The link between Non-Violent Resistance and Conflict Transformation in asymmetrical conflicts

Non-violent resistance is a generic type of non-violent movement which goes hand in hand with conflict transformation. Conflict transformation intends to change the dynamics of conflict, relationship of the parties and make conditions favorable to bring both the parties for negotiations. One way to achieve such conditions can be performing the acts of omission and commission. Through these acts the opponent can be convinced to opt for conflict resolution as soon as possible. Non-violent resistance can seize the functioning of state and society, if it is conducted against the occupiers, state government or colonizers. This cannot be pursued where there is power asymmetry. The strong group can use force to suppress the weaker one. It may cause mass bloodshed, mental and physical harm, and widespread chaos. Power asymmetry might give the strong group a leverage to do what they perceive is right, and make “other” to fulfil their unnecessary demands.

    Marginalized and oppressed communities can express their grievances and demand equal treatment and social justice through non-violent resistance. It is one of the most effective tools in the domain of non-violence. Direct involvement in opposition against the physical and structural violence, and all injustices without resorting to physical violence. It can also contribute in conflict transformation as their techniques possess a common goal, social change through peaceful means. Conflict transformation can also cause power shifts, this may mitigate or de-escalate the conflict. That can bring both parties to conflict resolution. Moreover, “direct action” challenges the existing methods of conflict resolution like courts, legislature, mediation, negotiation etc. It confronts is the status quo and can disturb the law and order situation.

Non-violent resistance is not only the opposition to physical violence but the structural faults as well. Tolstoy, Quaker and Thoreau have asserted that authority of any ruler or regime depends on the submissiveness and obedience of the “ruled”. In non-violent resistance, this submissiveness is abolished through non-cooperation and civil disobedience like boycotts, strikes, tax resistance. This obstructs the government to operate.

Since 1945, different social movements were gaining momentum to achieve different objectives like Gandhi’s Independence Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and etc. During this, two major concepts of non-violence were developed: principled non-violence and pragmatic non-violence. Principled non-violence is the approach which argues the resort to non-violent resistance due to religious, moral and philosophical purposes. It says that violence should be avoided because it is the brutality against humanity and nature. People should be at peace mentally and physically. They should believe in truth and follow non-violence as a goal for life. Gandhi followed the same non-violence principle. He believed in self-transformation, self-inflicting harm to achieve one’s goals, and opposing violence without making use of it. He believed in conflict transformation through extremely peaceful means. On the other hand, pragmatic non-violence propounds the idea of tactical approach. It says that non-violent struggle should be properly planned and strategized. There should be a balanced approach employed, peaceful means like negotiations and dialogues paired with non-violent actions and tactics to challenge the power dynamics of the society.

Non-violent resistance or any non-violent movement can attract foreign support to pressurize the opponent. This is a significant element of NVR. But the interveners should be impartial, and support the rightful group. They mostly work for the assistance of low-power group. If it is found out that foreign interveners have associated any gains through their lent support, the NVR is considered illegitimate. Foreign assistance can be effective in many cases. It can reduce the intensity of violence, pressurize the opponent, impose sanctions on repressive regimes, and play a strong part in negotiation processes. And if both the conflicting parties have good faith in the third party, mediation process can lead to conflict resolution.

NVR gives courage, political and social awareness and power to the oppressed. It is also called power of the powerless. Actions and campaigns like protests, marches and demonstrations mobilize the local people and create unity among them. Along with symbolic expression of grievances, the subjects can engage the opponent in meaningful dialogues, and convince them. Logical arguments coupled with symbolic opposition against injustices can convert the opponents, and bring about a social change. However, if the conflict is inter-ethnic or asymmetric, these strategies might not bring about enough social changes.

The promotion of democratic practices, peaceful means of eliminating the hatred, sense of revenge and animosity in post-conflict phase is a positive aspect of many non-violent movements. Attitudinal and behavioral change can stop the conflict from arising again. Therefore, post-revolutionary reconciliation is essential for lasting peace.

    Veronique Dudouet has comprehensively drawn a link between non-violent resistance and conflict transformation in her article Non-Violent Resistance and Conflict Transformation in Power Asymmetries. The author has stated that NVR and conflict transformation go hand in hand because they possess the same motive. She argues that a combination of the techniques of NVR and conflict transformation can be effective, but cannot be pursued in its true sense in an undemocratic state. This is rightly said because if a state is undemocratic, there will be power asymmetry. The dominant group might be a forced dictator or an occupier, in that case, the dominated group might be coerced forcefully to suppress the non-violent resistance. This might cause bloodshed, disruption of law and order, and unwarranted detainments. As it is clearly illustrated in Amritsar massacre and many such incidents. Gandhi was a proponent of non-violence movement against British Raj, he did not ask any of his supporters to take up arms. The movement had to sacrifice many of its soldiers during the struggle even then.

Dudouet explains that Gandhi believed in self-transformation and bearing violence without using it. The Gandhian Theory says that satyagrahi fights injustices, negotiate peacefully and mutually devise solutions. In this realist world, this concept is extremely idealistic to comprehend. If the dominant group consistently uses violence to disintegrate the non-violent movement, the dominated ones have to pick up arms for their survival. Such circumstances might involve foreign powers, which may exploit the situations for their own gains. Either side they support, it will lead to chaotic situation. It is possible that involvement or assistance from foreign interveners might make the NVR illegitimate in front of oppressors. This will affect the cause of the non-violent movement and if it is against the state authority, the whole movement may be framed as sabotaging activity against the state. Balochistan Liberation Movement is not completely non-violent movement but is claimed as a threat to national security due to foreign support. Having their demands genuine, the movement has lost its purpose and legitimacy.

It is mentioned in the article under consideration that many non-violent campaigns resorted to guerilla tactics and lost their purpose and direction. They did so, when the NVR became unsuccessful. The urge to adopt two extreme approaches can damage the cause and objective of the oppressed. A balanced approach should be employed in order to succeed. When there is need to use violence to achieve something, or thwart the adversary from doing something, it should be done. There should be no rule of thumb in NVR and conflict transformation to which one has to stick. And it is not practically possible as well. According to realist perspective, every move and action in international politics is interest based. If survival is the interest, one should acquire any strategy to achieve it. Few analysts assume Gandhi to be working for his own political interest calling him as a clever tactician of non-violence. They argued that he exploited the events of killings, detainments, Amritsar Massacre, and other atrocious harms on his supporters to gain more popularity and support nationwide.

The author has created a detailed analogy between conflict transformation and non-violent resistance in power asymmetry but has not proposed any recommendations to transform conflicts in intense power asymmetry. This is a loophole in this article. As the author has clearly depicted that, NVR is a strong tool in undemocratic states to oppose oppression but is not much effective. Most appropriate recommendation for this purpose, is a balanced strategy. It should comprise of peaceful means of conflict resolution and power sharing paired with violent/guerrilla tactics when needed. But offensive attacks should be avoided when parties are heading towards negotiation table. Good faith should be established at that time.

    Nonviolent resistance and conflict transformation aim to achieve the same objective, peace. It is not only important to express grievances through different means, but to understand other’s perspective and concerns as well. It is evident in the article that non-violent resistance and conflict transformation are effective, but in asymmetrical conflict it may become futile. Therefore, different strategies should be adopted to make it practically workable and achieve the set objectives.

Iman Faisal
Iman Faisal
. I am currently pursuing my Bachelor's in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad.