Gandhiji’s ‘Hind Swaraj‘ is a discourse on the principles that provide basis to an Indian demand for freedom from British rule. In his preface he mentions the date (22-Nov-1909) and the place, Kildonan Castle, where he wrote the book. I looked it up and wondered what was Gandhiji doing in a remote island, south of Scotland in the winter of 1909? I soon found that Gandhiji wrote his book while he was travelling from United Kingdom to South Africa in 1909, on SS Kildonan Castle, a passenger/cargo ship. It is remarkable that he gathered all his thoughts and wrote the whole thing in 9 days while he was on that ship. ‘Hind Swaraj‘ is presented in the form of a conversation between an editor (Gandhiji himself) and a reader (an average skeptical Indian who is unsure about the means to obtaining independence). If it weren’t a conversation, one could have classified ‘Hind Swaraj‘ as an uninterrupted and passionate promotion of true self-sufficiency and its role in obtaining liberation. It is a monograph or one could even call it a long argument *.
Gandhiji promises to remain truthful in his endeavors and truthful he remains. He claims no originality and that is true. He vows to remain open to criticism and it appears to be true. He believes that a successful struggle (of any kind) always has an invisible beginning and he draws an analogy between a tree and its invisible (underground) origins from a seed that degenerates after germination. He identifies the importance of discontent in fueling change. The seed of discontent is a personal germ and it is an individual’s responsibility to take the step without waiting for a collective backing. Soon, the discontent multiplies and takes over the society. While we are tempted to see the discontent Gandhiji refers to, as cancer (hence unknown origins and rapid spread), we soon realise that we are not looking at an undifferentiated mass of ideas/people. Each individual knows what he is hence each individual is a force.
The argument soon turns into a scathing attack on western ideas of progress and Gandhiji uses the phrase ‘modern civilization’ to collectively refer to western thought and life. At first they appear to be misconceived and at some places they are downright absurd. However, one cannot overlook some compelling aspects of what Gandhiji intends to achieve by openly attacking European civilization. He calls the English parliamentary system a ‘prostitute’, ‘a costly toy of a nation’, and even ‘an emblem of slavery’ (all his terms). However, he falls short of calling British legislation (an outcome of their parliament) bastardly, although his descriptions are quite adequate to convey the same sentiment. He portrays the unethical and immoral modern civilization as far inferior to the superior Indian one.
I had recently been to my grandmother’s ancestral village in Southern rural India and one of her sister’s children (my uncles and aunts) still live there. I hadn’t been there for nearly 7 years and I was curious to know more about the happenings in the village since my last visit. I asked my uncle what had changed. He said one of the oldest banyan trees in the village succumbed to a storm and he added that the civilization had arrived! I immediately corrected him and said he probably meant urbanization and not civilization. He didn’t argue. Now, after reading Gandhiji’s ‘Hind Swaraj‘, I am not so sure what my uncle meant. I knew that the atmosphere in that village had deteriorated over the last several decades due to unbearable political divisions. Cities in India have long succumbed to the seducing beast. However, now I also know that in recent years stinking self-preservation at the cost of others, idleness and a sense of artificial reservedness (masked as quiet) has taken root even in Indian villages.
Gandhiji was religious. Gandhiji speaks about inseparability of Indian thought and religiosity **. He makes it clear that by religion he does not mean being Hindu, Muslim or anybody Reacting to a question on the evils of religion (riots and violence), Gandhiji juxtaposes “fear of God” and “fear of fellow human beings” and makes one of his more powerful statements “So long as we fear our own brethren, we are unfit to reach the goal (of home rule)”.
more to follow….
*Prof Steve Jones (University College London) refers to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and aptly calls it a long argument.
**Prof Ashis Nandy (CSDS, India) refers to theories of transcendence and recognizes religion (in its full potential) as one of the instruments of ordinary people to practice ethical existence