Gandhi's Satyagraha & Social Change, with Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox

Feb 26, 2018

Satyagraha, one of Gandhi's most influential teachings, stresses "passive resistance" in the face of injustice. Qunnipiac's Gadkar-Wilcox saw a powerful example of this in regards to a debate in India over sanitary napkins and she also sees it as Florida high school students push legislators for stricter gun control. Why is this tactic or "disposition" so effective?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. I'm Alex Woodson. Today I'm joined again by Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox. Sujata is an associate professor of legal studies and director of the Global Engagement Fellows program at Quinnipiac University.

Thank you for coming by, Sujata.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Thank you so much for having me again, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: This is our fourth podcast together. Each time we have talked about Mahatma Gandhi, his teachings, and their continued relevance. Today we will be discussing a similar theme. Specifically, what we will be discussing are Gandhi's strategies of Satyagraha or "truth struggle" and how it relates to a debate in India about the accessibility of sanitary napkins and a few other issues.

I guess to start, if you could just introduce the concept of Satyagraha and what it means.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Let me just take one step back from that, Alex, to say the reason I started thinking about Satyagraha and how it relates not just in a global context but also domestically to a new kind of political ethic is because I think we are in a profound moment of political crisis. I think that also provides an opportunity for us to really engage and reconsider what we want government to look like, what we want communities to look like, and what we want that relationship to look like between government and communities.

ALEX WOODSON: You say we are in a moment of political crisis. Just to be completely clear, what is the crisis that you are referring to?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: What really struck me was that Chapman University does a national survey on the greatest American fears, and in 2017 the greatest fear was corrupt political officials. I thought, That is terrible for a country that really champions democracy that the greatest American fear in 2017 is the corruption of political officials. Also, being a scholar of constitutional law and teaching classes in constitutional law, it is such a stark contrast to the principles or the framing of government in the first place, and certainly of the purpose of constitutional rules, which is to keep a check on that kind of political corruption.

In my constitutional law class we always start by thinking about the origins of government, the origins of the Constitution, particularly with the influence of particular philosophers like John Locke. In that origin, there is a framework of government. In this social contract understanding of government you see a relationship between individuals and their government. They have given up certain rights in some way, just as an oversimplified understanding, in return for something from the government.

The constraints of that are limited to a vision of the public welfare or the public good, so it is not that government is just there to serve a functional purpose of trying to figure out how to calculate a majority vote and then pass bills based on representing a pure voice of the constituency, but there is actually an ethical framework that is guiding the system of governance. It is a lens of justice. It is good government.

The government is in place to ensure that rights are protected and that the general welfare is accounted for. When that breaks down, then we really need to start to thinking about what our ethical vision is and the purpose of government and how we get back to what we think is a legitimate government.

What was important particularly for these Enlightenment philosophers was to talk about legitimacy. When we say that a government is based on the "consent of the governed," that is a tacit consent that implies that there is a legitimacy to the government, that it was formed for a purpose.

I think we are getting further and further away from what that purpose is, which is really to account for the public welfare. I think that is why Satyagraha as a principle speaks to me, because I think in our public debates now we need to start thinking about what it means to say not just that we have a government that functions, but what would it look like to have a legitimate government, a just government, and I think that is where the principles of Satyagraha can come in.

ALEX WOODSON: What are those principles exactly, for someone who has not heard this term before?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Satyagraha we think of traditionally as Gandhi's response to violence, nonviolence or passive resistance is what people say. Of course, there is nothing really passive about Satyagraha. It is an active presence. What Gandhi means from the term, as you mention, is a truth force.

Society has a moral fabric, and that depends on the relationship of the community members with one another. The reason violence is such a problem is because violence just begets further violence, and it tears apart the moral fabric of that society. So even if there is an injustice, if you respond with violence, even as a temporary successful measure, in the long run that is going to be a problem because it creates a society that accepts violence, and that in itself tears this moral fabric, so that itself is a problem. So Satyagraha is this practice of being actively engaged in passive resistance to ensure that government is functioning properly, or that even communities are functioning properly, that you as a community member are taking responsibility to address injustice.

In our contemporary political context I think that makes the most sense when we think of holding the government accountable, again, for the public welfare, so connecting it back to thinking about, Well, what is the purpose of government in the first place? If the purpose of government is to serve the public good, then who is responsible for making sure that happens? I think of course it is the people who have to hold the government accountable.

Then we go back to also in this framework thinking about the relationship between individuals and the government, and not only that, but individuals with one another. Because it is not just that politics is broken down in the actual legislative body, but even campaigns and political debates in a local context have broken down. There is no dialogue anymore, and that is not even in a political context. We see that on campus as well, that we cannot engage with one another through disagreement, and that was not always the case.

