Vinoba's Bhoodan Movement : An Overview

- Kanti Shah

Bhoodan Movement

On 18 April, 1951, Vinoba got 100 acres of land as donation in Pochampalli village of Andhra Pradesh. Thus, triggered the phenomenal Bhoodan-Gramdan and people's movement. Now 60 years have gone by and it is now time to attempt having an overview of the movement.

In reality, the movement was only part of an overarching movement called Sarvodaya. Therefore, when we attempt to overview Bhoodan, the context would be the entire Sarvodaya movement.

'Sarvodaya', the word, was coined 100 years ago. In ancient literature, this word might have been used in some context, but its use as a definitive philosophy is only 100 years old.

This word took shape in Gandhi's mind in 1904 when he read Ruskin's book 'Unto This Last', but the word took concrete shape in 1908 when Gandhi translated the gist of this book in Gujarati. The translation is an example of Gandhi's literary acumen. The title of Ruskin's book was taken from a Biblical story 'Unto This Last', which means that even the last person should get an equal share. In those days, the concept of 'Greatest good of greatest number' was in vogue. But Gandhi said that Sarvodaya meant the rise of all, and it was not merely the greatest good of the greatest number or of the last person standing in the queue. From then on, the ideology of Sarvodaya got firmly established in social discourses. The detailed explanation of the meaning of Sarvodaya can be found in 'Hind Swaraj' that was written by Gandhi in 1909. The overview that we are attempting here would be against this background.

It seems Gandhi's preoccupation with Swaraj did not allow him the occasion to consider the principle of 'Sarvodaya' as the founding document of the Indian society. It is true that over the years he did study and practise some aspects of Sarvodaya and presented creative programmes, concept of Gram Swaraj etc. But he was hardly able to achieve what all he had envisioned in 'Hind Swaraj'. However, the concept of Satyagraha that was mentioned in the Hind Swaraj did play a major role in the freedom movement of the country.

It has often been argued that the country only came to know about the confrontationist Gandhi and not the creative Gandhi. There has hardly been any serious discussion on building up the country based on the ideas presented in Hind Swaraj. It is a matter of great shame and tragedy that even the influential Congress leaders who were with Gandhi in the Swaraj movement could not understand the broad goal that was outlined in Hind Swaraj's 'Yug Karya'. In 1945, in a letter to Gandhi, Nehru had written, 'I had read 'Hind Swaraj' a long time back and now I only have a vague memory of it. Even while reading it, I considered it to be impractical and even now I feel the same. You know that Congress has never considered the thoughts in the book as even worth discussing. So accepting them is out of the question.' It was amidst this atmosphere that Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. We did get Swaraj, but Gandhi was forced to say, "This is not my idea of Swaraj." In other words, Hind Swaraj never got beyond theory. Through Vinoba's movement, Gandhi's unfinished core works got a fillip. It was a continuation of the non-violent movement that was started by Gandhi and Vinoba carried it forward. Vinoba announced that after 'Swaraj' it was now time for 'Sarvodaya'. Till he was 32 years, Vinoba continued his work quietly at Antevasi ashram, one of the lesser known Gandhi ashrams. However, he was aware of all that was going on outside the ashram and studied and analysed them. He took part in Satyagrahas and also went to jail. But he never left the ashram.

When Gandhi was assassinated, Vinoba decided that he had to move out of the ashram. He was clear sighted about Gandhi's main aim which was to introduce the concept of ahimsa in the social milieu and to build up a nonviolent society based on Gram Swaraj.

Therefore, when in Pochampalli, he got the unprecedented donation of 100 acres of land, Vinoba saw a glimmer of hope. He believed that this was a signal from God and he went out to work. He went out to ask for land and he kept on getting land. From Pochampalli, he reached Pavnar and in the next 70 days, he got 12,000 acres of land, which means that everyday he got around 200 acres of land. Two months later, he went to Delhi on foot when he was called by Nehru. Later, he got 18,000 acres of land in 62 days. This meant that he got 300 acres everyday. The gift of land was not meant for temple, dharmashala, school etc. While asking for Bhoodan, Vinoba used to say that this was not 'Bheeksha' but 'Deeksha'. "This is deeksha for nonviolent revolution. We have to build a Sarvodayi community, and on behalf of the poor I have come to you asking for their right.' In Bhoodan movement, Vinoba saw the seeds of non-violent revolution. He saw this as a route through which the concept of non-violence could enter the society. He chose April 18 as the birthday of the Sarvodaya movement, as it was on this date that he had received the first concrete donation of land. Soon, he left the ashram and got immersed himself in the movement. When he reached Delhi, after walking 800 kilometers, he had visible achievements behind him.

