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Soldiers of Peace

Narayan Desai and Shanti Sena, the “Peace Army”

By Mark Shepard

Excerpted and adapted from the book Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987, reprinted by Seven Locks Press, Washington, D.C., 1987

For more resources, visit Mark Shepard’s Peace Page at www.markshep.com/peace.

Copyright © 1981, 1982, 1987, 1998 Mark Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.

We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt‑of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.


“The time was during World War II, when Japan was advancing on India. I was lying in my room one night, and my parents thought I was asleep. But I was just pretending to sleep, because, like all children in the world, I wanted to listen to my parents. So they were talking about me—which made me even more interested.

“The topic was this: That afternoon, Gandhi had said that if he had an army of nonviolent soldiers, he would like to defend the country nonviolently by standing before the advancing Japanese troops. And so these two members of Gandhi’s ashram were trying to decide which of them should join this army. Since they had an adolescent child, namely me, they were thinking that one of them should stay behind. That way, at least one parent would survive.

“My mother was saying, ‘He is nearly grown now, and you can probably look after him better. Let me join.’

“But my father was saying, ‘Even if I remain behind, I might not have time to look after him. So I should join.’

“That was the kind of tussle going on. But in the end, they decided they would both join. They would leave their child in the hands of God.

“That was the first time I heard of Shanti Sena.”

The time is now 1978, the place is an international gathering of activists in India, the speaker is Narayan Desai, and the topic is Shanti Sena, the Gandhian “Peace Army.” Narayan, the son of Gandhi’s chief secretary, Mahadev Desai, was at the time of this talk already a top leader of India’s Gandhians and was best-known as a long‑time head of Shanti Sena. Today he directs his Institute for Total Revolution, a training center for nonviolent activists, and is known wordwide for leadership roles in War Resisters International and Peace Brigades International—an organization that Shanti Sena largely inspired.

Narayan Desai, 1978
Photo by Mark Shepard

Narayan Desai


Though Gandhi called for a peace army for national defense in 1942—a plan never tried, since the Japanese did not invade—the idea of Shanti Sena was usually linked to combatting riots.

“Gandhi first used the term Shanti Sena in 1922, during the first large‑scale riots between Hindus and Muslims after his return to India. My father organized some local units of Shanti Sena during riots in 1941. But it was only in 1947, the year of our Independence, that Gandhi considered organizing a nationwide Shanti Sena. This was a response to the rioting that at that time covered almost the entire north.” In that holocaust, a half million people were slaughtered, and ten million driven from their homes, as united India was severed into India and Pakistan.

“Gandhi had invited a few hundred colleagues to come to his ashram and discuss organizing Shanti Sena. The conference was set for February 1948. Two days before the end of January, Gandhi was assassinated. So the conference was never held.”

But the idea was later revived by Vinoba, the “spiritual successor” of Gandhi, who had inherited leadership of India’s Gandhians. In 1957, Vinoba founded Shanti Sena to deal with riots that were endangering Gandhian development work in nearby villages. In 1962, Narayan Desai became Shanti Sena’s director, a position he held until 1978. Under his leadership, membership reached a high of about 6,000, in the mid‑1960s.

Most of these Shanti Sainiks—“peace soldiers”—were regular Gandhian development workers from rural areas, who might take part in Shanti Sena actions when rioting broke out in nearby towns or cities. And though today Shanti Sena no longer exists as a formal organization, the Gandhians may still engage in such actions under other banners.

As Narayan told us, riots were a major plague of India. These riots might stem from differences in religion, language and culture, or political party; or they might be by protesting university students. The worst rioting, though, was between Hindus and Muslims, with the majority Hindus usually the aggressors.

Some of these riots were more like miniature civil wars.

“Arson and looting are common,” Narayan said. “Most of the direct violence against people is rock-throwing. But the knife is also used a great deal. In one riot, more than a thousand people were killed this way. Pistols and bombs are not used very much, but only because we don’t have many firearms in India. Perhaps if we had them, there would be even greater violence.”

The first step for a group of Shanti Sainiks that had decided to intervene in a riot was a public announcement, through newspapers and possibly radio. This publicity helped ease the approach to various figures in the conflict and also served to invite Shanti Sainiks of other areas to join up with that group. The announcement might also have included a brief, impartial statement on the issues, establishing the Sainiks’ nonpartisan stance.

