Gandhi (along with Nehru) have been my heroes for long, as people who read this blog will know. However, before we get all misty eyed about Gandhi's methods, it's important to realise that they have serious limitations. Gandhi's suggestion that the Jews commit mass suicide to make Hitler see reason was received with derision then and would be received with derision now. The opposition needs to play by the rules (that is, the norms of civilised behaviour, hence the title of this post) for non violent movements to succeed. In that sense, British rule in India, despite its exploitative nature and the General Dyers, was overall marked by a certain respect for the rule of law. If the opponent has no principles, it's not possible for Gandhi's ideas of satyagraha to succeed.
This is now becoming clearer and clearer. The Chinese Government brutally put down the Tiananmen square demonstrations by the simple expedient of firing real live bullets at unarmed protesters. A metal bullet is no match for satyagraha. Today we see a repeat of this phenomenon -- a group of uncivilised countries (I use the adjective in the sense described above) have firmly and ruthlessly put down peaceful protests in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen (and earlier in Iran). The Israeli Army does the same with Palestinians. The US President has wrung his hands and expressed 'deep concern' but it has predictably had little effect.
So what does one do in such cases? Does one meet violence with violence? In the movie 'Gandhi' the Mahatma makes the observation 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' . I have not been able to find this quote in any of Gandhiji's writings, but it's the kind of statement he could well have made. How many human lives must be sacrificed before the faint glimmerings of the conscience of a despot finally take over his actions? (Many many millions in the case of Hitler and Stalin and there is no evidence that they ever regretted anything). So clearly this is not a viable alternative. The only option is intervention by a foreign power which carries grave risks as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and many such places. (The Balkan intervention could presumably be called a success).
To my mind, such an intervention has been successful once in recent history (I am obviously not going as far back as World War II) and that was India's intervention in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Forced by the millions of refugees pouring in, and the genocide happening under its nose, it was the Indian Government's finest moment. We intervened firmly, helped the democratically elected Bangladeshi Government to take over power, and then, most importantly, withdrew completely. So much so, that we even watched helplessly as successive Bangladeshi Governments turned against their saviour and became distinctly anti-Indian and pro Pakistani. (This trend has now been reversed). But it proved that the Indian Government helped the birth of a new country and then allowed it to grow unhindered and uninfluenced by its large presence to the West. This is a rarity.
Moreover, this is not an event that can be replicated elsewhere. No only can it not be done in a large and powerful country like China, no country including the US is going to intervene in Bahrain, Libya or Yemen except through a couple of phone calls. This means the hapless populace will be left to their own devices to settle their problems with their medieval rulers the best way they can or, as seems clear now, put up and shut up. A depressing scenario, that should give us pause to admire our own set up, no matter how imperfect.