While speaking before the Planning Commission, he said in no equivocal words, "Your Five Year Plan is fit to be put in the garbage. You are talking about national planning, but you do not have any provision that will provide food for all and employment for all. Your only aim appears to be increasing production. But along with that there should be equality and compassion. Your 'percolation theory' will not help society's poor and you will have to formulate special programmes for them." Vinoba could see that the people sitting in Delhi were thinking in the opposite direction and therefore, he said, "Leave Delhi and let us hit rural India."

Vinoba was to stake his entire life for this. Once he had said, "My inner soul tells me that I have always tried to walk the path of non-violence and love shown by Gandhiji and in my efforts I have reached my utmost level. There has never been a single moment when I have faltered or become negligent. After Bapu's death, I am doing his work, and I do not have the slightest doubts about this." In this way, Gandhi's core work and philosophy was kept alive. A revolutionary like Jayaprakashji remarked, "Through his Bhoodan-Gramdan, Vinoba made a unique experiment in bringing spiritual values within the community. The main aim of society is the development of humane values, and Vinoba's various programmes showed the way how the new foundation of a society can be based on moral values." Further, the importance of Bhoodan movement in the context of larger Sarvodaya movement can be gauged from Jayaprakashji's statement, "If Vinobaji had not started this revolutionary movement, then we would have stayed where we were, then; we would have been content with spinning the charkha, putting Gandhiji's picture in our homes, keeping a fast on Gandhi-Jayanti like Janmashtami and Ramnavami, but we would have forgotten the idea of non-violent revolution and lost the war for Sarvodaya, which would have appeared as something hazy in the distant horizon. It was due to Vinoba's movement that Gandhi's core philosophy of changing society through nonviolent revolution remained alive. The soul of Sarvodaya would never have been visible had it not been for this movement. Through Vinoba's movement we have been able to see the revolutionary face of Gandhiji's creative programmes."

In 1959, Arthur Koestler came to India. He took part in the padyatra and talked to Vinoba at length. He wrote in the London Observer, "Vinoba is presenting an alternative based on the Indian traditions to Nehru's western concept of development. Vinoba's insight and intelligence has rejected Nehru's social revolution that is based on development, competition and mechanization, something that had been done by Gandhi earlier." All this had happened within a few years of the country becoming independent. Vinoba continued his movement for over two and half decades. He made a Herculean effort to take the Swaraj gained with independence in the direction of 'Hind Swaraj' as conceived by Gandhiji. We saw that during Gandhi's era, very little work was done in this direction. The top leaders, intellectuals and the vast majority of the people thought that Gandhiji's dream as portrayed in 'Hind Swaraj' was impractical. They did not even consider that it merited a serious discussion.

The fate of the nation was in the hands of Nehru. His thinking was different. Under his guidance, India followed the western pattern of development and society that had been criticised by Gandhiji in 'Hind Swaraj'. The majority of people who were holding seats of power shared Nehru's vision and the way the foundation of the country was being laid. It was in this atmosphere that Vinoba got 100 acres of land under Bhoodan in Pochampalli and laid the foundation of a movement inspired by Gandhiji's vision. Vinoba went against mighty institutions and tried to implement the vision of 'Hind Swaraj' on the ground. For those who believed in what was written in 'Hind Swaraj', the Bhoodan movement started by Vinoba was an inspirational period. It was like a dream coming true, the rule of virtuous was being put in place on earth, and that there could be a significant change in man's behaviour; such was the belief of the people through this movement. People thought that if the human race had to get out of the cycle of violence, then a non-violent solution to mankind's trouble must be developed. The movement gave a feeling that it was possible that the country's Swaraj would be based on love, on non-violence and it would elevate mankind to another level and it was possible to achieve Sarvodaya if we follow the blueprint given in Hind Swaraj.

In the contemporary period, when the world is moving in a direction opposite to the one prescribed in Hind Swaraj, the intensity of Vinoba's movement is difficult to assess. The effort put in might appear a little wanting, its message a bit ineffective, and the possibility of elevating mankind to another plane, ephemeral. In Vinoba's Bhoodan movement, lakhs of people donated lakhs of acres of land that was to be distributed among the landless labourers. In the present scenario, it is very difficult even to imagine that such a thing took place. But it is a fact that even if we discard the donated land that could not be distributed, around 25 lakh acres of land has been distributed among the landless. Those who got the land received a chance to work hard and earn their livelihood with dignity and respect.

