Himanshu Roy


Since 1890s Gandhi's theory of ontology and epistemology have been the subject of profound debate both in politics and academic. Being situated in the midst of struggle for social liberation he emerged as a mass leader with a philosophy of an ideal peasant society drawn from India's past which was different from typical liberal and Marxian theories. He was, therefore, interpreted diversely1 by different sections of society as per their consciousness and social placement. His ideals, as historical legacies, and their critique are still part of our social placement. His ideals, as historical legacies, and their critique are still part of our social matrix and have become a bench mark of value judgement to the extent that even anti-and post-modernists apart from numerous other ideological strands find Gandhi to be their fellow compatriot. But a moot poser may be why Gandhi, with the passage of time, is being less socially followed, and has become an abstract personal to be remembered on occasions as rituals. Teleologically, is Gandhi relevant today? To answer it the social basis of Gandhi's philosophy and praxis need to be analysed and the reasons found out for his diminishing relevance with the vanishing peasant base over the years.


The social base and context in which Gandhi was placed was numerically dominated by peasantry witnessing the birth pangs of capitalism. Ideologically, they lived in the realm of Ramrajya–an idealised past–desperate to cling to this value under the growing impact of commoditification process. To mobilise this segment of population a symbiotic relationship with peasantry was required. Gandhi consciously built up this relationship through his praxis and provided public expression of the inner world of peasantry which was unknown, and unrecognized by the outside world. Being a brilliant analyst of society and the public psyche he acted with awareness of historical setting and social pre-conditions. Since the main form of peasant protests against exploitation in Indian history in its major span and geographical parts as it is hitherto known to us was passive resistance, i.e., non-cooperation with the exploiters in the form of either (a) migrating to other places permanently2, (b) vacating the village temporarily or (c) circumventing the rules of the day if being coerced, Gandhi had to proceed gradually and adopt the methods by which the peasantry could identify themselves with.


His two methods of struggle namely, (a) non-violence, satyagrah and (b) non-cooperation and his four cardinal principles namely, the reestablishment of (a) communal harmony (b) village republics, (c) upliftment of women and (d) Harijans reflect the existence and thinking of peasants of his time. For example, for centuries, Muslims in India had been co-existing with Hindus as an integral part of the society in thousands of villages spread throughout the nook and corner of the country. But never had there occurred the kind of commuanl riots and tensions in villages and towns as social phenomena as it occupied prominence in 20th century. Though individual or group violence, local tension, sporadic in nature, did occur but these were sorted out amicably through group or community-settings of elders and youths. Most of the Muslims in India were local converts who belonged to the lower order of the village society3. The immigrants and local elite-converts belonged to the higher order and were in miniscule strength in comparison to the lower order.  The two orders within Muslims never existed as a  homogeneous religious community like their Hindu counterparts transcending the economic barriers. The caste/class economic division within Hindus and Muslims forced the members of these communities to identify themselves with each other on economic division rather than on religious beliefs. The relationship between the two orders was one of unequal economic interdependence which had also reflections in other aspects of village life. The extra-economic coercion, the universal form of surplus extraction method in the pre-capitalist society, existed but it was never targeted against a particular religious community particularly, at the village level. State authorities sometimes adopted biased policies or behaved in a prejudiced way but these policies and behaviours never led to general religious tension in the  society. Religious discrimination was simply not possible where economy was local and based on the mutual interdependence of castes’/communities’ roles ; where vast sections of immediate producers belonged to the Hindu/Muslim community and of lower order, and where families knew each other for generations. The social order based on such economy continued even in the 20th century to a large extent though considerable change had occurred in the structure and economy after the arrival of British on the Indian horizon. Gandhi's thrust on re-establishing communal harmony emanated from this historical legacies and contemporary, by and large, peaceful coexistence of the two prominent religious communities in greater parts of rural India. His was a call to the rootless, alienated, mainly urban warring people of the two religious communities to go back to the historical roots of rural India where in spite of differences in the methods of prayers people actively participated in each others' festivals. His often quoted statement that ''Indian culture is neither Hindu, Islamic, nor any other wholly... it is fusion of all’’5 perfectly reflected the life of rural India imbued in sufi and Bhakti traditions. In short, his message was to repose trust in each other as the rural poor did in history as well as in contemporary period and cast off the banes of western civilization of which capitalism and communalism in India were the products.


