By D Bandyopadhyay
The Statesman - Kolkata, India
Symbolism of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj is both intense and far reaching. In this write-up one gets the preview of the nature of ugly events to come.
The Council for Social Development and the India International Centre (IIC), both of New Delhi, jointly sponsored an international seminar on “Social Development and the Human Civilisation in the 21st Century” from 12-14 February at the IIC on the occasion of the centenary of Hind Swaraj.
Other collaborating organisations were three well known universities of Delhi and some other universities of Brazil, Peru, the USA and South Africa. It was reported that a couple of delegates from the Latin America were members of armed Marxist partisan groups for some time. But later on they sought the other path as armed insurrection movements did not yield appropriate results. There were large number of foreign delegates along with the participants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Participants included known Gandhians, academics, Marxist ideologues, and free lancers from various professions, and scientific and intellectual community. A couple of critics of Gandhi also joined. It was a highly eclectic and stimulating ensemble of intellectuals, non-conformists and activists who gathered there to think and talk about the relevance or otherwise of Hind Swaraj a hundred years after it was written.
Though this event dominated the busy IIC for three consecutive days with packed audiences both in the auditorium and four other seminar/lecture rooms, the media, both print and electronic, totally ignored it. There was not a word in the Delhi Press and not a milimetric footage on TV.
Delhi’s highly charged political establishment from the right through the Centre to the counterfeit Left showed no interest in the “antiquated” philosophy of an “archaic” philosopher-activist who contributed so significantly to the history of mankind in the first half of the 20th century.
Hind Swaraj has an interesting history. It is written in the Platonic dialogical style. Gandhiji wrote it in ten days between 13 and 22 November, 1909 on board the SS Kildonan Castle on his voyage from London to Durban. He wrote it in Gujarati. When his right hand got tired, he wrote with his left hand. And he wrote on as if under inspiration (Parel:2007). Later in 1910 he wrote it in English. But that was not a translation of the Gujarati text. It was also an original version. Thus, this little book has two original texts — Gujarati and English.
Anthony J Parel, a noted Gandhian scholar, stated in the seminar that to properly understand Hind Swaraj one had to read both the texts. Some of the Gujarati words drawn from Sanskrit had several nuances. Such variations of meanings could not get reflected in the English text. Since most of the Indian readers excepting those who are Gujarati speaking could not delve into the Gujarati text, one had to depend on the English version to get an idea of Gandhiji’s philosophy and plan of action.
The style of writing of Hind Swaraj was not only innovative, it was breathtakingly fresh. He followed the mode and manner of the Dialogues of Plato. Plato followed his Master’s dialectic process as a means of truth. “Socrates believed that the authentic method of the philosopher is the analysis and intellectual progression through question and answer dialogue” (The Dialogue of Plato p.xi).
As a seeker of truth, Gandhiji was fascinated by this dialectic dialogical process. Hence he brought in two characters in Hind Swaraj—the Reader and the Editor. It was quite obvious to a lay reader that the Editor was Gandhiji himself. But who was the Reader? The Reader posed the question to which Gandhiji as the Editor offered replies. The personality of the Reader was a bit of an enigma.
Mr. Parel, in course of his presentation at the seminar, suggested that in the first place Gandhiji himself appeared as the Reader to resolve some of his own doubts. That was one facet of the Reader. Secondly, in 1908-09 Gandhiji had long discussions with V.D. Savarkar regarding getting rid of the British rule in India. They differed sharply.
Hence Gandhiji sought to reply to Savarkar through the dialogue. During the same period he met almost all the revolutionaries who had gone to England and tried to convince them about the futility of violent methods of ejecting the British. He particularly responded to the thesis of V. Chattopadhyay, a staunch believer of armed struggle who was the brother of Sarojini Naidu. Chattopadhyay was later on killed by Stalin during the great Soviet purge of 1937-38.