And when the Gramdan movement started, then its concept was such that we will find it unbelievable today. All the landowners of the village were supposed to transfer all the land held by them to the gramsabha and then they were to distribute the land among the landless equally. Such redistribution took place in several villages. In reality, such a movement would be considered as unique in the history of mankind. It was a true demonstration of the power of love and non-violence. Vinoba said at that time that the Gramdan movement he witnessed in several villages of Orissa and the subsequent redistribution of land made him believe that he had seen God in those places.

Around 5000-7000 Gramdans took place, but for a revolution to take place, this had to be more wide spread. For this purpose, a programme was made of Gramdan. Under this programme, it was entailed that the land was to be transferred in the name of the gram sabha. It could not be sold or kept as mortgage. It was decided that the landowners would hand over five percent of their holdings to the landless, and then each person would give 2.5 percent of his money to the village fund. All the villagers would be members of the gram sabha and the decisions would be taken unanimously. This was a comprehensive programme of Gramdan and Vinoba said that this model should spread all over the country. There should be a hurricane of Gramdan, and only then the revolutionary aspect of Gramdan would be visible. When there is a tempest then each leaf of the tree is shaken. Similarly, each person got inspired by this non-violent revolution and worked for it, and it spread like a storm all over the country. The strategy of Gramdan was based on mass psychology and if one system had to be supplanted by another system then it was necessary to have mass awakening. In the end, what was proposed to be done had to have the will of the people behind it. The government can always say that we have the support of the people as they have voted for us. But whose support do we have? Therefore, Bhoodan-Gramdan movement was nothing but an effort to find public support through mass education so that people's power may stand behind it. Its nature was similar to signature campaign or an election. Subsequently, thousands of Gramdan took place. Taking the consent and signatures of thousands of people by going into the most interior of villages was not an easy task. Thousands of 'resolution deeds' piled up. The concept of Gramdan reached each and every village. In village after village the people supported it and signed the resolution deeds, giving up their lands. In the words of Jayaprakash Narayan, "All the 'resolution deeds' of Gramdan are an expression of the sentiments of the people."

This was a process of the revolution. Vinoba had started this revolution very boldly, but unfortunately, it did not succeed. Some circumstances went against the movement and in some cases the calculations made, went awry. The work of verifying the Gramdan took a very long time, and the swelling of public support in the earlier period ebbed with time like the flood waters that rise and then come down. The forces against the movement proved more powerful. Due to some reason, Vinoba had to leave the centre stage in Bihar. The hurricane that the movement was supposed to create did not take shape, and any further work came to an end. The movement was like a rocket about to be launched for space, if there was sufficient fuel (ground support in the case of the movement) but instead of breaking free from the earth's atmosphere it came down to the earth. The 'hurricane' did not gather enough strength to make the movement a success and fizzled out. But this does not mean that this was the end of everything. Like scientific experiments, social experiments should also continue and then one day it will become a success. Much has been and will be written about Vinoba's movement, and such analysis is welcome. The movement would be and should be analysed from various angles and on a set of different parameters. If there were any shortcomings or problems so far as the boldness, strategy, working style, competence etc. of the movement are concerned, it would come out through these studies. But one thing can be said with certainty that in the two to three decades of the movement, the horizon of the concept of Sarvodaya has expanded a great deal. The movement presented a new and much more humane form of development as opposed to what is followed at present. Even though people might not have accepted it wholeheartedly, the fact remains that it has found a place in its agenda. Jayaprakash correctly said that the revolutionary potential of the movement was apparent to the entire society.

Nevertheless, it can be said that whatever was achieved was much less than what could have been achieved. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main reason is that the forces opposed to this movement proved much stronger. We should not forget that at the time of Vinoba's movement the political and social elite in society were enamoured by the western idea of development that stresses material prosperity. The clout of the cities started increasing. Those who were educated and had a say in society were running after consumerism and power. This section was effective in society. These people who had power and were into business were also big landowners. Therefore, even though an environment was created by the Bhoodan and Gramdan movement, no concrete steps were taken to provide a lasting solution to the question of land. In Japan, just after the end of Second World War, the American General MacArthur, who was acting as the administrator of Japan, made three acres as the land ceiling and redistributed it among the genuine farmers immediately. This could have been done in India. But the Socialists who were in power and in positions of influence failed to create an environment for such a step to be taken. And thus, a historic moment was lost. The work of Gramdan was fundamental to building a new social order. It was the foundation of Gandhi's concept of Gram Swaraj. It is only on the foundation of Gram Swaraj that a new world order based on non-violence could evolve and prosper. During Gramdan one thing came out clearly - the concept touched the hearts of the people and there was widespread support for it. The proof was the thousands of resolution deeds signed and given by the villagers pledging their land to the entire community through the Gram Sabha.