Beyond the fact that there may be disagreements, and I am not saying that we will together come to any kind of consensus, but there has got to be a better way to engage with one another and also to ensure that the government, again a representative body that is based on your tacit consent, that is supposed to be housed within this framework of legitimacy actually acts in a way that we think is legitimate.

So it is not enough anymore for legislators to just shake hands on the campaign trail and then go into office and be dominated by special interests. That does not serve that purpose.

Again, if we go back to the framework and ask ourselves, "What's the purpose of government?" and we say, "The purpose is really to serve some kind of public good," that cannot be in the public good. That already shows that there has to be some problem with special interests overpowering the needs and the voice of the constituency, particularly when it comes to vulnerability or marginalized groups. When you are creating policies that are further marginalizing groups or creating vulnerability and somehow that is being influenced by something other than the voice, that consent that is presumed to be there of your constituents, that itself already says that that is not a legitimate functioning of government, and how do we revise that?

So Satyagraha provides us that framework because we do not have the language right now, I think. We just think of politics as a kind of function. Again, it is this democratic counting, where we have to make sure that there is some kind of deliberation—and I say "deliberation" loosely; I do not even think there is an ethics of how we have a proper deliberation—and then we tally the votes. As long as that is somehow reflective of the constituency, that is what we mean by government.

I think we need to demand more than that. That cannot be what we mean by government. We have to start thinking about what a just government looks like, what it means to actually represent the public good. How does your constituency's voice then relate to the public good? But it should always be in the forefront of a legislator's mind to think about the public good.

ALEX WOODSON: I know you were in India last summer, July 2017, and you met a woman named Chaya Kakade who was very inspiring and really put these principles into practice and achieved something. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: First, I want to thank the Carnegie Council because I met Chaya because I got a grant from the Robert Myers Fund to interview human rights workers. Like Robert Myers, I share this vision of effective ethical inquiry that is based on or reflective of local community practices. When we say "global ethics," what does that look like at a community level? What does it look like at a local level? That was what led me to meet with Chaya and to hear about her work.

As you say, she is an incredible grassroots activist who is from the rural community of Latur in the state of Maharashtra, and I met her when I was in Mumbai because she came there to protest the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) that was being implemented in India starting July 1. What that meant is that there was a consolidation basically of the various local and state taxes that were being levied on particular goods and services to one general goods and services tax. Certain products were exempt from those taxes, and there was a list by state of which products were exempt. But one of the products that was not exempt was sanitary napkins.

A little bit of a background on Chaya: She actually in this community in Latur has a production center where she employs women, first of all, and they produce swadeshi, which means domestically-made sanitary pads, which she says are also environmentally friendly. This Swadeshi movement is also linked to Mahatma Gandhi because it is about bringing production home instead of exporting and certainly the exploitation that comes from that external commerce, bringing production home, and that is what she does. She has a production center in Latur where she employs women to create swadeshi, which are homemade sanitary pads that are also environmentally friendly.

Along with that production center, there is an education program because not everyone—and particularly in rural communities—first of all has access to sanitary pads, that is one big problem, whether they want to use them or not, or are aware of all of the significant health benefits that come with it, including in hospitals and just individual practices. So along with the production center there is an education component.

There is a distribution component. They keep track of women who are interested in having sanitary pads and actually also deliver them.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to be clear, this tax would have made it very difficult for a lot of women to access these sanitary pads.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Exactly. Right. There is already an access problem, there is already a distribution problem, and now on top of it there is going to be an expense problem. There is already an expense problem for, of course, what she says, and what we all know, is a very basic necessity. That became a problem. So she came to Mumbai with local women from Latur to challenge this Goods and Services Tax.

That itself to me was remarkable because she did not really know that many people when she came to Mumbai for this tax, but she came there to implement Gandhi’s principles of Satyagraha, again to hold the government accountable and to challenge, to say, "We have certain demands, and those demands include: no tax on sanitary pads, more distribution of sanitary pads, more education, including distribution in the high school and in the schools, but also access to supplies and ration stations." They had a list of concrete demands that are there to remedy a kind of injustice, and at best—to be the most generous to the government—a possible oversight that they did not include this, so just to try to remedy it. And it is a structural remedy to create a change.

She went there, and the tactics that she implemented—Gandhi does not have particular tactics. The Satyagraha is a kind of disposition. It is a responsibility of individuals. That is why it is called a "truth struggle" or the "truth force" because it is in your daily encounters, not just with government but with other members of your community you should be thinking about your role in relation to them. Is there an injustice that you are seeing? Is there something that is not working? How then do you respond?

What is your role to bring awareness? That is one of the tactics, that you bring awareness, like the Salt March historically, and to then engage first the government in negotiation—for example, before a labor strike you would have an arbitration—to say, “Here is why these economic issues are a high priority.” And then, if that does not work—and again, never resort to violence—you shift to other tactics of resistance to say, “This is a problem, and how do we resist?”

