By , March 17, 2017, published in Waging Nonviolence

At the end of 1930, India was experiencing disruption on a scale not seen in nearly three quarters of a century — and it was witnessing a level of social movement participation that organizers who challenge undemocratic regimes usually only dream of achieving.

A campaign of mass non-cooperation against imperial rule had spread throughout the country, initiated earlier that year when Mohandas Gandhi and approximately 80 followers from his religious community set out on a Salt March protesting the British monopoly on the mineral. Before the campaign was through, more than 60,000 people would be arrested, with as many as 29,000 proudly filling the jails at one time. Among their ranks were many of the most prominent figures from the Indian National Congress, including politicians that had once been reluctant to support nonviolent direct action.

Not only were Indians illegally producing salt and staging blockades of government salt works, but, as the effort grew, the campaign adopted a rich array of additional tactics. Hundreds of thousands of villagers refused to pay land and timber taxes. Civil servants resigned from government, with as much as a third of local officials in one district of Gujarat declaring that they would leave their posts. And activists maintained an organized boycott of British imports to India. In the words of one historian, major textile centers including Calcutta, Bhagalpur, Delhi, Amritsar and Bombay, “came to a virtual standstill for part or most of 1930 as a result of

[strikes], picketing and self-imposed closures by businessmen.”

Observers near and far could sense the historic magnitude of the moment. In England, Winston Churchill, then a conservative member of Parliament, railed furiously at what he perceived as his government’s incompetence in properly defending the empire. British officials within India were similarly distressed. Sir Frederick Sykes, the governor of Bombay, wrote to his superiors in May 1930: “It is now necessary frankly to recognize the fact that we are faced with a more or less overt rebellion … and that it is supported either actively or passively by a very large section of the population. We have, for one reason or another, practically no openly active friends.” One police commander described his district as: “virtually in a state of war for a substantial part of the year.”

How did the Indian independence movement get to this point? What type of organizing had allowed for this uprising to take place? What strategy had led to such widespread and coordinated disobedience?

In truth, it was not one strategy, but the combination of several. And a large part of the political genius of Mohandas Gandhi lay in his ability to bring these disparate strategies together.

For people seeking to generate change today, the landscape of social movements can appear fragmented and confusing. Responding to the myriad challenges of racial oppression, economic exploitation and environmental catastrophe, different groups pursue widely varying organizing strategies. Some people work to create mass mobilizations — actions such as the Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, or large immigrant rights protests — that draw significant public attention, but that can fade away quickly. Others focus on the slow-and-steady work of building long-term institutions, such as unions or political parties. Still other groups foster countercultural communities and alternative institutions outside of the mainstream. Often, there is little contact between groups employing different strategies — and little sense of common purpose.

However, these different efforts need not see themselves at odds with one another. Movements function best when they recognize diverse roles and find ways to employ the contributions of each in constructive ways. In fact, this can be a key to success.

Although his organizing against British rule in India began a full century ago, Gandhi encountered many of the same divisions that we continue to see resurfacing in modern politics. Because of this, his ability to foster and nourish a rich social movement ecosystem — in which different approaches to change each helped to advance an overall anti-imperialist effort — offers intriguing lessons for today.

Bringing together organizing traditions

Gandhi is one of the most revered public figures of the 20th century. Yet, for all of his renown, Gandhi’s actual strategies for promoting social change in India are much less known. Some people think of him as a spiritual figure who led through moral persuasion alone. Others have heard of the most famous acts of civil disobedience undertaken by him and his followers, protests that have been celebrated widely and dramatized in Hollywood movies. Still others picture him as a political figure, sitting at the negotiating table across from officers of the British Empire.

All of these ideas reflect aspects of Gandhi’s political life. However, each portrait by itself is incomplete.

Gandhi’s methodology for bringing about social transformation was more interesting than any one of these facets suggests. What makes him such a unique figure to examine within the history of social movements is his ability to bring together a variety of different types of organizing. Gandhi was able to cultivate what can be called a healthy “ecology of change,” in which groups with diverse theories and practices for changing their society could each expand the capabilities of the movement as a whole.

In particular, he united three strains of activity — strains which parallel those present today in the U.S. and beyond: First, large-scale mobilizations that employed nonviolent direct action (what Gandhi called satyagraha). Second, efforts to build a lasting organizational structure (the Indian National Congress) that could influence dominant institutions. And third, the creation of alternatives outside of the mainstream (such as Gandhi’s ashrams and the “constructive program”).

Although these three different approaches for fostering progress — mass protest, structure-based organizing, and the creation of alternatives — have been present in many other countries in many different time periods, it is rare when the three approaches collaborate in the service of a unified social movement. Gandhi served as a bridge between these different orientations, providing an exceptional model of how movements can benefit when different strategies come together.

To appreciate Gandhi’s rare talent at bridging these worlds does not require putting him on a pedestal. While it may come as a surprise to those who regard him as an unquestioned saint, Gandhi has always been mired in controversy. The soundness of his various religious and social prescriptions, along with the merit of his countless strategic decisions, were the subject of constant debate even within his own lifetime — and the debates have continued since his death in 1948. Yet, even given the various contradictions and contentions surrounding Gandhi’s career, we can draw valuable insights from the growth of the Indian independence movement in his time and its success in elevating anti-imperialist agitation against British rule to historic levels.

Read the rest of the article here.