From Asian Anarchism: China, Korea, Japan & India

Though India is located on the Western border of China, connection and communication between the anarchisms of both are relatively unknown since in India anarchism never really took on much of a formally named “anarchist” nature. In India, the relevance of anarchism is primarily in the deep influence major aspects of it had on important movements for national and social liberation. In order to understand the development of the heavily anarchistic Satyagraha movement in India, one must first consider the objective local conditions in which it developed. India is the second most populated country in the world, weighing in at over 1 billion people. Going back into ancient Hindu thought, one can indeed find predecessors to the concept of a stateless society; the Satya Yuga for instance, is essentially a description of a possible anarchist society in which people govern themselves based on the universal natural law of dharma (Doctor, 1964, p. 16). But at the same time that a stateless society is seen as a possibility, much of Hindu political thought is focused on the inherently evil nature of man and the therefore “divine right” of kings to govern, so long as they maintain protection from harm for the people. If they do not govern on the basis of dharma, however, the Chanakyasutras allow that “it is better to not to have a king then have one who is wanting in discipline” (p. 26). This of course is a major contrast with the Western notion of a universal divine right of kings regardless of the consequences.

Anarchism finds its first and most well-known expression in India with Mahatma Gandhi’s statement “the state evil is not the cause but the effect of social evil, just as the sea-waves are the effect not the cause of the storm. The only way of curing the disease is by removing the cause itself” (p. 36). In other words, Gandhi saw violence as the root of all social problems, and the state as a clear manifestation of this violence since its authority depends on a monopoly of its legitimate use. Therefore he held that “that state is perfect and non-violent where the people are governed the least. The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on nonviolence” (p. 37). For Gandhi, the process of attaining such a state of total non-violence (ahimsa) involved a changing of the hearts and minds of people rather than changing the state which governed them. Self-rule (swaraj) is the underlying principle that runs throughout his theory of satyagraha. This did not mean, as many have interpreted it, just the attainment of political independence for the Indian nation-state, but actually, just the opposite. Instead, swaraj starts first from the individual, then moves outward to the village level, outward further to the national level; the basic principal is that of the moral autonomy of the individual above all other considerations (p. 38).

So overall, Gandhi’s passion for collective liberation sprang first and foremost from a very anarchistic notion of individualism; in his view, the conscience of the individual is truly the only legitimate form of government. As he put it, “swaraj will be an absurdity if individuals have to surrender their judgement to a majority.” While this flies in the face of Western notions of governance, Gandhi reasoned that a single sound opinion is far more useful than that of 99.9% of the population if the majority opinion is unsound. It was also this swaraj individualism that caused him to reject both parliamentary politics and their instrument of legitimization, political parties; he felt that those who truly wanted a better world for everyone shouldn’t need to join a particular party in order to do so. This is the difference between Raj-Niti (politics of the state) and Lok-Niti (politics of the people). Swaraj individualism meant that everything had to be rethought anew: for instance, the notion that the individual exists for the good of the larger organization had to be discarded in favor of the notion that the larger organization exists for the good of the individual, and one must always be free to leave and to dissent (p. 44).

However, Gandhi’s notions of a pacifist path to swaraj were not without opposition, even within the ranks of those influenced by anarchism. Before 1920 a parallel, more explicitly anarchist movement was represented by India’s anarchist-syndicalists and the seminal independence leader, Bhagat Singh. Singh was influenced by an array of Western anarchisms and communisms and became a vocal atheist in a country where such attitudes were extremely unpopular. Interestingly, he studied Bakunin intensely but though he was markedly less interested in Marx, he was very interested in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky who “had succeeded in bringing about a revolution in their country.” So overall, Singh can be remembered as something of an Anarchist-Leninist, if such a term merits use. In the history of Indian politics, Singh is today remembered as fitting somewhere between Gandhian pacifism and terrorism, as he actively engaged in the organization of popular anti-colonial organizations with which to fight for the freedom of India from British rule. However, he was also part of a milieu which Gandhi referred to as “the cult of the bomb” — which of course he declared was based upon Western notions of using violence as a means to attain liberation. In response, Indian revolutionaries countered that Gandhi’s nonviolence ideas were also of Western origin, originating from Leo Tolstoy and therefore not authentically Indian either (Rao, 2002). It is in fact likely that Singh was influenced by Western notions of social change: like his Japanese counterpart Kotoku Shusui, Singh’s comrade and mentor Kartar Singh Sarabha organized South Asian workers in San Francisco, leading both of them to eventually commit their lives to the liberation of Indians the world over.

Notable amongst this milieu was the Hindustan Republican Association as well as the youth organization Naujawan Bharat Sabha; both of which Singh was involved in. Despite his earlier reluctance, by the mid-1920s Singh began to embrace the strategy of arming the general Indian population in order to drive the British out of the country. In service to this mission he traveled throughout the country organizing people’s militias, gaining a large following in the process. In 1928 this strategy of organized armed revolt gave way to an open support for individual acts of martyrdom and terrorism in an article Singh published in the pro-independence paper Kirti. In other issues of this same paper he published his famous essay on “Why I am an Atheist” as well as several articles on anarchism. In the anarchist articles, Singh equated the traditional Indian idea of “universal brotherhood” to the anarchist principle of “no rulers,” focusing largely on the primary importance of attaining independence from any outside authority whatever. Though he had been influenced by the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, Singh never did join the Communist Party of India even though he lived for six years after its original founding. (Rao, 2002). Perhaps this was due to the anarchist influence in his ideas; either way anarchist ideas (if not anarchist ideology as a whole) played a major role in both Gandhian and Singhian movements for swaraj.


ADAMS, Jason. “Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context”. -2-, What’s new: 26 December 2005. [Online].
[Accessed on 28 August 2011]


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