Application of Gandhism in Conflicts of Democracy
Dr. Ravindra Kumar | 02 Apr 2008

Just as he was simple in his personal life, so Mahatma Gandhi was equally
simple regarding his work.  His personality was neither complicated nor
twisted; his appeal to the people was always direct. That is why; during his
lifetime he was neither 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 the various aspects of life, works and
views of Mahatma Gandhi.
Why is this so?  The answer to this question is also very simple. It is
because the manner, in which he explained the practicality of Ahimsa
[non-violence], and placed it as an effective weapon for direct action, was
unique in itself. Despite existing in different forms in both theory and
practice, through the ages Ahimsa [non-violence] was considered merely a
personal virtue or value, particularly one to be practiced by Rishis, Saints
or Incarnations, or Messengers of God in the social and religious spheres.
However it was Mahatma Gandhi, who, perhaps for the first time in human
history, declared it to be a social virtue or value also, calling upon
humanity to cultivate it like the other virtues or values in its daily
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."1
Furthermore 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." 2
Mahatma Gandhi, by giving extension and a new dimension to the concept of
Ahimsa, declares that the purest non-violence is epitomized by having a
tendency…towards spiritual or physical benefit unto everyone without
selfishness and with pure thought after cool and clear deliberations. Hence,
he rightly believed:
"The final test as it is violence or non-violence is after all the intent
underlying the act." 3
As the whole world knows, through his political actions, basis of which was
Ahimsa [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, he also explained Ahimsa's meaning and
its purpose in a comprehensive and all-welfaristic way. 4 In so doing,
Mahatma Gandhi revealed a unique, evergreen and exemplary path by which the
citizens of the world could employ to attain freedom and secure justice at
all levels, particularly in a democracy.
Conflicts in Democracy
Individual freedom, equality, justice, and the welfare of all are the basic
tenets of democracy 5.  It does not matter if those ideals are not a reality
in toto for one and all, nor if the majority is the final yardstick to
measure the people's concurrence. In my opinion, democracy has come to stay
as the best way of governing the people politically.
For democracy, as defined by Abraham Lincoln, "is the government of the
people, for the people, and by the people."6
Besides the presence of the above-mentioned tenets, there is a greater
possibility of peace within a democracy as compared to any other form of
political system. In a democracy, people are connected with the system
directly and indirectly at every level. A democracy provides maximum
opportunity for people to progress and develop; above all, people can decide
for themselves the best mode of their welfare. And it is for this reason
that today a large portion of the world happens to be under the democratic
system of government.
Mahatma Gandhi wished for a stateless democracy fully based upon
non-violence. He supported the system of the day on the one hand; and on the
other, he expressed the desire to continuously improve that system until it
arrived within the domain of non-violence. As democracy is a man-made
institution it is always subject to improvement; its development and
enhancement is a necessity, not an exception. In Mahatma 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."7
When the potential of abuse is present within a democracy, the potential for
conflicts is also inevitable. Then, how can we get rid of conflicts in a
democratic system as per the Gandhian way in which Ahimsa [non-violence] is
the nucleus? In my opinion, we can construct a healthy democracy through the
maturity of its own organizations and institutions. If they are matured,
democracy will be healthy and the more a democracy is healthy the less are
the possibilities of conflicts in it. This is the first thing that can be
proclaimed openly.
However, this itself raises the question of how a democratic institution can
gain maturity as outlined by Mahatma Gandhi?  To find the answer to this
fundamental and important question, it is necessary for us to analyze
Mahatma Gandhi's views about some basic tenets of democracy, of which
representation and public opinion are of utmost importance.
Representation and public opinion both play their important roles in the
construction and conduction of a democratic government. That is why; Mahatma
Gandhi held his own opinion on them and 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." 8
No doubt, the 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 a democracy and the roles of the
representatives within it are absolutely necessary;  and

•     Full care in choosing representatives for the conduction of the

Mahatma Gandhi did not consider the number of delegates as important as
representatives who would see to the needs and welfare of the people to the
maximum possible extent.  It did not matter if the representatives were few
in number as long as the people's best interests were the main spirit
driving the democracy.
Also, it is a healthy and mature public opinion that controls the state and
the government.  Hence if the system is to be kept fit, it is only possible
through healthy public opinion, the repudiation of which would be 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." 9
No democracy can be successful without healthy criticism, for well-informed,
balanced and matured critique is the backbone of public life in a democracy.
In the absence of critical analysis, there is a dread of losing the real
form and feature of democracy.  Therefore, there is always a need to make
the people conscious and aware; there is the necessity to make the
government and its representatives familiarized with what the public wants.

