Moral Equivalent of War as Conflict Resolution


Subhash Mehta


It is easy to train an army of violence; even a years drill may be good enough for that. But it takes a lot more time to train and prepare men to attain enough maturity and strength for a non-violent struggle.

Gurudev Tagore

Conflicts have been described as existing whenever incompatible activities occur, when there is a state of tension between two actors irrespective of how it has originated or how it is terminated. Conflicts can occur between many varying combinations of parties and for great many reasons. Conflicts may arise from differences in information or belief, may reflect differences in interests, desires or values, may occur as a result of a scarcity of some resource or may reflect a rivalry in which one person tries to out do or undo the other.1 Hence it may be defined as it emerges whenever two or more persons or groups seek to possess the same object, occupy the same space or the same exclusive position, and play incompatible roles or goals or undertake mutually incompatible means for achieving their purposes.2 In all relationships, whether interpersonal or otherwise, there occasionally occurs some form of behaviours, which annoys, causes tension to or engenders resentment in one of the parties involved.


A conflict can be said to be resolved when both parties have given up any hope of changing or amending the situation. In the Gandhian dialectic, however, conflicts can only be said to have been resolved when all parties are satisfied with the outcome, that is, when some mutually consistent set of actions is worked out. Such solutions obviously greatly reduce the fragility of resolutions.


It was William James who in the 27th publication of the American Association for International Conciliation in February 1910 coined the expression The Moral Equivalent of War. So far war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, wrote William James, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent as I have sketched, or some such other just as effective for preserving manliness of type. It is but a question of time of skillful propagandism and of opinion making men seizing historic opportunities.3 Perhaps this was anticipating Gandhi, who was already meticulously pursuing Satyagraha far more as a way of life than merely as a technique of Conflict Resolution in South Africa. It is this similarity between Gandhis non-violent resistance and the permanent institution of war, along with a few other characteristics common to both modes of settling disputes, that demands our attention with its promise of social practicability. However Satyagraha has also been characterized as War without Violence or Conquest of Violence

Apart from Satyagraha, conflicts are solved in a variety of ways including coercion, lumping it, (i.e. ignoring the issues that give rise to the conflict or avoidance such as by terminating a relationship) mediation, adjudication, arbitration, negotiation. It is true that Satyagraha is in many ways all-comprehensive in its application and it includes some of the above-mentioned methods such as mediation, arbitration, and negotiation.


It is proposed to deal with Satyagraha in terms of fundamental concepts or precepts, types of Non-violent action, the dialectics of Satyagraha and the process of Satyagraha



Gandhi derived his theory of Satyagraha from his doctrine of truth. Satyagraha literally means holding on to Truth. His Satyagraha was not an abstract philosophy but a philosophy of action. Hence, Gandhis famous aphorism was Action is my domain. Gandhi aptly called Satyagraha as power of Truth or Soul-force because it pits against the material or brute force of the opponent, the power of the spirit. Gandhi explained his belief in the need for absolutes by which to orient ones life: A mere mechanical adherence to truth and nonviolence is likely to breakdown at the critical moment. Hence I have said that Truth is God.4 Truth is that which you believe to be true at this moment and that is your God.5 In fact Gandhi came to the conclusion that for myself, God is truth. But two years ago, I went a step further and said that Truth is God. You see the fine distinction between the two statements.6 It should be noted that Gandhi also makes a distinction between Truth, that is Absolute Truth, truth, being relative truth. Gandhi was not a monotheist, he did not believe in a personal God. Gandhi was in essence a monist, as for him God was an impersonal allpervading reality.


Gandhi had discovered, early in his application of Satyagraha; that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on ones opponent but that it must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy, for what appears to be truth to one may appear to be error to the other.7 The final arbiter in times of conflict of how is one to decide whose truth is nearer to Truth, must remain The still small voice within. This call of the Voice of Conscience is the highest call of all , and it must be obeyed at all costs as this obedience is the law of our Being.8 As Gandhi pursued his experiments with truth, the concept settled solidly into the sphere of ethical consideration. The emphasis became increasingly centered upon the problem of means. Again Gandhi unequivocally declared They say, Means are after all means. I would say, means are after all every thing. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between means and ends. 9 Hence, for Gandhi means and ends are convertible terms. Aldous Huxley asserted that, Good ends can only be achieved by the employment of appropriate means. The end can not justify the means for the simple reason that the means employed there in determined the nature of the ends produced. 10 The law of reaping what you sow, applied as much in this life as it affected future in socio-economic-politico milieu. Gandhi prophetically observed: There is a law of nature that a thing can be retained by the same means by which it has been acquired. A thing acquired by violence can be retained by violence alone.11


Gandhi made it clear that he believed his energies had to be devoted to looking after the purity of the means rather than to seeing if they would be most expedient way of achieving the immediate goal. I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of means. The method may appear to be long, perhaps too long, but I am convinced that it is the shortest.12 Means can be chosen merely by deciding to live by certain rules.



