significant year for Gandhi. Protests by Zulu artisans from a small independent church against taxation saw a police detachment sent to arrest the leaders who were armed with spears.  In the ensuing conflict, two policemen were killed.  Twelve protesters were arrested and summarily shot and killed.  Later, a chief, Bhambatha, refused to pay the tax and took to the hills with 150 men.  White officials sent an army of 1,000 men to attack them.  Gandhi offered his ambulance stretcher bearers but could get only 19 men.  The colonial army mercilessly machine-gunned Zulu homesteads and was told not to take prisoners.  The small Indian ambulance brigade was present in the final weeks of the brutal war.  They treated the Zulu prisoners who were wounded and villagers who were beaten by white troops.  In his Autobiography, Gandhi said that the Zulus were grateful for their assistance since white medics would not touch them.  This experience of brutality by white colonists and Black suffering had a deep impact on Gandhi who said that “his heart was with the Zulus.”10  The horror he experienced and, perhaps, his doubt and guilt whether he was right to support the white colonists remained etched in his conscience up to 1943 when he recounted to his doctor and friend, Dr. Sushila Nayar, the atrocities done to the Zulus.  Could this experience have been a major moment of truth and another transformation in his spiritual and political life?  Gandhi decided to embark on a life of perfect celibacy and take the vow of Brahmacharya in order to undertake a life of service and poverty.  More significant for our topic, on September 11, 1906, at the Empire theatre in Johannesburg, Satyagraha, the nonviolent civil resistance to injustice method, was born.  Gandhi called for the defiance of the Asiatic law amendment ordinance, called the Black Act.  In the Transvaal, Indians only were required to register for rights of residence, be fingerprinted, pay a 3 pound head tax, and carry a certificate.  Worse, police could enter an Indian home to check the certificates of the family.11

Another major change in Gandhi’s life in 1906 was his decision to move from Durban, Natal, to Johannesburg in the Transvaal from August 1906 to January 1913.  Gandhi had hoped to continue his experiments in building his nonviolent movement as well as his spiritual development.  He embarked on constructing an alternative family.  He said that his family now consisted “of all living beings.”12  Tamils from South India were among his enthusiastic followers, especially Thambi Naidoo who was his most devoted supporter.

Several Muslims joined, and relatives of Gandhi, his wife and sons, nephews and cousins.  Among his friends were Westerners – Sonja Schlesin, his secretary, Henry Polak and Herman Kallenbach, non-observant Jews, and Anglican minister, Charles Andrews.  As Gandhi defined his family at this time, it was “a heterogeneous family where people of all kinds and temperaments were freely admitted.” Gandhi had met Henry Polak in 1904, then a copy editor of the newspaper, The Critic.  They shared a mutual admiration of Tolstoy.  It was Polak who months later gave Gandhi a copy of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last that inspired Gandhi to establish Phoenix Settlement.  Attracted by the book’s criticism of industrial society, Gandhi had hoped that he could begin to put into practice his own ideas about an alternative humane rural society in the manner of Tolstoy’s ideas and his own view of the possibilities of traditional rural Indian villages.

Gandhi’s move to Johannesburg brings us to the  issue of Gandhi’s relationship with Herman Kallenbach, Lelyveld stated that “this relationship was the most intimate, also the most ambiguous relationship of his lifetime.”13 Agreeing that Platonic love did not have much credibility in contemporary society, Lelyveld admitted that he was interested in the character of the love between Gandhi and Kallenbach.  They had written notes to each other, confiding intimate details of their life.  Faithful to the honor of his friend, Gandhi destroyed the letters Kallenbach sent him; Kallenbach did not.  After the death of Kallenbach, his heirs auctioned Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach.  The National Archives of India acquired them and published them.

