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Civil Disobedience: Theory, Thoreau and Gandhi

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is sometimes, though not always defined as being nonviolent resistance.

The Theory by Thoreau

Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” was eventually renamed “Essay on Civil Disobedience.” After his landmark lectures were published in 1866, the term began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery and the war in Mexico.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.

Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He contends that people’s first obligation is to do what they believe is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority.

When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to devote his life to eliminating evils from the world, but he is obligated not to participate in such evils. This includes not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war.


The person who brought civil disobedience to its complete realization was Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer who worked in South Africa, where he met discrimination against Indians. He fought for Indian rights. Returning to India to gather support against English rule and the caste system, he brought Thoreau’s civil disobedience a step forward.

Under the leadership of Gandhiji, the Civil Disobedience Movement was launched in AD 1930. It began with the Dandi March. On 12 March 1930, Gandiji with some of his followers left the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad and made their way towards Dandi, a village on the west coast of India. After travelling for twenty-five days and covering a distance of three hundred and eighty-five kms, the group reached Dandi on 6 April 1930. Here, Gandhiji protested against the Salt Law (salt was a monopoly of the government and no one was allowed to make salt) by making slat himself and throwing up a challenge to the British government. The Dandi March signified the start of the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The movement spread and salt laws were challenged in other parts of the country. Salt became the symbol of people’s defiance of the government. In Tamil Nadu, C Rajagopalchari led a similar march from Trichinopoly to Vedaranyam. In Gujarat, Sarojini Naidu pretested in front of the slat depots. Lakhs of people including a large number of women participated actively in these protests.

The Civil Disobedience Movement carried forward the unfinished work of the Non-Cooperation Movement. Practically the whole country became involved in it. Hartals put life at a standstill. There were large-scale boycotts of schools, colleges and offices. Foreign goods were burnt in bonfires. People stopped paying taxes. In the North-West Frontier Province, the movement was led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’. For a few days, British control over Peshawar and Sholapur ended. People faced the batons and bullets of the police with supreme courage. No one retaliated or said anything to the police. As reports and photographs of this extraordinary protest began to appear in newspapers across the world, there was a growing tide of support for India’s freedom struggle.

The program of the Civil Disobedience Movement incorporated besides the breaking of the Salt Laws, picketing of shops selling foreign goods and liquor, bonfire of cloth, refusal to pay taxes and avoidance of offices by the public officers and schools by the students. Even the women joined forces against the British.

Quote about Civil Disobedience

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Martin Luther King Jr.




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