What she did when she came to Mumbai was implement an awareness campaign. She did a public bhajans, which are religious ceremonies in a public space, plus a hunger strike. She did a hunger strike at that time for seven days. At the end of the seven days, she said she could not even get up. She was extremely weak, and that was after seven days.

At that point, in the time that she was there, about 10,000 women came to see her, which was really remarkable. This was again, to give credit to the media, because of the media coverage that it got. There were journalists there around the clock, and she was able to get that kind of coverage and have people come and actually see her. At the end of the seven days, she was able to see the chief minister, who did say at that time that he would agree to her demands. That is how I met her in that context of Satyagraha.

That story is ongoing.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. I looked her up today, and the latest I could find was that she started a new hunger strike in late January.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Right. So the story with that is there was an agreement that these demands, again those five demands, they had demands that were going to be implemented, and they were not implemented.

Now there is, in fact, also a case that is before the High Court in both Mumbai and Delhi challenging the tax, and also asking questions, like why are other products exempt, particularly products that are not considered necessities—bindis, which are either symbolic or decorative now in practice and, on the other hand, condoms? So condoms are not taxed, and that is the first thing that Chaya would point out, but you are taxing sanitary pads.

Also, they were particularly asking not for the tax on the swadeshi sanitary pads. That too is symbolic in a way linking to Mahatma Gandhi, but what they were saying is, “These aren’t even products that we are importing. These are products that we have made locally. Why should we be taxed on products that are a basic necessity that we have made locally?”

If you think about the impact of that awareness, that already holds the government accountable. They had to be accountable to her in that way. She went there with the intention of implementing these principles of Satyagraha, and that was what got me started thinking about how this framework of Satyagraha is actually really a framework of political engagement, particularly now in our context in the United States a framework for accountability.

ALEX WOODSON: The one issue that I think is especially relevant for this right now is the gun control debate. As we saw in Florida last week, there was a horrific school shooting in Parkland at Stoneman Douglas High School, and 17 people were killed.

The students have since been all over the news. Today I believe they are marching to Tallahassee. All kinds of action are planned. I would imagine most of these students do not know the term "Satyagraha," but it seems that is exactly what they are engaged in.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Exactly. I was just thinking that myself. That seems to me to be just a very contemporary example. Chaya's is also, but if we are talking about a domestic example, that is an example of Satyagraha in practice.

If we ask ourselves what is it they are doing, they are not just calling attention to a tragedy. They are saying, "We need to hold somebody responsible, and we're holding our legislators responsible because they are responsible for passing laws." They are putting it in a framework of justice. They are saying, “We need to think about how we can pass laws that will limit vulnerability and limit this kind of tragedy from happening again, especially when there are factors that are in place that we know will make that likely."

They are doing even more than that. They said, "In response to this, since we haven’t been able to get traction on this, even though there is some support"—the polls have shown there is some support certainly for some restricted gun control reforms; there is no agreement on the extent of them, but there is some agreement as to at least some gun control reforms—"and we haven't even been able to get traction there." So their question is, "Why not?"

Of course, we are thinking now about powerful lobbies and whether or not powerful lobbies are preventing that conversation from even happening. In response, what they are saying is: "We are going to identify everybody who has been influenced by that lobby"— other organizations have done this as well in conjunction—"and we are not only going to have a walk-out to bring awareness to this situation, but we are going to then align that"—today they are in Tallahassee—"with actual negotiations with legislators, plus a registration drive because if we want to think about structural change we are not forgetting that there are many youth that can have a voice in influencing what the government may look like."

We are seeing them put together strategies of resistance to a law. And they said they are only focused on this law, but this is an example of how if you are focused on a particular issue, you can bring resistance to that in the framework of accountability. So they are bringing resistance, but they are asking the government to just change, to change legislation, to do more. That has not been done, and they are saying, "We need to go beyond the special interests, and we need you to be accountable to us."

That goes back to this framework of that is the public good because we are seeing these tragedies and you had a responsibility to prevent that, and you are not living up to your responsibility. You hear them saying that: "You are not living up to your responsibility."

I think that is a good thing, that we need to start thinking about responsibility, responsible government, not just politics as usual. There has got to be a new face to politics. There are others doing it, but that is an example of paving that path within, I would say, a framework of justice, but certainly this lens of Satyagraha, active involvement, active engagement in your government and your community.

ALEX WOODSON: What is so amazing about that is these are very young people. These are teenagers. They have their whole lives ahead of them. Who knows where they are going to go from here?

