Non-violence: Bapu, Madiba and King

Our world is burning. Be it the Colombian conflict in South America. Somalian Civil War, Nigerian insurgency, Sudan unrest and Egypt uprising in Africa. Or Iraqi invasion by US, Syrian rebellion, Israel-Palestine conflict and Afghanistan-Pakistan-Yemen based terrorism in Asia. If only we learnt something from the Big Three – Bapu, Madiba and King. 

Non-Violence, Karl Fredrik Reutersward's sculpture, outside UN Headquarters in New York    Courtesy: UN

Non-Violence, Karl Fredrik Reutersward's sculpture, outside UN Headquarters in New York

Courtesy: UN

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), or Madiba as he was fondly called, the former President of South Africa and anti-apartheid leader, died this month. With him, we lost the last surviving icon of the trinity of movement leaders advocating non-violent resistance, which the world has seen in the last century. The other two were American civil rights activist Martin Luther King (1929-1968), and someone whom the other two considered their inspiration and guiding light, Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), or Bapu as he was affectionately called.

All three of them were neither emperors of vast lands nor a commander of huge armies. They also couldn't boast of great artistic gifts or extra-ordinary scientific achievements. Yet, millions and millions of men, women as well as children across generations got inspired by their work, lives and above all, political philosophy of non-violent struggle, non-retributive justice, reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.

Their charisma lied in the strength of their characters, their conviction in what they perceived as right and wrong, and their willingness to do the ultimate sacrifice for causes they believed in.

Bapu's miracle was convincing his countrymen to overthrow the barbaric British rule from India using the non-violent means of non-cooperation and civil disobedience. 

King's and Madiba's genius lied in their ability to convince their countrymen, regardless of skin colours, to work together for a shared future while turning the pages on the dark and tragic past of racial segregation and apartheid. 

In turn, they became the source of adulation and inspiration for freedom fighters and human rights activists around the world, who believed in the mantra of 'hate the sin, not the sinner'.

Once asked if non-violent resistance was a form of "direct action", Bapu noted that for him "it is the only form." After Madiba emerged from 27 years of imprisonment, he said, “As I walked out the door towards my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind, I would still be in prison." And King famously declared, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”


But sadly, the above ideas of synergy of non-violence and politics, have remained alien to many around the world, who still believe in the idea of justice through revenge, retribution and violence.  

US President, Barack Obama, the first African-American to reach the highest post, noted this in his speech at Madiba's memorial service in Johannesburg. 

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard,” he said. “We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace.”


Last four decades have witnessed a surge in conflict zones across the world invoking either religious, racial, economic, cultural or social differences. And almost all such conflicts have turned violent with no end in sight. 

Tolerance, cultural and racial broad-mindedness, mutual understanding as well as the politics of dialogue, which were the hallmarks of the Big Three's view of humanity have taken a back-seat.

But all is not lost, if some thinkers are to be believed.

“Since violence and intolerance begin in the minds of human beings, it is in the minds of human beings that the idea of shared values and human solidarity must be constructed,” writes Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor in the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, who has recently published a book, The Gandhian Moment. He details how Bapu's core ideas on non-violent protests have shaped political history from 1960s America to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond. 

No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive, Bapu once said. 

 “Thus, the survival of each culture is based on shared explorations towards greater understanding of the world. This shared exploration is to develop a common perspective on how to understand global issues and challenges and suggest ways to prevent violence and disorder. It is an attempt to develop a mutual understanding among people with various opinions, different cultural attitudes. Only then can a culture of non-violence be created,” adds Jahanbegloo. 

A call

If humanity is to progress, the “Big Three” are inescapable. It is time for each one of us to turn the moral compass within and ask ourselves why they are relevant even more today.