Peace Activism – Gandhi’s Path to Transformative Change


Vijay Mehta – TRANSCEND Media Service


25 Jun 2024 – Bringing transformative change through peace activism will involve putting in place significant strategic, fundamental, radical changes not only to our actions and mindset, but also to change voices of people who believe in the propaganda of the right wing lobby for military solutions to live in peace. These needs to be challenged before change can take place.

Whistling In the Wind – Dilemmas Faced by the Peace Movement

The warmongers – Military Industrial Complex, right wing governments and compliant media and their cronies keep tensions and threats between nations and make us believe as if cities in Europe and some other parts of the world are in danger and imminent nuclear threat from Russia. Moreover, they are creating scenarios in which confrontation with China or Iran seems to become a reality.

These voices can be summed as fear of security and safety of citizens which they consider as paramount reason for giving governments billions of dollars for procuring weapons and military hardware. The occasional surveys conducted by peace organisations always result in people vouching for abolition of nuclear weapons and arms trade. However, during canvassing at the time of General Elections in UK, you are confronted at the doorstep with citizens who would always say we must have nuclear weapons and armaments to defend our (UK) country and our safety if UK is under attack which has never happened after World War II almost 80 years.

The overall lesson from this is how can we convince citizens that peace cannot be achieved through the barrel of a gun as is evident from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Ukraine and now in the war in Gaza between Israel and Palestine. This comes back to the question, can we apply non-violent means to resolve disputes and permanent wars so that people feel safe to live in their communities.

Transformative Steps for Change

I am going to explore principles / actions practiced by Gandhi and his countrymen to gain Indian Independence from the mighty British Empire. His actions / principles has been crystallised in a book Gandhi CEO written by Alan Axelrod. These actions are an eye opener for modern leaders and peace activists who can bring transformative change for more truthful, just, compassionate world devoid of wars, violence, slavery, oppression, injustice in a non-violent way. I have added a few more principles and actions which were missing.


Gandhi measured all decision against truth. Slavery, oppression, injustice, violence – all were untruthful as they made you believe and forced compliance: therefore these evils were to be avoided or opposed.

The lessons here include advising on harnessing your imagination – for decision making, knowing how far you can press popular leadership, the importance and persuasive power of transparency in the decision making process; when to compromise and when to draw a line; how to build and maintain the courage to make decisions and to follow them through against doubters and opposition.

Do or Die

Gandhi’s quest for the non-violent change motivated his followers, the way generals and conquerors have motivated their armies to do or die. The lesson of this principle is, for promoting maximum effort in situations that offer the highest stakes, the greatest risks and the greatest opportunities. These are occasions of stark choices, in which failure is a distinct possibility but not an option and in which opportunity can be truly transformative.

The Genius of Non-Cooperation

Non-cooperation was both a general tactic Gandhi introduced for undermining the oppressive authority of the British Raj (government) in India and a specific phase in the movements for Indian home rule. The idea behind both aspects of non-cooperation was organised, non-violent mass civil disobedient, breaking the British law and ignoring the British institutions in India, ranging from law courts and various mercantile concerns. Gandhi understood that the authority of even the most oppressive government ultimately came from the consent of the governed. If people turned their backs on the government, it will be powerless. National non-cooperation shook the British Empire to its core as it inspired millions of Indians for gaining independence.

Give Everyone a Stake

The Hindu culture of India was rigidly divided into four castes, from the scholarly Brahmins at the top to the labouring Shudras at the bottom. Below these castes was an outcast. The aforementioned Dalits who are consigned menial and unclean labour, sweeping latrine cleaning, leather tanning and traditional hand spinning. These untouchables were deemed unfit for society and could not take water from public well or even enter the Hindu temples. Gandhi made the removal of the untouchability, a central focus of his campaign for Human Rights in India as he believed that this rigid and confining social structure prevented India’s full progress towards independence. His campaign for universal equality was integral to the advancement of the campaign for a self-governing independent India

Learning and Experience

Gandhi put less emphasis in formal education than from learning from experience. From his legal training, he came to believe that lawyers function mainly to promote disputes rather than to settle them or to bring justice. Nevertheless, his experience as a lawyer taught him both the power and weakness of the legal system and that leveraging a government’s laws in non-violent campaigns of civil disobedience could transform not just the government but the society. Gandhi came to understand that education and experience could be both liberating and confining. For him, managing beneficial change depended on knowing what knowledge to use and what knowledge to look beyond, modify, or reject entirely.

Make it Real

Gandhi passionately rejected what he deemed the thinking assumption that idealism and realism were incompatible. He did not divide the universe into an ideal world and material world, but rather saw the idea as integral to reality. He knew from both history and experience that idealism could shape the real world that no desirable reality was possible without an ideal conception of what it should be. He approached the world determined to approach it, to shape it, even to transform. But to do this, Gandhi knew he had to accept the universe to recognise and understand the reality before him, to question it by all means but never to be ignored or denied.

Exemplary Miracles

Lawyers and judges turn to their law books, and theologians to the holy scriptures. For Gandhi, there were no higher authority, no greater source of revelation, than the lives and deeds of men and women. He looked to them for models of action and conduct, and most of all, he offered his own example to India and the world as a model for leadership towards the creation of universal justice and the pursuit of truth, on which all justice rest. Any leader can learn from example, including, of course the example of Gandhi himself. The revolution he shaped in India – the revolution that instructed the world – seems miraculous in its depth and scope, and yet it was certainly real. He rejected any constraint on what is possible, and instead embracing example as a liberation from our sense of so called realistic limits. That’s how Gandhi, one little man, faced down an Empire.

Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

Ahimsa or non-violence was a fundamental principle for Gandhi. He believed in resolving conflicts and achieving change through peaceful means. He was keenly aware, that he was leading people, armed only with their force of righteous will, to possible harm and death but still to remain non-violent. The problem with violence, as Gandhi saw it is that it enslaves rather than liberates, violence begets violence, so ends achieved through harmful means permanently create enemies. “An eye for an eye” Gandhi reportedly observed, “makes the whole world blind”. The lessons that follow are drawn from Gandhi’s active campaign for non-violent change.

Principles and Pragmatism

Gandhi’s life was an epic experiment in principled living. While most people find it difficult or impractical, living strictly according to principles, Gandhi went ahead and tried. He succeeded to such an impressive degree is in part a result of a clear conception set of worthwhile principles as he kept a pragmatic eye towards the dynamic, fluid nature of the day to day. Depending on the outcome he either modified or even rejected certain principles as he devise new ones. The strategy and tactics depending on a bedrock of ideals on which there could be neither alterations nor compromise. This highlights this remarkable leader’s effort to formulate and implement productive valuable principles. This illustrates the art of balancing principles and pragmatism to produce meaningful and productive change.

Reject Tyranny, Take Responsibility

Gandhi discovered about the relationship of the individual to the power of the rulers. You either label yourself, define your identity or the state will label it for you. In India that label was victim, he offered people a stern alternative: tear off the label. Choose not to be a victim. Turn your back on the government, its institutions, its merchandise and its laws. This experience of Gandhi is a masterful example of marketing and branding on an epic scale for the highest of stakes and is a valuable lesson to all campaigners and peace activists.

Revaluation as Revolution

Gandhi believed that revolution lies in the revaluation of the reality that surrounds us. Revolutions becomes questioning that reality and deciding whether or not to cooperate with them. On the part of the makers of the revolution, there need be no violence. However, revolution or revaluation could be mired with shooting and beating and other violence. All meted out against the revolutionaries who would not retaliate but only persist in non-cooperation. The bloodshed was a consequence of the revolution, but not the substance of the revolution, which took place entirely in the minds and heart of the people and he continued reappraisal of values, goals, strategy and tactics

Sacrifice and the Servant Leader

Gandhi acknowledged both the need for leaders and the inevitability of it. Yet this was by no means a bow to the status quo. For his revaluation for the role of leadership was as radical as anything. In Gandhi’s revolutionary universe, leaders were servants. Indeed, he anticipated by a least half a century a model of servant leadership, now widespread in non-profit communities and corporate field. Servant leadership is not only ethical leadership but also it is a necessary driver of sustainable world.

Influencing and Persuasion

Gandhi’s lifelong project was to include morality – defined as the promotion of liberty, justice and the general welfare – into every act that a person was persuaded to commit and every project one was persuaded to undertake. The ethical conduct of social service and business requires that everything the issue or enterprise undertakes benefit all of humanity. This social service or any business should be founded on essential truth as opposed to essential fraud.  The underlying lesson is, the ethical persuasion for organising, motivating and sustaining collaborative effort which can be applied for the entire nation.


Gandhi himself chose to describe the object of his life’s work: truth. And said the only motive is to find out the truth and to follow it. In life, some of the time  – perhaps much of the time – we do turn our backs on the truth for the simple reason that we don’t do the hard work of searching for it. Maybe, when we embark on a social issue, a project or a job, we take a great deal for granted. When we walk into a building when it’s already built, we do not think to examine its foundation.

Gandhi was born into a nation effectively owned by another nation. Remarkably, a few either in India or Britain question the reality. Gandhi, however, refused simply to accept it. He examined the question: was the relation of India to Great Britain was founded on truth? Or was it just desirable or intolerable? Was the information truthful? The answer was simple, no. From this answer, he could follow a course of action as well as it’s justification.

For Gandhi, Satyagraha – a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. Satyagrahi – is the person who is the civil resistor person has three rules.  He or she, will harbour no anger. Then the second rule obliges the Satyagrahi  to suffer the anger of the opponent. And the  third one is to put up with assaults from the opponents without retaliation but never submitting out of fear of punishment for the life, to any order given in anger. The lesson is to remember is that your purpose is not to defeat anyone but to achieve your objectives and goals.

Gandhi’s great challenge in leading a mass movement toward profound change was to rouse, raise and maintain the passion of commitment without ever allowing emotions to obscure the purpose of the movement or cause harm to others – and evil in itself that would also morally discredit the movement. As he said, “the strength of a warrior is not measured by reference to the weapons but his firmness of his mind”. He observed, Truth Always Triumphs… Truth Always Wins. Let’s follow Gandhi’s proven techniques to succeed in peace activism. ~


Vijay Mehta is an author and peace activist. He is chair of Uniting for Peace, founding trustee of Fortune Forum charity, and board member of GAMIP-Global Alliance for Ministries and Infrastructures for Peace. His books include: The Economics of Killing (Pluto Press, 2012); Peace Beyond Borders (New Internationalist, 2016; and the most recent How Not To Go To War (New Internationalist, 2019) where he proposes that in countries and communities, in governments, private institutions and media, Peace Departments and Peace Centres be established to report on and promote peace.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Jul 2024.

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