Gandhi on the Theory of Voluntary Servitude

GENE SHARP graduated in sociology at Ohio State University, and
after being jailed for resisting conscription, worked at the Institute of
Social Research, Oslo, and is now doing research at Oxford on resistance
to totalitarian regimes. He is the author of Tyranny Could not Quell
Them about the resistance of the Norwegian teachers to Quisling, and
of Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power.

Gandhi on the theory
of voluntary servitude


While many of Gandhi's views were constantly developing and chang-
ing, his conception of the source of political power remained throughout
his active political life essentially the same. It does not appear to
have changed basically from the time he developed the political technique
of Satyagraha in South Africa until his death. This view was that
hierarchical social and political systems exist because of the more or
less voluntary submission, co-operation and obedience of the subordinate
group. This submission, with its psychological roots and its practical
political manifestations, was regarded by Gandhi as the root cause of

He granted, as we shall see, that rulers use various means to obtain
this submission, and that the price of its withdrawal is often harsh
repression and extreme suffering aimed at forcing a resumption of
co-operation. This fact, however, did not, in his view, invalidate the
theory. It remained true, he felt, that hierarchical systems ultimately
depend upon the assistance of the underlings.
The basic idea

This paper has a very limited objective : to present Gandhi's views
on this theory largely in his own words; there is no attempt here to
analyse or criticise this aspect of Gandhi's thought. Ideas must first
be understood. "No Government— much less the Indian Government"
Gandhi declared, "can subsist if the people cease to serve it." 1

Even the most despotic government cannot stand except for the consent
ot the governed, which consent is often forcibly procured by the despot.
Immediately the subject ceases to fear the despotic force, his power is gone.2

I believe, and everybody must grant, that no Government can exist for
a single moment without the co-operation of the people, willing or forced,
and if people suddenly withdraw their co-operation in every detail the
Government will come to a standstill. . . It remains to be seen whether their
[the masses' and the classes'] feeling is intense enough to evoke in them
the measure of sacrifice adequate for successful non-co-operation.3

The popular saying, as is the king, so are the people, is only a half-truth.
That is to say it is not more true than its converse, as are the people, so
is the prince. Where the subjects are watchful a prince is entirely dependent
upon them for his status. Where the subjects are overtaken by sleepy
indifference, there is every possibility that the prince will cease to function
as a protector, and become an oppressor instead. Those who are not wide
awake, have no right to blame their prince. The princes as well as the
people are mostly creatures of circumstances. Enterprising princes and
peoples mould circumstances for their own benefit. Manliness consists in
making circumstances subservient to ourselves. Those who will not help
themselves pensh. To understand this principle is not to be impatient, not
to reproach Jate, not to blame others. He who understands the doctrine
ot selt-help blames himself for failure. It is on this ground that I object
to violence. If we blame others where we should blame ourselves and wish
tor or bring about their destruction, that does not remove the root cause of

As the 1930-31 civil disobedience campaign for Indian independence
was about to begin he wrote : "The spectacle of three hundred million
people being cowed down by living in the dread of three hundred men
is demoralising alike for the despots as for the victims." 5 This concept
of the relation between the dominate and subordinate groups, in Gandhi's
view, applied to economic exploitation, as well as political domination:

No person can amass wealth without the co-operation, willing or forced,
of the people concerned.'* The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the
co-operation of the poor in society. If this knowledge were to penetrate to
and spread amongst the poor, they would become strong and would learn
how to free themselves by means of non-violence from the crushing
inequalities which have brought them to the verge of starvation.?

India's subjection voluntary

This basic view about the nature of hierarchical systems was
reflected in Gandhi's belief that India's subordination to British rule
was basically voluntary. This conception was expressed clearly in his
1908 pamphlet Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule:

The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are
not m India because of their strength, but because we keep them. Let us
now see whether these propositions can be sustained. They came to our
country originally for purposes of trade. Recall the Company Bahadar.
Who made it Bahadar? They had not the slightest intention at the time
of establishing a kingdom. Who assisted the Company's officers? Who
was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History
testifies that we all did this . . .

... the English merchants were able to get a footing in India because we
encouraged them. When our Princes fought among themselves, they sought
the assistance of Company Bahadur. That co-operation was versed alike in
commerce and war. It was unhampered by questions of morality. Its object
was to increase its commerce and to raise money. It accepted our assistance
and increased the number of its warehouses. To protect the latter it employed
an army which was utilised by us also. Is it not then useless to blame the
English for what we did at that time too? The Hindus and the Mahomedans
were at daggers drawn. This, too, gave the Company its opportunity and
thus we created the circumstances that gave the Company its control over
India. Hence it is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that
India was lost ...

