It was Gandhi’s first great campaign in India, well portrayed in the Attenborough film: the indigo farmers of Champaran, Bihar state. While the farmers were faced with starvation and slave-labor conditions in their own country, the British landlords were in the process of actually increasing their taxes while forbidding them to use their own land to grow food, forced to grow indigo for foreign markets, instead. The cruelty and domination was intense. Gandhi went there in 1917 and spent three months taking down depositions (he was a lawyer, remember) and defying the British governor’s orders that he leave the district, reminding them that he could not be “an outside agitator” in his own country! Making a long story short, finally he was ready to act (interestingly, he suggested that this movement not consider itself part of the Swaraj movement because it would only give the landlords an excuse to increase their repression and perhaps block his reforms). He explained to two prominent leaders from the region that they might have to face loss of property, other setbacks, and jail. “We’re willing to face everything else,” they said, “but not jail.” Gandhi said nothing. But as they were leaving they stopped and looked at each other: here’s this man who’s not even from the district and he’s willing to go to jail — and we’re not? Sheepishly, they went back in and said they were willing to do that, too. “Then victory is ours!” Gandhi called out.
“Do not ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself,” when I heard this extension of the Golden Rule, a gentle rephrasing that shifted its focus from a moral commandment to something more of a practical challenge, I was reminded of an important dynamic of leadership. Gandhi was not the kind of guy who would recommend that others do something that he was unwilling to do himself. This is the secret of nonviolent leadership: a willingness not just to make decisions or to advise on strategy, but to share in the consequences of an action once taken.
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