But, in spite of it, 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 goodwill of public opinion.
How can a healthy and mature public opinion be cultivated? According to
Mahatma Gandhi it is possible only through the right education. In his
emphasis of right and true education, Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that if
proper education is not imparted, public opinion can flow 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." 10
Majority and Legislation
The principle of the majority plays the key role in a democratic form of
government, for the scale of a democracy's establishment is the majority's
decision. In such a situation, should whatever the majority decides be
accepted? Mahatma Gandhi said that to an extent the decision of the majority
should surely be taken for granted; that one should yield to the majority in
matters of detail.
However, there is no place for autocracy in democracy, even if the party is
in the absolute majority. Individual freedom of each and everyone must be
cautiously protected in a democracy. In the case that individual freedom is
not protected or it is violated then Mahatma Gandhi held:
"Minority has a perfect right to act differently from the majority."11
In spite of the principle of majority as applied within a democracy, Mahatma
Gandhi desired the cooperation of both the majority and the minority to
establish an ideal society completely free from exploitation. To this end he
"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 that the minorities receive a proper hearing and
are not otherwise exposed to insult." 12
Mahatma Gandhi also suggested:
"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." 13
As Mahatma Gandhi suggested, it is therefore necessary that legislation be
patiently deliberated upon before it can be put into practice.
Rights and Duties
Equal rights to all are expected in a democracy. In the absence of them
there can be no enjoyment of freedom. According to the Mahatma, if freedom
is the interdependence of political, economic and moral spheres, 14 and it
is to be shared equally by all without discrimination, including those who
are physically weak, e.g., the lame and the helpless, they must be able to
contribute equally to its maintenance.
At the same time, in order to acquire rights, everyone is supposed to
perform his/her duties. This is why; Mahatma Gandhi stated that the true
source of a right is duty. To say, if someone discharges his duties, rights
are not far from him. The Mahatma also pointed out that if someone
neglecting his duties runs after rights, those rights will escape him like a
will of the wisp; the more he pursues them, the further they will fly. In
Gandhi's own words:
"If instead of insisting on rights everyone does his duty, there will
immediately be the rule of order established among mankind."15
Furthermore Mahatma Gandhi believed, "Rights that do not flow directly from
duty well performed are not worth having."16
Equality is placed at the highest state in a democracy and individual rights
are not the exception. If there are no equal rights for each and everyone,
there is no possibility of proportionate progress; it is well-known that in
such a state, no democracy can survive for very long. Hence, before having a
desire to acquire rights, everyone should be ready to perform his/her
duties. It is the best way to strengthen the edifice of democracy as well as
the best way to run it on the path of Ahimsa [non-violence] as outlined by
Mahatma Gandhi.
Justice and Punishment
As a manmade institution, democracy cannot be free from conflicts,
therefore, 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.17
If there is a crime, and if it is established, there should definitely be a
provision of punishment for it. But how much and what type of punishment
should be meted out in a democracy to accord justice for all concerned? In
this respect Mahatma Gandhi held his own different views, the root of which
can be found in his commitment to non-violence per his following comment
regarding 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." 18
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 be
wholly rid of sin. If so, then certainly one has to bear the consequences of
sin. Hence for the commission of a crime, the provision for punishment is
utmost essential. However, the punishment must be of such a nature that it
could accord an opportunity for a wrongdoer to reform and amend his/her ways
in the future. This is fully within the scope of Gandhian philosophy as well
as a step towards making democratic institutions mature and healthy,
ultimately strengthening the democracy.
Mahatma Gandhi was of the firm opinion that as the possibility of reform and
improvement exists within every human being, he/she must not be deprived of
reforming and improving him/herself. That is why; he was in support of
abolishing capital punishment altogether. 19
Now, the conclusion we draw from the above analysis is that democracy, which
like other walks of human life is not free of potential of abuses, does not
matter if they are temporary, smaller or bigger in nature, can be made free
of weaknesses through the maturity and health of its organizations and
institutions. In this regard the utmost need is to awaken the masses and
make the system responsible in practice as much as possible.  Furthermore,
there must be all possibilities and provisions for reforms at all levels.
For reforms are the signs of development. An institution such as democracy
depends on reforms to achieve its goals to the maximum possible extent
because its responsibilities are far greater than any other political
institution. Hence, Mahatma Gandhi's simple suggestions to make different
democratic organizations mature and healthy are worth contemplating; through
his ideas there are all possibilities for democracy's growth and strength.
And without a doubt, a deep-rooted and strong democracy can grant
considerable relief from conflict and accord well-being for its entire