My Contentions with Gandhi\’s "Village Swaraj"

I have taken my time exploring Gandhi. My first encounter with his words were in the form of \’Gandhi\’s Talisman\’ that graced the inner cover of every book I had throughout school. It said, when it doubt, asked yourself whether your actions will, in any way, help the poorest person you know to live a more secure life. During my PhD fieldwork, Gandhi\’s autobiography, \’My Experiments With Truth\’ was an antidote to issues personal, professional and philosophical. Far from family and negotiating data collection through what I like to call iteration and \’controlled experimentation\’, it was heartening to read his experiments with life, his failings and lessons along the way, and his wise advice on working with one\’s hands, renunciation, and outward and inward ahimsa (non-violence).

And so, in the year that I have returned to fieldwork, this time in rural Karnataka, I looked forward to Gandhi\’s \’Village Swaraj\’. But the tone, content and oversimplification of issues in rural India left me disappointed. Some bones of contention:

Romanticising villages

The moment you talk to them [the Indian peasant] and they begin to speak, you will find wisdom drops from their lips. Behind the crude exterior you will find a deep reservoir of spirituality. I call this culture – you will not find such a thing in the West (p. 94). 

Overly prescriptive with no acknowledgement of the deep inequalities that characterise Indian society, rural or urban. 

My notion of co-operation is that the land would be held in co-operation by the owners and tilled and cultivated also in co-operation. This would cause a saving of labour, capital, tools etc.  The owners would work in co-operation and own capital, tools, animals, seeds etc. in co-operation. Co-operative farming of my conception would change the face of the land and banish poverty and idleness from their midst. All this is only possible if people become friends of one another and as one family. When that happy event takes place there would be no ugly sore in the form of a communal problem (p.107). 

Singing praises of collective action (quoted above), Gandhi fails to mention, leave alone acknowledge, how the understandably well-intentioned aim of collective action and what he calls \’co-operation\’ is thwarted realities of social differentiation: unequal power, differential resource ownership, socially-sanctioned discriminatory norms and centuries of marginalisation. In other words, there is a reason why collective action doesn\’t always work. If it were \’easy\’ or natural, it would have.

Us versus them narrative: The tone of the book is reminiscent of what Rudyard Kipling once called \’the white man\’s burden\’ which points to one section feeling obligated to uplift the other, often through a economic and socio-cultural \’upliftment\’. Throughout Village Swaraj, purposely or inadvertently, Gandhi portrays the villager as the queer, somewhat simple-minded \’other\’ who must be taught cleanliness, and other virtues and ways of appropriate living. He does not, for a moment, interrogate why villages in India function the way they do and his position to dictate.

We have got be ideal villagers, not the villagers with their queer ideas about sanitation and giving no thought to how they eat and what they eat. Let us not, like most of them, cook anyhow, eat anyhow, live anyhow. Let us show them the ideal diet. Let us not go by mere likes and dislikes, but get at the root of these likes and dislikes (p. 27).

All this is not to say Gandhi is irrelevant in today\’s Bharat. His focus on reviving village industries is pertinent to the current need for diversifying rural livelihoods. His push for \’khadi, gur, and unpolished rice\’ (p. 151) is mirrored in a niche but growing clientele that is keen to eat healthy and support local enterprises. His repeated calls for sanitation are as relevant in today\’s aSwachh Bharat (Unclean India) as they were in pre-independence India. But as we talk of adopting Gandhi\’s dream of Gram Swaraj, there is a need to reflect on how his ideas translate into today\’s rural India, which is negotiating issues of multiple vulnerabilities, conflicting identities, and most of all, changing aspirations.

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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