Civil Disobedience

By Prapanna Lahiri

Civil disobedience has been variously defined as —

  • A public act of wilfully disobeying the law and/or the commands of an authority or of an occupying international power because they are considered to bemorally wrong or detrimental.
  • Civil disobedience is an act of refusal to obey a law as a result of moral objections, especially through passive resistance.

The objective of such action is to convey a political message to the authorities that people are willing to openly disobey laws that they consider unjust. Civil disobedience normally is a form of collective protest and is ideally a non-violent resistance.

Henry David Thoreau, the American author, poet and philosopher practiced an act of solitary civil disobedience as an individual, in his own life, when he spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican War to oppose American imperialism and against the practice of slavery in some territories. This single night spent in jail prompted Thoreau to later publish his essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ in 1849. His essay exerted such powerful force over time that influenced political giants as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr to lead civil disobedience movements in their times.

Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in clearly formulating the concept of civil disobedience on a large scale by his philosophy of ‘Satyagraha’, a non violent non cooperation movement, started originally in Transvaal province of South Africa in 1906, later shifted to India to become a means to achieve independence. Gandhi’s boldest act of civil disobedience was the ‘Salt Satyagraha’, in 1930, also known as ‘Dandi March’ when he led a defiant march to the sea to protest the British Monopoly on salt. He defied the British Salt Acts which prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, forcing them to import salt from Britain.

‘Boston Tea Party’ was one famous act of civil disobedience in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, James Bevel, Rosa Parks and other activists in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s also used civil disobedience techniques. The movement against apartheid In South Africa started by Nelson Mandela along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko advocated civil disobedience. The Purple Rain Protest of 1989 and the Cape Town Peace March were notable instances of defiance of apartheid laws. The pro-democracy protests known as Velvet Revolution ended 41 years of authoritarian Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The non violent ‘Singing Revolution,’ in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania helped these republics achieve independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The fall of the Berlin wall in Germany and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine were examples of successful disobedience movements.

While civil disobedience has proved itself as an effective tool to fight “unjust” laws, the advocates of such movements must strike a balance between obeying these supposedly unjust laws and fighting for their beliefs, without creating a society of anarchy. It should be practiced when no other recourse is available.


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