Gandhi's Hind Swaraj : A Summary and Centennial View
After attempting a summary of the book the paper argues that the evaluation of the ideas of Hind Swaraj depends obviously on how one looks at it. One of the ways to look at it is to take it as a blue-print, something like a project report, for a new social order. Looked at from that perspective, we do not find many takers for the major ideas of Hind Swaraj. But looking at it from another angle, particularly in the context of the failure of most of the dominant ideologies of the twentieth century, including Marxism and liberalism in its variant forms, there is a strong tendency among the sensitive minds from all over the world to look at Gandhian ideas as providing a new paradigm for an alternative civilisational framework. And Hind Swaraj being the source-book of Gandhian ideas has necessarily become the centre of the new intellectual quest.
Hind Swaraj: A Summary
Hind Swaraj or Indian Home-Rule comprises of 20 short chapters. It is written in a dialogic form between the Reader and the Editor of a journal/newspaper. The advantage of the dialogic form is that it provides the Editor (here Gandhi) with an opportunity to discuss the entire gamut of issues with all their implications and intricacies.
Malaise of Modern Civilization
Gandhi's Hind Swaraj is primarily known for its trenchant critique of modern civilization.
In Hind Swaraj he also dwells on the condition of India as it has developed under the British rule and tutelage. He makes a basic formulation that under the impact of the British rule India is turning into an 'irreligious' country. He hastens to add that he is not thinking of any particular religion, but rather of that Religion which underlies all religions. We are turning away from God, he adds. He likens modem civilization to a 'mouse' 'gnawing' our people while apparently soothing them. Then he turns his moral gaze to some of major developments like railways and the emergence of new elite like lawyers and doctors. All these developments, he asserts, have only led to the impoverishment of the India. According to him railways have helped the British to tighten their grip over India. Besides, they have been also responsible for 'famines', epidemics and other problems for the country. He counters the argument that railways have contributed to the growth of Indian nationalism by saying that India had been a nation much before the British arrived. In chapter XI of Hind Swaraj he argues that lawyers have contributed more to the degradation of India. Besides, they have accentuated the Hindu-Muslim dissensions, helped the British to consolidate their position and have sucked the blood of the poor of India. In the next chapter he describes how doctors have failed the Indian society. In his opinion, doctors have been primarily responsible for making the people 'self-indulgent' and taking less care of their bodies. He concludes his critique of modern civilization by comparing it to an Upas tree, a poisonous plant which destroys all life around it.
In another chapter of the Hind Swaraj he examines the English educational system introduced in India and describes it as 'false education'. For him the basic aim of education should be to bring our senses under our control and to help imbibe ethical behaviour in our life. He attacks the newly emerged elite, a by-product of the Macaulay system of education, as they have enslaved India.
Swaraj of the Hind Swaraj
Swaraj and the method to attain it was the main concern of the Hind Swaraj. In chapter IV of Hind Swaraj he puts forward a basic formulation that mere transfer of power from British hands to Indian hands would not lead to true swaraj. He adds that would be nothing more than having 'English rule without Englishmen'. In that case, he argues, India may be called 'Hindustan' but actually it would remain 'Englistan'. Hence it would not be swaraj of his conception. And in chapter XIV (How Can India Become Free?) he tries to define true swaraj by saying that if we (individuals) became free, India would be free. It is in the same vain that he opines that 'it is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves! Such a swaraj, he further adds, would have to be experienced by each one of us. Gandhi also uses the term swaraj for home-rule or self-government for the Indian people. But he makes it clear that there is a symbiotic relationship between swaraj as 'self- rule' of individual Indians and swaraj as the home-rule or self- government for the Indian people. In other words, home-rule that Indian people would achieve would be true only to the extent they are successful in being 'self ruling' individuals. In the chapter XV. Gandhi puts forward the thesis that the real challenge is to free millions of our people and not simply to change the government. How could it be achieved? Not by the use of arms and violence. This is for two reasons, he adds. One, any resort to violent rebellion would require thousands of Indians being armed which in itself is too much of a tall order. Two, more importantly, if India resorts to arms, the 'holy land' of India would became 'unholy'. In the process, India would become a land worse than Europe. He vehemently rejects the use of brute force for attaining swaraj for India. He introduces new arguments for such rejection. One, there is a close relationship between the means and the end. Thus he rejects the basic formulations of Indian revolutionaries that India could be freed only by violent means both on moral and ethical grounds. Besides, he also rejects the Moderates' view that Indians could be freed by mere supplication and petitioning. Unless backed by effective sanctions that would be an exercise in futility. Hence India would require passive resistance, based on 'love-force' or 'soul-force' to move forward on the road to Swaraj. In chapter XVII he elaborately dwells on the concept of passive resistance, albeit Satyagraha. He explains the concept of passive resistance as a method of securing rights by going through 'personal sufferings'. Here by implications he justifies the use of soul force on the basis of the concept of 'relative truth'. He further argues that passive resistance is not a 'weapon of the weak'. Rather it is a weapon of the strong. He concludes the entire discussion by saying that real home rule is possible only through passive resistance. But he also hastens to add that a true passive resistor will have to observe 'perfect chastity' adopt 'voluntary poverty' 'follow truth' and 'cultivate fearlessness'.
