Subject: World History and Culture – India; Nonviolence; Mahatma Gandhi;

Ages: 12+; Middle and High School Levels;

Length: Film Clip: 25 minutes; Lesson: Two 45 – 55 minute class periods depending on how deeply teachers want to go into nonviolent mass action.



Students will learn about Mahatma Gandhi, the development of nonviolent mass action, and the Indian movement for independence. Students will retain strong mental images of Gandhi and the origins of nonviolent mass action.

Mohandas Gandhi, called the Mahatma, was probably responsible for more good
throughout the world than any man who lived in the 20th century. His influence was
particularly beneficial to the people of India and the people of the United States.


Knowledge of nonviolent mass action and of the Indian independence movement is important for any student of modern world history.


This is the second segment of the documentary, “A Force More Powerful”. The film describes six occasions in which nonviolent mass action changed governments or promoted social reform.


Location on DVD: This snippet starts 30 minutes into the film, after the segment on the Nashville sit-ins.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: confined, bondage, repression, registration papers, mobilization, underdog, satyagraha, Gandhian, discipline, sit-in, dramatize, grievances, boycott, backfire, strategic opportunity, controversial, equivalent, contingency, indignation, mobilized, momentum.

Possible Problems for this Film Clip: None.

Why not show the whole movie? TWM strongly recommends this film, especially the sections on the Nashville sit-ins, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, and the emergence of Solidarity in Poland. See Learning Guide to A Force More Powerful.


Review this Guide and decide how much of the Supplemental Materials to provide to the class. Determine whether to present the Supplemental Materials through direct instruction or to give students the handout. Also, decide which Discussion Questions to use. Determine whether to give students the comprehension test. Modify the handout and the comprehension test, if necessary, for the particular needs of the class.

A note about nomenclature. Civil disobedience has come to mean masses of powerless people acting nonviolently to change their situation. However, civil disobedience also means breaking unjust laws or, in an effort to publicize injustice, breaking other laws. In this Learning Guide the term “civil disobedience” will be used in its narrower technical sense. The larger set of tactics, pioneered by Gandhi and used in countries all over the world, including boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, etc. will be referred to as “nonviolent mass action.”


1. Introduce the lesson by telling the class that: (1) the film will be a documentary about Mahatma Gandhi, the movement for independence in India, and nonviolent mass action; and (2) the U.S. Civil Rights Movement adapted the tactics developed by Mr. Gandhi and used in India to press for equality for black Americans. Put the demonstrations in context with other historical events that the class has been studying or will study in the future. Warn students that they will have a comprehension test on the contents of the snippet and the handout which they will receive after the film is completed.

2. Play the film clip. The section on Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement is the second segment of the film and lasts about 25 minutes.

3. After playing the film clip, present the Supplemental Materials through direct instruction or by having the class read the handout. This should take no more than 15 minutes.

4. Select the discussion questions to review. See Discussion Questions section below.


Points that will be covered in a thorough class discussion are set out in the Suggested Response section. The questions on the comprehension test are identical in most cases to the discussion questions. Not all discussion questions are included in the test. The Suggested Responses are examples of excellent answers to the appropriate test questions.

1. Early in his career, Gandhi described campaigns of nonviolent mass action as “passive resistance.” Later he had second thoughts about this description. Does the term “passive resistance” accurately describe a campaign of nonviolent mass action? Explain your answer, focusing on each of the two words of the phrase “passive resistance”.

Suggested Response:

The word “passive” is accurate in that nonviolent resisters don’t physically strike their opponents. However, “passive” is not accurate in the political, emotional, or moral sense. Persons involved in nonviolent mass action are seeking to change political or social reality, usually in a very aggressive way. They are making things very difficult emotionally for their opponents. Nonviolent mass action seeks to make people look at their actions or their beliefs with a new ethical perspective. It challenges long-held beliefs and established customs of behavior. In this sense, the word “passive” is incorrect. The word “resistance” is also both appropriate and inappropriate. A nonviolent protester “resists” the normal operation of the status quo in an effort to make it grind to a halt or in an effort to change it. At the same time, this “resistance” is very dynamic because it seeks to create change, often dramatic change. Thus Gandhi, in South Africa, “resisted” enforcement of the pass laws for the purpose of fundamentally changing society to improve treatment of people of Indian descent.

