Mahatma Gandhi Vs Nelson Mandela 

A Thing to Ponder Over


Krishan Tyagi

(Former BBC Researcher and Reporter)

(L) Indian Parliament (R) The Parliamentarians

Some people call Nelson Mandela, the greatest living Gandhian!  Their basic thinking is that Mandela is a follower of Gandhi – thus establishing the superiority of Gandhi.  But is it really so?  Let’s have a look.

There are many parallels between the freedom struggle in India and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  India was occupied by the British, and South Africa was being ruled by the people from another community of European descent – the Afrikaner.  The struggle for freedom in India was led by the Indian National Congress (INC), and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC).   In both the countries, the ruling powers used very similar tactics to rule over the native people – the main strategy being ‘Divide and Rule’:  In India the British activated the Muslims to counter the INC, and in South Africa the White regime financed and armed the Zulus to kill ANC activists.  The Muslim League (ML) was effectively led by a person, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who for a long time was also a member of the INC.  The Zulu political outfit, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), was led by, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was also at one time a member of ANC.  The INC stood for all Indians irrespective of their religion, caste or creed.  So did the ANC.  Reacting to the ML projecting a separate political identity for the Muslims of India, a smaller third native force, RSS, with Hindu nationalist agenda appeared in India.   In South Africa also a third political party, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) emerged declaring that Blacks are the real Africans – again with not much popular support. 

In both the countries, the main native oppositional parties demanded separate homelands for their ethnic groups, in case of freedom from the imperialist powers.  While the ML demanded Pakistan for the Muslims of India in the North-Western part of the country, the IFP demanded for an autonomous and sovereign Zulu king, (King Goodwill Zwelethini kaBhekuzulu), as head of state – in effect Zulu Land in the KwaZulu territory.  In its struggle, the INC was led by Mahatma Gandhi, whom the country called Bapu, later the Father of the Nation.  In South Africa, the ANC was led by Nelson Mandela, known as Madiba, a fatherly figure for all South Africans. 

Enormous parallels in both the countries!  However, the difference is that while Gandhi could not stop the bifurcation of the country, Mandela did.  As Jinnah gave a call for Direct Action Day in 1946 and the Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, Chief Buthelezi called on his followers to attack and kill ANC workers and other Blacks.  In fact, riding on the back of the Zulu Land Movement, there was also the demand for Volkstaat, or rather Boerestaat, floated by the extremist White supremacist outfit called Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) meaning Afrikaner Resistance Movement, led by Eugène Ney Terre'Blanche.  The demands for Zulu Land and Volkstaat reinforced each other.  Like the people of India, the natives of South Africa went through a period of extensive bloodshed – the armed followers of Chief Buthelezi attacked Black townships and a lot of innocent Black people lost their lives!  Nelson Mandela, the embodiment of South Africa, took all the pain on his chest, but did not surrender to the separatist agenda of the IFP!  Though some concessions were made and very watered down demands of the IFP were accepted, a separate ‘Zulu Land’ did not materialise, nor did Volkstaat!  South Africa was saved from getting divided into pieces.  Along with the independence of India came the Partition.  However, South Africa came out of apartheid as a wholesome nation.  In short, where Gandhi failed, Mandela succeeded! 

The question is what exactly made this difference.  The answer may lie in the strategies the two leaders adopted in their political struggle. 

The main difference has been in their attitude towards non-violence.  Unlike Gandhi, Mandela did approve of the use of violence against what he considered a stronger and brutal enemy.   In the wake of the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, South Africa’s equivalent of India’s Jalianwala Bagh massacre, wherein 69 PAC protesters were killed and 180 injured in the police firing, the ANC, also banned along with the PAC after the incident, concluded that the Gandhian methods of non-violence were not suitable against the apartheid system.  It was decided that violent tactics had to be used, which primarily involved targeting and sabotaging the government's resources, though, of course, with an initial wish to minimise the bloodshed of civilians.