Kallenbach was raised and educated in East Prussia, and trained as an architect in Stuttgart.  He arrived in Johannesburg in 1895 at the age of 24.  Gandhi and Kallenbach lived in a house in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, called Kraal or homestead, and then in a bigger house, Mountain View.  The letters use the language of love clearly, but often the context was Gandhi advising him to embark on a life of self-denial and simplicity where they would both give up their professions as lawyer and architect, and earn their living by manual labor.  When Gandhi conceived of building a rural settlement in the Transvaal, called Tolstoy Farm, Kallenbach purchased 1100 acres of land where Gandhi could put in place his ideas of an alternative society as described in Hind Swaraj, and, at the same time, house the families of his movement.  The letters showed their deep feeling for each other. As spiritual pilgrims, they loved taking long walks of 21 miles to the center of Johannesburg at dawn and twilight.  Was there anything sexual in their relationship?  Interviewed in the Times of India as the controversy over his book became intense, Joseph Lelyveld admitted that he raised the issue of sex but reached no conclusion.  He said that his own view was that “it was to be guided by what they said about celibacy, abstinence, and the control of diet in the pursuit of those aims, and that two men can be on loving and intimate terms without becoming overtly sexual…The discussion of the letters showed that Gandhi had a deep love for his Jewish friend and wanted him by his side for the rest of this life.”14

After some six years Gandhi ended his stay at Tolstoy Farm.  It appears that Gokhale’s visit to South Africa in December, 1912 was the decisive event.  Gokhale had assured Gandhi that from his meeting with General Smuts the three pound head tax on Indians would be withdrawn, and persuaded Gandhi to return to India.  This news confirmed Gandhi’s feeling that he had reached an agreement with Smuts to repeal the Black Act.   He was already thinking about returning to India.  Indeed, his blueprint for an alternative modernity for India, Hind Swaraj, written in 1909, made no reference to South Africa.  On January 9, 1913, Gandhi and his followers at Tolstoy Farm left for Phoenix Settlement.

As negotiations with General Smuts collapsed, the 3 pound head tax, new restrictions on Indian immigration, and the decision to invalidate Hindu, Muslim and Parsee marriages, incensed Indians.   Declaring a new Satyagraha campaign, Gandhi demanded the abolition of the three pound head tax on former indentured laborers which was adopted in 1895. The story of the Great March of 1913 is well-known and remained an enduring source of inspiration to Gandhi.   Lelyveld’s narrative of this campaign is powerful in its detail and deserves describing somewhat.  Gandhi, Kallenbach, and Thambi Naidoo planned the campaign at Naidoo’s home.  On October 11, Naidoo, his wife and 10 other Tamil women marched illegally from Transvaal into Natal to the mining town of Newcastle and urged the miners to strike.  Gandhi described their action as throwing a match onto fuel.  The strike of miners and sugar workers spread like wildfire to include Indian street cleaners, and house servants, among many others.  Lelyveld captured brilliantly the relation between Gandhi as leader and the strikers.  Gandhi asked the miners to leave their compounds and march across the Transvaal to court arrest.  Assembled at Charlestown, the Natal Railroad terminus, thousands of miners lined up for food.  Lelyveld cited an article by a reporter of the Sunday Times on the situation.  He found Gandhi in shirtsleeves, sitting on an upturned milk case.  Next to him was a galvanized tub filled “with an unsavory concoction which he took to be soup.” Next to the tub were sacks of loaves of bread.  Gandhi was observed “cutting the loaves into three-inch hunks, then digging with his thumb a small hole into each hunk which he then filled with coarse sugar, as the men filed by in successive batches of a dozen strikers.  Lelyveld commented that this picture of Gandhi feeding his followers with his own hands, set a new standard for Indian leadership, and for leadership anywhere.  An agreement came in 1914.and Parliament enacted the Indian Relief Act.15

Returning to India in 1915, traveled around India for a year experiencing the reality of India.  Encouraged by Prof. Gokhale, his political mentor, he brought with him a broad notion of Swaraj or freedom which he had developed in South Africa and was the theme of his first book, Hind Swaraj (1909). Its surface meaning was freedom from British imperial rule but it included the centrality of nonviolence as the means to achieve it.  It embraced a more creative idea of freedom which meant working on a project to abolish untouchability, building unity among all the different cultures, languages, religions, castes, and regions in India, strengthening Hindu-Muslim unity, the advancement of women’s equality, and the uplift of the poor.  Lelyveld remarked that Gandhi’s  respect for the poorest Indians was sincere and he genuinely admired their courage and dedication and concluded that this experienced transformed him: “He identified with them till his dying day.”

