(This essay was first published on Claude Alvares' worksite www.typewriterguerilla.com on 21 September, 2009)
Hind Swaraj, Gandhi's little book, completes one hundred years in 2009. The prognosis of civilization carried out in that book has been more or less on target. The last hundred years have been years of remarkable, if not sensational, violence, a feature associated by Gandhi with "satanic civilizations". The book works itself out within two antipodes: Hindustan and the domineering West. It argues against the creation of Englishtan - a Westernized Hindustan.
A hundred years ago, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi wrote an interesting little book called Hind Swaraj.1 He composed it on a ship en route to South Africa from London. The book has remained a permanent and undisputed record of Gandhi's global concerns. It came out in several editions over the 40-odd years that he was alive. Gandhi himself declared (in 1938): "After the stormy thirty years through which I have since passed, I have seen nothing to make me alter the views expounded in it."
To appreciate the tenor of Hind Swaraj, it would be necessary for us to recall some features of the man who has continued to be an obsession with the world even in our times. That he was, for example, an excellent nurse. That he readily smiled. That he enjoyed the company of children. That he never lost his temper. That he was ever so gentle; in fact, for a generation after he died, the Gandhians were called "gentle anarchists". Today, they remain associated with peace movements worldwide.
But in Hind Swaraj we encounter for the first time another Gandhi, in fact, a rather harsh dimension of his personality. If one examines it closely, the harshness appears to have been reserved not for people, not even for those who strongly disapproved of his views. He kept it instead for a package of cultural ideas, represented principally by the bourgeois civilisation of the West including Western education and the various institutions of Western democracy including Parliament which (again uncharacteristically) he called a prostitute. Gandhiji gathered all these cultural ideas and practices under the telling term, "satanic civilisation" - in the singular, for at that time, there was only one civilisation he was unmistakably referring to.
When Gandhi used harsh words, this could only mean one thing: in his mind and soul, there was no scope for further dealing, or negotiation. This again is a startling position to take for a person who was willing to discuss almost anything; who is known to have observed that he wanted all the windows of his house to remain open to winds from all directions. This can only mean Gandhi's experience of the West (he lived in London for some time, dressed like a Londoner, tried to learn to dance and eat meat) and his subsequent reflection on that experience, convinced him that it would be in the best interest of humanity if that particular window, knowing what it was bringing in, was now firmly shut.
I want to spend a little time on the nature of this "satanic civilization". One fundamental reason why Gandhiji was opposed to Western civilisation was because he was convinced that, forget about adopting it for India, it was bad for the British (and the Europeans) as well. This point has not been adequately highlighted by most people who have read Hind Swaraj but who have restricted themselves to applying Gandhiji's ideas purely within an Indian context.
Ten years ago, Ashis Nandy, Ziauddin Sardar, Merryl Wyn Davies and I wrote a book which we titled, The Blinded Eye, which is a severe analysis of the pathologies that have driven Western civilisation.2 Before that, an Arabic writer named Jala Al-I Ahmad published a book which he called Occidentosis: A Plague of the West.3 But neither of these can hold a candle to Hind Swaraj in its almost total rejection of the West and its institutions due to their inherent and intimate association with the culture of violence.
We must never forget that before we - in countries like India - had the misfortune to face the ill-effects of the imposition of Western civilization and organised industrial life on our societies, the ruling classes in the West had ensured that the model was first tested out and perfected on their own people. There is nothing that is attempted today in various parts of our world including Singur, Nandigram, Goa, etc., that has not been imposed first on the people of the Western world. In fact, the past century has seen a gradual, inexorable, now almost complete incarceration of the people living in these so-called developed societies within an industrial, economic, consumer cocoon from which there is no escape, except by recourse to physical self-exile to more liberal societies like ours. You have to live in the West for some time to understand the nature of this imprisonment in all its rigorous, unpalatable and terrifying detail.
|You have to live in the West for some time to understand the nature of this imprisonment in all its rigorous, unpalatable and terrifying detail.
