The ideal as articulated by Gandhi and Tagore
Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, February 1940 (Photo: Alamy)
ONE SIMPLE NOTION of freedom is to be unencumbered by any kind of coercion, imposed by other human beings or a State and a government or any other institution or power. The assumption is that from this kind of immunity will arise a different and a more enhanced form of freedom—a situation in which every individual will be in a position to say that they are the masters of their own lives. A corollary assumption is that in such a situation, individuals, enjoying a radical autonomy, will be able to live more enriched lives. The Oxford don and political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, made a distinction between what he called “negative liberty” and “positive liberty”: as Berlin put it the distinction was between “freedom from” and “freedom to”.
Indian nationalism when it emerged in the last decades of the 19th century was very clear regarding what it wanted to be free from. Members of the Western-educated intelligentsia in their speeches, essays, tracts and books made it clear that they wanted to be free from British exploitation, from British racism, from the idea that the British had a right to rule India and so on. These ideas gained a radical dimension when Indians—and not just members of the Westernised intelligentsia—began to demand, during the course of the Swadeshi movement (1905-07), that India and Indians should be free from British political domination. This demand gathered momentum and mass dimensions from around the 1920s and led to India becoming free from British rule on August 15th, 1947.
In the enthusiasm that was so much a part of the mass mobilisation, the idea of what Berlin called “positive liberty”—what was India free to be—did not receive adequate attention. Once India/Indians were free from British rule what would life and India be like, what would Indians be free to do? This question was not on the top of the mind of most nationalist leaders till the late 1930s when contending ideas about the future of a free India began to emerge and be discussed. There were, however, two very eminent individuals who from the beginning of the 20th century had put forward the proposition that being free from British rule—gaining political independence—was not complete freedom. Freedom or what they called swaraj to fulfil its promise had to have other dimensions. The two individuals were Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Both Tagore and Gandhi, through very different routes, arrived at similar ideas regarding what constituted swaraj, a more comprehensive and complete vision of freedom where Indians would not only be free from British rule, its exploitation and its oppression, but also be free to lead autonomous lives. The ideas and vision that Tagore and Gandhi articulated came to be submerged by the project largely led by Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and other Congress leaders to build a modern nation-state in India once it was free from British rule. The idea of swaraj present in the writings and activities of Tagore and Gandhi, precisely because they were submerged, need to be retrieved. This essay attempts to do that.
Gandhi’s vision of swaraj was laid out with great clarity in a text called Hind Swaraj which was written in November 1909 aboard the ship, Kildonan Castle, while coming back from London. Written on the ship’s notepaper, it is a text composed of about 30,000 words. Gandhi wrote in the Preface, “I have written because I could not restrain myself.” It was apparent that the ideas in the book had been incubating in his mind for a long time since the manuscript had very few revisions or deletions. He wrote at a furious pace and when his right hand got tired, Gandhi wrote with his left hand which he had taught himself to do. Even though Gandhi was still based in South Africa and was immersed in a political struggle there, the Hind Swaraj was about India and was addressed to Indians. The Hind Swaraj was first published in December 1909 in South Africa in two successive issues of the Indian Opinion. When it was printed as a book in India in January 1910, the Bombay government confiscated copies of the book; in March 1910, Gandhi published an English translation.
If there is any text that can be described as central to Gandhi’s life and thought, it is the Hind Swaraj. On many occasions, he said that he saw no reason to revise the text or to deviate from it. As late as October 5th, 1945, he wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was openly critical of the views expressed in the Hind Swaraj: “I have said that I fully stand by the kind of governance which I have described in Hind Swaraj. It is not just a way of speaking. My experience has confirmed the truth of what I wrote [in 1909]. If I were the only one left who believed in it, I would not be sorry.”
The Hind Swaraj can conveniently be discussed through two interrelated themes that it presents. One is the critique it makes of Western civilisation and why that civilisation should be rejected by Indians. The second consists of a programme to build a new India that is free from the influences of Western civilisation. It is important to bear in mind that the text was composed when an organisation called the Indian National Congress had been in existence for nearly a quarter of a century and was claiming to speak for India and Indians. The term swaraj had already entered the lexicon of Indian nationalist leaders many of whom had been involved during 1905-07 in the first mass protests against British rule. Freedom from British rule and exploitation no longer appeared like a distant dream. Gandhi was trying to define what kind of freedom it should be: he was trying to give substance to the ideal called swaraj.
Both Tagore and Gandhi, through very different routes, arrived at similar ideas regarding what constituted Swaraj, a more comprehensive and complete vision of freedom where Indians would not only be free from British rule, its exploitation and its oppression, but also be free to lead autonomous lives
By Western/European civilisation, Gandhi did not denote only a geographical location. He also meant the kind of civilisation and society that was prevalent in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Gandhi equated Western civilisation with industrialism and all its intellectual and institutional trappings. Gandhi was not willing to dignify industrial society by calling it a civilisation. He said that such a civilisation was immoral and satanic. At the heart of industrial society was the process of producing endless commodities with the aid of machines—this was a continuous process that relentlessly added to the stock of commodities. This continuous supply of commodities only served to increase wants and demands; this increase inevitably led to competition which in turn engendered conflict; conflict led to violence which resulted in devastation and death. Violence and devastation, according to Gandhi, were constitutive of what he labelled modern/industrial civilisation. Such a civilisation—if it could be called a civilisation at all—was destructive and not life-enriching. Therefore, it was satanic. This civilisation had arrived in India some 150 years ago piggybacking on the British military conquest of India. Following their military success, the British had begun to rule and dominate India by establishing their administrative, legal, political and economic institutions. Through these institutions, the British had spread their influence among Indians. Many of the latter had accepted the premises and the agenda of a “modern” civilisation.
Now that there was a movement growing in India to attain swaraj, Gandhi said it would be inadequate and incomplete to define swaraj as merely political independence—political freedom from British rule and domination. India would never achieve complete swaraj, if British rule ended, if British rulers departed but British institutions and influences remained. Such a situation would produce conditions for what Gandhi called “English rule without the Englishman.” That would be a narrow and impoverished version of swaraj. Gandhi argued that to achieve swaraj in its truest sense (and he would go on to say what this was), India and Indians would have to reject every single facet of British rule and all that the latter represented. His rejection of the “modern” was total.
If the entire edifice of modernity imported into India and imposed on Indians by British rule was to be utterly rejected, from where would the new and rejuvenated India be built? Gandhi answered that 150 years of British rule notwithstanding, there were large parts of India which were uncontaminated by the influence of modernity and Western civilisation. These were the villages that lay in the deep interior of India: this was the real India which had been functioning in the same manner for thousands of years. In these villages, Gandhi said, individuals lived and functioned not on the basis of individual self-interest as individuals did in the West, but on the basis of a recognised reciprocity of interests. The “I” in those villages was an integral part of the “We”: there was no artificially erected barrier between the individual and the community. India would have to be built from these villages and therefore on premises that were radically different from those that formed the basis of modern/Western civilisation. Indians who were claiming to speak for the whole of India needed to go to these villages to learn from the simple people who inhabited them. He wrote, “Those in whose name we speak we do not know, and they do not know us.”
To go out into the villages with the intention of learning from the villagers was not an easy task. It required self-discipline and training. Gandhi set out four principal virtues that needed to be cultivated for those who wanted to reach the real India to attain swaraj. These were, one, the cultivation of a simple life through the reduction of wants and possessions to a minimum—the embracing of daridra; two, the cultivation of fearlessness—abhaya; three, the cultivation of ahimsa—if one did not fear anyone there was no reason to hate anyone; and four, the cultivation of satya—an unqualified commitment to Truth.
Gandhi argued that to achieve Swaraj in its truest sense, India and Indians would have to reject every single facet of British rule and all that the latter represented. His rejection of the ‘modern’ was total
This brings us to Gandhi’s understanding of swaraj. Gandhi accepted the common understanding of the term swaraj as political independence, home rule. But he added another dimension to it—swa-raj or self-rule. According to Gandhi, it was not enough for India to be able to govern itself, to have political independence from foreign domination; every individual should also have the ability to rule his own self. Society needed to be constituted by autonomous individuals who were capable of regulating their own lives and be free from dependence on external institutions. In Gandhi’s arguments the two different registers of the idea of swaraj were inextricably linked. Individuals would be unable to rule their own lives if India remained under alien rule and freedom from the latter would be without substance unless individuals could rule their own lives. Gandhi was putting forward an idea of freedom that was radically different and more profound than the conventional understanding of swaraj as only political independence. Gandhi was also putting forward an idea of human fulfilment which was different from that of western individualism.
IT IS IMPORTANT to note that these ideas of Gandhi, especially those relating to what life was like in the Indian villages, were articulated when he was yet to immerse himself in the lives of the people of India. He was to do that after his return from South Africa in 1915 to live in India. Tagore’s ideas about swaraj converged with many aspects of Gandhi’s views, and they grew out of his direct observation of life in rural Bengal. Tagore had observed the lives of these people, their grinding poverty and their helplessness, as he travelled across various parts of rural Bengal in the last decade of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. He had written about these conditions in his essays, in many of his short stories and in his novel, Gora (1910). In an unforgettable poem ‘Ebar Phirao More’ loosely translated as ‘Now Let Me Return’ (1894), Tagore wrote, “There standing bowed head and dumb on their downcast faces written only the story of hundred years of pain and sorrow. Greater the burden on their shoulders, they move slowly as long as they have life—then they bequeath the burden to their children generation after generation. They do not display their anger at destiny, they do not abuse the gods, they do not blame humankind, they harbour no umbrage, for their painful lives they eke out only a few grains of rice.”