The causes that gave them India enable them to retain it. Some
Englishmen state that they took and they hold India by the sword. Both
these statements are wrong. The sword is entirely useless for holding India.
We alone keep them.8

In 1921 he still held the view that "It is not so much British guns
that are responsible for our subjection as our voluntary co-operation." 9
Twenty-five years later he still insisted : "The only constituted authority
is the British. We are all puppets in their hands. But it would be
wrong and foolish to blame that authority. It acts according to its
nature. That authority does not compel us to be puppets. We volun-
tarily run into their camp. It is, therefore, open to any and everyone
of us to refuse to play the British game.'* 10

There is evidence that, while Gandhi may have in some degree
come upon this concept independently, he was influenced highly by
Henry David Thoreau, especially in his Essay on the Duty of Civil
Disobedience and by Leo Tolstoy both in correspondence and in Tolstoy's
A Letter to a Hindu. It is significant that in his introduction to an
edition of this essay, Gandhi wrote, in Johannesburg in 1909:

If we do not want the English in India we must pay the price. Tolstoy
indicates it. 'Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in
evil — in the violent deeds of the administration of the law courts, the
collection of taxes, and what is more important, of the soldiers, and no one
in the world will enslave you', passionately declares the sage of Yasnaya
Polyana. Who can doubt the truth of what he says in the following: 'A
commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions.
Tell this to a man set free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what
these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand people, not
athletes, but rather weak and ordinary people, have enslaved two hundred
millions of vigorous, clever, capable, freedom-loving people? Do not the
figures make it clear that not the English, but the Indians, have enslaved

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says ... to realise the central truth
of his indictment of the present system . . .

In consequence of this view, Gandhi concluded "It is my certain
conviction that no man loses his freedom except through his own
weakness." 12

Obtaining Submission

There were, Gandhi recognised, a number of means which regimes
and ruling classes used to obtain and maintain the populace's acqui-
escence and co-operation. The threat of violent repression and punish-
ment was one of these. This and other needs required the creation of
a class of subordinates to assist the regime in carrying out its various
functions and in enforcing its will upon the populace. He wrote, for
example, in 1930:

From the village headmen to their personal assistants these satraps
have created a class of subordinates who, whilst they cringe before their
foreign masters, in their constant dealings with the people act so irresponsibly
and so harshly as to demoralise them and by a system of terrorism render
them incapable of resisting corruption. 13

As an example of this, Gandhi cited the political function served
by Indian lawyers operating within the British system :

But the gravest injury they have done to the country is that they have
tightened the English grip. Do you think that it would be possible for the
English to carry on their Government without law courts? It is wrong to
consider that courts are established for the benefit of the people. Those who
want to perpetuate their power do so through the courts. If people were
to settle their own quarrels, a third party would not be able to exercise
any authority over them.

The chief thing ... to be remembered is that without lawyers, courts
could not have been established or conducted and without the latter the
English could not rule. Supposing that there were only English judges,
English pleaders and English police, they could only rule over the English.
The English could not do without Indian judges and Indian pleaders.***

He roundly condemned the behaviour of such an intermediate class
of Indians subservient to British interests :

It is worth noting that, by receiving English education, we have enslaved
the nation. Hypocrisy, tyranny, etc., have increased; English-knowing Indians
have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into the people. Now, if we are
doing anything for the people at all, we are paying only a small portion
of the debt due to them ... It is we, the English-knowing Indians, that have
enslaved India. The curse of the nation will rest not upon the English
but upon us. 14

A system of education which inculcated respect and attachment
for the culture, traditions, and political system of the foreign occupation
authority and contributed to the reduced respect and attachment to the
Indian counterpart of these, in Gandhi's view increased submission to
the British system: 'To give millions a knowledge of English is to
enslave them." A resolution, drawn up by Gandhi, approved by the
Congress Working Committee, and then passed by public meetings
throughout India on Jan. 26, 1930 included the sentence: "Culturally
the system of education has torn us from our moorings, our training
has made us hug the very chains that bind us." 16

Power in political change

Gandhi saw this view of the basis of the regime's power as fully
compatible with a recognition of the importance of wielding power of
some type in changing relationships between the rulers and the ruled.
Some of the clearest statements on this were made during the early days
of the 1930-31 independence struggle. In early January 1930, he
declared : "England will never make any real advance so as to satisfy
India's aspirations till she is forced to it." 17 Later the same month he
wrote in Young India, "The British people must realise that the Empire
is to come to an end. This they will not realise unless we in India have
generated power within us to enforce our will . . . The real conference
therefore has to be among ourselves." 18 In a letter to the Viceroy in
March, just before the beginning of the campaign he said :

It is not a matter of carrying conviction by argument. The matter
resolves itself into one of matching forces. Conviction or no conviction,
Great Britain would defend her Indian commerce and interests by all the
forces at her command. India must consequently evolve force enough to
free herself from that embrace of death. ^

In the same letter, referring to the economic motives for maintaining
British rule and the coming resistance he observed, "If the British com-
merce with India is purified of greed, you will have no difficulty in
recognising our Independence." 20 Commenting on the Viceroy's terse
rejection of his effort to find a settlement acceptable to the Indian
nationalists without resort to non-violent resistance, Gandhi said, "The
English nation responds only to force, and I am not surprised by the
Viceregal reply." 21 As the movement began, he declared :

I regard this rule as a curse. I am out to destroy this system of Govern-
ment. I have sung the tune of 'God Save the King' and have taught others
to sing it. I was a believer in the politics of petitions, deputations, and
friendly negotiations. But all these have gone to the dogs. I know that
those are not the ways to bring this Government round. Sedition has become
my religion.22.

Social determinants of political structures

Gandhi thus regarded the existence of genuine and lasting freedom
as being based upon "a craving for human liberty which prizes itself
above mere selfish satisfaction of personal comforts and material wants
and would readily and joyfully sacrifice these for self-preservation." 23
The 1930-31 campaign was in his view aimed not so much at forcing
the granting of specific political demands, as it was to raise the quality
and stature of the Indian people, so that no one for long could deny
them their rights.

The present campaign is not designed to establish Independence but to
arm the people with the power to do so. 21 *

If they are successful in doing away with the salt tax and the liquor
trade from India, there is the victory for Ahimsa. And what power on earth
is there then, that would prevent Indians from getting Swaraj! If there be
any such power, I shall like to see it. 25

Gopi Nath Dhawan, one of Gandhi's interpreters, writes :

The idea that underlies non-co-operation is that even the evil-doer does
not succeed in his purpose without carrying the victim with him, if necessary,
by force, and that it is the duty of the satyagmhi to suffer for the con-
sequences of resistance and not to yield to the will of the tyrant. If the
victim continues to tolerate the wrong by passive acquiescence, directly or
indirectly, the victim is an accessory to the tyrant's misdeeds 26

Satyagraha was, then, aimed both at influencing the power relation-
ships between the British Raj and the Indian nation by (1) the introduc-
tion of psychological and moral pressures by the determined defiance
of the population to British rule, coupled with non-retaliatory acceptance
of the repression and suffering imposed by the regime, (2) the political
impact of a large section of non-co-operating disobedient subjects on the
functioning and maintenance of the regime, and (3) the improvement
of the moral stature of the Indian people (through their self-suffering,
defiance without retaliation, and their casting off of the attitude of
submission which would in the long run contribute to increased self-
reliance and reduced submission to the British Raj. The constructive
programme for producing social and economic changes without the
assistance of the government was also a continuing means for producing
self-rule and a weakening of the ties to the British Raj.

Gandhi thus shares Godwin's view that the outward political forms
and structure are reflections of and dependent upon certain other
qualities of the society, and that if freedom is to be genuine and lasting
there must be changes made on a deeper level than that involved in
changes in only the constitutional or institutional forms at the top.

In this context one can see why Gandhi emphasised the moral
improvement of the Indian people, and the constructive programme as
politically relevant. These efforts contributed to increased ability to
non-co-operate with the British Raj. In turn, such non-co-operation
and voluntary suffering constituted also a means of moral improvement
for the Indian people, by making amends for their previous submission
to foreign domination.

This combined programme of moral improvement, resistance and
constructive work would, in Gandhi's view, lead to genuine self-rule
which was beyond political independence alone. "When India was
ready, neither the British nor the Rajahs, nor any combination of the
Powers could keep India from her destined goal, her birthright, as the
Lokamanya would have said."- 7 In this context Gandhi emphasised
moral improvement as a contribution to political change:

... rulers, if they are had, are so not necessarily or wholly by birth,
but largely because of their environment ... It is perfectly true that the
rulers cannot alter their course themselves. If they are dominated by their
environment, they do not surely deserve to be killed, but should be changed
by a change of environment. But the environment is we— the people who
make the rulers what they are. They are thus an exaggerated edition of what
we are in the aggregate. If my argument is sound, any violence done to the
rulers would be violence done to ourselves. It would be suicide. And since
I do not want to commit suicide, nor encourage my neighbours to do so
1 become non-violent myself and invite my neighbour to do likewise.

