Mohandas Gandhi was known for symbolic actions, most famously for picking up a handful of salt as resistance to the salt tax. He wore simple clothing as an expression of solidarity with peasants, even when meeting with international politicians. Gestures like these have been powerful in helping to build movements, such as the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the ‘white’ section of her bus. However, they cannot stand alone. This takes me to Bob Overy’s book, which, as the title suggests, goes beyond gestures to examine how Gandhi painstakingly built a movement that was eventually able to challenge the Raj and seek independence.

To understand this success, Overy considers several different campaigns, noting how Gandhi made alliances and learned strategy along the way to make the message as comprehensive as possible. The examination of these varied campaigns is powerful. Gandhi thought it essential to build and create as well as oppose. He would promote community action and helped to build Congress into a political structure that could replace the Raj. He wanted Indians to wear home-spun cloth; hence his promotion of and commitment to spinning. He believed that constructive work helped prepare people for civil disobedience activity. This, for Overy, is a key and misunderstood aspect of Gandhi’s approach.

There are many world issues that see the employment of Gandhian techniques today: peace and disarmament, environment, and action in and for Palestine, to name some. A question that the book raised for me is that of leadership. Gandhi knew what he wanted to happen; and if people engaged in violence or abandoned an important value in a particular campaign, he would have no hesitation in cancelling or postponing the action. He sought commitment, but he would accept different levels. His strong leadership style was at variance with the organisation of most of today’s movements, which would claim to be democratic and to welcome participation. I remember my activity with the anti-nuclear Committee of 100 in 1960 and after. For the first demonstrations, the Committee, a forerunner of which was called Operation Gandhi, held briefing meetings and issued quite detailed instructions to intending participants. Those briefings were valuable: they helped participants feel secure. Within a year, such briefings were no longer issued. Everyone knew the Committee’s expectations. However, there have since been many examples of nonviolent direct action (NVDA) that necessarily gave opportunities for innov­ation. Many of the participants would have said, “We have no leaders.”

This modus operandi can lead to ill-considered decisions, such as the blockading and immobilisation of trains on London’s Docklands Light Railway by Extinction Rebellion activists in 2019. Perhaps this is simply an issue that movements have to resolve – democratically, of course. Maybe the difference is simply the setting in Gandhi’s time, when there was very little experience of NVDA. The relevance of this book to today’s issues and actions is to help people value the need to consider all aspects of a situation before taking action.

Andrew Papworth is the former manager of Camden Family Group Conference Service.