Another part that I think is pretty relevant is the word "truth." I do not even want to mention that there are these horrible conspiracy theories about these students on the news. That is just one example of all these different facts that have been twisted and just made up over the past year or so. I think that is a very important thing to focus on as well, that there are still facts and there is still truth, and we need to bring that out and make sure that somehow we get the right information out into the world.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Right. That is why I think justice aligns in a more contemporary sense with what Gandhi means by truth. There are right ways of doing things and wrong ways. The wrong ways are causing more harm to society.

The reason violence is wrong is not because it is not sometimes necessary as a useful strategy to end a particular kind of harm on society, but because in the long term the reason it will be unjust is again because you are tearing away that fabric of society. When you respond with violence, that just creates a violent society. Even though the threat has been taken care of and has been quelled in some way, you have now created a moral fabric that is problematic. In that sense, we need to think about aligning truth more with justice, to think about what makes a just government.

I do not think that means that we have to agree on everything. I think that there is an opportunity for political disagreement, but there is a proper way, I think, to engage in that, not only when you are having this legislative debate, but just in local communities and certainly in universities we need to figure out how we engage with one another in a way that moves the conversation forward through that disagreement, and I do not think we are there yet.

ALEX WOODSON: Aside from Parkland, Florida, have you seen other instances where the principles of Satyagraha are present in how Americans have been protesting over the past year?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: One thing I think is remarkable in response to this kind of profound crisis we are having, particularly in a political context, is the grassroots activity that you see at the local level, and the fact that people are running for positions—for good and bad. I know people say for good and bad that there are teenagers running for governor. But to me the good part of that is that people think that politics is within their reach again, that politics is not a career in the sense that it is not an end in and of itself. It is politics as a means.

The more people are getting involved in this, the more they are realizing that they can have a voice in how this works, and if it is not working, they are trying to get involved to create structural change. That to me is being actively present. The grassroots involvement and the grassroots mobilization is a kind of engagement, connecting government and community to me as a kind of Satyagraha. We are thinking actively about how do we engage, what is working and what is not, at the community level, and I think that is remarkable.

One of the things that I think is problematic—and I think that narrative is changing a little—is what is expected of politicians, that we think of politics as power and privilege. That is a huge problem. I am actually writing an article on what I am calling "community politicians," people who have gotten into politics as a means instead of an end in itself to address a need, either to speak on behalf of a community that has not been represented or to hold the government accountable, which is what you are seeing now. It is a mass movement to say: "There has to be more than this in government, and we can do that. We can be the face of government," as individuals, which I think was the intended design of government in the first place.

My research in India connects with this because the father of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, was himself an untouchable, a Dalit, so from the lowest caste, and faced tremendous amounts of discrimination and overcame that by becoming first a community activist and then shifting into politics as a means to advocate for that community.

Then, when that was not working necessarily in terms of the advocacy that he did, he left politics to go back to the community. That to me is a great model for thinking about political engagement, that you have politicians—that politics and the word "politician" should not have such a negative connotation. It is about public service. When you think about public servants, you think about individuals who are using this as a means to remedy some kind of injustice, whether that is a structural problem, whether there is not representation for a particular group. That is why they are in politics.

I think people are actually thinking about it this way, and that is what I like about the teenagers running for governor is that this is within our reach because this is about us. Politics should have that kind of ethical connotation again, that this is in fact about public service, this is about the public good.

We may not exactly agree on the method to get us to the same end, but I think that we need to keep that framework in mind, and that framework automatically exempts particular things, like special interests. When you have powerful interests that are dominating public debate, that already we can see if we use that framework has to violate a principle of the public good, because that is not thinking about the welfare of the community.

ALEX WOODSON: It has been really interesting for me to see. A year ago, a lot of people are pretty depressed wondering what we are going to do about this, and I think you have seen the conversation change a lot. People are organizing and figuring out what needs to be done.


ALEX WOODSON: That has been great to see.

Just to wrap up, what is next for you? Any trips to India planned in the future? Working on anything else in Connecticut?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: I would love to follow up with Chaya to see how this is going.

I do a lot of work on campus engaging students in the community, but I would actually like to see more what the relationship is between community and government: How do we bring those things together? Wow do we create a representative voice that reflects, that is a bridge back to the actual local needs of the community?

That is what I will be doing, but I would love to also connect back with Chaya. Once you bring awareness to an issue and you challenge it in the way that she did, it does not get automatically implemented, even though we think of it as a basic need. I would like to see how that is ongoing, so I would like to follow what is going on with the courts in that sense.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. We will be following that story.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: And grassroots politics here: What is going on with this kind of Satyagraha that I see in people, which is a new active presence in their communities? I think it is wonderful.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. I think we are going to learn a lot in November after the elections. We'll see what happens.

Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox from Quinnipiac University. Thank you so much for coming in.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Great. Thank you so much for having me, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: Thanks for listening.

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