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What Swaraj meant to Gandhi?

The twentieth century has been characterised as a century of widespread democratic upsurge. The first half of the century witnessed the overthrow of colonialism in Asia and Africa because of the liberation struggles. The Indian freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi which used nonviolent direct action satyagrahaas a technique of struggle, has won general acclaim for the pioneering role it played in sharpening and hastening the process of dismantling the classical forms of colonialism and imperialism. The next two decades witnessed massive attempts at post colonial transformation in the newly independent colonies initiated by the state. There has been a deeply entrenched presumption that the state was an effective mediator in ameliorating the conditions of the weaker and poorer sections of people, for the purpose of ensuring social justice and equality, the liberator of the oppressed and “an engine of growth and development that would usher in a new civil order based on progress and prosperity and confer rights to life and liberty, equality and dignity, on the people at large.”

The third decade of independence was period of disillusionment and demystification. It becomes clear that expectations of the positive and interventionist role of the state and the presumed alliance between the state and the masses have been completely belied. As pointed out by Kothari; ‘Today the state is seen to have betrayed the masses, as having become the prisoner of the dominate classes and their transnational patrons and as having increasingly turned anti-people…The state in the third world, despite some valiant efforts by dedicated leaders in a few countries, has degenerated into a technocratic machine serving a narrow power group that is kept in power by hordes of security men at the top and a regime of repression and terror at the bottom kept going by millions of hardworking people who must go on producing goods and services for the system, for if they did not, every thing would collapse”.

Mahatma GandhiThis has evoked sharp response from the victims. They are being organised and mobilised under the aegis of what are known as New Social Movements / Action Groups / People Movements and these movements are engaging the oppressors in violent and nonviolent struggles. These are movements of dalits, tribals, women, displaced people, environmental movements, movements for regional autonomy movements against globalization etc.
One can say without being seriously contested that the major nonviolent/peaceful struggles of the post Gandhian period in India are organic extensions of satyagraha campaigns carried out by Gandhiji in his anti-racial and anti-colonial struggles in South Africa and India. In fact, there is hardly any significant nonviolent struggle in any part of the world during the last fifty years that does bear the impress and impact of Gandhian nonviolence in a substantial way.

The anti-colonial struggle led by Gandhi for the liberation of India was unique in many ways. That it was predominantly a nonviolent one has been mentioned repeatedly. It is another aspect that I want to highlight here. The Indian freedom movement was a multidimensional one. Gandhi did not limit it to a single point agenda of putting an end to British rule in India. Of course, ending foreign domination was an important and crucial item in the Gandhian agenda. However, his goals were greater and more ambitious. What he wanted to achieve was SwarajPoorna Swaraj or complete freedom.

A brief explanation of what Gandhi meant by swaraj is called for here. Although the word swaraj means self-rule, Gandhi gave it the content of an integral revolution that encompasses all spheres of life. “At the individual level swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification and growing swadeshi or self-reliance”.

Politically swaraj is self-government and not good government (for Gandhi, good government is no substitute for self-government) and it means continuous effort to be independent of government control, whether it is foreign government or whether it is national. In the other words, it is sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority. Economically, poorna swaraj means full economic freedom for the toiling millions. For Gandhi, swaraj of the people meant the sum total of the swaraj (self-rule) of individuals and so he clarified that for him swaraj meant freedom for the meanest of his countrymen. And in its fullest sense, swaraj is much more than freedom from all restraints, it is self-rule, self-restraint and could be equated with moksha or salvation.”

How to realise swaraj also engaged Gandhiji’s attention seriously. He reminded his colleagues that swaraj will not drop from the cloud and it would be the fruit of patience, perseverance, ceaseless toil, courage and intelligent appreciation of the environment.

