Posted by: aloysiusmenulis | September 21, 2011

Can Civil Disobedience ever be moral?

On April 13, 1699, thousand of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh near the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. All congregated in religious and community fairs seeming to neglect, or perhaps disobeyed what The British Government had put under the martial law, restricting a number of civil liberties including freedom of assembly.

The celebration went for almost an hour when a group of sixty-five Gurkha and twenty-five Baluchi soldiers armed with rifles under the command of  Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer positioned themselves into the Bagh. The two armoured cars armed with machine guns added the atmosphere that was about change dramatically.

People were questioning, alerted, unprepared. It was without warning that General Dyer ordered troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd. Like a movie clip rolling in the viewers’ eyes, the bullet flew sporadically taking innocent lives of men, women, children. 1650 rounds in all until all ammunition supply was almost exhausted. General Dyer said that he had taught Indian people ‘a moral lesson’.

In response to the massacre, Gandhi urged the entire country a day of fasting, prayer, and abstention from physical labor, in protest against the injustice of the repressive new law. The British products were also boycotted. The response was tremendous. Millions of people joined in andIndiasimply ground to a halt. It was obviously agonizing for British.

Gandhi stopped the campaign shortly after it triggered violence throughout the country. ‘If satyagraha could not be carried out without violence, he declared, it would not be carried out at all’.

For Gandhi, he might have several options to fight for justice. He had the power to initiate violence throughout the country. The hostility was inevitable and revenge had never been busier. However, it turned out that violence was not an option for him. To fight for justice, he executed a campaign, an action which put forward peacefulness in protests. He organized a civil disobedience among the society.

Certainly people of Amritsarhas put the word to the test. It was said that government buildings were occupied, streets were flooded with people who refused to rise. They even refused to do so when beaten by the police. They stopped working and spent the days with fasting and prayer. The city routines ended.

The effect was incredible and this, of course, led to Gandhi’s capture. Within a short time, he was then released as the force from his followers was growing bigger and bigger.

Gandhi called this as ‘moral victory’.

Questions then appeared. Which one can ever be moral? General Dyer’s action or Gandhi’s campaign.

For General Dyer, he admitted that it was a moral lesson.Indiawas under the British Administration whereby rules should be obeyed and most of the times, were followed by oppression. Simply, the Indian people had two choices; either they followed the rules or went for a war.

You people know well that I am a Sepoy and soldier. Do you want war or peace? If you wish for a war, the Government is prepared for it, and if you want peace, then obey my orders and open all your shops; else I will shoot. For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same. I am a military man and I will go straight. Neither shall I move to the right nor to the left. Speak up, if you want war? In case there is to be peace, my order is to open all shops at once. You people talk against the Government and persons educated in Germany and Bengal talk sedition. I shall report all these. Obey my orders. I do not wish to have anything else. I have served in the military for over 30 years. I understand the Indian Sepoy and Sikh people very well. You will have to obey my orders and observe peace. Otherwise the shops will be opened by force and Rifles. You will have to report to me of the Badmash. I will shoot them. Obey my orders and open shops. Speak up if you want war? You have committed a bad act in killing the English. The revenge will be taken upon you and upon your children.”

A civil disobedience, in General’s eyes, was grey areas and he obviously did not like it. It was an insubordination and for it, the price was clear; war. To answer that, he used soldiers armed with rifles and gun machines.

The price was unbearable for a lesson.

For Gandhi,Amritsarmassacre was an anarchy that should not be replaced by another anarchy. Though Indian people had a strong reason to take revenge as one quote said ‘eye for an eye’, but not to Gandhi. He believed that non-violence act may contribute to a great deal of defeat to the injustice. There was bloodshed no more. In Gandhi’s case, the power of the campaign lied on the collective emancipation throughout the nation.

Civil disobedience asked people to fail or disobey the law or the authority in order to gain an objective by fasting, demonstration, any actions that are against violence. Is there any immorality of people fasting, people praying, people standing in crowds for a demonstration, people who refused to strike back when beaten by the police?

In civil disobedience, people may break the law but what law if the law itself is unjust. (quote)

In Bogor Indonesia, the local government supported with radical Islamic front-liners prohibited the building of a Christian church and unsympathetically locked the gate of the church forcing the faithful Christian pray in their holy mass on the side of the road. They still fight for justice and never retreat. In the eye of local government and its supporters, they disobeyed the ‘law’.

But what law it is if the law itself is unjust. (St Augustine) James Farmer, Jr told us that we have a right or even a duty to resist the injustice. Instead of violence, both Gandhi and the faithful Christian inBogorchose civil disobedience as a moral weapon to fight for justice.

For me, I should be grateful when people choose the latter.

Inspired by The Great Debaters Movie.



  1. Fighting the oppressor is always moral regardless of the violence that may come to the fight.
    The Muslims that keep the Christians from prayer are now the oppressors. They are allowed to worship in their way as long as they pay the community the tax. Barring them from prayer is as bad as not allowing Muslims their mosque. A very big sin.
    On Gandhi..”Gandhi often said that while nonviolence was superior to violence, violence, in turn, was superior to passivity in the face of injustice. For example, writing in Young India in August 1920 (see Chapter 28), he said “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence….I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.”

    • Yes indeed…i definitely agree with you. Sometimes fighting the oppressor takes non-violence and violence act and both can be used as an effective weapon to fight the injustice.
      I still remember when Soeharto was toppled down by the waves of demonstration. The college students were divided into two stream: violence and nonviolence and together we gained support from the society. I myself joined the latter because it was quite scary. Often times I found that after many extreme demonstration scored victims then the oppressor started to listen. I guess Gandhi does not want to bring more casualties in his fight even though it is hard sometimes and as long as the casualties have value of fighting, he accepts violence (if there’s no other way).
      I don’t like cowardice as well, being passive and doing nothing to his/her dishonor. Whatever the reasons they have, they don’t give value to their life. Even we should fight in our life……..

  2. […] Aloysiusmenulis presents Can Civil Disobedience ever be moral? posted at aloysiusmenulis. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: