What Gandhi really thought about guns

Representation of Gandhi from the pro-gun blog Everyday No Days Off. (© Everyday No Days Off)

Representation of Gandhi from the pro-gun blog Everyday No Days Off. (© Everyday No Days Off)

Those familiar with pro-gun activists know that they love a good quote. Do some surfing on pro-gun websites and you will find a cottage industry of quotations from American leaders and other voices of wisdom from throughout history. Some are legitimate, and some are completely bogus, but all are cherry-picked and presented entirely without context to suggest that their subjects hold the same pro-gun beliefs as Ted Nugent.

Even history’s greatest proponents of nonviolence are not immune from such treatment. This includes Mohandas Gandhi himself, whose words appear on countless pro-gun websites as follows: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”

Pro-gun activists frequently use those words to suggest that Gandhi supported individual gun ownership both as a means of defending oneself and as a tool to violently resist government tyranny. But are these assertions true?

In that passage, Gandhi references India’s Arms Act of 1878, which gave Europeans in India the right to carry firearms but prevented Indians from doing so, unless they were granted a license by the British colonial government. The full text of what he wrote is: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.”

These words come from a World War I recruitment pamphlet that Gandhi published in 1918, urging Indians to fight with their British colonial oppressors in the war, not against them. According to K.P. Nayar, chief diplomatic editor for The Telegraph in Calcutta, Gandhi saw “an opportunity for a political struggle against the colonial rulers and for the repeal of the unjust Arms Act,” not “for more Indians to have access to guns.” Peter Brock, a noted historian of nonviolence, wrote in his article “Gandhi’s Nonviolence and His War Service” that Gandhi “believed at that time (although he became more skeptical of this later on) that India could win equal partnership for itself within the British Empire if as large a number as possible of its able-bodied men volunteered to help the Empire, in one way or another, in times of need.” The British, that is, would regret passing the Arms Act because they’d discover Indians to be such valuable fellow soldiers.

At this time, Gandhi was still a British loyalist. He hoped to encourage the British to repeal the Arms Act and grant India Home Rule within the British Empire. In his autobiography, Gandhi quotes a letter he wrote to the viceroy of India during the war, in which he declared, “I would make India offer all her able-bodied sons as a sacrifice to the Empire at its critical moment, and I know that India, by this very act, would become the most favoured partner in the Empire … I write this because I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of Englishmen.”

Gandhi wanted Indians to fight in World War I to prove themselves trustworthy with arms and fit for citizenship. He was advocating for appeasement of India’s colonial rulers, not independence from them. Later, Gandhi’s thinking on this subject would change dramatically, but when he did initiate a campaign for full independence from the British Empire, he advocated only nonviolent means of resistance.

Pro-gun activists frequently try to claim with that one, out-of-context sentence that Gandhi supported violence to defend oneself and others. This is a vast oversimplification of Gandhi’s views.

In truth, Gandhi did not oppose the use of violence in certain circumstances, preferring it to cowardice and submission. Even though Gandhi’s spiritual philosophy of ahimsa rejects violence, it permits the use of violent force if a person is not courageous and disciplined enough to use nonviolence. Gandhi regarded weakness as the lowest human flaw, and would rather see a person use violent force in self-defense than be passive. His attitude stemmed in part from the British view at the time that Indians were a “weak” people. This also explains why Gandhi encouraged Indians to serve alongside the British in war. He believed such military service would give Indians, as Brock explains, “‘an opportunity to prove their mettle’ and disprove the allegations frequently made by Europeans that they were mostly cowards.”

Even while allowing for violent force in place of cowardliness, Gandhi remained a staunch advocate of nonviolence his entire life. And to Gandhi, nonviolent resistance was anything but passive. The form of nonviolent resistance that Gandhi himself consistently practiced, satyagraha — loosely translated as “insistence on truth” — rejects violence in any and all forms. Indeed, in the same document that pro-gun advocates cite to claim that Gandhi was a supporter of armed self-defense, he stated, “I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment, forgiveness adorns a soldier.”

Gandhi practiced what he preached, even when violently attacked. His autobiography contains an account of such an incident that occurred during a trip to South Africa. Gandhi was traveling on a ship from India to Natal province with 800 other passengers, including his family. Racial discrimination in the province was rampant. Once white residents learned that Gandhi was aboard the ship, they became furious. They accused him of denouncing Natal whites while he was in India and bringing Indian immigrants to settle in the province as provocation.

Gandhi was innocent of both charges, but the residents attacked him when he disembarked from the ship anyway. He was hit with punches, kicks, stones and bricks, but refused to retaliate and simply kept walking (to the best of his ability). The mob was subdued only when the wife of the town’s police superintendent opened her parasol and stood between Gandhi and the mob. Later, Gandhi remembered thinking, “I hope God will give me the courage and the sense to forgive them and to refrain from bringing them to law. I have no anger against them. I am only sorry for their ignorance and their narrowness. I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right and proper. I have no reason therefore to be angry with them.” Ultimately, the press condemned the mob and the whole affair “enhanced the prestige of the Indian community in South Africa and made [Gandhi’s] work easier.”

Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies were also a key component in the satyagraha campaigns, which often consisted of masses of unarmed men and women courageously blocking the path of British soldiers. On several occasions, they were fired upon, and many were killed, sacrificing their lives to the movement for Indian independence. Even during his World War I recruitment campaign, Gandhi called satyagraha India’s mightiest weapon. “But he cannot be a satyagrahi who is afraid of death,” he cautioned.

Perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence is Gandhi’s own absolute refusal to use firearms. During his work with the ambulance corps in England in 1914, Gandhi said, “A rifle this hand will never fire.” And it never did.

Gandhi’s philosophy and satyagraha campaigns became indomitable after World War I, and on August 15, 1947, India won its independence. The British-era Arms Act of 1878 would not be repealed for 12 years, however, until it was replaced by the 1959 Arms Act and the supplemental Arms Rules of 1962 — laws that strictly limited civilian access to firearms. In the years up to and following independence, until his assassination in 1948, Gandhi did not speak out against the Arms Act of 1878 again. One can infer that Gandhi did not regard the Arms Act as significant enough to advocate against once India had actually achieved independence. Thus, individual gun ownership proved to be unimportant to Gandhi, who was far more concerned with establishing nonviolence as a principle of state policy.

In the end, India rejected the “doctrine of the sword” and gained independence from the British Empire through “Soul Force.” Indians learned from Gandhi the methods of the strong, the methods of satyagraha; acknowledging that guns only add more violence to the world. Will the United States be so brave?

Co-authored with Caitlin Rosser.

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