There have only been a few incidents in history where national governments have been overthrown by peaceful popular movements. Such nonviolent revolutions, though rare, are important historical events. Even in the face of deeply entrenched political power structures, a large number of people, when they bond together for a particular cause, can affect a significant change without bloodshed.
The Right to Peaceful Assembly
Of course, it should be noted that, for nonviolent revolutions to occur, a certain mindset must already prevail in a country, both among the general populace and among the members of the military and those in power. Today, it is ensured that groups who choose to nonviolently demonstrate by marching in the streets, striking, or engaging in other forms of peaceful protest, should be protected. Throughout the international community, it is widely believed that peaceful assembly is a basic human right, and to use violence against civilian protesters is injustice.
Violence: The Historical Norm
Peaceful protest have not always been so quietly accepted by those in power. For most of human history, any form of protest against the status quo, including peaceful protest, was likely to be met with violence of one sort or another. For this reason, public demonstrations have only recently become common ways of registering disagreement with the government. In the past, overthrowing or radically changing a government was almost certain to involve bloodshed, so those opposed to the existing powers made sure to arm themselves in advance to prepare for a war like situation.
Early Peaceful Demonstrations with Bloody Outcomes
Because the idea of the right to peaceful protest is relatively new, most of the examples of nonviolent revolutions are also quite recent. Peaceful protests of various kinds occurred only sparingly throughout history before the 20th century, and many such demonstrations ended tragically, often with the deaths of many or all the protesters. Examples of such tragic attempts at peaceful demonstration include the Peterloo massacre in England in 1819 and the resistance of the Cherokee people in the United States in 1838, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India, where the British troops killed about 1000 innocent people who were celebrating a festival and protesting against the arrest of two senior leaders.
The March 1st Movement
One of the first examples of a successful peaceful demonstration with wide-ranging effects is the March 1st Movement, which took place in Korea in 1919. At that time, Korea was occupied by imperialistic Japan. The Japanese regime treated the Korean people with brutality and widespread injustice. In 1919, a group of Korean nationalists drafted a declaration of Korean independence, citing a number of grievances. After the declaration was read, crowds of Koreans marched through Seoul, and soon demonstrations spread throughout the country. Although the Japanese had no compunctions about massacring a large number of Korean protesters, the protesters themselves remained nonviolent, and as a result of the March 1st Movement, the situation in Korea vastly improved.
Gandhi's Dandi March
The March 1st Movement is frequently cited as having inspired one of the most famous nonviolent demonstrators of all time: Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi led a nonviolent resistance movement in India, which was occupied by imperial Britain at the time. The Dandi March of 1930 is the quintessential event of this movement. During the march, Gandhi and nearly 100 of his followers marched to Dandi, where salt makers were being oppressed. They were greeted by a crowd of 100,000 people, and thus began a long trend of civil disobedience. This movement is important in the history of nonviolent revolutions because it was one of the first times that, in order to maintain its public image, the government adopted a noninterference policy with the protesters, refusing to meet their peaceful demonstration with massacre or violence. Although some violence did occur during the movement, noninterference set the stage for future demonstrations and revolutions.
The Impact of the Salt Satyagraha
Although the civil disobedience movement, called the Salt Satyagraha, did not have much effect on the status of India or its ill-treatment by the British Empire, it set a precedent that allowed nonviolent protests and revolutions to occur more frequently and with greater success around the world. Nonviolent protest movements such as that led by Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as wholesale revolutions such as the Velvet Revolution, owe much, both conceptually and tactically, to the March 1st Movement and to the Salt Satyagraha. As history progresses, perhaps violent revolutions will become abnormal, and the power of the people to effect their own destinies will become widely recognized.