Mahatma Gandhi Anniversary Series – Gandhian Practice and Social Movements in the Nordic Countries

Tord Bjork and Marko Ulvila

The impact of Mahatma Gandhi on the emergence of new social movements in Europe after the Second World War has been quite significant. Gandhian influences can be traced to many important civic initiatives – movements and organizations around Third  World liberation, peace and non-­violence, international solidarity,  the environment and democracy.  A large number of the key actors involved in these movements had established direct or indirect contact with Gandhian activists in India and, not surprisingly, that relationship shaped their thinking and had lasting impacts  on their movements, particularly in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland).

Gandhian Influence on the Environmental Movement in the Nordic Countries

In the 1970s the development model was being increasingly challenged by the Norwegian environmental movement directly inspired by Gandhi. Environmental civil disobedience was beginning to take shape in the country, otherwise a calm society that had little signs of dissatisfaction. The state was planning to construct a dam on the second highest water fall on earth at Mardøla in the Eikesdal valley in western Norway. The water was to be led to the Romsdal valley where a power station was to come up while leaving the original spot with no waterfall except a small shower for tourists in the summer. To stop the construction environmental activists nailed themselves to the mountain with chains. Two of the prominent activists in this protest were Arne Næss and Sigmund Kvaløy, who along with their colleague Johan Galtung had recently returned from a road-trip to India in 1969 to attend the 100th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Næss was a university professor of philosophy in Norway and an interpreter of Gandhian thought. Galtung had started the first Peace Research Institution in the West in Oslo 1959 and later became known for his work on “Structural Violence”. Kvaløy was a jazz music enthusiast, philosopher and activist. The police evacuated the occupation of the construction site but during the night local inhabitants from the Eikesdal valley reoccupied it. Now inhabitants from Romsdal valley took the matters in their own hand and threatened the new occupants. Finally the action had to be given up. The Mardøla dam was eventually built but the action started a new era in Norwegian politics that also inspired similar actions in neighboring countries.

Protests at the Mardøla dam site in the 1970s were unsuccessful. But, they laid the foundation for environmental activism in Norway.


The Mardøla action was initiated by a course on Gandhian philosophy at the Oslo University. Gandhian thinking soon became essential to the environmental, peace and alternatives movement, not only as a philosophy of method but also a development critique. Sigmund Kvaløy played a central role in establishing a globally conscious environmental movement. He went in 1971 to spend some time with the Sherpas in the Himalayas to study sustainable living and became well ­integrated into the local Buddhist culture. The environmental issues were linked to social questions challenging industrial growth in the society and urbanization while at the same time contributing to the struggle against the Norwegian membership in the European Union (at the time abbreviated EEC, European Economic Community).

The early 1970s was a time of growing interest in nonviolent direct action. The most prominent took place at Myvatn, the biggest lake in Iceland in 1970, where a hydroelectric power plant was planned on the River Laxa, which flows from Lake Myvatn to the sea.  In Sweden successful non­violent direct actions took place throughout the 1970s to protect trees and the public space and against more car traffic in Swedish cities like Stockholm and Gothenburg. In Finland, in 1979, the country’s environmental movement organized its first mass civil disobedience action to protect Lake Koijärvi in a Gandhian manner. In the 1980s the protests were growing against the building of motorways and in general against the European Roundtable of Industrialists and their corporate vision to build huge infrastructure projects.

In the 1980s Nordic contacts with the Chipko movement in India were established. The Chipko model was applied in 1987 when 400 activists hugged trees to stop the building of the motorway at the West Coast of Sweden proposed by the European industrialists. The activists were sentenced in court in the biggest political trial ever in modern Swedish history and they were labelled “trädkramare”, Swedish for Chipko. It became a well known term inspired from India for anyone who wanted to protect values of importance to the community. Sunderlal Bahaguna from the Chipko movement also went to the West Coast of Sweden to show his support and demonstrate together with the local tree huggers.