This kind of approach to human beings I am alluding to is actually more than 500 years old, and is a history waiting to be written. But even the last hundred years have been devastating enough. There are the two so-called "world" wars, the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombing, more recently, the war against the Vietnamese, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the permanent war against the Palestinians; the torture of Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The violence never stops. It simply gets grander, nowadays taking on the overtones of an entertainment industry, with "embedded" TV crews providing almost first-hand experience of the slaughter and the destruction. Once upon a time, armies killed on battle-fields. Now the whole world is a battlefield. We are all encouraged to participate, like voyeurs, in this Armageddon, watching our TVs nonchalantly or in expectation, while missiles and bombs destroy homes, schools, clinics, forests, people. I shall return again to this passive implication of us in this violence a little later.
Now this violence is only the overt violence we encounter during so-called "military operations" and which is considered "legal" because it is done during a period of warfare or under procured UN resolutions. But violence, like plastic, has invaded every aspect of modern life. Violence is pervasive and legitimate in the practice of modern agriculture, where toxic chemicals are used to kill insects en masse: in fact, modern agriculture farms themselves are akin to battle-fields where large scale, scientifically endorsed, violence is perpetrated mindlessly on a universal scale, with frightful consequences for nature and human health. Similarly with modern medicine, where our main salvation today is a range of chemicals we call, appropriately, "anti-biotics" (anti-living), as part of a strategy in which we attempt to kill and exorcise pathogenic bacteria. We end up however targeting all bacteria, even the beneficial ones.
Now if you look closely at the life-cycle of people living in the Western economies today, you can see how far Gandhiji's warnings, first written in 1909, have come true there as well. The organized packaging, circumscription and polishing of the life-goals and dreams of a European today and their gradual conversion into the banality of consumer life commences quite early after childbirth. There is first compulsory schooling with the curriculum completely dictated and controlled by the State (with no possibility of dropping out), then a further grinding of personality at university or technical institutions, after which, every individual so trained must fit, like some cog into the production megamachine. The exercise is best referred to as "factory education". Those who are incapable of university go for blue-collar employment which is second-class employment. Challenging system goals is no longer acceptable, even though the goals themselves are vacuous. There is no real scope for staying out of the system and surviving: the system will not allow it. There is so much dislike of their work - and not the least because it is so alien to ordinary human concerns and aspirations - that an entire industry (tourism) has been created simply to give them a "break" of a few weeks (appropriately called "vacation") from what they are doing. If this were unavailable, they would run amok with the sheer monotony, boredom and mind-and-soul-killing nature of their work.
|The organized packaging, circumscription and polishing of the life-goals and dreams of a European today and their gradual conversion into the banality of consumer life commences quite early after childbirth.
After sacrificing their adult lives thus for another 25-30 years for the planet-destroying projects of the military-industrial complex, most of them are considered no longer useful to their economy and retired and mostly shunted off into old-age homes or to face lives of loneliness, with the compensation of 50% discount on travel or other trivia. The family is not available, since it has been reduced to nuclear status, eliminating the very basis of inter-generational concern. Children are so weary of their parents, they leave as soon as they can on attaining legal adult age or even earlier. Interpersonal relations have broken down so seriously that many of the men travel thousands of miles to have illegal sex with Thai women or Philippine children. Most get an indication of their real worth only during a downturn in the economy, when they get rudely thrown out of work. It is only then that they are willing to admit that they are no more than expendable objects.
Despite this prescient understanding of the true nature of Western industrial society and its direction, and despite the warnings of Hind Swaraj, our political leaders have unthinkingly applied similar notions of expendability to our folk as well under the rubric of "development". Not only have we accepted the expendability project without question, we have also jettisoned the man who warned us about its true nature as well.
Development (which is only another name for the forced Westernisation of the world) is the project in which we collaborate to become assassins, ready to undertake, execute and justify violence on a scale unimagined in earlier human history. It is therefore necessary to examine how we are implicated in this project, and how we actually participate and legitimate the expansion of "satanic civilisation."