Moreover, violence may destroy one or more bad rulers, but like
Havana s heads, others will pop up in their places, for, the root lies elsewhere.
It lies in us. 28

The responsibility is more ours than that of the English for the present
state o things. The English will be powerless to do evil if we will but be
good. Hence my incessant emphasis on reform from within.29

Change of attitude

There must, then, Gandhi insisted, be a psychological change from
passive submission and acceptance of the rule of the existing powers-
that-be to a determination to be self-reliant and to resist all that is
regarded as unjust and tyrannical :

The way of peace insures internal growth and stability. We reject it
because we fancy that it involves submission to the will of the ruler who
has imposed himself upon us. But the moment we realise that the imposition
is only so called and that, through our unwillingness to suffer loss of life
or property, we are party to the imposition, all we need to do is to change
that negative attitude of passive endorsement. The suffering to be undergone
by the change will be nothing compared to the physical suffering and the
moral loss we must incur in trying the way of war.30

The bond of the slave is snapped the moment he considers himself to
be a free being. He will plainly tell the master: 1 was your bond slave till
this moment, but I am a slave no longer. You may kill me if you like, but
if you keep me alive, I wish to tell you that if you release me from the
bondage, of your own accord, I will ask for nothing more from you. You
used to feed and clothe me, though I could have provided food and clothing
for myself by my labour . . . 31

The achievement of this change in attitude toward the existing
regime was an important preliminary step in producing social and politi-
cal change. "My speeches", Gandhi declared, "are intended to create
'disaffection' as such, that people might consider it a shame to assist
or co-operate with a government that had forfeited all title to respect
or support.*' 32

Political implications

In Gandhi's view, if the maintenance of an unjust or non-democratic
regime is dependent upon the co-operation, submission and obedience
of the populace, then the means for changing or abolishing it lies in the
area of non-co-operation, defiance, and disobedience. These forms of
action, he was convinced, could be undertaken without the use of
physical violence, and even without hostility towards the members of
the opponent group. On this basis, he formulated the technique of
action, Saiyagraha :

This force is to violence, and, therefore, to all tyranny, all injustice, what
light is to darkness. In politics, its use is based upon the immutable maxim,
that government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either
consciously or unconsciously to be governed.^

He regarded it as both unmanly and immoral to submit to injustice,
even though the consequences for refusal to submit were severe punish-
ment. In Hind Swaraj he wrote: "If man will only realise that it is
unmanly to obey laws that are unjust, no man's tyranny will enslave
him. This is the key to self-rule or home-rule." 3 ' 4 When the resister
was ready to cast off fear, he could then undertake the non-co-operation
with the regime which could lead to its downfall. He must, however,
be prepared for imprisonment and perhaps even death in the course of
the struggle.


The main course of action then lay in the field of non-co-operation.
Speaking to a group of West African soldiers in 1946 on the means of
achieving freedom Gandhi said :

The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his
fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and
slavery are mental states. Therefore the first thing to do is to say to
yourself: T shall no longer accept the role of a slave. I shall not obey orders
as such but shall disobey them when they are in conflict with my conscience.'
The so-called master may lash you and try to force you to serve him. You
will say: 'No, I will not serve you for your money or under a threat.' This
may mean suffering. Your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom
which can never be put out. 35

In an article in late March 1930, on "The Duty of Disloyalty",
Gandhi wrote:

It is then the duty of those who have realised the awful evil of the
system of Indian Government to be disloyal to it and actively and openly
preach disloyalty. Indeed, loyalty to a State so corrupt is a sin, disloyalty
a virtue. . .

It is the duty of those who have realised the evil nature of the system,
however attractive some of its features may, torn from their context, appear
to be, to destroy it without delay. It is their clear duty to run any risk to
achieve that end.