Of the initial villages that went in for Gramdan, 3932 villages are still under the Gramdan law. Here the entire land of the village has been transferred from individual name to Gram Sabha's name. But the society at large failed to appreciate the revolutionary step that had been taken. Some of the Gramdan villages started implementing the next stage of experiments and some outsiders also came and witnessed the change in these villages.

One of them was England's Erica Linton. She came to India and visited the Gramdan villages in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh. She walked, travelled in bullock
carts and mixed with the villagers to understand the movement. The description of her travels was put down in a book in 1971 - 'Fragments of a vision'. The preface of the book was written by E.F. Schumacher, the wellknown writer of "Small is Beautiful".

This book is the result of a deep study of the Gramdan movement and presents its firsthand picture. Erica, in her book, writes, "In some villages Gramdan has taken place only on paper, while in some other villages the
Gramdan concept has been taken ahead to quite an extent. Even though the busy people of the village who are part of the movement do not make a great deal about Gramdan and think it as natural, but for those who are looking at it from the perspective of non-violent revolution at work, it is a great arena for learning."

Ercia wrote, "After talking with the villagers I came to the conclusion that the maximum number of people have benefitted from Gramdan. They say that as the land is now in the name of the Gram Sabha instead of individual owners, the land has become safe. Now no outsider can come and purchase our land and the land will belong to that person who tills it. And the main thing is that we have gained freedom from the government employee. Now all the work of the village is done through the Gram Sabha."

Erica had a very interesting conversation with a 12-year-old boy at a Gramdan village. Ercia asked - How much land do you have? The boy replied, - At present we are tilling 12 bigha of land, but if we do not till the land, it might be given to others. Erica said - Why so? This land belongs to you, does it not? To this the boy replied, "If we do not till the land, how can it be ours. The land belongs to all. What is the use of keeping it vacant when someone else can till it?"

Erica comments, "The ease with which the boy talked about community ownership of land shows that the idea that land cannot be owned individually and cannot be bought and sold has taken root in his consciousness. This is a question of values. And if one generation of people can imbibe such a value then it would be great victory for Gramdan".

This reminds one of the episodes involving two IAS officers narrated by Pyarelalji in his book 'The last phase'. Just a couple of months before independence, two IAS officers were travelling in the first class compartment of a train. They were saying that this would be their last journey in the first class as after independence the Gandhiwalas would not allow anything like first class to remain and make everything equal for everyone. This was the environment of the country on the eve of independence. But the followers of Gandhi could not take advantage of this environment and the gains soon dissipated. The role of Gandhi's followers in this, is well known. But again such an environment was created during Vinoba's movement and there was a chance that Swaraj would be taken in the direction of Hind Swaraj as conceived by Gandhiji. A non-violent process of reforming the society had started. But unfortunately, this opportunity was also lost. Louis Fisher had said, "Gramdan is the most creative thought coming from the east in recent times." It was a new development for social science which gave it a way to get rid of the violence that is besetting the world. Vinoba had tried to develop a new culture for the villages by creating a nonviolent society, and thereby he tried to lay foundation to Gandhiji's concept of Gram Swaraj. But the will, determination, commitment and support needed for such a thing to succeed was lacking in the people who were in power and those who counted in society. A person like Erica Linton could come from abroad to study and find great value in the Gramdan movement, but our own intellectuals did not have the time or inclination to look into this movement. They could not rise above their narrow mindedness. This class ridiculed Vinoba's Bhoodan and Gramdan, that all the land Vinoba had, was on paper or the land given was of poor quality.

In any case, the non-violent movement started by Vinoba remained incomplete. The forces of opposition proved stronger. The apathy of the intellectuals and lack of vision meant that no one could understand the real
value of the movement. But nevertheless, Vinoba's movement has enriched our thought process.

The effort continued for two and a half decades. Vinoba spoke at length about it wherever he went and he thought about reforming and reconstructing the society a great deal. The fundamental questions about society were asked and discussed and solutions were sought for them on the basis of non-violence. Many of the concepts in Hind Swaraj were also evaluated and it came into public domain and consciousness. As a result, in the world arena, the philosophy of Sarvodaya has etched its name very clearly. This has been a major contribution of Vinoba's movement. The philosophy is above any particular area or time and provides new thoughts about constructing a society. The history of this incomplete movement might say anything, but in the annals of human revolution, Vinoba's contribution is invaluable. This is what the history of human revolution would say.