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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 8, February 13, 2010

Hind Swaraj: Hundred Years After — How Relevant is it Today?

Thursday 18 February 2010, by Jolly M. Kaul



Hind Swaraj, in a sense Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi’s Manifesto, was written between November 13 and November 22 on board the ship Kildoman Castle on his return trip from England to South Africa in 1909. It is considered Gandhiji’s seminal work, the theoretical basis of his life’s mission. He has said in his own foreword to the English translation:

‘These views are mine because I hope to act according to them. They are almost a part of my being… But yet they are not mine, because I lay no claim to any originality. They have been formed after reading several books. That which I dimly felt received support from them.’

However, there is no denying that Hind Swaraj puts forth some very original ideas and created a sensation when it appeared. The government promptly banned it. Even in India it was considered impractical. Both from the Left and the Right it was castigated and even Gokhale, who held Gandhi in great esteem, felt that Gandhi had written in haste and would on reflection revise the book’s philosophy.

It is true that the book was written in haste. In the course of the ten days that he wrote the book he worked at a feverish pace. When his right hand got tired he started writing with his left. It was as if he was inspired and had to put down in writing what was almost some kind of a revelation. It is in this light that the book has to be read and understood: the vision of a prophet who was looking far into the future and wrote not just for the immediate present but for the generations to come and for the environment that he could visualise unfolding as human society evolved and the ecology of the planet underwent changes.

His own heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, quietly buried it when in his correspondence with the Mahatma as late as 1945 he declared: “Briefly put my view is that the question is not of truth versus untruth or non-violence versus violence…I do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and non-violence. A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment.”

But Nehru himself realised in the closing years of his life that the path of development that he had adopted was not benefiting millions of the poor in the country. Reiterating that he was in favour of modern machinery he nevertheless felt that he needed to hark back to the words of the Mahatma who had pleaded for a very different model of development.

Today hundred years after the publication of this work one finds that the centenary of the book is being celebrated not only in India but in other parts of the world. The ideas contained in the book are being seriously debated by social activists, intellectuals, philosophers and political leaders. Is it just a form of worshipping an icon or is there something truly relevant in the ideas put forth in Hind Swaraj?

Truth and Non-violence

After two World Wars since the book was written, after the discovery of the ultimate weapon of destruction that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing millions in seconds, after the violence that is a growing feature of life in the sprawling metropolises and cities of today, surely we need to realise that the question before is, indeed, one of
non-violence versus violence.

In 1909 when Gandhi wrote about non-violence the two World Wars had not taken place, nor had the Bolshivik November Revolution of 1917 in Russia. Many of the earlier wars fought by small armies on battlefields far away from the main cities had hardly affected the mass of the population of the countries that fought the wars. Wars tended to be glorified and were considered as inevitable in the march of countries for “progress” and

Capitalism was in its heyday. The developed capitalist countries turned imperialist had colonized the industrially undeveloped world and divided it among themselves. Socialist ideas were already in the air and even though Marx had written that “the spectre of communism is haunting Europe” he had in his Manifesto in passages of almost lyrical prose waxed eloquent on the enormous power of Capital to harness the productive forces. Says Marx in the Communist Manifesto:

“...the bourgeisie during its rule of scarce hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces then have all the preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.-what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour.”

The Changing Face of Capital

The harnessing of productive forces continues today but not for clearing whole continents for cultivation or for the manufacture of consumption goods but for the preparations of weapons of mass destruction and since it is no longer necessary to physically colonise the less industrially developed parts of the world to try to colonise space, the moon and the planets. Meanwhile Capital has discovered the means of increasing itself without going into the process of production at all. The development of the stock markets has made it possible for capital to multiply itself by sheer manipulation of the stock markets. It has thus become a kind of parasitic capitalism mostly delinked from pro-duction of goods. Perhaps the term “casino capitalism” best describes present-day capitalism.

Meanwhile it is interesting to note that the
London Times quoting the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, seems to suggest a reappraisal by the Catholic Church of Marx. The Vatican paper said Marx’s early critiques of capitalism highlighted the “social alienation” felt by large part of humanity” that remained excluded from economic and political decision making”. The Times report goes on to refer to George Sans a Professor of contemporary philosophy at the pontifical Gregorian University who argues that Marx’s work remains especially relevant today as mankind was seeking “a new harmony” between its needs and the natural environment.

The recent recession, considered by many economists to be even worse than the crisis of 1929-1933, has led to many getting disillusioned with present-day Capitalism and seeking alternative paths of development.

The latest UN Report points to nearly one-and-a-half billion people in the world go to bed hungry. Even Hillary Clinton admits “for one billion people around the world, the daily effort to grow, buy or sell food is the defining struggle of their lives”.

It is in this background that the dream of those who felt that modern civilisation represented by liberal democratic capitalism such as that which prevails in the United States and most countries in Europe has turned sour and in the process of rethinking that has started Gandhi’s ideas are being seriously considered and studied.

Changing Mindsets

As the competition for the world’s resources gathers momentum with these resources growing scarce by the day the link between the present model of development and violence and wars becomes clearer.

Attitudes have changed gradually as more and more people are realising that wars do not provide any solution to problems and that it is no longer possible to hold on to conquests even after victories in wars. As for class war and revolutionary wars the failure of the Russian Revolution and its inability to bring about the liberation of the masses that was promised or to end the inequality between the privileged minority and the rest of the population has disillusioned those who had believed in such wars.

Many of these conflicts have dragged on for decades with no prospect of a successful conclusion. The experience of the prolonged Arab-Israel conflict has resulted in making it clear that a solution through violence is not likely to lead to a solution. In theory at least it is accepted by both sides that ultimately it is through peace talks that a solution can possibly emerge. In Nepal the Maoists, after having gained control of more than half the country, finally surrendered arms and accepted the path of parliamentary democracy. The IRA and the Ulster conflict, after decades of bloody clashes, has now yielded place to a ceasefire and some sort of an agreement though tensions continue and the future is perhaps still uncertain.

The failure of the United States, the most powerful state in the world, to subdue by military means the Vietnamese people, the revulsion in the whole world to the Bush Government’s war against the Iraqi people has resulted in the unprecedented election for the first time of Barack Obama a black African-American pledged to withdraw American troops from Iraq within months.

The experience of the last hundred years is indeed beginning to change mindsets. The perception that violence is not the ultimate weapon to achieve one’s ends is beginning to permeate the minds of at least that section of humanity that is able to think for itself and to draw the right lessons from the experience gained over the last few decades. For the first time since the nuclear bomb was developed, the new American President has seriously suggested that disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons was an important part of his agenda. Non-violence and satyagraha are increasingly being used as the preferred weapons of struggle rather than the gun and the bomb. The human psyche cannot be expected to change overnight but the evolutionary clock is ticking away and the dream of humanity for a peaceful world and a peaceful society could indeed come true in the not too distant future.

After the corruption that has become a part of the prevailing globalised world and has infected every core of our society it cannot be denied that the question truly is of truth versus untruth.

Now that hundred years after Hind Swaraj the urban dream as a symbol of modern civilisation has turned into a nightmare, Gandhiji’s prophetic words that cities would turn into centres of violence and untruth have come true surely it is time to realise that we need to turn to the ideas that were spelt out in Hind Swaraj.

Modern/Western Civilisation

Among the most controversial of Gandhi’s remarks in Hind Swaraj were those on modern civilisation. A few words on this aspect of Gandhi’s ideas may not be out of place here.

First of all it is necessary to appreciate that modern civilisation against which Gandhi hits out refers to the civilisation that developed as a result of the industrial revolution. Starting in Britain in the 18th century with the discovery of steam power based on coal it led to the mechanisation of various industries and to the manufacture of machines. It gradually spread to Europe and by the 20th century with the colonisation of practically the whole globe it had spread throughout the world. It gave rise to its own culture, its own economics and its own living styles.

It is thus only about three hundred years old. When talking of civilisation there is often a tendency to forget this and to believe that science and civilisation arose only in the modern era three hundred years ago. The reality is that the earliest civilisations started some eight or nine thousand years ago and some of the most important scientific discoveries arose in the pre-industrial revolution era. Beginning from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Rome right up to medieval Europe history is replete with scientific discoveries that laid the foundations of modern Western civilisation. Compared to all that was achieved in the past eight or nine thousand years the developments of the recent three hundred years important as they are pale into insignificance.

To give a few examples: The Indus Valley civilisation in India is credited with many important scientific achievements. Among them was irrigation for agriculture as early as 4500 BC. What was probably the world’s first dock was constructed in 2400 BC. The drainage and sewerage system of the Indus Valley system was in advance of many other early civilisations.

The earliest Indian astronomical text dates to 1200 BC. Zinc was being mined in Zawar in Rajasthan in 400 BC.

And then perhaps the crowning achievement of early India was the decimal number system and the use of Zero. The trignometric functions of Sine and Versine from which Cosine was derived were developed by the famous Indian mathematicians Aryabhata and Bhaskar. These names are well known but there were many others whose contribution to science is now only gradually being studied.

The pyramids of Egypt one of the most massive and complex structures are still regarded as one of the wonders of the world.

The names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as well as Archimedes are well known. There are many others who contributed to the development of science. The Greeks are credited with having been the first to develop the science of botany. Eratosthenes of Alexandria is credited with being the first to measure the world’s circumference.