2. What benefits have the people of the United States derived from the influence of Mahatma Gandhi? Answer as to each group: (1) whites, (2) blacks, and (3) other minorities.

Suggested Response:

Gandhi provided tactics and a theory by which the black community in the U.S. could challenge the unethical practice of segregation and make the whites realize that it was wrong. It provided a means to force social change without violence. For whites, the Civil Rights Movement has enriched the ethics of the United States and made it less hypocritical. All Americans are its beneficiaries, for while black people obtained freedom from the restrictions of segregation, whites and other Americans (to the extent they learned from the Civil Rights Movement) freed themselves of the unethical conduct called segregation and brought their society more in line with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The benefits were immense for both. As for other minorities, the prohibitions on racial segregation have also outlawed discrimination against them and they have benefitted from the understanding of the evils of racism that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement.

3. Methods of nonviolent mass action can be separated into three categories: protest, noncooperation and direct intervention. Describe each category and give at least one example of each. Your examples do not need to be confined to the Indian independence movement.

Suggested Response:

They are (1) protests (such as petitions, meetings, parades, vigils, and demonstrations), (2) noncooperation (such as boycotts, resignations and work slowdowns) and (3) direct intervention (such as sit-ins, factory occupations, seizures of property, and blockades).

4. The three main ways in which nonviolent mass action forces political and social change are by: (1) changing hearts and minds; (2) applying economic pressure; and (3) preventing business as usual. Describe how each of these works to help protesters achieve their goals.

Suggested Response:

(1) Changing Hearts and Minds: Nonviolent mass action works on the ethical perspective of the majority and the powerful by challenging the morality of their conduct. It points out contradictions among the values of the powerful or of the majority. It highlights differences between their actions and the society’s values. When the hearts and minds of the majority are changed, modification of policies and actions will naturally follow. Even if the entrenched powers are not convinced, it is difficult for governments or ruling elites to enforce policies rejected by the general public. (2) Applying Economic Pressure: Nonviolent action by masses of people puts economic pressure on the ruling powers through boycotts or other economic sanctions that hurt some of the ruling elite economically. This pressures and divides the ruling powers. (3) Preventing Business As Usual: Finally, by making the administration of the government or the functioning of society more difficult, nonviolent mass action pressures target groups to make concessions.

5. Would the tactics of nonviolent mass action have worked against violent dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. A good answer will show an understanding of the mechanics of nonviolent mass action and the difficulty that it has in operating against abject evil. Certainly, if nonviolent mass action is to work against a vicious dictatorship, it would have to be substantially modified. For example, the Danes, who used nonviolent mass resistance to fight the Nazi occupation of their country during WWII, modified Gandhi’s principles by using secrecy in spiriting their Jewish countrymen to Sweden, in their work slowdowns, and in their general strike. In addition, because of the nature of their oppressor and because the world was at war, the pressure of public opinion in other countries was not a weapon that would help them. However, the fact that the Nazis needed the goods produced in Denmark’s factories for the German war effort meant that the Germans would be somewhat restrained in their actions against masses of Danish workers.

6. One goal of practitioners of nonviolent mass action is to persuade their opponents of the justness of their cause. How do nonviolent protesters work on the minds of their opponents?

Suggested Response:

Practitioners of nonviolent mass action expose the abuses of the existing power structure and subject the beliefs and actions of their opponents to scrutiny. When the nonviolent mass action campaign is well conceived it, exposes contradictions between their opponents’ underlying values and their behavior. In a successful campaign, the opponents of the mass action campaign, often also responding to aroused public opinion and economic pressure, will change their policies. Thus, in the U.S., the black minority made the white majority face the contradictions between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practices and beliefs of racism. Faced with this contradiction, propelled by an aroused national public opinion, and harassed by economic pressures caused by boycotts, sit-ins and other economic tactics, enough segregationists changed their position so that both government policies and social practices were modified.

7. Was Gandhi correct when he said at the start of the march to the sea that the British were not in control, but the protesters were? Explain your answer and discuss how it applies to any nonviolent mass action against a government or its policies.

Suggested Response:

To a very real extent, Gandhi was correct. The British couldn’t stop the protesters except with acts of repression which would show the British to be brutal occupiers who had lost the consent of the governed. In the same way, nonviolent mass action which has been properly conceived and planned will run its course and make its point, unless the authorities repress it with force and violence. However, the repression and violence will arouse public opinion in support of the demonstrators and undermine the position of the government.

8. Compare and contrast the situation faced by Indians seeking independence from Great Britain and the situation faced by blacks in the U.S. seeking equal rights. Compare and contrast the responses of the Indians and of black Americans to their situations.

Suggested Response:

The Indians faced an empire with a long history of dividing and conquering countries with large populations. The British were foreigners in India, using its wealth to enrich Britain. Blacks in the U.S. were trying to change the practices of people who were their fellow countrymen. Americans, black and white, were tied together by bonds of a common culture developed through living in the same country for centuries. In addition, although white segregationists may have wanted to deny it, most “black” Americans had some white ancestors. Whites and blacks were related by blood more often in the South than in other parts of the country. The Indians produced a leader, Mohandas Gandhi who developed Satyagraha, a theory and set of tactics to change society. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Americans seeking an end to segregation and racism adopted Gandhi’s strategy and embraced his teachings. Another way to conceptualize the response is that the Indians sought to exclude the British who were, after all, foreigners. The blacks in the U.S. sought to participate in American society on the basis of equality. Both the Indians and black Americans sought to accomplish their goals through nonviolent mass action.

9. If nonviolent protesters are attacked by the police or other opponents what should they do?

Suggested Response:

They should not fight back. They should look their attackers in the eye whenever possible. Some strategies of nonviolent mass protest provide that the protesters should not even try to protect themselves from the blows; others permit them to move their bodies to protect vital organs but they cannot strike back.

10. When many people are peacefully protesting against a government, refusing to cooperate, or engaging in nonviolent direct action, and the government restores its authority through mass arrests, beatings, and tear gas, what have the protesters accomplished?

Suggested Response:

The protesters have shown that the government rules by force and not by the consent of the people. No government, whether it is a dictatorship or a democracy, can last if the people withdraw their consent to be governed and stop obeying government orders. As Gandhi said: “Authority enjoys power only to the extent that obedience is rendered by the population.”

11. When the British were resisting independence for India, they wanted Gandhi’s supporters to get angry and become violent. Why would that have hurt Gandhi’s campaign?

Suggested Response:

It would have denied Gandhi and his followers the advantage of the moral high ground and it would have given the British an excuse for their violent repression of the protests.

12. What is the role of the press, foreign and domestic, in a campaign of nonviolent mass action?

Suggested Response:

The press spreads the message of the protesters and distributes the news of the repressive and violent actions of those in power. This will hopefully mobilize public opinion to favor the goals of the protesters. It is difficult for any government to resist an aroused public opinion. Thus, even if those in power do not become convinced by the arguments of the protesters, they will at the least be influenced and perhaps compelled to give in by the force of public opinion. The foreign press is especially important when the domestic press is controlled by the government or when the government is not responsive to the people. The triumph of nonviolent mass action in India and South Africa are particularly good examples of the powerful role of the foreign press.

13. There are two major purposes for economic boycotts or other financial pressures in a campaign of nonviolent mass action. What are they?