He also reminded them that swaraj means vast organising ability, penetration into the villages solely for the services of the villagers; in other words, it means national education i.e., education of the masses.’ And in the Gandhian discourse, education of the masses means conscientization, mobilisation and empowerment, making people capable and determined to stand up to the powers that be. He said: “Real swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

Political independence was an essential precondition and the first step towards the realisation of the goal of swaraj, but it was only a first step. For political independence Gandhi worked with and through the Indian National Congress, but there existed serious philosophical and ideological differences between Gandhi and other prominent leaders of the Congress, particularly Nehru. The development model visualised by Gandhi and enunciated in the Hind Swarajknown as Gandhi’s manifestoand the strategy he evolved subsequently were totally unacceptable to Nehru and his Congress, Nehru dismissed Hind Swaraj as “completely unreal” and declared that neither he nor the Congress had ever considered the picture presented in it. However, to Gandhi the vision presented in the Hind Swaraj was the ideal for the realisation of which he had devoted his life fully. He wanted to rebuild India after the model presented there. This required much more than ending British rule.

India was a subjugated nation. However, foreign domination was not the only form of subjugation suffered by her. India was the victim of many ills and evils of her own making for which no foreign power could be blamed. Therefore, Gandhi wanted an internal cleansing chiefly through self-motivated voluntary action in the form of constructive work. He, therefore, dovetailed them into his movement for freedom, Swaraj of his dream was to be built from below, brick by brick. It meant the elimination of all forms of domination, oppression, segregation and discrimination through the use of active nonviolence and a simultaneous economic regeneration of rural India through programmers like the revival and propagation of khadi and other related villages industries. For translating these constructive programmes into reality, organisations were necessary. Congress was chiefly concerned with the question of political independence and believed in mobilising the people politically for it. It was not prepared to take up constructive work. Therefore, Gandhi founded voluntary organisations to carry out his constructive program. The All India Spinners Association (AISA) and All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) the Harijan Sewak Sangh, the Leprosy foundation etc., are examples. Through the instrumentality of these organisations, Gandhi launched a massive programme of rural reconstruction and of empowering the marginalised sections of people. As these organisations were primarily meant for social transformation through voluntary action at the grassroots level, their thrust was mainly social. However it does not mean that they were apolitical. On the contrary, they developed what later came to be labeled peoples’ politics and basic politics, which in turn helped in the consolidation of lokshakti or peoples’ power. Although constructive workers were barred from directly taking part in political struggles, on crucial occasions Gandhi enlisted their services for political mobilisation. For example, the 79 volunteers who constituted the Dandi salt march team were all constructive workers. When Gandhiji launched the Individual Satyagraha it was the most prominent constructive worker Vinobawhom he selected as the first Satyagrahi. Gandhi visualised constructive work as a training programme for nonviolent resisters or satyagrahies and advocated the extensive use of constructive programme for preparing a favorable environment for launching satyagraha. Therefore, the political thrust of the constructive programme shall not be lost sight of.

In what is known as his Last Will and Testament Gandhi suggested the disbanding of the congress organisation as a political forum and its blossoming into a constructive work organisationLok Sewak Sangh was the name he proposedto conscientise and mobilise the people to work and struggle for swaraj. Congressmen of the party-political disposition gave no heed to the advice of the Mahatma. However, after Gandhi’s assassination the constructive workers, under the leadership of Vinoba Bhave, formed the Sarva Seva Sangh at the national level and Sarvodya Mandals at the regional/state levels to carry on samagra grama sevaintegrated village servicefor realising the goal of swaraj. Two major nonviolent movements for socio-economic and political revolution in India viz. the Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement led by the Vinoba and the Total Revolution movement led by Jayprakash Narayanan (JP) were actually held under the aegis of the Sarvodaya Movement. On closer scrutiny it could be seen that the constructive work organisations founded by Gandhi and the Sarvodaya Mandals and Sarva Seva Sangh have actually served as precursors and role models of peoples movement, Voluntary Organisations (V.O.s.) and some of the Non-Government Organisations (N.G.O.s) that were subsequently launched in various parts of India. As the similarities in their approach and praxis are obvious, it is not necessary to elaborate on them.

Gandhi had very clear ideas about the role to be played by the constructive work organisations and the proposed Lok Sevak Sangh in the reconstruction of India. He made it clear that he would not hesitate to use nonviolent direct action against the new government headed by Nehru, his chosen heir. In his conversation with Louis Fischer, Gandhi made it unequivocally clear that mass satyagraha will have to be launched also against the landlords for persuading them to end their oppression and exploitation and that he was mentally preparing himself for that historic struggle for justice.

Why did Gandhi take such a position vis-à-vis the state, the capitalists and the landlords who were his supporters and the Indian National Congress begs deeper probing. Although most of his prominent colleagues and contemporaries pinned their vision of transformation of society and polity on state power Gandhi cherished a deep-rooted suspicion of the state machinery. He defined the state as the most organised and concentrated form of violence and called it an impersonal entity, a soulless machine that satisfied individuality, which lay at the root of all progress. The raison d’etre of the state is that it is an instrument of serving the people. But Gandhi feared that in the name of moulding the state into a suitable instrument of serving people, the state would abrogate the rights of the citizens and arrogate to itself the role of grand protector and demand abject acquiescence from them.

This would create a paradoxical situation where the citizens would be alienated from the state and at the same time enslaved to it which according to Gandhi was demoralising and dangerous. If Gandhi’s close acquaintance with the working of the state apparatus in South Africa and in India strengthened his suspicion of a centralized, monolithic state, his intimate association with the congress and its leaders confirmed his fears about the corrupting influence of political power and his skepticism about the efficacy of the party systems of power politics and his study of the British parliamentary systems convinced him of the utter impotency of representative democracy of the Westminster model in meting out justice to people. So he thought it necessary to evolve a mechanism to achieve the twin objectives of empowering the people and empowering the state. It was for this that he developed the two pronged strategy of resistance (to the state) and reconstruction (through voluntary and participatory social action).

Socio-political developments in the post-colonial world corresponded with the Gandhian prognosis. The post-colonial Indian state started showing signs of becoming authoritarian under the pretext of becoming an adequate instrument of serving the people. Since erstwhile colonies had to overcome their under- development (due to colonial exploitation) and develop in order to “catch up with the west”, post colonial societies were urged to give their states enormous power in every domain. As Neera Chandhoke points out, ‘development empowered the state in a way no other ideology could, indeed development became ideology. Narrowly conceived in an economist fashion development portrayed the state as an impersonal vehicle of social change. As the post colonial elite who were captains of the state believed that development was the imperative of the time and considered it to be a value free social process, they ignored the crucial fact that such an approach would breed its own patterns of domination and social oppression’.8 This became clear in less than two decades after independence.

As pointed out in the beginning the hope of postcolonial transformation in which the state was assigned a pivotal role was completely belied. The state was made visibly pro-elitist, catering to the needs of the rich and the powerful. With the beginning of the last decade of the century, the post colonial states began openly collaborating with Trans-National and Multi-National Corporations and Companies compromising even the sovereignty of the nation state and exposing the weaker sections of the people to stark exploitation. New forms of Western domination are being facilitated by the market. In short, the very conception of the state as an instrument of human liberation and social transformation is to be doubted and contested. Not only the state but active mediators of the political process namely the political parties also have alienated themselves from the people and forfeited their credibility. It is not necessary to argue so hard to show that all these trends correspond to the Gandhian prognosis.

In this paradoxical situation, the victims of oppression are compelled to fall back on the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that challenged the authoritarian conception of the state and political power. The anti-colonial struggles had opened up the streams of democratic consciousness that gave the people not only a sense of their fundamental and inalienable rights but also confidence in their capability to challenge and throw anti-people regimes, through peaceful means. Another dimension of the anti-colonial struggle was that it gave the people the vision of an ideal social order that is free from exploitation, segregation and domination and also the hope that they can, through corporate effort, translate this vision into reality. All these have boiled down to a new determination among the massesparticularly the oppressed and the marginalised and the displacedon the one hand to resist all forms of oppressive structures including the state, and on the other to strive for a more humane, participatory, just and sustainable social order. The socio-political turbulence and upheavals that we witness today are manifestations of this new determination.

