About the Book
The recent large-scale communal disturbances in India have prompted some older Gandhians to voice the opinion that the time may have come to reactivate the Shanti Sena, Mahatma Gandhi’s Peace Army, that did impressive work in promoting communal harmony between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s.
Although the idea of a Shanti Sena was considered to be of fundamental importance by Gandhi, he had little success in setting it up in his lifetime. It took the foresight and efforts of Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, and the organising ability of Narayan Desai. The history of this peace army that they brought into life and directed is not only an inspiring one, it is also important, given the rise in sectarian violence in India and the recent growth of international peace teams that look to the Sena for motivation and guidance.
Sena members worked in conflict resolution at the grassroots level and undertook peace missions during riots, convinced dacoits to turn themselves into authorities, carried out relief work following wars, experimented with nonviolent defence, conducted nonviolence training camps and even played a role in unarmed peacekeeping work in the international sphere.
Relying on interviews with key participants and archival material, this thought-provoking work contributes greatly to the study of a unique experiment in practical nonviolence. This is the first study of its kind that has chronicled in such detail the activities and history of the Shanti Sena during its most active years, and discussed the prospects for its reinvigoration.
About the Author
Thomas Weber teaches Politics and Peace Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne He has been researching and writing about Gandhi’s life, thought and legacy for a quarter of a century, and has traveled extensively in India. His major Gandhi related publications include:
Gandhi, Gandhism and the Gandhians (2006), Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor (2004/2007), Nonviolent Intervention Across Borders: A Recurrent Vision (edited with Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, 2000), On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi’s March to Dandi (1997), Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping (1996) and Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement (1988).
He lives in the wooded hills on the outskirts of Melbourne with his wife and child.
When I was in Gujarat in early 2002, not long after the W massacres of Muslims in Ahmedabad and elsewhere, I detected an understandable sense of gloom among my Gandhian friends. It would not be too strong a use of words to say that some of them were depressed. They had seen violence before, even in Gandhi’s home state, but this time the scale of violence was particularly horrifying and it seemed that the authorities could do, or more disturbingly did do, little to stop it. Although many made valiant efforts and took personal risks to try to alleviate tensions, the Gandhian peace brigades, that were active in times of communal violence during the 1960s and 1970s, had long since ceased to function and individual efforts were simply not sufficient to make a real difference. From the older of these Gandhians, I often heard the sentiment that the Shanti Sena, the Gandhian “peace army”, had to be reactivated.
The idea of a Shanti Sena was considered to be of fundamental importance by Mahatma Gandhi; however, he had little success in setting up a peace army in his lifetime. The formation of a Shanti Sena in India took the foresight and efforts of Vinob a Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan (widely known as JP), and the organizing ability of Narayan Desai. Vinoba is universally known as Gandhi’s spiritual heir, while JP is renowned as a Marxist resistance hero against the British, and later Vinoba’s lieutenant, then his rival in the Gandhian movement, and of course opponent of Mrs. Indira Gandhi with his call to “Total Revolution” which resulted in the”Emergency” of 1975. Narayan Desai is the son of Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai. He grew up on Gandhi’s ash rams and later became JP’s deputy as the secretary of the Shanti Sena in its heyday. The history of the Sena that they brought into life and directed is not only an inspiring one, it is also important given the rise in communal violence in India and the recent growth of international, peace teams that look to the Sena for motivation and guidance. The Shanti Sena was a glorious and largely successful experiment by the post-Gandhi Gandhians - one that seems to be fading into distant memory, but one that certainly should not be.
This work is based on my book Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping, published in America in 1996. The book was about unarmed peacekeeping and in particular non-governmental peace teams that were increasingly operating around the world - many of them inspired by the Shanti Sena and looking to its experience to help formulate their modes of operation. In short, it was about peace teams generally, with the Sena as the central case study.
The Sena had been inactive for over a dozen years at the time of my visit. Gandhians have often called for the re-establishment of the Sena since the rise in communal violence after the confrontations over the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya. What I was hearing was merely the latest incarnation of this regularly expressed sentiment. Whether the reactivation of the Sena is likely or not, I cannot tell. However, I decided that as an aid to those seriously considering this option, or the option of establishing some other form of peacekeeping, peacemaking or peacebuilding force, it was perhaps time to release an Indian edition of the book which was never readily obtainable in India. In this edition I have focussed on the Sena itself. Gone is the analysis of peace teams and the international scene. This book is about the experience of Gandhian/Indian peaceworkers, detailing the philosophy, history and various actions of the Sena, and hopefully it will prove to be of use to those who are discussing what civil society cando in the face of communal violence: the very issues that Mahatma Gandhi was wrestling with when he first attempted to put the idea of the Shanti Sena into practice following riots in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) in 1921.
The idea of Peacekeeping-States, especially as they take on the characteristics of what Myrdal has called the “strong” or “hard” state, jealously guard their monopoly of the process of peacekeeping within their borders. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most celebrated instances of third-party peacekeeping and the most ambitious (non-Indian) attempts at nonviolent/noncoercive peacekeeping/peacemaking have occurred in the international arena where at least one of the contending parties welcomed such assistance.
When, during the middle of this century, peacekeeping forces finally took to the field, the reality fell far short of the aspirations of various ambitious schemes for an international organization to preserve peace that have been proposed since antiquity’ And although the operation of United Nations peacekeeping forces have until recently been limited in scope, it is still beset with problems and contradictions. It may be difficult for peacekeepers to retain enough trust among the fighting parties, to bring them together with a view to effecting a settlement of their dispute, if the peacekeeping force itself has been shooting at them. There may be a contradiction between the duties of guarding, observing and separating conflicting groups, on the one hand, and attempting a long-term solution to a given conflict by trying to build a new social structure that considers the needs of the antagonists, on the other. Norwegian peace researcher, Johan Galtung, the most significant writer in this area, notes that the first role, while not very effective, is easy to implement. The second may be very effective, but is exceedingly difficult to implement.
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