One statement in Hind Swaraj that is not easily forgotten comes towards the end of the book, in the conclusion, when Gandhiji asserts that "deportation for life to the Andamans is not enough expiation for the sin of encouraging European civilization" which earlier in the same book he describes as a "nine-day wonder." Again this is an uncharacteristically condemnatory statement coming from a soul who was incapable of wishing anyone harm. Gandhiji, we all know, was familiar with life in prisons, and he always used his words rather carefully, so he was clear about what he was really saying. The statement only underscores the intensity of his revulsion for a soul-destroying way of life that came into this country under several garbs: Galilean science; education; industrialisation based on fossil fuels; progress; capitalism; the nation-state.
Let us take just three instances where we have "encouraged European civilisation" and its associated violence and examine whether we see our fingerprints and footprints there: a) modern education; b) our current industrialisation project based on fossil fuels and c) our adoption of modern agriculture based on petrochemicals and poisons.
Gandhiji was firmly convinced that Western education was the pits and that its principal objective was to destroy the soul. In this perception, he was joined by Rabindranath Tagore, Vinoba Bhave, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Jiddu Krishnamurti and a few others. None of them had any doubt that the educational system installed by colonial governor, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in 1835 was meant for a low-grade purpose: to immobilise intelligent, creative and fierce Indians, and reduce them to the status of mental labour, a harvesting ground for recruitment to the demands of the State or the Corporation.
|Gandhiji was firmly convinced that Western education was the pits and that its principal objective was to destroy the soul.
For this reason, instead of being associated in any way with the true liberation of people from fear and tyranny, education has become a channel for ensuring that hundreds of millions of youngsters get trapped forever in a mindless production and consumption system that we already know has no future.
As a counter, Gandhiji proposed Nai Taleem: what a wonderful, simple and practical idea: work and earn while you learn; learn while you work.
But what did we do? We joined the colonial government of Hindustan in expanding the Macaulay system as a cruel vengeance all over the country, even taking it into remote areas, so that nothing would remain out of its influence, and no one would lose out on the false hopes that it has sought to generate. Under the garb of eliminating child labour, we created a more cruel form of child serfdom that now stretches from the age of two till the age of 25 or more. This serfdom in the educational system is followed by the enticement of further bondage to corporate-controlled, dollar-chasing, profit-oriented schemes and projects, most of which damage the earth and its environment, and are based additionally on the exploitation of people, all in exchange for a payment dignified as salaries or emoluments or perks.
So except for some basic schools (and even a few colleges) that continue to survive in Gujarat or that have taken on the form of alternative schools in other parts of India, we have assassinated Gandhi's concerns of education root and branch. Today you can get any amount of funding support if you wish to put children into school, but no one will support any attempt to free children from such institutions despite our clear realisation that the present system produces individuals that are mostly incompetent and largely dependent on books mugged for years at a time at the expense and permanent loss of their childhood and the development of their personal experience. The assault on human individuality by the education system and the homogenising of people to slip smoothly into system goals is done on such a breathtaking scale that all opposition to the atrocity can be dismissed as being contrary to common sense.
On industrialisation, we have been equally thorough in our assault.
The industrial output of this country was greater than that of Europe even several years into the colonial conquest. As a civilisation, India had worked out a significantly different mode of industry that only a few brilliant scientists like C.V. Seshadri really understood - utilising energy at ambient temperatures for self-sustainable production. Incidentally, this is how nature herself operates. Seshadri gave the example of nature transporting huge quantities of water over the subcontinent via the monsoon, all done at ambient temperature. With this mode of industrial production, we controlled the entire textile trade, the trade in spices, etc., for centuries.
But what became the industrial policy of the post-Gandhi era? Revert to Hind Swaraj. Remember Gandhiji's telling remarks: people go on installing machinery till everyone is out of work. In a recent book, Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, I found described a revealing encounter between Vinoba Bhave and the Indian planning commission, in which he tells the latter a few home truths.4 This I must quote in full if only to demonstrate how far we have diverted ourselves from our dreams:
'Vinoba … rejected outright the draft first Five Year Plan. 'It deserves to be thrown into a waste paper basket,' he said.
At Nehru's invitation, he went to Delhi for a meeting with members of the planning commission. He told them without mincing words, 'Work for all, and bread for all had to be the fundamental principle and goal of any planning. Where is the provision for that in this Plan? Providing employment to every citizen is your paramount duty when you sit at the drawing board. Does a family ever provide for only 5 or 7 of its 10 members, leaving others to their fate? How can any plan that fails to do so deserve to be called a national plan?"