As pointed out by Harsh Sethi,9 the Action Groups/Peoples Movements that are spearheading this campaign size organization and operation, it is well-nigh impossible to put them under a single rubric. Most of these groups are composed mainly of sensitised and radicalised middle class youth working with and for the oppressed and exploited strata with a vision to transform society. Another commentator has identified three major groups of actors in Peoples MovementsGandhians, radical Christians and freelance Marxist intellectuals.

Typology and Issues

1. Struggles for gender Justicefighting structural and cultural oppressionresisting harassment of women and girl children through direct action and legal measures. Many women’s action groups are involved.
2. Struggles of the Dalitsfighting structural and socio-cultural oppressionsmost action groups are Ambedkaritesvery active in Karnataka and Maharashtramost of them not committed to nonviolence. Demand socio-economic justice and equality.
3. Struggles of the Tribalsthe worst hit victims of major development projects of India like big dams, mines and collieries, thermal power stations, etc. demand the right to live in their natural and traditional habitats and control and use their natural resourcesalso demand Tribal self-government in their scheduled areasmany action groups are active.
4. Ecological Strugglesprobably the most popular and widespread are environmental strugglesdemand an end to pollution, environmental degradation, over-exploitation of natural resources, and non-renewable sources of energypose the issues of sustainable development and alternative life styles. NBA, the most popular movement today.
5. Human Rights/Civil Rights Strugglesexpose and resist the authoritarian acts of the state and other powerful social forces and vested interestsseek mainly legal redressal. People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
6. Anti-Nuclear Campaigns and Strugglesresist the establishment of atomic power plantsthe attempt to establish nuclear reactors were defeated twice in Keralaand the escalation of nuclear weapons and other weapons like missilesthe Baliapal Struggle.
7. Struggles against the liquor, drug menacedemand legal ban on the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol, drugs and other intoxicantschiefly under the aegis of All India Prohibition Council and State Prohibition Councilsalso led by citizens and Women’s Action Groups prohibition was an item in Gandhi’s Constructive Programme.
8. Struggles for land redistributionmobilising landless agricultural labourers and tillers and other landless sections and offering satyagraha against the state and landlords and certain institutions that are monopoly holders of landcapture and occupation of land the campaigns led by Shri Jagannathan, a senior Sarvodaya leader in Tamil Nadualso similar struggles in Bihar.
9. Struggles for Gramswarajan ongoing campaign for realising village-self-sufficiency and autonomy through struggles and constructive activitiesled by Sarva Seva Sangh.
10. Struggles against Commercial Tourismexpose the evil designs of corporate capitalism in promoting tourism as an industry leading to cultural pollution, carnivalisation of religious festivals, child prostitution and large scale environmental destructionactive in states like Goa and Kerala.
11. Struggles to reverse globalisationthese struggles are for community control of natural resources and protection of bio-diversity as against corporate controlthe farmer’s struggles for protecting indigenous seed varieties and their fight against the terminator seed also come under this.

A General Assessment

As already mentioned these struggles are held around a variety of issues that are different but inter connected. The theatres of struggles are also equally varied. The actors are disparate and sometimes even conflicting. At a glance, they appear almost kaleidoscopic. But there are certain characteristics that stand out. The most predominant, I suppose is the convergence and alliance of actors in each struggle. Most of these struggles are localised and single-issue based and take place in remote and inaccessible places. Therefore during the early years of these struggles, as the issues were not properly reported in the media, the action groups found it difficult to hold on against their adversaries who were formidable. But as a result of organised and concerted effort the situation changed gradually. As the action groups could succeed in publicising the seriousness of the problem and the consequences thereof, most of the theatres of struggle now attract a chain of actors. At the base are, of course, the direct and immediate victims, but on these converge people from media, professionals like researchers, technologists, doctors, professors, and human rights activists including lawyers and also writers and theatre artistes, and students from different levels.11 Some of the struggles have attracted support even from overseas.

This kind of convergence of concerned and sensitised people drawn from different walks of life and various areas of specialisation has helped those at the base line of the action to acquire factually accurate data and argue their case more scientifically and convincingly. It has also created a new sense of solidarity and fraternity reminiscent of the days of the historic anti-colonial struggle. Recently when a selected team of satyagrahies of the N.B.A. decided to do jail samarpan, i.e. offering themselves as sacrifice in the rising waters of the river Narmada and refused to leave their post,, many sympathisers, drawn from various parts of the country, offered to drown with the satyagrahies. And they remained with them in neck deep waters braving the risk of being washed away by the state-created flood. This is one of the rarest demonstrations of solidarity that can be read as a very reassuring sign of hope by all those who stand and struggle for the greater common good.

Alliance building within the theatre of a struggle is not without problems. Harsh Sethi, for example, points out that as a result of the intervention of professionals from outside real issues tend to get clouded and there is even the chance of it moving away from the central question of power. He has also hinted at a cognitive handicap likely to arise out of an interface of two contradictory worldviews, that of communities rooted in nature and that of the urban middle class professionals. Sethi feared a distortion and downgrading of traditional wisdom and folk knowledge.12 However, later developments show that such well meaning criticisms and the warning implied therein were received very positively. Collaboration was carefully developed into an alliance, which proved transformatory for both sets of actors. Both became self-conscious in a positive sense, accepting one’s limitations and never trying to exchange roles. The professionals worked with commendable restraint, and they have openly acknowledged the great transformatory education they received from the experience of being with traditional communities. Needless to say that this has helped considerably in strengthening the struggles.

Almost at the struggles are localised. However, the issues involved are non-local and sometimes they are of global significance. Therefore, there arises the need to transcend localism while remaining local. For resolving most of the issues, wider support becomes essential because the issues are complex and the opponents formidable. The message of an ancient axiomunited we stand, divided we fallhas become clearer than before to the Action Groups. So alliance building between Peoples Movements has become an imperative need of the times and to fulfill this need the National Alliance of People’s Movements has been formed. The N.A.P.M. is a co-ordination of such people oriented organisations, parties, movements, institutes and individuals that are working towards alternative development paradigm based on equality, justice and peace, and striving to evolve a sustainable society.13 Within three years of its inception the N.A.P.M. has succeeded in getting a large number of Peoples Movements affiliated to it and has made its presence felt in the overall scenario of peoples struggles in India. It appears that in the years to come it is going to play a pivotal role in the consolidation of people’s Movements and struggles in this country.

One of the important results achieved by the struggles is that they succeeded in initiating a serious dialogue and discussion within and among the Action Groups and Peoples Movements on an alternative development paradigm. This has helped the Action Groups in placing the whole gamut of struggles in perspective and in evolving a consensus on what is meant by sustainable developmentthe values that underlie it, the components that constitute it and the methodology that would translate it into practice. The dialogue on an alternative development model has thus narrowed down the ideological distance between movements. It has also emphasised the need to evolve an alternative politics. Discussions on various aspects of the emerging peoples’ politics which is distinguished from party politics, are galore in People’s Movements, though nothing concrete, capable of making a dent nationally, has emerged yet . But a fundamental and crucial political question hitherto ignored or marginalised by mainstream political parties and political commentators have been pushed into the vortex of contemporary political discourse by the Movements.

An important trend that has started emerging with the struggles that attempt to resist and reverse globalisation is the importance given to constructive activities. Action Groups that were oriented primarily to agitation and were engaged in mobilising people only for struggle, have effected a change in their orientation by incorporating constructive work also into their praxis. There was a time when interest in and insistence on constructive work was brushed aside as a Gandhian fad, but now, the number of Movements and Groups that assign a key role to the building up of models of alternative enterprises and structures, are on the increase as they have understood the substantive and strategic significance of these programmes.

The role of nonviolence in these struggles is of course a moot question. As already mentioned, while some movements and groups have openly expressed their disapproval of nonviolence as a method of struggle, others have emphasised the need to give up violence and resort to peaceful means. Although these groups do not adhere to Gandhi’s position on nonviolence, i.e., accepting nonviolence as an article of faith and making it the central organising principle of life, they are convinced more than ever before that nonviolence has to be accepted as an ideal if a just social order is to be translated into reality. For them, justice is an essential value and they know that violence in any form and in any degree amounts to a denial of justice. Therefore, they emphasise peace, taking peace as one form and manifestation of nonviolence.

It is really indicative of an emerging trend among Action Groups of giving up violent methods and gradually moving towards nonviolence. Some organisations claim to be nonviolent. However, a critical observer is constrained to point out that theirs is not the nonviolence of the brave visualised and demonstrated by Gandhi, but nonviolence of the weak. Most of the ‘satyagrahas’ that we see today are only passive resistance and not real satyagraha as conceived by Gandhi. It will be relevant to recall that J.P. described the movement for total revolutions as “peaceful” and not “nonviolent” . But it serves as a sign of hope that more and more action groups are renouncing violence, being convinced about its utter futility and accepting peace and nonviolence as key values. Probably they have come to the realisation with Martin Luther King Jr. that the choice before humanity today is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and non-existence.

People’s Movements and their struggles have been mainly located in civil society by social scientists.14 Civil society has been advanced to provide the conceptual frame work to comprehend and evaluate people struggles. It has been pointed out that these struggles are to be seen as part of an attempt to create an authentic civil society in which the values of freedom and equality can be experienced by all its members. But as Neera Chandhoke argues, the civil society constructed by the post colonial state is a constrictive and exclusive arena…. a peaceable arena…. in which any one who confronts the state is a political offender and can be banished outside the pale of society… it is neutralised civil society that is stripped of its potential to engage with the state. Thus in fact, the concept of civil society does not provide an adequate conceptual apparatus to locate peoples struggles. Manoranjan Mohanty introduces the concept of ‘creative society’ to situate peoples’ struggles and here ‘creative society’ refers to a phase of development of a society in which a large number of political contradictions become articulate and active and oppressed people get politically mobilised and demand their rights.

A closer and critical look at Gandhi’s concept of swaraj will show that it can provide a more adequate conceptual apparatus to locate and assess the struggles of the oppressed peoples. As pointed out earlier Gandhi’s concept of swaraj is a comprehensive one and encapsulates the individual human person and life in a holistic framework. It visualises the progressive liberation of all from all oppressive structures and therefore can be equated with salvation. If we examine the vision of the new world orderthe heaven freedomconceived and formulated by the ideologues of the peoples struggles, it would become unambiguously clear that nothing less than a concept as comprehensive and holistic as Swaraj will be necessary to locate it properly. That is why I look upon these struggles as peoples’ pursuit of the ideal of swaraj and situate them in the Gandhian legacy.

Notes and References:

1. Rajni Kothari,”Masses Classes and the state ” in New Social Movements in the South Empowering the people, ed. Ponna Wignaraja, Visataar Publications, New Delhi, 1993, p. 61.
2. Ibid., p. 62
3. M. K. Gandhi, Young India, June 28, 1928, p. 772.
4. Ibid, December 8, 1920, p.886 (See also Young India, August 6, 1925, p. 276 and Harijan, March 25, 1939, p. 64.
5. Ibid, August 27, 1925, p.297.
6. Ibid., May 21, 1925, p.178.
7. ibid., January 29, 1925, p. 41.
8. Neera Chandhoke , ” The Assertion of Civil Society Against the State: The case of the Post Colonial World” in Peoples Rights ed. Manoranjan Mohanty et al., New Delhi 1998, p. 32.
9. Harsh Sethi , “Survival of Democracy : Ecological Struggles in India” in New Social Movements in the South, Empowering the people, op. cit. See also his article, “Action Groups in New Delhi 1998, p.32.
10. Somen Chakraborty, A Critique of social Movements in India, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi 1999.
11. See Harsh Sethi, op. cit.
12. Ibid , p. 139.
13. See N.A. P.M. Bulletin Vol. 2 No, 12, June 14, 1998, pp.9-14.
14. See Kothari and Neera Chandhoke, op. cit.
15. Neera Chandhoke , op. cit. pp. 38-39.
16. See Manoranjan Mohanty, “Social Movements in Creative Society: Of Autonomy and Interconnection ” in people’s Rights, op. cit.
Source: International workshop on Nonviolent Struggles in the Twentieth Century and their Lessons for the Twenty-first, October 5-12, 1999, New Delhi

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