In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi came up with an ingenious plan to challenge the British colonial rule over India. He organized mass defiance of the British salt law, which granted the occupier exclusive control over salt production. Since making salt simply involves boiling seawater and collecting the residue, this law was highly profitable to the British government and incredibly unjust to the people of India. So when Gandhi ordered this mass defiance, the British found themselves in a problematic situation. If they arrested Gandhi and the other protesters over this, they would look ridiculous and excessively repressive, damaging their legitimacy and turning the activists into heroes. If they didn’t react, however, they would lose not only the salt monopoly and its handsome revenues, but also the authority in the eyes of the millions of people they were trying to rule.
Dilemma actions put an opponent in a situation where it must either a. grant a nonviolent movement’s demand, or b. act in a way that sacrifices some of its own support and damages its public image. Historically, dilemma actions have proven to be very important to nonviolent movements. They have been used to expand political space and to give movements that help build small victories, building both momentum and a record of success.
It is important that dilemma actions are based on widely-help beliefs, that they are widely reported, and that a large number of civilians are involved. They should be tactical and strategic, and carefully constructed around an issue that places the opponent in a position of being against widely-held beliefs or the will of the people. They can target an oppressive ban, law, or social practice. Personalizing the target of the dilemma action, especially against unpopular leaders, may put your opponent in an even more difficult position. To be effective, these actions should be widely publicized and should permit widespread participation. Also, the greater the popularity of the activist leadership, the greater the dilemma is for your opponent.
Learn the Methodology for Designing a Dilemma Action:
- Review the opponent’s policies that place restrictions on day-to-day activities of the population. The more personal and intrusive the restrictions are, the bigger the dilemma will be for the opponent.
- Identify those policies that run counter to widely-held beliefs, even among the opponent’s supporters.
- Identify an action that will put the opponent in a position of either granting the nonviolent movement an exemption to the restrictions or engaging in unpopular sanctions.
- Exploit the opponent’s response to the action by gaining as much publicity as possible in order to encourage people to support the nonviolent movement. Use the media as skillfully as possible.
To learn more about dilemma actions, including notable examples and how to construct your own plan, see the CANVAS Core Curriculum, pp. 143-151.