Another major concept which he introduces in Hind Swaraj is that of the composite nature of Indian nationalism. ln Hind Swaraj he puts forward the argument that Indian people constituted a nation much before the British came. The coming of the Mohammedans earlier had hardly made any difference to the fact of India being a nation. In the process, he argues that India could not cease to be a nation simply because people belonging to different religions reside here. People with different religious backgrounds would continue to constitute one nation so long as they maintain the principle of non-interference in one another's religion. In the process, he makes a very profound statement:
'If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dreamland. Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsees and Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen and they will have to live in unity if only for their own interests. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms nor has it ever been in India'.
Elsewhere in Hind Swaraj he rejects the British thesis that India was never a nation. Rather it has always been a conglomerate of different creeds and communities. He asserts that our seers and sages laid the foundation of our national unity and Indian nationhood by establishing centres of pilgrimage on the four corners of India. In the process, they fired the imagination of our people with the idea of nationhood. Thus in Hind Swaraj Gandhi lays a real foundation of secular nationalism for which he lived and died for.
Vision of an Alternative Society
Hind Swaraj presents the broad contours of an alternative society - a new civilizational framework in a rudimentary form. In the chapter dealing with 'true civilization' he defines it as that 'mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty'. He further adds that moral behaviour is nothing but to attain 'mastery over one's mind'.
In the same chapter he avers that the ancient Indian civilization fits the bill for being the true civilization. To that end, he identifies its core values such as limits to self-indulgence in terms of luxuries and pleasures, emphasis on ancestral profession, rural life, and moral control of sages over the kings, its curb on unnecessary competitiveness and its preference for small scale technologies and decentralized polity. He admits that at present modern India is moving away from these old values. But he pins his hope in the bulk of the people of India residing in hinterland who continue to persist in its hoary tradition. As to who would perform all these onerous tasks, he reposes his faith in the new band of satyagrahis who should play the of role of exemplars rather than that of vanguards.
There are other concepts in Hind Swaraj scattered all over the book viz. swadeshi, brahamcharya, nature cure, a new educational and legal system, relationship between the means and the end and duties and rights which he elaborated in his later writings. At the end of the book he makes a solemn declaration that the rest of his life would be dedicated to the attainment of the kind of Swaraj he had explained and has actually experienced in his own inner being.
Critical Evaluation of Hind Swaraj: A Centennial View
Initially, Hind Swaraj did not attract much attention either at the hands of scholars or even political leaders of India.
There are innumerable commentaries and 'write-ups' on Hind Swaraj either commending it for its broad and bold sweep or critiquing rashly its harsh views on modern civilization or its day-dreaming of an alternative societal framework. There are two major critical commentaries which, by and large, cover most of the basic points elaborated by other scholars. What is more, both these commentaries came directly to Gandhi in his own life time to which he sent his reasoned response. It is also interesting to note that one of them came immediately after the publication of the English version of Hind Swaraj in 1910 and the other nearly 35 years later in 1945. Besides, in both these cases, the personalities involved were not only important people but also intimately known to Gandhi. The two luminaries are none other than W.J. Wybergh, member of the Transvaal Legislature and a good friend of Gandhi despite their differences on the racial issues and Jawaharlal Nehru, one of his closest followers and his political 'heir'.
Gandhi had sent a copy of 'Hind Swaraj' to Wybergh soon after its publication in March 1910 seeking his opinion on it. Wybergh sent his considered opinion in May 1910 raising a number of critical points. Some of them were:
This is the centenary year of Hind Swaraj and as such a fresh look at its basic formulations is called for. In other words, how do they appear in the light of the historical developments of the last one hundred years? Admittedly, most of these ideas have been discarded by the practitioners of 'real politic' all over the world including India. And yet intellectual interest and inquiries continue to persist without much interruption. In fact, they have got intensified in the recent past. What is the reason for such practical rejection of and simultaneous intellectual attraction for Hind Swaraj? In our view, such a mystery of an ardent repulsion and attraction could be explained by the way one looks at Hind Swaraj and ideas contained therein. One way to look at them it is to take it as a blue-print, something like a project report for a new social order. Looked at from that perspective, we do not find many takers for Hind Swaraj and it's major ideas. On that level its rejection is quite obvious and even 'obliterous'. But there is another way to look at it: as a source book for ideas for an alternative civilisational framework. With the failure of most of the dominant ideologies. There is a strong tendency among the sensitive minds from all over the world to look at Gandhian ideas as providing a new paradigm for an alternative civilisational framework. And Hind Swaraj being the source-book of Gandhian ideas has necessarily become the centre of new intellectual quest.