The sections on Gandhi’s experience in South Africa contained the most interesting and insightful narratives of Lelveld’s study.  He did not follow a linear method of painting historically Gandhi’s life, but a more episodic one.  He takes up the theme of Mahatma or Great Soul and brings Gandhi down from the clouds to see him as human. Lelyveld asserted that fearlessness and truth became the heart of Gandhi’s teaching.  He quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s impression of Gandhi’s impact:  “His voice was somehow different from others.  It was quiet and low, and yet it could be heard above the shouting of the multitude; it was soft and gentle and yet there seemed to be steel hidden away somewhere in it.  Behind the language of peace and friendship…the quivering shadow of action and a determination not to submit to a wrong.”16

Gandhi witnessed unimaginable violence over minority rights and partition in the last years of his life.  Lelyveld admitted that his activity to stop it was miraculous.  This was how he summed up his search for the truth of the Great Soul:  “He struggled with doubt and self until his last days but made the predicament of the millions of the poor and the excluded his own, whatever the tensions among them, as no other leader of modern times has.  And  his flawed efforts as a social visionary and reformer can be more moving in hindsight than his moments of success as a national leader.”

Louis Massignon (1883-1962)

An outstanding French Orientalist scholar of Islam and Arabic, Massignon’s life was characterized by many transformations.17 Gandhi was a model for Massignon’s response to the upheavals that shook the Middle Eastern world following World War II.18  His interest in the thought of Gandhi began from 1921 during the Indian non-cooperation campaign and the movement to preserve the Caliphate.  He recalled that two Muslims visited him at the College de France at the head of a mission to get his support for the Caliphate and cited Gandhi’s example: “It was through Muslims that I knew Gandhi…I understood the ideals of Gandhi, the ideal of Satyagraha, the pursuit of truth by steadfastness in will …I also learned that Satyagraha was a sacred thing for Muslims also.  I realized immediately there was something in Gandhi that was valuable.  For perhaps the first time in the world, there was a man influencing people of other religions and with great social results.”19

Massignon published the Satyagraha pledge in the April 1921 issue of the Revue du Monde Musulman.  He sympathized with Gandhi’s political position that unity and mutual understanding between Muslims and Hindus were crucial for India’s freedom.  But he felt that Gandhi’s support for the Caliphate, which the Turks abolished in 1924, was motivated by Gandhi’s respect for Muslim values.  It was a view that he hoped the French would adopt in its relations with Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa.  Massignon met Gandhi for the first time in 1931 when, following the second Round Table Conference in London, he stopped over in Paris to visit Romain Rolland.  The meeting was held at the home of Mme Louise Giresse who in 1932 founded the Amis de Gandhi Association which Massignon joined and later was President.  With Rolland, the association established a newspaper, Nouvelles de l’Inde.  Massignon said that he remembered that a question was asked about what role religion could play in preventing war, to which Gandhi replied that “official religions are very weak in stopping wars.”  The newspaper kept the French people informed of India’s efforts in their struggle for independence.

Recognized as a major scholar of Islamic and Arabic studies in the 1920s, he founded the Institut des etudes Islamiques to study the economy of the Middle East.  His scholarly research was accompanied by political activism against social injustice.  In Paris he started night classes for illiterate workers from North Africa.  His membership on the committee for the approaching centenary of French colonization of Algeria educated him about French colonialism at the time Arab consciousness was rising in the Middle East and North Africa and the idea of Algerian independence was arising.  This new activism drew him closer to Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaign.  He found in Gandhi the connection between his political struggles against social injustice and his spiritual development, and “a soul-mate who practiced his deeply- held belief of sacred hospitality.”20  Persuaded by Gandhi’s principled commitment to nonviolence and his view of British imperialism as an unjust system, Massignon began to have doubts about French imperialism.  In a short article on French colonialism in 1935, he presented two views.  One was the dilemma posed by a young Frenchman who asked how he could take a civil service position in Algeria and support colonialist policies and square this with his Christian conscience.  The other was that of an Algerian student who wrote to Massignon:  “I cannot forgive you this one thing, that I loved you who were humane to me, because in so doing you were my worst enemy, causing me to risk losing my hatred for a race and culture different from my own and one capable of giving my people only ruin and despair.”21

The Spanish civil war in 1936 and 1937 saw Massignon active in the politics of Europe.  As the Republican and Fascist forces engaged in unspeakable atrocities, Massignon joined Jacques Maritain, Georges Duhamel, Gabriel Marcel, Francois Mauriac, and other French writers in founding the Committee for civil and religious peace.  They protested the massacre of the republicans in the bullring of Badajoz, the bombings of Madrid and Guernica.  They worked to bring a peaceful end to the war by reconciliation.

For the next 15 years Gandhi and his movement were his inspiration as cries for freedom arose in the French colonies in North Africa and the Middle East.  Massignon expressed sympathy and solidarity with their desire for independence.  In 1947 he and his friends, Jean Scelles and Andre de Peretti, formed the Comite Chretien d’Entente France-Islam to defend the political and religious rights of Muslims, “to work for loyal civic and social understanding with the Muslims for our common destiny.”22  Massignon often confessed in this period that Gandhi was his model for the sacred and political path that he was following.  He saw similarities between the freedom struggles in the Middle East, North Africa, and India.

The Palestinian issue was of great interest to him.  Massignon made a plea for peace and mutual understanding to stop the violence.  He was criticized for his support for the Palestinians and his opposition to Zionism which he equated with European colonialism.  In the summer, 1948, he wrote an article on the plight of the Palestinians, “Palestine and Peace with Justice”.  The article reflected the influence of Gandhi who had been assassinated earlier in January 1948. He presented the view that when conflicts had become extreme and difficult to resolve, only the lives and deaths of truly spiritual persons could resolve them peacefully.  He asserted that the nonviolent and courageous witness to the truth of a situation, as with Gandhi, remained our best hope in conflicts that were seemingly intractable by human effort.   Massignon revived the Amis de Gandhi Association the year of Gandhi’s death.

During the years of his political activism, he examined the thought and actions of Gandhi intently.  He saw a coincidence between Gandhi’s notion of civic virtue and the Muslim imperative of treating the stranger as a guest which he called sacred hospitality.  Mutual respect and understanding were the key premises for constructing the bridges for peace in political and social conflicts.  Massignon agreed with Gandhi that where two peoples shared historically the same territory, segregation or partition was not likely to bring peace.  In 1947 Gandhi opposed the partition of India as he did that of Palestine.  Massignon felt that Gandhi “would have wanted the Jews to reach understanding directly and freely on an equal footing with the Arabs.”23  As Gude herself said, “Only dialogue and an honest effort to understand differences could replace suspicion and hostility with respect and understanding.  When the Algerian issue burst into flames in 1954, Massignon felt that the Palestinian issue portended the same consequences for the Algerian conflict.

Massignon periodically revisited the writings of Gandhi for inspiration:

“The one to whom I owe the most in this regard is Gandhi, whom I saw twice.  He taught me to listen to the cries of the excluded, the pariahs, and the displaced persons. We must not love him as ourselves, as our neighbor.  We must love this stranger more than ourselves.”24

From the 1950s to his death in 1962 Massignon was actively engaged in the conflicts between France and its North African colonies.  Initially holding out hope that the French government would treat Algerians with respect and equality by granting them a larger role in governing themselves, Massignon was disturbed that the official policies were demeaning and smacked of contempt.  He still kept proposing consistently his favourite themes like sacred hospitality, mutual respect, dialogue, and reconciliation hoping that they would reach a receptive ear.  The narrative of reconciliation made some critics think that Massignon was a supporter of imperialism, What Massignon hoped for by reconciliation was that French and Arab could come to an understanding of each other’s point of view and arrive at solutions peacefully.  He certainly did not belong to those Orientalist scholars who felt that Arabs could not govern themselves humanely.

Massignon remained faithful to his commitment of nonviolent means of securing peace.  When crises became extreme and seemingly impossible to resolve, he embarked upon fasting following the practice of Gandhi. 25

Invited to speak on Gandhi’s influence on his life and work at the UNESCO conference in Delhi in 1953, he spoke about how Gandhi gave him a vocabulary for ideas about meditation and action that he had sought for fifty years, among which were his commitment to nonviolence and the courage to bear witness to the truth even in the face of death.  He meditated in the garden at Birla House where Gandhi was assassinated, and laid a wreath at Raj Ghat where he was cremated.   For Massignon, Gandhi’s constant efforts to heal ethnic and religious strife and maintain unity represented concretely what he called the imperative of sacred hospitality.