In 1961, the ANC formed a military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning "Spear of the Nation", with Mandela as its first leader.  Mandela coordinated a sabotage campaign against military and government targets, and made plans for a possible guerrilla war if sabotage failed to end apartheid.  The MK launched guerrilla attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961.  Mandela was arrested in 1962 and, along with many other ANC and MK leaders, was convicted of sabotage at the Rivonia Trial in 1964.  At the trial, Mandela admitted to the acts of sabotage.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

The ANC/MK carried out numerous bombings of military, industrial, civilian and infrastructural sites in the 1970s and 1980s as well.  The tactics were initially geared solely towards sabotage, but eventually expanded to include urban guerrilla warfare, which included human targets.  One such attack was the Church Street bombing on 20 May 1983, killing 19 people.  The ANC even used necklacing (where a tyre would be put around one's neck, gasoline poured on it and set alight) to assassinate collaborators, such as black policemen and informers.  In these attacks, scores of people were killed and hundreds injured.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found several instances of torture and executions at ANC detention camps, particularly in the period of 1979-1989.

The ANC was declared a terrorist organization, not just by the South African government, but by most of the Western countries including the US and UK.  Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu criticized the ANC for its willingness to resort to violence, arguing that non-violent resistance, such as civil disobedience, was more productive. 

But the use of violent tactics in 1961 was no aberration for Mandela.  His belief that the non-violent means of Gandhi could achieve nothing is crystal clear from the speech Mandela gave on 11 February 1990 after his release from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, in which he said: 

“Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue.  We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.” 

So, there was no question that Mandela would agree with those who criticised the use of violence by the ANC activists, wherein even civilians were killed.  Though he declared his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the country's white minority, through the above-mentioned speech Mandela put his stamp of approval on the ANC's three decade long armed struggle and also made it clear that it wasn’t over yet. 

The MK suspended its operations only on 01 August 1990 in preparation for the dismantling of apartheid.  The total number of people killed or injured in the 30 years of the MK's campaigns is not known exactly, but the ANC leadership saw the MK as the armed component of a strategy of "people's war".

Mandela explains the move to embark on an armed struggle as a last resort, when increasing repression and violence from the state convinced him that many years of non-violent protest against apartheid had achieved nothing and could not succeed. 

So, if Mandela believed that non-violent methods could not succeed in South Africa, how did they succeed in India? 

Or did they really?   

The INC passed Poorna Swarajya (Complete Independence) resolution at its Lahore conference in December 1929, and it authorized the Working Committee to launch a civil disobedience movement throughout the country. It was also decided to observe 26 January 1930 as the Poorna Swarajya Diwas.  However, despite the intermittent civil disobedience movements launched by Gandhi, nothing happened for more than a decade.  In fact, the INC participated in the British controlled elections in February 1937 and took over the administration in various provinces, obviously implying that British rule would continue.  Actually, the INC never believed that it had the strength or a strategy to achieve Poorna Swarajya.  Immediately after observing Poorna Swarajya Diwas, Gandhi undertook Dandi March from 12 March to 06 April 1930 in protest against the Government tax on salt.  Why was there a diversion towards a much smaller issue?  Because Gandhi and his followers knew that through their civil disobedience movements they could only get some laws repealed, but not complete independence.  Again, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact of 1931, the acceptance of the Government of India Act 1935 in the main, and then the participation in the 1937 elections only show that Poorna Swarajya was just a dream rather than a political goal for the INC.  

The INC demanded complete freedom from the British Raj in earnest only with the launch of the Quit India Movement in August 1942, after the failed talks with the Cripps Mission in March 1942 who offered a limited dominion status for India in exchange for total cooperation from the INC during the war with Nazi Germany. 

However, as regards the Quit India Movement, firstly it petered out by 1943, and secondly it did become violent.  Given the Chauri Chaura example, Gandhi was ideologically bound to withdraw it, had he not been in jail.  So, again it would have come to nothing.  And, even after running its full course, according to the former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the Quit India Movement had minimal impact.   In Atlee’s view, the most important reason behind the British decision to leave India was the Indian National Army (INA) activities of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

As quoted by Dhananjaya Bhat in his article ‘RIN mutiny gave a jolt to the British’ an extract from a letter written by PV Chakraborty, former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, on 30 March 1976, reads thus:

When I was acting as Governor of West Bengal in 1956, Clement Attlee, who as the British Prime Minister in post war years was responsible for India’s freedom, visited India and stayed in Raj Bhavan Calcutta for two days. I put it straight to him like this: ‘The Quit India Movement of Gandhi practically died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so?’ In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, which weakened the very foundation of the British Empire in India, and the RIN Mutiny which made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British.  When asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1942 movement, Attlee’s lips widened in smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘Minimal’. (The Tribune, 12 February 2006, Spectrum Supplement).