There is another problem with Hind Swaraj: written in the style and manner of and advocacy for a particular line of thought, on casual reading it would appear baldly bold and even absolutist in the extreme. It was primarily meant for dissuading the Indian people from falling into the alluring trap of western civilization both in terms of finding the right means for Indian independence, as well as building a new India in the post-independent era. Hence, it involves a very strong criticism of modern civilization verging on its total rejection. But a closer perusal would reveal that his criticisms are much more nuanced and balanced than it is usually understood. Gandhi, in the first place, makes a distinction between western civilization per se and modern civilization. And it is the latter that is put under his moral gaze. Here again he accepts some of its positive contributions like time management, greater control over the environment and better organizational efforts. Gandhi does not stop at the rejection or western civilization. Rather he charts out a plan for an alternative modernity.
Looking at Hind Swaraj after a century, one could safely conclude that in it Gandhi anticipated some of the disastrous consequences of modern civilization much more clearly than most of his contemporaries could do. And the subsequent historical developments have confirmed rather than contradicted some of his worst surmises and apprehensions. Ecological imbalances including the problem of the climate change is a case in point. On much deeper level, his views enunciated in Hind Swaraj on man, society and nature have rather stood the test of the time. The indiscriminate use of scientific and technological revolution has brought a lot of problems in its trail. History is a witness to Gandhi's formulation that unbridled use of technology breeds concentration of power in a few hands. Besides, it goes a long way to ensure the marginalization of millions, making them the victims of domination and exploitation at the hands of the powers-that-be. The fact that Hind Swaraj not only anticipated some of these problems but tried to offer an alternative even in a rudimentary and nebulous form is creditable?
On a more positive side, satyagraha has attracted worldwide recognition as the only right way to right a wrong. In a word, Hind Swaraj, despite its apparent polemic style contains some perennial truths which would not lose its lustre and luminosity with the lapse of time. So long as humankind long for a better social life, a more meaningful and good life, Hind Swaraj will always have its relevance. But it would go against the grain of Gandhi to take it as the only way leading humankind from its present predicament. That would be turning it into a dogma, which would cut asunder the very core of Gandhian thinking. There could be other 'ways' but the fact that Hind Swaraj also offers a 'way' out could not be denied.
The question is; how should we read Hind Swaraj? Should we read it as a classic or a blueprint or manifesto for action? In our view, it should not be taken as a manifesto for action. Nor should it be read as a mere scholarly work based on cold reasoning with supporting evidence from primary and secondary sources. It is much more, and in certain way, much less than all this. It is essentially based on studies, reflection and action of the general of an unarmed army trying to take over the mightiest power on the earth. It is based on the experiences of a David against a Goliath.
It should not be read as the clarion call of a cultural chauvinist who goes all out to condemn and contest the 'other civilization. Most of the books listed in the appendix of Hind Swaraj are from the writers of the 'Other West'. Hence Hind Swaraj tries to integrate many ideas drawn from diverse sources of both from the West and the East. Ideas contained in Hind Swaraj are not colloquial, rather, they could be very well taken for universal application in.
In fact, Hind Swaraj could very well be read as a classic work of 'recognized and established value'. It is to be read as a document for call for reflection and reasoned action, and not only for arm-chair reading. But it could not be read as a manifesto of a political actor promising 'heaven, on the earth'. It gives a call for 'sweat, blood, patience and perseverance but not as a piece of cacophonous preaching, rather as a guide. It should be read more for the questions it raises rather than the answers it provides. It could be read as a perennial work which could always be subjected to new interpretations to suit the changing needs of time. It has the strength of containing diagnostic, prognostic and prescriptive ideas. It is not for nothing that one of its prescriptive ideas, viz. satyagraha not only led to the demolition of the British Empire leading to the independence of India but also started the process of decolonization which ultimately freed the 'weaker races' from the clutches of the Western dominance.
Acknowledgement and Reference:
Primary inspiration for penning this paper on Hind Swaraj has come from a number of my students and colleagues in the teaching community. They have impressed upon me the basic idea that such an over-view of Hind Swaraj and its major critical appreciation would be of great help in understanding its message particularly for the student community. They followed it up with holding several discussions with me on the basic themes of Hind Swaraj and they gave critical comments. I acknowledge and thank them for all their help and suggestions. The author also owes a lot of intellectual debt to the following authors and their referred works in the preparation of this paper.
Courtesy: This article has been adapated from Gandhi Marg, Vol. 31, no. 2, July-September 2009.
* RAM CHANDRA PRADHAN, taught at Ramjas College, Delhi University for several decades. He has been a recipient of Senior Fulbright Fellowship and Indo-Canadian Fellowship. He has authored a number of books including the widely known 'Raj to Swaraj'. Recently he has completed a full-length study on Mahatma Gandhi, soon to be published by Macmillan India. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org