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Mahatma Gandhi


Gandhi's Hind Swaraj : A Summary and Centennial View

- By Ram Chandra Pradhan*


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.

Primarily Hind Swaraj deals with two issues: (a) a critique of modern civilization, (b) the nature and structure of Indian Swaraj and the means and methods to achieve it.

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'.

Indian Nationhood

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:

  1. Wybergh contested one of the basic formulations of Hind Swaraj that Western Civilization in nothing but a 'kingdom of Satan' and as such deserves to go lock stock and barrel forthwith. More importantly, Wybergh asserted that 'the bulk of the Indian population was required to be moved by the 'lash of competition and other material, sensuous and intellectual stimuli which is easily supplied in a fair measure by western Civilization. Hence Gandhi's prescription of 'liberation' as the immediate goal for the bulk of the Indian populace would do more harm than good to them. In support of his contention Wybergh quoted Annie Besant to the effect that the Indian people did not need to give up 'desires and activities'. Rather these were to be increased as passivity for them would mean continued stagnation and subjugation. For all these reasons western civilization, Wybergh concluded, was not irrelevant to India.
  2. Further Wybergh took up the question of 'passive resistance recommended by Gandhi as a panacea for most of the ills of the world in general and its urgent need for its application to Indian situation in particular. He argues that passive resistance, in actual practice, would be nothing but 'transferring the battle and violence from 'physical' to the 'mental, plane'. Therefore, it is neither 'spiritual' nor 'non-coercive'. Besides, as a matter of principle, he raised strong objection to Gandhi's 'employment' of 'soul force' for the attainment of 'physical and political object'. In fact, it could be taken as 'dangerous in the extreme.
  3. Wybergh raised a very fundamental philosophical and spiritual point whether 'passive resistance' had anything to do with Christian concept of 'non-resistance'. In that case, it could not be used for political ends as its primary aim was to transcend the world altogether. Besides, the use of 'non-resistance' was primarily meant for saints. As such its use by ordinary people might have 'pernicious and disastrous consequences'.

Gandhi quickly responded to Wybergfeletter and in the process he tried to counter and clarify some of the points raised by him. Some of these clarifications were:

  • Gandhi asserted that his primary purpose was to mitigate and if possible to eliminate violence both from private and public life. He left

    Wybergh with no doubt that 'Home Rule' obtained by violence would be totally different from the one obtained by 'passive resistance' as it involved the deeper question of the means and the end. In other words, means would decide the nature of the end and not vice- versa. Besides, violence seeks to obtain reform by external means, whereas passive resistance through internal growth. And that could be obtained only through the process of self-sufferings and self- purifications. In a word, passive resistance has both moral and spiritual dimensions as it is based on the mastery over one's 'self'.

  • Gandhi defended his firm condemnation of the western civilization' on the ground that judged on the scale of ethics, its spirit was nothing but 'evil'. He also contested Wybergh's contention of need for the people to be roused by the 'lash of completion' as that would hardly add even inch to their moral stature.
  • (ii)Gandhi further asserted that there was no harm in putting 'liberation' as the immediate goal for everyone, though he accepted that it might not be possible to reach out to it at the same time. He also refused to buy Wybergh's thesis that the talk of 'liberation' would hamper the peace of worldly activities of the people. He asserted that Wybergh's fear was predicated on his premise of complete divorce between religion and politics. Gandhi further asserted that he, in fact, was working to bridge the gap between religion and politics as he wanted to test all actions on the touchstone of ethics and morality.

If the Wybergh-Gandhi debate was more concerned with Gandhi's views on 'western civilization' and 'passive resistance', the primary focus of Gandhi- Nehru debate was on the kind of India to be built up in the post-independent era. The timing of Gandhi - Nehru debate is also important. By 1945 Gandhi had already declared Nehru as his political heir; and it was also becoming certain that India was going to be a free country in the near future. In his letter to Nehru dated 5th October 1945, Gandhi pledged to stand by 'the system of government envisaged in his Hind Swaraj which had been confirmed by his life-long experiences.

In that letter, he made several points:

  • That to attain true freedom, the people will have to live in villages and not in towns. This is so because it would never be possible for the crores of the people to live at peace with each other in towns and palaces. Moreover, the village life alone would provide congenial atmosphere for the practice of truth and non-violence without which the world could hardly survive.
  • That the true joy and happiness could only come from contentment emerging out of the fulfilment of their basic needs. That is the only way they could become self-sufficient and would be able to enjoy their true freedom.
  • That the village of his conception would be a habitat of intelligent people; every one contributing his/her mite to the commonweal. Such a village would provide enough cleanliness, health care and would be full of activities. No one would remain idle, no one would wallow in luxuries.
    It is clear from the above that this was nothing but broad picture presented in Hind Swaraj.