The Sainiks would arrive in the city over the course of the next few days, coming by train. There might eventually have been 30 or more Sainiks working in a city. As they gathered, they divided into teams.

“The first team meets with leaders of the communities involved in the riot, as well as with other important figures. We present ourselves not as saviors but as people eager to assist them in their difficulty. We gather information from them and try to understand their minds. And we try to find the forces of peace on both sides. Often there are people who favor peace but do not know how to work for it.

“In one city, we met with the top police officer and requested him not to fire on the rioting crowds, which so far he had avoided doing. When the police resort to firing, this means that several people die.

“He said, ‘You are the first group asking me not to resort to firing. But there is a lot of political pressure on me to do it. What can I do?’

“So we met with this important political leader who was pressuring him. We knew that this political leader loved the city, so we asked him, ‘Do you want the image of this city stained by blood?’

“He had no reply. Then we offered an alternative: ‘You already have a curfew order in certain areas. Why not introduce it throughout the city?’

“So he immediately phoned the police officer and said, ‘Instead of firing on the crowds, let’s have a curfew order.’

“That officer was very happy to hear it.”

Sometimes the Sainiks would persuade leaders of opposing communities to call publicly for an end to violence, or to meet with leaders of the other side to begin talks.

“We usually try to organize some of these leaders into a peace committee. If the fighting is between Hindus and Muslims, we ask the Hindu community to suggest Muslim names for the committee, and vice versa.

“This is often very difficult, because tensions are very high. But once, say, the Hindus find out that the Muslims have given some Hindu names, they start thinking, yes, maybe they also can find names of some Muslims. And that creates joint committees in situations where people would not imagine that Hindus and Muslims could work together.”

Most of the Sainik teams would patrol areas of likely violence. The patrols talked to people on the street, and even in their houses, to find out what was on their minds and to convince them of the need to restore peace. Their presence alone also discouraged violence.

“In one place in the city of Baroda we came upon a huge pile of rocks. So we asked the people standing there what the rocks were for. They said, ‘These are country-made bombs. We’ll use them at the proper time’—meaning, when there was a lone policeman or sentry going around. So we said, ‘We guess you’ll have to use them on us instead.’

“Some of them were angry, but others thought about it and said they would find a better place. They thought, this wasn’t the right place because there was somebody watching. But there was ‘somebody watching’ all over the city.” Though there weren’t that many Sainiks in the city, only downtown areas were affected by the rioting, and the Sainik teams had stationed themselves at all the crucial spots. Other times, when their numbers were even fewer, teams moved from spot to spot.

But sometimes the Sainiks could not prevent violence through their presence or persuasion. In those cases, they blocked it with their bodies. Dressed in their distinctive uniforms of white khadi with saffron scarves, they rushed among the rioters, exhorting them or shouting peace slogans.

“Very often we have faced rock-throwing from both sides—or rock-throwing from one side and batons or tear gas shells from the other, if government forces were involved. Fortunately, no stabbings.

“Women participate in this direct intervention as well as men. In fact, they are more successful at it, because they are less likely to be attacked.”

One team of Sainiks might have had the special job of fighting rumors.

“Rumors are one of the chief causes of violence in riots. When people are afraid, they tend to believe almost anything they hear. Figures get exaggerated. A story could grow until people think a thousand people have been killed on the other side of town, when nobody has been killed at all.

“Sometimes too there is a deliberate effort to create rumors.” The Sainiks had known groups of troublemakers to travel around a city for hours spreading false stories.

Such stories had sometimes been spread by the media as well. “In the city of Ahmedabad, one of the most widely read newspapers had a banner headline saying, ‘Woman’s breasts cut off in such and such location.’ The newspaper did not say that a Muslim had cut off the breasts of a Hindu woman, but it as much as said that, because everyone knew that the mentioned area was Hindu.

“The Hindu community was infuriated. That same night, more than 1,500 Muslims were killed.

“The next morning, in the same newspaper, on the fifth page, in a small corner, you could see an apology saying that that news had been untrue. And they tendered that apology only because the government had told them, ‘Either you prove it, or you must retract.’

“So Shanti Sena has to fight rumors. And the best way to fight rumors is to give correct, unbiased information.

“We immediately go to the place mentioned to check the facts. We have the advantage in this, because very often Shanti Sena is the only group moving within both communities. So, when there is a rumor such as, ‘In the Muslim area, they are gathering weapons,’ we say, ‘Have you been there? We slept there last night. And we know that nothing of the sort is happening.’

“Usually we do not have access to radio or the newspapers, so we have to use alternative means to spread our information. We use megaphones, or hand out mimeographed leaflets, or post messages on the neighborhood blackboards that some of our cities have. There are ten thousand such blackboards in Ahmedabad, and within half an hour the entire city can be given a message.”

Both rumors and violence multiply where there is fear, so Shanti Sena worked hard to counter it.

“Fear and courage are equally contagious. So Shanti Sainiks often go to areas that are supposed to be dangerous to show that there is nothing to fear.

“For example, in Bhivandi, when we met with the Hindus, they said, ‘Why talk to us about peace? Why don’t you try to go to the Muslim part of the city? The minute you go there, you’ll be killed!’

“So we said, ‘All right, we’ll go lodge there.’ Then we went and lived with the Muslims.

“The Hindus of that city were amazed. They could never have imagined that a mostly Hindu group, including five Hindu women, could stay with the Muslims overnight and be alive the next morning. But we were all safe. Not only were we safe, but the Muslims thought they were safe, because they had Hindu Shanti Sainiks protecting them.

“In Calcutta in 1964, we organized a silent procession of 3,000 people through the streets where there had been violence. This is one of the most effective techniques to fight fear. On all the streets, just as we passed by, the closed shops were thrown open, and the shop owners would say, ‘Ah, we are safe now that Shanti Sena has come.’

“Wherever Shanti Sena functions, it creates this atmosphere of trust.”

As violence subsided, the Sainiks would shift their focus to reconstruction efforts. This often became another means to reconcile the opposing communities.

“In the state of Orissa, there was a riot in which the Christians burned down the homes of the Muslims. My mother-in-law and other Shanti Sainiks there persuaded the Christian community to donate funds for rebuilding the Muslims’ houses. Some of the people who contributed were some of the ones who had burned them down!”

According to Narayan, Shanti Sena worked under several handicaps. Most of the Sainiks lived in rural areas, but the riots were in towns and cities. Shanti Sena lacked quick means of communication and transportation. It sometimes took two or three days just to get permission to pass through military lines into a city.

As a result, Shanti Sena would usually arrive only after the worst violence had passed. Most of its success, then, had been in bringing hostilities to a more rapid close and in moving warring communities toward reconciliation.

But there had been times when violence was averted.

“This is possible when a Shanti Sainik has lived in an area for a long time. The Shanti Sainik would assess the situation and talk to the right people, and in this way prevent a real outbreak. Of course, in a case like this, Shanti Sena would receive no credit, because things would go on as normal, and the public would not know there had been a likelihood of a riot.

“Peace is not news.”

Gandhi spoke of the “undreamt‑of and seemingly impossible discoveries” that would be made in the field of nonviolence. Shanti Sena is surely one of those.

More on Shanti Sena, Peace Brigades, and Narayan Desai

Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping, by Thomas Weber, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1996.

A Nonviolent Revolutionary: Story of a Gandhian Educator, by Narayan Desai, edited by Paul A. Hare, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Collected writings of Narayan Desai, with commentary.

Towards a Nonviolent Revolution, by Narayan Desai, Sarva Seva Sangh, Varanasi, 1972. On Shanti Sena.

Liberation without Violence, edited by A. Paul Hare and Herb Blumberg, Rex Collings, London, 1977. Includes “peace brigade” actions by Shanti Sena and by several international groups.

Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System, by Gene Sharp, Princeton University, 1990. A serious and detailed discussion of how nonviolent resistance could be used for national defense, as first proposed by Gandhi.

Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987 (reprinted by Seven Locks Press, Washington, D.C., 1987). Includes a profile of Narayan Desai with additional aspects of his life and work, and also a brief discussion of international peace brigades.

Handbook for Satyagrahis: A Manual for Volunteers of Total Revolution, by Narayan Desai, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, and Movement for a New Society, Philadelphia, 1980. A nonviolence training manual.

Gandhi Through a Child’s Eyes: An Intimate Memoir, by Narayan Desai, Ocean Tree Books, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1992. About Narayan’s childhood in Gandhi’s ashrams.

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Book cover: Gandhi Today
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Gandhi Today
A Report on India’s Gandhi Movement
By Mark Shepard

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