Gandhi too after his return from South Africa in 1915 had continuously moved over various parts of India. Rural India was where Gandhi’s heart was. Both Tagore and Gandhi witnessed lives that were uncared for, undernourished and uneducated. The policies of the rulers and the politics of urban nationalists had rendered these people irrelevant. The common people of India were demoralised and without any confidence and bereft of any sense of their own agency. Gandhi and Tagore were, however, convinced that India’s history—real history—had been made and would be made by the actual activities of these real human beings—their mute and downcast faces would have to be given a voice. Tagore wrote, “Man’s history is waiting in patience for the triumph of the insulted man.” In the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote eloquently that what is recorded in history is not the real history since it only records wars and conquests of kings and provides no account of the peaceful co-existence of common people. What history recorded, according to Gandhi, was no more than an interruption of the actual activities of human beings. Tagore had arrived at a similar conclusion when he had written early in the 20th century that the wars and the hunts of kings in no way affected the functioning of the samaj (rural communities). He invoked the same idea with greater clarity in an essay dated May 1941—the date makes it the last prose piece he composed. Towards the end of the essay he wrote, recalling his travels in the countryside of Bengal in the 1890s: “Once when I used to travel by boat along the rivers of Bengal and came to sense its playful vitality, my inner soul delighted in gathering those wonderful impressions of weal and woe in my heart which were composed into sketches of country life month after month… .” There is no doubt that the rural scenes surveyed by the poet in those days were affected by the conflicts of political history. However, what came to be reflected in Galpaguccha (his collection of short stories written in the 1890s) was not the image of a feudal order nor indeed any political order at all, but the history of the weal and woe of human life which, with its everyday contentment and misery, has always been there in the peasants’ fields and village festivals, manifesting their simple and abiding humanity across all of history—sometimes under Mughal rule, sometimes under British rule. I am not acquainted with at least three-quarters of that far-flung history in which the critics of today wander about so extensively. That is why I guess it upsets me so much. I have in my mind to say, “Off with your history.” For Tagore history was in the rhythm of the quotidian. Both Gandhi and Tagore were conscious of and emphasised the enduring quality of the rural world in spite of its misery and wretchedness. In this enduring quality lay the strength of the village world and its inhabitants. The project to build a new India, free from the pre-occupations of British and Indian elites, could proceed only on the basis of reconstructing India’s villages.
Individuals should have the strength to fearlessly conduct their own daily lives. Gandhi emphasised abhaya (fearlessness) and Tagore atmashakti (soul/self force)—the two notions were inseparable and could only grow out of service and responsibility
From the 1890s when Tagore began touring parts of the Bengal countryside to look after his family’s landed estates, he became concerned and then involved with the welfare of the people who lived in the villages. He wrote about these problems in his essays, written around this time; later in his life he devoted himself to the welfare and the development of villages around Santiniketan. His aim was to structure the economy of these villages to make the people self-reliant in an environment whose principle would not be self-interest but co-operation. He wrote, “The symptoms of our miseries cannot be removed from the outside, their causes must be extirpated from within. If we wish to do this, we must undertake two tasks; first to educate everyone in the land, so as to unite them mentally with all the world…Secondly, to unite them among themselves in the sphere of their livelihood, so as to bring about their union with the world through their work.”
For both Gandhi and Tagore, the dedication to service for the poor was integrally connected to their vision of swaraj. Neither of them understood swaraj as mere political freedom from British rule. This political freedom was to be complemented by the emancipation of human beings. What constituted this dimension of swaraj? It was constituted by the ability and the empowerment of individuals to regulate and run their own lives independent of external institutions like the State. Individuals should have the strength to fearlessly conduct their own daily lives. Gandhi emphasised abhaya (fearlessness) and Tagore atmashakti (soul/self force)—the two notions were inseparable and could only grow out of service and responsibility. Tagore wrote, “For India, true freedom is social freedom: the freedom to do good… .”
Rabindranath expressed his vision of swaraj in a famous song which roughly translated goes, “We are all kings in the kingdom of our king.” If everyone was sovereign, there was no necessity for a king. Gandhi approximated to the same idea through his vision of “enlightened anarchy”. He wrote in January 1939; “Political power, in my opinion, cannot be our ultimate aim. It is one of the means used by men for their all-round advancement. The power to control national life through national representatives is called political power. Representatives will become unnecessary if the national life becomes so perfect as to be self-controlled. It will then be a state of enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler. He will conduct himself in such a way that his behaviour will not hamper the well-being of his neighbours. In an ideal State there will be no political institution and therefore no political power.”
When India became free from British rule, in the new Indian nation-state there was no space for the vision of swaraj that had been articulated by Tagore and Gandhi. The idea of each individual regulating and running their own lives as autonomous agents has become a distant utopia in a republic where the State has become more and more powerful and actively interferes through surveillance and various other means in the lives of the citizens. Swaraj was a possibility, now lost perhaps forever.