Nehru wrote back to him in the same month. He virtually rejected Gandhi's preference for village life by saying that he could not understand why the village life would be more suitable for practicing truth and non-violence than town life. He wrote: 'A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent'.

Presenting his own picture of India of his dream, Nehru further asserted that heavy industries and modern means of transport would have to be developed even for providing certain basic amenities to the people in terms of housing, education, sanitation, food etc. Hence, India would have to go through the process of industrialization and urbanization and technological and scientific advancement. Not only that, even an army would have to be kept to protect the independence of India. Otherwise she might fall a prey to another's acquisitive tendencies.

Making a direct reference to Hind Swaraj Nehru made it clear that the total picture presented therein always appeared to be 'unreal'. Besides, the Congress, as an organization, had never considered that picture much less even adopted it. Not only that, the Congress could not, Nehru asserted, consider the issue at the moment as it would create confusion, preventing it from other decisive actions which was the need of the hour. In any case, all these issues would have to be considered by the people's representative of free India. All this is all the more necessary as Hind Swaraj was written 38 years ago and the world had gone though radical changes both in human and material terms during this period, Nehru added.

Subsequently they met in November 1945 with a view to thrash out the issues involved. Gandhi again wrote a letter to Nehru on 13, November 1945 in which tried to sum up the major points of agreement which emerged out of their meeting. There points were:

  • That there should be equal right and opportunities for all.
  • That there should be parity between the villagers and the town dwellers in terms of food, drink, clothing etc.
  • That the unit of the society would be village or a small and manageable group of people who would be self-sufficient in terms of their basic necessities and would live in mutual cooperation.

And that was the end of debate as no record is available about Nehru's response to the above summing up.

A number of points emerge if we give a close look at the issues raised by Wybergh and Nehru in respect of Hind Swaraj. They could be summed up as follows:

  • Hind Swaraj is not based on a realistic assessment of human nature taking into consideration all human aspirations and desires and frailties. It sounds a little too idealistic for the average man.
  • It takes a rather polemic view on the nature of modern civilization and India civilization. In the process, it ignores a lot of truth about the nature and structure of both these civilizations.
  • It is also important to note that Gandhi himself accepted some of the limitations of his basic formulations given in Hind Swaraj, particularly in respect of Swaraj, role of machinery and the role of modem state vis-a-vis civil society. For instance, in his Foreword to the new edition of Hind Swaraj of 1921 he made it clear that despite his personal commitment to the concept of Swaraj as enunciated in Hind Swaraj so far the corporate life of India was concerned, he was working for the 'Parliamentary Swaraj' for India. Similarly despite his faith in constructive programme, towards the end of his life, he was more accommodative towards the use of machinery in national life including the use of railways, health care facilities etc. Similarly, he became more agreeable in assigning a greater role to the modern state in respect of even such contentious issues like land reforms, and the use of armed forces as evidenced by his support to India's decision to dispatch army to Kashmir to face Pakistani invasion of Kashmir.

Concluding Remarks:

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.

  • Anthony J. Parel, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, Delhi, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 1997.
  • Bikhu Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy, A Critical Examination, Delhi, Ajanta, 1995.
  • Claude Markovits, The Ungandhian Gandhi: the life and after-life of the Mahatma, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 1994.
  • Gandhi, M.K. Satyagraha in South Africa, Ahmedabad, Nava Jivan Pubglishing House, 1975.
  • Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Ahmedabad, Nava Jivan Publishing House, 1988
  • Gandhi, M.K. Hind Swaraj or India Home Rule, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.
  • Hardiman, D, Gandhi in His Tine and Ours, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2003.
  • J.J. Doke, M.K.Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa, New Delhi, Publication Division Government of India 1994.
  • Nageshwar Prasad (ed) Hind Swaraj: A Fresh Look, New Delhi, Gandhian Peace Foundation, 1985.
  • Ramashray Roy, Self and Society, New Delhi, Sage, 1984.
  • Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, Fifth impression 2007.
  • Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Vols. Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Shriman Narayan, The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume three : The Basic Works, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House , 1968.
  • Gandhi-Nehru correspondence is available in Nehru's book Jawaharlal Nehru, A Bunch of Old Letters, London, 1958.
  • Gandhi-Wybergh correspondence is available in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 10, New Delhi Publication Division, the Government of India, P.P. 246-50 x 507-11.

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: