The Gandhi nobody wants to know

Call it a hundred years of attitude: the tract that is virtually a manifesto for Gandhian revolution has remained ignored even as its relevance is only increasing.


Tridip Suhrud | February 1, 2010

One of Haku Shah`s paintings on Gandhiji`s life
One of Haku Shah`s paintings on Gandhiji`s life

The year was 1909. Forty-year-old Mohandas Gandhi wrote incessantly for ten days on board the steamer Kildonan Castle, like the mythical Savyasaachi, using both hands. He wrote because he could no longer “restrain himself.” At the end of this restless period he made a claim, utterly unlike him, “I have written an original book in Gujarati.” This book was Hind Swaraj (or Hind Swarajya, as it was originally titled), and was published in his journal Indian Opinion. In the last lines of Hind Swaraj Gandhi made a claim, very much like him, “My conscience testifies that my life henceforth is dedicated to its attainment.”

The book was deemed “a very dangerous thought” by the colonial government in India, not because it advocated revolt or use of physical force but for its open advocacy of Satyagraha to challenge and overthrow British supremacy. It was swiftly banned. Gandhi rendered his book into English and published it as Indian Home Rule. This beguilingly simple book baffled its readers and continues to do so even today. Gandhi thought that it was so simple that it could be placed in the hands of a child. And yet, it continues to elude its readers.

What was that ‘it’ that he dedicated himself to? And what fate awaited the text? Gandhi’s dedication was to the core of Hind Swaraj. This core is neither ahimsa nor it is Satyagraha. It is the idea of civilisation. Civilisation for Gandhi is that mode of conduct that points out to us the path of duty, where the performance of duty is the same as observance of morality. Gandhi says that a ‘real’ civilisation creates the possibility for us as humans to know ourselves. Herein lays Swaraj for Gandhi. Swaraj is not self-rule but rule over oneself. Anything that precludes this possibility is the ‘reverse of civilisation’, Kudharo in Gujarati and ‘Black Age’ or ‘Satanic Civilisation’ in its English rendering. Modern Civilisation, which looms large on Hind Swaraj, is that Satanic Civilisation, as it shifts the locus of human worth and the ground of judgment about human societies from us as human beings to things. It is that order of things where machines become the measure of man. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj advocates the active shunning of this modern civilisation and its emblems. Gandhi is so utterly convinced of this formulation that he makes bold to say that this civilisation is certain to be destroyed.

It is this critic of modernity and belief that it was not a universal fact but a passing, almost a temporary aberration that baffled its readers. Gokhale, otherwise a sympathetic elder to Gandhi, was perturbed by this pamphlet. He felt that it was “crude and hastily conceived” and he declared that Gandhi was certain to destroy it after spending a year in India. Not strangely, Gandhi’s faith in the vision of Hind Swaraj deepened as he came to inhabit India and become one with the weaver and the farmer. By 1919 he became a leader of the national movement, the printing and sale of Hind Swaraj became the symbol of defiance during the non-cooperation movement. And yet, curiously there was no serious discussion on the text itself, not in English and not in his mother tongue Gujarati either. The Congress completely ignored this document, prompting Gandhi to declare in 1921 that he was the only one to follow the ideals of Hind Swaraj, while the rest of the country had accepted only non-violence, that too as a strategy and not as an ideal. Even this slender hope of non-violence was shattered for him with the violence in Chauri Chaura.

It is curious that the grand debate on the nature and meaning of Swaraj that Gandhi and Tagore engaged in with great philosophical sensitivity and exquisite courtesy did not invoke Hind Swaraj. Both chose not to mention this text, although the debate shared the same philosophical ground as Hind Swaraj. India seemed to have forgotten Hind Swaraj, Gandhi kept reminding his interlocutors and critics to read the text in order to understand him and his actions better. The only group sensitive and alive to the possibilities of Hind Swaraj were the Theosophists. It was the philosophical quarterly of the Theosophical Society, The Aryan Path, which opened up the debate on Hind Swaraj in the lengthening shadow of Nazi Europe in September of 1938. Its editor Sophia Wadia invited comments on the text. None of the persons invited to respond to the text had anything to do with British politics or the national movement in India. Significantly, not one Indian was invited to respond to the text. This is a clear indication of the marginal space that Hind Swaraj had come to occupy in the Indian political and intellectual imagination.

It was Gandhi again who took the initiative to open the debate on the future of India and the place of Hind Swaraj in that. The war in Europe had ended and Indian independence seemed imminent. It was at this crucial juncture that Gandhi opened the debate with his chosen political heir, Pandit Nehru, and through him with the people of the country. In October 1945 Gandhi wrote a long letter to Nehru in Hindustani. He wrote it in Hindustani because what he wished to convey to Nehru could only have been said in Hindustani. Gandhi affirmed his faith in the ideals of Hind Swaraj as also the place of politics and governance as envisaged in it. He asserted that in fact his confirmation in the truth of his belief had only grown since the time he wrote Hind Swaraj. Gandhi knew that he was alone in this belief and hence wrote; “Therefore if I am left alone in it I shall not mind, for I can only bear witness to the truth as I see it.” Gandhi knew that Nehru and the millions of Indians who held him in great reverence reposed very little faith in the basic argument of Hind Swaraj. Nehru’s response to Gandhi’s letter was of impatient dismissal. He conceded that he had a somewhat dim recollection of Hind Swaraj from a reading more than twenty years earlier. Even at that point it had seemed to Nehru “completely unreal.” But Nehru was certain that its argument signified not much more than the “romantic mythology of backwardness.” He felt perplexed by Gandhi’s invocation of village as a metaphor of possibilities. To Nehru ‘village’ signified constricted frozen space and sensibility that had to be recast by modern development. Nehru reminded Gandhi that the Congress had never considered – much less adopted - the picture of India envisaged in Hind Swaraj. He told Gandhi that it was not given to the Congress as a political body to consider “fundamental questions, involving varying philosophies of life.” Gandhi knew that it was his lot to bear witness to India burn itself like the proverbial moth in the flame of modern civilisation around which it danced more and more furiously.

Nehru advanced a similar argument in a meeting that took place at Sewagram, Wardha, soon after Gandhi’s assassination. In March of 1948 Nehru made an impassioned plea for the political role of the Congress. In post-independent India, perhaps the only political leader to engage fundamentally with Hind Swaraj was Ram Manohar Lohiya. His essay, ‘Economics After Marx’, is the only serious engagement with Hind Swaraj from that period.

There was a new interest in the possibilities of Hind Swaraj in the country in the aftermath of the Emergency. This interest was guided by the search for what came to be called ‘alternatives.’ In this search Hind Swaraj became a metaphor. As a metaphor one could re-invent it as a post-modern text, as a text that pre-figured the ecological crises. It began to be read almost as a post-colonial text. It provided a ground from which a new critique of science, of State and the modern project could emerge. This effervescence was short-lived. Liberalisation and urbanisation produced new forms of violence and marginality. It also produced a new, aggressive, confident, aspirational middle-class for which Gandhi was a burden it would rather shed. As the tired and petrified bearers of official legacy of Gandhi receded, the Swadeshi came to be increasingly associated with the RSS and its affiliates. The new Swadeshi was inward looking without the luminous possibilities of self-search. This Swadeshi was without the Swaraj that Gandhi dreamt of.

Then the inevitable happened. Last year we decided to celebrate the centenary of Hind Swaraj. But, it was not clear as to what the celebration was about. Was it about the text? Was it about the possibilities of Hind Swaraj in our times? This uncertainty was not unexpected. We continue to remain deeply ambiguous about Hind Swaraj with its critique of modernity, especially at a time when there has emerged a large consensus on the desirability of nuclear energy. This ambiguity is about Gandhi as well. He has come to occupy an increasingly fractured and narrow space in our imagination. We think of him when the country erupts in violence of the communal kind. But when violence takes the form of ‘terror’ we want a hard state, the kind of state that Hind Swaraj wanted undone. As we speak the language of law and order the possibilities of Hind Swaraj become more elusive.

It is not only the state apparatus that is ambivalent about Gandhi and his vision for India. The various social movements as well show deep ambivalence towards him. The Dalit politics has for long been deeply disappointed to the point of disillusionment with Gandhi’s inability and unwillingness to seek annihilation of caste. Instead of considering the transformative potential of a jugalbandhi of Ambedkar and Gandhi we have cast them as adversaries in our political discourse. The movements for tribal identity and assertion have found themselves at odds against Gandhi. This has been attributed to Gandhi’s own limited understanding and engagement with the tribal question. But the larger framework of Hind Swaraj with its deep empathy and advocacy for forms of life and production that lie outside the rubric of modernity could have resonated with the tribal movement, which has not been the case. These are cases of dual failure of imagination. The institutions that Gandhi founded or those who seek to represent the Gandhian imagination appear as unwilling and unable to deal with the new challenges that state, civil society and the movements from the periphery pose to Gandhi’s worldview.

A celebration of Hind Swaraj would require us to not only engage with the historicity of the text, but in some measure seek to go beyond it. It would require us to re-imagine our modes of self-rule and our rubric of Swadeshi, Satyagraha and Swaraj in order to cast our own moral politics. And it was this that one missed in the centenary year of Hind Swaraj.



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