And, Attlee’s assessment is supported by historical facts.  After the war, the stories of the Azad Hind Movement (Provisional Government of Free India in exile) and its army (the INA), that came into the public limelight during the trials of the INA soldiers in 1945, known as the Red Fort Trials, were seen as so inflammatory that, fearing mass revolts and uprisings in India, the British Government forbade the BBC from broadcasting those stories.  However, the stories of the trials filtered through.  The British watched with alarm that General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Sehgal and Colonel Gurbux Singh Dhillon, defended by Jawaharlal Nehru himself at the trials, were perceived by the Indian public as “the greatest among patriots” (Michael Edwardes, The Last Years of British India, 1964).  Newspapers reported the summary execution of some of the INA soldiers.  During and after the trials, mutinies broke out in the British Indian Armed forces, most notably in the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946, which found huge public support throughout India, from Karachi to Bombay and from Vizag to Calcutta, reminiscent of the scenario of the Rebellion of 1857 where the masses joined the mutineer soldiers in their march from Meerut to Delhi – the only difference being, it was on a much larger scale this time.  Not just Attlee, many historians have argued that it was the INA and the mutinies it inspired among the British Indian Armed forces that shattered the spirit and will of the British Raj to continue ruling India.  In addition, the British people and the British Army seemed unwilling to back a policy of repression in India and other parts of the Empire even as their own country lay shattered by the war's ravages.

So, it’s nothing else but a myth that India got its freedom through the Gandhian non-violent protests and civil disobedience movements.  No doubt, civil disobedience movements won some concessions from the British rulers, and forced them to repeal or modify some of the laws.  But an imperialist power, that had never left any of its other colonies – whether Ireland or America – without being pushed out through armed struggle, would not have walked away from ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ just because they faced peaceful protests.  It was the threat of mass revolts, army rebellions and revolutionary violence becoming real behind the façade of Gandhi’s non-violent protests that broke the back of the British Rule in India.  Had Britain not been weakened by the Second World War, and had the INA not formed and fought against the British, it is very doubtful that India would have got its independence even in 1947.

On the other hand, many historians argue that India would have won its freedom right in 1922, as the imperialist British rulers were jolted to the core by the Non-Cooperation Movement at the time and were on the verge of giving in.  But Gandhi withdrew the Movement because of the Chauri Chaura incident wherein a mob set fire to a police station.  Was that decision in the interest of the national freedom?  Many scholars don’t think so.  Observers believe that the incident, while regrettable, did not merit the cancellation of a nation's demand for political freedom.  But to Gandhi, the image of greatness was more important than the freedom of India!!  

The time has come to think whether Gandhi was extreme in his belief in non-violence, and therefore, a failure?  Whether the freedom movement was elevated and became more effective by adopting Gandhi’s non-violent approach, or did that strategy stall the struggle for independence?  Being what he was, was Gandhi capable of running state-craft that entails use of violence?  In South Africa's first post-apartheid military operation, Mandela ordered troops into Lesotho in September 1998 to protect the government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.  Could one imagine Gandhi ordering troops into Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Kashmir – even at the invitation of the local government!  The thing to ponder over is whether the belief in a judicious use of violence made Mandela a more balanced statesman, and therefore more successful?  Whether Gandhi, a great soul – Maha Atma, as Indians call him – was too angelic to be a politician?  Whether Gandhi’s strategy best suited India’s cause, or was the country under his spell and suffered?  


Copyright © 2009 Krishan Tyagi. All Rights Reserved.

This article was last published in Stagebuzz, Feb 2009

This article was first published in India Link International, Dec 2007-Jan 2008

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