by Todd Hasak-Lowy
The oath to choose jail over registering was spontaneous, and soon Gandhi was trying to decide how to refer to what they had all vowed to do. The name he first used, one he hadn’t invented, was the English phrase “passive resistance.” But Gandhi disliked this term, for at least three reasons. First, “passive” was all wrong. There was nothing passive about acting against an unjust government, even if this action wasn’t violent. After all, by mid-November of 1907, four months after the ordinance went into effect, Indians in South Africa were standing trial and going to jail. Intentionally, and actively.
Second, Gandhi preferred a term from an Indian language, since it was important to him that everyone in this struggle “respect our own language, speak it well and use in it as few foreign words as possible.” This was a showdown between Indians and white South Africans, in which the Indians sought to demonstrate that they were equals. If they needed someone else’s language to do this, what chance did they have?
Third, Gandhi believed that even a passive resister could resist out of hatred, could resist while experiencing internal violence. Gandhi, growing more religious throughout this period and seeing this new path as not just a political strategy but as an entire way of life, needed a different name for their strategy, a name expressing the positive features of this resistance. Lacking any great ideas himself, he placed a contest in Indian Opinion, the newspaper he had begun publishing in 1903. The contest was announced in the last issue of 1907, which was printed the very day that Gandhi himself was tried and convicted for failing to register. The winner would get ten copies of a pamphlet on the Black Act.
In early January a winner was chosen, though the winning entry required some modification. The final term settled on was “satyagraha.” “Satya” is Sanskrit for truth, while “agraha” means holding firmly. Sometimes the term is translated as “truth force” or “soul force.” Noting the close ties between truth and love, Gandhi once said satyagraha is the force “born of Truth and Love or nonviolence.”
The rest of Gandhi’s life would be devoted to satyagraha, to discovering how it might be used, to learning just how strong it could be. Indeed, he called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with the Truth.
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A stirring look at nonviolent activism, from American suffragists to Civil Rights to the Climate Change Movement
We Are Power brings to light the incredible individuals who have used nonviolent activism to change the world. The book explores questions such as what is nonviolent resistance and how does it work? In an age when armies are stronger than ever before, when guns seem to be everywhere, how can people confront their adversaries without resorting to violence themselves? Through key international movements as well as people such as Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Václav Havel, this book discusses the components of nonviolent resistance. It answers the question “Why nonviolence?” by showing how nonviolent movements have succeeded again and again in a variety of ways, in all sorts of places, and always in the face of overwhelming odds. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.
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