Gandhi Jayanti: The importance of constructive work
In December 1941, Mahatma Gandhi travelled by train from Wardha to Bardoli to attend an important Congress Working Committee meeting. The Second World War had created a political crisis for the Congress and it needed to decide on its position and strategy. Since his weekly Harijan had suspended publication, while on the train, Gandhi wrote a pamphlet to explain his priorities to the public at large. The result was not a political tract, rather it was titled Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place. Therein, as the Congress prepared for an inevitable confrontation with the Raj, Gandhi listed 13 indicative issues of importance such as communal unity, removal of untouchability, prohibition, khadi and village industries, basic education, and the promotion of economic equality.
Gandhi was unique among anti-colonial leaders for his attention to both politics and social transformation. He recognised that the transfer of political power into Indian hands was necessary but not sufficient to address the numerous challenges of equity, justice and social harmony. Therefore, along with the struggle against British rule, he paid attention to a range of social and economic interventions that fell under the rubric of constructive work or the constructive programme. As in his time, later scholarly interest has focused largely on the political Gandhi. But for him constructive work was as important as satyagraha in building a non violent, just and harmonious social order.
Gandhi identified the collapse of India’s famed textile economy as fundamental to the economic devastation visited upon agrarian India by the East India Company and the Raj. He embarked on an ambitious plan to revive India’s traditional manufacture of textiles using hand-spun yarn on handlooms. The improbable idea of khadi was born and rapidly came to symbolise Indian nationalism. While khadi gave material form to the economic critique of colonisation, Gandhi also had other objectives in mind. For him, khadi represented the quest for self-sufficiency and a sense of dignity and purpose. All of these psychological transformations were as important as the meagre but vital earnings the khadi movement offered to spinners.
Although khadi achieved political significance, many did not accept its economic argument. For Gandhi, economic manufacture was not a matter of efficient production of material goods alone. He argued that any assessment of economic activity or technological innovation was to be based on its impact on human lives. In Gandhi’s time, the vast majority of Indians lacked education, had no assets of land or wealth and sorely lacked means of employment. Modern economic production that needed significant investment of technological capacity and capital was unsuitable for such a populace. It would inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the control of the masses through wage slavery. Instead, Gandhi held, India needed an economic system that used labour as a means to distribute wealth.
In the early 1930s, Gandhi argued that the needs of the village could not be ignored any more. While the Congress was lukewarm in its interest, the educated, urban Indian often criticised his constructive programme. Some saw it as a distraction from politics, others thought it lacked in revolutionary potential. In 1934, he resigned from the Congress and eventually moved to Sevagram to devote his energies to the pressing concerns of rural India.
During the 1930s, Gandhi founded the All-India Village Industries Association and entrusted JC Kumarappa with the task of developing means for the revival and scientific rationalisation of village industries. The Association aimed to improve productivity in a decentralised agrarian context, thereby enabling the village to retain the use value of the goods it produced. In addition to interventions in sanitation and nutritional issues, the important issues addressed by the Association included extraction of edible oil, husking of rice, processing of leather, manufacture of handmade paper, and jaggery from palms instead of sugarcane. A fundamental challenge was to develop affordable technologies that aided productivity without displacing human labour.
Additionally, Gandhi identified the educational system as a key problem for it was structured around colonial objectives and did not cater to the needs of millions in the agrarian economy. He criticised the “divorce between labour and intelligence” and sought “an indissoluble marriage between the two”. To this end, Gandhi proposed a pedagogical approach that emphasised working with one’s hands and the dignity of labour by teaching through a craft or local village industry. Basic Education or Nai Talim was a radical and subversive idea that sought to upturn the hierarchy of forms of knowledge and the resultant privilege. It is little wonder that it met with enormous resistance and was among the least successful of Gandhi’s initiatives.
In the 1940s, Gandhi had to perforce divert his energies towards political mobilisation and in contending with the furies of communal violence. But true to his unyielding focus on the welfare of the individual, shortly before his assassination, Gandhi argued that the Congress dissolve into a Lok Sevak Sangh. He also offered his famed talisman of “recalling the face of the poorest and weakest man” and asking if one’s actions helped such an individual.
Gandhi’s death snapped the dialectic link between politics and constructive work. While contemporary India is vastly different from Gandhi’s times, many of his fundamental concerns are alive. India is more prosperous, but also vastly more unequal. Agrarian India is in the grip of chronic problems with no relief in sight, while all of India suffers from a deep unemployment crisis. The virus of communal violence and hatred once again threatens to tear our fragile democratic edifice apart. Gandhi’s agenda of constructive work is very much in need of urgent attention.
The author is writing a thematic history of Gandhi in the 1930s. He is an ssociate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru