Book Review by Mary King (Peace & Change): Bidyut Chakrabarty. Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

16 August, 2016

Having worked for four years at the heart of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, first in Atlanta and then in Mississippi, as staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), I know firsthand the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi on Martin Luther King Jr (no relation) and the mass movement in the U.S. South. Staff meetings benefited from Indian examples conveyed by professional trainers in nonviolent resistance, including James M. Lawson Jr and Bayard Rustin, who had journeyed to India and learned from associates of Gandhi. Lessons were imparted in mass meetings in local black churches. Skeptical social scientists may consider exchanges involving the Indian experience as historical comparison, or coincidental contact, yet as the historian Clayborne Carson, editor of King’s papers at Stanford University for the past quarter century, asserts in his foreword to Bidyut Chakrabarty’s book, King cannot be comprehended apart from his intellectual encounter with Gandhian nonviolent struggle. Chakrabarty examines the ideas of Gandhi and King, from a sociopolitical perspective, chiefly analyzing their political thought and the confluence of their streams of thought. Chakrabarty plumbs Gandhi and King’s philosophies, what he calls their respective ideologies.

After an introduction that usefully treats Gandhi detractors M. N. Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, and B. R. Ambedkar, Chapter 1 assesses Gandhi’s intellectual pilgrimage to a creed of nonviolence, enacted through disciplined action, which Gandhi took from eclectic modern thinkers and works that he ardently studied. Comparably, Chakrabarty appraises the intellectual roots of King’s journey to creedal nonviolence and the practice of nonviolent struggle. Chapter 2 intriguingly establishes how both men defended their opposition to the standing systems of governance that each faced by reference to basic values of the Enlightenment and liberalism. In chapter 3, Chakrabarty reviews Gandhi’s major engagements, including two decades in South Africa, where he forged a technique for fighting injustice that he would use after returning to India and mobilizing national movements of noncooperation and civil disobedience. Chapter 4 distills King’s involvement in four major campaigns of nonviolent direct action. Chakrabarty’s perceptive conclusion shows that Gandhi evolved a mode of resistance acceptable even to business interests, while King’s involvement broadened the movement to become an interracial force.

Chakrabarty summarizes key meetings of visiting black leaders with Gandhi before moving on to delineate the intellectual roots for Gandhi’s and King’s sociopolitical thought, emphasizing the thinkers who affected their banks of ideas. To him, Gandhi’s and King’s significance lies in their each assuming responsibility for enacting programs that could transform existing power relationships, and their recognition that the victims of oppression must be the ones to muster self-reliance and take action.

Chakrabarty attributes King’s success to his use of Christian imagery, noting in contrast that Gandhi’s awareness of India’s underlying Hindu–Muslim tensions led him to advance nationalist goals by adroitly sidestepping religious iconography and language. King was animated by his ingrained faith in the guiding criterion of agape love, from the Greek New Testament, meaning understanding and redeeming good will for all humans. This active love granted by God without condition is the essence of Christianity. Hence, for King, white Americans who espoused views of black inferiority were not evil, but misguided.

Most interesting is Chakrabarty’s chapter 2, “Defying Liberals but Deifying Liberalism.” He depicts both figures as fighting within the contours of liberalism, where prejudice based on difference was codified within imagined forms of inferiority and superiority. He examines how each man confronted existing systems of exploitation incontexts shaped by and derivative from the Enlightenment. Such oppressive arrangements were illogical, illiberal, and unjust within the larger canons of liberalism, as endorsed by John Stuart Mill. The ideal of liberal equality for the subjects of the British Empire thus lies behind Gandhi’s targeting “political authority that had lost its legitimacy given its failure to appreciate the basic British liberal ethos” (79). Both were conservative proponents of change based on implementing the liberal principles undergirding British imperialism in the first instance and U.S. constitutionalism in the second.

To Chakrabarty, African Americans “hardly matched the Indians in terms of social progress, given their failure to rise as a collectivity against oppression” (20). Gandhi and King, however, sequentially influenced the sweeping nonviolent movements against colonialism, racism, and for human rights that continue today. The interracial movement in the U.S. South congealed within a much shorter time-frame and tore down legal bars to public accommodations and the right to vote. Functioning within more precise and limited contours than did Gandhi’s transcendent attempts to overhaul Indian social structures, it accelerated the global spread of knowledge on nonviolent strategies.

Along with many of his Indian counterparts, Chakrabarty, a political scientist based at the University of Delhi, shows less than acute absorption from the worldwide outpouring of scholarly works on civil resistance of the past four decades. In restricting himself to Gandhi’s and King’s “ideologies” and rootedness in great texts and philosophical and religious thought, he underemphasizes Gandhi’s intuitive strategic brilliance. Gandhi possessed mastery of nonviolent action as a technique, a term he used, drawing upon India’s past and his study of world news reports. The repertoire of nonviolent methods invented or appropriated by Gandhi (marches, boycotts, strikes) was essential for King. Often standing outside the framework of the abundant qualitative and quantitative studies published since the 1970s, an example of disconnected terminology is Chakrabarty’s calling the Montgomery bus boycott a strike and protest (158–67). Describing “Gandhi and King as leaders of protest movements” (29) is misleading; vastly more is exerted than protest with the social power of civil resistance movements, which often involve tangible shifts of political power.

Mary Elizabeth King
University for Peace

Book Review (Journal of Resistance Studies): Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change

25 March, 2016

Book Review (Economic & Political Weekly): Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change

19 December, 2015

Changing Hearts and Minds through Non-violent Protest?, an article by David Hardiman for the Economic & Political Weekly, Dec 19, 2015.

Video: Webinar: Learning from Gandhi, a Campaign against Untouchability, and Human Error

27 October, 2015

Mary Elizabeth King, “Webinar: Learning from Gandhi, a Campaign against Untouchability, and Human Error,” International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, October 27, 2015. Go to

Mary King on Vaikom Satyagraha – Mathrubhumi News Morning Show

15 October, 2015

Dr. Mary King shares her experience in Mathrubhumi news, morning show while visiting Kerala in connection with the release of her new book on Vaikom satyagraha, ‘Gandhian non-violence struggle and untouchability in South India’.

Watch here:

Nonviolent Struggle Twice as Effective as Armed Action

23 September, 2015

View article: Nonviolent Struggle Twice as Effective as Armed Action –  by Navamy Sudhish published in the Indian Express, September 23, 2015

Opinion Piece (The Roanoke Times): The Myth of a “Better” Iran Deal

30 August, 2015

The nuclear deal that the United States and its international partners reached with Iran achieved what it set out to do: prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. This is not solely a White House talking point. Seventy-five nuclear experts have now voiced their support for the deal in addition to top U.S. scientists, generals and admirals,ambassadors, national security experts, and the Israeli security establishment — all of whom agree that the bargain will block all pathways for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

The agreement is rock solid. As a joint bipartisan statement from a group of national security leaders says, “We . . . conclude that the JCPOA represents the achievement of greater security for us and our partners in the region.” Further, it states, the agreement “meet[s] all of the key objectives.” For instance, it disables Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, reduces Iran’s holdings of nuclear material by 98 percent, and places Iran’s facilities under the most stringent inspections regime ever negotiated. One nonproliferation expert said of this agreement that if Iran ever makes a move toward building a bomb, “the likelihood of getting caught is near 100 percent.”

Yet, critics of the Iran deal rarely, if ever, argue about the technical aspects of this accord. Instead, detractors — many of whom vigorously helped push America into war with Iraq — say that there is a better deal out there, if we just play hardball. Never mind that the agreement has been broadly endorsed by the international community or that it took nearly two years of painstaking negotiations to complete.

Indeed, one could dismiss these charges outright if Congress had not already provided itself with the opportunity to kill the deal. Rather, we must seriously examine the claim that a better deal exists, because if Congress were to prevent the president from implementing the current one, the United States will look weak and untrustworthy, the agreement will fall apart, and the chances for still more war in the Middle East may increase.