The fourth person was Taraknath Das who was a member of the Anusilan Samiti of Bengal and who stealthily migrated to Canada and later to the USA. He was the editor of Free Hindustan. Das was in correspondence with Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote a letter to a “Hindoo editor of Free Hindustan” a copy of which reached Gandhiji in London in 1908-09.
And the fifth person was Krishna Varma who was the organising genius of the Indian expatriates in England at the beginning of the 20th century. In firming up his own theory, he thought it fit to counter the thesis of those who held contrary views but whose opinions Gandhiji valued highly as all of them were great patriots and men of honour who had made immense self-sacrifice.
The book has 20 small chapters. In 1937-38 when the Congress came to power in some provinces Sophia Wadia requested all the ministers, MLAs, and the British and the Indian members of the Indian Civil Service to read and re-read the book. There is no record to show how many of them actually read the book, though Gandhiji was politically quite active then.
Today one may as well ask why should one read this book with its “obscurantist” and “obsolete” views. To answer that one has to ask whether all his ideas have really become irrelevant and out-of-date today. All depends on how one would like to read the book. If one read literally, one might find that some of the ideas would not relate to the present realities. Looking at it symbolically one would find it highly relevant. Even taking it literally one would find some answers quite valid today as they were a hundred years ago.
In Chapter-IV “What is Swaraj?” the Reader gives his own idea of Swaraj that when we would have our own flag, our own army and navy and when our voice would be listened to in the world. To that the Editor replied “...In effect it means this: that we want English rule without the Englishman. You want tiger’s nature but not the tiger, that is to say, you would make India English. And when it becomes English, it will not be called Hindustan but Englistan.”
Gandhiji was sharply criticised for his views on machine and machinery. Mahadev Desai recalls the criticism of Professor Delisle Burns. He said: “This is a fundamental philosophical error... But even the spinning wheel is a machine and spectacles on the nose are mechanisms for bodily eyesight”.
When confronted with this direct question whether he was against all machinery, Gandhiji said: “How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning wheel is a machine: a little tooth pick is a machine. What I object to is the craze for machine and not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousands are without work and thrown on open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour not for a fraction of mankind but for all. I want concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not philanthropy to save labour but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all might”. (Preface to the New Edition of Hind Swaraj, pp 7-8 Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad).
In the same interview, he praised Singer’s sewing machine as “one of the few useful things ever invented”. When he was asked what would be his reaction when such machines would have to be produced in power driven factories, his straightforward answer was “Yes. But I am a socialist enough to say that such factories should be nationalised, state controlled. The saving of the labour of individual should be the object and not human greed the motive”. (ibid p 8).
These are profound thoughts. If we went forward in time we would find the reflections, nay, the repetition of these ideas in Article 39 of our Constitution which, inter alia, mandates the State towards securing:
“(a) that the citizens, men and women, equally have the right to an adequate means of livelihood;
“(b) that the ownership and control of material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;
“(c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;”.
And almost ninety years later, the UNDP endorsed Gandhiji’s views on greed driven development as “jobless, rootless, ruthless” growth.
Symbolism of Hind Swaraj is both intense and far reaching. In this write-up one gets the preview of the nature of ugly events to come. The current crisis in the financial world is the result of unrestrained and brazen greed, avarice and rapacity. And the governments round the world instead of punishing these fraud masters are pouring in honest tax-payers’ monies into hands of the very same financial rogues whose unabashed roguery caused this enormous human calamity.In Chapter-VIII - The Conditions of India, in reply to interlocutor’s query Gandhiji replied: “It is a bad condition. In thinking about it my eyes water and my throat gets parched”.
That was 1909. What he would have found in 2009? In spite of near double digit growth for nearly a decade we still have 315.48 million women, men and children below the poverty line ~ living a life of hunger malnourishment and misery. The last three deciles of this population numbering approximately 100 million constitute the universe in which they have no other asset than their own body making them vulnerable to the vicious system of bonded labour. It is as well that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is not here to suffer this agony.