Monday, September 03, 2007

How One Man Stopped A Massive Riot Single-handedly

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My life is my message. - Mohandas K. Gandhi (The Mahatma--Great Soul) (1869-1948)
Disclosure: Gandhi has been a role model for me since I was a small child listening to his speeches on the radio, from my remote home in a rural wilderness. At the most impressionable time of my life, Gandhi taught me when and what my parents did not.

Mahatma Gandhi left the world with two fundamental and profound messages. The first message was that peace is a worthwhile life objective. The second was that we can use peaceful means to achieve the same goals as activists (who often use violence) resort to.

How effective was he? After several years of avoiding his program of peaceful resistance against the British Raj that ruled India at the time, he chose to protest a new British tax on salt. Salt was not just a condiment used by everyone from the wealthiest maharajas to homeless beggars (who could not afford to buy it because of the tax), salt was a means of income for poor people who gathered it and transported it to sell in local markets where it would make its way subsequently around the country.

The tax in effect made it illegal for Indians to sell or produce salt, making this essential condiment and preservative a British monopoly.

Gandhi decided to publicize a walk that he would make, on foot, a distance of some 240 miles from Sabarmati to Dandi on the Arabian Sea coast. He sent a letter to the British Viceroy advising him of his intention of gathering as many friends and supporters as he could find and march to protest the tax. The Viceroy wrote back to tell Gandhi that the tax would remain and warned him that the demonstration would be illegal.

What began with Gandhi and 78 male satyagrahis (activists of truth and resolution) turned into a massive crowd that arrived in Dandi eight weeks later. Gandhi picked up a piece of salt and ground it in his hands, thus breaking the law. The other satyagrahis followed suit. British soldiers beat them with clubs, killing many of them on the spot. The movement for Indian independence had begun.

One side used peaceful means of expression, the other violence. The peaceful side won, India eventually got its independence and the British Empire faded into history.

Seventeen years after the Great Salt March, the Viceroy of the time sent Gandhi alone to do what he could to prevent a riot of unimaginable proportions in Calcutta, while 55,000 British troops went to Punjab to tame a much smaller crowd. The British felt they had no way to stop the Calcutta riot.

While the British killed hundreds in the Punjab incident, not a single person died in Calcutta, not one was arrested, no riot occurred. Gandhi used words to prevent a massive riot that might have destroyed the city.

Mohandas Gandhi lived what he believed. He became the role model for 450 million Indians. While millions died in communal fighting when India and Pakistan separated in 1947, as Hindus moved to primarily Hindu India from Pakistan and Muslims moved the other way, these two heavily populated nations have been relatively peaceful ever since.

Even their wars and cross-border bickering have been relatively minor. Despite the fact that both countries have nuclear power and the west repeatedly claims that the two are constantly at each other's throats, neither country wants war and both are strongly committed to peaceful means to settle differences between them.

Gandhi's message said that we can use words to bring peace and achieve our collective goals. While that message had a profound effect on dozens of countries, it has yet to reach some.

My goal is to spread the message of The Mahatma to as many as will listen.

It works. Gandhi proved it by living the way he wanted the world to be.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to implement great plans to make the world a better and safer place to live. It includes some great plans of its own.
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