Gandhi has always had his share of admirers and detractors. Many of a leftist persuasion have seen him as a bourgeoisie representative who mobilised the masses, only to neutralise their inherent revolutionary potential.
Amongst left-leaning historians, David Hardiman’s engagement with Gandhi is rather unique. A founding figure of the once influential Subaltern school, Hardiman has been an important historian of modern India with a specialisation in the social history of Gujarat. His account of the Kheda satyagraha and its aftermath (Peasant Nationalists of Gujarat: Kheda District 1917-34, published in 1981) was rich in empirical detail but was also shaped by leftist shibboleths against Gandhian nationalism. Over the decades since, Hardiman has engaged in a reassessment of his views on the significance of revolutionary violence as a means of political transformation, and specifically on the role and significance of Gandhian non-violence in India’s struggle for freedom. This ability to question one’s own certitudes is an altogether rare trait, especially amongst intellectuals. Hence, one must seriously reckon with his current project of examining Indian nationalism through the lens of non-violent resistance.
In a recent article (‘A different way to fight’, IE, November 20), Hardiman sheds light on the efficacy of non-violent resistance in political transformation. He also states, in passing, that Gandhian constructive workers helped “people in their everyday needs”, thereby gaining “the sympathy of the masses”. He further argues that “it requires long years of patient organisation in constructive work that gains mass sympathy for a cause — the protest comes only as a culmination”. Such a characterisation might lead the reader to believe that the primary objective of constructive work was to gain mass sympathy, only to be deployed towards the anti-colonial project. Indeed, both the British rulers and many Congressmen often saw it as a mere tool for furthering the politics of the Congress. However, we get a very different picture if we move beyond the 1920s and examine the evolution of Gandhi’s own thinking and activities in the 1930s.
Throughout his public life in India (1915-48), Gandhi devoted his energies to both the political campaign for India’s freedom as well as a range of socio-economic interventions that were clubbed under the rubric of constructive work. Such activities included communal harmony, the removal of untouchability, sanitation, khadi, village industries and basic education or Nai Talim. While much scholarly attention has focussed on Gandhi as a political leader, relatively little research has been carried out towards understanding constructive work. Even the little attention devoted to khadi is primarily owing to its symbolic significance in the political struggle against the Raj.
Subsequent to the Poona Pact, in 1933-34, Gandhi undertook a countrywide campaign against untouchability. His experiences and thinking in that period deeply informed the shape of constructive work in the 1930s. First, during his travels Gandhi witnessed the severe distress across agrarian India that was subjected to the economic consequences of the Great Depression. Second, sharp political differences had emerged between Gandhi and the Congress leadership. Third, Gandhi was influenced by the unhappy experience of running khadi activities under the umbrella of the Congress in the 1920s.
Gandhi’s conception of poorna swaraj or complete independence went beyond the removal of colonialism. He argued that it encompassed political, social and economic freedoms, indeed “freedom in every sense of the term”.
Throughout the 1930s, Gandhi was concerned with the quality of freedom to be obtained in a future free India. In a context where ordinary citizens had limited education, skills and resources, the challenge of economic justice demanded that the masses be able to participate as meaningful actors in the economy of the country. It is this demand of justice that lead him to devote his attention to the needs of the village. Here, we may note that he saw the dominance of the urban economy over the rural countryside as a form of “organised violence”.
Hence, in order to devote himself to addressing the economic needs of rural India, Gandhi resigned from the Congress in 1934, founded the All-India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) and eventually moved to Sevagram. Crucially, Gandhi mandated that the AIVIA be run “unaffected by and independent of the political activities of the Congress”. Moreover, its workers had to sign a pledge refraining from any form of political activity. These measures were designed to carve out an autonomous sphere for constructive work, specifically to unyoke it from an increasingly disinterested Congress. By no means were they designed to eventually dovetail the fruits of constructive work into future political mass mobilisations.
It is also in the 1930s that Gandhi introduced his radical approach of Nai Talim that sought to make elementary education accessible, affordable and meaningful to all children. Finally, we may note that in December 1941, with the political crisis on the boil, Gandhi penned a pamphlet on how to achieve “complete independence through truthful and non-violent means”. That pamphlet was not a political tract, but was titled ‘Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place’. In an atmosphere suffused with the potential for violence, Gandhi become increasingly convinced of the efficacy and urgency of constructive work.
While Gandhi met with lesser success in his constructive work compared with his political campaigns, he saw them as an indivisible whole. Arguably, constructive work can be thought of as a different mode of politics. In any event, an independent India rejected his economic model that placed the individual and the agrarian economy at the centre and instead took to industrial modernity. But the questions that Gandhi sought to address through constructive work are very much alive today. While the country has witness high growth rates in recent decades, both urban and rural India are plagued by the problems of social and economic inequality and injustice as well as the challenges posed by a multitude of environmental crises. Much like his approach to non-violent politics, Gandhi’s thinking on constructive work also offers useful contemporary lessons to those willing to listen and heed.
The writer is a biographer of the economic philosopher and constructive worker, J C Kumarappa and is currently working on a thematic history of Gandhi’s Sevagram years. He is associate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru