Means vs ends: Lincoln and Gandhi


Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi were arguably the two giant personalities of the nineteenth and twentieth century respectively. Their lives are a study in differing, often contrasting styles of leadership, even though both sought similar goals. It is a matter of history, that Lincoln united a splitting nation, and Gandhi, despite best effort, was tragic witness to a partition of the country. The American Civil War was fought mainly on the issue of slavery.

Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement was to liberate India from British slavery. Two particular incidents illustrate their differences in approach to the question of means versus ends. These are only illustrative and by no means capture the entire complexity and richness of their lives’ work. For Lincoln, as the Civil War was ending, it was important that slavery be abolished by amending the constitution.

Merely using his War Powers and proclaiming the emancipation of slaves was not going to be a lasting solution. It had to be encoded in the constitution, which meant that two thirds of the majority in the upper and lower Houses (called the Senate and the Congress) had to approve the amendment. It would then have to be ratified by the individual States of the Union. Lincoln’s Republican Party had the necessary majority in the Senate, but did not have the numbers in the Congress.

The amendment resolution passed in the Senate in April 1864, but failed to pass in Congress in June, falling short by 13 votes. Lincoln was reelected in the Presidential election in November, and was determined to get the resolution passed in Congress (the lower house) by «any means necessary». He asked his secretary of state (i.e. minister) to procure votes from opponents by offering inducements including bribes. In fact a special fund for bribery was created. Ultimately in a marathon session on January 31, 1865, the Congress approved the amendment by a very narrow vote. One of Lincoln’s close allies said, «the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America». The greatest goal and Lincoln’s lasting legacy was achieved, but perhaps by tainted means.

Now think about the Chauri Chaura incident of February 1922. Gandhiji had called for nationwide civil disobedience movement in response to the emergency measures of the Rowlatt Act of 1919, intensified after the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre. This was the non-cooperation movement whose goal was swaraj, or total independence from British rule.

It was based on satyagraha, and its abiding principle was nonviolence. During the next couple of years the principle of nonviolence was tested, but not seriously breached. At Chauri Chaura (near Gorakhpur) volunteers were nonviolently protesting against rising meat prices. After a lathi charge, and arrest of some of their leaders, a much bigger protest the next day turned violent after the police fired shots and killed 3 protestors. Tempers rose, and the angry crowd took revenge by burning down the police chowki, and killing all 23 Indian policemen trapped inside. Most were burnt to death, and some of them were hacked and thrown back into the fire, as they tried to flee.

This incident shocked Gandhi so much, that he suspended the noncooperation movement, went on a five day fast, and said that India was not ready for swaraj. Nonviolence was paramount, and if people could not exercise restraint, then the goal should be abandoned. The means of the pursuit of the goal, were more important. Ends did not justify means.

The thought about Lincoln and Gandhi, about means and ends was triggered by the recent schism in Aam Aadmi Party. Many principles were debated, and some discarded. In politics should there be compromise or not? Should party people be «mere proceduralists» i.e. «lakeer ke fakeer», sticklers for processes? Is not the larger goal important? On the other hand by junking sound principle, and deviating from the straight path, victory may become hollow. Means do not justify all ends. Even Lincoln’s was a last ditch resort, in a long and unblemished life. Gandhi too always claimed he was «experimenting» with truth, not a «knower».


Means vs ends: Lincoln and Gandhi – Mumbai Mirror.

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