The renaissance in Europe, 14th to 16th century, is known to have been the result of the discovery of Greek and Roman classical literature which started a new era in European history following the Middle Ages. The renaissance also witnessed the discovery of continents, the Ptolemical system of astronomy and such powerful innovations as paper, printing, the Mariner’s Compass and gunpowder, the last believed to have been first developed in China.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton (1643 to 1727) physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher who is considered one of the most influential men in history described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Note that this is also prior to the industrial revolution and the gradual introduction of machinery, which became larger and larger and more sophisticated over the years.

The point in going into all of this is to show that some of the greatest achievements of modern science took place even prior to the industrial revolution. Those who decry the Gandhian vision of machinery that the masses can use as against machinery for mass production that deprives the masses of employment need to keep these facts in mind.

A civilisation that is based on greed, in which mammon has replaced God, which measures progress in terms of profits, which puts corporate health and the stock market above human health and well-being can hardly be called a civilisation.

A civilisation that has destroyed the environment and threatens the very existence of the planet can surely not be considered progressive.

Perhaps the most baleful effects of Western civilisation have been its influence on the culture and ethos of the different peoples of the world. Globalisation having brought the whole world in its net it is trying to wipe out all the indigenous cultures and philosophies developed over the centuries.

The philosophy implicit in modern/Western civilisation is the hedonistic philosophy of maximising pleasure and minimising pain. However the economic system that is the basis of Western civilisation enables only a few to maximise their pleasure while condemning the vast mass of others to a life that consists of hunger, pain and deprivation. And in their effort to maximise their pleasure they discover that pleasure and happiness is not the same.

Clearly as long as this continues to be the dominant outlook of the people the possibility of building the kind of society that is outlined by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj will not be possible. To expect any change in this outlook in the very near future would be unrealistic and one therefore has to be patient and continue to work tirelessly towards a better society.

The Next Stage of Evolution

All that one can say is that there are a number of factors that seem to be leading slowly but steadily towards change.

It is difficult to foresee how the drama of human evolution will unfold in the coming years. But the Force or the Cosmic Energy that enabled the amoeba to develop into the fishes, and the birds and the reptiles and the mammals and then into Homo Sapiens will undoubtedly continue to act and bring about major changes in human consciousness. Persons with such higher levels of consciousness have already appeared and will continue to appear in larger numbers. Gandhi was one of them. He was no God or an Incarnation of the Supreme Deity, just an ordinary human being whose experience in South Africa and whose intense spiritual inclinations enabled him to play a seemingly super-human role on the world stage. Gandhi’s life and work cannot be understood except in the light of the spiritual side of him.

A number of contradictions in the present phase of history, the three hundred period known as Western/modern civilisation, are appearing that will lead to the end of this “civilisation” perhaps sooner than we think. Let us not forget how the seemingly invincible Soviet Union, with a nuclear arsenal that could have destroyed the planet many times over, collapsed within a few months under the weight of its own contradictions.

The widening gap between the many billions living in poverty, many of them in hunger, and the few millionaires and billionaires is one such contradiction that is growing sharper every day. The social and political tension that it is causing is already leading to a rethinking on the need for a more humane social system.

Modern/Western civilisation has been built entirely on fossil fuels—coal in the early stages and now oil. These are being rapidly exhausted and may not last more than a few decades. What will be the shape of things when this happens? Certainly very different from what it is today. Will it be possible to sustain the life styles that the rich are leading today?

Nuclear energy is being tried as a replacement for oil. If some countries wish to replace it for oil, surely every country will wish to do so and cannot be denied the right to do it. Should that happen and knowing that the dividing line between nuclear energy and the nuclear bomb is very thin will we be able to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And when that happens will we not face the prospect of a nuclear holocaust? Already the perception is there that only the complete elimination of nuclear weapons from the world can prevent nuclear proliferation.

The destruction of the environment leading to global warming, poisoning of the rivers and even the oceans is another threat that is looming large. Urbanisation expected to embrace 50 per cent of the world’s population by 2020 will as Gandhi correctly foresaw lead to violence and crime and trafficking in drugs on a huge scale.

Many Western scientists are already expressing their fears of the world not surviving beyond the end of this century. Whether that will happen or the human instinct for survival lead to the leap in evolution that will bring into being beings with a higher and more spiritual consciousness remains to be seen. Certainly those of us who think that an intelligent cosmic Being is guiding the process of evolution have the conviction that the world will survive and we will gradually move towards a period of a more humane and just civilisation.

Gandhiji’s vision outlined in Hind Swaraj is a blueprint for the future which needs to be studied and acted upon not as a sacred text or a shastra but as a guide to the working out of a new model of development based on present-day realities in a world that has changed considerably in the last hundred years.

[Text of the paper submitted at a seminar on Hind Swaraj held at the Institute of Gandhian Studies at Wardha in November 2009]

The author, an erstwhile Communist leader who was once the Secretary of the undivided CPI’s Calcutta District Committee, quit the party just before its formal split in the aftermath of the 1962 Chinese aggression. He has subsequently accepted the Gandhian approach to the world at large.

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