Violence arises from ignorance or untruth, truth conversely arises out of non-violence. Non-violence and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like two sides of the same coin or rather a smooth unstamped metallic disc. Nevertheless, non-violence is the means, Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so Non-violence is our supreme duty. 13


The discovery of truth is not dependent upon violence; it is in fact obscured by violence. The need for violence is often a sign of insecurity and incomplete conviction and that through it victory becomes more important than Truth. It is self evident that if violence is used in a conflict situation, the sin and the sinner can no longer be separated.


The arguments against violence, revolve round certain assumptions which can be summarized as follows: (1) Continuity, that is, once you resort to violence, you cannot escape it; (2) Reciprocity; that is violence creates , begets and procreates violence. (3) Sameness; that is, it is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence. No matter how high the goal, violence reduces all practitioners to the same level; (4) Violence begets only further violence, that is the ends grow out of the means used; (5) Violence needs to be justified, but such justification is hypocritical; there is no pure violence violence and hatred are always linked together.


For Gandhi non-violence means far more than what is implied by the apparent negative terminology. Gandhi firmly believed that such non-violence must be lived day by day. It is not like a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart and it must be an inseparable part of our very being. 14


At the same time practising non-violence as a policy, however, may be useful in that there is always a hope of the policy developing into a creed.


Gandhi was deeply influenced by Tolstoys writing on non-violence. Tolstoy fervently believed in the Christian injunction: Resist not evil; and by ordering ones life in a completely moral way, one should allow the Evil of violence to die like the dead leaves in autumn.

However much Gandhi may have admired Tolstoy, it was at this point that Gandhi showed a remarkable departure. Gandhi believed in institutions; Gandhi also held that he could not wait until a sufficiently large number of men and women had started re-ordering their lives. Gandhi fervently believed and practised that men had to begin to resist evil of violence individually and collectively by means of progressive non-cooperation. Gandhi added that the war against violence must be carried into the enemys camp. But all this should be by non-violent means alone. Hence Gandhis prophetic observation Organization is the test of non-violence. In this context, it is very significant to remember that Gandhis alchemic-genius was to turn the given situation of forcibly disarmed people both in South Africa and especially in India, into an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance and efficacy of Satyagraha as a technique of non-violent mass struggle for freedom and justice.


Creative self-suffering

Gandhi prophetically observed The conviction has been growing upon me that things of Fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering. If you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens the finer understanding in man.15


Tolstoy encapsulates one of the reasons that self-suffering is so important for Satyagraha. The role of self suffering is to break the dead-lock, to cut through the rationalized defenses of the opponent. However Gandhi warned that the self suffering undertaken had to be functional; Gandhi was not in favour of martyrs of suffering not caused by acts conducive to the solution of the present or future conflicts. The opponent must be not encouraged to act against the Satyagrahi to invite self suffering because brutalizing the adversary can but make his conversion the more difficult. The secret of Satyagraha lies in not tempting the wrong-doer to do the wrong.


Even where self suffering does not touch the conscience of the opponent it can have objective benefits in a conflict situation especially in social conflicts. The opponent may be converted indirectly, if the endured suffering moves public opinion to the side of the satyagrahis. Gandhi has claimed that the method of reaching the heart is to awaken public opinion. Hence care must be taken to ensure that self abnegation becomes self-affirmation and a tool of truth rather than a weapon of revenge. It should be remembered that self-suffering is the price paid for maintaining resistance in a non-violent way. Finally the resort to self-suffering and voluntary submission to injury is a positive creed and is not merely a matter of last resort.


Faith in human goodness

The entire rationale of Satyagraha, which sees conversion of the opponent as its aim must rest upon the assumption that the opponent is open to reasons, that they have a conscience, that human nature is such that it is bound or at least likely, to respond to any noble and friendly action. Gandhi firmly believed that, every one of us is a mixture of good and evil. The difference between human beings is a difference of degree.16 This belief must be remembered in times of conflict and applied to the opponent in such a way that their dignity as a person and the respect it commands is not infringed, that the opponent is given the same credit in this matter that the Satyagrahi would demand for himself. Gandhi further emphasized: Not to believe in this possibility of permanent peace is to disbelieve in the goodness of human nature Every man may know and most of them do know what is a just and an unjust act.17 This however, need not imply that large areas of non-rationality do not occur in human motivations or behaviour. A belief in this combination of reason and goodness allows for a faith in the possibility of conversion and although this process may take considerable time.


In a study looking at the social interactions of competitors and cooperators, it has been concluded that, although competitive people are often faced with social relationships where cooperation rather than competition is more effective. Satyagraha rests on the belief that opponents can in fact be influenced to alter their dispositions and their world views.