Massignon continued his days of fasting every first Friday of every month for peace.  Prayer, fasting and the vow were all part of his methods of struggle.  He interpreted Gandhi’s use of the vow in this way: “ The point…is that you meditate before beginning to act and do not act merely by idealism.  It means that you are no longer theoretical; it means that you are steadfast, that you meditate, contemplate.  You try to find the inner meaning.  You are fixed.  You have vowed your life.”26   Massignon also had an original view of Gandhi’s inconsistencies.  These arose only in cases of conscience where he embraced the truth as he experienced it. Another insight he learned from Gandhi’s writing was the distinction between destiny and vocation.  Destiny was life’s purpose as inspired by one’s history and culture; vocation was higher than destiny.  It often arose after a troublesome crisis where one chose a different path, or more appropriately, a different calling.  Massignon saw vocation as open to transcendence and hope.  This was the stage where one possessed the courage to bear witness to the truth, what Gandhi meant when he said that nonviolence was the weapon of the strong.

1954 was an eventful year for Massignon.  He retired from the College de France and became president of the Friends of Gandhi society.  It was also the year when the tragic Algerian war began which caused him great sadness in his later years.  He could claim success in the independent movements in Morocco and Tunisia.  But, as the Algerian war continued with escalating violence, he felt that his efforts to bring a peaceful reconciliation where both sides would respect each other’s culture and religion had failed.  During the war Massignon wrote several articles as president of the Friends of Gandhi society.  He criticized the harsh policies of France and stressed his theme of Christian – Muslim understanding.  For seven years the violence escalated.  He looked to Gandhi’s actions before 1947 for hope, and asked his countrymen to support Muslim demands for justice and to respect their religious customs.  Supported by French intellectuals, he wrote letters against the government’s policies of repression and recommended negotiation with the Algerian movement.  In France increasing numbers of North Africans were arrested and imprisoned.  With a sympathy born from teaching night classes to poor North African workers, he made it his policy to visit the prison where they were kept, demanding that they receive the status of conscientious objectors.  On October 12, 1955, together with the Friends of Gandhi society and the France-Islam Committee ,Massignon recited a prayer from the Quran for “all the victims…the women and children above all, fallen on both sides,” and read this declaration:

“We consider that the government of the Republic has not yet treated Muslim Algeria like Christian Auvergne and Brittany.  We want it henceforth to treat its children as our children, its women like our women, and its men like our men, as free men with their own destiny.”27.

They then took an oath to continue the struggle:

 “Just as Gandhi did in Delhi in 1947, in front of the Muslim women, we commit ourselves under oath to pursue our efforts to maintain our pledged word and demand justice.” 

As the army adopted harsher measures, the FLN answered violence with violence.  When news spread about internment and relocation camps, Massignon organized demonstrations against the torture and the camps.  Matters reached such desperation that there arose a movement to ask General De Gaulle to become leader again and he was invested in 1958.  A measure of order was restored under De Gaulle but the harsh security measures remained.  Massignon continued his days of fasting.  He was hopeful when General De Gaulle announced Algeria’s right of self-determination.  Since the internment camps continued  to operate, Joseph Pyronnet, a young disciple of a well-known Gandhian from France, Lanza del Vasto (1901-1985), organized a demonstration to protest against the camps by prayer, fasting and courting arrest.  On January 28,1961, the 13th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, the Friends of Gandhi society members and Massignon met to reflect on their understanding of Satyagraha.  Massignon declared that he had faithfully followed nonviolence but confessed that he had failed to achieve peace.  However, he said that he now understood the significance and value of Satyagraha to lie not in success but in the articulation of the truth:  “In the end, we do not live here below in order to conquer, but to give witness and to pass on the testimony to those younger than ourselves.”28   Hopes revived when General De Gaulle called a referendum on Algerian independence in 1961.  The positive results on self-determination led to negotiations between the government and the FLN.  Supporters of French colonialism refused to accept this and began a policy of terrorism.  On October 17, some 20,000 North Africans participated in a protest against a curfew.  The police responded with extreme brutality killing 100 and arresting thousands.  Dead bodies were thrown in the Seine river and in the bushes.  One of the dead was a student of Massignon.

