What Ghandi Teaches us About the Emergent Process

Near the end of the 1982 film Gandhi, there is a scene that captures the emergent process. Gandhi announces that he will march 200 miles to the sea. There, in violation of British law, he will make salt. He sees salt as an important symbol. The sea belongs to India and yet Indians are not allowed to make salt. They must buy it from the British. During the march, he calls on all Indians to raise the flag of free India. The British decide to ignore the entire process.

Gandhi begins the march and a foreign correspondent named Vince Walker accompanies him. Walker writes for the New York Times. There are some British officers standing nearby. Walker asks if an arrest will end the process.

“Not if they arrest me and a thousand others. It is not only generals who can plan campaigns,” Gandhi replies.

Walker then asks, “What if they do not respond?”

Gandhi replies, “It is the function of a civil resistor to provoke and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law. They are not in control. We are.”

Here we might stop for a moment and think about this exchange. Is Gandhi correct? Is it possible for one man to be in control of the British Empire?

Gandhi is in control. The British are trapped in the assumptions of the conventional mental map, but Gandhi is bilingual. He can see things they cannot see. The blindness of the British is revealed in the next scene.

The march to the sea is successful. World reaction embarrasses the British, and the viceroy meets with his generals. The generals report that salt is being made everywhere. The leaders of congress are selling salt on the streets.

The viceroy orders the process stopped. He wants everyone but Gandhi arrested. The theory is to first cut Gandhi’s support out from under him and then deal with him later. In the scene that follows, a general reports that they have arrested nearly 100,000 people. All the leaders and all their families are in jail, and yet the process goes on. The enraged viceroy asks, “Who is leading them?”

The baffled general answers that he does not know.

Here we see the blindness of the British. It is a blindness shared by most of humankind. Living from the conventional mental map, the viceroy and generals assume a hierarchy exists. Their strategy is to remove the leaders from the top of the hierarchy so the organization will crumble. But, when they remove the leaders, something incomprehensible occurs. The movement grows and flourishes.

At this point in the story, Gandhi announces that the next day he will lead a march on the Dharasana Salt Works with the expressed purpose of closing it down. The viceroy, still operating from the conventional mental map, orders Gandhi’s arrest and demands that the salt works be kept open at all costs. In the next remarkable scene, hundreds of people line up outside the salt works. A man gives a simple speech. “They expect us to lose heart or to fight back; we will do neither.” Then, the first row of men walks slowly into the British lines, where they are clubbed and beaten. The women drag them away and apply first aid. The next row of men walks slowly into the clubs. The brutal, but inspiring, process continues.

Through it all, Walker is recording the event. He eventually goes to a phone and dictates the story to the New York Times. “Without any hope of escape from injury or death, it went on and on and into the night. Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on and on. Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today. India is free. She has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.”

In fact, it would take several more years before the British formally withdrew from India. But this amazing event was the tipping point; it mattered as much as Walker suggests. It took place with Gandhi and all of India’s formal leaders in jail. The system of change was emergent and self-organizing. Gandhi understood something the viceroy and the generals could not understand. He knew how to initiate and trust the emergent process.

The Positive Organization – p.91

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