It is often said that Gandhi was not wholly uncompromising in his doctrine of non-violence, that he would make exceptions. Gandhi felt that the ethics of non-violence had to be applied differently in different theatres like family, political community, international community etc. It did not act independently of the forces acting in these areas. That is why Gandhi paid attention to social reforms. He felt that social life cannot be free of violence without these reforms.
He was willing to make many qualifications in his theory of nonviolence depending on the context. He was not interested in an abstract moral attitude far removed from the realities of the world. He was far more concerned with moral conduct than with moral judgement. He valued justice more than mere abstention from violence, courage more than non-participation in war. 'Refusal of military service is much more superficial than non-cooperation with the whole system which supports the state.' He said that all violence is sinful, but violence that is inevitable may not be regarded as a sin.
He knew that it was impossible to achieve fully what one set out to to do in any given situation. He believed in compromise and said, 'I ever compromise my own ideal even in individual conduct not because I wish to but because the compromise was inevitable. And so in social and political matters I have never exacted complete fulfilment of the ideal in which I have believed.' But he thought that there are always times when one had to say 'thus far and no further' but where one draws this red line differs from issue to issue. George Orwell says in an essay, Reflections on Gandhi:
He did not — indeed, since his whole political life centered round a struggle for national independence, he could not — take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions.
He believed that states had the right to self-defense, if necessary, by military means. He stated at the Second Round Table Conference, 'I think that a nation that has no control over her own defense forces, and over her external policy is hardly a responsible nation.' An independent Indian state would have to follow 'some kind of mild war policy.' When he was criticized for his support of WWI, he said, 'under exceptional circumstances war may have to be resorted to as a necessary evil . . . an Ahimsaist [a practitioner of non-violence] may not stand aside and look with indifference, he must make the choice and actively cooperate or actively resist.'
The British disarmed Indians by passing the Arms Act of 1878. Gandhi was very critical of the compulsory disarming of Indians and he raised the demand for the right to carry arms from various platforms. It was one of the major demands presented to the Viceroy before launching the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. Why was a man called the 'Apostle of Nonviolence' demanding the arming of Indians?
It was a difficult task for a handful of British to dominate a populous and vast country like India with only physical power. It was important to subjugate the minds of the Indians. Gandhi knew very well that there was a continuous psychological war going on between Indian and British men. The British colonial masters launched a 'propaganda' to impress the Indians that they were weak, effeminate and unfit to rule themselves.
Gandhi believed that compulsory disarmament had made Indians unmanly and the presence of an alien army with deadly arms had made Indians think that they could not defend themselves against foreign aggression. So Gandhi demanded arms for Indians and in that context proposed nonviolence as a manly quality. Gandhi writes, "...I am not pleading for India to practice non-violence because it is weak. I want her to practice non-violence being conscious of her strength and power." As Gandhi saw it, weapons were of value only when used by persons of courage and restraint to protect innocent life. They were a menace when used to threaten the vulnerable.
He wanted Indians to develop 'nonviolence of the strong' i.e. Indians should have the capacity to retaliate but voluntarily renounce the capacity and opt for nonviolence. 'Nonviolence presupposes an ability to strike.' Instead what he found towards the end of his life was that Indians had developed 'nonviolence of the weak' or passive resistance i.e. they were using nonviolence as a temporary tactic because they didn't have the capacity to match the opponent's violence but the moment they have that capacity, they will use it. He had said on November 6, 1947:
What has, however, clearly happened in my case is the discovery that in all probability there is a vital defect in my technique of the working of non-violence. There was no real appreciation of non-violence in the thirty years’ struggle against British Raj. Therefore, the peace that masses maintained during that struggle of a generation with exemplary patience, had not come from within.
The pent-up fury found an outlet when British Raj was gone. It naturally vented itself in communal violence which was never fully absent and which was kept under suppression by the British bayonet. This explanation seems to me to be all-sufficing and convincing.”