A member of the commission butted in, 'This is not a national plan, it is only a partial plan. Some would have to make sacrifices.'
Vinoba shot back, 'If this is partial planning, your partiality should be towards the poor. You should publicly acknowledge that it is not feasible to undertake all-inclusive planning, hence the partial plan aims to reach out only to the poor. If sacrifices are called for, let it be yours, not that of others.'
So we disregarded Vinobaji as well: we religiously installed factories and mills to do what millions did with their hands before, enhancing inequality with single-minded, almost brainless dedication; we eliminated ambient temperature work and replaced it with high energy processes and products in which huge quantities of energy are embedded or burnt and then released as carbon and other greenhouses gases into the environment. So we now face the end of civilisation, through global warming, sea level rise, and ozone depletion.
|We eliminated ambient temperature work and replaced it with high energy processes and products in which huge quantities of energy are embedded or burnt and then released as carbon and other greenhouses gases into the environment.
In agriculture, we unintelligently destroyed a microbial-based system which regenerated the life in the soil through the by-products of animal husbandry and replaced it with a brand new system of supplying artificial nutrients that now requires an annual subsidy of Rs.1,10,000 crores but which has rendered our fields sterile and bereft of all life. Our agricultural scientists tell us that before the green revolution, the country was dependent upon food imports. Now no longer so. However, dependence on imports of food has been replaced with dependence on imports of chemical fertiliser or the raw petrochemical stock required to manufacture such fertilisers. At least when the import of grain was involved, we consumed it all. In the case of imported chemical fertilisers, not more than 4-5 per cent is actually used by the plant and most of it goes into the environment as waste, creating its own brand of havoc everywhere. This is what is nowadays called "conventional" agriculture.
Thus we have now come full circle, to a situation where we discover we are finally assassinating ourselves, just as Gandhiji predicted in Hind Swaraj. The Nobel Prize last year was awarded to those people and agencies who had convincingly established that modern technology has gone haywire and now stands poised to undermine life as we know it on the planet.
So where does this realisation take us? I will not make any attempt here to indicate directions, except to say, very generally, that we must reflect very hard to ensure that every initiative we take for safeguarding our futures or recovering it in any manner must come within the context or framework established a hundred years ago by Hind Swaraj. Which means that we must take extreme care that all such initiatives are isolated from the influence or instrumentality of what Gandhiji called "satanic" civilisation.
Most of India anyhow continues to function in this manner or struggles to do so. Ordinary people, after all, appear to have an instinctive grasp of the theme we find in Hind Swaraj - that only the very foolish burn their lives in the cauldrons of the development proposal. (That is why Gandhiji wrote Hind Swaraj first in his mother tongue, Gujarati.)
That is also the reason why the principal resistance to Western civilisation has come from those who still refuse to grant legitimacy or allegiance to the West, its schemes and its demonic institutions: fisherfolk, tribals, peasants and farmers, illiterate and uneducated citizens, Hindu saints, Jain and Tibetan monks and Muslim faithful in their millions. The resistance has never come from rootless intellectuals or the educated or working classes. The latter, on the contrary, have for far too long implicated themselves as devotees, participants, beneficiaries and purveyors of the worldview that Hind Swaraj very presciently denounced.
The present continuing project to convert Hindustan to Englishtan reminds us of another equally grand proposal that was attempted in the nineteenth century and which failed abjectly: the conversion of India, especially Hindus, to Christianity. I have little doubt that the present development project is failing as well, even though before it collapses, it will unleash vast and needless suffering and violence.
M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, Navjivan Press (1938).
Ashis Nandy, et al, The Blinded Eye, Other India Press. (1993)
Jala Al-I Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague of the West (1984), Islamic Publications International.
Kanti Shah, Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, Other India Press (2009)
(This essay is in celebration of a person who has devoted his life-time to resisting modern-day violence, dressed always in the traditional ochre robes of a swami. This essay is included in a new publication from Sage, edited by Rajesh Chakrabarti and titled, The Other India: Essays in Honour of Swami Agnivesh.)