But it must be equally clear that it would be cowardly for three hundred
million people to seek to destroy the three hundred authors or administrators
of the system. It is a sign of gross ignorance to devise means of destroying
these administrators or their hirelings. Moreover they are but creatures of
circumstances. The purest man entering the system will be affected by it,
and will be instrumental in propagating the evil. The remedy therefore
naturally is not being enraged against the administrators and therefore
hurting them, but to non- cooperate with the system by withdrawing all the
voluntary assistance possible and refusing all its so-called benefits.
Writing in 1920 on non-co-operation, Gandhi said:

II a father does an injustice then it is the duly of his children to leave the
parental roof. If the headmaster of a school conducts his institution on an
immoral basis, the pupils must leave the school. If the chairman of a
corporation is corrupt the members must thereof wash their hands clean of
his corruption by withdrawing from it: even so if a Government does a
grave injustice the subjects must withdraw cooperation either wholly or partially,
sufficiently to wean the ruler from his wickedness. In each case conceived
by me there is an element of suffering whether mental or physical. Without
such suffering it is not possible to attain freedom. 17

Faced with a demand, backed by threat of violence, regarded as
unjust, the non-violent man "... was not to return violence by violence
but neutralize it by withholding one's hand and, at the same time,
refusing to submit to the demand."

The means of non-co-operation were regarded by Gandhi as applic-
able to social and economic conflicts as well as to political ones. During
his stay in London in 1931, some young Communists asked how Gandhi
actually proposed to bring the new order into being if he abjured the
use of violence. Was it to be by persuasion? Gandhi answered, "Not
merely by verbal persuasion. I will concentrate on my means . . . My
means are non-co-operation." 38

And m 1940 he wrote, "If however, in spite of the utmost effort,
the rich do not become guardians of the poor in the true sense of the
term and the latter are more and more crushed and die of hunger, what
is to be done? In trying to find out the solution of this riddle I have
alighted on non-violent non-co-operation and civil disobedience as the
right and infallible means." 39

Other advocates of the theory that governments and other hierarch-
ical systems can be modified or destroyed by a withdrawal of submission,
co-operation and obedience have indicated certain lines along which
such withdrawal might be practiced. However, Gandhi was the first
to formulate over a period of years a major system of resistance based
upon this assumption. We have as yet seen only the initial stages of
the political application of this theory.

1. Young India 5/5/1920.

2. Bose: Selections from Gandhi,

Ahmedabad, 1948.

3. Young India 18/8/1920.

4. Young India 8/1/1925.

5. Young India 27/3/1930.

6. Young India 26/11/1931

7. Bose: op. cit.

8. Gandhi : Hind Swaraj (1908)

Ahmedabad 1939.

9. Young India 9/2/1921.

10. Harijan 19/9/46.

11. Kalidas Nag : Tolstoy and

Gandhi, Patna 1950.

12. Bose: op. cit.

13. Young India 27/3/30

14. 15. Gandhi : op. cit.

16. All-India Congress Committee :

Congress Rullctin 17/1/30.

17. Fischer: The Life of Mahatma

Gandhi, New York 1950.

18. Young India 24/4/30.

19. 20. A.T.C.C. : Congress Bulletin

21, 22. Sitammayya: History of the





3S. Indian National Congress, I,

Madras, 1935.
A.I.C.C. : Congress Bulletin

Supplement 19/9/31.
Young India 24/4/30.
Sitaramayya: op. cit.
Dhawan : The Political

Philosophy of Mahatma

Gandhi, Ahmedabad 1946.
Harijan 2/3/47
Harijan 21/9/34.
Bose: op. cit.
Young India 20/5/26.
Address to A.I.C.C. : 8/8/1942.
Case : Non-Violent Coercion: A

Study in Methods of Social

Pressure, New York, 1923.
Indian Opinion, Golden Number,

Gandhi: op. cit.
Harijan 24/2/1946.
Young India 27/3/1930.
Young India 16/6/1920.
Young India 26/11/1931.
flurijan 25/8/1940.

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is
man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has
been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

—OSCAR WILDE: "The Soul of Man under Socialism."

If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up
war and slavery, the State will not hesitate to choose. If a
thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that
would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to
pay them and enable the State to commit violence and shed
innocent blood. This is in fact the definition of a peaceful revolution,
if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer or any other public officer
asks me, as one has done "But what shall I do?" my answer is
"If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the
subject has refused allegiance, and the officer resigned his office,
then the revolution is accomplished. But suppose blood should
flow. Is there not a sort of bloodshed when the conscience is wounded?
Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out,
and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

Henry David Thoreau: "Resistance to Civil Government", 1848

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Jun 18 2016 20:00


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Jun 19 2016 11:31

Gandhi correctly in the text but Ghandi incorrectly in heading