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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hind Swaraj and its context today

Is this article for you? Recently India celebrated centenary of “Hind Swaraj”. Often we wonder if we know enough of Indian history dating back to times of Independence. I have also often heard lot of open criticism about Gandhiji for his deeds, however many a time without adequate background information. This piece of writing tries to sew together pieces of history with contextual thoughts of Gandhiji in context of Hind Swaraj. If you are interested to know more, read on. Else this article can be dry and boring.

It was 1909. Forty-year-old Mahatma Gandhi wrote continuously for 10 days aboard the ship Kildonan Castle. He wrote since he could no longer “suppress himself.” At the end of this uneasy period he made a claim, “I have written an original book in Gujarati.” This book was Hind Swaraj (or Hind Swarajya, as originally titled), which got published in his journal Indian Opinion. In the last lines of Hind Swaraj Gandhi made a claim, “My conscience testifies that my life henceforth is dedicated to its attainment.”

This book was thought of as “a very dangerous thought” by the British, not because it encouraged revolt but for its open advocacy of Satyagraha to overthrow British supremacy. As expected, this book was banned by colonial government. Gandhiji translated the book into English and published it as Indian Home Rule. This simple book baffled its readers and continues to do so even today. Gandhiji dream was to make it so simple that it could be placed in the hands of a child. And yet, it continues to elude its readers.

What was ‘it’ that he referred himself to? And what fate awaited the text? Gandhiji’s dedication was towards essence of Hind Swaraj, which is neither ahimsa nor Satyagraha. It is the concept of civilization. Civilization for Gandhiji is that mode of conduct that points us to the path of duty, where the performance of duty is the same as morality. Gandhiji says that a ‘real’ civilization creates the possibility for us to know ourselves. This in essence was Swaraj for Gandhiji. Swaraj, for him was not self-rule but rule over oneself. All that happens around us which excludes this possibility is the ‘reverse of civilization’. Modern civilization shifts the focus of human worth to tangible objects. This is where machines become the measure of man. Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj advocates against modern civilization.

It is this critic of modernity and belief that baffled its readers. Gopala Krishna Gokhale, otherwise a sympathetic elder to Gandhi, was perturbed by this pamphlet. He felt that it was “crude and hastily conceived” and he said Gandhi was certain to destroy it after spending a year in India. Not strangely, Gandhiji’s faith in the vision of Hind Swaraj sweetened as he came to inhabit India and this faith deepened with the weaver and the farmer. By 1919 he became a leader of the national movement, the printing and sale of Hind Swaraj became the symbol of defiance during the non-cooperation movement. Curiously, there was not much discussion on the text itself, not in English or Gujarati! The Congress ignored this document, prompting Gandhi to declare in 1921 that he was the only one to follow the ideals of Hind Swaraj, while the rest of the country had accepted only non-violence, that too as a strategy and not as an ideal.

Interesting that the grand debate on meaning of Swaraj that Gandhi and Tagore engaged themselves with great philosophical depth did not invoke Hind Swaraj. India seemed to have forgotten Hind Swaraj; Gandhi kept reminding interlocutors and critics to read the text in order to understand his actions more. The only troupe which was sensitive and alive to Hind Swaraj were the Theosophists. It was the Aryan Path, which opened up the debate on Hind Swaraj in 1938. Editor Sophia Wadia had invited comments on this book. None of those invitees asked to respond to the text had anything to do with politics or the national movement in India. Significantly, nobody from Indian origin was invited to respond to the text. This was a clear indication of the marginal space that Hind Swaraj had occupied in Indian political and intellectual scene.

It was Gandhiji again who took an initiative step and opened the debate on the future of India and concept of Hind Swaraj. The war in Europe had ended and Indian independence seemed imminent. It was at this crucial juncture that Gandhi opened the debate with his chosen political heir, Pandit Nehru, and through him with the people of the country. In October 1945 Gandhiji wrote a letter to Nehru in Hindustani (perhaps what he wanted to convey could only have been said in Hindustani). Gandhiji affirmed his faith in the ideals of Hind Swaraj as also the place of politics and governance as envisaged in it. He asserted that in fact his belief had only grown since the time he wrote Hind Swaraj. Gandhi knew that he was alone and hence wrote; “Therefore if I am left alone in it I shall not mind, for I can only bear witness to the truth as I see it.” Gandhiji knew that Nehru and the millions of Indians who held him in great reverence had little faith in Hind Swaraj. Nehru’s response to Gandhiji’s letter conceded that he had a dim recollection of Hind Swaraj from another reading about twenty years earlier. Even at that point it had seemed to Nehru “completely unreal.” But Nehru was certain that its argument signified not much more than the “romantic mythology of backwardness.” Nehru reminded Gandhiji that the Congress had never considered – much less adopted - the picture of India envisaged in Hind Swaraj. He told Gandhiji that it was not given to the Congress as a political body to consider “fundamental questions, involving varying philosophies of life.”

Nehru advanced a similar argument in a meeting that took place at Sewagram, Wardha; after Gandhi’s assassination. In March of 1948 Nehru made an impassioned plea for the political role of the Congress. In post-independent India, perhaps the only political leader to engage fundamentally with Hind Swaraj was Ram Manohar Lohiya. His essay, ‘Economics After Marx’, is the only serious engagement with Hind Swaraj after that period.

Last year India decided to celebrate the centenary of Hind Swaraj. However, it was not clear why this celebration. Was it about the text? Was it about the possibilities of Hind Swaraj in our times? We remain deeply ambiguous about Hind Swaraj with its critique of modernity, especially at a time when there is a large consensus on the desirability of nuclear energy. This ambiguity is about Gandhiji as well. He has come to occupy an increasingly fractured and narrow space in our imagination. We think of him when the country erupts in violence of the communal kind. But when violence takes the form of ‘terror’ we want a hard state, the kind of state that Hind Swaraj wanted undone. As we speak the language of law and order the possibilities of Hind Swaraj become more elusive.

A celebration of Hind Swaraj would require us to not only engage with the concept in the text, but in some measure seek to go beyond it. It would require us to re-imagine our self-rule to cast our own moral politics. It was this fact that one missed in the centenary year of Hind Swaraj, which perhaps is true meaning of Hind Swaraj.


  1. Maga, there seems to be a tonne of history 'around' the hind swaraj concept - but little to explain what it actually was, except for this sentence: Swaraj, for him was not self-rule but rule over oneself.

    How did Gandhi propose to apply this thought to the socio-economic system? What were the steps proposed to implement this thought and how would it improve society and its std of living?

    I thought I'd get to read abt answers to these questions! Perhaps a follow-up article in the pipeline? :)


  2. Hey Ananda, this book was written by Gandhiji even before he was involved in Indian freedom movement. It was after he moved in from south africa. I would assume his experiences in south africa were on top of his mind at that stage...where upholding human dignity was his main struggle.


Santosh is eager to know what you think.