Gandhi’s Gift: Lessons for peaceful reform from India’s struggle for democracy

Rikhil Bhavnani, Saumitra Jha


We examine the potential and limitations of nonviolent civil disobedience through the lens of the evolution of an iconic success: India’s struggle for democratic self-rule. We summarize evidence consistent with a theoretical framework that highlights two key challenges faced by nonviolent movements in ethnically diverse countries. The first challenge, that of forging a mass movement, was met through the brokering of a deal that took advantage of an external shock (in this case, the Great Depression) to align the incentives of disparate ethnic and social groups toward mass mobilization in favor of democracy and land reform. The second challenge, that of keeping the mass movement peaceful, was accomplished through organizational innovations introduced by Mohandas Gandhi in his reforms of the constitution of the Congress movement in 1919-23. These innovations took the movement from one dominated by a rich elite to one organized on the principle of self-sacrifice. This permitted the selection of future leaders who could then be trusted to maintain nonviolent discipline in pursuit of the extension of broad rights and public policy objectives.

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