On October 24, he went to the morgue and paid for the right to remove the body and accompanied it to the cemetery.  On March 18, 1962 the Algerian war ended, but the violence against North Africans continued.  Massignon insisted that hospitality to foreign guests extended to interring them with the prayers of their faith.  While writing an article on October 31, Massignon died.  At a memorial mass by the Amis de Gandhi, Massignon’s devoted friend, Francois Mauriac, gave this acclaim: “I know no more striking example of knowledge transformed into love.”

What did we learn in this reflection on the two studies? Joseph Lelyveld’s work questioned the accepted narrative of Gandhi’s Truth in order to understand him as a human being who was not a saint.  What is to be gained by raising questions of those we consider as models of humanity? Lelyveld contended that others have more to learn and praise from the acknowledgment of Gandhi’s failures and defeats as well as his courage and compassion for all peoples.  Massignon argues this point of view also but goes further.  For him, Gandhi was a heroic figure, who suffered defeats, to be sure, but men and women like Gandhi are heroic because they are willing to die as witnesses to what is true and just. In times when truth and justice seem to be hidden, they inspire us and give us hope to engage with our world with reason and persuasion to resolve conflicts nonviolently, and to crown knowledge with compassion.


2 In addition to the two that I will examine, I had initially selected Norman G. Finkelstein, What Gandhi Says abiout Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage, NY: OR Books, 2012; Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, NY: Bantam Books, 2008; Simone Pantner Brick, Gandhi and Nationalism: The Path to Indian Independence London: I.B. Tauris, 2012; and Carool Kersten’s online article, “Macchiavelli or Gandhi: Chaiwat Satha Anand’s Nonviolence in a Comparative Perspective,” 17056-7/9/2012,p.77

3 Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011; see the reviews of Hari Kunzru, “Appreciating Gandhi Through the Human Side,” NY Times, April 20, 2011;  Andrew Roberts, “Among the Hagiographers,” The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2011.

4 See Giriraj Kishore, The Girmitiya Saga. Translated from the Hindi original to English by Prajapati Sah, New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2010.

5 Lelyveld, op.cit., p. 38.

6 Ibid., p.25.

8 Lelyveld, p. 53.

9 Ibid., p.60.

10 Ibid., p,68.

11 Ibid., p.70.

12 Ibid., p.83.

13 Ibid., p.88.

14 See the Times of India, April 6, 2011.

15 Lelyveld, p. 116.

16 Lelyveld, p. 153.

17 Mary Louise Gude, Louis Massignon: The Crucible of Compassion, Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

18 See L. Massignon, La Passion de Al Hallaj, Martyr Mystique de’Islam, 2nd. Edition, Galimard, 1975. Massignon attended the Lycee Louis Le Grand in Paris in 1896 and received his Baccalauriat in 1901 following which he made visits to Algeria where he met Alfred Le Chatelet who had founded the Chair of Muslim Sociology at the College de France.  His interest in North Africa continued when he did field work in Morocco for his diploma in Higher Studies.  He was sent to Mesopotamia in 1907 on an archaeological mission and was befriendedby a Muslim family, the Alusi, whose hospitality was a source of inspiration for Massignon’s study of Islam and Arabic.  It was a time of the Turkish revolution and Massignon was captured as a spy, but was saved by the Alusi family.  In World War I he was a translator of the 17th  French Colonial Division, and, as and Islamist and Arabist, he was made a temporary captain to the Sykes-Picot Mission of 1917.  He was saddened by the collapse of the Mission.

19 Gude, op.cit., p. 126.

20 Ibid., p. 145.

21 Quoted in Gude, op.cit., pp..144- 145.

22 Ibid. p.162.

23 Ibid., p. 168.

24 Ibid., p. 175.

25 Ibid., p. 193.

26 Ibid., p. 209.

27 Ibid, p.222.

28 Ibid., p. 236.


David M. Traboulay – Professor at City University of New York, CUNY College of Staten Island

Go to Original –

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Comments are closed.