A certain amount of courage is obviously necessary to endure self-suffering and to Gandhi it was an axiom that non-violence and cowardice are contradictory terms. The path of true non-violence requires much more courage than violence. However, Gandhi firmly believed that it was possible for a violent person to some day become non-violent, there being no such hope for cowards.


Along with his famous dictum that violence was preferable to cowardice, Gandhi explained that although violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self defense, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.


An atmosphere for fear and impotence makes people helpless even to accomplish the simplest of things. Without fearlessness the growth of other qualities becomes next to impossible. The courage that Satyagraha calls for is not dependent on physical strength. The toughest muscle has been known to tremble before an imaginary fear. Finally fearlessness can and must come from determined and constant endeavour, by cultivating self-confidence and from an indomitable will.


We may now turn to the types of non-violent action. In conflict situations, success through non-violent action can be achieved in three separate ways:


Accommodation: Where the opponent does not believe in the changes made nevertheless believes that it is best to give in some or all points to gain peace or to cut losses.


Non-violent Coercion: Where the opponent wants to continue the struggle, but cannot, because they have lost sources of power and means of control.


Conversion: Where the opponents have changed inwardly to the degree that they want to make the changes desired by non-violent activist or indeed the non-violent activist himself has so changed.


The first two modes of non-violent conflict resolution are based on power that the respective parties can exert on each other. Conversion on the other hand, operates outside the framework of the interplay between power and powerlessness. the touching of the conscience involves a totally different dynamics.


The Gandhian technique of Satyagraha rests on the belief that the striving for conversion is the most effective method of conducting a struggle on a pragmatic assessment of the outcome, but more than that, it is the morally correct way to conduct conflict because only through a dialectical process can truth be arrived at.


The Dialectics of Satyagraha

Violence to persons and properties has more often the effect of clouding the real issues involved in the original conflict, while non-coercive, non-violent action invites the parties to a dialogue about the issues themselves. Gandhi therefore, warns that we must hate the sin and not the sinner. Bondurant states that Gandhi fashioned a method of conflict in the exercise of which a man could come to know what he is and what it means to evolve. In Satyagraha the dogma gives way to an open exploration of context. The objective is not to assert propositions, but to create possibilities. The Satyagrahi involves himself in acts of ethical existence. This process forces a continuing examination of ones own motives, examination undertaken within the context of relationships as they change towards a new restructured and reintegrated pattern.18


The dialectical process is essentially creative and inherently constructive. Hence, while Satyagrahis try to convert, they must themselves also remain open to persuasion. The essential nature of moral appeals in Satyagraha are such that they call for response that can be either given or withheld by those towards whom they are directed. Therefore Satyagraha goes beyond redressing merely the immediate grievance that has surfaced as conflict, but aims to resolve the distrust and friction that are underlying the sources of conflict.


Process of Satyagraha

The success of a Satyagraha campaign to resolve any conflict rests on three basic assumptions. They are :

That there can always be found some elements of common interest to all the contending parties;

That the parties are or at least might be amenable to an appeal to the heart and mind;

That those in a position to commence Satyagraha are also in a position to carry it through to the end.

If these prerequisites are fulfilled, the scene is set for the process aimed at the required conversion to be initiated. This can involve several steps, reasoning with the opponent, then persuasion through self suffering wherein the Satyagrahi attempts to dramatize the issues at stake and to get through to the opponents unprejudiced judgement so that he may willingly come again onto a level where he may be persuaded through natural argument. This is the process of moral appeal through self suffering in lieu of coercion. Gandhi himself summarizes this process:


I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrants sword, not by putting up against a sharper edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance.19


Hence if the attempts at conversion through these measures fail, the tools of non-cooperation or civil disobedience may be brought into play.


Given this presentation of moral Equivalent of War or Satyagraha as a background paper, it is now left open to examine and test the efficacy of Satyagraha by referring to certain recurring points of debate or controversy.

The role of the individual especially the charismatic personality in Satyagraha.

Pacifism and Satyagraha

Satyagraha as a way of life and as a process or weapon of conflict resolution.

Satyagraha against incorrigible violence.




1. Deustch, Conflicts: Productive and Destructive p. 18.

2. North, Conflict: Political Aspects p. 226.

3. K. Shridharani, War without Violence p. 253.

4. Quoted in Iyer, The Moral and Political thought of Mahatma

Gandhi p. 156.

5. Harijan September 21, 1934

6. Ibid.

7. Bondurant J., Conquest of Violence pp. 16-17

8. Young India, August 4, 1920.

9. Harijan, February 11, 1939.

10. Huxley, Ends and Means p. 9

11. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa p. 306

12. Weber T, Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics p. 56

13. Gandhi, From Yeravada Mandir p.6

14. Young India, August 12,1926.

15. K. Shridharani, War without Violence p. 252.

16. Harijan, June 10, 1939

17. Harijan, May 16, 1936.

18. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence pp. 192,195

19. Young India, October 8, 1925.