The late Mahatma Gandhi will be forever remembered for his commitment to nonviolent means of resistance. In the case of India, that resistance was directed against the British Raj, the British Empire's period of colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent. Gandhi's commitment to nonviolent forms of resistance to injustice was both spiritual and practical. He understood the scale of bloodshed that would occur should Indian opponents of British rule resort to violence. The British, after all, became a global power on the basis of its relatively enormous capacity for violence in the form of its army and navy. As a deeply spiritual individual, however, Gandhi also believed that the use of violence was cowardly and destructive to the soul of those who employed it.
It is important to keep in mind when discussing Gandhi's adherence to a doctrine of nonviolent resistance that such an approach to injustice was not entirely passive. While violence was to be eschewed, civil disobedience was very much encouraged. Gandhi's "nonviolence speech" occurred within the context of growing Indian disgruntlement with the salt tax that had preceded British rule (including during the period of rule of the British East India Company) but which had been increased to unacceptable levels by the colonial power. Salt was, especially in ancient times, a valuable commodity, and taxation on commerce in it was a normal part of doing business across much of the "civilized" world. Indian impatience with British colonial rule, however, was reaching its breaking point, and the British-imposed taxes on salt became a major point of contention. Gandhi's speech, therefore, was directed both at Indian protests against the tax and against the use of violence in general as a means of protest.
In his speech, the text of which is available at the link provided below, Gandhi emphasized the multitude of legitimate forms of protest available to his fellow Indians. As he stated in his speech:
"We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle. Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land. . .(O)nce I am arrested, the whole responsibility shifts to the Congress. No one who believes in non-violence, as a creed, need, therefore, sit still. My compact with the Congress ends as soon as I am arrested. In that case volunteers. Wherever possible, civil disobedience of salt should be started. These laws can be violated in three ways. It is an offence to manufacture salt wherever there are facilities for doing so. The possession and sale of contraband salt, which includes natural salt or salt earth, is also an offence. The purchasers of such salt will be equally guilty. To carry away the natural salt deposits on the seashore is likewise violation of law. So is the hawking of such salt. In short, you may choose any one or all of these devices to break the salt monopoly."
Among the options Gandi specified as available to his fellow countrymen were the boycott of British--owned businesses; a refusal to pay British taxes; and, the imposition of a boycott of the British legal system that carried the imprimatur of the distant Crown. If Indians began to boycott the British legal system, including that system's role in the resolution of civil disputes, the colonial structure would be weakened.
When analyzing any speech on nonviolence from Gandhi, one of the most significant elements is the idea that the call to nonviolence is both a spiritual and political end. Gandhi made it clear that the transformation of India from one of subjugation to one of freedom must be seen in both lights. Those participating in this revolution have to undertake change in both realms. This is where Gandhi's call to nonviolence has a transformative effect on both the nation and those who partake in its liberation. There is a transformation of self that Gandhi embraced in his call for nonviolent protest that has to be noted. At the same time, I would stress that Gandhi's call to nonviolent action is one that demonstrated the disarming power of civil disobedience. Gandhi made very clear that while taking up arms was not his intent, it was equally not his intent to treat the issue of India's liberation in a passive sense. I think it would be worthy to note the instances in his speech where he forcefully claims this. Little in Gandhi's writing on the issue of nonviolence is passive and while many claim him to be so, it is evident that his position of nonviolent resistance is struck from a position of strength and absolute determination that this is the path India must forge in order to find her freedom and voice apart from the British.