Gandhi thought that no regime, however despotic it might be, could function without the co-operation of its citizens. Thus, if citizens withdrew their cooperation, and were willing to take the resultant consequences, any regime will fall. This was what made Gandhi say in Hind Swaraj, ‘That we should obey laws whether good or bad is a newfangled notion. There was no such thing in former days. The people disregarded those laws they did not like and suffered the penalties for their breach…. So long as the superstition that men should obey unjust laws exists, so long will their slavery exist.’
The point is emphasized by James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games, where he writes that “Whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever MUST play cannot PLAY.” This is true no matter how high the stakes, even life and death. In slavery or severe political oppression, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death. But whoever takes up the commanded role does so by choice. ‘Certainly the price for refusing it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed.’
Gandhi was not saying that one should break all laws. As a matter of fact, he was a stickler for following laws. He only advocated breaking those laws that unjustly discriminated against a population and his conscience rebelled against following them. In this principle, he was at one with Thoreau, the difference being that while Thoreau advocated individual civil disobedience, Gandhi expanded its scope to mass civil disobedience. But he was careful to stress that you have earned the right to break an unjust law only if you have first learned to observe laws consistently even if they cause inconvenience, not by those who used every problem as an occasion to display their conscience.
He insisted on the strict condition that satyagraha cannot be initiated for personal reasons but only for the good of others. Satyagraha presuppose the ability and willingness to suffer and lose property. It cannot be organized unless the crowd can behave as disciplined soldiers who can remain calm and unperturbed under fierce provocation. It requires unobtrusive humility from the participants whose strength lies in the correctness of their position. In short, 'a satyagraha struggle is impossible without capital in the shape of character'. It is not a movement of 'brag, bluster or bluff'.
For Gandhi, satyagraha was not just a matter of bravely breaking an unjust law and facing the consequences. It was also a time for many other symbolic acts that would improve the community's internal cohesion and shame the opponent. But even when the struggle was at its most intense, he kept alive channels of communication between the antagonists and thought that personal communication and compromise were crucial. He believed that compromise did not represent a defeat for either side but was a much higher and more desirable triumph for the strength of the human spirit. The votary of ahimsa does not aim for victory but wants to arrive at a better solution. He said on July 7th 1920 in Young India:
I pride myself on my yielding nature in non-vital matters . . . I have found by experience that if I wish to live in a society and still retain my independence, I must limit the points of utter independence to matters of first rate importance. In all others which do not involve a departure from one's personal religion or moral code, one must yield to the majority.
Just because a movement rejects physical violence, it cannot be called a satyagraha. By the standards that Gandhi set, probably none of the strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, fasts, etc. that are often called today as satyagrahas can be called so. Satyagraha is inaccurately equated with passive resistance. Although it calls for inviting suffering on oneself and sacrifice, submission was never an element of the concept. Submission to humiliation was strictly prohibited and in every case, a satyagrahi must refuse to do what his conscience forbids him to do.
How is one to judge whether a particular movement is a satyagraha according to the exacting standards that Gandhi set? The first distinguishing characteristic is whether all available channels for settling the dispute without humiliating the opponent have been explored before launching the agitation. Maximum publicity would have been given regarding the aims of the agitators. Efforts would be made to minimize hardships for the opponent. There should be readiness to accept the penalties provided by the law and typically, the agitators will not resort to legal defense.
Gandhi countered Aurobindo Ghose’s argument that ‘we do not want to develop a nation of women’ by arguing that it was precisely the ‘feminine’ nature of non-violence that proved superior to the ‘brute force’ associated with the ‘male aggression’ of the British Raj. He said that an agitator who didn't follow the stringent conditions that he had laid down for satyagraha were following duragraha. Satyagraha was distinguished by a creedal commitment to nonviolence while duragraha advocated the use of nonviolence because of an apparent pragmatic advantage. The latter saw more power in violence.
Duragraha may use harassment or feel enmity but ‘in satyagraha, there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.’ Satyagraha is not based on a zero-sum calculation of how much loss can be inflicted on the opponent. Duragraha involves harassment of the opponent and reaches a settlement by intensification of pressure. Satyagraha relies on persuading the opponent to change the position under attack and it seeks to strengthen interpersonal relationships by minimizing hardship to the opponent. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:
The theory of satyagraha, therefore, rests fundamentally on a certain view about "the capacity of man to change" by effecting a "context of reassurance" rather than of hostility, of mutual support rather than of alienation and anger. The ultimate goal is not to attain a decisive triumph, but "to achieve the transformation of relationships" that would genuinely resolve the conflict rather than simply postpone it to a later time.