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Mahatma Gandhi and the Role of the State

Mahatma Gandhi challenged the greatest empire of his times.  It could even be argued that not only did he challenge the greatest empire of the times, he also made it wobble if he actually did not bring it down on its knees.  Yet a great paradox underlies this achievement: although Mahatma Gandhi challenged such a major manifestation of state power as the British Empire, he had a very low assessment of the role state power should play in human affairs.  This aspect of his thought has almost gone unchallenged in the shadow of the titanic struggle he was engaged in.

It could even be argued that far from being a paradox, there is a logical connection between Gandhi’s low estimate of the role of the state in human affairs and his reaction to the British empire, which led him to challenge it.  It has not always been realized that his resistance to the British Empire blended two arguments: (1) that it was oppressing the Indian people in practice and (2) in principle it is best to avoid such aggression of state power.  This is most obvious in his vision of the kind of government with which the British Raj was to be replaced – a government which governed the least – which was the best government in the Gandhian conception of it.   

This Gandhian position was in line with much of post-Mauryan Hindu thought.  The point is important.  The Arthašăstra is characterized by a sturdy realism in dealing with matters of the state.  What is equally important is that it accords a high role to the state in the scheme of values, symbolized by artha.  Subsequent Hindu thought, with some exceptions, seems to depart from this position, a change in which Ashoka’s transformation of the Mauryan state machinery may have also played a role.  Gradually the position evolved that conflicts between dharma and artha were to be resolved in favour of dharma.  The emergence of the caste system may also have played a role in it, if the caste system developed “probably as a countermove to the political instability of Indian empires and kingdoms” and in fact began to perform some of the functions of the state both literally and symbolically.  The destruction of Indian dynasties by foreign invasions, which characterize the period between the Maurya and Gupta period, may also have contributed to this tendency. 

The replacement of Hindu rule first by Muslim and then by British rule probably reinforced this conceptual distancing from the state.  What is then remarkable is that while Mahatma Gandhi opposed the British raj he also inherited this suspicion of the power of the state which had become ingrained by now in the Hindu mind. 

Two points become extremely significant in this context – one for what did not happen and the other for what did.  One might have expected that, after centuries of political deprivation, the Hindu mind would have gained a heightened appreciation of the power of the state – of which it had actually been a victim for so long.  It must be considered surprising that this did not happen – at least not on the scale one would have imagined, if the rise of the Maratha and the Sikh empires are viewed as reflecting such response.  The appreciation of the power of the state did not come as a reaction to the West but was in fact the result of the action of the West itself – as it affected Indian thought in the form of communism.  In this context it is crucial to distinguish between the positions of Marx and Lenin.  Marx visualized the withering away of the state – a scenario Gandhi would have applauded.  But Lenin – by introducing the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat – assigned a key role to state power.  In this Nehru was a follower of Lenin.  Thus it was Nehru who was recognized the significance of the power of the state – and not just of the state but a strong central state.  In fact one of the reasons he gave for accepting partition is that the constitutional arrangements for an undivided India would have left India with a weak central government.   

On this point he also broke with Gandhi.  His vision of post-independent India differed from that of Gandhi in this crucial respect.  At the critical moment, the Indian state after independence was hijacked by a Leninist from the hands  of Gandhi – a Gandhi who did not consider it that important to begin with. 

Even the Hindu right in this respect is more in line with Gandhi.  All that they talk of is Hindu rashtra, never of Hindu rajya.  It is as if of the hyphenated nation – state they have grabbed only one half – and according to statists the wrong half.

Source: Gandhi Marg, January – March 2005