The twentieth century can best be defined as a century of extremes. Although it witnessed the World Wars, The Holocaust and Apartheid, it was also the century when the path breaking idea of non-violence was espoused, at least on a large scale. It was a century of tremendous churning, as the world shed several age-old practices and beliefs, and moved decisively towards a new global order, based by and large on democracy.
Using violence as a tool of negotiation and conflict resolution has been a practice as old as any. Historically, this has been justified by citing that a human being has a natural tendency towards violence, especially in times of distress. But, it is a trait unique to humans that they’ve never been satisfied with the state that nature has put them in. Humans always try to discover new things and innovatively use available resources to improve their conditions.
One of the earliest human achievements was the discovery of fire. It gave humans a shield against predators and allowed them to gainfully utilise nighttime. The same spirit of discovery has provided a viable and essential alternative to the idea of violence as a means of conflict resolution. That alternative is the philosophy of non-violence.
With technological advancement, inability to control the ‘natural tendency’ towards violence can have grave consequences. This is best illustrated by Einstein’s famous words: “If World War III is fought with nuclear weapons, then World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones. “ Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic insistence that “the choice is not between non-violence and violence, but between non-violence and non-existence” is gaining in its potency by the day.
Non-violence is not an option for the weak at heart. It requires tremendous courage and strength of character to rebel against the idea of violence – which is so ingrained in our culture. It requires deep sense of compassion to forgive others for the ills that they have committed against oneself or one’s country or people. Traditionally, forgiveness has been praised as a virtue with regard to an individual. But, as the experiment of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows, an institutional framework based on forgiveness can also be established. This is a unique and far reaching idea, and can become a powerful force in a non-violent global order.
Historically, all religions make a distinction between “good” and “bad” violence. Violence committed for “sacred” purposes or for revenge has been usually seen as justified. In this context, Mahatma Gandhi’s principal contribution to the progress of humankind was his summary dismissal of all types of violence. He understood the inherent power in the idea of non-violence and showed the world the way to apply it in a larger socio-political context (specifically, the Indian freedom struggle and his anti-colonial activities in South Africa).
History is witness to the fact that violence begets violence. In the 20th century alone, we’ve seen that violent struggles and movements, like in Palestine and the former Yugoslavia, remained unsuccessful while the non-violent movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the emancipation of the underprivileged and had far reaching socio-political changes.