Suggested Response:

The first is to compel the oppressive forces to give in, even if they are not convinced by the arguments of the protesters. The second is to divide the opponents. Usually, boycotts and economic measures hurt one segment of the power structure more than they hurt others. This divides and weakens the opponents. As the British taught the world, “divide and conquer” is an amazingly effective tactic. Nonviolent protesters use it, too.

14. How have changes in communication technology affected the kinds of power exercised by nonviolent movements and the regimes they oppose? What new tactics, for instance, might a present-day Gandhi employ in the era of the internet, cell phones, and email?

Suggested Response:

There is no single correct answer to this question. A good answer will mention the various changes in communications technology, computers, and the increased power of government to spy on its citizens (“big brother”). A good answer will point out how improved communications and computer technology will make it easier to mobilize masses of people and communicate with the press or, using the Internet, directly with the audience. A good answer will demonstrate some knowledge of the mechanics of nonviolent mass action when evaluating the new technologies.

15. Gandhi said that the only devils in the world are those running around in our hearts. What did he mean by this?

Suggested Response:

If people didn’t allow themselves to be possessed by hatred, greed, etc., there would be no evil in the world. Another interpretation is that if people didn’t allow evil to possess their souls and govern their actions, there would be no evil in the world.

16. What do you think would happened in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict if the Palestinians were to engage in nonviolent mass action rather than terrorism in their effort to secure an independent Palestinian state?

Suggested Response:

No one knows for sure but based upon the experience of the South African resistance to apartheid and other social/political movements that have rejected violence and gone on to secure their objectives, a strong argument can be made that the Palestinians would get their state in a very short time. Israel is a Western-style democracy. Even when it was faced with terrorism from the Palestinians, it had a strong peace movement. Several Israeli prime ministers Rabin, Barak, and most recently Sharon, have tried to make peace with the Palestinians. If the Palestinians renounce violence and convince the Israelis of their peaceful intentions, the Israelis will have no need to respond militarily. The Israeli government would be under great pressure from the peace movement in its own country to withdraw. In addition, Israel depends upon the U.S. for support in the international community, for billions in foreign aid, and for many of its weapons. If the Palestinians were not sending rockets over Israel and if they were not training suicide bombers, the U.S. and the Israeli public would demand that Israel stop any military response. The model here is South Africa. So long as the anti-apartheid efforts of the ANC and others were violent, the South African government could survive by being even more violent. It was only after South African blacks discovered nonviolent mass action, with its economic pressures and the mobilization of public opinion worldwide, that black South Africans were able to change the minds of white South Africans. There are obvious differences between the two situations but the similarities are very strong. The violence used by Fatah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations and by the Palestinian people in the Intifadas, justify a military response. The terrorism blunts criticism of the violence perpetrated by the Israeli army against the Palestinians. The decades of delay caused by the failure to employ nonviolent mass action have led to the deaths of thousands and economic impoverishment in Palestine. In addition, the damage that the Palestinians have done to their own society by honoring violent elements and permitting them to run free must be immense.

17. Which comes first in a democratic society, attempts to work through the democratic process or nonviolent mass action? As nonviolent mass action proceeds what, if anything, is the role of the democratic process?

Suggested Response:

First and continually, one should work through the democratic process. If the democratic process is not responsive, nonviolent mass action is a way to change the mind of the public or to exert the pressure needed to get the democratic process moving again.

18. Give examples of five social or political movements, not described in the film, that have made use of nonviolent mass action.

Suggested Response:

See listing above.

19. Is it fair to say that the mass media (newspapers, radio and television) made nonviolent mass action an effective tactic?

Suggested Response:

Yes. The press and the media permit the protesters to spread their message and publicize the brutality of any attempts to suppress their activities.

20. During the 20th century, new technologies enhanced the ability of the state to repress dissent. Did this have any relation to the growth of nonviolent mass action as a tactic to overthrow governments and force social change?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. However, an argument can be made the as governments and their intelligence services became more and more powerful, armed insurrection became less and less of a realistic possibility. Nonviolent mass action was a tactic that was less vulnerable to repressive tactics of governments than armed insurrection.


Key Concepts Stressed in the Film

  • The 20th century saw the rise of a powerful new weapon for political and social change. It has been used on every continent and in almost every decade. Sometimes called civil disobedience, but more correctly described as nonviolent mass action, this new way of forcing governments and societies to change was pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi, a leader of the movement for Indian independence. Gandhi was so revered by his people that he was given the name “Mahatma” which is a Hindu term meaning “Great Soul”, a person to be revered for wisdom and selflessness.
  • Nonviolent mass action is a tool of the underdog, used by powerless people to defeat those who control armies, governments and economies.
  • Nonviolent mass action usually requires economic pressure to be successful.
  • Nonviolent mass action usually, but not always, is very open, honest and public about its goals and strategies. Good examples are the Nashville sit-ins of the 1960s and Gandhi’s march to the sea to make salt.
  • Nonviolent mass action must adapt to the particular situation and especially to the psychology of the oppressor. For example, Gandhi could use certain tactics against the British, who had a sense of fair play and who liked to view themselves as enlightened rulers. However, when the Danes were resisting the Nazis during World War II, tactics of making every protest open and public would not have worked. As a result, the Danes had to adapt their tactics by using secrecy and subterfuge.
  • Nonviolent mass action against a government is effective when the people withdraw their consent to be governed, thereby destroying the legitimacy of the government. When a government uses force to control its population, it has conceded that it has lost the people’s support and therefore its legitimacy.


Methods of Nonviolent Mass Action — Three Types


198 Methods of Nonviolent Action have been cataloged. They can be divided into three categories: protest, noncooperation, and direct action. Gandhi and his followers used all three:

Protests — Mass meetings and demonstrations publicized the activists’ demands and motivated the activists’ supporters.

Noncooperation — Refusal to pay the salt tax publicized the injustice of British rule and deprived the government of income. The boycott of cloth made in England dramatized the fact that Britain profited from its occupation of India and that every Indian was injured by British rule. The cloth boycott also put economic pressure on certain businessmen and divided the English. Resignations of officials disrupted the British administration and provided publicity.

Direct intervention: — The effort to take over the salt works attempted to disrupt British administration. By provoking an overreaction to demonstrate the brutality of British rule, it showed beyond doubt that British rule was imposed for the benefit of Britain, not to help ordinary Indians.


Three Sources for the Power of
Nonviolent Mass Action


Nonviolent mass action forces change in three ways. It changes hearts and minds of the public and of the opponents of the protesters. Second, it hurts the pocketbook of those whose behavior it seeks to change. Third, it prevents those whose behavior it seeks to change from going about business as usual.

These are more fully described as follows: (1) Changing Hearts and Minds: nonviolent mass action works on the ethical perspective of the majority and the powerful by challenging the morality of their conduct. It points out contradictions between the values of the powerful or of the majority and their actions. When the hearts and minds of the majority are changed, modification of policies and actions will naturally follow. Even if the entrenched powers are not convinced, it is difficult for governments or ruling elites to enforce policies rejected by the general public. (2) Applying Economic Pressure: mass nonviolence puts economic pressure on the ruling powers through boycotts or other economic sanctions that hurt some of the ruling elite economically. This pressures and divides the ruling powers. (3) Preventing Business As Usual: Finally, by making the administration of the government or the functioning of society more difficult, nonviolent mass action pressures target groups to make concessions.


Other Examples of Nonviolent Mass Action
in the 20th and 21st Centuries


Examples of nonviolent mass action which achieved a change in government or in policy that are not cited in the snippet include: (1) the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan; (2) The U.S. Civil Rights Movement; see Snippet Lesson Plan to the Nashville Sit-ins; (3) parts of the American suffrage movement led by Alice Paul; these women picketed the White House, were imprisoned on false charges, and were badly mistreated in prison; (see Learning Guide to “Iron Jawed Angels”); (4) the Solidarity union movement in then communist Poland; (5) the use of strikes and boycotts (although some strikes have been associated with violence on both sides, the vast majority were peaceful); this includes the grape boycott by the United Farm Worker’s Union, 1965 – 1970, led by Cesar Chavez; (6) the Russian revolution that toppled the Soviet Union in 1991; (7) the revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 1986; (8) a general strike that forced the El Salvadoran dictator General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez to relinquish power in 1944; (9) the protests of “Los Madres” (the mothers of the “disappeared”) which grew into massive street demonstrations that forced the Argentinean military dictatorship to relinquish power, 1977 – 1983; (10) the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia that drove the Communists from power in 1989; (11) The pro-Western “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine which installed Viktor Yushchenko as President in 2004; (12) the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003 which installed the populist regime of President Mikhail Saakashvili; and (13) Executive Order 8802 signed on June 25, 1941 by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibiting discrimination against black Americans in defense industries and establishing a commission to investigate complaints of discrimination; the Executive Order was promulgated only after a credible threat by black leaders to hold a peaceful march on Washington by 100,000 people protesting discrimination in hiring in defense industries. (For the background behind Executive Order 8802, see No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1994, Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 246 – 253.) For a further description of some of these examples, see the filmmaker’s website Other Resistance Movements in the 20th Century. For a longer and more complete list, see Case Studies from the Albert Einstein Institution.

Most of these examples of nonviolent mass action did not apply all of the principles of Satyagraha, the theory of promoting change through nonviolent mass action developed by Mahatma Gandhi. Instead, they adapted the tactics of Satyagraha to fit the specific situation faced by the protesters.


Notes on Satyagraha


Satyagraha is not just a movement to force social and political change by defeating an opponent. Instead, it seeks to convert the opponent so that in the end, there is no defeat and no victory but rather a new harmony. Satyagraha operates by attaining insight into the real nature of an evil situation in a spirit of peace and love. In so doing the Satyagrahi encounters absolute truth. (In Hindi Satyagraha means “the devotion to truth” or “truth force.”) Satyagraha seeks truth in a spirit of peace and love. A satyagrahi practices nonviolence always. The refusal to submit to the wrong, or to cooperate with it in any way, is an assertion of truth.

As part of the truth-telling process, Satyagraha requires that an actor warn others of his intentions and forbids any tactic suggesting the use of secrecy to advantage. Its full range of application includes more than civil disobedience and political action. It extends from the details of correct daily living to the construction of alternative political and economic institutions. Article on “Satyagraha” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2005. The Complete Site on Mahatma Gandhi.

Civil disobedient protesters often violate the law to which they object, such as segregation or draft laws. On occasion, in order to dramatize their arguments, protesters will violate other laws to which they have no objection and would enforce themselves. Examples are trespass or traffic laws. Activists who perform civil disobedience must be scrupulously nonviolent and must willingly accept the legal penalties for their actions. The purpose of civil disobedience can be to publicize an unjust law; to dramatize a just cause; to appeal to the conscience of the public; to force negotiation with recalcitrant officials; to “clog the machine” (in Thoreau’s phrase) with political prisoners; to get into court where they can challenge the constitutionality of a law; or to end personal complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to an unjust law.

Classic Satyagraha uses the publicity from the events of nonviolent mass action to work on both the conscience of the larger community and the conscience of the oppressors. In India, South Africa, Poland, and the U.S., economic forces were brought into play as well, through boycotts and disruption of business as usual.


See Comprehension Test on Nonviolence. The test contains 10 questions and one extra credit question. Each of the questions are identical to one of the discussion questions.