In this overview article, we summarize recent research in progress that examines the potential and limitations of non-violent civil disobedience through the lens of the evolution of an iconic success: India’s struggle for democratic self-rule. We present a theoretical framework that highlights two key twin challenges faced by non-violent movements in ethnically diverse countries. The first is the challenge of mass mobilization across ethnic lines. The second challenge lies in overcoming the enhanced temptations faced by members of large mobilized groups to turn violent, whether to secure short-term gains from mob action or in response to manipulation by agents who stand to gain from political violence. We show how these challenges appear to match general patterns from cross-campaign data.
Motivated by these patterns, we discuss how these challenges were overcome during the Indian Independence Struggle. We argue that the first challenge — that of forging a mass movement — was accomplished through the brokering of a deal that took advantage of external shocks — in this case, the Great Depression to align the incentives of disparate ethnic and social groups towards mass mobilization in favor of democracy and land reform. The second key challenge — that of keeping the mass movement peaceful — was accomplished through organizational innovations introduced by Mohandas Gandhi in his reforms of the constitution of the Congress movement in 1919-20. These organizational innovations took the Congress movement from one dominated by a rich elite to one organized on the principle of self-sacrifice, selecting future leaders who could then be trusted to maintain non-violent discipline in pursuit of the extension of broad rights and public policy objectives. We conclude by arguing that a key, but hitherto mostly neglected, aspect of ‘Gandhi’s Gift’ — the example of non-violence applied to India’s independence struggle — lies in understanding these organizational innovations.