Revisiting earlier conflict resolution proposals (4) – Ghandi’s Satyagraha

In my earlier, and very brief posts dedicated to the frameworks for conflict resolution known as Reconciliation, Transcendent discourse and Redescription, I  pointed out a number of possible shortcomings to otherwise very valid attempts to bring disputes to a close.

The authors of these proposals appeared to assume that there is a single and universal truth, a  one-fits-all almost mathematical truth with not historicity or contextual variations. Also, the solutions proposed by these theoreticians involved the construction of abstract spaces outside the contending parties. I questioned this argument on the basis that power structures are sure to tilt the scale denying the less dominating party their capacity to put their versions of truth forward equitably and fairly.

Today, I’d like to introduce a slightly different philosophy of conflict resolution: Satyagraha (from Sanskrit Satya – Truth–  and Agraha – insistence- , the philosophy for conflict resolution developed by Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi.


Satyagraha – Premises

Satyagraha is based upon the following tenets:

  • Admission of relative truth
  • Rejection of absolutes which are not knowable for mortal beings
  • Holding on to the truth, the criteria of which lies in the meeting of human needs
  • Non-violence is truth-creating
  • Non-violence becomes means and ends at the same time since this logic views means and ends as being a continuous process.
  • Humans are rational, endowed with reason and able to use it to direct their actions.

Ghandi recommended the following steps for the effective resolution of conflicts:

1. There must be an analysis and reflection upon the character of the total conflict circumstance. Resolution of conflicts is valid only when the whole or the unit or the continuity which has been destroyed by the presence  of conflicting factors has been restored.

2. There must be a clarification of individual positions and immediate objective. Parties in conflict may try to get over misunderstandings by ascertaining some of their differences. This will bring out the differing perspectives as consequences of the two different social situations. After this, parties will seek to understand each other by defining the total perspective and seeing it as a function of certain social positions. Given that the force within any dialectical situation is derived from the clash of opposing elements, the following objective is to  restructure the antagonistic elements.

3. Once a restructuring has been achieved it needs to be satisfactory to both the opposing sides but in such a way as to present an entirely new total circumstance.

4. There must be a search for a better restructuring of the situation rather than a one-sided triumph.

5. The truth emerges in Satyagraha from non-violent actions in the form of a mutually satisfactory and agreed upon solution.

6. One should be at all times prepared to depart from one’s own position and to embrace the opponent’s position if one becomes persuaded by the opponent of one’s error.  But the satiagrahi will hold onto his position so long as he holds it to be true. He is at no time prepared to sacrifice substantial elements of his position uless he is persuaded that he is in error. When appeal to reason through the persistent efforts of rational argument has failed to persuade the opponent and where the conflict challenge the basic truth-concepts of the Satyagraha position, the further course includes suffering acts as a shock treatment.

There is in Satyagraha an admission of innumerable truths and they can never be absolute in any sense. Ghandi’s conception of truth as a relative concept resulted in several incidents between him and the British administration in India.

7. Victory is over the situation, not over the opponent.

Ghandi encourages antagonistic parties to hold on to their truths but to be prepared to abandon them whenever the other’s truth is found to be more valuable.  It’s a good start, I believe. For once, we have moved towards accepting that the concept of truth is far from absolute. As Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1987:89) said, “one can no longer ignore the varying degrees of otherness and dwell on the varying degrees of our-ownness”.  Ghandi’s non-violent resistance is, indeed, a legacy to humanity and was an important tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism, one we should reflect upon, analyse, work on and build from.


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