Arundhati Roy confuses between the ideal and the actual in Gandhi’s philosophy especially regarding his views on non-violence and his idea of the village. Not being an academic philosopher, he did not set this out in explicit terms but it can be gleaned from his writings and speeches. The failure to appreciate this has led his critics either to misrepresent him or to call him inconsistent and full of contradictions. It would be incorrect to say that Gandhi was blind about the gulf between moral ideals and social facts or that he was a dogmatic moralist who had a naïve understanding of the nature of social and political conflicts.
As a social and political reformer, Gandhi spoke from different levels at different times. But three levels mainly dominate his writings: first, that of the perfect ideal (unrealizable); second, that of his own personal point of view (admitting himself to be far from perfect, yet sufficiently advanced to practice his ideals); third, that of the point of view of the Indian masses. Under certain circumstances, nonviolence may be only a matter of policy, as it was with the Indian National Congress. But this cannot be identified with the level of nonviolence which Gandhi personally was capable of. There is not a uniform pattern of application of nonviolence for all individuals and societies.
He said that men like him ‘cling to their faith in human nature’ notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary. For Gandhi, to profess nonviolence with sincerity or even to write a book about it was not adequate. He said, ‘I believe in what Max Muller said years ago, namely that truth needed to be repeated as long as there were men who disbelieved it.” As a discipline, a "code of conduct," true nonviolence demands endless vigilance over one's entire way of life because it includes words and thought as well as actions. "If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home."
According to him, there must always be an unbridgeable gulf between the ideal and its practice. The practice of nonviolence is by no means a simple matter, and Gandhi never said that it was. Human life is a series of compromises but these do not justify lowering the theoretical ideal of human development. 'Let us be sure of our ideal. We shall ever fail to realize it, but we shall never cease to strive for it.’
The ideal will cease to be one if it becomes possible to realize it. Striving after the ideal is the very essence of practicing Gandhi’s philosophy. To the extent we make this effort, to that extent we realize the ideal. Perfect nonviolence cannot be practiced by human beings. Being a part of society, man cannot but participate in some amount of “himsa” that is necessary for survival. He held that “taking life may be a duty.”
We destroy plant life to sustain our bodies; in the interest of health we kill mosquitoes; and for the benefit of the species we destroy carnivorous beasts, yet we do not think we are being unethical. Gandhi would consider a person true to his faith if “there is an effort to avoid the violence that is inevitable in life”. In essence, it consists “in allowing others the maximum of convenience at the maximum inconvenience to us, even at the risk of life. Everyone has to determine for himself the amount of inconvenience he is capable of putting up with. No third party can determine it for him.”
Having decided upon the rightness of a situation, Gandhi would not like one to be a passive spectator to evil. That would be participation in the evil itself. If one does not have sufficient nonviolence to die without killing, one should not shamefully flee from the danger in the name of nonviolence. Rather, Gandhi would advise killing and being killed. For himself he did not believe in the use of arms at all ("There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for".)
But he would not hesitate to advise their use by those who had no faith in non-violence. “If there was a national government, whilst I should not take any direct part in any war, I can conceive occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it. For I know that all its members do not believe in nonviolence to the extent I do. It is not possible to make a person or a society nonviolent by compulsion.”
According to Gandhi, violence has its roots in fear and suspicion. He feels that such people are fighting ‘an imagined enemy without’ and neglecting ‘the enemy within’. The violent person pretends to possess the truth about good and evil and who should be punished and who should be spared. This is contrary to Gandhi’s view that a person can have access to only partial truth. Also the violent person claims a dangerous omnipotence for himself in deciding the limits to violence regardless of its effect on others. In this way the violent person treats other human beings as means to an end. 'Pride is a monster that swallows' ahimsa because it fails to acknowledge the worth and dignity of other people.