The notion that we can negotiate a “better deal” in the event that Congress kills the one agreed to in Vienna is pure fantasy for several reasons.

First, getting a “better” package would not only require the current international sanctions regime to remain firmly in place, but it would also need additional pressure from the international powers that got Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Indeed, the unity of United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — a group that doesn’t agree on many things — made possible a final arrangement with Iran. If it is undermined by Congress, the entire sanctions regime will collapse, and with it, the pressure on Iran to comply with any restrictions on its nuclear program.

Second, if Congress trashes the deal, the United States would lose the credibility to negotiate a better one. Our partners will rightly conclude that if the United States can’t follow through on the transaction so laboriously built they would be unlikely to cement another one.

Third, even if by some miracle the sanctions regime and international unity did not collapse, the politics of this issue don’t appear to be changing any time soon. The Republican candidates for president seem opposed to diplomacy with Iran in any shape. On the Democratic side, a President Clinton, Sanders, or O’Malley would confront the same problem faced by President Obama now: a Republican majority in both Houses poised to stop at nothing to kill a deal.

The reality is that any notion of voting down this accord with the goal of negotiating a better one will put the future of resolving this critical matter diplomatically in jeopardy and increase the likelihood of military action. Sen. Mark Warner should support this agreement — as former Sen. John Warner does — because it represents the best chance without going to war that the United States has had, or will have, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

First published in The Roanoke Times

Mary remembers Julian Bond

17 August, 2015

Julian Bond: In Memoriam

By Mary Elizabeth King
Read more »

Book Talk: Gandhi Reaches Civil Rights Leaders

6 May, 2015

View article: Book Talk: Gandhi Reaches Civil Rights Leaders – by Erica Moody published in the Washington Life Magazine.

Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change

3 March, 2015

Mary King’s latest book, Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and Mechanisms of Change, is now available.

A note from the author:

A 1920s nonviolent struggle in the Indian village of Vykom (now in Kerala) sought to open the public roads surrounding the Brahmin temple there. For centuries, any Christian, Jew, Muslim, dog, or pig could walk these roads, with the exception of so-called untouchable Hindus, who would “pollute” the high castes should their shadow fall upon them. In what was modern India’s first important social struggle, ordinary people in the princely state of Travancore took action to oppose the extreme practices of untouchability in the Hindu caste system. From April 1924 to November 1925, what Mohandas K. Gandhi called a satyagraha was waged to gain access for excluded groups to the forbidden routes encircling the temple compound. (From Sanskrit satya, truth, and agraha, insistence, satyagraha has come to mean a campaign of nonviolent civil resistance.)
I spent hundreds of hours in archives with both palace and British original documents, and newspaper morgues, in assessing the role of Gandhi, the dilemmas that he faced, and the mistakes that he made. I also interviewed specialist Keralan historians. I have reconstructed a verifiable chronology for what actually happened at Vykom (and its controversial settlement) and in this corrected context, trace the dynamics of civil resistance during this movement. For the first time, scholars and practitioners are able to evaluate this famous and misperceived struggle, which influenced the building of theory on the mechanisms of change in nonviolent civil resistance. Broadening my scope, I give fresh analysis of satyagraha and analyze the impact of the Vykom struggle on the concept and workings of civil resistance on the global level to the present day. Starting in 1919, for four decades, African-American leaders traveled to India searching for strategies on how to change what they thought comparable to a caste system, while Indians lecturing in the United States shared lessons from their nonviolent campaigns, thereby shaping the contours of the coming U.S. civil rights movement.
A note about availability:
My latest book was released by Oxford University press in India on January 27, 2015, and is available for order from OUP India and Flipkart now (which can send it anywhere). It was released in the United Kingdom on March 1, and is available for purchase on Amazon UK. It is available on Amazon (US) now, for delivery from March 25, 2015.