Sunday, 4 November 2012

Civil disobedience movement revisited

At a time when there is a wave of new form of civil movement under the likes of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal (founder of Aam Admi Party, now Chief Minister of Delhi) against corruption, there is a need to revisit virtues of peaceful civil disobedience movement used successfully by Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) against British Empire in India and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) against racism in United States of America. In this article, a close look will be taken at 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' (1963) by King and 'Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance' (1921-22) by Gandhi.

Martin Luther King Jr. in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ (written in 1963) illustrates a number of discriminations against Blacks or Negros. This includes their forceful confinement to ghettos, curtailment of voting rights, and restrictions on them to enter amusement parks. King explains his idea of a peaceful protest against such discrimination, particularly in the city of Birmingham. Birmingham is cited by King as the most isolated city in the United States. It is reminded how there had been so many unsolved cases of bombing of Negro homes and utter unfair treatment to the Negros in the city’s court. 

Under civil disobedience movement, Blacks were supposed to resist authorities peacefully without resorting to violence. A civil resister questions if he or she is 'ready to accept blows without retaliating?' King, while calling for ‘creation of tension’ by civil resisters does not mean ‘violent tension’ but a sort of creative, ‘nonviolent tension’ that is crucial to address unjust laws.

According to King, those who want to participate as civil resisters should be ready to accept imprisonment, making perpetrators feel guilty by themselves. As Mahatma Gandhi who led similar civil disobedience movement in India against the British Empire writes about a civil resister, “By noiselessly going to prison a civil resister ensures a calm atmosphere.” Practitioners of civil disobedience never use arms or resort to any violent activities and so cannot lead to anarchy (Gandhi, 1921-22). Both King and Gandhi argue that participants in civil disobedience are not an enemy of the State. This path is one that requires discipline with utmost self-belief (Gandhi, 1921-22). 

According to King, unjust laws can be enforced if makers of law do not adhere to the principle of morality. Luther writes, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” According to King, all segregation laws are unjust since they divide human beings into two classes: superiors and inferiors. King cites St. Augustine who said that an unjust law is no law at all. According to Gandhi, resistance against such unjust laws is the intrinsic right of a citizen. It should be never given up without a surrender of self respect.

While stressing that it is the right of every citizen to disapprove peacefully, Gandhi writes, “He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man.” King reminds that the idea of civil disobedience movement dates back to early Christians who were ready to face tortures than to submit to unjust laws by Roman Emperors. In the US, King cites Boston Tea Party (1773) as an example of civil disobedience movement. 

Force is used to quell criminal disobedience, but to subdue civil disobedience, protesters are imprisoned. Such imprisonment can only strengthen the movement. Even in jail, protesters will not be hostile to jailors and look them as 'fellow human beings not utterly devoid of the human touch.' Actions that can lead to imprisonments such as marches, sit-in demonstrations, boycott, and petitions are preferred. There is no question of using any form of arms or weapons in civil disobedience movement. After all, as Gandhi puts it, a civil resister is ‘philanthropist and a friend of the State'. King warns that if there is more oppression of Negros, many would turn to Black nationalist ideologies like 'Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement,' leading to ‘frightening racial nightmare'. King cites Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." King’s civil disobedience movement was something out of love for the rights of Blacks and perhaps had nothing to do with hatred against the whites.

Update (December 04, 2016): Despite the movement led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal producing nothing spectacular, the core idea of civil disobedience always relevant. Ordinary citizens need to be cautious from the ones trying to make a political gain using this doctrine.

  1. King, Martin Luther Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 
  2. Gandhi, Mohandas Karam Chand. (1921-22). Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance.