The Shortcomings of Persuasion

Book Review by Michael Beer of Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change. Author Mary Elizabeth King.


Indians vigiled, up to their necks in water, to protest the prohibition of untouchables (Dalits) from using the roads near a Brahman temple in Vykom, India, from 1924 to 1925.  With significant long-distance direction from Mohandas Gandhi, the protesters sought to melt the hearts of their Brahmin neighbors through personal sacrifice. Unfortunately, the Brahman leadership and the State of Travancore dug in their heels. Gandhi ended the 604-day protest with an agreement that reflected little change, but that he and historians framed as a success story for satyagraha.

King paints a picture of deep caste division in Travancore.  Caste separation in Travancore meant large numbers of people were untouchable, unapproachable and even unseeable. In some cases, even an untouchable’s shadow touching a Brahman was considered pollution.  Local actors were pushing for equality and social changes were happening throughout India while its citizens increasingly challenged British rule.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth King has written a definitive book about this misunderstood Satyagraha campaign in what is modern day Kerala. It thoroughly debunks the myth that the Vykom satyagraha proved the efficacy of conversion as a mechanism of nonviolent change.  Gandhi had proposed Satyagraha as a method of converting an opponent through self-sacrifice and communicating Truth. However, conversion is rarely successful in short-term Satyagraha (or nonviolent) campaigns, and too many activists have needlessly suffered because of the erroneous belief that a satyagraha/nonviolent action  campaigns require self-suffering  in order to convert an opponent.

In fact, Dr. King reminds us that only a small number of campaigns of social change have succeeded through conversion.  Overwhelmingly, nonviolent action succeeds by applying social pressure through civic mobilization and coercion.

Anyone wanting to learn about Satyagraha and the Indian movement for Swaraj (home rule), and independence from the United Kingdom, would find this book engrossing.  She documents mistakes and failures in the campaign: these include failures of leadership,  local empowerment,  planning, and creative flexibility. Vykom Satyagraha leaders were all arrested within the first few weeks of the campaign, rendering much publicity, but also resulting in an unexpected leadership vacuum. Local Dalits (untouchables) were not strongly included in the actions, and neither were Muslim and Christian allies.

King rightly highlights long term successes in the Vykom effort including: nationalizing and internationalizing a focus on untouchability,  and building a more unified Congress Party. Many years later in 1936 the roads and temple were opened up to all citizens by the government. At least the gentle demands and tactics of the campaign do not appear to have set back the timing of the changed policy that occurred more than a decade before independence from the UK.

Dr. King certainly is a meticulous historian, and she footnoted voluminous archival materials, including correspondence and newspaper reports.  Most of the book provides a chronological rendering of the campaign, while the concluding chapters delve into how Vykom became known as a success despite the deaths of 2 people, and the suffering of many. There are extra jewels at the end that document the influence of Gandhian techniques on the US civil rights movement, review the history of nonviolence-related scholarship  up until the 1950s, and track the evolution of thinking among scholars regarding how nonviolent action succeeds.

Although critical of Mohandas Gandhi, King’s approach is fair-minded, and certainly confers deep respect for the contributions Gandhi made to the fields of nonviolence and social change. We need more scholars like Dr. King who sift through political spin and hagiography, and shed light on the history of campaigns of nonviolent social change.

I hope this review will persuade activists, students and historians to read this book. Persuasion has its place, just not as a centerpiece of a nonviolent campaign.


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