A larger freedom
Much like his approach to non-violence, Gandhi’s thinking on constructive work offers lessons for today
Gandhi has always had his share of admirers and detractors. Many of a leftist persuasion have seen him as a bourgeoisie representative who mobilised the masses, only to neutralise their inherent revolutionary potential.
Amongst left-leaning historians, David Hardiman’s engagement with Gandhi is rather unique. A founding figure of the once influential Subaltern school, Hardiman has been an important historian of modern India with a specialisation in the social history of Gujarat. His account of the Kheda satyagraha and its aftermath (Peasant Nationalists of Gujarat: Kheda District 1917-34, published in 1981) was rich in empirical detail but was also shaped by leftist shibboleths against Gandhian nationalism. Over the decades since, Hardiman has engaged in a reassessment of his views on the significance of revolutionary violence as a means of political transformation, and specifically on the role and significance of Gandhian non-violence in India’s struggle for freedom. This ability to question one’s own certitudes is an altogether rare trait, especially amongst intellectuals. Hence, one must seriously reckon with his current project of examining Indian nationalism through the lens of non-violent resistance.
In a recent article (‘A different way to fight’, IE, November 20), Hardiman sheds light on the efficacy of non-violent resistance in political transformation. He also states, in passing, that Gandhian constructive workers helped “people in their everyday needs”, thereby gaining “the sympathy of the masses”. He further argues that “it requires long years of patient organisation in constructive work that gains mass sympathy for a cause — the protest comes only as a culmination”. Such a characterisation might lead the reader to believe that the primary objective of constructive work was to gain mass sympathy, only to be deployed towards the anti-colonial project. Indeed, both the British rulers and many Congressmen often saw it as a mere tool for furthering the politics of the Congress. However, we get a very different picture if we move beyond the 1920s and examine the evolution of Gandhi’s own thinking and activities in the 1930s.
Throughout his public life in India (1915-48), Gandhi devoted his energies to both the political campaign for India’s freedom as well as a range of socio-economic interventions that were clubbed under the rubric of constructive work. Such activities included communal harmony, the removal of untouchability, sanitation, khadi, village industries and basic education or Nai Talim. While much scholarly attention has focussed on Gandhi as a political leader, relatively little research has been carried out towards understanding constructive work. Even the little attention devoted to khadi is primarily owing to its symbolic significance in the political struggle against the Raj.
Subsequent to the Poona Pact, in 1933-34, Gandhi undertook a countrywide campaign against untouchability. His experiences and thinking in that period deeply informed the shape of constructive work in the 1930s. First, during his travels Gandhi witnessed the severe distress across agrarian India that was subjected to the economic consequences of the Great Depression. Second, sharp political differences had emerged between Gandhi and the Congress leadership. Third, Gandhi was influenced by the unhappy experience of running khadi activities under the umbrella of the Congress in the 1920s.
Gandhi’s conception of poorna swaraj or complete independence went beyond the removal of colonialism. He argued that it encompassed political, social and economic freedoms, indeed “freedom in every sense of the term”.