“Trädkramare” is an Indian inspired Swedish term which describes a person who wants to protect values of importance to the community.

Anti-globalization Movements and Gandhian Practice in the Nordic countries

Gandhian thought and practice were a strong influence on the anti-globalization movement as it emerged in the 1990s. Protest movements led by the Karnataka farmers and their chairman M.D.Nanjundaswamy along with others from Gandhian socialist background such as Kishen Pattnayak and Medha Patkar took the leadership in forming People’s Global Action against the WTO and Free Trade (PGA). It centered on the principles of non­violence and the refusal to cooperate as the main tools in the struggle against the neoliberal world order. Their emphasis was on non­violence, drawing inspiration from the Gandhian style mass movements in India, the impressive demonstration with half a million participants against the WTO in Bangalore, in 1993, being a case in point. PGA came at the right time to radicalize and broaden the scope of the emerging movement against neo­liberalism and in search of its alternatives.

Gandhain activists like Medha Patkar have been an inspiration to the anti-globalization movements in the Nordic countries.

In the Nordic countries this period was inspired by the Finnish solidarity movements and their close relations with India. In Finland, a seminar titled Third World Connection was held in 1989 where many critical thinkers from the South had come to interact with the solidarity movements of Finland, among them Gandhian socialists from India. The same year environmental and solidarity organizations in all Nordic countries initiated Solidarity, Equality, Ecology and Development, SEED, which in 1990 organized the SEED Popular Forum at the preparatory conference for Europe and North America for the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio 1992. The single issue perspective was now left behind and a more comprehensive look at the issues became evident.

It has been a challenge to maintain this development critique and the multi­-issue approach. The strongest organizing efforts were the result of the long lasting exchange of activists between Finland and India out of which emerged Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (VK) in Finland and India. All through the 1990s, SEED Europe, a youth activist network inspired by the SEED Popular forum, was strong in organizing alternative activities at Bretton Woods and EU Summits. But social issues like unemployment and social justice became more dominant in the movement. Attempts at strengthening third world participation, development critique and multi­-issue approaches at the EU­Summit protests in Gothenburg 2001 ended with heavy repression. The Popular Movement Conference centre and accommodation for 700 people was encircled by the police with and riots took place after police provoked a number of demonstrators.

Lately, the structures of cooperation between the popular movements are beginning to be rebuilt on different issues, with social welfare as the one gaining most momentum. Thanks to the important work of Attac (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action), the mainstream trade unions in Sweden are also participating in the popular movement networks together with organizations like Friends of the Earth Sweden. The same kind of alliances that built the earlier Nordic efforts like SEED Popular Forum, 1990 have were joined by the trade unions in organizing the European Social Forum (ESF).

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – An Alliance for Comprehensive Democracy was intimately involved in the European Social Forum, with a role also in the World Social Forum process. Together with Nordic cooperation partners like Popular Movement Study Group VK was in the forefront of the efforts to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Salt March in 2005, using the occasion to promote the ideas of Gandhi, and the goal of global popular movement cooperation.

While resistance to neoliberal fundamentalism has to continue, the global civil society also has to look for alternatives to the current economic and political structures.

Mass civil disobedience in the Nordic countries is not any longer focused entirely on environmental issues. It’s also instrumental in action towards helping refugees, in stopping racists from harassing neighborhoods, in defending public spaces, in stopping the closure of welfare services or in protesting against Summits promoting neoliberal fundamentalism. The original development critique continues to inform the movements in the Nordic countries but has been partly replaced by a growing interest in the questions of global democracy and the role of popular movements in our societies as well as globally. It is too early to say this, but one can hazard a guess that while the earlier period was characterized by influences primarily going from India to the Nordic countries, the next period could be a starting point for a more interactive exchange.

Tord Björk is with the Popular Movements Study Group, Sweden
Marko Ulvila is with Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Finland


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