Victories Without Violence


Thousands of Years of Segregation Give Way

People, Gandhi once said, have to grow up to freedom. That was certainly true of the Mahatma himself. As a boy he was afraid of snakes, ghosts and the dark. He was also afraid of letting his girl-wife know of these fears. At last, however, he won through to such disciplined courage that it infected thousands of fellow countrymen with the willingness to go to jail without self-pity for long periods of time. They would even face machine guns or tanks if necessary without external weapons of any kind.

This story happened in the village of Vykom, South India, Travancore Province.

Untouchables were not permitted to walk down a certain road. This violated Gandhi's principle of self-respect, so some of his admirers set out to change the tradition at any expense to themselves. A young Christian began. With an Untouchable he walkd down that road. The Brahmins promptly beat him up along with his companion. The two tried it again. This time they were arrested. The protest spread. Others joined the young Christian. This baffled the authorities, who ordered that there be no more arrests.

The military police formed a cordon across the road. Gandhi's followers (directed from Gandhi's sickbed many miles away) made a unique reply. In front of the police they stood in six-hour shifts, in an attitude of prayer. They were not simply to pray. They were under obligation as satyagrahis or trainees in the power of truth, to offer no violence, to exhibit nothing but courtesy and under no circumstances to yield.

Suppose you were one of those policemen. Every day you would have to stand guard there on that miserable road, looking at some young man or woman facing you with hands folded, praying for you. It would get on your nerves. It got on the nerves of the whole community. For months the curious struggle went on. The young people settled down to the job most effectively. They built huts by the side of the road. They also worked at their spinning wheels.

When the rains came, the highway turned into a small river. The police brought boats -- for themselves. At first the water reached only to the knees of the satyagrahis as each stood in front of a policeman sitting in a boat.

Then the water rose to their waists. The shift was changed to three hours. To stand there three hours at a stretch, soaked but in a posture of prayer, week after week, was to put it mildly a test. When the boats were not properly anchored, as sometimes happened, the young people would help to hold them in place. It was a long drawn out struggle and the satyagrahis did not give in. Were they not dedicated to hang on no matter what the punishment?

Some of the Brahmins, moved by the spirit they saw, joined the Gandhi-ites. Untouchables, however, were not yet permitted to walk down that road. Then the opposition gave way. Without a single act of reported violence on the satyagrahis' part, "truth force" won out.

"We are now ready," said the Brahmins, "to receive the Untouchables." It had cost Gandhi's strange peace army a year and four months of disciplined effort. But it was worth it. The outcaste people were allowed to go down not only the road in Vykom. They were also given permission to use the other roads in the province.

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