“Reflections on Gandhi” was published in the Partisan Review in 1949, one year after Gandhi was assassinated and three years after Indian independence. Orwell takes up the question of the power of Gandhi’s non-violence as a method of political action, and he considers this in the context of India’s process of decolonization. Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word meaning “holding onto truth,” is a concept that Gandhi developed to refer to nonviolent resistance to evils. This was the principle that Gandhi deployed to lead a massive nonviolent resistance to British rule in India. According to the philosophy, Satyagraha is a means to truth, specifically to insight into the nature of one’s opponent. A Satyagrahi (one who practices Satyagraha) confronts evil with total honesty and a commitment to nonviolence. Accordingly, the Satyagrahi must be willing to give up their life to their opponent for the sake of this principle.
One of Orwell’s central arguments is that Gandhi’s Satyagraha was only effective as a political leveraging tool due to the particular circumstances of his struggle: one such relevant circumstance was the Indian struggle for national self-determination. Orwell argues that Gandhi’s method would not have been effective in other political circumstances, for example, as a method for resisting totalitarianism. Part of what gave leverage to Gandhi’s resistance to British colonial rule was the publicity that he gained from his actions. Under totalitarian circumstances, his actions would have gained no such publicity. On the contrary, Orwell argues, in a totalitarian state where the media is controlled and censored, his actions wouldn’t have been a public sensation at all. No one would have heard of them. Thus, it wasn’t non-violence alone that gave Gandhi leverage. It was the coverage they received in the press.