Gandhi was convinced about the superiority of Indian civilization vis-a-vis European civilizaion6. He, however, believed that the imposition of Occidental civilization over the Orient had put the very existence of India at stake. The re-establishment of village republics to suit the geniuses of India, therefore, acquired prominence in his lexicon. Village republics as a theoretical concept came into vogue in the 19th century through the writings of British historians, civil


servants, and other men of letters ; as a praxis it was existing for hundreds of years. The matter acquired prominence due to its growing destruction on the face of expanding capitalism let loose by the British in a systematic way, first, through the revenue collection then, through commodity circulation, and finally, through modern machinery. The consequences of these new economic forces were the uprooting of peasants from their means of production, destruction of their traditional social relations, their migration to towns, growth of unempolyment and poverty, their conversion into wage earners, growth of alienation, etc. The idyllic village life or family communities, on the contrary described by Victor Cousin,  Max Muller, J Young Thomas Munro, William W Bart etc., based on the structure of handloom, spinning-wheel, and hand-tilling cultivation of duties oriented castes functionning through the organization of Panchayat fascinated Gandhi who considered the system superior to European civilizaiton. The basis of this slow changing civilization was the existence of simple technology more akin to nature with almost no growth potential in increasing the productivity in soil and domestic industries. The ownership of the means of production was both private and communal. The non-cultivable areas like pasture land, wood land, forest, ponds, wells, canals etc. were by and large communal properties regulated by the panchyat. The cultivable areas, by and large were owned by the peasant-families over which they enjoyed the customary rights. The villages had the three-tier structure consisting of the dominant castes, the intermediary castes, and the untouchables. The primary function of the dominant castes was cultivation, and management of village affairs through panchayat. The primary function of the intermediary castes was to provide services to the dominant castes in form of supplying various goods like oil, pottery, jewelley, wood and cane products. iron, etc. In return, they were paid in grains after the harvest seasons and provided help. They also owned some land and did cultivation, but that was their secondary function. The untouchables, the desiderata of the village but the real cultivators of the land and performers of some of the vital services like tanning to the villagers particularly to the dominant castes, had almost no cultivable land of their own over which they could enjoy customary rights. They were not even the participants in the panchayati system. The segregated lot staying in corner of a village or even away from it in thatched houses with little utensils and almost no clothes solely depended upon the grains and foods provided by the dominant castes in return for their services. The surplus pumped out of their labour was appropriated by the village elite and state-power. The production by the family or household was mainly for self or village consumption. Majority of the requirements for the livelihood was generated locally as needs were limited. Little went out of villages. That too, mainly for purchasing the essential requirements such as salt,  iron, clothes etc. Cattle fairs, pilgrimage, wrestling, marriages, etc. were the other events in which a villager interacted with the outside world. The administrative machinery was mainly concerned with the revenue collection. The problem of drought and floods, the conduct of religious festivals, the management of water, the imparting of education, etc. were the affairs of the panchayat. The village, thus by and large, was economically and politically considerably autonomous. Gandhi yearned for this historical entity and tried to re-establish this entity with some modifications in order to provide conditions to millions for their development that was chained by occidental civilization. His entire praxis of thirty-three years in India and a survey of his writings suggest that the entire aspects of his constructive programmes whether of nai talim Khadi-Charkha, panchayat, samagra gramasevak, shanti dal, nature-cure, bread labour, nashabandi, trusteeship or upliftment of Harijans and women were for re-establishing the village republic without the evils that haunted the villages. Gandhi believed that if seven lakh villages took recourse to their historical selves their many problems would be solved.


The other two prominent problems that engaged the mind of Gandhi were the low status of Harijans and women in the villages of India and of these Indians were  themselves to balme. Though to an extent the British played a contributory role in it creating conditions of alienation, insecurity, etc. which reinforced the problems of Harijans and women but ulitmately it were the Indians who were responsible for such behaviours towards these two sections of society. While discussing the problems of tanning in the Harijan in 1934, which was concerned with the untouchables, and the problem of unemployment Gandhi described the heart-shattering condition of the untouchables. He writes, ‘‘cow-preservation is an article of faith in Hinduism. No Harijan worth his salt will kill cattle for food. But, having become untouchable, he has learnt the evil habit of eating carrion. He will not kill a cow but will eat with the greatest relish the flesh of a dead cow. It may be physiologically harmless. But psychologicaly there is nothing, perhaps, so repulsive as carrion eating. Ane yet, when a dead cow is brought to a Harijan tanner's house, it is a day of rejoicing for the whole household. Children dance around the carcass, and as the animal is flayed, they take hold of bones or pieces of flesh and throw them at one another.... the whole family is drunk with joy at the sight of the dead animal. With such a social condition of their existence it was difficult to fight the British and re-establish the village-swaraj which were basically a self-emancipatory process. The Harijans constituted roughly 15 percent of the population and without ameliorating their condition it was difficult to achieve the objectives. Gandhi, therefore, tried various means including suggesting scientific tanning to help  untouchables in elevating their material and moral condition. In his fight against the evil of untouchability which had existed in India for hundreds of years he had no actual, practical examples to fall back upon except drawing sustenance from the philosophical, idealistic scriptures and myths and legends which considered every individual equal. In reestablishing village swaraj he  differed from the past in this context, in India of his dreams there was no room for untouchability.